A few months ago I stumbled across an Instagram account titled: @sitzazen.
It was simple---the back of a man, dressed in robes, in front of two open french doors, sitting. The landscape looked like it might be a back yard or a garden. Immediately I felt at peace. Day after day I saw the same photo...or almost the same photo...what appeared to be the same man, in the same spot, in the same position sitting. Some days he was dressed in street clothes, other days robes. Some days the doors were closed.
I began to look for his post. It was like a part of the day. I became curious as to who the guy was, why he posted a pic of him sitting every day, and wanted to know more. Who was this mysterios Instagram monk?
So, I see you post a picture on Instagram of you meditating everyday, what made you start doing this?
It started as a reaction to looking at the hashtag #zen on Instagram which of course is used to market just about everything under the sun. Most of the posts that were actually dealing with Zen were quotes and philosophical texts and as an outsider you could easily mistake Zen Buddhism for a philosophy that could be understood in the same way as you might study Western Philosophy; something that exists in the realm of the intellect.
However this is not the case. Zen Buddhist philosophy is there to point us away from the world of ideas and to the practice of just being in reality, balanced, undivided, unlimited by ideas and beyond viewpoints.
So I started doing @sitzazen on Instagram in order to share and emphasise the reality of Zen Buddhism; the daily practice of Zazen, the actual “just sitting.” Everyday I take the same picture of the back of me sitting in front of the garden, everyday the same, but everyday it’s also slightly different and I say something very short about the practice, like a diary.
Although I sometimes deal with philosophical issues, I hope I also balance this with the mundane reality of sore knees; this moment now, and being human.
I have a background as a conceptual artist too, so using images and text is a creative outlet for me and I see art as an aspect of @sitzazen. I want to share the practice and that this ordinary moment here and now, is nothing special and miraculous at the same time, and if people want to engage and discuss with me all the better---hopefully the dialogue is constructive for both sides.
Are you a monk? And if so, how did you become a monk and why?
Yes and no. If you mean am I a celebate vegan living in a monastery, then no. I live a “normal” life, I have two children, a girlfriend and I like wine. However, from another point of view, yes. Actually Zen priests in Japan are often married with families, and temples were often traditionally passed from father to son.
I took the Buddhist Precepts in a ceremony in 2002 with my teacher Eido Michael Luetchford. In my Sangha (group of Buddhist practitioners) we do not distinguish between ordained and lay people, we are all just Buddhists. I sewed my Buddhist robes in a tradition revived by the Kodo Sawaki who reinvigorated Zen in Japan in the first half of the 20th century.
Taking the precepts is not just expressing a commitment to the practice and to the will to truth but there is also the element of community. The Sangha that I belong to is called Dogen Sangha, which was formed by Gudo Nishijima Roshi and my teacher amongst others in Tokyo in 1987. It was deliberately positioned outside the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the Soto Zen establishment, and seeks to practise the teachings of Master Dogen the founder of Soto Zen.
What drew you to Buddhism and meditation and how often do you meditate?
I practice Zazen meditation every day. At the moment I have time to do an hour every morning and half an hour or an hour in the evening if possible. I also attend longer retreats when I can.
My first real experience of Buddhism was practising with some Therevada monks from Sri Lanka who lived in a Vihara near me when I was a teenager in London. Then as a young man, I was an artist interested in philosophy, but western philosophy was all so abstract and lacking practicality that I came back to looking at Buddhism to find some balance, and then I discovered Zen. It was Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, that really got me started.
I practiced by myself and then I sat Zazen with a group in London, but no one there could really answer my questions, especially when it came to understanding the Shobogenzo; Master Dogen’s formal lectures from the 13th century. Then I met my teacher Michael Luetchford. Michael had just arrived back from Japan having spent 25 years there studying and practising with Nishijima Roshi who translated the Shobogenzo into English and so I was able to learn Buddhism with Mike, whose insight, confidence and clarity has always been an inspiration.
How do you feel meditation helps you?
Zazen is balancing between awareness of the body and awareness of the mind; you have a thought and you bring your attention back to your posture or breathing. It is balancing both physically and mentally, and in the middle, around the point of balance, the dualities, self/other, mind/body etc fall away.
When we stop thinking, we stop dividing up the Universe and we stop separating ourselves from everything else and we stop dividing ourselves. So in a sense, for me, Zazen is freedom, it is the manifestation of unadorned reality, it is putting ourselves back together again, it is returning to our original state. The universe and me made real as one. There are many ways to describe it but ultimately reality is ineffable, we are it, but we cannot grasp it fully with our minds and our attempts to describe it will always fall short.
From one point of view, Zen philosophy points us away from thinking that we do Zazen in order to get something or become better. Wanting to get something or be a different person as a result of practice can be problematic. The practice is just to be here and now without intention; wanting to get something creates the problem of the gap between one's ideas about what we think reality should be and what reality is.
This gap can be the cause of suffering.
Sometimes our thoughts exercise tyrannical control over ourselves; we are always mistaking thoughts for reality and through this misunderstanding we can easily make ourselves angry and upset. So on a practical level, letting thoughts go and knowing the experience of not thinking, gives us some perspective which enables us to be led around by our thoughts less. Learning to be satisfied with the bare present moment is the greatest help that one can have.
I think we also have to recognise that Zazen does seem to have some biochemical effect on our bodyminds, it would be good if we could measure this as I have no evidence, but a possible medical explanation maybe that it balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the autonomic nervous system, so that we are neither too relaxed and lethargic nor too stressed and hyper. We find that sweet spot of just being right---the Buddha’s middle way.
The balanced state is not the preserve of Buddhists, it exists everywhere, humanity cannot live without it. Through action, the simple doing of things fully, we enter it, we pass through the point of balance often without even noticing it. Whether it’s through walking, painting, chopping wood, playing an instrument, or doing sport; the ways are endless.
Sport psychologists call it “being in the zone” or “flow,” this is prajna; right action flowing as a result of practice, unimpeded by intellectual decision making. So Zazen is just the standard practice for Zen Buddhists and it is like sport or playing an instrument but without the distractions of winning or losing or sounding good.
What type of Buddhism do you practice?
I practice Soto Zen Buddhism. The Japanese Monk, Master Dogen (1200-1253), is regarded as the founder of this school although he rejected the idea that it is a sect or school and he referred to it just as Buddhism. The practice and teachings are handed down from person to person, from the historical Buddha two and a half thousand years ago to now.
There is a “blood line” with the names of all the ancestors from Japan going back to China and then to Ancient India. Master Dogen went to China in his search, until he found his teacher and clarified the way and then came back to Japan to practise there. Now of course the lineage has arrived in the west and in my Sangha we base our practice on the teachings of Master Dogen.
Different groups and practitioners are making their own ways, some with a more traditional Japanese expression and some abandoning much of the ritual and ceremony that have accumulated over the centuries to create a fresh, authentic expression for the West.
Where did you grow up? Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up in West London not that far from where I live now. I've lived other places but have returned to be close to where I grew up as my mother is now 91 and she still lives in the same house. The house was in a square with a public garden in the middle and all the kids would hang out together, we were very lucky and we were free to roam the streets and get up to mischief. I still have a great respect for skateboarders and skateboarding!
Do your children practice Buddhism? Have you taught them to meditate?
They’ve had a go, but I don't push it. It’s not something that you can make people do. I hope that my oldest daughters’ passion for anime and contemporary Japanese culture will translate into an interest in Zen Buddhism. I encourage the other practices they already have like gymnastics and music.
Do you teach meditation to other people?
Not formally, but of course if I’m asked I'm always happy to share. We have group discussions centered around a text when I sit Zazen with Dogen Sangha so I participate in those. I am doing the Shiho (dharma transmission ceremony) this autumn, where I will receive the certificate of succession from my teacher, which enables me to teach formally and pass on the lineage to others.
Doing @sitzazen on Instagram and having to think about something to say everyday is helpful for me to clarify ideas about the practice and my interactions with others have also been elucidating. I would like to start a West London Zazen group and I’ll see what happens.
Do you ever have a hard time meditating, or is it easy every time?
We bring our lives with us to the cushion when we sit Zazen. When life is a struggle, the struggle may continue in Zazen, but hopefully we find some space beyond the phantasms of thought that are haunting us and feel more balanced by the end.
Life isn't easy, so Zazen isn't always easy, but I do know that I have a harder time not meditating. I think for people who don't practice everyday, the difficult part may be getting the routine of daily practice started. Then when it becomes part of your life you don't have to think about it anymore.
I had a long period when my practice lapsed and I always knew I wanted to start again but somehow I couldn't until the time came when I could. There’s also the body to contend with… but all these things get easier with practice and the acceptance of things as they are, and generally the practice brings me satisfaction, peace and even joy.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to learn how to meditate?
Do it daily, whatever you can realistically manage, half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening is ideal, less is fine...even five minutes is fine, just do it and hopefully it will catch you.
Find a quiet place, put some blankets or a mat or zabuton on the ground and something to sit on, a zafu or yoga blocks, pillows etc, cross your legs so that you have a firm foundation with your knees on the mat, or propped up with cushions if necessary. Place your hands in the traditional way and balance the head on the vertebrae on the pelvis, sitting upright, ears above the shoulders, nose above the navel, tongue against the roof of the mouth, lips closed, eyes open, breathing normally through the nose.
Don’t slouch and don’t do some rigid military posture either. Look for the middle way. Just sit, when you notice you are thinking, bring your attention back to your posture or breathing, let the thoughts go. Don’t worry about thinking, don't worry about right and wrong, don't try to become anything special, don't count breaths, don't focus on anything in particular; just be here now.
Let it all go: culture, language, ideas; just be. Think about not thinking, let the empty mind be. The universe/truth/state of Bodhi is all around already, it is the practice/experience of Zazen that teaches you and reveals you to be the unbroken wholeness of reality as it is.
So there you have it. We now know a little more about the mystery Instagram monk. Go check out @sitzazen on Instagram. I think you will find his posts just as motivating as I do.
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