Once Swami Vivekanand ( then Narendra) was discussing spirituality with Ramkrishna Paramhansa at his house. As always Paramhansa was trying to explain the nature of reality to his favourite student but Naren was not convinced.
Ramakrishna got a bit flustered and asked Naren to pick up a weather magazine kept next to where he was sitting. He asked him to go through the content and tell him what was the main theme. Naren told him that the magazine talked about weather conditions especially about rain – how it happens, how much is it going to rain and why, which parts of the country will get more rain and so on. Ramakrishna asked him to take the magazine in his hands and try to squeeze it with his full might. Narendra was perplexed but carried out the instructions. Ramakrishna told him he is not trying hard enough and his student put all his strength to the task. His Guru was now smiling. He told Narendra that wasn’t he surprised that no water came out of the magazine. Narendra got the point and Ramakrishna continued to explain “Just like we cant get rain or water out of a magazine we cannot realise what is the truth, what is reality just by talking about it” He added” When an ant is carrying a small grain of sugar it does not know whether it’s sweet or sour. It just feels the burden of the weight and keeps going in the direction where other ants are going.”
For the past twenty years I have accumulated a lot of knowledge on the nature of reality, the various practices associated with spirituality and have been doing my own meagre Sadhana, if it can be called that ! I know that the plethora of frauds masquerading as Swami’s are no good and so are the likes of Deepak Chopra and Robin Sharma who soft peddle ancient Indian knowledge to gullible western audience. My quest for a rendezvous with truth led me to Om Swami’s blog. I found his writing clear, concise, fluid with glimpses of deep insights and understanding. I also looked up some and later most of his videos on youtube. Since I had subscribed to the blog an email regarding a Zen Retreat which would be personally presided by the Swami came to my email. I dilly dallied for a few days but when I saw the slots filling up by the hour I decided to pay the fee and register. This was in July this year and the dates for the retreat were given as December 18-22. Over the last few months I pretty much devoured everything that Om Swami has written including his books If truth be told, Wellness Sense, Kundalini and A fistful of love. I left out one book As we know him by his disciples as they tend to glorify and exaggerate and another one When all is not well which is about Depression.
I reached the venue Golden Palms Resort and Spa at the outskirts of Bangalore on the 18th afternoon and after a long check in process for some 250 odd seekers I was finally ready to get the first glimpse of the man who had claimed to see God. As we remained seated for the moment to arrive I felt a bit anxious even sceptical about being where I was. The gathering dressed in white was a mixed bag – there were family’s which probably wanted to combine vacation with some soul searching, old men and women either with each other or on their own, professional devotees who are ready to place their faith with little self enquiry or self doubt and the usual westerners without whom no spiritual gathering looks complete. Only few of us were by themselves. I thought if nothing else I was at least meeting the first condition for a true seeker – of being alone on my journey;-) As I listened to the beautiful Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum I decided to stop judging and focused my undivided attention to what I was there for. I took a deep breadth, chanted Om gently and resolved to make the best of my time for the next 4 days.
At exactly 4:45 PM Om Swami appeared in hall from the door near the lifts and walked briskly towards the stage which was at the other end. The devotees bowed down with respect in their eyes and humility in their posture. I did the same. As Swami sat down I noticed that the room was filled with a very strange but pleasant fragrance. I later guessed that it could be coming from the air freshner in AC units or may be not.But there is no doubt that the fragrance was quite heavenly so full marks to the brand which made it. Swamiji very humbly asked everyone to get seated and after offering his obeisance to the divine and his mother he started the discourse. He was giving an introduction to the Zen practice. I must mention something extraordinary which happened at least to me.To give us a glimpse of what he meant by ‘slowing down’ he asked everyone to look at him and hear his words for the next 30 seconds with utmost concentration. As I did that I felt as if the entire hall with everyone in it was in slow motion. I tried shaking off the feeling but it was not possible. I had once tried some weed in college and the experience was very similar to that. As Swami spoke more about the topic I was convinced that even if I don’t end up having a vision of God I would certainly learn a lot of new things.Also, I had this consolation now that if someone had in fact seen God he would probably look like Om Swami.
I am now going to give you an account of some of the leaning and the various practices that were taught by Swami ji as part of the retreat.
What is Zen
It is the Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasising the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.
The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan which has its origin in the Sanskrit word Dhyana (ध्यान ), which can be approximately translated as absorption or a meditative state.
Satori is at the heart of Zen practice.It’s a term for awakening or the experience of kenshō, – seeing into one’s true nature.
The Heart Sutra
The heart sutra is perhaps the only sermon that the Buddha gave on the subject of Zen. He pronounces that the world as we see it is empty(different from Nihilism – life is meaningless). The insight in Heart Sutra refers to apprehension of the fundamental emptiness (Shunyata) of all phenomena, known through and as the five aggregates of human existence (Skandhas): form (Rupa), feeling (Vedana), volition (Sankahra), perceptions (Samjan), and consciousness (Vijana).
ॐ नमो भगवत्या आर्यप्रज्ञपारमितायै ।।
आर्यावलोकितेश्वरो बोधिसत्वो गम्भीरां प्रज्ञापारमिताचर्यां चरमाणो व्यवलोकयति स्म
पञ्चस्कन्धास्तांश्वस्वरुपशुन्यान्पष्यति स्म । इह शारिपुत्र रूपं शून्यता शून्यतैव रुपम् ।
रुपन्नपृथक् शून्यता शून्यताया न प्रुथग्रुपम् । यद्रूपं सा शून्यता या शून्यता तदेवरुपम् ।
एवमेव वेदनासंज्ञासंसकारविज्ञानम् ।
इह शारिपुत्र सर्वधर्मा: शून्यतालक्षणा अन्नुत्पन्ना अनिरुद्धा अमला अविमला अनूना अपरिपूर्णा: ।
तस्माच्छारिपुत्र शून्यतायां न रुपं न वेदना न संज्ञा न संस्कार न विज्ञानम् ।
न चक्षु:क्षोत्रध्राणजिह्वाकायमनांसि । न रूपशब्दगन्धरसस्प्रष्टव्यधर्मा: ।
न चक्षुर्धातुर्यावन्नमनोविज्ञानधातु: ।
नाविद्य नाविद्याक्षयो यावन्नजरामरणं न जरामरणक्षयो न दु:खसमुदयनिरोधमार्गा न ज्ञानं न प्राप्तिर्नाप्राप्ति: ।
तस्माच्छारिपुत्राप्रप्तित्वाद्वोधिसत्वो प्रज्ञापारमितामाश्वित्य विहरत्यचित्तावरण: ।
चित्तावरणनास्तित्वदत्रस्तो विपर्याप्तातिक्रान्तो निष्ठानिर्वाणप्राप्त: ।
त्र्यध्वव्यवस्थिता: सर्वबुद्धा: प्रज्ञपारमितामश्वित्यानुत्तरां सम्यक्संभोधिमभिसंबुद्धा: ।
तस्माज्ज्ञातव्यं प्रज्ञापारमितामहामंत्रो महाविद्यामंत्रो ङनुत्तरमंत्र समसममंत्र: सर्वदु:खप्रषमण: सत्यममिथ्यत्वात् ।
गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा ।।
इत्यार्या प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदयं समाप्तम् ।।
You may want to go through the link below :
Heart Sutra with music and translation
The practice of wall gazing and Zazen
It is said that when Prince Bodhidharma went to China from South India he was disappointed by not being able to get the favour of the king and failed to impress him. He went to a cave outside the city and started his practice of Wall Gazing. A deep meditation which he continued for the next 9 years till he was able to know the nature of reality.
After chanting Om 20 times when the mind becomes calm and the breath settles down we used to start by practising the wall gazing meditation. As there was no wall in front of all the participants Swami ji asked us to concentrate our gaze on a stone instead. The stone was provided by the volunteers. The posture in which we practice wall gazing is most important. As you can see a meditation cushion is used to support the back which must be straight at all times so that the energy can flow freely within us. Apart from that the tongue should be touching the palate, teeth resting on each other not clinched, mouth should be slightly parted and a gentle smile should always be on the face. There are two more aspects of wall gazing meditation – at no point should the eyes be closed for more than lets say 15 seconds and one must have the hands on top of each other with the thumbs and he fingers forming an egg shape as below.
All through the meditation Swami ji kept reminding us not to close our eyes, to keep the back straight and to have a gentle smile on the face.I will confess that while they do not look like supremely arduous tasks they are most difficult to accomplish even for a short period of 15 min. Even more difficult is not to think of anything else past, present and future. The mind has been compared to a monkey and I could not agree more with that statement.
Last in the meditation session was Zazen which is a slight variation to wall gazing. There is no object to concentrate or focus on. Posture remaining the same one has to just sit quitely fully aware of the moment,the surrounding, the breath and the fact that one was alive. Be here and now in this beautiful moment is the key idea. The only difference between wall gazing and Zazen is that the eyes should remain half closed and not fully open as in the first case. Again, this is not something you do intentionally but if you are not day dreaming with eyes closed or focusing on some object it should be the natural position of your eyes.
Here is a link on Zen Practice that may be of help.
This was a most invigorating exercise given that all of us returned to the meditation hall at 3:30 PM after a good meal and some rest or reading in our rooms. We made groups of 5-6 people and served herbal tea to each other. The ceremony was not as elaborate as the original Japanese one but we got a good understanding of how to do something as mundane as drinking tea, mindfully. We watched as the tea as it was poured into the cup starting with a drop and then turning to a thin stream forming a pool at the bottom of the cup. As more tea got poured sometimes there were small whirlpools formed in the liquid. The tea was now ready to drink but before that each member of the group served it to one other member with utmost kindness and humility as if serving something precious and holy.
The next you take the cup closer to your nose and smell the aroma, let the steam coming from the cup warm your face and moisten your lips. Then slowly, very slowly being totally aware of your actions you, take the first sip. The mouth is filled with the flavor of the drink and you observe each and every aspect minutely the temperature, the flavor,the effect, the aroma and then how the drink slowly goes down your food pipe into your stomach.Honestly, I do enjoy my cup of normal as well as green tea but had never thought that the simple act can be so uplifting. I almost felt a sense of gratitude towards mother nature for giving us all the spices, the ingredients that had made such a beautiful drink. I realised how thankful we should be to enjoy each cup. Thankful first of all to nature and then to everyone in the chain who helps to bring it to us, never to forget the one who makes and serves.
Kin Hin or walking meditation
The chief benefit of walking meditation is that we learn how to bring our mind to the present moment even in such everyday activities as walking. Also, when one meditates for long periods of time is sitting meditation it brings untold goodness to the mind but it may not be as good for the body. Movement is essential for certain functions of the body such as digestion, building muscle endurance etc.so walking meditation could provide a necessary break. Video below from a Buddhist monk explains the process of walking meditation beautifully.
Personally, I realised that Walking meditation is more effective in bringing the mind to a meditative state and in building concentration. It may be a good idea to do 5-10 Min of walking meditation before we go into Zazen.
Osoji and Forgiveness Meditation :
Osoji is a Japanese practice of getting out all the stuff in the house at one place and then deciding on each item whether it’s required or not.Typically this is done once at the end of the year and is similar to our Diwali cleaning and the spring cleaning in the west.The goal is to get rid of at least 30% of the articles which are not needed or are not absolutely necessary.
Swami ji told everyone to take the pen and note pad and write down names of people,starting from our very childhood, with whom we have a negative emotion attached. He instructed to even write the emotion that comes to our mind when we think of that person. I thought long and hard but I could not come up with any name except my wife 🙂 Jokes apart, I saw people using the second and the third page while I had just five or 6 names and that too as I had to write something down. When I scanned my memory and thought of a name I remembered what fun we had together or how that person had helped me in a certain way. I really thanked God for being blessed to have such wonderful friends around me. Of course there were few people I have never liked or who have given me a hard time but when I thought about them no emotion came to my mind. The best way for me to avenge someone has been to become completely indifferent to them as if they are dead or they never existed at all. Neitzsche wrote in his book Beyond good and evil :
It’s not that you have deceived me bothers me, I am disappointed that I can’t trust you anymore.
Next everyone was asked to crumple their papers and toss them in a trash bag which went around the hall, carried by some volunteers..
Next day as a follow up Swami ji made us do Forgiveness meditation. As he guided our chain of thoughts we had to think of that one person we hate the most and imagine that they are standing right in front of us. We had to tell them how we felt on their face and let them know that we are going to forgive them from the core of our heart for what they did – no more grudges, no more hard feelings, no more nothing. Next we had to resolve that we have become totally indifferent to the existence of that person and visualise as if they are dissipating into thin air, never to be back again. It was a most cathartic experience for me. I felt quite light as if a huge burden has been taken away. I wondered why was I even carrying this load up until now. I really didn’t need it. At all.
Some of the other notes which I took from the discourses are listed below. These are all very important if one wants to understand, follow and practice a Zen way of life :
- Life is transitory. Whatever takes birth must die.We are in a transient state all the time and our time on this earth will be over soon. To remind yourself of this great principle which helps to keep the ego in check and to be more compassionate with everyone around you pick a flower preferably one which has fragrance and keep it on the the dashboard of your car or next to your work desk in office or any other place where you can notice the changes hour by hour, day by day. It can remind us constantly of death as a fact of life and not some distant possibility.
- Each one of us must have a philosophy of life. A set of rules or goals which we must follow so we become better and more adept in our practice every day. One has to be mindful at all times that every action must be aligned with the philosophy we have chosen to follow in life. Whenever you do something you must validate if it is in line with your philosophy or not. For Example one may chose below virtues and work hard to make sure they guide all our thoughts and actions at all times :
- Self discipline
- Build your practice one minute at a time. Focus on the quality of meditation not the quantity. 10 min of good quality meditation are far better than 1 hour of day dreaming. Have patience and don’t get frustrated with yourself. If you cannot sit for more than 10 min at a stretch that’s fine. Add just 2 more minutes and see if you can extend that much. To improve posture do the right exercises. There is no point doing meditation in the wrong posture. Respect medical conditions, if any.
- Finally, the four principles of Zen practice :
- Sit quitely – watch the grass grow as simple as that
- Take care of your body – it’s like a temple. Live gently in your body.
- Learn to handle pain – Pain is natural.When all else fails just breathe. You are still alive. Don’t hurt anyone with painful words.Be kind. Be gentle.
- Non Violence – Live in harmony with nature. Nature can heal you.
With that I end this post. बुद्धं शरणं गच्छामि …