Originally Published: June 16, 2013 by remingtoncooney | Becoming accustomed to the reality of living here in Kyoto, the “buzz” I experienced during my initial week, is slowly wearing off. The adrenalin kick that comes from being in the unknown has begun to smooth out, as if I’ve taken an imaginary iron to my nervous system and eased out all the creases.
This is one of the key images I use during my own zazen practice: ironing out all the creases of the breath. Notice now, as you sit here at the computer, how your breath is slightly staggered. Each inhale subtly stumbles over itself; each exhale gets caught up as if it were a toddler stepping on its own toes.
When I sit each morning, I set only one goal: to iron out all the creases in my breath. At some point, my breath eventually gets to the place I call “velvet breath” – where the inhale and the exhale become so smooth that I eventually can’t tell the difference between the two. Once I obtain “velvet breath” everything falls into place on its own accord. Thoughts drop away, concepts drop away; however, actually getting to “velvet breath” is not such an easy task for me.
This morning, as I sat at Ryosen-an temple in Daitoku-ji, I struggled to find my “velvet breath.” I was overcome by the excitement of finally discovering a temple to meditate in – one that has seen the likes of many famous practitioners, I might add. Through half closed eyes, I couldn’t help but look up during my zazen practice and think “is this for real?” as Roshi Matsunami, dressed in his long black robes, sat tall on his cushion in front of me.
Back-tracking, you may recall that in my first week I ventured out to Ryosen-antemple within the Myoshinjicomplex. There I was directed to a temple named Shunko-in; one that offered zazen for tourists. Wanting something a little more authentic, I continued my search by getting in contact with an American monk by the name of Yuho Thomas Kirchner. Yuho – a buddhist scholar – kindly invited me down to Hanazono University where he teaches at the Zen studies institute. There we sat for an hour and half in deep discussion: we spoke of his interest in Zen and why he moved to Japan in 1969, never to return to America; my interest in Zen and what it would take to pursue a career in Buddhist scholarship; the expatriate community of Kyoto and how it parallels to that of Singapore; finally, I mentioned my failed attempt at getting into Ryosen-an the previous week, only to be told that there are a multitude of Ryosen-an’s and I had simply gone to the wrong one (who’s the tourist now?!).
Taking out my map, Yuho scanned it, circling the practice centers most appropriate for me. Come this morning, my host-brother, Toshi, and I strolled down to the Daitoku-ji temple complex, ready for the 7 am sitting, only to be informed that we would not be doing a full hour meditation because the abbot wanted us to first weed the garden! (remember, enlightenment is taking out the garbage?). So, for the first 30 minutes Toshi and I were on our hands and knees with the monks, digging out tiny weeds from the elegant moss gardens, and placing them in our little wooden bowls.
At 7.25 am we removed our shoes at the foot of the aged, wooden zendo. Bowing and climbing 3 creaky stairs, we soon found ourselves atop cushions on grey zabutons that were lined up neatly in front of a large gold and black statue of Myoan Eisai – the founder of the Zen Rinzai school. I sat there for 30 minutes trying to find my “velvet breath.” Alas, a few too many thoughts today (correction: a few too many thoughts everyday). No matter, all part and parcel of why I’m here.
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, or perhaps just overcome with excitement, try ironing out all the creases of your inhalation-exhalation in order to find your own “velvet breath.” Satisfaction guaranteed.
What is this?
Writings from the Summer of 2013 during study abroad in Kyoto, Japan.