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Zen Meditation in Kerala - the Spiritual Quest with no Technique to Learn

by Karen Sivan(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 202 - January 2013

 

A student went to his meditation teacher and said,
"My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, my body aches or I'm falling asleep.
It's just horrible!"
"It will pass," the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher.
"My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It's just wonderful!'
"It will pass," the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

 

This is how it is; this is what we have to learn! That there is no technique that will make life wonderful all the time but that there is an attitude we can adopt that accepts that ‘it will pass’.

Meditation in Kerala

Our attitude needs to be closely monitored. Buddha spoke of aversion and desire being at the root of our suffering. Either we want more of something or have an aversion to something. We want certain things to stay the same forever and other things to end immediately. PEACE is really what we seek and want. Peace though cannot be taught to us and it is not something out there waiting to be found. Peace is attained only by adopting a certain attitude to our circumstances.

We must practise adjusting to our lives and try to stop insisting our life adjusts to our requirements. We are not in as much control as we wish to believe. Much of our anger and fear stems from not having control of a ‘situation’. Perhaps we cannot get what we want, when we want it. Maybe someone is disagreeing with us and we want them to accept what we are saying. Generally, things are not going our way and it seems like a personal attack against us.

Epictetus said: Seek not to have that everything should happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and you will be serene.

‘This too will pass’; it is a helpful mantra to utilize in times of difficulty. In times of pleasure and joy though it is rarely thought about. In this life, all things change and pass, that is a fundamental truth, yet it seems that we are only really willing to accept this fact when it suits us.

Whatever has happened in our past brought us to where we are today and change has been an inevitable part of our lives, like ageing.

I made one of life’s big changes when I moved to India in 1997. I was looking for a way to live my life more honestly, attempting to lose the division between work life and other life. This idea had been sprouting for some time and when I visited Kovalam; a beach resort in South India, for a 3 week package holiday in April 1997; it immediately felt like a homecoming. I cried on the veranda of my hotel, overwhelmed by the endless view of palm trees and sea. I told myself that I was tired after the long journey and perhaps slightly nervous about being alone in India and thought no more about it.

However, within three days I met all the people that would help me make India my home. A great number of these people are still in my life today. By the end of the three weeks I had leased a house for three years, returned to UK to pack up and sell my Brighton flat and returned to India six months later with a business visa, a brochure and a ‘plan’ to take house guests, run some short courses and share my experiences.

My main spiritual practice at that time was mantra chanting. I sat with a Brahmin priest early mornings and evenings; he taught me many Sanskrit mantras that we chanted together. In time a small group formed. It was a meditation for us and perhaps this was when I consciously entered a deeper spiritual quest. Indian culture suited me and I understood that my journey involved being able to live correctly; to develop right thought / right action in my daily life.

I read books by spiritual teachers and listened to lectures from Hindu Swami’s at yoga ashrams. What was growing within me was a thirst for Truth. I had attended my first Vipassana retreat (Goenka style) in November 1997: 10 days of complete silence and about 10 hours of mediation a day! It was hard. I remember lying on the floor in my room on day two, practically in tears as my body hurt so much that I did not know what to do with it. The silence was a wonderful experience though, along with freedom from social niceties. The technique taught is powerful; one can really come to experience the Buddhist teaching that all things including our feelings and sensations rise, form and pass away.

I did three more of these courses, but none had the same effect on me as the first one. However, they helped me improve my patience and endurance levels, both useful attributes for living in India.

In June 2003 I first came to Bodhi Zendo, a Zen residential centre in Tamil Nadu to attend a mini sesshin - a three day course, also conducted in silence. The only instruction was to be aware of your breath and mindful of your thoughts and surroundings. The centre is beautiful; located at the top of a banana plantation, 2kms from the main road. It took me until November 2004 to return for another mini sesshin. Fr.Ama Samy (the Master) was out on both these occasions and I did not meet him until the January sesshin in 2005. I remember shyly approaching him in the library after the sesshin, as I felt compelled to tell him how much his Teishos (talks) had touched me that week. I was still running a guest house but there were personal difficulties in my life and I felt in the midst of an emotional tsunami. I decided that my emotional health was more important than guests I had not yet met and Bodhi Zendo gifted me with such a wonderful opportunity to really ‘sit’ with it all and try to make sense of my life. I ‘closed shop’ and took to the hills! In the next 2 years I visited Bodhi Zendo 11 times; each time staying just that little bit longer and each time getting just a little bit less nervous about speaking to the Master.

I was drawn to spending more and more time at Bodhi Zendo marvelling at Fr.Ama’s direct way of speaking to my heart. Still, I was convinced I was not a ‘community’ person and afraid my desire to spend longer at the centre was a form of running away.

I sat with my doubts and questions until there was no longer a question. In October 2006 Fr.Ama accepted me as his disciple and shortly after I moved into Bodhi Zendo on a long term basis - from early 2007 until mid 2012. During this time I worked as a staff member, attending to guest administration, leading meditation and giving introductory talks, assisting Ama Samy as much I was able, and all the time being gifted his guidance and support.

It was not always an easy way of life. The quest for truth and peace has its pitfalls! The spiritual journey is often portrayed as a life of bliss, but this is a misconception. It is nevertheless a great blessing when one is given an opportunity to live in such a community and be of service.

Zen Meditation has no technique to learn and no promises are extended. Sitting with a group gives us the chance to connect with one another on a profound level without the need for words. All too often we are spinning around in our own worlds, driven by the demands and desires of our mind and sadly feeling somewhat lost and disconnected.

At Bodhi Zendo there are formal meditations sittings called Zazen during the day (the intense courses are once a month only). Kin-Hin is a walking meditation between consecutive sittings.

In zazen you can ‘take time out’ from judging, knowing, thinking, wanting, seeking and acting. It is allowing yourself be in a place of non-thinking, immersed in a mystery. Non thinking does not mean you have a blank mind with no thoughts or emotions. Trying to stop your thoughts or aiming for a blank mind is self defeating.

Non-thinking means just not grasping at anything, having no reason to analyze. You can stop judging, dividing and separating. The more you try not to think, the more you will struggle. It is a sort of resting, with feelings of faith, trust and surrender. In Zen the saying is: abiding where there is no abiding. Do not try to stifle your thoughts, acknowledge them and gently come back again and again to your breath awareness. Again and again we will all wander, get caught up in emotions, fantasies and sensations. That’s ok! Just come back to the breath, again and again. It is practice; a life practice!

In July 2012, I made another big change! I felt it was time to move on and returned to Kerala. Again, I rented a house for three years to function as a meditation centre, offering massage and yoga and accommodation for house guests. The difference is I have a little more clarity and maturity than I did in 1997.

Meditation in Kerala

My main vision in establishing Kin-Hin Zen Centre is to enable people to come together to sit in meditation and be nourished by the experience. Koun Yamada wrote in his book The Gateless Gate that “to sit zazen alone is so difficult it is almost impossible. For effective Zazen it is very important to practise sitting with a group, at least occasionally”.

The support is incalculable and there is no cost for attending sittings. At Kin-Hin we follow the Soto practice of Shikantaza - the Japanese term for 'just sitting'.

Zen though is not just about sitting. We cannot spend all our time in meditation. One has to be able to live in the world and interact with others. To do so harmoniously requires us to be aware and mindful. Awareness begins not with learning any special technique but with the simple yet very difficult practice of watching our breath. Sitting in Zazen is a practice in accepting what is. To live with the ordinary, understanding it is extraordinary. With awareness we can achieve some freedom from the thoughts that try to rule us.

chasing the tale of Self

Life will always have challenges for us. It is how we respond to our present situation that is the key to our peace. Generally there is no ‘happy ever after’; what we want to aim for is happiness in the moment, to be ok with whatever is happening as it is happening. Zen encourages us to live in the moment. This does not mean forgetting the past or not planning for the future, but not to be all the time having our minds full of these things. We want to be mindful of our surroundings and nature, to be able to consider others and accepting of their views and ways. To be able to put our burden down now and then and appreciate the peace.

Kerala is full of beauty and India a wonderful place to gain perspective of our problems. The perfect location perhaps to contemplate the Zen Koan: “What is your original face, the one you had even before your parents were born?”

Comments:

  1. Susie Heavens said..

    A beautiful story. I have thought about Vipasana for years, but never seem to have the courage to do it!


  2. Rajasingh Gnanaraj said..

    Dear Karen,
    The description of your journeys resonates very deeply with mine. The stories that have always spoken to me are the ones of wanderers. The stories of Hermann Hesse are full of wanderers. You are one such wanderer, but the journey never ends. I extend my warmest greetings to you on having opened up a space for wanderers where they can finally come home to themselves. Peace and Blessings!

    Rajasingh


  3. ann said..

    Dear Karen, I am lost but I have just become aware of "the breath" It has taken me 76 years to get to this stage but I am still seeking. a fellow traveller


  4. karen said..

    many thanks for these comments...I have only now seen them. See, everything takes time!ha ha ha


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About Karen Sivan

Karen Sivan was born and raised in London, then left home at 16 to wash pots in a hotel in Devon. Many jobs and locations later she settled in Brighton in 1989. A qualified Aromatherapist since 1993, her diploma in Holistic Aromatherapy was received from the Tisserand Institute in London. She moved to India in 1997 and considers it ‘home’. During her time at Bodhi Zendo, Karen compiled and edited a book of Zen Stories titled: The Tale of Self (173 Zen stories awaken through the 10 oxherding pictures) which was published by Vaigaria Books in 2008. Karen may be contacted via karen.sivan@gmail.com ; information about Kin-Hin Zen Centre can be found on www.kinhinzencentre.com

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