I am not a good meditator. I rarely look forward to sitting meditation. I don’t settle very easily. I often spend the time thinking about what I’m going to do later. I don’t do very much of it.
I started meditating formally in my twenties, when I became interested in Suzuki Roshi’s writings. I visited a local Zen centre and I was inspired by the teacher who ran it – she glowed. I liked the idea of being a Zen Buddhist very much. It fitted my aesthetic at the time – my minimalist tendencies, my appreciation of simplicity and silence. I liked the fact that I didn’t understand much of what I read, and that this seemed to be part of the point.
I used to sit for twenty minutes in my tiny office which was more of a corridor, on my grey zafu. I would follow Suzuki Roshi’s instructions – positioning my hands in the correct way, paying attention to my breath, and letting my thoughts blow through the empty room of my consciousness like dry leaves. It was always a struggle to sit regularly. I did it every morning and sometimes every evening, using my self-discipline muscles, but it never felt like a natural part of my day.
This morning I went upstairs for our usual half an hour of meditation in the shrine room. As I sat, my brain whirred. I spent most of my quiet time sorting through an interpersonal problem, listening to the rain and planning this blog. It was only near the end of the session that I remembered what I was doing. Sitting with the Buddha!
I can’t remember when I first realised that I could see sitting meditation as hanging out with the Buddha. I know that it was a ‘trick’ I used to help me find the meditation more bearable. A meditation practice is something I felt I ought to have, and my response to this ‘ought’ was squirming and resistance. Re-framing it as sitting with the Buddha simplified the practice. It took away any expectations of having to ‘do it properly’, and released me to simply be there for a little while in the company of the Buddha. I didn’t have to do anything – just remain quietly in his presence.
I now see this ‘trick’ as being a way of reframing meditation as refuge rather than as a tool that will bring me certain benefits – calm, spiritual experiences, and ultimately enlightenment. I am a sucker for self-power practices. I love the idea of being able to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and I have talked about myself as a ‘self-perfectionaholic’. The idea of doing something in order to become a better and more spiritual person was both a blessing and a curse. As I sat, I simultaneously felt excited about finally being able to do something that would perfect me, and judged myself as not being any good at it at all.
These days I joke that it’s lucky that I’m a Pureland Buddhist as I have permission to not be any good at sitting meditation. My primary practice is nembutsu, which is saying the name of Amida Buddha. This is the way that Pureland Buddhists take refuge and find a settled faith. Although the great sage Honen recited many nembutsu himself, Shinran, his most famous student and founder of the largest school of Pureland Buddhism in Japan, asserted that one nembutsu said with complete trust was enough. All I need to do is say ‘Namo Amida Bu’. What a relief.
I do think sitting meditation is helpful for me. It shows me how my mind works, and it does allow the muddy water a chance to settle. Occasionally I have had spiritual experiences whilst doing zazen – I have felt deeply connected to the Buddha, or my body has expanded and kept expanding until I was everywhere.
These spiritual experiences don’t tend to visit me when I’m meditating, though. They often arrive when I am practising with other people and I feel sudden blooms of tenderness for them. I feel bathed in the Buddha’s golden glow when we do all-day nembutsu chanting. I make contact with the divine in Cathedrals and when chanting with Benedictine monks. The Dharma penetrates me when I stumble across a pair of deer on an early morning walk.
I’m not that keen on sitting meditation, and that’s okay. I have found my own door onto the divine, and I feel hugely grateful that Amida Buddha found me. Namo Amida Bu.
Meditating Buddha by Pexels with gratitude