When traveling to Japan, Kyoto is an absolute must-destination for those wanting to explore the culture and history of the country. Kyoto and its spiritual sister city Nara have a wealth of temples, shrines, gardens and beautiful vistas for the visitor to take in and enjoy. However if you want to explore the spiritual side of the culture in more depth and come away with a really memorable experience then I recommend checking out meditation classes run by local monks.
Shunkoin (春光院) temple is one such temple that provides daily meditation classes run by the Vice-abbot Taka Kawakami. During a trip to Kyoto I stayed at the guest house in Shukoin temple grounds and the next morning took part in a mediation class the following day.
The class itself was 90 minutes long and consisted of two 15 minute meditation sessions followed by a talk about the temple and how to incorporate Zen philosophy into your daily life. The mediation sessions weren’t too strenuous and were just enough for a beginner like myself.
Kawakami sensei was an extremely relaxed, friendly and down-to-earth teacher and quick to dispel popular misconceptions or myths about what Zen meditation is all about. As he said to our class “Zen meditation won’t give you magical or spiritual powers, it’s more like taking a daily supplement, simple conditioning for your peace of mind”.
The most fascinating part of his talk was about how the latest advances in neurology and brain science tie in with traditional meditation. It was a really interesting and educational experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to experience Zen philosophy and meditation first hand.
At the end of his class I asked to interview him and he graciously accepted. Here is the interview we did:
Interview with Rev. Taka Kawakami about Zen Meditation
Could you tell me a little about yourself and your temple?
My name is Taka Kawakami and actually I am vice abbot of this Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto. Then, this temple here, we have a history of 420 years.
What is Zen meditation all about?
So, Zen meditation, it’s more like conditioning of your mind, so you can keep your inner peace, you can keep living in the moment. Because living in the moment is the core idea of Zen Buddhism.
What’s a common misconception regarding Zen meditation?
I think a common mistake or misunderstanding about meditation is people try to achieve something during the meditation, people are trying to become something else by doing the meditation too.
But actually the idea is meditation is just the conditioning of your mind right? So it helps you to achieve something when you do your daily activity in real life. It’s not like, you know, you become some spiritual being or anything like that.
Also, you know, people try to empty their minds but it’s not like you have to clear your mind in this case. You try to eliminate your ego. So that’s not the same thing, it’s what’s important.
How should you practice meditation?
So when you do meditation, you don’t need to worry about, do you have to go to class or you know, a temple, you find your place in the bedroom or bathroom any place you feel comfortable. And not close your eyes or open your eyes, just focus on your breathing. Maybe 5 to 25 minutes, something like that, you know? It’s really casual. You know it’s not like you have to do it in any strict manner.
What’s an important concept behind Zen meditation?
I suppose in Zazen, probably, many people are talking about emptying your mind and Mushin (無心) and that’s probably the key word. But Mushin in this case is not like emptying your mind, no mind, it’s not like that. You have to eliminate your ego, so it’s no ego. So, Mushin means no ego. That’s the idea. It’s very useful for the Zen practice.
- 禅 – Zen
- 春光院 – Shunkoin temple
- 瞑想 – Meisou – Meditation
- 無心 – Mushin – Without sparking controversy or starting an epic wikipedia length article on the subject, “Mushin” at least according to Kawakami sensei is more about dissolving your ego rather than clearing your mind or heart. Check the video above.
If you’d like to try meditation for yourself at 春光院 Shunkoin temple, the first thing to do is check the website for details about times and holidays as they don’t run everyday. http://shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.jp/
You can also check out their website for details regarding about staying in their guest house which is about 5000 JPY to 6500JPY. The rooms are quite simple but quite comfortable and clean. They have comfy futons and a tatami floor so you can get the real experience.