Friday, September 9, 2011

Zazen Practice in Tokyo





Just a note to say that our zazen class in Tokyo will be starting up again tomorrow after the summer break. The class is suitable for beginners, and anyone interested is welcome along.

The times are:
11.00 - 11.25  Zazen
11.25 - 11.35  Kinhin (slow walking meditation)
11.35 - 12.00  Zazen
12.00 - 12.30  Break (for lunch or a rest)
12.30 - 1.00    Zazen
1.00 -  2.00    Talk (optional)

Click here for more information and directions.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I Knew You Were Going To Ask That


sixth sense


Here’s a question someone asked me a while ago:

Do you have a sixth sense?  How do you experience it?

Everybody has a sixth sense, except they don't notice most of the time. In Japan there's an expression "i-shin-den-shin" which means something like "heart-to-heart communication". Without saying anything you can sometimes pick up a vibe from someone else. Or it’s almost like we can communicate with someone even though they’re not anywhere near us. It's like if you stop off at the bakery on the way home from work and see a nice apple strudel and decide to buy it. But when you get home the person you live with has bought the exact same thing!

I watched a TV show recently about research someone did to see if a dog could tell when their owner was on the way home. It wasn’t to check if the dog had figured out the time the owner came home at each day. It was to see if the dog could tell if its owner was on the way home at a random time during a particular day. The dog lived in a house in a country town, and its owner spent most weekdays in a nearby city. The researcher arranged for the owner to come home from the city suddenly one afternoon, and recorded the dog’s behavior from around the time the owner started to make her way home. Sure enough, the dog started to become more alert right around the time the owner began to leave the city. By the time the owner got within a few miles of the house the dog was waiting right next to the door. It was strange to see, but the owner or the dog didn’t seem to care too much. They were just happy to see each other.

I’ve a feeling that if we worked on this we probably wouldn't need mobile phones anymore.

Or maybe it's just a coincidence...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dublin Fundraising Concert For Japan


JAPAN poster small


Here’s some information about a special fundraising concert being held in Dublin next week to aid the Japan disaster victims. Many of Ireland’s very best traditional musicians are taking part, and it sounds like it’s going to be a great night. It’s being held next Tuesday, May 10, at The Button Factory in Temple Bar. All proceeds go to aid Japan and the Japanese Red Cross.

Here’s what’s happening:

Traditional Music Legends to Show Solidarity with Japan

On Tuesday, 10th May, a host of traditional music legends will show their solidarity with the people of Japan by holding a special fundraising concert in The Button Factory, Dublin. T with the Maggies, Altan, Dervish, Liam Ó Maonlaí and Dónal Lunny will whip out the jigs, reels and beautiful ballads on the night in a celebration of traditional music.

The concert will be streamed live online so that people in Japan can see that Ireland is in solidarity with them. All the groups and musicians have a huge following in Japan where some fans are so dedicated to Irish traditional culture and music that they even learn to speak Gaeilge.

"All of us in the trad world wanted to do something after the years of support the Japanese have given to both Altan and the other bands. This is our small way of showing that they are in our thoughts. We guarantee a great night on May 10th and you can be sure that a few surprise guests will show up also!" said Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Altan & T with the Maggies, who is co-organizing the concert.

"The concert is being co-organized with Chika Usami who is from Iwaki City, Fukushima, Japan but lives in Ireland. Chika said, “If I had been in Iwaki during the earthquake I would have been affected, my friends and family are still under threat from the nuclear power plant which is only 40km away, and I thought there must have been a reason for me to have been in Ireland. I wanted to do something to help Japan and tried to think what connected Ireland and Iwaki and I thought of Altan. They had performed in Iwaki in 2009 and I had met Altan after the concert and they invited me to come to Ireland sometime. Part of the reason I came to Ireland was because of how much I enjoy traditional Irish music and culture.”

ADM: €20  (Unreserved Limited Seating).

Advanced sales are available from or Claddagh Records, Cecilia Street, Temple Bar Tel:353 1 677 0262

Further Enquiries : | TEL: +353 1 670 9202

Friday, April 22, 2011

3-day Zen Retreat in Golden Week



garden (640x480)



If you’ll be in Japan during golden week and wouldn’t mind spending a few days at a Zen temple in the countryside, you might be interested in a retreat we’ll be holding at Tokei-in temple in Shizuoka from April 30 to May 2. The retreat is suitable for beginners, and anyone interested is welcome along. There’s some more information about the retreat here.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

My Earthquake Experience


Tsunami 1


As everyone knows, we had a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan last month. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were left without their homes and jobs and belongings. About 150,000 people are still living in temporary shelters at schools and other public buildings. Several towns and villages were completely destroyed. To make things even worse, the Fukushima nuclear power plant was severely damaged, and it’s been leaking radiation into the atmosphere for more than a month now. There have been lots of strong aftershocks since then too, and people are worried that there may be another big earthquake before long. So it’s been a horrible time for people in Japan. But despite it all many people are doing what they can to help each other, and are trying not to lose hope for the future.

I live in a place called Ibaraki Prefecture. It was one of the areas affected by the earthquake, although the damage here wasn’t as bad as in the worst affected areas further north. I’ve lived in Ibaraki for almost 20 years. We’ve had some strong earthquakes before now, but the earthquake in March was on a different scale to anything anyone here experienced before. Usually when an earthquake occurs, there’s a big kind of “thud” right at the start and then things start shaking and the vibrations gradually become stronger, and finally ease off after a minute or so. But when the earthquake struck on March 11 it was such a strong “thud” that it was clear from the start that it was a huge one. I was at home that day, and was doing some zazen on a cushion beside my desk when it struck. When the earthquake started, it was so strong that right away I jumped off the cushion and went under the desk. The walls in my room started shaking and all the things we had on shelves or in cupboards began to fall onto the floor. The shaking kept getting stronger and stronger, and everything was moving or falling down. The walls were moving back and forth and I thought the whole place was going to collapse.

After one or two minutes the shaking eventually started to ease off. I got out from under the desk to see if our place was okay. Some things had broken, but luckily there was no really serious damage. Our TV had fallen over, but it was still working. I turned it on to check the news. All the channels had emergency news about what was going on. The earthquake had destroyed buildings all over the north east of Japan, and the news was warning people about a large tsunami. The announcers were telling people to move away from the coast as quickly as they could. The channel I was watching was showing live pictures of the ocean that were being taken from a helicopter. It showed the tsunami approaching the coast and then moving inland through one town. A lot of people were trying to escape from the tsunami in their cars and on foot, but the tsunami was too big and moving too fast. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it. People were being swept away without any chance of escaping. It was very shocking to see what was happening. The tsunami moved inland for several kilometers and destroyed everything in its path. Then it went back to the ocean again. Almost nothing was left standing after it had gone.

Later on there were stories on the news about some people who managed to survive the tsunami. Even though they had survived, many of them had lost their parents, or spouse, or children in the tsunami. There were reports of how people tried to escape the tsunami by going to designated safe areas in their towns. The designated safe areas were meant to be safe places to go in the event of a tsunami, but the tsunami that day was so big that even those safe areas were washed away.

Over the next few days, we started to get more information about what had happened. Reports about the number of dead and missing kept increasing. Soon we heard that almost 10,000 people were missing in one town alone. Thousands of people had been buried under the debris left by the earthquake, and thousands more had been swept away by the tsunami. The rescue teams are still searching for missing people now, but many of them may never be found.

We also started to hear about a major problem at a nuclear power station in Fukushima. Fukushima is about 160 kilometers from where we live. The power station had been hit by the tsunami, and the reactors were damaged and radiation was escaping into the air and sea. The people living in towns nearby had to leave their homes and move to temporary shelters further away. Some of those people had lost family members and friends in the earthquake and tsunami, but were unable to return to their towns to search for them because of the radiation. The people who had to leave those towns may not be able to move back again until the radiation levels drop. No one knows how long that’s going to take, but it might be five or ten years or more.

There were a lot of problems in our own area for the first week or so after the earthquake. The water and gas supplies were cut off, and there was a shortage of gasoline because the gas stations had run out. Most of the shops were closed because they were damaged by the earthquake and it was unsafe to let people inside. The shops that were open soon ran out of food and water. It was difficult to buy any food for a few days, and there were huge queues even if you could find a shop that was open. The trains had stopped running too because of damage to the rails. There was an awful lot of concern about the radiation from the nuclear accident too. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, and whether it was safe to go outside or not. Some of our neighbors left the area because they were worried about how the radiation was affecting us.

But even though there was a certain amount of panic, most people were trying to stay calm and do what they could to get through it. People were sharing things and trying to help each other. After a week or so, things began to come back to normal in our area at least. The water and gas were gradually restored, and shops began to open again. The schools reopened as well after a few days. After another week or so the trains started running again and the gas stations opened too.

In some ways life is returning to normal in Japan now. But there’s an awful lot of recovery work to be done, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster is going to be with us for a long time. There is still a very deep sadness about what has happened, but it seems like the people who were directly affected by the disaster are taking each day as it comes, and trying to do what they can each day. The community spirit is very strong in Japan now too, and a lot of people are working together to help each other recover. Even the people in our neighborhood seem to be a lot closer and friendlier than before. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but it seems like the disaster has changed the way a lot of people think about what’s important.

I like to think that Japan will recover from what’s happened, although it’s going to take a long time. Probably some things will return to something like the way they were before the disaster, but some things in Japan will never be the same.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Gudo Nishijima Roshi, 91

Nishijima Sensei Birthday party 2010

Gudo Nishijima turned 91 last Monday. To mark his birthday, we asked him to give a talk last Saturday at our zazen meeting at the Young Buddhists Association in Tokyo. We also invited him to a small birthday lunch afterwards at a nearby Indian restaurant. 

I arranged to pick him up at his apartment on Saturday, and then take a taxi together to the place (called “Hongo-sanchome”) where we hold our zazen meeting. I called for him at about 11.30 am. He was still getting himself ready, and he asked me to wait for a few minutes while he finished getting ready. He offered me some fruit while I was waiting. He recommended the persimmons. He told me they that were really ripe and tasty now. He gave me one and a knife to cut it up with. He was right. The persimmon did taste great. When he saw I’d eaten it quickly, he offered me another one. I didn’t want to eat all his persimmons, so I said I was okay. I was hoping we’d have the chance to eat some lunch together before we went to the zazen meeting, but it was getting a bit late and Nishijima was worried about keeping the people at the meeting waiting. So we decided to skip lunch. Instead Nishijima brought a few bananas with us to eat in the taxi.

It took us a while to get a taxi after we left his apartment. Nishijima doesn’t walk so quickly nowadays, and I didn’t want to hurry him either. There were a lot of autumn leaves on the road as we were walking along. Nishijima told me the particular leaves that were on the path we were walking along are used as the symbol for Tokyo. The tree they’re from is called “ichou” in Japanese. In English it’s called the “ginkgo” tree.

When we reached the main road, we stood at the kerb and eventually hailed a passing taxi. Nishijima told the driver where we were going and a good way to get there. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he decided to eat some of the bananas. I was wondering if the taxi driver would object to us eating, but he didn’t seem to mind. Nishijima told me that a former prime minister of Japan, named Nakasone, used to keep some bananas in his office desk and whenever he was too busy to eat lunch, he’d eat the bananas instead. So Nishijima and myself were following prime minister Nakasone’s example with the bananas. Anyway, it was fun eating the bananas together in the back of the taxi. I think Nishijima enjoyed doing it like that.

We were late arriving at the meeting, and Nishijima felt bad that everyone had been waiting. But I think the people understood that Nishijima had made a big effort to get there, and they were happy to see him. The room we hold the talks in is on the second floor, and there’s a steep flight of steps to get there. Nishijima did his best to walk up, and me and Saito-san helped him along. He managed to climb the steps without too much trouble. Then he went into the room and started his talk.

He hadn’t given a talk in English for about a year, and he was a bit rusty at the start. But after a while he got into his stride, and spoke about how he got interested in Buddhism and Master Dogen. He also told us how he began giving lectures in the same building we were in about 50 years ago. He told us he first came across Master Dogen’s book Shobogenzo when he was 16 years old. He had a read a lot of books before then, and felt he could understand all the books that he had read. But when he read the Shobogenzo he couldn’t understand it all. Even though it was written in Japanese and he could understand the words, he just couldn’t understand the meaning of what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo. He was very surprised that there was a book written in Japanese that he couldn’t understand. So he decided to try to find out what the meaning of the Shobogenzo was. He said he used to have a pocket edition of the Shobogenzo, which he carried around with him all the time. He said he read it on the train on his way to school and work and whenever else he had the chance. He read it over and over many times, and he eventually realized that the Shobogenzo was a very valuable and special book. He said he found that the Shobogenzo contained a real treasure. He said that what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo was the “truth” itself. He said that even though he had read lots of books, he had never found one that he believed contained the truth. But after he’d read Shobogenzo over and over, he realized that he’d found a very special  book. So he decided to devote his life to reading the Shobogenzo, and eventually he began translating it and giving lectures on it.

Nishijima told us that when he was 40 years old he asked the then head of the Young Buddhists Association at Tokyo University (the same place we were having the talk last Saturday) to allow him to hold a Buddhist meeting there. Nishijima’s idea was to hold a zazen class and afterwards give talks on the Shobogenzo. The head of the Young Buddhists Association agreed to Nishijima’s proposal, but told Nishijima that the Association wouldn’t be able to pay him any money for holding his lectures. Nishijima said he didn’t mind that, and he was happy to hold his classes for free. So he began to hold meetings there. Two Tokyo University students helped him organize the first few meetings and came to the zazen practice and his talk too. But then the students became busy with their other studies and couldn’t come to his class. The next time Nishijima held a class after that, no-one came to the zazen practice. But he decided to do zazen in the room by himself anyway. Just as he was finishing zazen, two people came in and asked him where the library was. He chatted to them for a few minutes and said that they could come and listen to his talk that day if they wanted, so he ended up giving a talk to the two people who came looking for the library. After that the number of people attending his talks started to increase. The following week he said five people came, and after that seven people attended. After a while 30 or 40 people were coming to his talks. Later on he started giving talks in English at the same place (which is how I met him). He told us he felt very happy that he was able to give a talk on the Shobogenzo to so many people there. He said he was really happy to see that the meetings (in Japanese and English) he started all those years ago were still continuing even now.

After he finished talking, we presented him with some flowers and a birthday card that everyone at the meeting had signed. His students in Finland had also sent him birthday greetings which they had all written. Some of his other students outside Japan had sent him a card or a gift as well. 

After the meeting we took some photos with Nishijima Roshi, and then we went to a nearby Indian restaurant. The restaurant wasn’t that far away, and some people went by foot. But it was too far for Nishijima to walk to, so we went by taxi. While we were in the taxi Nishijima told me that he was very, very happy to be able to give a talk there that day. He said it was the happiest day of his life. He said he felt really happy that he had been able to give talks on Buddhism to people at the Young Buddhists Association.

It was around 3 pm when we reached the restaurant. There was 13 of us, and the restaurant put a few tables together to accommodate us. Nishijima sat in the middle and told us about the time he visited India and some other stories. He also answered some questions we had about Buddhism. At the end of the meal, we all stood up and sang “Happy Birthday”. Just about everyone who was in the restaurant joined in. I even heard the cooks joining in in the kitchen. After we finished singing, Nishijima said it was the happiest day of his life.

It was a real pleasure for me to spend time with Gudo Nishijima that day. It’s a day I’ll always remember.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stopping and Silence Bell

temple bell3

If you practice mediation with a group, more than likely someone there strikes a bell to signal the start and end of each mediation period. I don’t know if there’s any other way people do it, although one time we used an empty wine glass and a fork to signal the start and end because we didn’t have a bell. 

In the Soto Zen style, we hit a bell three times to start zazen and once to end it. If we’re doing a couple of periods of zazen in a row, we do a period of slow walking meditation called “kinhin” in between the two zazen periods. Kinhin is done to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and shake off any sleepiness between zazen periods. If we’re doing a session like that with zazen, kinhin, and then more zazen, we ring the bell like this:
three rings to start zazen
two rings to end zazen and start kinhin
one ring to end kinhin
three rings to start zazen again
one ring to end zazen
Believe it or not, the Soto temples in Japan have a term for each set of rings. The three rings to start zazen is called “shijosho” (止静鐘), the two rings to end zazen and begin kinhin is called “kinhinsho” (経行鐘), the ring to end kinhin is called “chukaisho” (抽解鐘), and the ring to end zazen is called “houzensho” (放禅鐘).  I don’t know if there’s an “official” English translation for those terms, but here’s the way I translate them:

In the first one, shijosho (止静鐘), the three rings at the start, the first character “shi” (止), means “stop” or “cease”, the second character “jo” (静) means “silence” or “calm”, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”. So it means something like the “stopping silence bell”, or the “stop silence bell”, or maybe even the “cease, silence bell”. When I first saw this one I thought it must be the name for the one ring to end zazen, but actually it’s the one to start. (Maybe it’s a koan?)

The translation for the second one, kinhinsho (経行鐘), the two rings to start kinhin, is easy. The first two characters “kin-hin” (経行) mean, you guessed it, kinhin, and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime”, same as in shijosho. So it means the “kinhin bell” or the “slow walking bell”.

In the third one, chukaisho (抽解鐘),  the single ring to end kinhin, the first character “chu” (抽) means “withdraw” or “pull out”, the second character “kai” (解) means “separate” or “solve”, and the third character is “sho” (鐘) which again means “bell” or “chime”. So you can translate “chukaisho” as the “(let’s all) withdraw and separate bell” or even the “withdraw and solve bell”. 

Houzensho (放禅鐘),  the single ring to end zazen, translates like this: the first character “hou” (放) means “release”, “liberate” or “set free”, the second character “zen” (禅) means “meditation” (bet you knew that), and the third character “sho” (鐘) means “bell” or “chime” like before. So you can translate “houzensho” as the “release from meditation bell” or maybe something a bit more poetic like the “liberating mediation bell” (which might make a good name for the bell to start zazen, but let’s not get into that).

I’m not sure how useful this information will ever be, but at least if someone asks you sometime when the stopping silence bell or the liberation meditation bell is, you’ll know what they’re talking about. Just remember which is first.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gudo Nishijima Roshi on Buddhism and Reality

Nishijima Roshi Nov 13 2010 2

I met my Buddhist teacher, Gudo Nishijima, at his apartment in Tokyo yesterday. He’s 90 years old, but is still active for his age. He gives a Buddhist talk in Japanese every month in Tokyo, and travels to Osaka a few times a year to give a talk there. He’s also working on a new book in Japanese and he gets a lot of email from people interested in Buddhism. He told me he’s happy to be busy like that.

Physically, of course, he’s not as mobile as he used to be. This year the Tokyo summer was the hottest for over 100 years. The temperature got up around 35 Celsius everyday for about 6 weeks. Nishijima told me he tried to get out for a walk or to do his shopping each day during the summer. Unfortunately, he fell over one day on his way home with the shopping. When that happened he realized he’d have to be more careful. He said he realized he “was being too brave.” Nowadays he takes more care when he’s out and about. When I met him recently he told me he’s “training to be an old man”. He still feels young inside, but his body won’t always let him do the things he’d like to. 

He was in good spirits yesterday, and always is as far as I can see. It’s a real pleasure to meet him. He’s always willing to discuss Buddhism, and I learn something every time we meet. It's great to meet someone who's cheerful and upbeat all the time. That's another thing I learn when I meet him. I get to see how someone is after studying Buddhism for more than 70 years!

I recorded some of our chat yesterday. It was a discussion about what Buddhism sees as the difference between matter and reality, or what Buddhism calls the "dharma". We also talked a bit about the reason to do zazen and about what Buddhists refer to as the "balanced state". Nishijima’s idea is that when we do zazen our body and mind become more balanced, and that balanced state is the natural state of humans. So when we do zazen we notice what it means to be human. Our talk went something like that anyway. Here's the mp3 file. It lasts about 12 minutes (11 mb). 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Early Morning Meditation

Peter's pony

An Indian friend of mine is interested in Zen Buddhism. He knows about meditation and other practices in India and tells me some ideas the Indians have about meditation. The other day we were talking about good times during the day to do zazen (zen meditation). He told me the Indians consider early morning to be the most auspicious time to do meditation. I don’t know if “most auspicious” means “best” in this case, but I think it probably does, or at least it means “very good”. Of course it’s nice to do meditation any time during the day, but the yogis in India seem to have noticed that there’s something particularly good about meditation in the early morning. My friend said they’ve even narrowed the most auspicious time down to between 4 am and 6 am.

That actually made sense to me. I’ve worked some jobs in the past where I used to have to get up around those times to go to work. Even though it was hard to get up that early (and it still is), I noticed there was something about going to work at that time that felt alright in some way. So recently I’ve been getting up earlier than usual to give early morning meditation a try and see if it feels any different. My impression so far is that it's a bit different alright. The zazen itself doesn’t feel too different when I'm doing it, although there’s a lot less noise about. I do notice, though, that I feel more active afterwards than I usually do, and the rest of the morning has a slightly different feel to it too. That’s so far anyway.

One thing I’m not sure about though is whether the “auspicious” time is between 4 am and 6 am for everyone all over the world, or whether it depends on where you live. My guess is that in most countries around daybreak might be an “auspicious” time  for meditation. But I might be wrong about that so I’m going to stick with the “between 4 am and 6 am” meditation for a while and see how it goes.

By the way, when I was back in Ireland during the summer we did a 3-day meditation retreat at a small center that’s right on the coast. We did some early morning meditation there. After the meditation we had time to walk down to the shoreline and look across the bay to the Clare hills. It was all calm and quiet. I grew up in that area, but never really noticed how nice it can be in the early morning there, in summer anyways.

So if you’re one of those people who doesn’t mind getting up a little early in the morning, then try a bit of early morning meditation some time. See if you notice a difference. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

This is Heaven

We held a 3-day zazen retreat recently at Tokei-in temple in Japan. We were a fairly big group, with people there from all parts of the world like North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There was even a woman there from the same place as me in Ireland. We'd never met before, but it turned out she’d attended the same school as one of my (very few) old girlfriends. I don't know which of us was more surprised about that.

I figured that the retreat might get a little disorganized because we were a fairly big group. But everyone pitched in and it felt like things went really smoothly. We were helped a lot by the cook (Tenzo) at Tokei-in. He's a Japanese monk who I guess is in his seventies. He's been at the temple for many years, and was the cook there when Nishijima Roshi used to hold his retreats there too. He did all the cooking and preparation by himself, and he made a lot of great meals. I was sleeping in the room next to him at the temple, and I heard him get up around 3.30 am on the first morning to start the preparation work and at around 4 am the next morning. There was a total of 28 of us for three meals a day, so it meant a lot of hard work for him. But he was always smiling and was the most helpful person you could hope to meet. I sometimes read things where people criticize some aspects of Buddhism in Japan. Maybe they’ve got a point about some things they criticize, but there are also a lot of good things about Buddhism in Japan that people maybe overlook. The cook at Tokei-in is certainly an example of some of the good things. Not just because of his hard work and great meals. His attitude was great too. We gave him a big round of applause and thanks before leaving.

We held the retreat over the first three days of what’s called “Golden Week” in Japan. Golden Week is a period with four or five public holidays in a row. It tends to be very busy on the roads and trains for the first day or two of the week. So I was worried it might be hard to get tickets, or at least a seat, for the train from Tokyo to Shizuoka, which is where we were holding the retreat. But it turned out okay. We all managed to catch the train and I think everyone got a seat on the way down. I was about the last to get on the train. I figured all the seats would be gone, which they were, but one of the guys had been keeping a seat for someone, and I managed to hook up with him. We had a couple of nice seats by the window. It was a very clear day, and we got a great view of Mount Fuji on the way (that's a photo I took from the train).

We were a little behind the scheduled time when we reached the temple, but we soon got into the zendo (zazen hall) and started zazen. Some people there were trying it for the first time. I gave some instructions on how to sit and how to do the walking meditation known as “kinhin”, and then we all had a go at it. Everyone seemed to settle into the zazen well. One person who was trying it for the first time was a bit worried whether she’d be able to do it or not, but she settled right into it and by the end of the retreat she was one of the first into the zendo when it was time for zazen.

I gave four talks during the retreat. It was more like three talks really, because the fourth talk was a kind of feedback session where people gave there impressions about the retreat or asked questions or talked about some particular point. In the first talk, I spoke about what we’d be doing during the retreat and talked a bit about doing zazen. In the second talk I spoke about the life of Gautama Buddha. In the third talk I discussed about Buddhist ideas about right and wrong and some other topics. There were a lot of questions during the talks, so we ended up touching on a good few different points.

One question that came up during one of the talks was about the Buddhist idea about heaven and hell. It was an interesting question, and wasn’t really something I’d thought about before. In some Buddhist texts and sutras you’ll sometimes read about people “falling into hell” or the Buddha coming down from “Tusita heaven” and things like that. My own opinion is that these stories aren’t meant to be taken too literally. When I was growing up, we were taught that heaven and hell were places that actually existed. If you were good in this life your soul would go to heaven after you die, and if you were bad your soul would go to hell. God was in heaven and the devil was in hell. There was also a place called “purgatory” where your soul would go if it didn’t go straight to heaven. After it had been in purgatory for a while to make up for any sins you had, it could go to heaven. That’s the way I learned it anyway.

Buddhism has a different view of heaven and hell. For me at least, the Buddhist idea about heaven and hell is that this life that we all live now can be either heaven or hell. If you’re happy in this life, it can be heaven. If you’re unhappy, it can be hell. Buddhism doesn’t say that after you die you’ll go to heaven or you’ll go to hell. So if you live a happy life, then it’s like heaven. And if you live an unhappy life, then it’s like hell. That’s a bit simplistic, but I think that’s about as close as Buddhism gets to heaven and hell. Of course, we all have circumstances that we’re born into or grow up in that can determine to some extent whether we can live a happy life or not. But whatever circumstances we are in, it’s possible for us to make our lives happier or better. And Buddhism says that the way to live a happy life is to do good things, and don’t do bad things. The reason for this is that Buddhism believes in what’s called “the rule of cause and effect”. Basically what that says is that if you do “good” or “right” things, then that’ll produce good effects, and those good effects make your life happier. And if you avoid doing “bad” or “wrong” things, then you’ll stop producing bad or wrong effects that make your life unhappy. So no matter who you are or where you are, if you do your best to do “good” things and not do “bad” things, your life will become happier. For me, that’s what heaven and hell mean in Buddhism.

On the way back to the train station after the retreat, Kim told me a story about someone who had a dream in which they asked God to show them heaven and hell. God agreed and first of all brought the person to a dining room that had two tables, one on either side of the room. (Kim told me it was just like the dining room we ate our meals in during the retreat.) There was all sorts of delicious food stacked up on the two tables, and there was a lot of hungry people sitting next to the tables trying to eat the food. They could only eat the food by using chopsticks. But the problem was that the chopsticks were about two meters long. And because the chopsticks were so long it was impossible for anyone to pick up the food with the chopsticks and then put the food into their mouth. So everyone was very unhappy and frustrated and dissatisfied because they had all this great food in front of them, but were unable to eat it. God said “this is hell”. Next, God brought the person to another dining room that looked exactly like the first room. Just like in the first room, there were two tables on either side that were covered with all sorts of delicious food. People were sitting next to the tables, and had the same kind of long chopsticks as in the first room. But the people in this room were all happy and smiling and cheerful. When the person looked closely, she saw that the people in this room weren’t trying to use the chopsticks to pick up the food and put it into their own mouth. Instead they were using the chopsticks to pick up the food and put the food into the mouth of someone else on the other side of the room. It was easy to use the long chopsticks for that, and everyone could eat plenty that way. God told the person “this is heaven”.

Kim’s story about heaven and hell in some ways summed up what this retreat was about for me. I’ve attended a fair few retreats in the past, but of all the retreats I’ve been to, this was the nicest in many ways. So thanks to everyone who came and helped make the retreat work.