The Buddhist “all-in” follow combines meditation and martial arts
(RNA) – In all Zen traditions, meditation is the backbone of the practice. The students sit with a large spine, their hands loosely clasped and their eyes half closed. At Chosei Zen in Madison, Wisconsin, however, new students are never entirely prepared for the rigor of Rinzai Zen, which requires participants to remain motionless for up to 45 minutes – twice a day.
“It was so challenging, exhausting and painful,” said Kristi Crymes, 39, a family doctor in Springfield, Missouri, who attended an intensive retreat at the dojo in October 2017.
“And yet it was the physical part that let me see – that is what my mindfulness practice has been missing all along,” said Crymes.
Rinzai’s embodied, physically intense form of spiritual training contradicts what many people expect from Zen practice. “It’s not mystical. It’s handicraft, ”said Chosei Zen abbot Gordon Hakuun Greene Roshi. “We’re trying to suck this stuff into our bones. If I want to be effective in the world, if I want to bring compassion with me, if I want to take care of people, I have to build that into my bones so that it is available at all times and under all circumstances. “
Abbot emeritus Kenneth Hakuun Kushner Roshi describes Rinzai’s holistic approach as “the highest form of spiritual training in Zen”. In Japanese, the word for its rigor is “Shugyo”, which is sometimes translated by teachers as “deep spiritual forging” – as in the manufacture of metal.
“When people start to sit, they have a really hard time,” said Ginny Jiko Whitelaw Roshi. (“Roshi” appended to a person’s name identifies them as a lead teacher.)
But the power of silence affects practitioners’ habits on and off the pillow. “It creates a link between momentum and action,” said Whitelaw. “The idea can get through, but it is not implemented. The student gains the freedom to act on purpose, “and not just a knee-jerk reaction to any impulse that arises”.
Posture and breathing are also involved – the Japanese call it “hara”, which freely translated means abdominal breathing. “Without hara there is no zen”, it says in this tradition, because the technique is a necessary tool for cultivating “samadhi”, a state of relaxed concentration that helps to generate “ki” or life force.
What gives this line its distinctive stamp from others in the Rinzai tradition is the integration of the martial arts and the fine arts – self-defense skills, archery and Japanese bamboo flute. Martial arts build the ki, while training in the visual arts refines it and establishes meditation.
Kushner, Greene and Whitelaw, all Zen masters, were students of the Japanese Tenshin Tanouye Rotaishi, an accomplished martial artist and calligrapher who co-founded the lineage – a lineage of Buddhist teachers who pass on a particular practice – with his teacher Omori Sogen Rotaishi.
In 1972 Tanouye and Omori founded Chozen-ji in Honolulu. It was the first temple of Rinzai Zen outside of Japan, and Kushner stated that his form of Zen training was aimed at bringing Zen to the West. Kushner and Greene and another Hawaii-based teacher, Wayne Kyoen Honda Roshi, succeed Tanouye Roshi.
Kushner founded the Madison Dojo in 1982. Greene followed suit in 2005, overseeing the construction of a Zen training center on 108 acres of land in neighboring Spring Green. Two years ago the group bought an abandoned church in downtown Madison and are now in the process of converting it into a third dojo. A virtual dojo was added during the pandemic.
Whitelaw was working at NASA in the 1980s, pursuing her dream of becoming an astronaut, practicing aikido, a Japanese form of self-defense, and doing zazen as part of her plan. While failing to fly into space, she rose to join the ranks of NASA and became assistant manager of the international space station.
But after the end of their marriage and the death of a close friend, Whitelaw decided to devote himself entirely to Zen training. “It went from doing something to make my life better to a deep investigation into what my life was about and how I could be of use with this instrument.”
She became a Zen priestess in 1996 and is now the founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership, a sister organization of Chosei Zen.
The physical demands of the line often attract athletic spirits, such as Madison Dojo director Scott Kou-un Kiel Roshi.
“I meditated independently and then practiced martial arts in another dojo,” and found Chosei Zen looking for a place that combined the two, he said. “Much Aikido is more Aikido-Jiujitsu. They teach you the techniques, but they don’t teach you what that has to do with being a real person. ”
What concerns many students, however, are the other challenges of this tradition, such as the steep learning curve of the Japanese bamboo flute or shakuhachi. It can take months to sustain a single note. “Only recently have I been able to play the high registers more easily,” says student Dave Stahlberg. “The idea is to stay on the ball, even after failure, failure, failure, failure, breakthrough, failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, breakthrough. I’m really enjoying this. I do not know why.”
Kate Watters first heard Shakuhachi during a three-day online intensive. “It was like this guide that guided me through this difficult matter with such beauty,” she said. “And here I am. It’s very frustrating, but I remember that sound and think maybe, just maybe, one day. “
While technology is important and frustration is a given, Rinzai-Zen is designed to spark a deeper question of the self. “Who are you?” asked Honda, who is still the main shakuhachi teacher at the sister dojo in Hawaii. “One of the ways in Zen is to cultivate doubt. The bigger the doubt, the better. And with ‘Who am I?’ to do.”
After leaving the Chosei Zen Retreat three years ago, Kristi Crymes said, “People reacted differently to me and I reacted differently to my surroundings.” Usually shy, she said the training made her more sociable and present in her work .
More importantly, it changed the way she worked as a doctor – rearranged the relationship between thinking and acting. “The only way to practice medicine responsibly and meaningfully is through this lens,” she said. “It keeps me the way I want to be.”
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