How Zen Meditation Can Bring Supreme Happiness

By Norifumi Tsukada : Reporter of Toyokeizai
May 24,2016
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(Photo by Rawpixel/PIXTA)

Many Japanese believe that Zen Buddhism is an austere religion that involves ascetic practices and that it was once used to cultivate the foundations of the samurai spirit. However, according to Deputy Head Priest Zenryu Kawakami of Shunkoin Temple (a sub-temple of Myoshinji Temple) in Kyoto, the primary goal of Zen Buddhism is to help practitioners to achieve their full potential, the means of achieving this end being of secondary importance.

Zenryu Kawakami offers Zen meditation sessions in English and has garnered the support of powerful and famous people from around the world. We sat down with Kawakami to hear his views on Zen Buddhism.

Is it acceptable to sit in a chair while performing Zen meditation?

Sure. There's no reason to sit with your legs crossed if that's uncomfortable. Adhering to the traditional seiza pose, or sitting cross-legged, can raise your stress level, so using a chair is perfectly acceptable. Sitting in the lotus position on a flat surface with the back muscles straightened while remaining comfortable is the goal; however, when I talk about this at Zen meditation sessions, people are often very eager to try out the lotus position right away. Even though their legs usually begin to hurt within 20 minutes, it's hard for them to shake off their preconceptions about Zen meditation.

Zen is an effective way to examine ourselves

From what I can tell, it seems that tourists are allowed to join the English-language Zen meditation sessions.

A lot of visitors from other parts of Asia, particularly China and Singapore, hear about us through social media sites and come to join our sessions. Many participants from Western countries learn about us through more traditional media, such as TV and magazines, or join after hearing about us from friends. It’s been 10 years since we started these meditation sessions.

Many people come in the hope of experiencing the discomfort or pain that they perceive to be a regular part of Zen meditation, despite the fact that these unpleasant feelings and sensations are unnecessary. Actions based on such false preconceptions and set thinking patterns pervade our daily lives.

Actually, Zen meditation is an effective way to examine ourselves and to enhance our potential, and my goal in starting the meditation sessions was to provide a venue for people to learn this—both Japanese people and visitors from abroad.

What advantages does Zen meditation offer?

It enables us to reach a state in which all things can be viewed objectively. If we hope to attain a higher level of awareness, it is absolutely necessary continually think of things in an objective manner. The world's best athletes, for example, often evaluate themselves from a third-person perspective. Similarly, Zen meditation is a type of training used to achieve a mental state that excludes the subjective viewpoint.

People have a strong, self-serving tendency to search only for evidence that validates their ideas, without paying attention to the counterevidence. Furthermore, people often thing in dualistic terms—good or evil, enemy or friend, and so on. Zen meditation is good for calming the heart and mind so that we can avoid such tendencies.

Does Zen Buddhism have any set precepts or commandments?

Zen meditation is not the pursuit of an end or goal; rather, it is the first step toward achieving a calm, unshakeable mental state. Meditation is meaningless if it is not performed on a regular basis, and Zen Buddhism does not impose precepts or commandments because its basic principles oppose set forms or approaches.

According to Zen, if you have fixed ideas or conceptions about the practice itself, you have already strayed from the correct path. Zen calls on us to constantly review our beliefs, actions, and so forth from an objective standpoint and to then make improvements where necessary while leaving our existing strengths intact. It is not uncommon for people to continue bearing unnecessary discomfort or pain based on habits or routines that they have convinced themselves are correct.

The role of Dalai Lama

It seems that a reexamination of Zen meditation, with a focus on mindfulness, has brought greater popularity to the practice.

"Mindfulness" is meditation backed by scientific evidence, and it employs the same principles as the more traditional Zen meditation. The truth is, scientific substantiation is important in the minds of people in today's society.

Thanks to breakthroughs in neuroscience in the mid-1990s, it has become possible to visually observe dynamic blood-flow reactions to meditation in the brain and spinal cord of the human body, which has enabled us to see which parts of the brain are stimulated as a result of objectively focused meditation. The 14th and current Dalai Lama, a proponent of Tibetan Buddhism, has played a major role in making this scientific evidence widely known. What really impresses me about the Dalai Lama is that he is never scared to question his own beliefs.

Many people choose religion as part of their search for happiness.

No matter the discipline, all people who pursue some form of learning or study are searching for the same thing; religion, economics, and other fields are all rooted in the pursuit of individual, personal happiness. However, happiness for oneself alone is not enough, because individual happiness cannot be attained unless the overall level of happiness among people everywhere is first raised.

Do you believe that, as a religion, Zen Buddhism can be useful in this way?

Religion should be a practical thing, and unless it is useful in one's daily life, there is no point in following it. As a Buddhist priest, I feel that I'm simply going back to the basics. The Google human resources program—Search Inside Yourself, or SIY—has become a big hit. The program's approach incorporates the concept of mindfulness and offers examples of how it can be used to foster better interpersonal relationships, more effective corporate management, and other such purposes.

Is it true that your temple, Shunkoin, supports same-sex marriage?

Yes, we provide Buddhist-style wedding ceremonies in partnership with hotels. In total, I have spent nearly 10 years of my life in the United States, and through my experiences there, I learned that members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community are no different to the rest of us. According to a Japanese advertising firm Dentsu, 7.9% percent of Japanese people are LGBT—that's no small part of the population by any means. I involve myself in LGBT-related efforts because, like them, I am a human being in pursuit of happiness.