By Nandini Murali
A first-person account of a three-day retreat at bodhi zendo, a centre for training and practice in zen meditation, near kodiakanal
On the same spot I sit today Others came, in ages past, to sit. One thousand years, still others will come.
Who is the singer, and who the listener?
– Nguyen Cong Tru
A quest begins with an inner longing. I first heard of Bodhi Zendo, a centre for Zen practice and training, near Kodaikanal, six years back. Living just 80 km away, why didn’t I go there earlier? I believe I visited when I was ready to receive. I went because I was called. I heard because I was seeking. My intuition guided and responded to my inner quest; the spirit’s longing for the Self.
On a pleasant January day, I ascended the upper Palani Hills, on the way to Kodaikanal. The car snaked past winding roads that cleaved through tropical evergreen shola forest. It bisected plantain groves and dense foliage that offered tantalizing glimpses of a white building. The twists and turns finally straightened and offered a panoramic view of Bodhi Zendo, nestled in solitary splendor. Gurgling streams, melodic songs of unseen birds, discreet flapping of wings, and the balletic fall of leaves on their terrestrial descent. These were sounds in silence. I stopped; I listened. The silence was sacramental.
Beginning with my first encounter, delightful paradox is a way of life at Bodhi Zendo. The silence I encountered was not stony silence; but joyful. I saw it in the courtesy and efficiency of the staff who directed me to my room. Daily routine at Bodhi Zendo is organized in clockwork precision. Its round-the-year Zen training is carefully planned. Yet it is not static and regimental but as free flowing as the mountain streams. Camaraderie binds the 30 participants at the Zen retreat. Equally evident, however, is their discipline and commitment as they dissociate to be in communion with themselves; with the sacred spaces within. The one-storey building with its 30-odd rooms opens into a central courtyard laid out in Japanese stone garden style with rocks, water and sand. Spartan simplicity and functionality blends with minimalistic elegance and style. Beneath the surface placidity and stillness, Bodhi Zendo is a beehive.
Bodhi Zendo (Bodhi – enlightenment, Zendo – Japanese term for meditation hall), is an expression of the spiritual quest of its founder, Fr. AMA (Arul Maria Arokiasamy) Samy, (70) Jesuit and Zen Master. “The place originally housed cows to supply milk to a nearby Jesuit institution. Since the latter closed down, the friendly Jesuit provincial permitted me to set up a Zen meditation centre,” recalls Fr. AMA who established Bodhi Zendo in 1996. Bodhi Zendo is located in St. Joseph’s Farm of the Madurai Jesuit province, in Permumalmalai, 12 km before Kodaikanal. The early years were uphill. It was difficult for the Christian religious hierarchy to understand why a Jesuit priest should espouse Zen instead of serving the poor. “They were not enthusiastic about me and my apostolate of Zen,” says Fr. AMA Samy.
AMA Samy’s Indian Christian parents migrated to Burma as laborers. The Burma-born AMA Samy, who was influenced by Burmese Buddhism in his early years, came to India after World War II. Constrained by poverty, his parents placed him under the care of his maternal grandfather, who, Fr. Samy says, was “a sort of sanyasi” and devotee of a Muslim saint. Despite his grandfather’s accidental death, the boy managed to finish school and joined the Jesuit order.
“During my Jesuit training and studies, my spiritual life became empty and lost. Christian theology and spirituality didn’t satisfy me. I had come seeking liberation and God-experience but I did not find them,” explains AMA Samy. His quest led him to the Upanishads and they expanded his heart and mind. While Hindu ashrams inspired him, they did not give him what he was seeking. Influenced by Swami Abshishitananda, who introduced him to the teachings of the Indian Advaitin, Ramana Maharishi, AMA Samy devoted himself to finding the answer to the sage’s ultimate poser: “Who am I?” The Catholic priest led a peripatetic existence as a beggar-sanyasin, who later lived at the shrine of St. Antony the Hermit, near Dindugul. “Many people, including my colleagues, thought I had lost my mind and my way too,” smiles Fr. AMA. But his quest still remained without a sense of direction.
A fortuitous meeting with Jesuit Fr. Enomiya LaSalle led Fr. AMA to Zen meditation. In 1972, Fr. Samy went to Japan to train in Zen under the well-known Zen Master Yamada Ko-Un Roshi. The mysticism, body-mind unity, compassion, unconditional acceptance of the self and others that Zen embodied, appealed to him. “What I had glimpsed in the Upanishads and Ramana’s teachings I could now realize for myself,” says Fr. AMA. In 1982, Fr. Samy received the Dharma seal of enlightenment from his master, making him the only Indian so far to have received this honour. Since then Fr. Samy has been teaching Zen to students and disciples across the globe. Fr. AMA recalls his Zen master’s words at the conclusion of his training, “Japan is known for importing things, making them better, and then exporting them. So now I’m exporting Zen back to India!”
Fr. AMA Samy’s spiritual journey has infused an eclectic approach to the Christian tradition to which he belongs. “I’m often asked to what religion I owe my allegiance,” he says. “I stand in the in-between of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Advaita, and Christianity. It is a creative fidelity both to Zen and Christianity without mixing them up or confusing one with the other,” explains Fr. AMA. To substantiate, he cites the Bodhi Zendo logo: two overlapping circles that enclose the Buddha under the cross/Bodhi tree; the whole in a mandorola. The mandorola symbolizes the complementarity of opposites: temporal and eternal, finite and infinite, divine and the human, earth and heaven. Fr. AMA, however, cautions about the shortcomings in interpreting either Zen or Christianity in terms of the other. “I teach Zen as Zen,” explains he.
According to Fr. Samy, Zen highlights the sacred and the profound through simple everyday examples. “The mind is openness,” says Fr. Samy as we walk in the outdoors. Just then we heard a bird warble. We paused. “When you hear a bird sing, let the sound enter you. Be the sound. Your self is infinitely open. You are openness. Be that,” explains Fr. AMA Samy, with the wonder of a child and the enlightenment of a mystic. Fr. AMA’s exposition of Zen is action-oriented. “Zen is not static. It is a process of go-ing, do-ing, becoming,” he says with Taoist overtones.
What exactly is Zen? Is it mysticism? Religion? Philosophy? Psychology? The path to global and inner peace? Zen is all these to some extent, and none of them, essentially. The term ‘Zen’ is a Japanese modification of the Sanskrit word dhyana or meditation that modified to Ch’an in China and Zen in Japan. Historically, Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation is an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism. Originating in India, it was subsequently taken to China by Bodhidharma in the fifth or sixth century from where it spread to Japan and other parts of the Far East.
The essence of Zen is satori or awakening or enlightenment. As the famous Zen koan (metaphorical couplet) encapsulates, “What was your original face before your parents were born?” – it is awakening to the ultimate reality. And paradoxically, the only way to know satori is to experience satori. This peculiarity is characteristic of the Zen tradition –very little is ‘taught’ to students. Rather, students are expected to discover for themselves through personal engagement with the process.
At Bodhi Zendo, as in most Zen centres, beginners are given a brief orientation so as not to disturb the other practitioners. Ursula, a German disciple of Fr. AMA, imparted the physical requirements of meditation: posture, position of hands, and breathing in and out. Besides, she also oriented me to the significance of the various bells sounded at prescribed intervals, and the general rules and regulations at Bodhi Zendo. But other than these minimal inputs, I had to gradually discover the mental aspect of the meditative process experientially. Fr. AMA has often been criticized “for giving too few instructions.” “There is a great temptation to translate Zen into a technique, an automated mechanical discipline of the body and mind. Too much emphasis tends to be laid on effort and concentration, on a desperate striving for a breakthrough. This is lifeless Zen,” says Fr. AMA.
Life at Bodhi Zendo begins at 5.30 am to the clarion call of a brass gong that resonates in the serene stillness. Half an hour later, we tiptoed towards the zendo or meditation hall for the first session of zazen or formal sitting meditation. A beatific Buddha with a half-smile is mounted on a wall at the entrance. Illumined by the glow of a candle, with dimmed ceiling theatre lights, an incandescent aura enveloped the place. Through the transparent window panes, we saw the sylvan setting scalloped by mountain ranges. Would we be able to look inwards and see our true Self with such window pane clarity, I wondered…
The harmonics of a Japanese bowl bell faded into the stillness, and gently ushered us into zazen. Within a few seconds, the zendo pulsated with the equipoise of collective sacred silence. Initially, I was amused and amazed at my monkey mind swinging through the labyrinths of my consciousness and plumbing the depths of my unconscious with the practiced ease of an Olympian gymnast! I heard my thoughts; a thousand fantasies grappled for my attention; emotions locked themselves in the recesses of my body. But I gently guided my mind back without reproach or self-blame by re-focusing on my breathing. Later, with improved breath awareness, I felt centred and grounded. I’m told that during sessions – periods of intensive eight hours of daily zazen and complete silence – a wooden paddle or kyosaku is applied at the acupressure points on the shoulders on request. The practice dates back to the hard knocks administered by Zen masters to galvanize their disciples into awakening!
According to Fr. AMA Samy, “Breath awareness is a form of non-doing; action in non-action.” Mindfulness – the quality of being awake and aware of body, mind, emotions, and thoughts – is central to Zen meditation. Zazen then is a practice of “letting be”; of befriending our emotions and body; accepting oneself unconditionally and letting the other be the other. The see-saw between awareness, free floating thoughts, fantasies, and emotions, is a challenge both for beginners and even experienced practitioners. In Japanese Zen monasteries, Zen masters exhort their disciples to “sit like Mt. Fuji,” obviously an analogy to the majestic dignity of the mountain despite being buffeted by swirling snow and turbulent winds.
About 25 minutes later, the sound of a bell signified the kinhin or walking meditation before the next zazen. Contrary to what some people think, kinhin is not an excuse for a break or an antidote to motionless sitting. At the sound of wooden clappers, we make a formal bow and begin to walk inside the zendo in measured steps, one step after the other. With hands in front of the chest and forearms parallel to the floor, I was aware of my breath and the contraction of the muscles of the legs as I placed them on the clinical coldness of the wooden flooring. Advanced students of Zen ruminate on the significance of the koans during kinhin.
Life at Bodhi Zendo blends introspection, reflection, and action. It integrates other activities such as samu/seva (community activity), Zen Buddhist studies, and Dokusan or formal one-to-one meetings with the master.
As part of samu/seva, I was posted in the Japanese stone garden. I gathered dried leaves and carried them to the organic compost pit adjoining the garden. While mindfully engaged in the task, I realized that everything is part of the cyclical nature of life. The decayed leaves and flowers are transformed into organic manure that in turn enables florescence. Birth, growth, change, fruition, death, decay, and rebirth lead to renewal and continuity in an ongoing process. Surely, good/bad, beautiful/ugly – are illusory divisions of separate selves created by language and concepts?
According to Fr. AMA Samy, Zen is as physical as it is intellectual. “Work enables us to refashion our lives,” he says. The origin of samu in Zen is an advent of the migration of Zen to the Far East. Work was not a part of monastic life in India. Monks, including Buddhist monks, lived as mendicants. But in China, work became part of monastic life as religious persecution and a perception that Buddhist monks were “parasitic” led to them working for a living. It resulted in exquisite works of art, poetry, music, gardening, and even cooking! Bodhi Zendo also runs a social welfare project, “Little Flower”, for empowerment of Dalits, tribal children, and women. According to Fr. AMA, meditation and work for the liberation of the oppressed are interrelated and underscores the Buddhist ideal of interdependence of all beings, inter-being, pratityasamutpada. As a Zen master once said, “Enlightenment without compassion is useless, and compassion without enlightenment is blind.”
One night, strolling on the terrace, I glanced upwards at the clear windless sky. The towering silver oaks, twinkling stars and the shimmering moon gazed benevolently at me. I felt united with the cosmos. At peace with myself. It was a moment of ‘AT-ONE-ING’ as I experienced the joy of opening myself to the Universe. A feeling of mudita (joy), karuna (compassion) and prajna (wisdom) welled in me. Truly, this is Zen. The art of joyful living. A human awakening.
I glimpsed the aerial reflection of the moon in the lucid pool below. In this lifetime, I aspire to look into the pool of my self-consciousness, cleansed of the debris of my fears, conditioning, and expectations, to glimpse my True Self, my Original Face – glistening like the glowing moon in the indigo sky.
During my three-day stay at Bodhi Zendo I awoke to the miracle of mindfulness – to dwell deeply in the present moment; aware of what is going on within and around me. I could see it even in the mundane aspects of life – eating, sleeping, and bathing. Done mindfully, they are a source of joy. I awoke to the miracle of being alive.
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