Recently, I was invited by reader and fellow blogger “Johnl” to attend a class on the Shingon meditation technique called ajikan (阿字観). This is a meditation technique in Shingon Buddhism that seems pretty similar to other, more familiar, forms of Buddhist meditation but has a visual aspect too.
I’ve never taken a Buddhist meditation class in my life1 so I was very excited to attend but there was one small catch: the class is entirely in Japanese.
The class was held at Tokyo Koyasan Betsuin which is a medium-sized and very lovely temple near Shinagawa station in Japan. We got there at 9:30 and I sat with the new people for orientation. The priest was a very nice person, made lots of jokes and was very gentle in his teaching style. His Japanese was difficult to follow though (lots of difficult words), but I was able to get the gist of what he said.
Anyhow after orientation we were led to the temple’s inner-sanctum (naijin 内陣) and given a basic cushion to sit on. Also we were each given a pinch of powdered incense to put on ourselves. We sat around the perimeter of the shrine. The teacher the explained to us the basics of sitting, hand gestures, and how to bow before the cushion.
Once all this was done we sat in a typical meditation position on our cushions. The cushions were fold in half to elevate and better support our back.
To be honest, I was extremely nervous the whole time. Before coming to the class, I thought, “I’m familiar with Japanese and Buddhism so I should be OK.” But when I realized that I was the only foreigner among 100 students and the instruction was fast-paced, I suddenly became very self-conscious and worried about doing something stupid in front of the others. I got a lot of curious looks too, so it wasn’t helping.
The meditation itself was better. My posture was wrong somehow so my left leg hurt the became completely numb. I was pretty distracted and had trouble following the teacher’s instruction so I didn’t really concentrate very well. However it was really quiet and peaceful, plus there was thunder outside which made a very interesting effect.
I think we meditated for about 30 minutes. It was longer than I was used to, so my body hurt but I was kind of sad when it was done. It was a very nice experience even as a beginner like myself.
Following this, we stretched our legs, bowed to the cushion again, put things away and went to a different room where we had tea and crackers. The priest gave a tall on various subjects: the state of Buddhism in Japan, Buddhism reaching new Western cultures, and how people are related to each other. The lecture was pretty advanced so it was difficult to follow but it was a nice experience too.
So by noon we were done and on our way.
I realized from the experience that I was in over my head. Both my Japanese skills and meditation skills were poor, so I consider myself lucky that I didn’t make a big mistake. Buddhist resources are much better in Japanese, or any Asian language, so if you’re serious about Asian Buddhism, you will definitely benefit from language study too in my opinion.
On the other hand, I’m very glad I took the risk. Shingon Buddhist meditation is something I’ve heard about and wanted to learn first-hand (and not through dubious websites), and I have accomplished that. Such experiences are rare in places like Seattle, so I felt it was now or never. Plus it was still a very positive experience despite my nervousness and such, and I can take that experience home with me.
In the end, I felt the nervousness and number were worth it.