By Dionne Ng Zhe Ting
Everybody needs a break.
A break from the banalities of life, the incessant onslaught of assignments and assessments, the tendency to lose ourselves in rapidly advancing technology. A break, well-deserved, away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s city life, into the picturesque and almost edenic mountain range in Saitama Prefecture.
As the buses ferrying 33 students of the University of Tokyo ascended the meandering path up the mountain towards Taiyoji Temple, the gradually fading reception on mobile phones brought us a relieving disconnection from the reality we face in Tokyo. PEAK (Programs in English at Komaba) students, AIKOM (Abroad in Komaba) students or other Japanese Todai students alike, 30th November 2013 was a day that marked the first zazen (meditation) experience for many on this trip to the famed Taiyoji Temple, organized by Todai’s International Center Komaba Office.
To find a calming emptiness within the depths of your soul, free from the binding commitments of relationships, emotions and duties – this is the heart of the Buddhist Zen practice, also often hailed as the path towards attaining eventual enlightenment. For approximately 20 minutes, students took their places on a zabuton (a low, flat mat) with their hips propped up on a zafu (cushion) and attempted to empty their minds of the worldly worries that plague all mortal beings on a daily basis. Under the guidance of the head monk of Taiyoji Temple, students were taught the correct posture of seating in meditation, as well as breathing tips and visualization exercises that proved useful to ease the mind into a state of tranquillity. Commencing with the shijosho (ringing of a bell for three times) and culminating with the hazensho (ringing of a bell either once or twice), the shortened zazen experience for the students of Todai was nonetheless authentic.
This valuable, unprecedented experience of zazen in one of the most acclaimed temples for Buddhist Zen meditation highlighted the importance of searching for a brief respite from the asphyxiating pace of modern life. Even as our first attempt at meditation was a far cry from the actual attainment of enlightenment, it was an inspiring and refreshing experience. The rare moments of complete relaxation in the holy compounds of a temple located on a mountain shrouded in trees with flaking golden autumn leaves – these are moments to be cherished and replicated as and when possible, to restore a sense of equilibrium in our psychological and emotional facilities. When we find a vast emptiness of calm and peace within, and when we reflect on our identity and senses, we endow ourselves with a heightened awareness of our raison d’être.
Take a break, and take the time to look within yourself while away from the external stimuli that tend to mask our wholehearted embrace of what makes us who we are. Look within, and be prepared to be amazed by what you might discover.