Seiju of Rinzai-ji Zen

When people consider meditation they often respond with "I need to do that but I can't sit still for 5 minutes!" or "What happens when you meditate?" Seiju is a Zen monk and the Shika, or manager, of the Rinzai-ji Zen Center in West Adams. He has been studying and practicing in this community for 39 years. He graciously agreed to sit down with TNN and patiently explain the ideas behind the deceptively simple art of sitting and breathing.

TNN: How long have you been meditating?

SEIJU: First I’ll say, we don’t meditate. The term meditation is used in a number of traditions, Eastern and Western. There is Christian meditation, Jewish meditation, Hindu meditation, Buddhist meditation. Other groups not associated with the traditional religious or spiritual lineage, that do meditation. Rinzai-Ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist practice center. The practice that we do here is Zen practice; the thing that most people would call meditation we just simply call Zazen, sitting practice. The common idea of meditation implies that a subject, oneself, is going to contemplate, meditate, think, investigate a concept or an idea - God, love and compassion. This is a fine practice but it’s not the practice that you do when you do Zen. I’m not disparaging these other traditions but just that Zen practice is very specific in what we do. In Zazen the instructions are simply to sit and breathe. The caveat is that the instruction is to sit and breathe completely and it’s where you engage the term “completely” that you make a distinction between just sitting around and perhaps day dreaming or idly ruminating over something and actually being engaged in your life.

TNN: Can we explore what that means, what that experience is?

SEIJU: The “completely” is where it starts to get difficult. To do something completely, maybe it’s tying your shoelaces, it could be washing dishes, or any number of activities, one has to act with one’s whole being - body and mind unified and completely manifesting the activity at hand. Zen has often emphasized that every aspect of daily life can be practice, but the critical thing for that to be a ‘practice’ as opposed to just a chore, is for me to be completely engaged in what I’m actually doing. If I’m washing dishes, it‘s one thing to wash dishes and then be thinking what I’m planning to do later or about something that happened to me the day before. That kind of absent- mindedness may actually get the dishes cleaned but it doesn’t bring me into complete intimacy and engagement with my own life and what I’m doing. To do something completely is to be … utterly intimate to your own life just as it arises. Intimate that is prior to any words, labels, definitions, concepts, or emotional moods. It is in a sense to completely embrace what you’re doing without qualification.

TNN: Without opinion.

SEIJU: The moment I have an opinion … “this dish should have been done better before”, the moment I start doing that, I actually separate from what I’m engaged in. I can have an initial observation – “this is a hard spot to get out of the dish” - and then immediately enter into the consequence of what the thought is. “I got to scrub that” and once engaged again, then it can qualify as practice. But to say, “this should have been done better, who washed this dish last time?” to just start going off on that mental tangent, is to lose touch with my own life.

TNN: So a lot of people are living their lives but not engaging in their life.

SEIJU: There’s a popular Buddhist term called enlightenment which is prone to a lot of different misunderstandings. The term ‘Buddha’ which is the inspiration for the term Buddhism, means to be awake. After the Buddha had his awakening, a lot of people asked, “who you are? What are you?” because the quality of his manifest being was so utterly different. And he said, "I'm awake". What the Buddha discovered and what generations of practitioners since the Buddha have verified with their own lives, is that you can live one’s life in an awakened manifestation as opposed to sleep-walking though one’s life.

TNN: You mean people who are acting out of conditioning as opposed to their true self. They have been taught to think and act in certain ways.

SEIJU: That is a particular form of bondage. I mean … the thing is whether it’s true acting out of conditioning or maybe I’m distracted; I have something very important to do later today so I don't stay focused on what's at hand; we actually miss the one moment of our life that we can realize which is always this present moment and which never lingers. So if I'm going to be awake to what is happening in my life and what is to be experienced, I have to be aware in the moment, clearly, as something arises. That quality of being awake in one’s life is encompassed when we talk about “completely” in terms of engagement. You can't be awake and be somewhat partial or one-sided in how you engage your life. Partial is I'm thinking I have to do this later on today… I'm not completely here. And one-sided is basically to come into the moment, driven by agenda which is different than an intention.

TNN: What’s the value of being in that awareness?

SEIJU: It's like you step outside and a beautiful sunset is going on. You just turn towards it and open up completely and you're filled by the experience and it’s moving, inspiring, satisfying; it brings a sense of peace. Everything else. You don't ask, "Why is this so good?" For somebody who completely comes into the moment of their lives, all the “whys” disappear. The quality of peace, which is a quality of being awake, is that there are no questions. It’s not that you “know answers” - you have to be suspicious of answers because they are always static and the one demonstrable fact is the world is dynamic so to try and fit static answers into a dynamic world and life, is bound to fail at some point and at best, is a poor fit - but when one is completely awake, engaged in their life, there are no whys.

TNN: I know an artist who has argued, “well, I get that when I'm engaged with my art-making.” Fully awake, fully-engaged, out of time and space, letting things come up in the moment as he’s making his art. What would the difference be between the practice of making art and the practice of sitting, if any?

SEIJU: Well, it may well be that artists, in those circumstances, transcend themselves, but that kind of awakening is conditional. I need to be in my studio, I need to be working, everything else. It’s like….if I get up in the morning, if I’ve had a good night's sleep, if I’ve had a good cup of coffee, if my sports team won and everything else, then I’m really a great guy. It’s conditional. Zazen, is unconditional embrace, so that while the artist may have it when they're in their studio, the artist still has to come out of the studio and engage with their partner and engage with the public, go buy groceries, do laundry, things like that and the artist can't realize that same quality of clarity and openness in these other mundane activities, but if you practice simple sitting and breathing, you have to breathe all the way through your life. If you can be clear in the midst of simply breathing, which is something that we always do as long as we are alive, then the other circumstances are not constraints on the openness, awareness, clarity that one can realize. One can do it while they're in their studio and doing their art and then they also do it when they are changing diapers on the baby or when they're buying groceries at the store or they're engaged in doing their income tax.

The teaching of Buddhism is that our true original nature, as it is, is clear, pure, free, open. It’s our true nature and is in no way corrupted or tainted by any one of the variety of things that happen. It's obscured by my wants, my likes and dislikes, my ideas about who I am and how the world works. We all have a worldview and for most of us that worldview is poorly examined. We don't reflect on ourselves. When somebody asks “who are you”, what do you answer? Do you give your name? Do you give who your favorite sports team is? Do you give what your hobbies are? Or do you give what part of the city you live in? All of those things are circumstantial things. How do you actually reveal who, what you are, in this particular moment? That kind of examination that gets beneath the labels, the concepts, the categories, the boxes that we tend to put ourselves in; that kind of examination is at the heart of what sitting practice engages in, because you not only become intimate to your life; you are also naked to it.

To view the full 45 minute video interview on Vimeo,CLICK HERE.

Everybody is welcome to come to Rinzai Ji and practice. You are asked to call and meet one of the monks for instruction on the etiquette for the Zendo or practice room. There is also schedule (see below); you can come and go at whatever times work for you.

(323) 732 2263 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

2505 Cimarron Street

Los Angeles CA 90018

The Schedule:

MORNING Tuesday - Sunday

6:00am – 7:00am Zazen/Kinhin (sitting, walking practice)

EVENING Tuesday - Sunday

7:00pm - 8:30pm - Sitting, walking, chanting.

SUNDAY

9 – 9:45am Samu

10am Zazen & Kinhin

11:30 Dharma Talk

12pm Lunch/Group Clean-up

Sunday Program is held every Sunday starting at 9am and ends at 12pm. Lunch is served at the end of the program. Newcomers are welcome! Please contact and arrange a practice orientation. Suggested donation $10.

 

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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