How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: When and how did you first begin to meditate?
Genjo: I was a junior at UCLA in 1975. I learned how to sit zazen from Brian Daizen Victoria and Thích Thiên-Ân. Daizen was a graduate student in Oriental Studies, walking around campus in Zen robes. I was taking a class in Buddhism and sought him out.
HTM: Can you share the details of how you learned to do zazen meditation from these two individuals? I would like to hear about what experiences allowed you to recognize its value for you.
Genjo: From my freshman English professor at Pierce Community College I learned that there was another way besides science to explore the universe, and that was through direct insight into the nature of reality, and that this "true" insight is what inspired and informed all artists, sages, and scientists. I wanted some of that, so sought out these two individuals when I got to UCLA. They taught me to just sit, just breath, and just listen. I was taken with it, from the first sit.
HTM: You say you were taken with it, so I am curious as to what happened in the first sit that was so compelling? Do you recall? Where did you sit?
Genjo: Even with my eyes mostly closed it felt like I had eyes in the back of my head, and that I was gently but profoundly aware of everything around me and within this physical form called a body. In other words, there was an almost immediate sense of being seamlessly connected to my surroundings and the universe at large. I sat in the meditation hall of the College of Oriental Studies in LA, only a few blocks from ZCLA (Zen Center Los Angeles).
HTM: Have you been meditating regularly since then? I would also like to hear about those times at which meditation changed or deepened for you, if this is the case.
Genjo: I have been meditating daily since then and in addition to that I do six week-long Zen retreats a year. I did my first week-long retreat in the summer of 1977. There have been many times that meditation has changed and deepened my awareness, the process continues; by my way of thinking, there is no completion.
HTM: Is doing zazen your preferred meditation type?
Genjo: Well I also sit with Quakers on Sundays, but there I also do zazen, which to me means exactly what it says — seated meditation/contemplation.
HTM: Can you describe what meditation is for you today? What exactly do you do, including posture, approach, time sat?
Genjo: I do zazen for an hour or two each day, every morning for an hour (5:30AM) and another hour most evenings (6:30PM). Moreover, I do on average three days of sitting (5AM to 9PM) each month, and six additional weeks a year of Zen retreat called sesshin. Doing Zazen, I sit just to sit, no goal, nothing to attain, just a chance to sit, breath and be. If at times mind settles beyond or beneath this transitory phenomenal world—that is icing on the cake.
I sit in full lotus whenever I can, as it is the most rooted posture possible. In this posture I feel like a mountain, ready to face any kind of weather and not be disturbed or moved. My eyes and all other senses are open, receiving with little discrimination or judgment just what is, like an open microphone. I look down about a yard in front of my form, eyelids mostly closed, almost looking through my eyelashes. I sit from 20 to 50 minutes at a time.
HTM: Thank you for sharing that description of posture for sitting meditation practice. You say your mind at times "settles beyond or beneath this transitory phenomenal world" and I wonder what that is like. Is it the mind that settles? Is it pure awareness? Are you in the picture at all at that point?
Genjo: Yes, that's it, the mind settles, like the ripples on a pond. On occasion when the mind settles, the water of the mind, awareness, becomes pure, clear and undisguised, clearly reflective of reality just as it is. There is a sense of union and being seamless with all creation. Up to this point, there is still a vague sense of self and other, but it doesn't feel very substantial, almost transparent. At what can be called a deeper or broader settling of mind, self disappears along with any idea of "mind."
This is a kind of going down the rabbit-hole experience. In this meditation experience whatever is looked at becomes "you", the whole universe and beyond. It is as though "mind" becomes aware of the unfathomable depths of the "water" of "mind" and all so called phenomenal reality is penetrated and is realized as the vast "black/empty" void. I think an easy way to impart this sort of experience is to think of two mirrors looking into each other, there is an infinite regression into "blackness" or "emptiness."
HTM: I find your response so compelling. I especially like the rabbit-hole image, along with the two mirrors facing each other, just like two people perhaps. I wonder, does this emptiness also feel absolutely full, perhaps of potential? If so, can this potential and fullness be felt?
Genjo: Yes and definitely.
HTM: Perfect. I have one more question. I wonder if you could share the contrast you experience if any, between time in meditation and those times when you are not in meditation. Perhaps some indication of how this may have changed over time. In short, the benefits that have carried over into other areas of your life such as relationships, work, etc.
Genjo: Slowly but surely all of life becomes the continuous mindfulness practice of being fully present to whatever activity one is engaged in. As I understand it, this is the point of more structured meditation such as zazen to be the foundation of a life of mindfulness and being present to the presence in all that we do.
Being "present to the presence" is being aware of the "absolute" or "emptiness" or "inconceivable" in everything and in all that we do. I see a progression of practice from chanting, to silence (zazen), to simple motion (kinhin) such as walking, running, Tai Chi..., to simple work (samu) such as sweeping, weeding, chopping vegetables..., to more complex behavior such as one's work place, relationships and even politics.
HTM: I understand. Thank you for participating and sharing so much of your meditation practice.
Genjo: You're welcome.