By Lauren Salisbury
The opportunity to visit a Buddhist temple in Japan was something I had wanted for a long time. So I gladly joined other English teachers and the friendly monk at his beautiful home.
The temple entrance was absolutely breathtaking. Sunlight glowed through lacey green leaves with the solidly present, yet ethereal, beauty of a Japanese garden. Adding to the fantasy effect, the garden was chock-full of dragonflies gracefully zooming back and forth. They were so large, and there were so many of them, that it felt like we were underwater surrounded by fish. There must have been forty dragonflies in the air at any given time, and they looked like fairies. So before I even entered the temple, I felt far removed from my everyday reality.
We entered the temple slowly and were ushered to a tatami room. Then we were handed small, sweet “cakes” composed of a chalky substance and green tea. “To help with zazen,” the monk told us in Japanese, which was quickly translated by a nice host father.
Now, I’m no expert in Buddhism, Zen, or zazen, so please keep that in mind. My understanding is that you meditate by sitting on cushions in a lotus-style position. Your head faces forward; eyes stare at a spot on the floor about one meter in front of you. Your eyes are half-closed, but you must remain alert. Hands are folded in a certain way and placed down in your lap. Your mental focus, in order to help clear the mind, is on breathing and the breath. Other than breathing deeply, you don’t move – at all. Monks can do this for hours at a time, and this particular monk told us that during his training, he would sit in zazen for at least three hours a day. One week of every month, he would do nothing all day but sit in zazen. He paused only to eat and use the bathroom, but he was not allowed to sleep.
We Westerners, however, in our too-tight jeans and t-shirts, strained and sat in awkward zazen poses for no more than 20 minutes. The monk burned a stick of incense to mark the time. To begin the meditation, he smacked two wooden blocks together and rang a bell four times. To close, he smacked the blocks once and rang the bell once more. The sounds seemed to transport you to another world, and then call you back into this one.
I thought my biggest concerns would be maintaining the position, clearing my head, and staying alert long enough not to slouch or sleep. I was eager to begin.
But then, the terrifying part came. Once we were seated in zazen and our ankles began to ache, the monk explained the purpose of the stick. In short, it was used to keep us alert. If we slouched, or fell asleep, or moved at all, he would whip us on the back. However, the monk explained, if we were sitting especially well, he might also hit us, for “encouragement.”
He placed two cushions in the middle of our circle to demonstrate the amount of force he would use to whack us. Whether we did poorly, or whether we did well, was inconsequential – we would be hit with the same amount of force. Now, I cannot begin to describe to you how hard he hit the pillows. It was not a smack, bump, hit, or even a whack – none of these words accurately convey how hard and fast that stick came down. Mr. Monk used his whole body and a motion that came from his shoulder and back muscles, whipping the stick so swiftly that a high-pitched whistle cut through the air. Women gasped.
Cheerfully, he told us not to worry, that he would go easier on the girls.
But as soon as we sighed with relief, he countered, “I’m only kidding. Distinctions are wrong in Buddhism, so if I distinguish between male and female, I will go to hell. Therefore, I will also hit girls like this.”
The cushions jumped as he gave them two more whips. Then the monk encouraged us to request the stick, because it would “clear our heads,” and he showed us how to bow properly to make our request clear. (You were to place your hands together in front of your heart, and bow low while sitting, so that he could hit your back. Four times. The right and left sides of your spine, and then once again, right and left). The monk would walk around the circle as we meditated, and hit someone when he deemed appropriate, or when we asked for it.
I was confused and began to panic in my frozen silence. Was there a mistranslation? Was he joking about hitting girls so hard? Hitting any of us that hard? How would we know if we had done a good or poor job? What if I sneezed? What if a dime-sized mosquito landed on my cheek? What if I didn’t want to be hit?
The American girl beside me, my friend Courtney, whined to herself. “What is going on? We don’t hit people like this in my culture.”
I didn’t agree with her attitude, but I was terrified all the same. I have never felt so far away from home in my life. What the hell had I gotten myself in to? I was in another country, practicing something from another religion, under the complete control of a bald man who could go for a week without sleeping and didn’t speak my language. Now I understood how girls went to other countries and got tangled in situations that looked so stupid and easily preventable from the outside. I understood how curiosity killed the cat.
When the monk clacked the blocks, my body went rigid. Nobody moved. I forced myself to breathe slowly as there was no way I was going to fall asleep. My entire body was focused on the monk’s location, and how long he paused each time he stood in front of me. I had to swallow every time he passed because I was so nervous I’d be “a victim.” And then I worried that such a big swallow would be considered “moving.” The adrenaline gave me a headache and the incense burned my eyes. Was I allowed to blink? I tried blinking only when the monk was facing the other direction. When the monk turned and bowed to someone down the line, I heard another girl gasp.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him gently place his hands on someone’s back, to guide him or her closer to the ground. First he gave two light taps, I assume to inform the teacher of where exactly he would be hit. And then the monk whipped the person’s back four times, with all the force he exerted earlier on the pillows. He had not been joking. After, he gently guided the person back to sitting position, and the “teacher” and “student” bowed to each other slowly.
I didn’t dare move, so I had no idea if the person had requested to be hit or not, or even who the person was. Slowly, the monk continued to circle. I was a sitting duck. After about ten minutes I could feel myself slumping, but I was afraid to straighten my back and catch the monk’s eye. So I prayed the slump was only perceptible to me. How could this be good meditation? I wasn’t focused on clearing my head. I was only focused on the monk’s movement, my own breathing and my pointless will to not endure any pain. I had a very brief taste of what torture might be like – having no control over anything, seeing others around you being hurt and not being able to do anything about it for fear that the same thing would happen to you. A person would most definitely go insane feeling like that for too long.
I decided that if the monk stopped to hit me, I would look up at him and back away. Quickly. I wouldn’t allow it to happen – and too bad if it wrecked everyone else’s zazen. Over the course of 20 minutes, the monk hit about five or six people. He did not hit me. It turns out only one person who got hit did not ask for it.
Right before time was up, the girl beside me (who had complained earlier) requested to be whipped. I couldn’t believe it. I was in awe and total disbelief. Why did she feel she needed that experience? It was nothing I had a desire to try. I just wanted to meditate, in peace, for goodness’ sake! When the stick came down on my friend’s back, I heard her skin and the organs underneath it flatten out under the pressure.
Shortly after that, the monk ended the zazen, and I felt like I was alive again. I was rejoicing. I looked around and noticed that nobody else looked how I felt. I turned to my friend John with huge eyes, but he looked totally calm. He had a lazy smile on his face.
“Why weren’t you terrified?” I demanded. I was angry that he seemed to take it so lightly.
He just shrugged. “I don’t know. If you get hit, you get hit. I couldn’t really do anything about it. Of course it would hurt like hell, but nothing lasts forever.”
The experience made me realize a lot of things. I was shocked into silence for the rest of the day, and had a hard time being genki with my host family because I couldn’t stop thinking about the temple. I’d never been so out of control in my life, and I was frustrated to finally realize how much control I need to feel comfortable. I was also frustrated because no one else seemed as afraid as I did.
They just chatted casually, “Yeah, it was hard, and now I have four red welts down my back, but I had to try it, you know?”
What were these people talking about? It made me feel crazy, like I was the only one who wanted to avoid it. Why was I a “control freak” because I didn’t want a stranger to beat me with a big wooden stick?
A few hours later, I spoke to John again about how strange and nervous I felt.
He smiled and said, almost sarcastically, “Was it everything you hoped and dreamed it would be?”
He knew I had wanted to visit a temple for a while. I glared at him, speechless. Why did I feel like no one on the planet understood me when it came to religion or spirituality? I felt like I was always on a different religious plane. Most of the time I couldn’t even articulate my thoughts to myself, so how could someone else understand me well enough to have a real conversation? I felt miles away from John and everyone else, and like I had more in common with the dragonflies outside. At least they wouldn’t whip me or piss me off, and joke about it afterward.
The thing that surprised me even more was how good I felt after zazen. My head did feel clear. It was like someone had dumped gallons of adrenaline into my system, and then flushed. My head – my whole body really – felt totally empty and clear. I felt shiny, new and gleaming. I was seeing things for what they were. And I was so glad to be alive and healthy…right then and there. These feelings of joy and clarity were an unexpected landmark for me after such a stressful experience. Usually, my landmarks are premeditated and orchestrated.
I have this idea that I draw my own maps, and mark my own spots…but really, they are drawn by some other hand, and I’m just along for the ride.
Since teaching English in Japan, Lauren has pursued a career in the fragrance industry, which has enabled her to combine her love of travel, art, and science. She is a contributing writer to the perfume blog Bois de Jasmin and also offers fragrance reviews on her website, The Little Nose.