By Jean Fitzpatrick
On a recent cherry-blossom trip to Kyoto I went to a Zen meditation class and learned more than I'd expected. The Zen master, a corpulent man who nonetheless looked relaxed in full lotus pose, nodded at the dozen of us North American tourists who straggled in, and Tammy, our local translator, told us to sit on the zafus, or meditation cushions, lined up in two rows on tatami mats overlooking a garden. We all arranged ourselves on the cushions in various awkward poses. One man, spotting a chair in a corner, carried it over to his meditation space. "The master says no chairs," Tammy said, whisking it away.
We all stared at the master, waiting. "The master would like to know if there are any questions," Tammy announced.
Silence at first. "What are the benefits of meditation?" asked Deborah, a psychotherapist and practicing meditator from Texas. I had the sense she wanted to help get a dialogue going.
The Zen master replied quickly in Japanese. "There are no benefits," Tammy said, interpreting. Then, apparently counting on his fingers, the Zen master spoke again in Japanese. "There are various benefits," Tammy said after a while. "But this is not why we do meditation. We do meditation just to do it."
So much for dialogue. Oh, I recognized that he was operating on a higher, if-you-meet-the-Buddha-in-the-road-slay-him plane, all right, but I think our band of wanderers was hoping for a little help reaching those stratospheric spiritual heights.
Next came a series of breathing exercises. We learned to control our spine, breath, our gaze. We sat for three minutes, then took a break, then sat for five more minutes. The Zen master talked for a long while to Tammy in Japanese, then brought out a long wooden stick. They talked for a while longer as we eyeballed the stick and exchanged doubtful glances. (Think Lost in Translation meets Into Great Silence.) "He is going to walk up and down and watch you," Tammy announced. "If you want you can bow to him" -- she showed us how, head down and palms together -- "to tell him that if he sees you are not sitting up straight or concentrating, you would like him to hit you."
We started the third period of meditation -- ten minutes -- and the Zen master walked up and down the room with his stick, his bare feet padding on the tatami. Whack! At the sound of the first hit I nearly toppled off my cushion. John, a twenty-something Hawaiian with a winning smile and an enthusiasm for hot sake, was on the receiving end. "Every time he walked by I was worried he was going to hit me," John told me later, shrugging. "I decided to get it over with."
A few more whacks and we were back out under the cherry blossoms. Having decided not to participate in the whacking tradition, I'd sat up as straight as a board and kept my focus as close to laserlike as I knew how. The purpose of the stick, I read later on, is to focus you on physical sensation, to empty your mind and get you out of your head. I can't say any of us figured that out. "What good did all that meditation do him?" one novice said afterward as we wound our way through incense-filled alleyways toward a noodle shop that came highly recommended. "That Zen master's the grumpiest guy in Japan."
I'm not saying it was the end of the world. To tell the truth, part of me thinks the Zen master brings out the biggest stick and lands the loudest whacks on the classes full of Western tourists. But hitting people with a stick during a meditation class is an approach to adult ed that most of my clergy friends would frown on, I'm thinking. (Not that they might not have fantasized about it once or twice.) We're too sensitive -- too pastoral -- to treat people that way, right?
I wonder. At a time when many people are working long hours, hanging onto their jobs by their fingernails, I'm still hearing complaints from clergy about parishioners who didn't attend every Holy Week service but just showed up on Easter Sunday. When we have all too few years to teach our little ones that they are infinitely precious and lovable, I still hear children being taught about the Crucifixion by having nails rubbed into their palms. As the church shrinks, I'm still meeting people who longed to be part of parish life but found the Sunday morning liturgy more historic than inspiring.
Some might say the way we do things reflects lofty spiritual goals. But are we meeting people where they are?
Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.