Naikan at Senkobo
Patricia Ryan Madson
My journey began at Kyoto station on the morning of July 8, 1987 as I boarded a sleek air-conditioned bus and watched the Japanese countryside fly by on my pilgrimage to Kuwana. I changed from the bus to the national railroad train at Nagoya and finished my journey with a taxi across rice fields which took me to Senkobo, a rare combination of Zen and Shinshu temple set inconspicuously in a farming area. The head of Senkobo is Reverend Shue Usami. He recently completed koan training and is qualified to practice both Shinshu and Zen Buddhism.
As the taxi pulled into the courtyard of the monastery Mrs. Usami, the priest’s wife, appeared full of smiles to greet us. A forty-eight-year-old retired American surgeon named Malcolm accompanied me to do the practice of Naikan. I proffered a kilo of banana as a small offering. Our bags were taken from us and brought along.
We entered the monastery compound via wooden sliding doors. Over the entrance were crossed a Japanese and an American flag. I was moved by this thoughtful welcome. We were led into a reception room where a second set of flags was hung to greet us. Okabe San, our young translator, sat down with us on the tatamiand pulled out a large white pad of paper. It would be used to write our questions and comments to assure that we were clear in our communications. This system of writing was used throughout the week for all communications except the mensetsu, or formal interview itself. We were never asked to write down our Naikan reflections.
Mrs. Usami appeared with a tray of tea cakes made from red adzukibeans and two bowls of the thick frothy green tea used in the Tea Ceremony. There was a refreshing cube of ice in each bowl.
The mood gently shifted to one of business. We were given some instructions handwritten in English. Our passports and valuables were collected for safekeeping. A rule sheet read: “Manners: There are two very important rules during Naikan. Never talk to others and don’t get up or walk around unless there is a specific purpose. Please keep these two rules.” We were further instructed that we would be told daily when to come to meals, when to bathe and when to go to bed.
We next considered the way to practice Naikan. Naikan is a form of self-reflection, a system designed to look at reality from a unique vantage point: that of our indebtedness. By the practice of systematically recalling the past from a new purview we may come to be less egocentric and have a more complete perspective on our lives.
After the tea and instructions, I expected to be shown to my sleeping place and allowed to unpack and relax after our long journey. Instead we were taken directly to our meditation cubicles bounded by byobuscreens and instructed to begin our Naikan practice immediately. My first assignment was to reflect on my relationship to my mother from my birth until age six. The reflection was to take the following form: I should contemplate specific examples of 1. What I received from her. 2. What I returned to her and 3. What trouble and bother I caused her during that period of my past. I was told that the mensetsu or formal interview in which I would report on my reflection would be held in one and half to two hours. I was given a small thin square pillow and left alone.
It was somehow like the thunderous sound of a cell gate being closed and locked. At this instant I knew that I was in both heaven and hell. There was no going back on the path that I had chosen. The knowledge which I was about to receive would change me profoundly. I experienced a deep sense of grief over the notion that in this practice I was somehow dying to my old picture of myself. I would never again be able to crawl inside the simple self-centered view of myself in relation to my parents or to anyone else in the world.
My personal environment was stark. I occupied a small defined space in a large shrine hall before a low window facing out onto the side courtyard of the monastery. Directly below my window was a basin. Occasionally I would see other Naikansha(those doing the practice of Naikan) washing their hair or doing laundry during their brief personal time. When I faced out from the wall I was looking toward the open floor of the shrine hall with its fifty or sixty tatami mats (each three feet by five feet). To my left was the central altar with a large statue of the Buddha, flanked by two minor deities. The altar contained numerous offerings, including my small gift of inexpensive chocolates. This meager gift sat proudly on the altar all week to remind me of how little I was giving back to those who were devoting their lives to assisting me in this practice.
The perimeter of this large shrine room housed the Naikansha. Each participant had his or her own space. These were demarcated by vertical cardboard screens placed at 6 foot intervals. There were eight cubicles overall in this space. Elsewhere in the monastery was a large dormitory-type room that was used for Naikan practice. Indeed, few spaces went unused. Naikanshawere placed along the walkways outside the building, as well. They were awaiting their chance to be admitted to the temple to do formal Naikan.
At Senkobo Naikan practice runs parallel with Zen practice. An assistant directs the practice periods and administers the calls for zazenand kinhin. Zazenis the sitting meditation form practiced in Zen, and kinhinis the walking meditation form. The assistant Takano San was a small Japanese man of indeterminate age, perhaps 53 years old, who customarily sat in the cubicle opposite mind during zazen.When not sitting he did various routine jobs such as clapping wooden blocks to announce walking practice. He announced the time of formal mensetsueach evening and he sat at the head of the table during the brief ritualized meals, leading the recitation of sutras. His attention, efficiency and implacable face were noteworthy. He lived the quality of alertness associated with sincere Zen practitioners.
Alone in my tiny empty space, I began Naikan. The shock of actually being there gave way to a wave of fears and doubts about my ability to go through with this endeavor. I was committed to a week of 15 hours a day sitting and reflecting upon my own selfishness.
My body started to rebel. Even with some training in seiza, the formal sitting posture in Japan, I was certain that a backrest would be necessary in time. Indeed, the entire question of the possibility of physical comfort began to dominate my thinking. During the next week I would learn a great deal about the myriad ways the mind would attempt to divert itself from this practice.
Over and over again I brought my mind back to the question; what have I received from my mother from birth to age 6. Of course, I owed her my birth. My birth… My birth… what could I remember of my birth? I have been told that I was born in a black-out during the war and that my mother first saw me by flashlight. And then I recalled that my mother had a
Cesarean section to give me a birth. She had been cut open just to give me life. To this day she carries a scar on her body which was caused by my birth. When this memory burst upon me I began to sob.
I remembered also being washed in the kitchen sink and looking at a rainbow, crawling on the floor in the kitchen while my mother stood cooking at the stove. Other memories surfaced. Mrs. Usami came to receive my first collection of memories. As I recounted my list to her I was unable to hold back my own tears. She listened with empathy while making small noises of understanding. We finished our session with formal bows and she gave me the next assignment: to continue this practice on my mother for the next three years. She left, and I faced my thoughts again. Night fell, a three-quarter moon appeared behind the glass of the window in my cubicle. I squirmed. I was angry at sitting so long. My legs and back hurt. I overheard the sound of those doing the walking meditation practice behind me. At about forty-five minutes intervals the assistant rang a bell. Then he and a few others would do kinhinfor several minutes. The room was dark now.
The dinner bell rang and the other Naikanshashuffle to get in line for the meal. The entire meal period form took no more than five minutes. We recited a meal chant in Japanese (we have been provided with a phonetic translation), ate our food rapidly and silently, cleaned out our bowls with a pickle, passed the dishes up to the head of the table, recited a closing chant went back immediately to our cubicles. We were instructed to continue Naikan at all times, even when eating or going to the bathroom.
I continued my reflections. Around 8:30 p. m. the last mensetsuof the day was to be given by the Rev. Usami himself in his study. Giving Naikan to Rev. Usami was somewhat frightening. He sat in his black robes like a stern-faced Buddha. On hearing my confession, he responded in clear and measured English: “Please continue Naikan on your mother for the next three years. Do you have any questions?” I had none.
I was directed to a small room that was used normally as an infirmary. There was an examining table and several acupuncture charts along the walls. To my delight an aging air conditioner hummed proudly from a transom. I was very grateful for this kindness. July in Japan can be brutally hot.
The second day began at 4:30 a.m. I was permitted to delay my first session in order to get physical exercise. After rising I washed my face and dressed. I went outside and took a wonderful forty-minute walk along paths by the rice paddies. On returning to my room I did yoga stretches and wrote a few lines in my journal.
At 6:00 a.m. I was seated in my cubicle thinking about my mother. At midmorning there was a 45-minute worship service lead by Rev. Usami. We assembled into rows sitting seiza. The assistant hit several resonant wooden gongs to signal our attention. We recited a sutra and then turned our attention to the daily sermon. After speaking briefly in Japanese, Rev. Usami turned on a small tape recorder and we all listened to a five-minute dharma talk in English. The first talk was a well-known Zen story about a learned teacher who guides his new students into receptivity by filling his teacup to overflowing. When the student protests this action, the teacher points out that one must be like the empty cup in order to be ready to receive knowledge.
Immediately following the service, we returned to our cushions to continue Naikan. The first day was interminable. My brief notes at the end of the day began “Everything hurts.” My lower back is aching, and I experienced a bone tiredness. I wondered if I would ever survive the week.
Day three began with a long early morning walk. At 6:30 a.m. I was on my cushion reflecting on what I had received from my mother from age 22 to 24. This day was surprisingly different. A deep calm and peacefulness fell over me as I sat focusing on the face of my mother. It was as if the struggle of the second day had been resolved. Something within me had accepted the reality of doing this practice. I was no longer tortured with thoughts of resistance. Indeed, there began a feeling of pleasure at the simplicity of this world. My memory seemed to improve. The initial sense that I couldn’t remember anything about this period disappeared. I felt myself walking down corridors of the mind, opening doors long closed from memory. Because the mind has been instructed to look only for that which I had received from my parents, the memories were often drenched in happiness. I found myself crying from joy and gratitude several times each day. The sounds of muffled sobs of those in nearby cubicles could be heard.
At Senkobo Naikansha wore a folded scarf tied around the forehead, the scarf was often pulled down to cover the eyes partially or completely. On the fourth day I tied a cotton bandanna around my own forehead to see if this emblem had any practical significance. My Naikan became “deeper” in that I was able to concentrate more consistently and access memories in greater detail while wearing the blindfold. It was also a badge, identifying me with the group.
Each day revealed a unique schedule. There was never any certainty about the exact times of eating, bathing or the interviews. On the evening of the day I arrived dinner was at 6 p.m. On subsequent days the dinner bell rang as late as 7:50 p.m. This “never knowing” occupied my thoughts. It intensified the sense that time was important and that we must never waste it. The third day’s dharma talk concerned the precious nature of time. Each day and each instant count.
I found myself angry about the emphasis on using time well. This eternal diligence seemed too much to bear. I wanted some rest and recreation from my labors at Naikan. Instantly I recognized the old habit of selfishness rising to the surface. Three days of Naikan had sensitized me to my own egocentricity.
The fourth day dawned muggy and rainy, too wet for my walk. I enjoyed a period of lying down, resting. From the third day I joined the walking meditation with the other students. When the assistant rang a small bell a few of us rose from our cubicles, bowed together and then joined him in the slow walking practice. The practice lasted only three or four minutes, but it was very valuable.
At the conclusion of the first pass over my life with respect to my mother and father I was assigned the theme of “lies and stealing” beginning with first memories and continuing in three-year periods throughout my life. “Lies and stealing” were to include those occasions in which there was any disparity between thought and deed: for example, at times when I might have been saying prayers but thinking of something else.
Dreading this assignment, I undertook it, finding in every three-year period instances of my own immorality. I came to look at the Patricia Ryan who is greedy, selfish and deceitful. It was not a pleasant picture, but it was instructive. As I listed each moving picture of myself as troublemaker from the archives of memory I found another process ongoing, I was able to take in these truths and accept them. Further, at some level I felt myself forgiving myself for these actions. Notice I wrote “forgiving” not “absolving.”. The quality of forgiveness was simple acceptance. I swallowed and owned this information and felt more human for doing so. Painful honesty heals.
On the fifth day of Naikan I completed the reflections on “lying and stealing.” At approximately each hour-and-a-half interval someone came to hear my recollections. Often it was the tireless Mrs. Usami. Sometimes former Naikanshavolunteered their time to come and receive my reflections. I was causing them considerable trouble by speaking English. I was touched by the fact that some volunteers came great distances after a long work day just to sit and listen to my Naikan. I was told that they did it in gratitude for their own Naikan experiences.
On the fifth day I was permitted to select significant others in my past on whom to reflect. I chose two beloved friends who had been like adopted parents to me. It gave me great joy to enumerate the gifts and kindness that had come to me form them. Doing Naikan began to feel like a great privilege, albeit hard work. I could see how a longer course of practice would provide benefit. Some people apparently do brief Naikan daily for the rest of their lives.
After the final Naikan interview of the day we were summoned for a small celebration. The flags of Japan and the United States were the centerpiece. There was a tray of gifts, including the small box of candy that I had brought on my arrival. Mrs. Usami brought refreshments. We opened our presents. Mine included a beautiful cloisonné pencil tray. I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed that after a week of receiving everything: meals, lodging, laundry service and the hourly gift of receiving my Naikan I was once again receiving gifts from Senkobo. This outpouring of gifts and kindness mirrored the discoveries that had surfaced in Naikan. I knew without question or qualification that I continue to be loved and cared for with a bounty that is incalculable.
On the sixth day at Senkobo I was up at 5:30. I took one last morning walk to stretch my legs and say goodbye to the large lotus pond in the neighborhood. Even though I would be leaving in a taxi at 9:00a.m. I was required to go to my cushion at 6:30 to continue my Naikan reflections. At around 8:00 a.m. Okabe San came to receive my last formal mensetsu. After the final bows he instructed me to continue doing Naikan throughout my life.
We were served a special breakfast in a dining room separate from the other Naikansha, and our baggage magically appeared at the front door. Our passports and wallets were returned. A taxi waited in the courtyard. At this moment I assumed that we would be saying our farewells, but to my surprise Rev. and Mrs. Usami and Okabe San all jumped in the taxi with us. Further they not only accompanied us all the way to Nagoya where we were to catch the “bullet” train to Tokyo for our flights home but insisted on paying for our taxi and local and express train tickets!
This final generosity was overwhelming. I had planned on making a donation to Senkobo and had set aside money which I placed in a gift envelope and offered to the Reverend just as I was boarding the train. He flatly refused the gift, putting the envelope back into my handbag, saying quite emphatically: “Foreigners do not pay for Naikan at Senkobo.” We shook hands (the Japanese farewell) and hugged awkwardly but sincerely (the California farewell) and boarded the train to take our reserved seats. As the train pulled out we all waved furiously. Tears of gratitude filled my eyes.
Sitting on the train, a young Japanese woman in the next seat handed me a tissue. Again and again the world was given to me. Malcolm, who was writing in his journal, leaned over to ask if I knew how to spell “Buddha”
I wrote in my journal as we neared Tokyo: ” I have learned at Senkobo that there is no resting on this path, and that the gifts of life are endless and abundant. Even in the midst of suffering there is a kind of joy that comes from the sure knowledge of the treasury. At the very least we can do our part by recognizing these unparalleled gifts and their givers. How wonderful it is to be alive and to have the chance to give something back to the world. Today is the day to start.”
There is no question that the experience of doing Naikan at Senkobo fundamentally changed my way of looking at the world. I came to see my own selfishness as a kind of giant iceberg. Naikan was the flamethrower that began the melting.
The flame also cast a sharp light on my greed, gluttony lust, envy, sloth and indifference. It was more powerful because no one but I passed judgment on these findings. No one set for me definitions of what I have received or what I had stolen. I left Senkobo with a deep desire to begin to repay the world. The ledger showed my unmistakable debt. There was a great deal that needed to be done. I could hardly wait to begin.
Patricia Ryan Madson
This article was first published in the 1989 edition of Flowing Bridges, Quiet Waters, edited by David K. Reynolds for SUNY Press, Albany
Patricia Ryan lives in San Francisco and teaches drama at Stanford University. She is certified to practice Morita guidance.