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© Nanabozho (the Great Hare)

«The practice of Chan may be characterized as being a practice of body lost, body found back. The body which we're trying to lose, to transcend, eventually by mutilating it, or immolating it, is the ordinary body, a vulgar "skin bag" or "of excrements" - as the Zen master will repeat ad nauseam during the collective meditation sittings which consist, it should seem, mainly into getting over the physical pain, induced by a prolonged sitting. The body which is tentatively looked for, is a glorious body, the body of the Buddha. Hence the hieratic posture of the sitting meditation, totally controlled. Immobility, basic and perfect sitting, interior distance : the practicioner takes himself back into a posture that is symbolic of, and anticipates, mastership.»

Bernard Faure, Buddhist sexualities - Between desire and realities

Eric Rommeluère

June 19, 2000

Eric Rommeluère, vice-chairman of the Ruropean Buddhist University in Paris, was from the age of 17, and for many years a student of Taisen Deshimaruand also at a time, treasurer of the IZA. He directs a group of students of Buddhism.

Recently, he was offered by Master Gudo Nishijima to receive his Dharma Transmission, and he has accepted the offer. The ceremony took place in Nishijima's dojo in Tokyo in the month of October of 2001. This makes him the 91th successor of the Buddha (in a rather mythical way, however).

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Meditation and pain


The apprenticeship of meditation is equivalent to the discovery of a space of inner freedom. We find ourselves - we find ourseves back? -- in a deep condition of peace and calm. These very terms are actually not very adequate, since to talk of of peace or of calm still refers to opposite terms such as agitation or struggle. In meditation, a transformation occurs where any opposition lapses: we no longer perceive ourselves as being agitated or non-agitated, and we become completely "comfortable". Those who practice meditation, especially beginners, are nevertheless often confronted with another mode of being of meditation, where they find themselves not so comfortable. I'm talking about pain. This subject is little evoked by those who meditate. For the teachers, often indebted to a martially tempered Japanese Zen, physical suffering is still perceived as normal, even necessary. This problem of pain ought to be clarified, however; I am myself convinced that the state of intense physical suffering that can be sometimes experienced during meditation is, and remains, antinomic of the peaceful state of samaadhi.


It strikes me that this experience of pain is almost never mentioned. The Zen litterature which is today available is tremendous, one finds numerous manuals of meditation but none evoke the actual experience of the practicioners with all its retinue of difficulties. At best shall they talk about hallucinations which, after all, concern but a few persons. But nothing on physical suffering. There we have an almost total disrepute of the inner experience which cannot fail to surprise me. Still, anyone who has experienced Zen retreats in the Japanese style, for instance, knows that pain in a steady companion all through the meditation sittings.


In many western Zen centers, the practicioners often live meditation as an ordeal. For many of them, the long series of meditations create a state of hypersensibility and of a painful invasion of the being. As they are demanded not to move, most must therefore compose with their suffering: for some, a light movement of the body, for others a light clearing of the throat. When pain gets too insistent, they have to invent stratagems and mental derivatives in order to fill time (and demobilize pain). Georges Frey (aka Taikan Jyoji) who lived many years in the Shofukuji monastery in Kobe explains it well : "There are two possibilities for fleeing difficulties during zazen : first consists in concentration upon a koan or the breathing. You forget reality, you outdo pain. Thus time passes by fast. But it's impossible for me to remain concentrated more than half an hour a day. Therefore, I use of the second possibility, that of projecting some mental flick." (Taikan Jyoji, Itinéraire d'un maître zen venu d'Occident, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1996, pp. 154-155). The mind is thus on the qui-vive, taken in a continuous going to and fro between can I hold and can't I hold? You're watching for the least noise which would indicate the proximity of the end of the meditation. Those who are far-sighted take pain-killers and other balsams for the joints. For any good meditator knows this: it sure CAN hurt!


There's no point in negociating with pain, it ought to be surpassed, so we often hear. Indeed, there's a recurrent discourse which wants it to have a positive value. Pain would be even necessary: pain would allow for a better concentration, even more so to foil the entrapments of the "ego". This is a paradoxical discourse, since the aim of Buddhism remains the eradication of suffering: by suffering, you'll no longer suffer. Let's read Georges Frey's diary: "I take on the first night the resolution not to move anymore, whatever should happen. Even if my legs should detach from my body, even if I should die on my cushion, I won't change my posture. Thus have I modified my approach to pain. I no longer try to flee from it. I'm expecting it readily. It's the only way that my meditation could deepen. Despite my suffering, unavoidable, I don't move. I have to surpass it, otherwise it shall always win over me. I understand that I ought to overcome my pain or be overcome by it. There is no other choice that to set myself into permanent spirituel high tension, to overcome in order not to be overcome." (Ibid., p. 83). Overcome in order not to be overcome : There is in the Japanese Zen a certain culture of virility and violence. The noveces experience it in the monasteries, undergoing not only the physical pains of meditation, but also the moral sufferings, the frustrations and the humiliations from their elders.


If it is true that pain modifies our relation to the world - we might term it as a substraction, a substraction from our being, from the perceptions - it cannot lead us to the state of samaadhi. I'm obviously talking about a total pain, pervasive, and not the simple cramps that we sometimes feel. The psycho-physical confusion (what is time, what is space for the suffering man?) induced by a painful body goes against the meeting of a state of tranquillity and peacefulness. Meditation introduces us to a new relation with ourselves, an essentially non-violent relation. Pain, to the contrary, is enterely made of violence. Violence against oneself, violence against the others. In many centers, it is actually the sign of a coercion, that of the submission to the group. A coercion which is self inflicted, but most of all, since it is consented to, that is inflicted by the group. It implies the meditator in an interactive relation. Pain is not just a feeling, it is first of all a meaning. This point is seldom elucidated.


This interpersonal dimension of pain is going to reveal itself in the sesshin (the Japanese style Zen retreats) where from sitting to sitting, it is going to become little by little the central experience of meditation. A phaenomenology of the sesshin remains to be written. On account of from eight to fourteen hours of daily meditation, for little prepared bodies, the sesshin changes into an ordeal where pain takes an almost initiatory value... The lightness or liveliness described by those who get out of such a retreat is up to the measure of the problems they met with. The zendo, the dojo, become the arena, the closed locus where each, at the same time witness and actor, takes part into a collective pain. The limits between me and the other disolve: what can my neighbour to the irreducibility of my suffering, does he suffer too? And yet, sometimes I succeed into perceiving an imperceptible move, his silent complaint. So far and so near to the others, this is the whole paradox of this place.


Is this experience the same with the Easterners? Let's not forget that pain in not a mere physiological reaction. The perceptions, reactions, and manifestations of pain are going to modify according to the personal, relational and cultural story. "Even though the threshold of sensibility is much the same for the whole of human societies, the pain threshold to which the individual reacts and the attitude which he adopts are therefore essentially related to the social and cultural fabric." (David Le Breton, Anthropologie de la douleur, Paris, Métailié, 1995, p. 110). As far as I know, there exists no comparative study on the meditative experience of Easterners and Westerners, but we may suppose that the keenness, the appreciation and the integration of pain in a Japanese context is largely different from ours. For an example I have quoted Georges Frey, a Swiss brought up in a European culture. If a Japanese suffers as much, what should be his perception of his own pain? The very fact that he writes it (that it imprints itself not only in his flesh but also in his discourse) is significant. Could a Japanese do as much as talk about it?


In the Far-Eastern Zen, the rohatsu sesshin occupies a special place. It commemorates the Enlightenment of the Buddha and lasts from the 1st to the 8th of the 12th lunar month (nowadays from the 1st to the 8th of December in Japan which adopted the solar calendar). It is practiced in Japan, China, and Korea. It consists into an almost uninterrupted meditation of a full week. Traditionally, one sleeps seated during but a few hours. This sesshin is experienced by its participating members, according to the testimonies one may read here and there, as an intense physical ordeal where the deprivation of sleep is surimposed over pain... It is assimilated to an initiation rite: the matter is to die and be reborn. In the Japanese monastery of Tenryuji, the retreat is offset in order to end symbolically with the winter solstice. According to Omori Sogen's words : "On crossing the threshold rebirth of the winter solstice, yin (darkness) turns into yang (light), symbolizing rebirth to one's original self-nature after one's experience of Great Death." (Omori Sogen, An introduction to zen training, Londres, Kegan Paul International, 1996, p. 146). The function of the sesshin as a passing rite, where physical and psychic suffering is central, appears especially in the Zen sect Sambô Kyodan founded by Hakuun Yasutani (1885-1973). It seems that Enlightenment is at the cost of this suffering. About the first sesshin led by Yasutani in Hawaii in 1962, Eido Shimano, who now teaches Zen in the United States, reports that it was just "as hysterical as historical". It ended with what Yasutani roshi considered as being five kensho [enlightenment] experiences." (Senzaki Nyogen, Soen Nakagawa, Eido Shimano, Namu Dai Bosa - A transmission of Zen Buddhism to America, New-York, Theatre Art Books, 1976, p. 185). I don't know when these intensive retreats originated, as it seems late in the story of Zen. It is for instance not mentioned by Dogen (1200-1253).


So, should we make a eulogy of pain? Without coercition, suffer? Should we believe that "pain is no end by itself, but it implies efforts of overcoming one's own limits: efforts necessary in order to reach the Zen experience" (Taikan Jyoji, ibid., p. 60), and finally that "the ascetic austerities are still practiced within the limits of human possibilities. If, from the 1st to the 8th of December, during Rohatsu, we practice zazen almost without interruption, this is the proof that a human being may not go to bed for eight days." (Ibid., p. 123). Having never experienced satori, I don't know if the inner tearing provoked by pain confounds itself or allows the rending of Enlightenment. Neverteless, it seems clear to me that every major pain paralyses the samaadhi. Pain is a closing up. It closes us upon ourselves. The body is no longer this silent companion, it cries, and its cries cover all the sounds of the world. To the opposite, meditation is totally an opening. Pain is a gaol, meditation a liberation.


I do not mean that we ought to be laxists or diminish the duration of meditation. The true question to ask oneself is this: are we truly meditating, or are we faking it? Let's read some more of Georges Frey : "With my eye as a rapier, I see the Master coming in. He's holding a short flat stick. He slowly proceeds, scrutinies and evaluates each bonze as would a colonel review his troops. We sit at attention, faking samaadhi." (Taikan Jyoji, ibid., p. 40). The comparison ought to be emphasized. For a Japanese, military training and Zen training are almost identical. We all know the reciprocal influences between martial arts and Zen. The bushido, the warrior's way, was considered as a Zen in action. Reciprocally, isn't Japanese Zen a martial art where we fight, not an outer enemy, but an inner demon: Mara. In such context, abnegation was reinterpreted in the light of vacuity. To overcome is there essential: "During the evening meditation, yesterday, I suffered so much that I almost cried. Pain, cold and weariness are the three things which are overpowering me. I'm still not able to overcome them despite my progress in my zazen. So many efforts for such little realization! If my desire of overcoming those difficulties is unswerving, then I may succeed. To give one's best all of the time, here is my goal, but it's so hard! Never to let myself getting torn down, that's the essential part, always to want to overcome, not thinking about anything else than to concentrate on the koan.


Is this the Zen that we have to practice? I believe in another way to grasp meditation, in a non-violent manner, almost "feminine", respectful of the body, to the opposite to the Japanese Zen virile meditation. There's nothing to overcome in meditation. Meditators don't have any record to break. In some Zen centers, meditation becomes an object of an invisible competition (against oneself, against the others): the matter is here to hold on! For many a one, to uncross the lefs a few minutes before the fatidical gong shall be experienced as a failure. And yet, each person has his/her own body history. I remain convinced that everyone may and ought to learn to manage his/her own meditation, and not cast themselves into a hieratic mould whose serenity would be only apparent.


Which doesn't mean that we ought to stop meditating at the least cramp. The matter is merely to learn to manage our own difficulties. Korean Zen proposes an original mode of management of pain which could be taken over. Just as in Japan, Koreans monks meditate a lot. For them, a year is divided into 4 three months periods, two formal retreats and two intermediary periods. During the retreats, the daily programme generally comprises fourteen hours of meditation in three hour blocks where they alternate 50 minutes of seated meditation with 10 minutes of standing meditation. During the intermediate periods, they practice slightly less, and "at will". This means that, during each three hour blocks, each and everyone is free of practicing his meditation according to his will. The three hours are not punctuated every hour, everyone may practice alternately the seated and standing meditations to one's own rhythm. One may go out after half an hour of seated meditation and practice an hour of standing meditation. We have there a clever combination of a rigorous practice and nevertheless adapted to everyone's possibilities. Naturally, this more flexible method has the preference of the monks (Viz. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., The Zen Monastic experience - Buddhist practice in contempary Korea, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 167-168). There is an oral tradition in Japanese Zen: at Dogen's time, one could practice standing meditation "at will" when one so wished. It was enough to stand from one's meditation seat. But I haven't found any text to corroborate this tradition.


In my own group, I chose to reduce the duration of the meditation periods. They no longer last 40 minutes (as in Japan) but 30 minutes. This is not something minor. For many occidentals, the threshold of the hard to endure or of the unbearable, is somewhat around the 30 minutes. It is better to do a sequences of 3 times 30 minutes of seated meditation, interrupted by a few minutes of walking meditation, which allows to enter in a profound state of concentration without being disturbed by physical pains, rather that make two times 40 or 45 minutes of seated meditation... The pain thresholds are not universal.


In a meditation room, any violence towards oneself or any other ought to be forbidden. I chose to animate the sittings in the manner of the bonze Ryotan Tokuda during the first years of his stay in France. I face the wall as anyone else, I don't stand, I don't use of the awakening stick and I don't talk. The matter for me is to totally respect the meditative space of each and everyone. Not to impose anything, not to superimpose, not to mingle with this space. In five years of almost daily practice in the company of Ryotan Tokuda, I might have seen him stand up maybetwice or thrice during meditations, mostly to take a look at the postures. Once, I heard him stand up near me. But he wasn't as much as standing that he sat again on the spot. Later, after the sitting, I asked him the reason of this sudden change. He made this disarming answer: "When I stood, I realized that the floor squeaked. I feared disturbing you." These simple words overwhelmed me; until then, I had never heard or seen anyone reacting this way. They showed his total respect of the meditation of each one. It became for me a line of behaviour. Of course, you cannot leave the people totally. Some have difficulties. But one has to know the moment when these people shall be able to accept and integrate remarks or corrections. It is not necessarily within the frame of meditation itself. To "rectify" them in order that they should fit with the model of an ideal posture without taking their bodily or psychical history into account is at best useless, at the worst harmful.



© Eric Rommeluère

[Version revised on July 15 2000]

The public reproduction of this text, in part or totally, is prohibited without the consent of the author.


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Original French text



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