Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Holidays — a wonderful time of year with family gatherings, parties with friends, and lots of amazing food. The Holidays also bring stress, and they can be difficult for people who have lost loved ones. Most health and fitness bloggers take this calm before the storm to talk about how to keep up an exercise routine during all the craziness or how to stick to an eating plan in the midst of all the Holiday food. We will talk about that here, too, but first, let’s talk about mental health. The Holidays can be stressful, so let’s take some time to get that stress under control.
This week, I interviewed Ryushin Sean Malone of Wild Horse Zendo. Our conversation ranged from his personal story to Zazen meditation, to Buddhism in general. Enjoy!
CH: Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you?
RSM: My name is Ryushin Taido Sean Malone Zenji and I am a American Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk. I was born at a Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. My parents were both Buddhists and my father taught at maximum security prisons for sixteen years when I was growing up. So, I was very interested in what he was doing. Why was he doing this? Why was he making such an effort to help murderers and rapists on his own dime while working full time and supporting his family? So, when I was 16, I went to the monastery where I was born and started sitting. I was there for two months. It was difficult — very difficult. When I was 18, I volunteered with my father and went to Sing Sing maximum security prison and sat with the group of men that was sitting there. And that was very intense.
When I was 21, I was involved in a motor vehicle accident, and it changed my life’s direction. I wanted to know who I was and why I was here. I felt that I had great potential for something, but what was that, exactly? The only way that I knew how to make sense of that was to go sit Zazen meditation. So, I went back to the monastery where I was born and did that. It gave me profound meaning about the Universe, who we are, and other people. I was there for about five months. I had a back injury from my car accident and I was working on my days off at the monastery and it was too much for me. I caught the flu, and that was it. I left. For the next few years I was doing yoga, trying to get back into shape with this ripped L4,5 disc from the accident and I had to have two back surgeries at 24 years old. So, it was a big, physical Koan (a Koan is a paradoxical question asked in meditation). It was my Koan, and it still is. I spent many years preparing myself to go back and finish my training. In 2004, I was ordained by my father. His head student was also ordained at that time because we thought my father was going to die after having a triple bypass surgery and he wasn’t doing well.
So, in 2007, I went to Sogenji, a 300 year old monastery in Okayama-shi Japan, and was under the guidance of one of the greatest Zen masters currently alive, Shodo Harada Rodaishi. I was there for nine-and-a-half months and it was real serious with lots of discipline. Waking up at 4:00 in the morning and chanting for an hour. Then sitting in meditation for two hours, silent meals, and seven and a half hours of sitting Zazen every day. Once a month, there would be a Sessin, which is seven days of 15 hours per day of sitting Zazen. So, it was very intense.
When I came back home, they discovered that there were more problems with my back, so I’ve been working on that. I came to Maine from New Jersey in 2004 because of my father. I’ve been in Bangor for the past two years and one day, I was sitting by myself and asked myself, “why am I doing this alone when I can teach others Zazen practice?”
So, what is Zazen?
Zazen literally means “to sit in absorption”. Za — to sit, Zen — to absorb. This is the direct practice of the Buddha. It’s what the Buddha did to realize true self. The word Buddha literally means “The Awakened One”.
Do you have to be Buddhist, or interested in Buddhism to sit Zazen?
Absolutely not. Anyone can do this, but it’s not an easy path, but it’s very important. It’s like yoga for the mind; becoming aware of our busy mind and having the heart to step back and ask the questions:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Why am I sitting alone with these strangers?
We are encouraged to question everything until the answer presents itself. And anyone can do this. You can believe in anything you want. Just sit. Just breathe.
Ok, if Buddhism isn’t a religion, per se, then why do you have a statue of the Buddha and burn incense?
The statue is the representation of a teacher, Buddha. It’s not a god, and we are not worshipping it, but we are showing respect and graditude for what he did in reaching the awakened state of mind. We burn incense as a sign of gratitude and respect for him and for everyone else in the Zendo. The light of the candle represents the Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha. We also burn the incense to bring our minds into the present moment.
Well then, that begs the question: how does one sit Zazen?
First, we sit with our legs in full lotus, half lotus, or Buhrmese style, which forms a three point structure to stabilize the body. Our left hand inside the right, with our thumbs touching but not touching. The shoulders are relaxed, and the back is straight. Keep your mind in between the thumbs. Breathe deep into the hara (the middle of the body) using our spiritual muscle, which is the diaphragm. The eyes are slightly open, looking about 3 meters ahead with the head straight up. Beginning students start by counting the breaths from one to ten on every exhale. When we get distracted, we come back to one, back to the present. In slowing our thoughts down, we become more centered in this moment. It’s not easy for anyone — it’s a very difficult practice. But, for someone with great heart and great desperation to look inward and see who they are and who the people are around them, it is a very meaningful practice.
So, what can someone who has never sat Zazen, or never practiced with you, expect when they come in for their first sit?
The benefits of Zazen practice are great. The peace of mind one can achieve through siting meditation is great. It’s just as important as yoga — it’s yoga for the mind. They can expect a sitting Zazen practice in stillness and quietness together. For the beginning student it’s very difficult because this is probably the first time that they’ve faced their busy mind. And the ego doesn’t like it. The ego hates it. It says, “I have better things to do rather than face myself.” The Buddha allegedly said, “A man who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand men in battle.” And that’s what Zazen practice is about. It’s about facing yourself.
Why should someone come to sit Zazen with a group? Can’t they just do it at home on their own?
This practice of sitting together supports each other. The group of Buddhist practitioners is called the Shanga. In the beginning, sitting by yourself would be very difficult, so we support each other’s practice of being alone . . . together.
Where can people go to find out more about you, or about Zazen in general?
You can Google search me: Ryshin Malone. I am the Vice President of the Engage Zen Foundation, which is my father’s foundation. We are a non-profit organization. This Zendo is called Wild Horse Zendo, which can be found on Facebook, primarily. We do sitting practice every Tuesday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00. We also do Wednesday mornings from 6:00 to 8:00, Sunday mornings from 9:00 to 11:00, and Sunday evenings from 7:00 to 9:00. Please come at least 10 minutes before Zazen to receive sitting instructions.