Aug 31, 2010

Vipassana Meditation Course 03

I found some pictures of the site on the course webpage. This first picture is the largest building as seen from the garden which also functions as a walking area for the women. The men's walking area is across a road to the right.

This little picture shows the men's dining room. In the far corner, if you look carefully, you can see the TV which we used to view the evening dhamma talks by Goenkaji.

This final picture shows the room that I slept in. However, when I was there, the students in it were all new students so we were allowed beds. The room had seven wood frame beds with just enough room around them to move around. We kept all our belongings in the bags in which we had brought them and under our beds.

Vipassana Meditation Course 02

At 7 p.m. one of the old students walked through the building ringing a gong. This was the signal for us to go to the dining hall for an orientation. We were given the rules for the next 10 days and told the details that we needed to know for organizing our lives. This covered things like where to wash our clothes, schedules, and things like that. They also said that starting when we left this meeting the rule of 'noble silence' was in effect. This meant that we could not talk to the other students, nor communicate with them using signals or hand gestures. This rule would be in effect until some time during the afternoon of the tenth day of the course. We could talk to the teacher about our meditation or to the old student who was acting as course manager about any other problems, but otherwise we were to try to act as if we were living alone.

When this orientation was over, we all went to the meditation hall for the first time. It was in the middle of the second floor of the largest building and was very spacious. I guessed that it was about 15x30 meters. It was set up so that as we entered, there were cushions on the floor in front of us. A piece of paper with the name of the person who was to sit there was taped to the floor in front of each cushion. I was to sit in a chair and my seat was in the corner on the right of the door. About 10 meters into the room there were to pillars and the men's cushions were all on the door side of these. About 10 meters beyond these pillars were another pair and then there were cushions for the women. The space in the middle was completely empty, but on the right side there was a door and on the left an alcove with a bench-like place covered with white cloth. There was also a cabinet containing a tape player, controls for the lighting, and some other stuff.

After we had all found our seats, the teachers came in through the door and walked to the alcove where they sat lotus position on the bench. There were two teachers, actually assistant teachers as I will explain in a moment, Patrick Klein and his wife Sachiko. Patrick spoke in English and his wife spoke Japanese. Also lined up against the wall on either side of the alcove were the old students who were assisting with the course, men on the men's side and the women on the other. These men consisted of the course manager, the administrator, and the head cook. There were five women sitting in their row but I had no contact with them so I do not know what functions they performed. From what I could see, it appeared that there were about 30 men altogether and more than 40 women. Ages seem to run from college students up to me. There were at least two men, other than me, who were over sixty, but the majority were in their 20s and 30s.

At this point I discovered that the teacher of the course was S. N. Goenka, commonly referred to as Goenkaji, but he would only appear in tape recordings and videos. Actual contact with the students would be through the Kleins.

The program started with tape recording of a long session of chanting, or maybe I should say singing, by Goenkaji. I knew that some of it was in Pali but some of it did not sound like this language. I later learned that it was Hindi. Goenkaji has a very strange voice and his 'chanting' has a very hypnotic effect. When the chanting was over, he started to explain the course and what we would be doing. He would speak for a sentence or two and then a Japanese women's voice would pop up and translate.

During the course of the next hour or so, we completed a number of formalities. First we all chanted the following in Pali:

Buddham saranam gacchami
dhammam saranam gacchami
sangham saranam gacchami

In English:
I go to the Buddha for refuge
I go to the dhamma for refuge
I go to the sanga for refuge.

Goenkaji explained that going to the Buddha for refuge actually meant that we were using the Buddha's characteristics as guide, not treating him like a god. The dhamma refers to what he called the natural law of how the world works and the sangha referred to the teachers and their teachers, who would tell us about the Buddha and dhamma. He made a big point about our not treating Buddha as anything other than a man and the lack of conflict between what we were going to be doing and religions such as Christianity and the other major religions. He also pointed out that it was not another sect of Buddhism but rather was completely nonsectarian. I should point out that in almost every Buddhist sect reciting this phrase makes the speaker at least a nominal Buddhist.

We also recited something that was much longer and according to Goenkaji's translation and explanation consisted of a formal appeal to the teacher (him) for the teaching.

Finally we took the precepts. The following is taken from the course website.
All who attend a Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
  1. to abstain from killing any being;
  2. to abstain from stealing;
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
  4. to abstain from telling lies;
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants.

There are three additional precepts which old students (that is, those who have completed a course with S.N. Goenka or one of his assistant teachers) are expected to follow during the course:

  1. to abstain from eating after midday;
  2. to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations
  3. to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
I have never figured out why they continue to apply number 8, especially considering that most Japanese do not sleep in beds anyway. I believe that it Southeast or South Asian cultural heritage - rich people sleep in beds - that had it included and now no one wants to remove it. Goenkaji talked about the first seven precepts but did not try to explain the eighth.

During the talk Goenkaji also talk about the foundation of the practice which is sīla — moral conduct. And that Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight. He said that the precepts would guarantee our moral conduct and that we would now start working on samadi through a type of meditation that would increase our concentration. He explain that this was not Vipassana through which we would develop panna. We practiced this meditation for a few minutes. It was simply paying attention to each breath as it came in and went out. We were then given the schedule for the next day and the following days.
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out

Finally we were sent to bed for the night.

[Tomorrow I will discuss my daily routine in detail.]

Aug 30, 2010

Vipassana Meditation Course

Beginning at the beginning is usually a good idea, so I will start there. At six thirty on Aug 17, my wife, daughter, granddaughter, and I got into a taxi and headed for Sendai Station. We boarded the 7:20 Shinkansen for Tokyo and arrived there just under two hours later. I said goodbye to my family (they were going to my daughter's home in Kawasaki), changed platforms, and after about 20 minutes left for Kyoto aboard another Shinkansen. I arrived after a two and a half hour trip, during which I read a book about Buddhist Logic. I knew that I would have a half hour wait until my train on a local line departed, so I had lunch at a station restaurant and bought a snack for the trip. I decided to find the correct platform and wait there. I discovered that the train was already waiting and I was able to board and find a comfortable seat. While waiting, I ate my snack. As always with Japanese trains, it departed on time, and I found the 35-minute ride delightful. We passed through a series of tunnels that opened into narrow, steep-sided river valleys that were absolutely beautiful. We went straight across each on a bridge, entering the next tunnel almost immediately. One stations was actually on a bridge between the tunnels. I wanted to get out and draw the scenery.

At Sonobe Station, I got out and had to wait 20 minutes for a bus. It was very hot, a hint of things to come, so I found some shade and waited. The bus arrived on time. It was an easy 30 minute trip that ended at a depot, so there was no chance of my missing my stop. The depot was in the middle of a small town that was mostly one and two story private houses with a few shops scattered in between. The paperwork that I had received said that the Vipassana Center would automatically send a car for us.

At this point I should say that I will not have any pictures of my retreat. The paperwork had said that cameras were not allowed so I left my at home.

No car arrived, but there were some pretty young women with bags or backpacks standing around in the same area. A few quick questions and we discovered that we were all going to the center, so we chatted for the few more minutes elapsed before the car arrived.

For me, this is where the retreat actually started. The very pleasant man who was driving, put our bags in the back of the minibus. He put the women's bags on one side and the men's on the other. He then made separated us by sex so that the two men crowded into the front seat and the three women relaxed in the spacious two rows of back seats.

About 15 minutes later, we pulled off the narrow valley road onto a dirt road and arrived. The Center consisted of one large (about 15x45 meters) building, two two-story buildings with a one story section between them, and a one-story prefab building. There were also two other small one story buildings that turned out to contains showers, toilets, and clothes washing facilities (sinks, a spin dryer, and a covered hanging area).

As soon as the car stopped, the women were given their bags and herded around to the other side of the buildings. I had no further contact with them. I was given my bag and guided to the second floor of the building nearest the large one. It turned out to be the men's dining room, but it was also used for other purposes. Today it was going to be in-processing - men on the second floor and women on the first.

In-processing consisted of first filling out a form for the teacher. It was mostly about out meditative history and our willingness to follow the program. When I finished the form and turned it in, they gave me two cloth bags. I was to put my wallet in one and all of the things that I was not supposed to have in the other. They would keep these during the course and return them on the last morning. I put my wallet in one bag and my cell phone and the book on Buddhist logic in the other.

You will notice that I did not mention paying fees for the course. That is because it was completely free. There is no charge at all for room and board, nor for the instruction. At the end of the course they said they would ask for donations to support future students and to fund the expansion of the facility.

The list of things that we were not to have was quite impressive. We were not to keep reading or writing materials, tobacco, alcohol, drugs or religious objects of any kind. Actually there was a long list on a poster and basically you were to keep your clothes and toilet articles and give them everything else. I had not brought sheets or a pillow case, so I borrow them from the Center, paying them 500 yen in advance for the cleaning costs.

We were given a room number, the room where we would sleep, and a piece of paper with our name, course, and whether we were a 'new student' or an 'old student'. The paper had a piece of tape attached and were were told to put it on the headboard of our bed.

All of the bedrooms were in the largest building: women on one side and men on the other, with a large meditation room occupying a large part of the center of the second floor. I was in a room with six other men and we spent about an hour talking. We did not have to unpack because there was no place to put anything. We kept our clothes in our bags under our beds. Besides myself, there were two foreigners in the room. One an English teacher from Kobe, who was actually a professional musician but taught to feed himself and his family. The other was a man from Nepal. One of the remaining Japanese was apparently around sixty and the rest were in their 20s or early 30s.

We chatted for a while and then the gong rang for the evening meal. On this one day they actually served a regular meal, vegetarian of course, but a full meal. After the meal, we were told to report to the meditation room in the center of the second floor. We returned to our rooms and out getting to know each other chatting. At 7 p.m., the gong rang again and we all filed up the stairs to the mediation room for our orientation, the actual start of the course.

[I will continue from here tomorrow.]

Aug 16, 2010


Early tomorrow morning I am leaving Sendai to go to Kyoto, actually the countryside about 40 kilometers from Kyoto Station, where I will be doing a 10-day meditation retreat. I will be completely cut off from the outside world, no electronics at all. I will meditate for more than 10 hours a day and attend a couple of hours of lectures. The rules are very strict: 100% vegetarian diet, no eating after noontime, no talking except to the staff, no communication of any kind with the other students, not even body language.

The program will end on August 28th and I expect to be back in Sendai late in the evening of that day. I will not be posting anything after this to this blog until the 29th. I plan to write something about the experience but I will not be able to post pictures, since cameras are not allowed.

This evening, if the weather holds, the local shrinewill be holding a festival. The shrine is less than 400 meters from my building. I believe that they will put little floats with candles in the river, sell food and drink, including beer, in an open space between the shrine and the river, and have fireworks. According to a flier that we got, there is going to be 2500 individual fireworks shot up between 8 and 9 p.m. The weather is not very good but it is supposed to clear and be very hot. I am planning to go to the festival and take my camera. If I do, I will post the pictures after I return from my retreat.

Hope you all have a good two weeks, the last two of summer.

Sendai Station and then walking home 08

This is typical of much of Sendai. They tear down a building that is not being rented and turn it into a parking lot. As far as I can find out, a parking lot brings in between 10,000 and 15,000 per car per month and the taxes are low because there is no building. Even when a space is going to be used for a new building, they usually turn it into a parking lot for six months to a year before construction is started on the new building.
There is a low series of hills between Sendai and my apartment. The road actually only goes over one of them, through a sort of pass. On either side of the road there are higher hills. The beginning of the hill marks the end of Sendai. Of course the house are still densely packed, so the end is psychological rather than physical. On the Sendai side of the hill, at the base, there is a narrow river that is lined with apartment houses.
About half way up the hill there is a gaudy shopping complex that is open 24/7.
A hundred meters before the crest of the pass, there is a building that is completely buried in ivy. I have not been able to tell if anyone lives there or not, but it contains six small apartments.
Between the ivy covered building and the crest is my favorite building in Sendai. I looks to me like something that I would see if I went to somewhere in old Italy.

Aug 15, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 07

This is more of the area near Ian's office. I know that he does not work in this building. He works somewhere deeper into the compound.This is just a little further up the road, looking back toward the site of the previous pictures. In spite of all the trees, this is the main road between the area where I live and downtown Sendai. There are other possible routes but they are at least two or three times as long.
This is across the street from the last picture. It shows what I think are dormitories for the foreign students who attend Tohoku University. There are a large number of them and used to have many in my classes when I taught there. Most of them are Chinese, from southeast Asia, or from eastern Europe.
Some one keeps this row of planters on the fence around the foreign students' dorm. Even in winter when the ground is covered with snow, there are brightly blooming flowers along here.

Aug 14, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 06

As I said, Sendai has many parks. This wooded area is a fairly large park, close to 100 meters on each side. I took these pictures pictures on August 9th, but I walked by again yesterday, August 13th and saw something quite unusual but did not have my camera with me. There was a small group of what looked like teenagers - 3 females and 2 males, I think. Plus there was a tall male who looked to be in his 30s or early 40s. He was acting as drill master and the other five were doing close order drill. It reminded me of my army days. The also did some strange sort of salute, males doing a regular US military salute, but females placing their right arm across their chest. I have no idea who they might have been or why they were drilling. Maybe they were part of some cult.
This corner, in front of the whitish building, used to have a gas station. But earlier this year they tore it down and now it is a parking lot. Eventually they will probably build something there, but considering the state of the economy it may be later rather than earlier.
This is the old building for a sake brewery. I think that they are now using the buildings behind it as the actual brewery.
A little further up the road, I came to a wooded area, at least a row of trees along the roadside that hides the building that Ian works in. His building is somewhere behind the trees. I have never been there so I do not know exactly where it is. Also he said that they moved his office two or three times since he started working there at the beginning of the year.

Aug 13, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 05

It is very easy for foreigners to get around in Japan. As you can see in the picture, most road signs are in both Japanese and English. This is true of trains and subways, too. There is one possible problem, however, and that is outside the cities in the true countryside there is much less English, although the main roads do have bilingual signs. This is the entrance to a park. You can just see one of the downtown buildings above the trees in the middle. Every year in the fall, they hold an Oktoberfest in this park. They set up tents in case of rain and have lots of booths selling beer and German sausages. They also have a lot of entertainment, German Oompa Pah bands and the such. However, one year when I went they had a bunch of Japanese women doing belly dance. Not exactly German, but what the heck, it comes from the other side of the world.
As I was walking up the sidewalk, I discovered this businessman making a phone call. I could hear his conversation as I passed - he was talking to his next customer. Many salesmen and people who call on customers used bicycles to get around. On rainy days they hold an umbrella in one hand and steer with the other.
Another of those old buildings nestled between the modern constructions. This one houses a very famous store which sells rice balls covered with bean paste. I love them and this store makes exceptionally delicious ones.

Aug 12, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 04

This is looking back toward Sendai Station, which is the last building you can see.As I was waiting for the light, a group of kindergarten kids arrived. The colored hats designate the classes and there is always a big cart for the youngest kids. Sometimes the kids are all tied together on a long rope. Older kids sometimes just hold a rope. When I first came to Japan, even 10 or 15 years ago, I would have created a sensation when the kids saw me. However, now there are enough foreigners around that they did not even notice me, which is a bit unusual considering my long hair and beard.
Many of the streets in Sendai have lines of trees down the middle. This is one of the things I like about the city - tree lined streets, and also the large number of parks.
This building is typical. The first floor has a clothing store, but all the upper floors are empty. The signs in the window contain the telephone number of the real estate agent. More and more buildings have empty space and even apartment buildings, especially those with small apartments designed for people living alone, have more and more empty space. The economy is definitely not improving yet.

Aug 11, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 03

This is the hallway that leads to the northern most exit from the station. On the left is a very popular restaurant that specializes in gyuton, beef tongue. Around meal times, especially at noon, there are lines waiting to get in. On the left is a small store that sells mostly drinks, snacks and magazines.I left the station and walked north toward home. A few hundred meters away from the station I found this delightful scene. A little old fashion house nestled between large modern buildings. This is quite typical of downtown Sendai, however, such scenes are gradually being replaced with a solid wall of new buildings.
Further up the street I ran into another alien in front of a restaurant. I wonder if he has the proper visa for the job.
At the next big cross street, I look to my right and saw a building with a huge nude statue in front of it. I have no idea why it is there. The building just seems to be an office building like numerous others in the city.

Aug 10, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home 02

This is at the other end of the ticket office. The machines are for people who have something uncomplicated and one way to buy. The machines are quicker than the booths that I used, but you must know exactly what you want. I was able to simply say when I wanted to arrive in Kyoto and the clerk searched out the best trains, even considering the time between connections in Tokyo.This is another bank of machines outside the ticket office. These are for trains that leave on the same day.
This is the actual entrance to the Shinkansen platforms. Everything is automated. My kids usually order their tickets through their cell phones and then just place the phone on a special panel to get in. Naomi told me that in Tokyo you can use your phone for almost everything - trains, subway, Shinkansen, drinks and snacks, etc.
The Shinkansen platforms are on the fourth floor and the ticket office is on the third. The second floor, which you can see in the following picture, has ticket machines and the entrance wickets for the local trains, the platforms for which are on the first floor. The first floor also contains restaurants and stores, as well as access to the basement that contains many more restaurants and stores.

Aug 9, 2010

Sendai Station and then walking home

Today Naomi and I went to Sendai Station. I was buying tickets to Kyoto and she will accompany me as far as Tokyo. She will be going home, while I am going on a 10-day meditation retreat. This is still Obon time, the week during the summer when most of Japan tries to return to their ancestral home to honor their ancestors by cleaning the family grave stone and getting together with their living relatives.

The line for tickets was not as crowded as usual; there were only a few people ahead of us. Also all eleven of the sales booths were occupied so things went quickly. The computer system is old but seems to work well. Although most of the trains were standing room only, we got seats on a train leaving Sendai at 7:20 a.m.
This is looking back in the door after we had our tickets in hand. We had been served by a woman at number 11. The red lines mark the line for people waiting to buy tickets and as you can see this part of the line was empty - something which is very unusual.
Turning around, I was facing a row of booths selling souvenirs, I guess you could call them, but most of the stuff is edible. It is a custom in Japan that, when you take a trip, you bring the specialties of the place you visit to all your friends and relatives. Most people return from a trip with an extra shopping bag full of goodies. These booths sell beef tongue, a Sendai specialty. It comes in all forms, fresh, frozen, smoked, pickled, and any other way that you can think of.
This is the hall way that runs from the ticket office down to the entrance to platforms.

Aug 7, 2010

My neighborhood

The landscaping around our apartment building is quite nice. This is the view from the street back toward our building. My apartment is out of sight on the left.The street that we are on is just a narrow side street, but we have a wide sidewalk and another path that goes around the buildings. This is the point at which they divide.
The sidewalk ends at a t-intersection and there is a mailbox. The symbol consisting of two horizontal lines with a vertical line below and connecting the bottom of the two horizontal lines is the post of mark. It is used on mail to distinguish zip codes from other numbers and on mailboxes and signs outside of post offices. Oh, it is also used on maps to indicate the location of a post office. This symbol is actually one of the kana phonetic characters. It is the katakana character standing for the sound /te/, where the /e/ is pronounced as the name of the letter A. It is appropriate because it is the first sound in the Japanese word for letter tegami.
A couple of hundred meters up the street, there is a grade school. It is only a few years old and was built partly because of all the kids that live in our complex.

Aug 6, 2010

Thursday evenings at Tohoku Gakuin University 04

In the last picture in yesterday's post, you may have noticed a machine in the right side of the last picture. That machine and the two in this picture are typical of Japanese universities. The coin operated machines give the students all the official documents that they used to have to talk to a human to obtain. They punch a button saying what they want, type in their student number, drop the money in the slot, and after a few seconds out pops the official document. It is faster than the old method and frees the office staff to spend more time finding ways to bug the teachers.

The yellow lines are one most sidewalks, public buildings, and the such. They are for people who are blind or nearly blind. The yellow is supposedly the most visible color to such people and the pattern is raised so that you can feel it with your feet.
The lounge for the part time teachers is on the second floor. There is a young woman, a student, I think, who is available to assist you if you have a problem. Against the far wall is an area with free coffee and tea. The mailboxes are behind me, as well as the sign-in book. I usually sit at the table, but often decide on the sofas. The sofas are quite uncomfortable because the seats are so low. My knees stick up in the air and it is very difficult to stand up.
In a room across the hall, there are copy machines that the teachers can use. Most Japanese universities require the teachers to do their own copying. So we have high paid professors spend time standing at a copy machine, while it produces handouts for the professor's next class. Overall it is very inefficient, but it is in total agreement in the Japanese sense equality.
On the day that I took these pictures, I nosed around a bit and in a corner found an old word processor with appeared to be a built-in dot matrix printer. I suspect that it has been sitting there unused, since the building was finished and that before that it was sitting unused somewhere else. The accounting rules for schools make it extremely difficult to get rid of old out-of-date equipment. Most universities have storage rooms full of old electronics that no one wants to use but that they can not discard. Recently many schools have resorted to leasing their electronics so that when they need to be replaced, the leasing company will take the machines away.

Aug 5, 2010

Thursday evenings at Tohoku Gakuin University 03

While there is a rumor that there is a main gate to the campus somewhere, this is the way that almost every enters, even if it mains walking into the sun.
The path turns to the left and goes between two buildings. My classroom is on the third floor of the building to the right, actually the door is in the center of the picture.
Entering that door and crossing a narrow hall, you emerge again in what in most schools would be called the quad. My current goal, the administrative building, is straight ahead.
Just inside the building is a huge office. If I need a CD player for class, I get it here. Also if I have a problem of any sort, there are people inside who will try to sort it out.
However, I do not normal stop here. I go to a room on the second floor. The sign in book is there as well as my mailbox and a room where I can make copies.

Aug 4, 2010

Thursday evenings at Tohoku Gakuin University 02

Between the station and the school, there is a public building that has a very nice garden. I have never seen anyone walking or sitting in it, which is a shame. It is an oasis of quiet and greenery in the middle of the noisy city.Across the road, is the main building of the hospital. I have only been in the once as far as I can remember. I went to visit a friend who was hospitalized there.
At the first traffic light I turn right and enter a busy side street. As is often typical in Japan, there are three main roads that run more of less parallel. Two of them come together in front of the hospital, but the other just fades away and the only way for traffic to continue is to use this back road. It is always crowded.
The previous side road ends in a t-intersection and I turn right again on to another crowded road. The school is off to the left. The road from which the ambulance is emerging is the primary connection between the main roads so this intersection is always a mess.