What is Buddhism
Nearly 2600 years ago in Lumbini, now Nepal, a prince named Siddharta Gautama was born. Although surrounded by wealth and power he came to realize that this seeming abundance did not give rise to geniune happiness, and that all living beings suffer.
Hence, he began to explore ascetic practices and after six years of meditation he discovered the path to obtaining everlasting happiness and enlightenment. He became known as the Buddha, the “Enlightened One” and he began to propagate the truth of the way things are: the Dharma.
With time his teachings spread throughout Asia, from India.a to Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. In each country Buddhism absorbed the local traditions and philosophies as it mutated and evolved becoming unique in its own forms, while preserving its core teachings and principles.
Japan's Buddhist-Shinto Medley
Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th century through Korea, mainly for political reasons as Japan was trying to establish better diplomatic relations with Korea and China. It was principally embraced by the Japanese imperial court, while the rest of the country continued to observe the Japanese indigenous faith Shintō (神道 Shintō) or Kami no michi (Way of the Gods), an animistic practice that venerates the spirits or phenomena expressed through such things as mountains, lakes, rivers, landscapes, plants, and forces of nature. Unlike Buddhist texts, the earliest Japanese Shintō sacred writings (Kojiki) and (Nihon Shoki) do not refer to a unified religion, but rather to a collection of native beliefs, rituals, and mythology.
In the late 7th century Buddhism began to spread to common people in society, as Buddhist temples became often used not only as places of worship, but also as schools, hospitals, orphanages and therefore more accessible to common people.
Vajrayana Buddhism or Mikkyō
The first wave of Buddhism brought numerous sutra (sermons of the Buddha) from China with its practices focused largely on the theoretical study of its tenets, limiting its practical access to educated court families. The first shift began during the Heian period (795-1185) when the Buddhist monk Saichō founded the Tendai school of esoteric Buddhism known as Mikkyo (密教: secret teachings). Saicho criticized how Buddhism in Japan had become too entwined with the political classes, and in contrast he introduced the concept of "Issai shujō shitsuu busshō" (一切衆生悉有仏性 ) "All sentient beings universally possess Buddha-nature without exception".
Saicho preached that through meaningful effort and practice that anyone can liberate oneself from suffering and become a Buddha.
In 806 B.C. Kūkai (空海) a scholar, poet, calligraphy, and monk, known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師: The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching) returned from his training in China as the eighth Patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism bringing with him the teachings of the renowned Chinese master of esoteric Buddhism, Hui-kuo (746–805; Japanese: Keika) and founded the Shingon (“True Word”) sect on Mount Kōya in west-central Japan.
One of the pillars of Kūkai’s teachings are the Three Mysteries (三密: Sanmitsu) or trinity, of The Secret of Body (Mudra: specific hand gestures) The Secret of Speech, (Mantra: formulas of invocation) and The Secret of Mind (Mandala: visualization of the Buddha, deities, symbols and forms). These practices combined allow the practitioner to become a receptacle for the power of the Buddhas and therefore acquire their qualities and enlightened nature.
Mikkyō and Ajikan Meditation
An additional element of Shingon teaching that aims at achieving enlightenment, where the activation of the Three Mysteries becomes the vehicle of the practice is Ajikan meditation (阿字観: Ajikan) which focuses on the sound, form, and meaning of the Sanskrit syllable ‘A’ the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet and depicted in the Shittan (Sanskrit: Siddham) script taking the form of a hanging scroll. 'A' is considered to be the supreme syllable, simultaneously, the beginning of everything, pervading everything, and symbolizing the truth that is impossible to express, the universal void of potentiality for all phenomena.
From the Kamakura period (1185-1333) a new concept of Buddhism arose, the concept of Mappō or “Age of Dharma Decline” indicating that over time society becomes so corrupt that people can no longer effectively put the teachings of the Buddha into practice and therefore it becomes impossible to escape from the cycle of rebirths and suffering.
This led to the need for a radical change in the the teachings which happened in two ways: first, by going back to the origin of the practice and embracing meditation through the practices of Zen; secondly, by breaking the conventions of the old teachings and providing the people with a practice that anybody could use toward enlightenment. Devotion to Amitābha as expressed in the Nembutsu taught by the Jōdō-shū (浄土宗: The Pure Land School) is an example of this breaking of convention.
Sōtō and Rinzai Zen Buddhism
Buddhist meditation encompasses a variety of techniques that aim to develop mindfulness, concentration, supramundane powers, tranquility, and insight. Certain schools, however, put special emphasis on zazen (座禅) ( “seated meditation”) as a meditative discipline perhaps best exemplified by Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is mainly divided into two schools, Sōtō Zen and Rinzai Zen where both of them preach the returning to the simplicity of the practice through seated meditation. There are, however, substantial differences between them.
Zen as taught in Rinzai Zen reached Japan through the monk Myōan Eisai with its practice focused on seated meditation and the use of the kōan (公案) translated as a riddle, story, dialogue, question, or statement for which the student has to provide an answer to show the progress of his practice. In Rinzai Zen Kōan are used to provoke doubt and test a student’s progress towards enlightenment.
Sōtō Zen on the other hand, understands the practice of Zazen as Shikantaza (只管打坐), or reaching enlightenment through a gradual approach by simply sitting. Of course the student does not just simply sit, but is the mindful of the here and now, embracing this exact moment that reconnects the practitioner to his or her own inner Buddha-nature, and therefore allows one to realize the fundamental truth: that we are already enlightened.
Posture as a Fundamental of Seated Meditation
Whether you choose to practice Mikkyō Ajikan, Soto, or Rinzai Zen Buddhism the importance of one’s seated meditation posture cannot be overstated. With the legs folded the standard sitting styles are Kekkafuza (結跏趺坐: full-lotus) and Hankafuza (半跏趺坐: half-lotus).
As Kūkai explains: “Place a cushion and sit in full or half lotus. Form the Dharma Realm Samadhi Mudra (both hands in the lap and the right on top of left and your thumbs gently touching forming a circle with your palms turned . It symbolizes the Buddha in a state of meditation) and have your eyes neither fully opened nor closed. If they are open they will move and distract you, while if they are closed, they will sink into sleep. Narrow your eyelids without blinking and fix both eyes on the bridge of the nose. If the tongue is put to the palate, just behind the teeth, the breath will quite for itself. Do not shift or bend the lower back, but sit straight to aid the circulation. If the blood circulation is impaired, illness may arise, or the mind might become disturbed. ...”.
The correct positioning of the body not only allows the practitioner to sit for longer during meditation sessions, without tiring and stressing the body, but also facilitates correct deep breathing and blood circulation. As the Buddha obtained enlightenment through simply sitting under the Bodhi Tree so too must the practitioner investigate within himself or herself by simply sitting. Using our handmade best quality zafu (座蒲: meditation cushion) the practitioner is able to stabilize the hips and lengthen the spine while rooting his or her knees to the ground to create a solid tripod-shaped base. Our handmade round pleated zafu raises your hips and keeps your spine in its natural alignments without bending your lower back, so your chest, shoulders, and neck relax and the breathing stabilizes. One should sit on the edge of cushion so that the thighs slope slightly downward.
Choosing the Best Quality Meditation Cushion
All our Feel the Zen pillows are handmade in Kyoto, Japan where skilled artisans preserve time-honored traditions using only 100% Indian silk for inner wadding so that the cushion will maintain their original shape without deflating over time. Painstakingly hand sewn from selected textiles with the Japanese character for Zen (禅) embroidered in each cushion resulting in a beautifully customized meditation cushion that can also also be used as an elegant Japanese companion for your personal home décor, or be recommended by discerning interior designers and decorators, for your upscale clients to mix and match home or office design aesthetics, by combining different cushion prints with the artisan thread that ties them together. Individual and merchant orders welcome! Contact us for merchant discounts.