Zen focus, or lack thereof

Given the hectic month I’ve had, perhaps it’s time to revisit good ol fashioned Buddhist meditation. This was inspired by two excellent cartoons by Sinfest: here and then here. Stop and visit Sinfest if you haven’t already, and enjoy the good comics there. :)

The trouble for me has not been meditation itself, but trying to work it in the life of a busy parent, with a demanding work schedule. As always happens in the past, my life gets sufficiently interrupted that I lose the routine, or I hung up on details (e.g. “Is this position ok or not?”, “Eyes open or closed?”), lose motivation and give up. The former I guess I can’t do anything about, the latter I need good advice on.

I do have a separate home practice I do almost daily, inspired by my visit to Japan and with advice from the local Shingon priest here, but this is sort of a basic lay-devotional practice. I think there’s some benefit to simultaneously practicing meditation as well if only I could do it.

As another comic, Savage Chickens shows, it’s useful even when you’re being useless. ;)

Advice appreciate if you have it, thanks!

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12 Comments on “Zen focus, or lack thereof”

  1. Mark says:

    I also have a tendency (not as bad as it used to be) to get caught up in the “I’m not doing it right, so what’s the point?” self-talk. I’d say just keep telling yourself that it’s more important to be consistent than anything else, at least in the beginning. Pick a method (eyes open or closed, counting breaths or watching breaths, etc.), stick with it for 5 or 10 minutes a day, and just do the best you can. If I’m not careful, this kind of thinking can throw me off track for months.

    btw, I’m curious as to what your “lay devotional practice” is like these days.


  2. Doug says:

    Hi Mark,

    It’s good advice I think: pick one style, strategy you can do and stick with it regardless. Now I only have to pick one. ;)

    As for lay devotional practice, I prefer not to say (not sure if it violates the whole “esoteric Buddhist” confidentiality or not) though among other things I recite the Heart Sutra and the Mantra of Light. Pretty standard stuff in Shingon. More on the Mantra of Light in a later post. :D

  3. warriortwo says:

    Ah, ye olde “Argh, I can’t stop thinking!” routine. The secret is to let go of doing it right. There isn’t some cosmic buddha judging your performance, nor does it detract from the experience if your mind wanders. Minds do that; it’s impossible to stop them completely. I advise treating it more like a lighthearted game, just to see how long you can go without thinking, and when you see the thoughts again, just gently go back to the not thinking. That’s all. Don’t sweat it. The most important thing is showing up.

  4. warriortwo says:

    Oh, and the showing up part: it helps me to pick a time of the day that I can live with, and try it out. I have a coworker that meditates right before bed every night. I do it about an hour before bed, right when I take my medication. Set an alarm if you have to, and don’t worry if you only get to it a few times a week. It takes practice and adjustment to find what works for you.

  5. rory says:

    Doug; Shingon has so much visualization meditation. Ajikan is great, I think that’s more your cup of tea for a mind like yours. Not everyone is made for zen, it’s not a one size fits all dharma world;-) I was at the temple sunday where we did precisely Southern style Ch’an, and it was hard, but much easier with a group & also we chanted sutras, listened to dharma lecture, prostrated, there was a variety and that’s what suits me.

  6. Doug says:


    WarriorTwo: Time of day would be nice; I thought of that. But my schedule varies wildly depending on the needs of work and three year old. One morning I’ll have a meeting at 6am with remote offices in the EU, another day I might be working until 11pm. Sometimes, both. The rest of the time depends on the little one, and whether she’ll go to bed (or wake up) at the proper time. :p

    Rory: I would love to see what Shingon-style meditation is like, but I haven’t been involved long enough to receive such training, nor have I had any esoteric initiation whatsoever. For now, it’s me doing lay-devotional stuff I learned from the priest there, but obviously if I could go more often (re: schedule), I am sure I would have the chance to learn. Until then though…

  7. rory says:

    Doug; sure I understand. It’s hard with your schedule. Keep persevering with Shingon, you’ll love it.
    Since you enjoy reading about Hosso etc. A meditation that I loved at the Tendai temple was contemplation. We’d sit in meditation and contemplate the meaning of a passage. It all gives you one-pointed concentration. Sutra chanting is a very powerful technique too, but it’s usually not presented this way.

  8. johnl says:

    As for finding time to meditate–it might be just wishful thinking, but in my experience, staying up 30 minutes later to meditate does not cause symptoms of insufficient sleep–meditation seems to give me some of the benefits of sleep.

    As for ajikan–yes it is an esoteric practice, and our sempai Rev Eijo maintains that it is an advanced practice. However, at the Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin (maybe elsewhere?) there is a twice-monthly ajikan class open to the public. It must be watered down a bit, but I have not experienced the ‘real’ thing, so I find the ‘public version’ very satisfying. There is no charge and you can join the tea-and-sembei talk afterwards. If you are coming to Tokyo, you can check the betsuin website (in Japanese only). It is usually the second and fourth Saturdays from 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM. You can also make a reservation to give it a try (for a small donation) at Koyasan itself. The Koyasan website has some info in English.

  9. rory says:

    John; I was taught Ajikan as a Tendai shamini at the betsuin and empowered to give it to lay people. So I think this is a broad attitude. It is deep, but like many deep things appears simple; it’s experiental I would say. But I’m a beginner too.

  10. eijo says:

    Two points, (1) is Ajikan an advanced or a beginner’s practice in Shingon, and (2) who can teach it in Shingon. Sorry this is wandering from Doug’s original post.

    (1) Ajikan is an abbreviated practice. In Shingon, an abbreviation require knowledge and experience of the full practice it is based on. Abbreviations are thus advanced in Shingon, and long or detailed practices are suitable for people on the early stages of training, i.e. shido kegyo. Genuine Ajikan cannot be grasped or practiced correctly in the Shingon context without shido kegyo and denbo kanjo, and considerable study afterwards including doctrinal study. However, a simplified and “lay-ified” form has been taught at many Shingon temples in Japan since the 1960s for certain reasons. There is nothing at all wrong with doing that, but I think the most critical point is to find a teacher who actually practices it everyday or nearly so.

    (2) I have no idea about Tendai, and cannot comment on that, but in Shingon no one can teach any form of Ajikan without first finishing shido kegyo and receiving dembo kanjo, and formally studying Ajikan afterwards and receiving qualification to teach it. Its not a question of the “broadness” of any attitude, its a question of guarding against wrong and possibly damaging teachings, concerning things that are really quite difficult though seemingly simple, being given out by people who are basically themselves beginners. This will hurt the beginning students, and maybe even create wrong impressions which may take a long time to correct, if even possible. This danger is not a part of the lay version that John mentions, providing it is taught correctly by someone who has finished the above and is qualified to teach. Which is the case with the place where John goes.

  11. Gonshin says:

    I have practiced and trained at the Tendai Betsuin (Teaching temple) for 5 years now.
    1) I have never heard the term “Tendai Shamini” used so I don’t know from where that term usage originates.
    2) A simplified version of Ajikan is performed, lead by ordained practitioners. Never, in the 5 years I’ve been visiting the temple nor in any memory of my ordained friends have lay-practitioners been authorized to teach, or as Rory says, “empowered” to give Ajikan.

    I think there is likely a confusion regarding the nature of Ajikan and a bit of confusion regarding some of the basic concentration/visualization meditation practices that are taught as illustrations of different kinds of meditation.

    All of these practices need to be learned from well-trained and authorized (as in they still have a living and active linkage to Japan) teachers.

    Aside from that, I enjoyed your posting!


  12. Doug says:

    Hello Everyone,

    I’ve been watching this thread of course, and I greatly appreciate the input by Rev. Eijo and Gonshin (welcome both to the JLR) in clarifying the role of Ajikan meditation. I have no experience with it myself, and will not presume to have any knowledge of it either.

    As I’ve stated here and there on the blog, it’s vitally important to learn esoteric training through an accredited priest in good reputation through a comprehensive program, otherwise the waters get kind of muddy and confused.

    I’m closing the post for comments as I think we’ve heard the final word. Thanks everyone!