When Soin Satoshi Fujio, head priest of Dokuonji temple in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, attended his first Zoom meeting in February 2019 between Buddhist priests in Japan and India, he got an idea.
Fujio, who works with local community officials on suicide prevention and with those in hospice care, realized Zoom was a way to meet with people who couldn’t get to his temple. “Many have serious diseases or are hospitalized,” Fujio says, “and it can be difficult for them to come here.”
Then COVID-19 hit Japan. After canceling the March zazenkai (meditation meeting), participants soon asked about April. He decided to try online zazen (meditation), and with the help of Daigo Ozawa, chief abbott at Tokozenji temple in Yokohama, Fujio held his first session on April 4. Nearly 80 people joined. “I was really surprised,” he says, “not only at the turnout but because so many people came from around the world.”
Ozawa and other Zen Buddhist priests, including Takafumi Kawakami of Shunkoin and Toryo Ito of Ryosokuin, both deputy head priests at temples in Kyoto, also began offering online zazen in April. Held weekly, these sessions replace the pre-COVID-19 in-person monthly meetings at their temples, offering relief from the stress, grief and isolation of the pandemic. Participants from places such as the United States, Europe and Japan gather via Zoom for bilingual sessions that run from 30 to 90 minutes and include a meditation session, a short talk, and a chance to speak with the priest and other attendees.
Elizabeth Little, who has been joining Ozawa and Fujio’s sessions from her home in California, says, “The simple knowledge that we are all together in this pandemic experience reduces my sense of isolation. The weekly practices have given me something to look forward to, which has helped break the monotony of life in isolation.”
Zazen or seated meditation, a cornerstone of Zen Buddhism, arrived in Japan with the religion itself in the seventh century. For over 1,200 years, practitioners have sat on a cushion or chair, straightened their spines, focused on their breath, and let thoughts come and go. One result, Ozawa says, is relaxation, but the larger goal is a better understanding of the self, which is helpful in a crisis.
“During this pandemic we face questions such as ‘What was wrong with the way we used to live or the way society was built? What’s going to happen next? How should we live from now on?’, and it can be scary,” Ozawa explains. “Zazen helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses. You keep searching for your true self within your mind, always asking ‘What am I? Where do I stand? What should I really do?’”
Grappling with such big questions can be challenging, Kawakami advises, but necessary. “Tremendous stress makes us fixate on certain things and stop seeing the whole picture,” he says. “Meditation is about seeing how our surroundings influence our concept of actuality and vice versa. It can be uncomfortable, but we may discover something.”
Questions and discovery are integral to Ito’s Cloud Sitting sessions. Every 90 seconds, he poses a question to practitioners on topics such as confidence or belief that are meant to carry into the rest of the day or week.
“I try to offer various aspects of each word or idea,” Ito says. “Gradually, participants become familiar with the concept and see it in themselves. They realize they possess more qualities and capabilities than they realized. In this way, zazen makes us stronger when a big shock comes.”
According to Dr. Richard J. Davidson, neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, meditation can improve the function of certain systems in the brain, particularly those that help regulate emotion.
“This is essentially related to resilience,” Davidson says, “or the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. We can’t buffer ourselves from stressful life events, but research shows that meditation can strengthen these emotion regulation circuits in the brain and improve our capacity to recover. All of this suggests a whole pattern of response which can be improved through meditation that can help us deal with the kind of uncertainty the whole world is faced with today.”
While some of meditation’s effects, like relaxation, can be immediate, it also has long-term impacts, like resilience. If practitioners stick with it, that is.
“It’s like physical exercise,” Davidson says. “No one thinks that they can work out with a trainer for several weeks then stop exercising and expect those benefits to endure. The same is true with meditation. With continued practice, these changes can endure.
“The goal,” Davidson continues, “is not to produce some pleasant or unusual experience during meditation. We practice because of the impact it has on our everyday life.”
Marko Stoic, currently living in Ibaraki Prefecture and a regular attendee of Ozawa’s sessions, agrees. “Regular practice eliminates those emotional surges we sometimes experience when unforeseen situations occur,” he says. “When I realized I could become calm much faster with daily meditation, I accepted things as they were and continued with my daily life to the best of my abilities.”
For now, all four priests plan to continue offering online sessions. They have found an expansion of their communities and a simple way to safely offer their services in a time of social distancing, ongoing uncertainty and unrest.
“Especially now, everyone keeps changing and their surroundings keep changing,” Kawakami observes. “But it’s also about having community, practicing together, creating a safe place and being authentic. This is a tremendous learning opportunity.”
Cloud Sitting: Days and times for the 45-minute sessions vary; suggested donation from ¥1,000. Register via sleeep.io/experience/cloud/sitting.Dokuonji Online Zazen: Every Saturday, 8-9:30 p.m; free. Register by contacting Fujio directly at www.facebook.com/soin.fujio.Shunkoin Online Zen Meditation and Dharma Talk: Days and times for Japanese and English sessions vary; suggested donations from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000 (free for doctors and medical workers fighting COVID-19). Register via shunkoin.com/schedule.Tokozenji Zazen Session Online: Every Wednesday, 9-10 p.m; free. Register via www.tokozenji.or.jp/english.