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Return of Zen

A.M.A.Swamy, the Zen master

Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water,
After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.

A Zen saying

THE strident calls of a Grey Jungle Fowl herald the first light. Another day begins at the Bodhi Zendo. Silently, a group of men and women moves along the corridor into the glass-panelled meditation hall, which overlooks the valley. It is time for the first sitting of the day. The Zen master has already taken his place.

Bodhi Zendo, the Zen monastery, perched on top of a hill about 20 km from Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, symbolises the return of Zen, after nearly 1,500 years, to the land of its origin.

Zen practice developed in India as an offshoot of Buddhism. It was then known as Dhyan, meaning contemplation or meditation. A Zen teacher from India — Bodhidharma, of the Mahayana stream of Buddhism — is believed to have travelled to China where, according to history, he met the Chinese emperor Wu in 475 A.D.. Though the Mahayana school was by then already well established in China, the emperor Wu was deeply fascinated by Bodhidharma's teachings on meditation.

In meditation ... amidst tranquillity.

The teacher from India (from Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, to be precise) then travelled further north. Crossing the Yangtze river, he entered the Shorin temple and spent nine years there in mediation, always "facing the wall", which earned him the title — "the wall gazer". What Bodhidharma taught at the temple came to be known as Ch'an in Chinese, a close transliteration of its Indian name — Dhyan. It was during his stay there that Bodhidharma is said to have developed the well-known form of martial arts, Kung-fu. Bodhidharma was already quite old when he arrived in China; he did not establish any monastery in that country. However, he had four disciples, and he chose the best among them, a monk named Taiso Eka, to carry his message forward; the teacher himself died in 536 A.D.. Bodhidharma's teachings spread to Korea and Japan and flourished there for the next 400 years. Bodhidharma was strict with his students; he is depicted, in paintings and sculptures of that period, as a stern and fierce man.

When the Ch'an form travelled to Japan, it came to be known as Zen, the name by which it is commonly known. It is from here that Zen spread to the rest of the world. As Koryu-roshi, a Zen master of modern times, said: "The seed of Zen was sown in India, its flower blossomed in China and in Japan, it bore fruit." It was in Japan again that Zen became the catalyst for a remarkable cultural efflorescence and had a lasting impact on the life there, expressing itself in calligraphy, Noh theatre, stone gardens, flower arrangements, the tea-ceremony and the haiku form of poetry. In the last century, particularly after World War II, there was renewed interest in Zen, along with the revival in Buddhist thought, throughout the West.

Zen teachers have described Zen as "the religion before religion", which means that irrespective of the faith to which you may be committed, you can still practise Zen. This description also suggests the spirit of childhood, when the mind is free of concepts, dogmas, ideas and opinions; and childhood is indeed the true space for Zen. Zen teaches that the Buddha-nature, or the potential to achieve enlightenment, is inherent in all of us, but lies dormant due to our ignorance. It is best awakened, not by worship, rites, rituals or studying scriptures, but in meditation.

A 11th Century portrait of Bodhidharma.

In India, there was little or no interest in Zen till A.M.A. Swamy (Arul Maria Arokiaswamy), a young Jesuit priest from Dindigul, arrived on the scene. Such awareness as we Indians had up until then was at the level of reading, through books on Zen written by authors and practitioners from the West. The four-day retreat held in 1998 in the Theosophical Society campus in Chennai, with about 100 participants, by the Zen master and poet from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, kindled a measure of interest but was not sustained thereafter. (An institutional backdrop and setting, enabling a community of practitioners (Sanga) to come together, is crucial to the practice of Zen.)

The spiritual search of A.M.A. Swamy led him to Abishikthananada (original name: Father Bead Griffith), whose ashram was located on the banks of the Cauvery, near Kulithalai. He introduced Swamy to the teachings of Ramana whose primordial question, "Who am I?" fascinated and engaged the young Jesuit. It was at this time that Swamy learnt about Zen; in 1972, he managed to travel to Japan in order to engage in a deeper study of the subject. There, at Kamakura, Swamy became a student of Zen master Yamada Ko-Un Roshi. When Swamy met him, the master had said, "I am so glad that Bodhidharma has at last come to see me." Swamy stayed on for eight years till he became a Zen master himself and received the name Gen-Un-Key, meaning "The Original Cloud", a reference to his Indian origin. He returned home as India's first Zen master, and in 1996, established the Zen centre near Perumal malai village, where he now lives and teaches. Swamy points out that while Zen, as an idea, is popular in India and books on the subject are sold and read, the practice is comparatively unknown.

The calendar of the Bodhi Zendo Centre is tightly packed, with at least 15 workshops held annually, spread throughout the year. Each one lasts four to seven days and the centre draws students from all around the world. At the workshops, the day is most often spent in meditation, led by Swamy, which is occasionally interspersed with a talk on Dharma by the master. A compilation of his talks, Zen Heart, Zen Mind. The Teachings of Zen Master A.M.A. Swamy, edited by Sri Devi Rao, one of his students, has been published recently (Cre-A, Chennai). The participants share the work of the centre, which includes cleaning the premises and tending the garden. There is also a well-equipped library. The centre overlooks the valley, with the towering Perumal peak as the backdrop, and is surrounded by that crucial ingredient of Zen practices — silence, with the density of the silence emphasised by occasional bird calls — of Barbets, Scimitar Babblers and the Whistling Thrush.


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