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Mindfulness for Monks?

Monks need training in mindfulness? The request to teach the monks at the Zen temple seemed strange at first. But the explanation made sense. They were immersed in rigorous, daily practice and were experts at Zazen, a form of meditation. But their intensive study and practice may lead them to focus their attention too much on the strict ritual adherence to form. They may not develop and integrate into their lives the deeper underlying values at the heart of Zen. Further, they might not address psychological issues that hinder their development as human beings. In particular, their compassion may not be cultivated.

The opportunity for training monks came from the vision of the head priest at Enkakuji, Nanrei Yokota, and another monk, Ichido Uchida. They had read my book, Stanford University Mindfulness Classroom, and felt that there was something we could learn from each other. I met Yokota Sensei at the Zen 2.0 conference when we spoke together on a panel and our meeting was so fruitful that I was invited to visit him at the temple, as well as to participate in Zazenkai, a group sitting and training. Their idea for training monks in mindfulness and compassion is based in the belief that this will empower them to contribute more to society.

Our training was part of a program that Yokota and Uchida are creating for the monks. I worked with Sanae Kishimoto, a teacher of mindfulness, who offered a workshop on Compassion, following my part on Mindfulness and Heartfulness. The atmosphere seemed stiff at first, as the monks sat erect on the tatami floor of the temple, but warmed considerably as the workshop progressed. They were clearly hungry and eager to receive what we offered. The participated enthusiastically in the work of reflecting on questions like, "who am I?" and "what makes me come alive?". They engaged in self reflection on their empathy for feeling what others feel, and their compassion to respond to the suffering of others with responsible action.

I'll write more about the content of our workshop and the monks' reactions in upcoming blogs. They appreciated the way we viewed mindfulness as the foundation of the development of capacities that make us more fully human. They were also moved by our focus on self compassion as a way of cultivating compassion for others. We left the temple with a warm feeling of having been enveloped in a time and place where different worlds came together synergistically for the greater good of all.

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