shiatsu yoga mediterraneo

L'école de shiatsu SYM

Ecole internationale Shiatsu Yoga Mediterraneo

Zen and the Art of Shiatsu Maintenance

ShiatsIn the 70s and 80s we held the word ZEN in awe. Some good books had been written and its direct approach to living and experiencing the teachings of Buddha made it the preferred option of spiritual practice for many.

The Zen taught in London at the time was mostly of Japanese origin and my first introduction came through the Martial Arts. Then there was Zen Macrobiotics and of course Zen Shiatsu which I studied with Nigel Dawes and Veronica Howard who had recently returned to the UK after an extended period in Japan.

Nowadays Zen has become commonplace and it seems that a lot of people who study and even teach Zen Shiatsu have absolutely no idea what it means. In fact I find far more people ignorant nowadays than before because it’s become a popular adjective almost unrelated to its original meaning. So everybody has heard of it but nobody knows what it means. 

Zen is of course Zen Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism developed by Bhodidharma (Dharuma in Japanese) an Indian monk and renowned master who travelled to China in the 7th century CE. After numerous adventures defeating bandits and brigands, he was an expert in the martial arts, as well as insulting dukes and royals, his manner was direct and truthful, he finally settled and took control of the Shaolin monastery where he initiated a new method of practice which came to be known as Chan or Zen in Japan.

As he found the monks there weak in body and mind he taught them active physical exercise of an internal and external nature which later developed into the various martial arts and chi gong. He also taught zazen or seated meditation.

He meditated for 9 years in front of a rock, his image got imprinted onto the rock and it’s still a museum piece at the monastery today. This type of meditation was very austere but joined with active martial arts training, breathing and energy channeling exercises led to definite self development and liberation, Satori in Japanese or Nirvana in Sanskrit. Bhodidharma is usually depicted without eyelashes because he cut them off after having fallen asleep in meditation one day. He vowed that would never happen again.

Philosophically Zen did not concern itself with the transmigration of the soul and metaphysics but sought to anchor students in the here and now in order to fully apply themselves in this life thereby realizing their potential and experiencing the truths of existence for themselves.

However Bhodidharma’s stern practice was modified by a later Zen patriarch who held that enlightenment could be spontaneous and reverted to zazen as the most important aspect of practice, and so it is today. This practice is also known as the southern school and the big Japanese Zen schools today follow this tradition. The biggest and most well known is the Soto Zen school with its main temple in Kyoto, the old imperial capital. Meditation is severe as you sit facing a wall (Bhodidharma’s rock) and not much else happens during practice. So when people in the West refer to Zen they usually have Soto Zen in mind, due to some popular books by various Soto Zen masters on the market.  

Japanese culture is completely imbued with Zen. From calligraphy, painting and music to architecture, flower arrangement (Ikebana), the tea ceremony and the martial arts. Often we can see the Zen aspects more in the form than in its content and even where there is content it’s often mere lip service. Arguably we could suggest the same about most practices, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. 

Certainly Masunaga held that the 3 stages of development known in Zen could be experienced through the practice of Shiatsu. The first “joriki” or the development of the power of concentration could be attained by practicing the form, or kata. This idea of learning through a form is known in all eastern and also western approaches to learning. It teaches concentration, unifying action with mind and energy, technique, fluidity, empathy, posture, rhythm, being grounded and cultivating more vital energy in the hara. In the end the form becomes a profoundly meditative and intuitive tool without having to really think about it. The learning process bypasses the rational mind connecting to a higher intuitive dimension where true resonance with the receiver is felt due to heightened awareness and sensitivity which outweighs the ability to intellectualize what one actually feels or does.

The second idea of Satori awakening or “kensho-godo” he likened to “setsu-shin” or palpation-diagnosis. Here Masunaga wasn’t looking for a particular disease but rather trying to understand the patient psychologically as well as physically. This type of understanding implies empathy and is not a cold clinical diagnosis.

The third idea “mujodo no taigen” refers to the actualization of our understanding, or it’s essential nature in our daily lives. For this Masunaga advocated moral precepts which we find in Buddhism as well as other spiritual paths:

“Live each day in the following way: be strong, be righteous, be cheerful, be humble, abandon avarice, maintain harmonious friendships and live in gratefulness” and furthermore “ eliminate all wrongful thoughts; eliminate hatred, rage, jealousy, envy, anger, dissatisfaction, doubt, discontent, bewilderment, anxiety, reproach, irritation and restlessness” (quoted from Nigel Dawes : London College of Shiatsu - Foundation Course 1990).

My Shiatsu teacher Nigel Dawes practiced Rinzai Zen (second largest Zen school in Japan) whereas I practised Kongo Zen, the philosophical basis of the martial art of Shorinji Kempo. However Kongo Zen is based on the northern tradition, in other words goes right back to Bodhidharma’s idea of mixing moving zen with seated meditation or za-zen. Kongo zen, like any Buddhist school is based on the 4 noble truths and the 8-fold path of the noble middle way. It is through a given practice that the truth and value of these teachings can be experienced. By concentrating on what needs to be done now, we can take our learning and growing into our own hands. Kongo Zen underlines the fact that our desires often contradict reality. The solution according to the Buddha was to understand reality at it’s deepest level which may be summed up in three concepts: 1. “Shogyo mujo” = all things change, nothing is permanent; 2. “Shoho muga” = all things are transitional and have no separate existence; 3. “Nehan seijaku” = with true understanding of this you can attain enlightenment. (quoted from Shorinji Kempo Fukudoku-hon published by Kongo Zen Sohonzan Shorinji ).

By calling it ZEN Shiatsu Masunaga or indeed his publishers in the west must have been aware that interest in Zen was clearly growing as people were looking for wisdom, then and now. Nowadays it seems that many students and practitioners of Zen Shiatsu have little to no experience of Zen or Japanese traditions and culture. Moreover, if you don’t know what it is how can you practice let alone teach it? and Without any real Zen practice, without a Zen master and no cultural experience how can anybody claim to be doing Zen Shiatsu in the West? Although they may express it differently this has been very much lamented by Akinobu Kishi or Kazanori Sasaki. Practitioners and teachers who have not followed proper Zen training tend to lack any deeper understanding and are therefore usually not connected to the tradition or the strength derived from its practice.

Kishi wrote in Life in Resonance: “ Reading Japanese philosophy is important for some people and it can help. But that’s not the same as experience. You can only understand this philosophy through direct experience and for that you need to practice from the right principles. When we say that you need a view of Japanese philosophy to practice Shiatsu this means mu-shin. Just practice innocently; of course it’s not so easy. Shiatsu books have become very complicated and theoretical and this is not what is meant by philosophy.”

However there is a way round this. A Zen Shiatsu practitioner is primarily an artisan, not just a technician or an intellectual. There have always been excellent artisans and master craftsmen in the West, ranging from painters, musicians and masons to healers and herbalists. By honing our skills until every cell in the body knows what to do thus bypassing any effort at conceptualization, we can truly experience being in the moment together with the receiver.

We should remember that in order to infuse our practice with a deep spiritual consciousness, thereby lifting it from a material practice to a dialogue between souls, it isn’t necessary to convert to Zen Buddhism. 

To know something you have to experience it and instead of immersing ourselves in other people’s cultures we could simply delve more deeply into our own. Furthermore the western spiritual traditions are very profound; Platonism, Neo-platonism, Hermeticism and others are the foundations of our own great wisdom traditions.

One of the greatest European physicians ever was Paracelsus. Physician, healer, alchemist, surgeon, herbalist, astrologer, philosopher and mystic he was deeply devout, following Christian ideals of charity, humility and service. But he was also strongly influenced by the European esoteric traditions which circulated freely in Renaissance Europe. A non-conformist in every way, medicine to him was a path to understanding the supernatural. Paracelsus had a holistic view of medicine, treated the whole body, stimulated the vital energy and saw the destruction of harmony and proportion as bringing degeneration and disease (here we see the direct link to the Platonic ideals).

Furthermore he asserted that “The supreme reason for medicine is love” and “The main substance of the art lies in experience and love, which is embodied in all the high arts. For we receive them from the love of God and we should give them with the same love” (quoted from Paracelsus - Selected Writings - edited by Jolande Jacobi).

Paracelsus writes: “Medicine rests upon four pillars - philosophy, astronomy, alchemy and ethics”  (Similar to Masunaga, who first describes Shiatsu from a philosophical point of view) and “The nature and force of a disease must be discovered by their cause and not by their symptoms…” Or “Every disease is a kind of purgatory, the physician should know this and bear it in mind, lest he presume to determine in advance the time of recovery or the efficacy of his remedies; for this lies solely in God’s hands”… “ And is not he who cures the soul, which is more than the body, greater? Here then lies the supreme good; it is more than that which takes the disease away from the body and preserves the body” … “ If the physician is to understand the correct meaning of health, he must know that there are more than a hundred, indeed more than a thousand, kinds of stomach; consequently, if you gather a thousand persons, each of them will have a different kind of digestion, each unlike the others …Therefore the various dietary prescriptions should be observed not only for the sake of recovery from illness but for the sake of preserving one’s health” (All quotes from Paracelsus - Selected Writings - Jolande Jacobi).

Paracelsus was a genius but so untypical and so challenging to established theory at the time that he has been slandered or at best misunderstood except by the few who have always carried his banner and fought for his legacy (In a recent biography Philip Ball continues this misunderstanding).

Paracelsus and others, such as Hahnemann later on (founder of homeopathy and godfather of macrobiotics) where like giants walking the stage of Western medical history. They advocated a holistic approach to medicine long ago, the importance of vital energy, an energetic body and soul which alas remain concepts outside of modern medical theory. However the similarities with oriental medicine are immediately recognized.

In line with this zen buddhism is synonymous with other spiritual practices. For as long as there is a real spiritual nature striving to advance making the practice of Shiatsu part of one’s spiritual approach and anchoring the practice in spiritual philosophy, then there is no problem for westerners doing Zen Shiatsu. All spiritual paths lead to the same conclusions: that “love is the architect of the universe” (Hesiod 7th century BCE) and that nothing has any separate existence. However, real practice and more personal integrity would do much to get the European intellectual back into their hara and heart.

I wish all shiatsu practitioners courage and fortitude in the ever continuing struggle to bring light where there is darkness while moving forward in spiritual awareness. 


Copyright Gerry Rixen 2015


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