Jun 18, 2023
Michael Haggiag

18. The Meditation Hall


Dylan has his first experience of a real Zen-do and it's not what he expected!


Shobo-an Zen Center

We are in the great meditation hall of the Buddhist Society at Eccleston Square, just behind Victoria Station. There is a table at one end with a Buddha statue and flowers and a bigger black Buddha with a metal halo in one corner. On the wall facing me is a large painted scroll of the Buddha lying on his side surrounded by monkeys and elephants and other animals of the jungle. They call this a Nirvana painting. The tall windows let in plenty of light from the square. It’s very peaceful.

This is my secret place. It was started by an English judge called Christmas Humphreys. To have a name like that and be the founder of the Buddhist Society is quite funny, don’t you think? Anyway, it’s true. They say he was an amazing person. His whole point in life was to bring Buddhism to the UK.  This is the 1920s and very few people know about Buddhism. The ones who do think it’s a very odd thing for a proper Englishman to be doing. He’s a High Court judge. He’s a member of the British ruling class. And his name is Christmas! They probably thought he was mad. 

Anyway, Christmas and his wife buy this big old building on four floors with high ceilings and a grand staircase and they open it to the public. They give talks and make tea and organize meditation classes. Some days nobody comes, but they don’t mind. They drink the tea themselves. World War I has just happened, and millions of men have died on the battlefield. Most people want to forget the war and just have fun, but others, like Christmas himself, want something more. Christmas has lost his older brother – a brother he really looked up to - and nothing anybody says about God and Country can make him feel any better. So, he’s looking for some answers.

Christmas invites the best Buddhist teachers from all over the world to come and speak at his Society. The years go by. Buddhist ideas become better known and Buddhism takes its place in Britain as one of the major religions. Today it’s totally mainstream. Even trendy. But it all started with this judge called Christmas and his wife and their tea parties. It’s amazing to be sitting here in this historic place trying to meditate.

Jizo walks slowly up the centre aisle in his priest’s robes. He looks pretty cool in them. The robes are black. They have wide sleeves and go all the way to the ground. It isn’t just the five of us from Wagamama. There are other people I’ve never seen before. We are sitting in two long rows facing each other. The square blue mats with the black cushions on top are the same as the ones we used on the terrace but there are a lot more of them. Jizo carries a long flat stick over his shoulder. It’s called a keisaku, which I suppose is Japanese for long flat stick. It’s to hit me with if I’m bad! No, it isn’t. Actually, it is used for hitting, but only if we ask for it. Just as Jizo comes by I put my hands together like I’m praying. Immediately he turns to me and bows with his hands together too. Then I bow back, but instead of coming up again I stay there with my head bowed. Whack! Whack! Whack! The keisaku comes down sharply on my back, first over one shoulder and then the other. Jizo is a pro with the keisaku. He gives it a sharp flick that can go right through you. It wakes you up when you start to get stiff and groggy.  Never in my life have I actually asked someone to hit me, but Jizo is different. When he does it, it’s to make you feel better. Really truly!

I’ve been coming to Jizo’s meditation classes for a few months now. Maybe longer. The class lasts for an hour. We sit in meditation for about twenty minutes. Then Jizo reads a passage from the Buddha’s life and gives a little talk about it. We don’t have to sit still during the talk but we’re still on our mats. 

What’s mind boggling about all this is that:

a)         I want to be here.

b)         I can sit still for this long.

c)         I can sit still for this long without moving. 

Of course, this business of being able to sit still has been a problem all my life. Or at least since you left, I can’t be sure. Anyway, it’s been a long time. I can’t concentrate on any one thing for very long. And when I can’t concentrate it makes me feel “antsy”. 

The school sends me to a shrink who gives me a drug called Ritalin.  I only take it for a while though. I have to stop using it on account of my heart. It starts to beat really fast and I get sweaty hands which make my term papers look like they have grease spots on them. Mrs. McFeely screws up her nose every time she picks up one of these papers, but then she always gives me a sad little smile like she’s saying, “I guess you can’t help it.” The shrink gives me a few more drugs. They have long names I don’t recall, but they all make me feel dizzy. One of the drugs gave me a high. It was great but I fell asleep in class so they stopped that too. Finally the shrink says, “You’d  better get used to the ants.” 

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