Now that the tingling sensation had subsided and I could walk with some feeling in my legs, I slowly followed the rest of the line. Slowly I placed one foot in front of the other, carefully placed the heel down and then slowly moved the foot down from heel to toe. Slowly I inhale, slowly exhale. Moved the other foot forward in the same way. Inhale, exhale, step, inhale, exhale, and step. Eyes focused on the person's back in front of me. Hands held against my stomach, my left hand folded into a fist with my thumb enclosed, my right hand cupping the left with the thumb resting on top of the left fist. Breathe, step, breathe, step.
It was a warm evening the Wednesday I returned to the Soto Mission to begin my meditation practice. The drive was much less stressful then the first time. I knew how to get there now, and I had been invited to attend. I listened to the soft music drift around me as the warm air wafted into the car. Luckily, it was late in the day, otherwise it would have been a very uncomfortable drive in this heat. My car didn't have air-conditioning. We depended on the trade winds on the island. Unfortunately, trade winds didn't necessarily blow into car windows the way one would like.
Evening was settling in by the time I turned into the Mission's parking lot. A few cars were already parked indicating that other meditators had arrived before me. Up until now I wasn't a bit nervous. Seeing those solitary cars sent waves of anxiety through me again. I felt exposed. Would everyone be staring at me? Would I make a fool of myself in front of all these strangers? I hoped Reverend Ichinose would be there so I would see at least one familiar, friendly face.
I walked into the office but no one was there. I heard some sounds coming from the left. Walking slowly out of the office door, I turned toward the noise. Double wooden doors were open into what appeared to be the main sanctuary. As I peered in I saw to my right a stunning display of gold and lacquer Buddha's, Bodisattva's, fresh cut flowers, incense, offering bowls and other Buddhist relics and devices of which I had read about. To my left were rows of wooden benches. In some way it did resemble a church or synagogue until you turned your eyes to the altar. I knew, then, that this was an unknown realm I was walking into, a realm with unknown rituals and rules of conduct. I was an alien here.
Picture 2.1: Meditation Hall at Soto Mission
As I stepped inside toward the four individuals seated in the front row, I felt even more alien. There was an elderly Japanese man and woman sitting together talking quietly to each other. A young man, probably in his early twenties, sat across the aisle from them and continued to look up at the golden Buddha statue on the altar. He looked like a local boy to me, a mix of different ethnic backgrounds. He was probably part Japanese, part Hawaiian, part something else. Next to him sat a young Japanese man who sat comfortably and was obviously relaxed. One could tell by just looking at him that he was no stranger to this place or to the art of meditation.
As I made my way towards them they slowly looked up at me. I smiled wanly. Oh, boy, I was the only white person here. I sat down at the far end of the front bench. The elderly couple returned to their intimate conversation. The young Japanese man slowly turned his gaze to the altar. As I turned to do the same, the local boy said,
"Yes. And you?" I asked.
"My second time," he responded, "You from around here or tourist?" "I live Ewa." I replied quickly. I certainly didn't want to be taken for a tourist. How absurd when I continued to think about it. What tourist from the mainland would come to this place outside of downtown Honolulu? How would they even know about it?
As I sat there feeling slightly indignant at the fact that I was thought of as a tourist haole (white person or foreigner), the elderly couple suddenly stopped talking. I looked up to see a bald headed Japanese man walking toward us. He, too, wore the same black robes of the Japanese Buddhist monk. His face was brilliant with a broad smile across his face. You couldn't help but smile back at a face that looked like that. I felt a little better being here until he started to speak. It was solely in Japanese. He walked over to me and spoke to me. I didn't understand a word he said and it was quite obvious that he knew no English. I assumed he was welcoming me and so I smiled up at him.
"Fujii," he said pointing to himself.
"I'm Karen." I responded in kind.
"Just . . . follow . . . others." he said haltingly. Reverend Fujii then spoke to our small group and then mounted the steps up to the altar. The others silently stood up, walked up the few steps to the altar level, picked up a small, black, round looking pillow and a larger square black pillow from the closet behind the altar. I followed the others. They carried their pillows to the front of the altar and busily set themselves around the walls. Carefully, they placed the larger pillow on the floor. Then they set the smaller, round pillow on top of the square pillow. I found a spot to the left of the Buddha statue and did the same. They sat down on the small round pillow, facing the wall, and crossed their legs. I watched in amazement as the old man to my right quickly placed his left foot on top of his right thigh and then his right foot on top of his left thigh. Later I was to find out this was called the full lotus position.
I sat down on my pillow and tried to do the same. Being a Westerner made a big difference. I was able to get my left foot on top of my right thigh, but I struggled quite a bit to get my right foot on top of my left thigh. I almost fell over and once I had gotten my legs in place I felt as if I was in a very unnatural, contorted position. My knees kept rising up in spite of my efforts to keep them steady and resting on the large cushion as I saw the others doing. They began to sway back and forth. I did the same trying not to fall off the small, round pillow. They stopped swaying and placed their left hand in their lap, palm facing up. Then they placed their right hand, also palm up, in their left hand. Their thumbs pressed gently together. I did the same.
A gong was struck several times. Then what sounded like a wooden mallet was hit over and over in a uniquely settling rhythm. As it faded, I heard the slow, melodious voice of Reverend Fujii, chanting in a language unfamiliar to me. Then it was silent. No one moved. No one spoke. I looked out of the corner of my eye to my left. The younger Japanese man was sitting erect, eyes half closed, staring down in front of him. His eyes didn't look as if they were focused on anything at all. His face was expressionless. What was he doing? What was he thinking? I settled myself in the best I could mimicking the others. What I was supposed to do I still didn't know. I would just follow the form. I looked at the wall in front of me. I looked down until my eyes felt more comfortable and half closed my eyelids as I noticed the other man doing. Now what? I didn't know what to do. I was sitting like the others, but obviously they were doing something and I was unable to copy them, as I couldn't read minds. Think of nothing. That's what the books I had read said. But how do you think of nothing at all?