Introduction: After reading the following text in the book, The Science of Enlightenment, I decided to try meditating outside in sweatpants and a hoodie in the freezing cold in the evenings. It’s now my favorite form of meditation because you either do it right, or suffer the consequences.
Several months later, as winter approached and it was getting cold and uncomfortable, the Abbot told me that if I wanted to be trained in traditional Shingon practice he would allow it — but I would have to do with the old-fashioned way. I would have to do a solo retreat for one hundred days in winter, most of the time with no source of heat, in complete silence other than occasional instruction from him, and with no meal after noon.
My training began on December 22, the day of the winter solstice. The Abbot had warned me that part of the old-fashioned way involved certain ascetic practices derived not from Buddhism, but from the shamanic tradition of Shinto, Japan’s pre-Buddhist tribal religion. One of the most common methods that tribal cultures use to obtain visions of gods or spirits is through prolonged exposure to extreme hot or cold. In India, Hindus have the five fires practice; in North America, Native Americans have the sweat lodge and the sun dance. These involve heat. The traditional Shinto shamanic practice goes in the other direction. It involves cold — squatting under freezing waterfalls in winter, standing in cold springs, dousing your body with ice water, and so forth.