Shinzen Young’s story of Shingon/Shinto training

Years before I heard of Shinzen Young, I had always “enjoyed” practicing meditation in the cold. Some part of it probably goes back to childhood, when I had to wait for the schoolbus in the freezing cold of northern Illinois winters. (This was in the time before global warming.) I used to stand there without moving, and mentally I’d concentrate on not being cold, or at least not feeling the cold.

Many years later when I lived in Alaska, I used to enjoy going up into the mountains to basically inflict the same thing on myself. I always thought the “meditate deeply or suffer the consequences” approach forced me to meditate more deeply. This past winter that same “Do or die, there is not try” mentality forced me to maintain my focus and helped to combat my medically-induced lack of energy.

In those two experiences I meditated for relatively short periods in the cold, but the story below is from a book by Shinzen Young, a modern day meditation master who learned to maintain deep meditation through a severe 100-day winter ritual. All of the following is from his book, The Science of Enlightenment.

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.

Because Shingon is Vajrayana, the main meditation practice involves working with visualizations, mantras, and mudra gestures. You replace your self-image with that of an archetype (Jesus, Buddha, whoever), you replace your usual mental talk with the mantra of that archetype, and you take on the physical and emotional body experience of that archetype through making mudras. If your concentration is good enough, your identity briefly shifts; you become that archetype. This gives you insight into the arbitrary nature of self-identity. The technical term for this practice is deity yoga because you experience merging (yoga, i.e., yoking) with a mythic archetype.

The Shinto shamanic piece comes prior to each of the three ritual implications, when the practitioner is required to do cold-water purification. You have to go to a cistern filled with half-frozen water, break the ice on top, fill a huge wooden bucket, and then squat and dump the bone-chilling liquid over your naked body. It’s so cold that the water freezes the moment it touches the floor, and your towel freezes in your hand, so you’re sliding around barefoot on ice, trying to dry your body with a frozen hand towel.

For me, this cold water purification was a horrific ordeal. Maybe being a thin-skinned Californian had something to do with it. I did notice however, that if I stayed in a state of high concentration while I did it, my distress was noticeably lessened. On the other hand, as soon as my attention wondered the suffering became unbearable. I could see that this whole training situation was a giant biofeedback device designed to keep a person in some degree of samadhi at all times.

On the third day of this training, as I was about to pour the water over myself, I had an epiphany. It hit me with crystal clarity. I was faced with a trichotomy: the future forked into three branches. I could spend the next ninety-seven days in a state of high concentration all my waking hours; spend them in abject misery; or give up and fail to complete my commitment. The choice was obvious.

When I completed the hundred-day training, it was the spring of a new year, and I had a new self. I had entered the crucible of the traditional Shingon training and had come out a different person. From that time on I was able to consciously experience the taste of high concentration whenever I wanted to. One hundred days subtracted from my life were really a very small price to pay in order to live a totally different kind of life.