mudra

Shinzen Young’s story of Shingon/Shinto training alvin May 16, 2019 - 5:55pm

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.

Shinzen Young and meditating in the freezing cold

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.

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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.