Here at VRE we are a friendly bunch who enjoy a jolly across the metaverse together. We are normally running team building or leadership training in virtual classrooms. On this occasion we thought we would try something different – meeting a real Zen abbot in a virtual Japanese temple, for some spiritual enlightenment.
Our avatars gather in the Engage VR platform. We have swapped our shoes for white socks, in accordance with the Japanese dress code. We laugh at each other’s avatars – not the cutest in the metaverse, with uncoordinated, jiggly arms and legs.
We find ourselves in a breathtaking wooden temple – an amber-coloured sanctuary with soft rush mats and paper windows. A sonorous drum beat and the ambient sounds of nature help to immerse us in this tranquil space. Most stunning of all are two sliding doors with large hand-painted dragons on them.
Our host and interpreter, Hans Karlsson, tells us that we are in the digital twin of Gyokuryu-ji, the Temple of the Jewel Dragon, in Gero City, situated in Gifu Prefecture in the centre of Japan. Hans is a Swede who went to Japan as a student in 1986 and never came back. This virtual temple has been lovingly crafted by his company, Mimir.
Hans takes us on a tour of the temple garden. Using 360⁰ photography, he transports us to a serene oasis with maple trees and a koi fishpond.
The abbot, Kaku-san, enters. His full title is Priest-in-Chief, Hokaku Sasaki. Kaku-san’s avatar is the picture of composure and grace – all the more remarkable since he has got up in the middle of the night to share his wisdom at a time that is convenient for us, in our time zone.
We ask whether Zen is exclusively for Buddhists or if people from other religions can join in? Kaku-san warmly emphasizes that Zen welcomes people of all religious backgrounds. He shares his experience of visiting a Christian monastery in France, where acceptance and friendship transcended religious differences. Hans adds that in Japan, different religions coexist harmoniously. In Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, many things can be gods – waterfalls, mountains, trees – so there is no problem for Jesus Christ to be included as one too. The temple itself also has a Shinto shrine. “It’s like church and Buddhist temple in the same building” Hans says.
So what is Zen? Is it a religion? A philosophy? “Simply put”, says Kaku-san, “it’s meditation.” Meditation is about being in the present moment. We are constantly distressed by worries about the future, regrets about the past. But these are mere illusions. The only thing that is real, is the present moment. The goal of meditation is to ease suffering by ridding our minds of all thoughts, to be aware only of the present moment, and eventually to “dissolve into nothingness.”
At the temple monks meditate in different ways, for example by practicing zazen (sitting meditation), sitting on their heels for long periods.
We ask what does Kaku-san think of guided meditation? He acknowledges that it is useful for beginners on their meditative journey. Monks have “old masters” to teach them. But the goal is to meditate just by yourself using nothing. The ultimate goal is nothingness!
In our success-driven culture and fast-paced lives, Zen seems very difficult to achieve, but Kaku-san encourages us to try. We can find moments in nature. We can meditate while we eat, by focusing only on the food and the act of eating it. We can meditate just for a few minutes anywhere, for example while we are travelling by train.
Kaku-san tells us a story…
Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century. He came every day to the Chinese Shaolin Monastery to do zazen. Eka, one of the monks there, came to see him. But Eka had a heavy, suffering heart. He stood for a long time in the snow without saying anything. Finally Eka spoke: “I have such a heavy, suffering heart. Please help me find peace.” “My friend, bring your heart here,” Bodhidharma retorted. “Give it to me.” This confused Eka. “I am looking for my heart, but I can’t find it at all.” “Well then, I have already helped you find your peace”, came Bodhidharma’s reply.
Inner peace might be difficult to achieve, but we all feel very present while we are in the temple with the abbot, and all agree that this has been a very special experience…
Kaku-san invites you all to come and meditate in his virtual temple. It is open 24 hours a day, and accessible for free on the Engage platform. If you don’t have a VR headset, as you can access it on your laptop. Find out more at https://www.mimir.world/the-metaverse-zen-temple.html