THE ROOT MEANING OF
SHUGYO MEDITATION PRACTICE
by ANDREW SHUGYO BONNICI, PH.D.
Applied Zen Meditation & Core Mindfulness Based Therapy
Zen Buddhist Priest & Minister of Faith
When I received my inner calling as a Zen priest in 1988, I choose "Shugyo Daijo" for my Japanese ordination name and continue to embody it as the expression of my true commitment as a Zen teacher and Dharma holder. In brief, I define "Shugyo" as "continuous daily practice". The Japanese word "Daijo" can be translated as "Great Way". So Shugyo Daijo can be understood as " continuous practice of the Great Way". By "practice" I mean the continuous practice of whole body listening as in zazen meditation'. By "Great Way" I mean the "Infinite Wisdom Process" that orchestrates the Vast Integrity and Interdependency of all quantum energy, embodied beings, solar systems, galaxies, and as yet unknown multidimensionalities that penetrate the spherical continuum that is life and death. Given this introductory definition, let me share with you a more detailed and pictographic view of "Shugyo". In this pictographic view, you will see how the root meaning of "Shugyo" can clarify the ancient teaching that the practice of the Great Way is exactly living enlightenment itself.
As a Japanese word shugyo can be translated in several ways depending on one’s view and understanding of practice, skill, and attainment. This holds true whether the word “shugyo” is used in the martial and aesthetic arts or in the practice of living zazen meditation. "Shugyo", is usually translated as "the most austere training" or "intensely rigorous practice". Today, both in Japan and the United States, shugyo is commonly understood as "engaging in intense training periods or hard rigorous practice in order to master a martial or aesthetic art, attain deeper levels of spiritual awakening, and/or gain the "complete realization and understanding" of self, others, and reality generally known as "absolute and perfect enlightenment". However, if we analyze the component parts of the Japanese kanji or pictographic character for "shugyo", we can unravel an original or root meaning of the term that has broader and deeper therapeutic implications for all human beings in their everyday life activities and interpersonal relationships.
The Japanese kanji for gyo in the pictographic character above (c) is loosely translated as practice . However, if we explore its root metaphorical meaning, several interdependent aspects of our human life experience begin to emerge, and these need to be included for a clearer understanding of "gyo" as "practice". The left part of the pictogram (a) is symbolic of the human footprint of the left foot and the right of the pictogram (b) is symbolic of the complementary footprint of the right foot. Thus, we can understand "gyo" in this regard as "to practice taking a step, to travel or walk". On another level of meaning, the pictogram for "gyo" outlines a vertical and horizontal four way "crossroads" (c) ---- a place where a decision has to be made so that the feet can know which way to continue the practice of walking. Thus, "gyo" can be understood as making a passionate decision to wakefully practice the journey of our life moment by moment---for each moment is not only the crossroads of our whole life, but also the crossroads of life and death.
Although Shu is a more complex pictographic kanji or Japanese character, a simple understanding of its interactive imagery can provide us with a profound meaning about ourselves and the compassionate wisdom practice of our life. Starting from the left of the "shu" pictogram, we have the abbreviated image for a human being next to a wooden stick (d). The three dashes to the right (e) are indicative of "delicate hairs" like those wrapped on a wooden duster brush. Above the dashes are four brush strokes (f) which form a pictogram that is usually translated as "the function of a hand to hold or use something". However, this part of "shu" is also visually related to four other Asian pictograms. I believe that this visual similarity is not accidental and needs to be taken into account in any complete translation of this kanji, "shu". By translating and integrating the four similar pictograms and their additional meanings we are able to derive a broader and deeper root definition for the "shu" pictogram as a whole.
The first similarity is to the primitive Chinese pictogram "chung" which stands for "end" or "completion". The second is to the Chinese pictogram "sui" which represents "a human being who goes on, despite of shackles". The third is to the Chinese pictogram "nuren" which represents "feminine, a woman". The fourth is to the Japanese pictogram "mata" which stands for the concept of "again and again".
When we include the above related Asian pictograms, we come to understand the root meaning of "shu" through the integration of four definitions. 1) Dusting one's heart/mind to authenticate their original clarity and openness, 2) One's willingness to take up endless dusting (again and again), 3) A human being who embraces himself completely as he is (completion) while being endlessly committed to refining his character in the midst of his own greed, aggression, ignorance, and delusion (shackles), 4) and finally the archetypal symbol or function of the feminine in human beings, i.e., that which compassionately listens and is unconditionally receptive.
Through the integration of these four definitions, we can understand "shu" as the practice of accepting and embracing one's completion in each moment while being willing to endlessly practice meditation as the dusting off of one's constantly stirring greed, aggression, ignorance, and delusion. The human being who lives according to the meaning of "shu" is one who compassionately listens with the whole body while simultaneously being inwardly receptive to an everywhere "Creative Wisdom"----a Vast Wisdom capable of dusting off our personal, cultural, historical, and religious prejudices and thereby liberating and guiding the functioning of our originally enlightened humanness. If we put the meanings of "shu" and "gyo" together, we can realize the root definition of shugyo as follows--- "the constant, sincere, decisive, and passionate practice of deep bodily listening to a Vast Wisdom beyond our ignorances, delusions, and prejudices while faithfully and courageously stepping forward to act and BE our innately complete and originally enlightened humanness at the every moment crossroads of life and death." This authentic meaning of shugyo reveals the urgent opportunity in each moment to practice compassionate bodily listening and unconditional receptivity to an everywhere Emerging Wisdom----a Vast Wisdom capable of manifesting and authenticating our innately enlightened humanness for the mutual benefit of all sentient beings.
According to this pictographic definition I have outlined, shugyo is exactly the engaged life practice of zazen meditation---the body of deep compassionate listening and unconditional wholehearted receptivity to that innately emerging wisdom before our conditioned personality and thinking mind. Thus, shugyo means the wholehearted, compassionate, and wakeful practice of our whole life as the body of meditation itself. Shugyo is the constant mental and behavioral application of zazen meditation throughout the daily experiences and relationships of our life. Shugyo means that the root body of zazen meditation and its inner postures are exactly the practice template for our whole life. There can be no shugyo if we do not constantly translate and unconditionally apply the mental, emotional, and physical principles of zazen meditation into the moment by moment practice of our breath and our life. In this respect, shugyo is an on-going life meditation practice for liberating our originally enlightened humanness and its qualities of humility, gratitude, authenticity, equanimity, insight, caring, wholeness, compassion, wonder, and wisdom.
What this means is that the root understanding of shugyo is not concerned with gaining an enlightenment by increasing the intensity and duration of seated meditation. Shugyo is not about the willful development of mental concentration (samadhi) to empty the mind of thoughts or enter into a blissful transcendental calmness. It is not about the attainment of a deep silence and stillness of mind through the application of some ancient or modern inner technology or outer bodily forms and postures. Shugyo is not just about the mastery of seated meditation posture, exact hand mudra, precise cross-leggedness, stoic indifference to pain, and unbroken breath mindfulness. At the shugyo level of engaged life meditation, practitioners do not focus on gaining an enlightenment beyond who they already are. They do not practice seated meditation just to acquire a deep mental calmness, concentration, wisdom, and insight. Shugyo practitioners of meditation understand concentration as "just being their body and being in their body completely". For the shugyo life meditator, the practice of concentration is a matter of surrender and renunciation----that is surrender to intimate and compassionate embodiment and renunciation of one's total identification with personality, self-concept, social identity, and thinking mind. The primary focus of shugyo practice is on the arousal and sincere embodiment of one's Innate Faith in Vast Wisdom and a deep confidence in the Originally Enlightened capacity of all human beings to Listen to that Wisdom with their Whole Body.
Shugyo practitioners view as paramount the unconditional acceptance of themselves just as they are (completion) and their endless meditation life training toward the ever deepening embodiment of their originally enlightened humanness for the mutual benefit of self and others. Meditation practitioners involved in shugyo view their whole life as the practice of meditation and meditation as the practice of embodied faith, deep listening, honest intimacy with the full range of felt experience, and humble acknowledgement of the support and unconditional compassion of Vast Wisdom moment by moment. With a dedicated wakefulness, devoted precision of discerning awareness, and passionate self-honesty, shugyo practitioners face each experience, activity, and relationship as a means to deepen intimacy with their own humanness, develop their character, listen intently with their Whole Body to the Vast Wisdom Nature of this Only Moment, and, thereby, authenticate the practice of a "living enlightenment" for the mutual benefit of self and and all sentient beings.
Constancy in this shugyo meditation practice is based on a balance between self-compassion and devoted discipline. The purpose of shugyo is to create an ongoing dynamic tension much like the adjusted tension of guitar or harp strings. Through the inner shugyo posture, we tighten the guitar string of seated and engaged meditation with a devoted discipline and temper the tension with human self-compassion. In this Way the "Faith-full" musical spirit of living enlightenment is expressed and authenticated in the meditation practice of all our activities and relations. Thus, shugyo is our perpetual recommitment to sustain this necessary tensional balance and our constant willingness to reach beyond our "experiential and perceptual comfort zones".
Clearly shugyo is a quality of self- training that reflects 1) a deep commitment to meditation as the ongoing life practice of deep bodily listening, 2) a willingness to honor and live the truth before one's rationalizations, prejudices, and delusions, 3 ) the courage to remain open and ceaselessly embrace uncertainty, mystery, and wonder, and 4) the unconditional acceptance and embrace of self while being determined to endlessly improve and refine one's character, one's life, and one's relationships. With each step that we take in the shugyo practice of seated and engaged meditation, we have the opportunity to learn new things about ourselves and our world---the opportunity to constantly deepen our humanness, redefine ourselves, and enrich the meaning and purpose of our life and the life of others.
In summing up we can say that shugyo leads to the refinement and deepening of our humanness, the compassionate integration of our personality, and the embodied unification of self, others, and nature as a Whole. Thus, Shugyo is a “Way of Endless Life Integration”. Shugyo leads the meditation life practitioner toward serenity, confidence in oneself, trust in this only moment, openness/compassion toward self and others, and a deep awareness of one's meaningful place in the Infinite Universe. Shugyo not only provides an experiential base for serenity and the deepening of humanness, it also encourages us to reach out with courage, curiosity, faith, respect, and wholehearted mindfulness to everything and everyone around us.
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