Monday, February 04, 2008


The following is an e-mail interview between Michael Eido Lutechford and Stephen Royle of the Ballymena Guardian:-

First off, could you outline briefly what anybody attending the Saturday talk and then the Sunday session can expect. Could you explain a little what Zen entails, what people gain and learn from it and the approach to meditation that you take?

In my talk on Saturday, I am planning to talk about my own experience with going to Japan in the 1970’s and coming back unexpectedly 20 years later as a Buddhist teacher. Zen is the Japanese form of Buddhism transmitted through China in the 9th century that is based on practicing “zazen”, which is a form of sitting practice (I don’t like the word “meditation” since there are rather large differences between some kinds of meditation and zazen). Zen is not really a religion in the usual sense of the word, because it is based on a physical practice to balance the mind and body.

So practicing zazen is one aspect of Zen. And the other is studying the philosophy of Buddhism, which teaches people how to live by following a middle way between extremes. This will be the theme of my talks at the session on the Sunday. I think that this theme is particularly appropriate in Northern Ireland, where as a society you have recently found a middle way between extremes in a major way.

Someone who attends the talks and the session will find some unusual views put across that are not religious in the normal sense of the term, and they will find the Sunday session physically challenging in the same way as going on a day hike might be. Sitting in zazen for around 4 hours in total is actually quite energetic, and is to some extent an exercise in self-control. Having said that, I never force anyone to sit in zazen and people are free to stop if they find the practice difficult. But practicing zazen is a kind of training, so perseverance is quite useful. Hopefully, anyone who comes to the talk on Saturday and the session on Sunday will feel happy and relaxed on Sunday evening, as if they have come back to the simple and satisfied state we enjoy as children, and dropped off all worries and concerns for a day. It is a kind of centring of body and mind.

If somebody is considering coming along, what would convince them to attend?

Difficult question. I don’t know the answer. Sometimes people come to a talk or one-day session and seem really enthusiastic, but then I never see them again. I think that people in the modern world are searching for a way of life that makes sense to them personally. But human beings are very complicated creatures. Actually I don’t try to persuade people to attend and I don’t follow them if they don’t come again. It sounds rather a lame way to go about it, but it is important for people to decide for themselves if something is valuable for them, without any persuasion. So I am not evangelical in any sense.

I also understand that Zen can be practised by anybody of any belief system, and you do not need to be a Buddhist to take part. Could you elaborate a little on this?

Yes, since Zen is based on a physical-mental practice and doesn’t worship any particular being or god, anyone can take part. The philosophy of Buddhism is about how to live in this world in front of us, so it is a pragmatic philosophy that is concerned with the world as it is, not the world as it should be. In other words, Buddhism is not an idealistic or spiritual religion. Anyone can study how to live, no matter who they are. And anyone can sit in the posture of zazen.

Finally I am told that you were working in Japan when you became interested in Zen meditation, before residing there for years and going on to translate. Dedicating your life to it, and moving to a completely culture, has obviously been a great commitment. Has this been a path that has mostly run smoothly? How has Zen practice helped to overcome challenges you have faced?

No, the path has been a difficult one. But without Zen I would not have been able to overcome the challenges in the way that I did. Even now, I feel that I live in a space between two very different cultures, not fitting into either, and that is often a lonely experience. But I think the practice of zazen has given me a kind of stamina, in the same way as, for example, long-distance running gives you a kind of stamina, that can be used in everyday situation. The ability to go on rather than to give up. Some people might call me stubborn, but it’s actually a little different from that. The ability to carry something on through thick and thin is a very valuable ability in many areas of life.