Kinhin – walking meditation – has an anomalous position in our practice. Dogen doesn’t mention it, and it seems that it was introduced perhaps 500 years or so after his death, possibly by Menzan Zuiho, a wonderful teacher who lived around the turn of the 17th century.
The original instructions I received for kinhin were pretty sparse. It was basically taking a half step forward with each cycle of breath and rolling the weight from the back foot to the front foot.
I noticed in my years of being in the International Zen Association that the Kinhin got slower and slower and slower, in contrast to what we were originally taught by Nancy Amphoux. By the time I left people were moving very short distances indeed. I’m impatient with that sort of behaviour, because it purports to declare a profundity which is, I think, fake.
What is kinhin for?
When I went to Sanshinji in 2012, I noticed that they did Kinhin a little differently. In a conversation with one of Okumura’s students, she said on the step forward, just before the out-breath, they placed the heel of the forward foot on the ground first. As the out-breath continued the weight was then rolled forward onto the front of the front foot, the toes slightly splayed. The effect of that was that on the roll forward, the weight went directly over the acupressure point on the sole of the foot, near the root of the big toe, called ‘bubbling spring’.
It’s an energy acupressure point. It’s well known among Qigong people and Acupuncture practitioners. You stimulate that point in the roll forward and then, when you breathe in, you push down with the front of the front foot and roll the foot a tiny bit backwards at the same time. Again, that push would be going through the ‘bubbling spring point.’
I’ve been practicing Kinhin in that way since and what I’ve noticed is that – and perhaps this is just me – that it’s easier to find the ‘bubbling spring point’ on one foot than the other. For me, it’s my left foot, and often I can’t feel it at all.
Quite a lot of my students are unable to find it. And if they can’t experience it, those instructions don’t make much sense, and so their focus is more on rolling their weight from one foot to the other and from the back of the foot to the front.
If we experiment with how Kinhin could be, we could pay more attention on the back foot. All that we’re told is that when all the activity is going on with the front foot, we’re keeping our back foot on the ground. Although, it’s very difficult to stop the heel of the back foot being slightly raised off the ground.
I realised that when the weight is completely on the front foot, the back foot is positioned in such a way that the ‘bubbling spring point’ on the back foot is naturally accessible. The back foot is, in effect, balanced on that point.
I wondered, if instead of on an in-breath pressing down with the front foot, what it would be like if, on the in-breath, we pressed down on the ‘bubbling spring point’ on the back foot.
It’s slightly more convoluted: at the end of the outbreath, our weight is still on our front foot, but on the inbreath, we switch our attention to include the bubbling spring point of the back foot, so we might feel that point on both feet, or perhaps just the back foot. The benefit – at least for me – is a dramatically heightened consistency of awareness of the bubbling spring point, which in turn makes it much easier to experience the body as an energetic system, rather than just a mechanical one. You can feel the energy travelling up the body.
Conceptually it’s still a bit messy: it doesn’t feel correct to pay attention to both feet at the same time, rather than alternating attention. When we’re moving energy, it’s more natural to move it from one point rather than two. If we’re bringing the energy up the body and back down to the earth again, where do we bring it down to?
But that conceptual confusion is secondary to being able to activate this energetic point. And once we do that, we can experiment with what feels right for us within an enlivened practice. For example, it may feel right to bring the energy up through the bubbling spring point of my right foot, and as I step forward to return the energy to the earth through the same point, whilst keeping within awareness the point on the other foot.
I don’t think we should innovate for the sake of it. We should however foster open hearted inquiry into the various aspects of our practice, and share our experience with others. Because that upholds the vital quality of practice, which avoids degeneration into hollowed out repetition, which is characteristic of religion, and fatal to spiritual enquiry.