Barefoot Walking Meditation

Several times while on the Tallman trail I passed as many as six people walking barefoot on the dirt path. These middle–aged and older Asian men and women walk together in silence. When I approached the group Jennifer Kim introduced herself and offered to answer some of my questions. That is how I ended up at the Bulkwang Zen Meditation Center in Tappan on Route 303 on a summer Saturday.

Through this temple, Jennifer with her Dobahns, which translates to “one who prays and meditates with you,” participate in the ancient meditation practice of walking on bare ground without shoes. It has become a part of their Buddahist practice. It was common in many beliefs; Francis of Assisi walked barefoot and there exists today small groups of “discalceate” (unshod or going without shoes) religious throughout the world that subscribe to the practice. The connection of the naked foot to the ground represents the profound and beautiful relationship of humans to the earth, the universe and the eternal.

Born in Ireland, I was raised Roman Catholic; our father practiced what I'd call an Industrial strength type Catholicism. Extraordinarily strict. With all eight children packed into an unairconditioned white Ford wagon, we began every ride or family trip by saying the rosary. I do not consider myself “lapsed,” I am “collapsed” and lean toward agnosticism. Meditation to me is daydreaming. So, yeah, I am a skeptic.

Jennifer was my kind, warm and patient guide. In an email prior to my temple visit, she explained there are many different schools of thought and variations in the practice of Buddhism. Each group may practice a different school of Buddhism, but they share a profound belief in peace, body–spirit connection, mindfulness and reincarnation.

The session, about two hours long, began with a walking meditation in a large, beautiful room with blond oak floors. Walking barefoot in a circular pattern reminded me of a labyrinth walk. The softness of the floor and the afternoon light that filtered through drawn shades on the large windows was soothing.

My mind is a noisy, crowded space and the absence of outside chatter forced a quiet center to emerge. The slow, sweet movement of one foot in front of the other opened something in me. After walking for perhaps ten minutes there was the clap of a bamboo paddle followed by a quick series of ten kneeling bows, each bow a silent repentance. Acknowledgement of failure or transgression is similar to confession for Catholics. Once seated we meditated for perhaps 40 minutes with a break to walk and then a second seated meditation.

For me this part required a lot of shifting around to find the least painful way to sit. My thoughts wandered but after a while I began to reflect on the lovely gift of this silent, beautiful place. I tried to focus on my breath. Afterwards in speaking with Jennifer and Paul, the leader, they explained that there is a variation of the breathing they practice which is described as nostril breathing. The time passed surprisingly quickly; at the end of the meditation there was sharing in the group of twelve where one may speak, if inclined.

On this day, the gentleman speaking was a monk visiting from South Korea who offered to bring his practice to this group. Then those members who wished, continued to Tallman to walk the trail barefoot. Jennifer joined about a year ago because she heard through one of her Dobahns at her home temple, the Bodhi Mind Zen Center in Englewood, that she could benefit greatly from this experience. To Jennifer, barefoot walking brings peace, joy and oneness.

This practice has been transcendent for this former public school science teacher and mother of twin girls. After the trail walk, each member performs a thorough process of cleaning their feet. For elderly members who cannot bend easily, one of the participants cleans their feet for them. This is considered very Buddha–like and is reflected in the New Testament too.

You may see this small group when walking in Tallman. Know these humble, spiritual people carry inside of them something unique and precious. If you ask, they will share it with you too.