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The Zen of Zen

March 16, 2011 1 comment

This past Saturday I went to a workshop at the Rochester Zen Center. I had attended another introductory workshop there about twelve years ago, (I can’t believe it was that long ago!) and found it a very enjoyable experience. A week ago my nephew who lives nearby emailed me to say he was going to a Zen workshop and wondered if I or Stephanie might be interested in going. It was a delightful surprise! Something I wouldn’t have thought of, but sounded like just what I could use at the moment.

I’ve loved Zen Buddhism for a very long time. After my parents died I went through many changes. My Catholic upbringing just didn’t jive with my experience of reality. And I began questioning and learning how much I hadn’t been exposed to in school. When I was in my late teens I started reading a lot about Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. I still have the first copy of the ‘Tao Te Ching‘ I bought back in 1974, with photos by Jane English. It’s my favorite translation! That’s when I taught myself to meditate, which I soon realized I’d been doing naturally and spontaneously most of my life. I started with the original ‘Transcendental Meditation’ book by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and I  read other books on yoga meditation, astral projection and other fun things (which is another story altogether); but the ones I enjoyed most were the books about Zen.

Just the whole philosophy of Zen Buddhism was so refreshing. It was like a combination of the Tao and Buddhism, cutting to the heart of what the Buddha taught. Zen is a Japanese word derived from the Chinese word ch’an, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna: meditation. Zen follows Buddhist teaching, but is primarily concerned not with doctrine or any particular belief system. It’s only focus is realizing our Buddha nature (Enlightenment) through sitting. Quieting the mind, letting go of our countless thoughts and worries and attachments by focusing on counting your breaths. It’s about direct experience; not thinking but being. It’s incredible simple in theory but not so easy in practice. Our minds are pretty chaotic and scattered, especially these days! But from that state of pure awareness comes tremendous tranquility, clarity of thought and general health and well-being. Jeez, I’m sounding like some kind of handbook for ‘Meditation 101′!

I was especially fortunate to have spent a great deal of time in the woods and meadows as a kid, and much more so when my parents moved out to Bergen when I was thirteen. I absolutely loved spending hours all alone, wandering far and wide through the wild places near our house. I would sit on a rock in the forest and close my eyes, emptying my mind of everything except the sounds and smells around me, the sensation of the spring breeze, my own breathing; merging into the living presence of nature until the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘forest’, inner and outer, melted away.

And at the same time this was going on, I was learning that unlike Western religions, Eastern religions didn’t think about ‘God’ or Divinity as being separate from It’s creation. ‘God’ is not something ‘up there’ or out there, but the very essence of the dance of energy that is the atoms and molecules of our universe. I liked the concept that the material world was not so much a vast and complex machine, but more like a vast and complex thought (someone famous said that a long time ago, but I can’t remember who at the moment). From meditation I realized that my mind was a part of that Mind. The distinctions we perceive between matter and energy, light and dark, you and the world outside of you, are illusions of our limited senses. And the more I quieted my thoughts and experienced that Still Mind that is a part of everything else, the more I could relate to the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism.

I had instinctually known this all my life. As little children, before our conception of ‘Self’ becomes fully formed (conditioned?) this is how we perceive the world. In a way a baby is a perfectly Enlightened being. Babies don’t think much about past or wonder about the future. They exist completely in every moment. The goal of meditation (Zen) is to recreate that basic state of equilibrium, that Pure Mind where you aren’t totally imprisoned by thoughts and desires, regrets about the past and fears about the future. Meditation of any kind is to get the mind back to being in the Now, instead of living in your head.

So let’s get back to my visit to the Rochester Zen Center last week. It’s a beautiful place! A huge old brick mansion that’s been extended over the years. It was founded in 1966 by Roshi Philip Kapleau, who wrote ‘The Three Pillars of Zen‘. It was only one of two Zen centers in this country at the time, the other being in San Francisco.

I won’t go into a lot of history. The workshops that they give once a month start at 9:30 am and last till about 4:00 or 5:00 pm. The abbot of the Center, Roshi Kjolhede, gives a nice introductory talk about the origins of Buddhism and Zen; what Zen is, what Zen isn’t. There’s a question and answer period, and then after a break everyone goes into the zendo (meditation hall) for some detailed instruction in sitting postures. There are specific types of cushions and sitting benches, depending on the most comfortable position for the individual. Instead of sitting cross-legged in the partial lotus, which I’ve done all my life, I chose to use a kneeling posture with the aid of a cushioned bench. I’m not quite as flexible as I used to be, so that worked out really well.

There follow two twenty-minute rounds of sitting. Counting the in-breath and the out-breath up to ten, then starting over at one, without moving, until the bell sounds. That’s it! If thoughts come (when they come) you let them go and focus completely on the breath and the count. Since I’ve done this a lot, it wasn’t too difficult, even with the sounds of revelers from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade a half a block away. (It’s not often you hear distant bagpipe music while meditating!) The time flew by!

After that is a wonderful vegetarian lunch, some nice conversation (about 40 people attended) and then back to the zendo for yoga stretching instruction. Then another round of sitting (slightly more difficult with food in the stomach) and the day finishes with a discussion with the Roshi.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday. Interesting people, a good meal and a clear head! Now if I could manage to sit every day…

In closing, there is a book I’ve had for over thirty years that I’d also like to recommend. It is my favorite book concerning Zen. This book is a wondrous gem of wisdom and humor, the essential insight into the spirit of Zen Buddhism. It’s called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

I’ll also throw a few more links and quotes your way to enlighten and delight:

101 Zen Stories –   Zen Sayings –    Rochester Zen Center

“We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see.”

“Zen is a finger pointing at the moon.”

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

Categories: Books, Spirituality Tags: ,
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