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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: ,

Christmas Morning

December 25, 2010 1 comment

It’s still only 9:30 in the morning on Christmas day, but I’m already having a most marvelous morning!

I woke up about 7:00. Arthur was already awake in his room, waiting patiently till his sister was up before going down to check out the presents by the tree. When I went down to let Max (the dog) outside, I opened the door and was greeted by complete, snowy silence. Utter, cold, white, glorious silence! Probably the only day of the year when there is not a sound to be heard in all the village. No car passing on the next street over, no train whistle echoing in the distance, not a peep from the canning factory a half mile to the west, nor even the trill of a bird. Just the deep, ringing stillness of Christmas morning. My senses opened like a balloon to fill the gray sky beyond the trees. And I was suddenly awake!

Then Stephanie came down and coffee was brewing and raspberry muffins were quickly prepared and popped in the oven. Fiona came downstairs with her brother to survey the presents by the colorful glow of the Christmas tree, and the unwrapping began.

After all was opened and explored, I must say we did a pretty nice job this year of balancing excess with restraint! The kids didn’t get a lot of huge toys or even many things that needed lots of batteries or complex parental construction. Everything they got was something they really wanted, and I think everyone was well satisfied without an orgy of overindulgence.

Fiona and Mama are presently constructing an amazing structure in the living room with the 300 piece wooden Citi-Blocks set that Arthur got, while listening to a CD of girl music I made on Fiona’s new (pink!) radio/CD player. Arthur’s gone from reading his new graphic novel to playing a new DS game. Max is happily devouring his rawhide chew toy, which, I’m afraid, won’t be around for too long. And I’m sitting here in my very comfortable new slippers, savoring the pure joy of this wonderful morning with my wonderful family. The true joy of Christmas for me is stopping to experience, once again, just how gosh darn lucky I am!! I really have a wonderful life! (Thank you Jimmy Stewart) And I hope I never take that for granted.

Last night we all went over to the Presbyterian church for a 7 o’clock Christmas service. The family across the street from us go there, and the mother (Sonia) was going to be singing, so I thought it would be nice. My pseudo-atheist son was not crazy about going, but he relented grudgingly. The church was quite beautiful, with a huge tree aglow with many white lights and the singing of many Christmas carols. Though we don’t particularly adhere to any single religion, being of a Buddhist/Agnostic/Pagan/Taoist/former Catholic and Mormon background, it was still very pleasant to share the spirit of the season with such a large, festive group. (And Sonia’s voice is truly that of an angel!) At one point they asked for kids to come up to the front for a little ‘manger talk’, and my seemingly shy but fearless daughter wanted to go. I’m quite proud of Arthur for going with her, by Stephanie’s request, and they both even took part in the discussion. Fiona is still a bit unclear about the whole Christmas story, so this was a great experience. She’s definitely not shy about asking questions! And it all worked out nicely. Arthur quite enjoyed the lighting of the candles we were all given as the church was darkened and the new light  passed from person to person to fill the night.

So… I must finish up. I hear that the kids are now watching cartoons. I’d almost forgotten this is Saturday morning, after all! I look forward to a day of lounging and eating and playing and eating. I hope you are all able to enjoy this day as much as possible.

Merry Christmas to all!

Dar Williams: The Christians and the Pagans (Holiday Song)

On The Turning of the Seasons

This morning I found this interesting article: Science fiction and fantasy stories that can help you deal with death

Go read this, and then come back when you’re done. I’ll wait.

Okay, are you ready? Since my previous post a couple of days ago I learned that our friend Diane’s father passed away. I think he was 85 years old, and until fairly recently he was a very active person. He was a wonderful, kind man who would do anything for you. He was also the father-in-law of my friend Ky, who spent a lot of time with him and who will also miss him very much.

The thing about autumn is that it’s an incredibly beautiful time of year and can inspire bouts of extreme bliss, as it did to me the other day. And at the same time, the dying of vegetation, the falling leaves and the coming of winter reminds us of how temporary life is, and makes us aware of our own mortality. It’s as if in its fading, life bursts forth in all its glorious grandeur, saving the best for last with the bountiful harvest and a blazing tapestry of light and color and busyness. There’s a delicious sense of melancholy in the Fall air, but it also reminds me that the fading of life on the surface is only that; the essence of life is merely sleeping beneath the cold earth, under the dimensions of activity that we perceive with only our eyes and ears.

I think part of the euphoria I felt the other day was in response to my underlying awareness (especially as I get on in years) of my own mortality, which makes the moments when I’m truly conscious of being alive that much more precious. How many more autumns do I have to experience? How many years to watch my children grow and change? How many more springtimes will I witness the renewal of the living earth? No one knows! And in a way, it’s not really important. All that is real is this moment. Now. Now I am alive.

And despite what my rational brain tells me, that after my body dies, my memories, my identity, whatever it is that makes me ‘me’ will also cease to exist; there’s also a part of my being that has experienced inexpressible states of consciousness and transcendence. A part that knows that the temporal, physical manifestations we perceive as ‘the world’ is only the tip of the multidimensional iceberg. And from time in memorial human beings have followed the example of nature, that life fades but is then reborn anew. And we still feel in our ancient bones that the universe ebbs and flows in cycles, like the seasons. So who knows? Maybe we do too? Quantum Physics tells us there’s a hell of a lot more to the universe than we can even imagine. In some way, nothing is really created or destroyed. It’s all the dance of Shiva.

But I’m really getting off into la-la land! It’s just interesting that the last few days, as All Hallows Eve approaches, thoughts of life and death keep popping to the forefront. Like that link above to some great stories about the meaning of death. And how the stories we tell help us cope with our mortality. Halloween, or Samhain to the ancient Celts, was all about honoring the spirits of the dead, when the veil between the realms of the living and the dead grew thin. It marked the end of summer, the season of life, and the beginning of winter. And it’s still a time to gather together with those we love, to savor the warmth of hearth and home and the eventual return of life.

So, I’m off to the funeral home in a little while to say farewell to a man who was a loving husband and father. Let’s all remember those that have gone before us on this All Hallows Eve.

Samhain / Halloween

Day of the Dead: Wikipedia

Halloween: History.com

Categories: Spirituality

Canal Boat Rides and a Hindu Temple!

This past Saturday we took the kids to Brockport for the Annual Sidewalk Sale, and because I read there were going to be canal boat rides. The canal boat in question was the Rose Lummis,  A genuine 1953 Mississippi River Boat. They are normally docked in Spencerport, but this day for the sidewalk sales they were giving 30 minute rides west from Brockport and back. It was great fun! Arthur and Fiona both loved the ride, going under the lift bridge in downtown Brockport twice. We sat in the front of the two-tiered boat with a cool breeze off the water in our faces. On the way back we went up to the top deck, passing several other boats and a few people fishing, and most of that time one of the crew gave a nice little history lesson about the Erie Canal.

We also discovered that the Rose Lummis does “cocktail cruises” in the evenings for adults which go much further. $12.00 per person for a two hour cruise and pizza! (Bring your own cocktail). I think we may get a babysitter some Friday night and take them up on that one!

Canal Boat Tours

After returning from our canal cruise in the early afternoon, we got a call from our friend Tracy. Earlier in the week she had sent a link to the website of the Hindu temple near Rochester, with information about a rededication/purification ritual that was going on. I remembered hearing there was a Hindu temple in the area a few years back, but I’d forgotten about it. It sounded really interesting. Then Tracy called and said she was going there and wondered if we wanted to meet her. So we did!

Visiting the Sri Rajarajeswari Peetham was an amazing experience! The temple is located on a beautiful piece of land with rolling hills and woods on East River Road in Rush, NY. The temple itself and the numerous other buildings and tents around it were beautiful. And there were thousands of people from all over the world dressed in the most gorgeous, colorful clothing imaginable. I won’t get into too much description here because there are links to many photos and  some video at the end of this post.

Going through the visitors tent and entering the temple grounds was like being transported to India! There were very few Caucasians among the throngs of visitors and devotees, and the spiritual atmosphere of this place was mesmerizing! You are immediately drawn by the smell of smoke and incense and the thrumming sounds of chanting coming from the gigantic main tent where the ritual was taking place. (Had been taking place for the previous 10 days!) Inside this long tent shadowed from the glare of the summer sun there were 121 fires burning in brick pits, each attended by devotees who were reciting the Sanskrit chants several times a day for 11 days. There are speakers set up all around the area so that the chanting fills the air wherever you go. And around the perimeter of the tent are 1,008 vessels containing holy water that absorb the power of the chants and are then poured over the Mother Goddess (Devi) in the inner temple at the end of the ritual. A young man I talked to from Toronto said that this ritual had never been done in North America, and that this had never been done with this many people participating anywhere in the world, even in India!  The intent of the ritual is to energize the temple and also to bring peace to the world at large.

Standing outside the tent experiencing the sounds of this incredibly ancient invocation to Shiva, along with the exotic sights and smells and the energy of so many people focusing their intentions was really, really powerful! I soon found myself drifting into a transcendent state of bliss, under the blue heavens among the trees and summer heat and the pungent perfume of smoke. The vibrations of the ceaseless mantra seemed to charge the gentle breeze and seep deep into the earth beneath our bare feet. It made me want to just stay there and listen. And feel. And listen.

But, moving on…

I finally made my way around the ritual tent and Stephanie and Tracy and the kids and I went into the temple. Arthur was a little disappointed that it wasn’t an ancient stone structure with fluted columns and vines growing on it; but instead a modern, rectangular building with a web feed of the ritual on a big-screen monitor in the entrance chamber. The inside was beautifully decorated with tiles and mandalas and sacred pictures. And the inner sanctum was breathtaking! Filled with incredibly ornate golden, clay and stone statues of gods and goddesses and pictures of saints and gurus. There were offerings everywhere of fruits and flowers. Arthur and Fiona were in awe of everything. You can see more through the photo links below. Only pictures can do it justice!

And that’s one of the things I love about Hinduism! It is such a beautiful religion! Being a person who is quite visually oriented, I love the way Hinduism uses the visual arts as a method of transcending the mere physical representation of a deity to experience the infinite diversity of Brahman through all it’s manifestations. The idol is merely a focal point, a device to connect with divine powers that are beyond space and time and form. When I first began exploring a non-Western conception of the divine in my teens, I was influenced a lot by Hinduism. And when I taught myself how to meditate it was primarily through the philosophy of yoga and Transcendental Meditation. The whole concept of experiencing God directly, through looking within, was much more natural for me than what I had known from Christianity, or thinking of Divinity as being ‘out there’ or separate from It’s manifestations. I later discovered that Western religions also have their own ancient traditions of mysticism (Sufism, Kabbalah, Thomas Merton, for instance). I think the major reason I gravitated more toward Buddhism and Taoism was that the Hindu religion is so complex, and the names and deities and rituals are difficult for Westerners (certainly me) to remember, let alone pronounce!  Plus, the caste system thing never appealed much to me. But with traditions going back almost 6,000 years, it’s no wonder Hinduism takes a long time to learn and understand!

Still, it’s depth and longevity make it incredibly powerful. And it’s grounding in nature and emphasis on focusing spiritual energy make it very appealing to me (like Wicca and Paganism in general). This particular temple is focused on Devi (Day-vee), the Mother, and all her manifestations. How can I not love that?

Our kids really enjoyed being there, too. This summer has been a great learning experience for them about different religious traditions. Two weeks ago we attended a bat mitzvah in Ellison Park which was pretty neat. But they’d certainly never seen anything like this! Later in the afternoon Fiona had been watching a little girl not much older than herself (and many adults) showing devotion at one of the outdoor shrines. So she would go before the shrine and bow with clasped hands, then touch her forehead to the floor. She did this several times while we sat resting on the grass. She seemed drawn back to the shrine (I think it was Ganesha) many times. It was awful darn cute, but on that day I didn’t have my camera!

The next day, Sunday, was the last day of the ritual. I had to go back, as did Tracy, to witness the end of this momentous event and the celebration and precession afterwards. Several people told me it was really neat! And it was! I took some photos, and Tracy has posted many more better photos than I. Check them out below.

Tracy’s Flickr Photos

My Photos

Democrat and Chronicle Article

More Info: Brahman – The Absolute God of Hinduism

Categories: Spirituality

Impressions of a Spring Morning: Easter Sunday

I’ve been sitting outside this morning on the stone wall beside the patio. This is the most perfectly glorious spring morning one could ever imagine. From the moment I opened the upstairs window overlooking the back yard to take in the cool, life-scented air and golden sunlight, I have been mesmerized! A thousand memories of springtime and Easters flooded me with immense joy. Precious memories of walking to church all dressed up with my parents on Easter Sunday when I was Arthur’s tender age. Sensations of so many April mornings stirring around in this brain.

Then I came downstairs and the kids searched for their Easter baskets and we made pancakes and turkey bacon and Arthur and I played ball outside with Max (the dog).

And then Arthur went inside and I’ve been sitting here taking everything in. And there is SO MUCH to take in!

More vibrant variations of sunlit green than seems possible to the human eye. And the yellows of daffodils and blue morning sky and brown rich earth. Sounds of dozens of different birds from every direction; robins and cardinals, blue jays and sparrows, morning doves and starlings and the cawing of a crow, all flitting high and low,  looking for food or busily building their nests. The bell from the church and the voices of happily chatting people floating across the parking lot beyond the trees, the sounds of a car over on Lake Street and a distant motorcycle on a country road, the breeze tinkling the wind chimes on the arbor where the wisteria is just beginning to bud. The scent of daffodils like subtle perfume. And I think I can actually smell the new hyacinth blossoms from way around the side of the house! And wild violets from the big garden, and grass! The feeling of warm sun on my face and the cool, delicious air is intoxicating! My senses expand to take in everything!

The essence of Springtime and Easter combines with my sensation of being One with the Absolute; God, Nature, The Great Mother, Brahman, whatever you want to call It. It’s all about the continuous cycle of dying and rebirth, that spirit that infuses and animates all life. Jack in the Green. Osiris. Adonis. Christ. The symbols and sensations of divinity are forever at the root of us, going back further than consciousness. And the stories we come up with to explain and express It all are amazing! In contrast my own mortality seems a paltry thing compared to the vastness and mystery of Life.

Well, I see it’s after noon already! We’ve got to get out for a hike.

The New Yorker: Peeps, Mortality and Lewis Carroll

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