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zen meeting

January 15, 2010

First of all, why Zen? Why not Tibetan Buddhism or Wat Buddhism for that matter? And why Buddhism? As for that last question, please read previous blogs if you really want to know. Just click on the word “Buddhism” in the tag cloud to the right of this text, and that will lead you to the entries in which I’ve written about Buddhism.

As to the question of why a Zen meeting as opposed to the others.. I am not aware of any Tibetan Buddhist groups in this area. There are a few people in a community in the hills an hour’s drive East of here which may still be having Tibetan Buddhist meetings, but they tend to start very early in the morning. I am NOT a morning person. Also, I don’t have the money for gas to drive up there.

Why not Wat Buddhism then? There are two Wat temples (doesn’t the word “Wat” mean “temple?” I am saying “temple temple.) within a short drive. I was told years ago that a non-Asian would not be welcome though. I forget who told me that, but it was a Cambodian acquaintance.  The Asian population in the city where I live and the surrounding towns is not large, but most of the Asians here are from Southeast Asia, Cambodia especially, and they practice a form of Buddhism called Wat. The services at these two small temples are conducted in Cambodian. I am not Cambodian, I do not speak Cambodian, and I do not want to offend anyone, so I shall stay out of the Wat temples, even though I would like to go. I have occasionally seen monks from these temples at the college I attend, but have not spoken with them. I do not know how they would feel talking to westerners.

There is a Zen group, an official Zen group in this area. By official, I mean meetings conducted by ordained Zen clergy.  The head priest is a middle-aged woman who lives quite aways from here, and drives a lot to the few Zendos (places of Zen meetings, also Zen groups called sanghas, if I have my terminology correct – maybe a Zendo is just a place, not a group.. but I think the word refers to both – “sangha” is a Buddhist community). The main priest is here in town once a month. There were two other people in robes at the meeting tonight, so I am guessing they are priests as well, but subordinates. One of these guys lives in a town a half-hour’s drive south of here, I don’t know where the other one lives.

Since this is the only group with real Buddhist priests who have gone through much training and are part of a Buddhist teaching lineage and all that, I go to this group. Maybe a different form of Buddhism would be better for me, but I figure any form, as long as the teachers are legit, and good teachers, will be healthy. So, I attended a Zen meeting tonight.

The population of the city in which I live is just over 200,000 people. There were 13 of us at the meeting tonight. So much for religious diversity. Hey, at least I’m not the only one.

The group does not have its own building since there are so few regularly practicing Zen adherents. The group rents a very small room on the campus of a local Church of the Brethren. The Church of the Brethren is a peace church, that, as far as I know, has its roots in the quaker tradition, or something like that. It is a Protestant Christian denomination that is against war, for social justice, and rather laid back compared to most other Christian denominations. I say this because the clergy and congregations of the vast majority of churches would certainly not rent out any of their rooms to a Buddhist group, because they would see Buddhism as a false (and therefore contemptible) religion. Hurray for the Church of the Brethren folks who are open-minded enough to rent a room to us.

I do wish it were a larger room, though. The room we were in is just a little bigger than my bedroom. Oh well, it keeps the cold out and the rain off. That’s something.

I arrived a little late – I arrive almost everywhere a little late. Oops. I was not the last to arrive, at least. I left my shoes out on the sidewalk. Zen is a Japanese tradition, and the Japanese strongly frown on wearing shoes inside.

The room was mostly dark, except for a few candles, and people were just finishing a chant I of course did not know. That’s ok, I was planning on feeling lost. We then began meditating.

It was an interesting site. There was some space in the middle of the room, except at one end, where the main priest was sitting. On each side were two rows of black mats, on top of which were round black cushions called zafus, on top of which were meditators, sitting cross-legged, mostly, and facing the walls. I sat behind the first row, and therefore stared at the back of a dude’s head, and the wall, on which was a Christian bulletin board.

Inside the room, besides various accoutrements (pardon me if I spelled that word wrong, I am not French) were various Christian items left over from the season of Advent. I think it would have been nice of the church folks to have left us a room empty except for chairs, which were moved out of the room so mats and meditators could sit on the floor.

After a half hour of facing the wall and breathing, and me wondering if my eyes were supposed to be closed or open, and if I should be breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, or just breathing through my nose, a small gong was struck, and we stood up to do walking meditation. Walking meditation is walking very slowly – deep breaths, and one step per breath, in a dark room. We didn’t have much space to walk in, though, in that tiny meeting place, so we did a lot of standing meditation. We did two laps around the room, bowing each time to the statute of Buddha, which was on a table with candles and a statue of a female person I did not recognize.We then sat down again, this time facing each other, and did another half hour or so of sitting and breathing.

Sitting and breathing and the mind running higgledy-piggledy with none of our modern distractions of television or computer or texting or any of a multitude of other ways we have concocted of avoiding ourselves. As you might guess, it is difficult to meditate, and one might feel he or she is going mad. That’s how it is. Everyone who starts meditating deals with this, and the feelings of a restless mind are sometimes experienced even by those who have been practicing meditation for years.

So why am I meditating? I’ve done some research, and meditation has many many times been scientifically proven in many ways, including the most advanced brain scans, to be very helpful and healthy to do. One does not have to do Zen Buddhist meditation, though. It is possible to do transcendental meditation (TM) or Catholic meditations, such as saying the rosary, or Hindu meditation, etc. The type doesn’t matter, it just matters what is good for you. In one high-tech brain scan study, the meditation of nuns praying the rosary and Tibetan yogis doing their chants or silent meditations had the same effect. Pretty neat, huh?

As I have so extensively written in many previous blogs, I have serious mental health issues. Medications have not worked much at all, and have often made me worse. I believe it is not medications that will do me the most good, but meditation.

If I had gone to the meeting last night, I would have had a more difficult time. So often, my adrenline levels are way waaaay too high, and I feel terribly anxious and even have slight nervous ticks sometimes, and fidget, and you get the idea. Today I felt much different, quite tired, stayed in bed a long time, but much more mellow than usual, so it was a very good night to begin my meditation practice with the sangha.

The two half hours were not too bad. I didn’t bother to count my breaths this time. Some meditation teachers want their students to count their exhalations up to 10, then start over – this can actually be quite tough, considering how much the spastic, incredibly hyper-active mind can wander when it is not distracted. The only distractions for us were a ticking noise – a device regulating the heater, I think, the heat coming on occasionally, and what I am guessing was someone in the group who was facing the other wall, snoring. Tonight, meditating was tough, but not too tough. It will likely be worse at times in the future, but also at times easier as I get more accustomed to it.

After the second half-hour session of sitting meditation, called zazen, the lights were turned on, we did prostrations – bowing toward the statue of the Buddha. Buddhists, at least Zen Buddhists, do not exactly worship Buddha though. There is a difference between veneration and worship, as any Catholic will tell you. Veneration is a way of showing deep respect. Worship is something different. Buddha, in the Zen tradition, (again, as far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong and you know different) is not worshiped as a deity, but we still do prostrations.

What are prostrations? Kind of what you may have seen Muslims doing in their mosques on television. Starting at a standing position, kneeling and bending down, but in our case, not laying completely flat on the ground like the Muslims do. I had attended one of this group’s meetings years ago, so I was not put out or surprised by the prostrations. I have no problem showing respect to Buddha. Also, I was told in an email that the prostrations were not just to Buddha, but to all of life. Ok.

Then, another chant. This one was in a folder for me to read. I didn’t have any problems with the words in the chant, but don’t remember them. There is another chant they sometimes do, called The Heart Sutra, which starts with the words “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness Form.” I’ve read explanations for these words, but still don’t get it, or much of the rest of the Heart Sutra.

Then one of the senior meditators, one of the people with a bib, did a chant. Zen folks who’ve been at it awhile sew little bibs which fit around their necks. I forget what these bibs are called, so I call them bibs. What’s a bib? Ever been around very small children in high chairs eating their peas and corn? A bib is what goes around a child’s neck and hangs across the chest so the clothes underneath do not get as filthy.

The chant was unlike any I’ve heard or read, and was dedicated to female Buddhists, including one called the Mother of all Buddhas – that’s getting a little too Catholic for me, friends. I was surprised by this chant. Hmm..

Then at the end of the chant, the elderly man said something to the effect of, “We offer up the flowers and burning of incense in the name of..” And then people rattled off a few names of loved ones (this part is just about identical to Christian liturgy – prayers being offered up and people saying names). After everyone was done saying names (I didn’t say any.. being new and feeling shy, and surprised by this part of the service), the chanter concluded by saying, “and for the good of all sentient beings.”

All sentient beings.. that’s another big Buddhist phrase. I just looked up “sentient” on my online dictionary, and it says, “able to feel or perceive things.” Buddhists believe that not only humans are sentient, but animals, and probably plants as well. I don’t know about rocks.

Buddhists devote their practices to the good of not only themselves, but all other life forms. You might be thinking about Star Wars, and Yoda’s talks on The Force. Guess what! George Lucas didn’t make all that stuff up, he adapted it. That whole force thing – everything being alive and interconnected, is older than Buddhism. It’s a part of animism, the oldest form of spiritual belief on this planet. Perhaps I’m getting the animism part slightly wrong. I have more often heard that animism is the belief that all life forms have spirits – but that is pretty much like believing all life forms are sentient, and I think part of animism is the belief in interconnectedness. The Eastern faiths have incorporated animism to some degree, but the Western faiths have not.

After the meditations, prostrations, and chants were done it was time to put away the mats and zafus, and bring in the chairs. A few of us made tea in disposable cups. Normally I avoid caffeinated beverages due to feeling overly anxious, but tonight, after a day of doing almost nothing, and being tired, and having spent over an hour in silent meditation in a dark room with other silent people, I was needing a pick-me-up, so had some green tea with the caffeine still in it. That helped some.

It was then time for the Dharma talk. Dharma – that’s a big Buddhist term. I tend not to like jargon, but oh well, can’t be avoided really. What does Dharma mean? As far as I know, it means “The Way,” or the Buddhist Path. To my knowledge, it is not a Japanese word – could be from one of the ancient languages of India – Pali or Sanskrit.

Those of you who know even less about Buddhism than I do might be wondering why an ancient language from India? The reason is Buddha was from what was then India –  but today might be part of the neighboring country of Nepal. Buddhism did not catch on for long in India, because the main religion of that country, Hinduism assimilates other teachings rather easily, and Buddha was and is considered by Hindus to have been an incarnation of one of their gods. Buddhism did eventually spread to various parts of Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and Western countries.

Our Dharma talk this evening was partially about women of Zen. Buddhism was started by a male, and is still largely a male-dominated religion, although some women, like the one who gave the Dharma talk tonight, can and do become priests. I think shedding new light on the historical and modern roles of women in Buddhism is healthy and I do not have a problem with it.

What is troubling though, is some misogynist statements many scholars have attributed to the Buddha. I have heard of these before, This raises the question, “Was Buddha a fully enlightened being?” There is a debate on this – most Buddhists, regardless of their tradition, would likely say yes, and probably argue that the misogynist statements were made by followers of Buddha and not the Buddha himself.

Does it matter if the Buddha was a fully enlightened being or not? Well, considering the word Buddha means “Awakened One,” or “Enlightened One,” I would say, yeah, it probably does matter to some degree, but in a way not much at all really. What really matters is if the teachings and practices are beneficial or not. That’s the most important. Still, though, it was a bit of a bummer to raise this issue of the anti-women statements (probably) of the Buddha, and the question of his enlightenment.

The priest is a rather assertive, semi-butch (although straight) woman, who was raised without a father, and taught to do a lot of things some men typically do, like helping to look after kids and fix appliances. When she is taught Japanese, she is taught the men’s style of speaking. In Japan, there are certain words and styles of speaking that only men or only women use. Her teacher just doesn’t see her fitting the role of the more submissive and soft-spoken Japanese female. I don’t mind the priest being this way, though, this makes her interesting. I am glad she’s a strong person. And, if she were younger and really hot, that would be very distracting for me.

Our priest has written a book with a simple and to-the point title – “Zen Women.” It is filled with stories of, you guessed it, women of Zen. I haven’t read it yet.I still plan on mostly avoiding Buddhist books for awhile, with the exception of some warped but ingeniously written novels set in Thailand, the protagonist of these stories being a detective who is a devout Buddhist. I will perhaps read Zen Women eventually. I have to admit it does sound interesting. Frankly, I don’t like how all religions are over-balanced along gender lines – wicca being the only one I’m aware of being currently practiced that is heavy on female energy and worship instead of male. The Catholics are better than the Protestants in terms of celebrating womanhood, but in making Mary out to be ever-virgin – well, I think they got that part wrong – setting a standard that is just as impossible to live up to as that set by Christ – but at least they have some feminine veneration as part of their religion.

I am wondering if “Zen Women” will be a big hit. If it is historically accurate and well-written, then I hope so. I talked to one of the guys who is an associate priest, and he told me there have only been two or 3 Buddhist books written specifically about women. There have been many thousands of books on various forms of Buddhism that have been written and published. I am shocked there have been almost no books on women.

Our group of 13.. hmm.. was almost half women. This is atypical, so they said. It is uncommon to find women who practice Buddhism, or at least who practice Zen. The head priest said it is more common for women to show up to Zen meetings led by male priests. Both women and men of pretty much all faiths have been indoctrinated to prefer male clergy to female. Part of the Judeo-Christian influence that so sadly dominates the industrialized world.

An important thing from the talk that was mentioned – something that blessed me – was the priest saying that Buddhist practice and teaching can help us to truly be ourselves without fear. To be who we are. The priest said flowers do not worry about the other plants thinking it is ok or not for them to bloom, they just bloom, and we should be like that.

I am really trying to live my authentic self without constant fear and worry, but it is difficult, and something I am struggling with a lot these days. It is one thing to intellectually know a truth, and another to really believe it with one’s being.

I did have a little trouble with this talk about us being our authentic selves though, because there is a prominent teaching of “no self,” that the self is impermanent, an illusion. What the priest said tonight seems to go against that. But I am fairly alright with this. Why?

Buddhism is a religion of paradox – of opposites, of seeming illogic. Western philosophers probably hated Eastern thought – it’s so different. The Eastern frame of mind can sometimes seem unfathomable to westerners, even those attempting to practice an Eastern religion. But, I am getting used to some paradoxes and contradictions – some are even intentional, I believe. I am guessing the self being discussed is the impermanent self. Right then.. I like the part about being our real true selves without fear. That’s the good part.

I even have a book in my bookshelf (I have several bookshelves filled mostly with books I have not read) by Alan Watts (a major writer of books on Eastern thought – especially Zen) called “Become What You Are.” Good, I want to do that.

We sat on chairs in a circle, with the lights on, sipping our tea, during the Dharma talk, and after it was over, people left. I talked to the associate priest who lives near here and asked how I could learn the chants. He said the best way was to show up and gradually learn them. I figured he’d say that. But still, I was a bit disappointed – he could have just handed me the little binder with the chants in them so I could read and memorize them. No, of course not.. well, this is how many religious groups are, one sort of has to earn one’s way in.. showing up enough times to gradually learn, but feeling awkward for awhile. That kinda sucks, but I am learning to just roll with it.

I asked him if I could come early next time (which will be the week after next for me if I am feeling up to it, I will be doing my usual Wednesday ESL tutoring on Thursday this coming week, so I can attend a non-religious social event on this coming Wed. evening). He said arriving a little early would be a good idea.

Am I glad I finally went, after all these years? Yes, mostly the meeting went as I expected, and as I said I happened to go on an evening that I felt more mellow than usual. I am very glad to have finally done it, finally attended a meeting not just thought about attending a meeting. I took a real step forward.

Is the group welcoming? Not especially. The head priest hardly looked at me, only a few of the others said hi.

I was expecting this though. I am very used to getting a cold reception from people. That’s probably part of my karma, which I discussed in the previous blog. I am somewhat off-putting, I suppose, even though I don’t want to be.

I am 6’3″, just under 200 pounds, appear to be in fairly good physical condition, head usually shaved completely bald, thin goatee, and rather noticeable black-framed glasses. People tend to react a little funny to be and give me a wide berth. I don’t look exactly scary – but kind of odd and perhaps imposing. I don’t smile much, unless I’m around some people I’m comfortable with, and so most folks I come across are not friendly to me, they keep their distance. I am slowly learning to not be offended by this, and not let loneliness and apparent rejection or indifference bother me.

I am not surprised by this less than warm reception. I am used to it, it is what I expected, so I am not overly disappointed. Yeah, it would have been nice if the priest introduced herself to me, but oh well. The associate priest I talked to seems like a friendly guy, and two of the other dudes there were a little bit helpful with mat and cushion placement, and getting out a binder for me, so that’s good.

I never expect to make good friends, wherever I go, and this is no exception. I have other hopes for this group – even more important than making friends, I want to have a thriving spiritual life, get healthier and be a better person. This was only the first meeting, but I do plan on attending more, probably many more, in the future.

Thanks for reading this rather long blog, and I hope you got something out of it.

As the Buddhists say, “May you be well.”

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