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Have a seat

July 21, 2011

Last week, I read this great post over on John’s blog about a black female Buddhist’s (grumpyzen) search for diversity at local sanghas. It’s a wonderful post, you should read it, and yes, most sanghas are pretty homogeneous. I think that will continue to change with time.

In any event, it inspired me to shake the dust off around here and write a post of my own about my experiences with different sanghas. Not necessarily from a diversity perspective, but just from a “searching” perspective.

I don’t have a local sangha. Despite living in one of the continually fastest growing counties in the country, there are no zen groups less than 45 minutes or an hour away. There is a Thai temple only a few minutes from where I work, but it kind of intimidates me.

So, while the zazen part of my practice is limited to my house, when I travel, I like to seek out nearby sanghas to sit with. Here are a few that I’ve visited over the past few years:

Jizo-An/Pine Wind Zen Community, Medford, NJ

This one is in the town that I grew up in, so when I visited family there a few years ago, I stopped in for a visit. I wrote about it afterward:

While most of the ten people there sat facing the center of the room, one woman faced the wall for two of the three sessions in a more traditional Soto style. I decided to face the center of the room even though it’s not how I usually sit. It didn’t bother me in the least. While I didn’t really talk with anyone other than Ninshin, who was the one I spoke with over e-mail before attending, everyone was seemed very friendly. I didn’t feel that awkwardness I remember feeling when visiting friends’ churches (or—ack—youth groups) as a kid.

I haven’t been back to this unique, unaffiliated zen center, but I plan to stop by there again soon.

Zen Center on Main, Northampton, MA

This center is affiliated with the Village Zendo in NY.

On my visit here, I had trouble finding the entrance to the building and just barely made it upstairs before the first bell. It kind of sucks walking in for zazen, winded and stressed, but the nice folks there quickly put me at ease. They were happy I stopped in on my vacation to sit with them and the gentleman who led the session commented about how impressed he was that someone could carry on a practice on their own without the support of a sangha. That surprised me.

I remember that session of zazen quite well because next door, someone was playing the guitar loudly and singing very badly.

This was also the first time I took a few minutes to sit with a teacher and talk about challenges in my practice.

A very nice group of folks. As a result, I’d really like to sit at the Village Zendo in NYC sometime in the future.

Zen Center of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV

A zen center in Las Vegas of all places! It’s a nice spot in a residential neighborhood. They were still building their new center (which looks to be complete), so we sat in the living room of the residence.

I didn’t quite know what to expect coming here, as they’re part of the Korean Chogye order (Zen Master Seung Sahn). From what I can tell, it’s very similar to Soto zen, though the emphasis is very much on what Master Seung Sahn called “don’t know mind.” Conceptually, it seems pretty close to “beginner’s mind.”

Again, everyone here was very nice. I even got one very odd compliment from the gentleman leading the session. “You sit very well!”, he told me, apparently impressed that I didn’t fidget for the two 20-minute periods. I did get gently prodded, though, to walk faster during kinhin. Kinhin at Pine Wind moved almost literally at a snail’s pace, whereas here it was just short of a light jog!

There was more chanting here than at the other two spots, which was OK. I, personally, don’t chant in my own practice, but I can see some benefit in it.

I took a few minutes to sit and speak with a teacher. It was kind of an uncomfortable give-and-take, actually, as it felt very student-teacher-ish, rather than the more casual conversation I had in Northampton. At one point, he even struck me with a stick on my thigh! But, these discussions aren’t always supposed to be comfortable.

I left, pondering a simple question from the teacher that I couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer to: “Where do you go when you die?”

The next day while I was still in Vegas, my dog passed away.

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