The zendo (Zen practice hall) is right next to an aikido dojo, and both areas are very elegant and well maintained. Racks of swords and calligraphy adorn the dojo, while the zendo has its meditation cushions, its Buddha statue, and the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures on the wall. The smell of incense pervades the room.
The people there were universally friendly, open, welcoming, and helpful for a newbie like me. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only new person, and we had our own little zazen (meditation) class in the back at the start of services (though I was already familiar with the basics).
So what did I think?
Certain rituals – chanting the Heart Sutra, bowing, and most especially prostrations before the Buddha statue – were unsettling to me and felt vaguely cultish. Zen is not a cult, but there were moments last night that felt that way. I am not accustomed to prostrating myself to anyone – not even God, back when I was a Christian – so doing it to a mere man feels off-putting. We Zenners don’t worship the Buddha, but that’s the vibe it gave off. So I didn’t like that.
Zazen was fine. More distracting than normal, since everything was new and people were all around, but it was fine. We did seated and walking meditation, and instead of shikantaza (choiceless awareness), which I normally do, we did counting the breath. But it’s not really that different.
Things picked up dramatically after that.
The teacher, Rinsen, is a very warm, funny, and outgoing guy, a real contrast to the stiff formality that had come before. He gave a brief talk about “leaving no trace,” which means doing your good work in the world with non-selfish intention. I love listening to him talk. I could listen for hours, and in fact I have, on the podcast. I feel like he’s speaking directly to my heart. He has that ability.
Then services ended, after a little over two hours, and I had a chance to talk to others in the sangha (community). They were wonderful. The people I met felt like instant friends. Again, I could have stayed to talk and listen for hours.
And then the drive home – traffic, construction, waiting for a train, delays, all the joys of everyday life. 🙂
So that was my experience. All in all, very rewarding. I will definitely be back.
Have you ever been to a new kind of religious service for the first time? What was it like for you?