I was going to be rushed. In some ways, I’m always in a rush. It’s a common by-product of the American dream – 2 kids, 2 cars, 2 careers, a house, a husband, a dog, and a couple of aquatic frogs. (The bird died.) But there is irony in being rushed when driving to a Zen Temple. It’s like running into a yoga class, breathless, as your flip-flops smack across the floor while your keys jangle and you try to keep your mat from unrolling before you’ve found a spot.
But rushed is how Saturday morning looks for me if I have to be somewhere – anywhere – before noon. Since I work at a Christian church, Saturday is my Sabbath. For me, that means no work. No professional e-mails. No Twitter. No office phone messages. No making last-minute adjustments to Sunday’s program. Instead, it’s just stuff for my kids, my house, my husband, or me. On most Saturdays, it’s some of each. Regardless of what my day looks like, my morning is usually fairly relaxed. I walk the dog, make myself breakfast, drink coffee, and read the paper. I imagine this is how many people spend their mornings, but ask any mom with school-aged kids, and she will tell you this counts as serious relaxation.
On this particular Saturday, I planned to head out to Great Tree Zen Temple. Attending rituals associated with other faith traditions is one of my favorite allowed-on-my-Sabbath activities, and I was hoping to arrive at the Zen Temple by 9:30AM for zazen (seated meditation). Every week Great Tree holds Saturday Sangha from 6AM-3PM. Folks are welcome to participate in any – or all – of that day’s practice, and 9:30AM seemed a much more reasonable time for me to join in than 6AM. In Buddhism, the word sangha refers to the association of practicing Buddhists. Taken most narrowly, sangha refers to a monastic community of Buddhist monks/nuns. A slightly broader use of the word includes lay people who have already mastered some of the steps toward “enlightenment.” However, in the U.S., sangha has come to mean, quite broadly, any community of Buddhists.
Mileage-wise, Great Tree isn’t far from the center of Asheville, but it felt like another country. The temple is located about 3½ miles off the highway. In that part of North Carolina, it doesn’t take long to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Wild anemone swayed in the breeze along the side of the road, and dilapidated fences demarcated property boundaries across the rolling hills of the Southern Appalachians. Glancing to the right, I caught my breath as the mountains showed up, ever so briefly, in the distance. Suddenly, I found myself in a little valley where a gardener was weeding his field of greens. I then passed the day-lily nursery, as the directions predicted, and drove over the narrow stone bridge spanning the creek below. I parked under an arbor of trees that kept the patch of gravel cool.
I actually got there a bit early since I had allowed myself plenty of time to find the place, so I sat in my car and breathed deeply for a few minutes. I wanted to seem more zen-like than harried-Christian when I arrived. I reached the house first. They had very kindly posted a sign asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering. They even provided cubbies for holding them. When I engage in cross-faith activities, I always find these types of written instructions invaluable, especially when they are written in English. I was greetly warmly by Great Tree’s Zen priestess, Teijo Munnich. I first met Teijo many years ago when I was a young psychology professor at Warren Wilson College and she was an adjunct professor teaching Buddhism in the Religious Studies program. I’ve talked to her many times over the years and had warned her that I would come out to Great Tree at some point. I was also welcomed by Chimyo, a Buddhist nun in residence there, whom I had met once before.
At 9:30 on the dot, Chimyo rang a bell, and we all moved from the living area of the house to the Meditation Hall. Buddhists tend to ring bells frequently, and the start of zazen is one of those times. Their Meditation Hall is made of wood with caulking between the boards (see image above). There’s probably an official word for this type of construction, but I have no idea what it might be; however, I know exactly what it looks like because I stared at it, fully conscious, for about 20 minutes as we sat on green cushions facing the walls. I love zazen with Teijo because she doesn’t care if you move around a bit, but sitting meditation is a difficult spiritual practice for me. I inevitably spend the first 20 minutes just feeling miserable. The point, of course, is to still the mind. In my case, nothing is still. Outwardly, I was checking my watch, scratching an itchy place on my arm, counting wooden boards, noticing how bumpy the caulk was, and trying to rearrange my legs without actually moving them noticeably. Inwardly, I was a monkey-mind mess. Anyone looking at the electrical activity of my brain would have guessed that I was in the middle of teaching an undergraduate lecture. It was bordering on the embarrassing.
But at the 20-minute mark, the whole world changes. I feel my entire body detach. I can feel my legs and hips, but not really. I know I’m facing the wall, but it seems completely inconsequential. I couldn’t care less what time it is. I am no longer itchy anywhere. I feel like I could fall over, but I don’t. I feel like I might be dizzy, but I’m not. I am floating in a sea of complete relaxation. It happens every time I sit for over 20 minutes.
Before I knew it, Chimyo rang the bell, and zazen was over. After stretching a bit, we turned around to face the center of the Meditation Hall and each other. Teijo began her teaching. She talked about Dogen, the great master whose teachings form the foundation for her tradition, the Soto Zen tradition. She talked about why people choose a Buddhist practice – or any spiritual practice, for that matter – and why it’s important to maintain that practice. She talked about letting go. She talked about just being. I am often fairly restless when I listen to people talk for 45 minutes, but her voice was soothing and knowledgeable and wise. Another thing I love about Teijo is that it’s OK to ask questions and engage in discussion. In fact, it says Lecture/Discussion on the schedule, which makes it official, I guess. Anyway, I enjoyed being given a chance to clarify her teachings and to offer my own thoughts on what she was sharing. We meditated briefly after the teaching until Chimyo, once again, rang the bell.
From 11-12:30, we worked in the yard. They were working on their garden area that morning, so we mostly spread mulch, chatting while we worked. Teijo talked about her Catholic upbringing in Minnesota and her family. I talked about my years in Midwestern parochial school and my kids. We also discovered that both of us had siblings who died unexpectedly. The weather was perfect, the air was clear, and we made some real progress on the garden.
At 12:30, Chimyo rang the bell for lunch, which turned out to be a bit challenging for me. Most religious traditions have rules and rituals about food and eating. Buddhism is no exception. As I expected, there was a lot of bowing, but since I never knew when they were planning to bow, I was always bowing late. They would bow. I would bow. They would bow again. I would bow again. I have learned that you can’t really bow too much in the Buddhist tradition, but I didn’t want to bow haphazardly, so I had to simply accept being down when they were up and vice versa. Chimyo was kind enough to put a copy of the mealtime prayer next to my plate so I could say it along with them. And then, of course, there was more bowing.
I was much better off once we started eating! Chimyo had made a delicious soup and a pan of cornbread. She grew up in the South, so she knows what she’s doing in the cornbread department. After lunch, we washed the dishes, and I headed home – sweaty and with a full belly – to celebrate the rest of my Sabbath with my family. I felt relaxed and peaceful and also somewhat accomplished.
It really had been a lovely morning, and it was refreshing in a new way for me. There is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in downtown Asheville. I have participated in events there many times. I consider the lama who teaches there regularly to be a friend, and I love his vision for an urban Buddhist community. However, there is something to be said for visiting a Buddhist temple that is “away from it all.” It’s a different space, and as a result, it’s a slightly different practice.
If you’re in the Asheville area, I highly recommend checking out Great Tree Zen Temple in Alexander. If you’re not in the Asheville area, find your nearest temple and see what they have to offer. I strongly urge you to contact them and express your interest in participating. I promise you, they will be completely open-hearted and welcoming. That’s the Buddhist way, after all. And there’s no need to pretend to be Buddhist. If you emit compassion, respect, and a true willingness to learn, you will be accepted. I promise.
A few months ago, we took our kids to Washington D.C. for spring break. We were obviously tourists. We were a family of four sporting shorts, t-shirts, and sensible shoes as we carried backpacks and consulted our guide book. I can assure you that no one mistook us for Congressional aides. But that’s OK. We were respectful, friendly, and asked questions when we needed to. In turn, we received the same treatment from many, many people who were obviously very busy with their daily routines. My interfaith experiences are the same. I am a tourist of sorts in faith practices that are not my own. I make mistakes, but it’s OK.
And the Buddhist tradition is a great place to start. Don’t savor the experience alone; take your entire family! Have you ever wondered how Buddhist parents raise Buddhist children? They offer kid-friendly versions of Buddhist practices! Who would have thunk it?! Kids are taught how to meditate for age-appropriate amounts of time. They learn Buddhist chants and prayers. They make crafts. They play outside. They perform community service. They learn how to ring the bells. And they have fun. Great Tree offers Family Meditations one Sunday a month, they hosted a 2-day mother/child retreat in Feb., they will host a similar retreat just for kids in July, and they’re looking forward to their upcoming family picnic. The Saturday Sangha I attended was kind of a grown-up scene, but be sure to check out all the offerings your local temple might offer. You, and your family, will not be disappointed.