Hello again, this time from... Boston! Yes, as you may have read from my earlier posts and my new banner, my little family & I have relocated to the city-by-the-bay ;) to enjoy chowdah, cream pie, and (evidently) lots of snow.
As my side-menu says, if you're in the Hollywood, MD area and interested in continuing (or discovering) your zen practice, feel free to contact me. I am grateful for all who came by to practice with me at Joy Lane all those Saturday-mornings-ago.
So now it is my turn to discover my Zen in Boston area. How do you find a sangha when you move to a new area? I thought this would be a good place to chronicle my search, hopefully providing some helpful tools and anecdotes along the way.
With a little research via the internet, I was amazed at the sheer diversity of practice centers in Boston. Two sites that I found incredibly helpful were DharmaNet and the Harvard University Pluralism Project, as they list many centers, helpful links and a bit of information about each. The Pluralism Project was an especially wonderful find, as it offered a unique look at the history of Buddhism in Boston. After locating information about each of the practice centers, Sweeping Zen made for a nice cross-reference as I looked more deeply into the teachers who head each center.
The first center I decided to visit was Open Circle Zen Group. Judging from their website, I guessed that they would be very down-to-earth, straightforward and unpretentious-- and I guessed right. The group meets on Sunday mornings in an office in the basement of the Social Security office by Davis Square. Therein they use the sitting space of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. It's a small, tidy space, and colorful-- not at all the drab basement I'd worried about.
I decided to walk; a luscious option, given my proximity to the square. Yet it was a bit of a risk, and I arrived just in time for the 9 o'clock bell, with just 3 minutes to spare-- and found myself quite alone! For an instant I sweated out my concern: was this the group that locked their doors promptly at 9 a.m.? Yet twelve minutes later, I lost all concern, for there was a smiling face walking quickly toward me. "We're sometimes late," she laughed apologetically. My kind of sangha, was my first impression.
We sat for 3 sessions of zazen: two at about 20 minutes, and one for at least 40. (Or, maybe it just felt that way...) These sandwiched two quick-paced kinhin sessions. At the end we chanted a version of the Heart Sutra that was quite new to me, along with the Four Great Vows and the Three Treasures. This final piece was in Japanese, and we bowed for each. It was lovely-- and reminded me well of the benefit of practicing with a seasoned group! I was very happy with the good energy toward practice I felt in this place: focused, direct and unpretentious. The sangha was warm, friendly and generous.
Open Circle Zen Group welcomes practitioners from all backgrounds. There is no teacher; they tell me that most of the sangha who practice there have teachers elsewhere (...a good match for me!). They sit Soto-style (facing the wall), and as well I felt there were elements from other schools mixed in to the service and overall practice. Three of the founding members whom I met that day were students in the lineage of Yasutani Roshi (you may recognize him as Philip Kapleau Roshi's teacher, and Harada Roshi's successor). This lineage practices a mixture of Soto and Rinzai Zen, and has a very interesting history-- by all means, peruse the link!
All-in-all, I felt comfortable in this group, most notably because I felt no pressure to become or do something other than who I already am, and what I already practice. And they were very friendly. Oh, and-- so important, people, so important-- I liked my zafu. Yes. It was properly worn-in, which is important to short people like myself. "3 out of 3 enso"
Always a tricky question to answer simply, it may be best to remember that Zen is not an "is" so much as it is a "does". The word zen is actually Japanese rendering of the Chinese word chan, which in turn is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit dhyana. However you say it, Zen most directly means "meditate"; and in the Soto lineage of Zen, emphasis is placed upon the practice of sitting meditation above all else. It is viewed as the direct expression of enlightenment-- which our founder Dogen Zenji noted is not something one must attain, rather something to be directly expressed through the practice of zazen. In Soto, we face the wall as our ancestor Bodhidharma faced the wall of a cave. Our practice is supported by our posture: Erect spine, soft gaze, hands folded in the Zen mudra, legs solid, and breath continuous in an effortless effort.
What is Zen? The answer is one best experienced directly through one's own practice.