The Art of Presenting Zen
Sophomore Gabe Perlow reflects on his visit to a Zen Meditation Center.
Finger snaps and cliché comments frequently accompany what folks find an insightful, illuminating statement made with simple language and laced with interesting paradox—and they call it Zen. Before my trip out to a Zen center with the Chaplain’s Office, I was a frequent offender of such a glib reference to what I now know has been a significant component of an enormous number of people’s lives for centuries. Our time at the Zendo, the name given to the building in which this particular variety of meditation occurs, was full to the brim with intriguing details about the daily life of Zen Buddhist practice. I’ll point out a few highlights for the reader wanting to get to the meat of the matter, but I implore anyone interested to sit a while with one of the participants to get a more complete story.
I was most anxious about the presentation, to the point of cringing (hopefully just inwardly) when the Zen leader named Sandy shuffled into the Zendo. What I feared was being offered I had wryly termed as “Zen for sale”, an amusement park style intro to Zen for the sake of entertaining us college kids. What we actually received caught me off guard. My fears were slowly dispelled as Sandy, in his way of speaking that was akin to a rivulet of water moving over dry sand, presented some basic pieces of the history of the practice. He described the various schools of Zen that developed and became popularized, making particular mention of the transliteration/translation of the writings from Japanese to Chinese. Another point he focused on was the sheer volume of primary literature and critical speculation that has made it through the ages. Sandy did not make a pitch for Zen to be adopted by everyone in the world, nor did he attempt to summarize a practice that thrives on infinities in concept, and lifetimes of contemplation in reality. He was perfectly happy to confirm the adorable proclamation of the daughter of the caretakers of the Zen center: “everyone is Buddha!”, without trying to condense the truth of that statement into a cheesy souvenir of an explanation.
During our stay, we participated in two meditation sessions consisting of alternating seated and walking meditation as well as chanting. The guidance we had received unlocked for us to ability to use these sessions to discover what about the method resonated with us on a level unspoken. While Sandy and his colleagues were happy to engage our most persistent and thorough questioning, they did not seem anxious to leave a lasting impression on us if we didn’t seek it. What a relief. To me, that showed humility, confidence, and spoke to the power of a school of thought that, unlike modern political parties and pop culture icons, does not feel the need to constantly redefine and reinforce its validity. Zen indeed.