By Diego Villasenor –
If you would have mentioned to me three years ago that I would enjoy waking up before dawn to do bows and meditate, I likely would have called you a fool. Thankfully, I do not need to do so. Waking up before dawn to do bows and meditate is still a miserable time, even after several years of doing it. Yet, it is one of several practices that I have committed to since moving into the Orlando Zen Center, and one that I have found quite useful. The following attempts to elucidate my experience living in a Zen Center, and why I continue to remain here. What I can certainly say is that living in a Zen center is both one of the strangest and most ordinary experiences in my life thus far. Especially considering that I live in an atypical Zen center.
To get an understanding of what I mean by the experience being strange, ordinary, and atypical; it is helpful to consider just where the idea of a Zen Center came from, and the function it serves.
In the Korean Buddhist tradition from which our school derives, the focal point of the Buddhist religion was the temple-monastery, the central figures – the monastics. We can condense the functions of the temple-monastery down to a couple key roles. First, the temple monastery provided housing for the monastics. Second, the temple-monastery provided a place to conduct ceremonies and services for the Buddhist laypeople. And third, the temple-monastery provided a place for the monastics to practice Zen through formal practice, and communal living. For much of the history of Zen Buddhism, formal Zen practice was predominantly undertaken by the monks, with the lay people providing a supporting role.
It was from this background that Zen Master Seung Sahn, the founder of our tradition in the Kwan Um School of Zen, came from when he first traveled to America. However, the American cultural context was quite different from that in Korea, and the historical positioning of the temple-monastery, and the monks and nuns as the center of Buddhist practice was little developed here. Certainly, Zen Master Seung Sahn encouraged many of those he taught to become monks and nuns (Kwan Haeng Sunim at our head temple in Rhode Island immediately jumps to mind), however many of those he taught were not able to do the same. Becoming a monk is a great service, a service that requires the individual to give up themselves for all other beings in every aspect of their lives. Many of the students of Zen Master Seung Sahn may have already had families, had jobs, or had debt that prevented them from taking the great undertaking of becoming a monk or nun
Despite this however, the practice of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s followers was sincere, and the practice of Buddhism was never the eminent domain of those who were monastics. (A classic example is that of Vimalakitri, who was a layman, householder, and model bodhisattva). Thus, Zen Master Seung Sahn created the role of Dharma Teacher, a role that allowed lay people to take on some of the roles of the Buddhist clergy, without the same commitments or vows as monks. This allowed lay practitioners to further commit to the Dharma, and to allow those “ordained” to provide some instruction in Zen under guidance of a full teacher.
By extension, the Zen Center would come to resemble the all-important temple-monastery in Korea. The Zen Center, like the temple-monastery, provides first a place to live for those who wished to sincerely practice Zen. For those who did not inhabit the Zen Center, it further provided a place to conduct Zen ceremonies and a place to practice outside the commitment of living there. As opposed to the temple-monasteries in Korea, however, the Zen Centers are predominantly inhabited by lay people, who often conduct practice in the morning and evening, and leave for work during the day. They are often joined by other members of the Sangha who live elsewhere.
The Orlando Zen Center provides this same function, and it is a function that I have become quite familiar with in my several years of living here. We offer practice every single day in some shape or form, and many individuals travel from across the city (and sometimes across the state for special retreats) to practice in this space. This is, and always will be my predominant experience of the Orlando Zen Center. It is a space of practice.
Practice, in all its shapes and forms – chanting, bowing, sitting, walking, etc – can always be quite strange. Weird things come up, parts of us that maybe we don’t like, that we hide from, or we push away. Other times, practice can be a relaxing experience, allowing the stressors of my days at the office to settle down. Yet, more often than not, practice can feel like an inconvenience, taking up several hours of my day from things I think I would rather be doing. While others can go home, or avoid coming to practice if they do not live here, as someone who lives in a Zen Center I am committed to showing up for every practice as much as I am able.
If I had a nickel for every time I groaned on my way home from work in anticipation of setting up cushions, making the tea, and spending an hour to an hour and a half chanting and sitting instead of doing literally anything else I could pay off my student loans (which are substantial). This experience of encountering desire and aversion is key to Zen, and one of the things that I have come to cherish about living here.
By designating the space as a place for Zen, and by providing a structure to it, I am forced to practice with the parts of me that don’t want to do something. I am forced to sit quietly with my mind that would rather play video games or read, or go out to eat. I am forced to sit with the parts of me that find this whole thing, and myself, just weird, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. By doing so, I can gain some insight into the nature of my own aversion and desire, and the fundamental emptiness of it. Ultimately, I can try and get a little bit better at learning to live with that, rather than let it dictate my life.
I live here. This is what I attribute as the “ordinary” experience of living here. As much as it is a place of practice, it is also my home. I have a room with a bed, and my clothes. I use the bathroom to shower and prepare to go to work. I cook and prepare meals in the kitchen (vegetarian of course). And yet, none of it mine. I live here, yes, but as I live here people show up. Sometimes they show up in droves, sometimes just a few, sometimes expected, and sometimes not. These people show up, walk into the kitchen, use the same bathroom and so forth. It is a home in which people are always coming and going, practicing and chatting. It is a place where I reside and live, and it is all here for one purpose, to support Zen and the sangha who practice it. This too, is something I have come to appreciate. I am not only learning to live and put aside my own ego in the face of a structure and place of practice, I am also learning to practice and welcome those who come up in the place where I live. I learn to take care of things not just for myself, but for everyone. In short, the experience of living in a zen center helps me to learn to live with people, and helps me to learn to live for other people. It is one way of practicing the great question, how can I help?
This is not always easy. I am an introvert, and more so I am an easily irritated one. Ask any of my coworkers. People showing up can feel draining, especially when they are unexpected, and I often don’t feel like I have the capacity of will to patiently, kindly, and generously instruct people and show them around. I recall one Monday evening where someone showed up thinking we had practice (we did not) and I found them standing in the middle of the Dharma room as I walked out of the bathroom. Needless to say, I was uncomfortable.
By confronting me with these situations, living in a Zen center confronts me with the parts of me I find difficult to witness in many of the same ways that formal practice does. This, I think, is an experience typical for many who engage in communal practice and especially living, and is key to the purpose of a Zen Center . The Zen Center unites the ordinary experience of my life, with the strange experience of consistent Zen practice, and the two interpenetrate on a level I have found to be profoundly eye opening, but often uncomfortable. This is something that all of our Sangha practice, and is something I continue to do so as well.
Where my experience differs slightly however, is that our Zen Center is an atypical Zen center. First, it is fairly small compared to others I have visited. The Orlando Zen Center contains a Dharma room that can hold at most fifteen people or so, a tea room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and two rooms. This means that at any given time, only two residents can inhabit the Zen center as opposed to the several dozen in larger Zen centers. Living with only two people, as opposed to a group of people, can limit the amount of “ego bumping” that comes from communal living. Rather than living communally, it is more so like having a housemate.
In my time of living here, I have lived with two other residents, both of which have supported my practice and the Zen Center, and both of which have confronted me with aspects of myself that I had to learn to put aside to live harmoniously with others, and flaws I have never noticed before.
Zen Master Seung Sahn described how in Korea, potatoes would be washed by putting them in a pot of boiling water and letting them all rub up against each other until the dirt came off. Likewise, by living and practicing with other people in a Zen Center, the rubbing of ego’s and lifestyle eventually expose to people themselves, and how to live with it. This is a beautiful experience which I cherish deeply. I cherish those who have lived with me in the Zen Center, who have been my teachers, and showed me my flaws. Communal living, in any Zen Center, is a very strong practice, and something we offer here at the Orlando Zen Center. This is an experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the time, ability, and dedication to undertake.
I end with a quote by Shozan Jack Hauber, who express the experience of communal practice better than I ever could.
I used to imagine that spiritual work was undertaken alone in a cave somewhere with prayer beads and a leather-bound religious tome. Nowadays, that sounds to me more like a vacation from spiritual work. Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.
Through each other we discover that if we have the heart—the willingness, the strength, the courage—we have the capacity to plant the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness; seeds of a laid-back humor, a sense of letting go. But your heart must be quicker than your mind. Trust me, that organ between your ears is always spoiling for a fight. Its job is to divide and conquer. But the real fight is taking place inside you, within the “dharma organ,” the heart, where the challenge is to unify and understand; where the seeds of love and compassion are struggling to lay roots.
To that, I can only say Amen.