Japanese Religion Class Retreats to Zen

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday night, but instead of heading to a party or going out to eat, I find myself sitting on a cushion in a meditation hall in the hills above Santa Rosa.   My body already aches because of the posture, and I know this only the first session of four in which my classmates and I will practice zazen, or seated Zen meditation.  As my mind sings the chorus from the Rolling Stones classic, “You Can’t Always Get What you Want,” I wonder how did I end up here?

It started by choosing to take Japanese Religion and Society with Professor John Nelson.  He has stressed the “primacy of action” in his approach to Japanese religions, and that is how my classmates and I found ourselves at an overnight retreat at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center.  Studying Buddhist texts or reading Zen philosophy won’t do much to prepare you for the actual experience of Zen meditation.

We arrived in the beautiful Sonoma Mountains on a Friday afternoon and immediately received instruction on zazen, as well as a ritual style of eating.  We were then given time to explore the center and surrounding areas—which includes a pond, trails, little cabins and Mongolian style yurts as sleeping quarters, and two memorial stupas dedicated to important Buddhist teachers. The grounds are extensive and quite stunning, with the meditation hall and its eighteen-foot high wooden statue of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, surrounded by redwood trees.

The periods of zazen (one of which began at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday morning) definitely illuminated an essential feature of experience common to most students.   Like many USF studnets, I am the kind of person who always has to be doing something, whether it is listening to my mp3 player while walking, or constantly connecting with  friends on Facebook or my cell phone.  To sit for a period of 40 minutes in complete silence, doing nothing but following the flow of breath, was challenging to say the least. However in doing so, I realized just how loud and numerous my thoughts can be, but I could also join with others and create a space to investigate my own consciousness.

At some point it becomes clear what the calm point of meditation can be, but thoughts  tend to move it further and further away. After a half hour of breathing silently I began to contemplate the Heart Sutra we had chanted rhythmically only minutes before with the Zen Center head priest, Rev. Jakusho Kwong, and other residents.  With a calm mind I thought about the five skandhas that shape our worldviews:  form, sensation, perception, mental predispositions, and consciousness, none of which are permanent.  Our normal ideas lead us to strive for a strong sense of self that make it difficult to see the fragility and impermanence that define everyday experience.  Rev. Kwong’s “dharma talk” that concluded the retreat addressed the nature of “being and time,” although most students were probably thinking about lunch and the trip home by that point.

Our trip to Sonoma Mountain Zen Center and the Japanese Religions class here at USF came together to produce a result that is more than the sum of its parts.  The lush countryside, deep silence of the meditation hall, kindness of our hosts, and opportunity to experience the tradition of Zen directly all combine into an experience long to be remembered.

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