The bucolic Catskill mountains of New York State are far away indeed from Japan, where the Zen branch of Buddhism was founded. Still, that is where Dai Bosatsu Zendo is located. It is a Japanese-style monastery where hundreds of lay-people from New York City and other urban areas have sought inner peace through silent Zazen meditation and other Buddhist methods.
Most of the twenty or so men and women chanting in this spare wooden meditation room called a Zendo are new to Zen Buddhism. They have come to Dai Bosatsu to learn to mediate and to chant like this, which they do in order to focus their minds before eating the silent midday meal.
Constanze Von Rheinbaben has come to this lakeside spot to find spiritual respite from a high-pressure New York City job. "It's a madhouse," she said! "It's called a bank, but it's a madhouse! So I knew I needed to go on a retreat and just clear my mind. So yesterday I left the office. I kind of sneaked out. I didn't tell anyone where I was going. And the closer I got, the more I started thanking myself for making the decision to come because it's really fabulous. Just being in contact with nature, to start with. But also the idea of searching for what is inside of me and, hopefully, finding more peace in my day to day life."
Thirty-six-year-old Jim Frechter, known as "Kigen," is one of the monks who help beginners learn the ways of Zen mediation and ritual. He said, "Most of the people in America are practicing Zen in order to answer the big questions they have in their life, 'who am I?' 'Who are we?' and 'where are we going?' 'What is the meaning of my life?' We have these questions! For me, that kind of question was a plague. The point of Zen is to become really free. But in order to become really free we have to acknowledge that we are somehow shackled."
In the early 1990s, Kigen himself felt shackled to his life as a Wall Street lawyer. He was making an excellent salary, but was unhappy and searching for meaning. He decided to try a simple Zazen meditation technique where one sits on a cushion and pays close attention to one's breathing, counting the inhalations and exhalations up to ten. "Through this breath counting," he said, "I was going to be able to at least look at my mind, and potentially come to terms with my mind and use my mind rather than have my mind use me."
Eventually, Kigen gave up his job and moved to Dai Bosatsu, where he was ordained as a monk. He said, "There are basically three simple vows - practice all that is good, avoid all that is evil and purify your heart. Essentially that is Buddhist practice."
Zen Buddhist practice involves more than meditation. It's also about being aware of whatever is happening in the here and now, including the daily tasks we normally think of as mundane. Kigen said, "When you are doing things and you are totally with it, just washing the dishes, just sweeping the floor, there is no place for worry. And that's contentment! As long as we are completely with it, everything goes well, goes smoothly, goes easily. In the end, just be true. Practice the truth. It's easy and it's not easy. That's the essence of Zen. It's easy and it's not easy."
After 31 years of meditation, Jiro Fernando Affable, the Vice Abbot at Dai Bosatsu, understands this paradox well. He said, "When one does something for so long, whether it's Zazen or, I guess, living, one doesn't arrive. One wakes up the next day and there is more stuff to do."
Some of the outward forms of Zen have changed in America. For example, unlike Dai Bosatsu, Japanese monasteries do not encourage lay people to come stay for weeklong periods of meditation and instruction, and Zen monks and nuns in Japan generally remain separated which is not true here.
Still, even in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the Zen regimen remains highly ritualized. Kigen says that Zen in America is still in its infancy and adds that eventually, there will be a more of a blend between the two cultures.
He said, "In the beginning, of course, Japanese Zen will be very Japanese. I mean I wear a kimono and I wear Japanese robes. And in 200 hundred years that will transform into something that has its essence in Chinese and Japanese dress, but it will be unique to America at that time, I'm sure. And the food as well. We eat a lot of rice. Well we don't grow rice in the Catskills. But eventually we'll find a crop that will grow in the Catskills. Maybe it will be corn and that will be the staple grain of Buddhist monasteries in this area. But it's a question of what will work. What will get people doing the sort of practice that will have them going to the deepest realization of who they are and what they're looking for. In the end, that's all it's about! Zen is Japanese, its Chinese, its Indian, it's Irish, it's Belgian and it's American."
It is a Zen tradition to honor and accept nature in both its poignancy and its playfulness. Any Zen master anywhere could certainly understand beginner Zen student Jennifer Gillman's joy.
She said, "There was a chipmunk who came right through the Zendo this morning. The two ends are open to the outdoors and so all the animals can come in. And I hear this little 'skitter-skitter' and he comes right down right in front of us. It's pretty dark in there because it's all just the natural light that comes in there. He just stops right in front of me and keeps going on the way. It was so special. It was a gift. From whom, I don't know. The chipmunk I guess."
To find out more about Dai Bosatsu Zendo and American Zen generally on the Internet, go to www.daibosatsu.org.