The word “Zen” roughly translates to meditative state,which is the practice and enlightenment technique central to Zen Buddhism. Oneof three Zen Buddhism sites in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Zen Centeroffers meditation periods, consultation with Zen priests, literature about ZenBuddhism, and a beautiful history lesson. The San Francisco Zen Center is located in an oldbuilding with a fascinating history. Originally, Julia Morgan established theCenter as a residence for single, Jewish women in the 1920s; in 1967, it becamethe Zen Center. The Stars of David scattered around the building and themezuzahs present on some doorframes allude to the Jewish history of thebuilding.
Approximately 40 people live in the Center currently, and many morevisit for daily or weekly meditation. It is a plain building, but thesimplicity is both calming and illustrative of Zen Buddhism beliefs regarding lettinggo of attachment to material items. The San Francisco Zen Center represents a pathway ofMahayana Buddhism known as Zen Buddhism. Buddhism is a nontheistic, meditativefaith that focuses on how human beings can end the karma-wheel through rightaction and constant, free-will adherence to Dharma. Dharma is one of the ThreeJewels of Buddhism, along with Buddha and the Sangha; Dharma is the teachings,both descriptive and prescriptive, regarding how one can achieve Nirvana.Nirvana is the goal of Buddhism: awakening and enlightenment by freeing theSelf from the Ego. Buddha is a general term referring to an enlightened one,but the Buddha was a pampered prince,Siddhartha Gautama, who was the first to achieve Nirvana and then go out intothe world to teach the Dharma. His Sangha was and is a monastic community ofhis followers dedicated to achieving Nirvana and spreading the Dharma.
TheBuddha, born a royal who only experienced pleasure, abandoned his superficiallife to seek enlightenment. It was after Buddha had seen an old man, a sickman, a dead man, and an ascetic that he decided to leave royal life in pursuitof a higher truth. He practiced pure asceticism for six years with the goal ofreconciling the reality within himself. Buddha believed that losing everythingwas the path to escape suffering.
However, while sitting under a Bodhi tree oneday, he found Nirvana after a girl simply was kind to him. The Buddha realizedthat torturing the body did not end his cravings, and the only true way to endcravings is to resolutely strive to free oneself from dukkha, which is a term that encompasses death, decay, andsuffering. Buddha composed the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path,The Four Noble Truths are life is dukkha,dukkha comes from craving, endingcraving will end dukkha, andfollowing the Noble Eightfold Path will lead a person to Nirvana. The NobleEightfold Path includes right understanding, right intention, right speech,right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and rightmeditation. Conquering these eight items can be done in any order. Althoughtempted to keep the truths and pathway to himself, his overwhelming sense ofcompassion for humankind drove him to spread the knowledge of how to achieveNirvana. While Buddhism has three main branches—Himayana (orTheraveda), Mahayana, and Nichiren—the remainder of this paper will focus onsubsequent branches of Mahayana.
Sometimes referred to as the “greatervehicle,” Mahayana is personal, and its followers consider the Eternal Buddhastill around to help beings achieve Nirvana. A key point of Mahayana Buddhismis the thought that each being has a Buddha nature; those who discover theirinner Buddha and achieve Nirvana are called Bodhisattvas. These enlightenedbeings choose to stay on Earth out of compassion to humankind to help others followthe Dharma and end dukkha.
TheZen school of Buddhism is the Japanese practice that stems from Chan Buddhism.Chan Buddhism was founded by Bodhidharma, a monk who brought Buddhism to Chinain the 6th century. Buddhism is a missionary religion, whichbasically means monks are always looking to expand the religion’s following andtake it to new places. Zen spread to Japan about 600 years later. Zen itselfcannot be described using words, but it can be experienced Zen Buddhism isclassified by long periods of sitting meditation called zazen and contemplatingkoans, complex philosophical questions designed to draw the focus solely to onepoint.
These questions often defy logic, or at least, cannot be answered usinglogic (if they can be answered at all). A popular koan is, “What is the soundof one hand clapping?” Zazen and koans are important in Zen Buddhism becausethey work to completely focus the mind, calming the restlessness within. Totalconcentration on one point centers the meditator and brings mindfulness andhigher truth. Then, the meditator relaxes and calms him or herself throughbreathing and emptying the mind.
By being attentive to the state of oneself,one can become aware of the path toward Nirvana.SotoZen is the type of Zen Buddhism practiced in the San Francisco Zen Center. SotoZen is the most popular of the sects of Zen Buddhism.
It involves no koan contemplation during meditation:this is the Rinzai Buddhism tradition. Instead, one should focus on emptyingthe mind completely. Shunryu Suzuki, a Soto Zen monk who spread Soto Zen to alarge portion of the Western world, founded the San Francisco Zen Center in1967. As meditation is the main practice of Soto Zen Buddhism,there are multiple rooms in the Zen Center reserved for this purpose.
The Zendois a large meditation hall with the traditional outcroppings of bench-shelveswith cushions. Certain procedures must be observed. One must enter and exit theZendo stepping out with the left foot. When walking in the Zendo, the hands areheld close to the solar plexus with elbows out. Most importantly, meditatorsmust be very precise getting on and off of the seats—turn only to the right,bow to the seat and away from the seat, do not let feet touch the wooden ledge.Reverent Wendy, our tour guide of the San Francisco Zen Center, demonstratedwith practiced perfection how one should get onto his or her seat and whatideal meditation posture looks like.
After finding my balance and centeredposture, I think I could have meditated for quite some time. As we wereleaving, Reverent Wendy had each student look at the altar in the center of theZendo. On this altar, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, stood with his sworddrawn, ready to slice away delusion from the minds of meditators.
Along with the Zendo, members of the Zen Center holdceremonies and meditation services in the Buddha Hall. This hall is quiteJapanese-looking, and it has many pieces of interesting sculpture and artwork.At the front of the hall, there is a statue of Buddha sitting in meditation. Heis flanked by Amida Buddha, the revered Bodhisattva of Pure Land Buddhism, andTara, a female Bodhisattva. Reverent Wendy commented that she believed thefemale statue present was there to indicate the mixed community that practicesin the Zen Center.
External to these are two guardians to scare away demons. OnBuddha’s podium, a small figure of Bodhidharma stands; Reverent Wendy pointedout that he looks quite Caucasian. She told the tale of red-haired, blue-eyedCaucasians picking up Buddhism on a journey around the Tarim Basin, which isperhaps where the Caucasian depiction of Bodhidharma originates. The large courtyard found within the Zen Center wallscontains a fountain, flowers, and simple benches. This peaceful atmosphere onceagain draws back to the concept of “less is more” that Buddhism holds central.As the Zen Center is a residential monastery, there is also a dining hall andkitchen. The dining hall is home to donated statues of bodhisattvas and variouspieces of artwork.
One interesting and beautiful item there was a hangingmobile of hundreds of multicolored origami cranes. This mobile took my breathaway: I would have liked to study it more. In the kitchen, there is a simpleplaque printed with the words “Now as I take food and drink I vow with allbeings to share in the pleasure of zen and fully enjoy the dharma.” These wordsare said before meals, reminiscent of the Christian practice of blessing foodbefore consumption. Reverent Wendy pointed out altars around the building andsaid that they are put to use every day.
Incense is no longer burned there dueto allergies, but fresh flower petals are placed the dishes instead. She alsoshowed us the ceremonial instruments in the lower level used to call people to services,and a huge statue of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This statueon the second floor has many arms, each hand holding a tool of compassion. My favorite sacred detail was a small piece ofcalligraphy hung outside the Founder’s Hall, a meditation room that honorsShunryu Suzuki. The Japanese character depicted meant “deep appreciation.
” Ithought this was very fitting for the exterior of a room designed to thank theperson responsible for the Center. I also liked how the simplicity of theartwork encompassed the basic beliefs of Zen Buddhism: minimalism, intrinsicbeauty, and compassion. The San Francisco Zen Center gave me a lot to thinkabout.
I may go back there to try a full meditation session sometime in thefuture. Relaxing one’s mind and opening the Self are very important concepts inthe chaotic world of today.