The periods, consultation with Zen priests, literature about

            The word “Zen” roughly translates to meditative state,
which is the practice and enlightenment technique central to Zen Buddhism. One
of three Zen Buddhism sites in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Zen Center
offers meditation periods, consultation with Zen priests, literature about Zen
Buddhism, and a beautiful history lesson.

            The San Francisco Zen Center is located in an old
building with a fascinating history. Originally, Julia Morgan established the
Center as a residence for single, Jewish women in the 1920s; in 1967, it became
the Zen Center. The Stars of David scattered around the building and the
mezuzahs present on some doorframes allude to the Jewish history of the
building. Approximately 40 people live in the Center currently, and many more
visit for daily or weekly meditation. It is a plain building, but the
simplicity is both calming and illustrative of Zen Buddhism beliefs regarding letting
go of attachment to material items.

            The San Francisco Zen Center represents a pathway of
Mahayana Buddhism known as Zen Buddhism. Buddhism is a nontheistic, meditative
faith that focuses on how human beings can end the karma-wheel through right
action and constant, free-will adherence to Dharma. Dharma is one of the Three
Jewels 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 the
Self 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 into
the world to teach the Dharma. His Sangha was and is a monastic community of
his followers dedicated to achieving Nirvana and spreading the Dharma.

The
Buddha, born a royal who only experienced pleasure, abandoned his superficial
life to seek enlightenment. It was after Buddha had seen an old man, a sick
man, a dead man, and an ascetic that he decided to leave royal life in pursuit
of a higher truth. He practiced pure asceticism for six years with the goal of
reconciling the reality within himself. Buddha believed that losing everything
was the path to escape suffering. However, while sitting under a Bodhi tree one
day, he found Nirvana after a girl simply was kind to him. The Buddha realized
that torturing the body did not end his cravings, and the only true way to end
cravings is to resolutely strive to free oneself from dukkha, which is a term that encompasses death, decay, and
suffering. Buddha composed the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path,
The Four Noble Truths are life is dukkha,
dukkha comes from craving, ending
craving will end dukkha, and
following the Noble Eightfold Path will lead a person to Nirvana. The Noble
Eightfold Path includes right understanding, right intention, right speech,
right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right
meditation. Conquering these eight items can be done in any order. Although
tempted to keep the truths and pathway to himself, his overwhelming sense of
compassion for humankind drove him to spread the knowledge of how to achieve
Nirvana.

            While Buddhism has three main branches—Himayana (or
Theraveda), Mahayana, and Nichiren—the remainder of this paper will focus on
subsequent branches of Mahayana. Sometimes referred to as the “greater
vehicle,” Mahayana is personal, and its followers consider the Eternal Buddha
still around to help beings achieve Nirvana. A key point of Mahayana Buddhism
is the thought that each being has a Buddha nature; those who discover their
inner Buddha and achieve Nirvana are called Bodhisattvas. These enlightened
beings choose to stay on Earth out of compassion to humankind to help others follow
the Dharma and end dukkha.

The
Zen school of Buddhism is the Japanese practice that stems from Chan Buddhism.
Chan Buddhism was founded by Bodhidharma, a monk who brought Buddhism to China
in the 6th century. Buddhism is a missionary religion, which
basically means monks are always looking to expand the religion’s following and
take it to new places. Zen spread to Japan about 600 years later. Zen itself
cannot be described using words, but it can be experienced Zen Buddhism is
classified by long periods of sitting meditation called zazen and contemplating
koans, complex philosophical questions designed to draw the focus solely to one
point. These questions often defy logic, or at least, cannot be answered using
logic (if they can be answered at all). A popular koan is, “What is the sound
of one hand clapping?” Zazen and koans are important in Zen Buddhism because
they work to completely focus the mind, calming the restlessness within. Total
concentration on one point centers the meditator and brings mindfulness and
higher truth. Then, the meditator relaxes and calms him or herself through
breathing and emptying the mind. By being attentive to the state of oneself,
one can become aware of the path toward Nirvana.

Soto
Zen is the type of Zen Buddhism practiced in the San Francisco Zen Center. Soto
Zen 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 emptying
the mind completely. Shunryu Suzuki, a Soto Zen monk who spread Soto Zen to a
large portion of the Western world, founded the San Francisco Zen Center in
1967.

            As meditation is the main practice of Soto Zen Buddhism,
there are multiple rooms in the Zen Center reserved for this purpose. The Zendo
is a large meditation hall with the traditional outcroppings of bench-shelves
with cushions. Certain procedures must be observed. One must enter and exit the
Zendo stepping out with the left foot. When walking in the Zendo, the hands are
held close to the solar plexus with elbows out. Most importantly, meditators
must 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, demonstrated
with practiced perfection how one should get onto his or her seat and what
ideal meditation posture looks like. After finding my balance and centered
posture, I think I could have meditated for quite some time. As we were
leaving, Reverent Wendy had each student look at the altar in the center of the
Zendo. On this altar, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, stood with his sword
drawn, ready to slice away delusion from the minds of meditators.

            Along with the Zendo, members of the Zen Center hold
ceremonies and meditation services in the Buddha Hall. This hall is quite
Japanese-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. He
is flanked by Amida Buddha, the revered Bodhisattva of Pure Land Buddhism, and
Tara, a female Bodhisattva. Reverent Wendy commented that she believed the
female statue present was there to indicate the mixed community that practices
in the Zen Center. External to these are two guardians to scare away demons. On
Buddha’s podium, a small figure of Bodhidharma stands; Reverent Wendy pointed
out that he looks quite Caucasian. She told the tale of red-haired, blue-eyed
Caucasians picking up Buddhism on a journey around the Tarim Basin, which is
perhaps where the Caucasian depiction of Bodhidharma originates.

            The large courtyard found within the Zen Center walls
contains a fountain, flowers, and simple benches. This peaceful atmosphere once
again 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 and
kitchen. The dining hall is home to donated statues of bodhisattvas and various
pieces of artwork. One interesting and beautiful item there was a hanging
mobile of hundreds of multicolored origami cranes. This mobile took my breath
away: I would have liked to study it more. In the kitchen, there is a simple
plaque printed with the words “Now as I take food and drink I vow with all
beings to share in the pleasure of zen and fully enjoy the dharma.” These words
are said before meals, reminiscent of the Christian practice of blessing food
before consumption.

            Reverent Wendy pointed out altars around the building and
said that they are put to use every day. Incense is no longer burned there due
to allergies, but fresh flower petals are placed the dishes instead. She also
showed 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 statue
on the second floor has many arms, each hand holding a tool of compassion.

            My favorite sacred detail was a small piece of
calligraphy hung outside the Founder’s Hall, a meditation room that honors
Shunryu Suzuki. The Japanese character depicted meant “deep appreciation.” I
thought this was very fitting for the exterior of a room designed to thank the
person responsible for the Center. I also liked how the simplicity of the
artwork encompassed the basic beliefs of Zen Buddhism: minimalism, intrinsic
beauty, and compassion.

            The San Francisco Zen Center gave me a lot to think
about. I may go back there to try a full meditation session sometime in the
future. Relaxing one’s mind and opening the Self are very important concepts in
the chaotic world of today.