Meditation and Dialogue at the Zen Center

WTB members joined people from the neighboring Unity Church in visiting the Zen Center of Syracuse for meditation, pot-luck lunch and dialogue. The mission of the Zen Center is to offer meditation to people from all walks of life thereby making our community a more caring and compassionate place.

We were invited to participate in the weekly devotions held in the Carriage House Zendo. Some of us arrived at 9 am to participate in chanting. Others joined for the silent meditation at 10 or the walking meditation at 10:45. The meditation beginning at 11 included insightful words from Shinge Roki, Sherry Chayat Roshi. After services, WTB members were invited to adjourn to the farmhouse for a vegetarian potluck lunch and dialogue.

Roshi Sherry Chayat welcomed our group of about 25 people to the lovely farmhouse. A fire was glowing in the Dharma hall, a welcoming front room where classes and meetings are held. While the buffet was being prepared, Sherry introduced us to Nikita, the center’s friendly “rescue” dog, and answered a question about the altar in the front of the room. She said the altar represents the four elements: fire (candle burning), air (incense), water (purified over the incense), and flowers (earth). The Buddha statue is from Thailand while the tapestry is from Tibet.

Sherry explained that this historic home on West Seneca Turnpike was built in 1810 by Joshua Foreman, first mayor of the village of Syracuse. This Zen group originally met in Sherry’s attic but were looking for a larger and more permanent space. In 1996 they purchased this five-acre property and eventually purchased the home next door as well. The mortgage was paid off in 2013, and the Center is working on developing the grounds and gardens.

President Joy Pople thanked the members of the Zen Center for hosting us. She noted that Roshi Sherry Chayat was at the original group of friends that Betsy and Danya convened in 2011; thus she was actually the most senior member of WTB in attendance! We learned that Jisho Judy Francher was also an early member of WTB. After saying “The Five Reflections” for centering and grace, we ate in companionable silence before beginning our discussion.

 Wyona Irani asked about the beginnings of the Buddhist religion. Sherry responded that Buddha means “awake”… it is not so much an historical tradition as an awakening to the Buddha that you are. Anyone from any religious tradition can become awakened in this way. 

She told the story of Buddhism’s historical beginnings over 2500 years ago. An Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, was kept inside his castle by his protective parents. Though he had everything, he felt a spiritual quest to find out “What is truth? What is my reality?” Upon leaving the palace he was shocked to encounter sickness, old age, death, and ascetic practices, and this knowledge changed him.

He became an ascetic to learn how to go beyond such suffering. Finally, he sat under a tree and vowed not to move until he had a breakthrough. On the morning of the eighth day he saw a moving star; all his concerns fell away—he awakened to the true beauty in the universe.

This is the foundation of the Zen practice of meditation: zazen. Our own thoughts are a form of suffering which must be let go in order to achieve peace and harmony. The goal is to find enlightenment and treat all other living beings with compassion.

In response to Diane Lansing’s question about different expressions of Buddhism in various countries, Sandra, who teaches a beginning class in Buddhism at the center, talked about the later development and spread of Buddhism. After Buddha’s death, followers were left with all his teachings. Eighteen different schools of emphasis developed.

Today there are basically three main schools. Theravada, prevalent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, emphasizes monasteries and monastic training for most young men. Mahayana, which spread from King Ashoka in India to China, Japan and Korea, stresses awakening by whatever means you need to use so that you can live your life as a being of compassion. Vajrayana is the Tibetan form of Buddhism.

Sue Savion noted that Buddha energy is free-flowing,compassionate, relational—-a more feminine force. She shared that Elizabeth Williams and other writers hypothesize that while Jesus has dominated for the last 2000 years, Buddha’s more feminine spiritual values will come to predominate worldwide in the next 2000 years. Sherry was not aware of this theory, but emphasized that in Buddhism God is not something that you worship but something you listen to.

This theme continued as questions were raised about the meaning of Buddhist rituals such as bowing, upraised hands, and chanting. Sherry tried to explain that while these rituals do have a meaning (humility, respect, some aspect of Buddha), Zen Buddhism does not use doctrine or ritual as a primary means of “awakening.” Rather, every gesture is a way of being—part of the “mindfulness” that helps people transcend the three poisons (greed, anger, delusion) that keep us from purity. Zen Buddhists see doctrine as something that can actually suppress a meaningful spiritual experience: the mind/body experience of who you are at this exact moment is what is true.

Sherry then talked about the 4 Noble Truths that are at the center of all Buddhist traditions:

  1. Everyone suffers (look at how you perpetuate suffering and how you may change your interactions).
  2. Suffering is caused by craving what we want and aversion to what we don’t like.
  3. Cessation/Nirvana means entering the stillness where there is no craving or aversion.
  4. The 8-Fold Path is a practical way to live and make a compassionate difference in the world.

Sandra spoke about the 8-Fold Path stressing that it is a circle, not a ladder. The first 6 steps have to do with what we do that affects others: “right” or “skillful” views, understanding how we are connected, speech, action (to ourselves and to others), livelihood (certain professions such as sword making can impede awakening), and effort (keep coming back to the path and practice). The last two steps involve meditation practice: “right” mindfulness and concentration. The breath is particularly important in allowing ourselves to quiet the mind and find stillness.

While Buddhists set aside certain times to meditate together, the cultivation of wisdom and compassion happens at all times during the day. A return to the breath can bring them back into harmony no matter what the outside situation.

Nancy Shepard asked about the connection between moving in the secular world and being in the moment of personal truth. A member of the Zen community answered that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a separate self; we are all interconnected.

Rev. Edith Washington, Vice President of WTB and pastor of Unity Church, commented that it is important for all of us to discover how much we have this oneness—we all seek to love, to express love, and try to be that expression.

As the meeting adjourned, we were invited to return any time; all are welcome in this serene and seeking place.