Rhode Island

Parking lot view

There is a strong, silent place I’ve found on retreat that lingers: once you’ve mapped the route to that place, you can return to it whenever you need to. That place is not distant, and it takes only a moment’s awareness–the span of a single breath–to return there. But the way to this place is elusive, and many spend their entire lives traveling far and wide to find it, to no avail. Like a dog’s own tail, it slips beyond your reach the more (and the more fervently) you chase it.

Rust never sleeps

There were moments at Saturday’s hockey game, for instance, when I felt myself retreating to that place of calm as I waited, watching and alert, for the precise moment to snap a shot. Photography is nothing more than target practice, and to hit a target, you need an awake and alert eye. It is the strength and solace of that silent place that gets me through overloaded semesters, grading all-nighters, or early-morning teaching prep; it is the strength and solace of that silent place that helps me juggle two jobs when many struggle to handle only one.

Geared up

The secret of this strong, silent place is not secret, but it hides under misleading names: calling it a place, for instance, is already a mistake. If you call it a place, you’ve already wandered from it; if you call it a thing, you’ve already mislaid it; and if you call it a person, you’re already estranged. “It,” after all, is not even an “it”: “it” is neither one thing nor two, incapable of either speaking or being spoken of.

And yet this strong, silent place is the most mundane location of them all: neither far nor near, it’s a place where we all dwell. Everyone knows it without realizing it, or has it without knowing. I think mothers know it best, this strong and silent place from which all things are born and the impossible can be done, but only with great love. Mothers know that life is borne from great pain, and mothers know that love never tires.

Click here for a photo-set of images from the grounds at the Providence Zen Center, where I went on a one-day retreat yesterday: a pilgrimage back to my personal power source.

Great vehicle, even greater bumper sticker

It’s a joke only a Buddhist would get, which made its placement on the bumper of a pickup truck parked this morning at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, RI all the more perfect.

Buddha's birthday, 2007

Mahayana” is the term used by Buddhists from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Tibet to refer to their particular flavor of practice: the so-called “Great Vehicle.” Calling your own way of spiritual practice “great” is, well, great…except that referring to the “Great Vehicle” of Mahayana Buddhism automatically implies a so-called “Lesser Vehicle”: Hinayana, the pejorative name used by (of course) Mahayana Buddhists to refer to the Theravadan traditions of Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, and Laotian Buddhism.

You can get away with joking about Great Vehicles among the Korean-influenced Zen Buddhists at the Providence Zen Center: we all know that the “Great Vehicle” also refers to the Bodhisattva way, which does not discriminate between “greaters” and “lessers” in its endeavor to save all beings from suffering. From a Zen perspective, there is no “great” vehicle, only the One Vehicle that is This Present Moment. Whether you take a pickup truck, car, plane, train, or boat–and whether you’re Thai, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, or American–the One Way that’s the High Way is the very moment you’re currently in: no “vehicle” necessary. The moment you wake up and remember you’re Right Here, Now, you’ve already arrived.

Ripe and rotting

It’s been three years since I went apple picking in Hollis, NH with my friend A (not her real initial), and I haven’t picked any apples since then. The academic year is a busy time, and fall semester is my busy season, time for me to teach extra classes to replenish the savings I spent over an under-employed summer. Just as the agricultural year follows its own ebb and flow, so does the academic one: fall is harvest time for farmers and paper-grading time for professors. If you’re a farmer, professor, or friend of a farmer or professor, you quickly learn to beware the busy season.

Orchard shadow

While I was at the Providence Zen Center on Saturday, I took a quick stroll through their apple orchard. It’s been years since anyone’s tended the trees there, and nobody picks them come October. Instead, the apples are worm-eaten and grow increasingly wizened and frost-bitten as they hang and then drop in benign neglect.

A conscientious farmer would be saddened to see fruitful food going to waste, as Zen Master Soeng Hyang (aka Bobbie Rhodes) was when I ran into her after picking pictures, not apples, from these trees. Bobbie has been a nurse since 1969, the year I was born; she has more than a lifetime’s worth of lessons gleaned from her years as a hospice nurse tending souls facing their own bittersweet harvest. If you’ve spent a lifetime helping people at the end of theirs, you grow accustomed, I assume, to the sight of wasted promise. It’s never easy, I think, to see death, decay, and denied dreams. How many of the patients Bobbie has cared for over the years have felt too late the regret of their own neglected orchards?


In my three-years-ago post, I wrote of the weary, guilt-tinged sorrow voiced in “After Apple Picking,” one of my favorite Robert Frost poems. “Frost’s speaker describes apple picking as work, not leisure,” I noted, “and there’s more than a hint of guilt tinging his words as he describes the apples he’s failed to pick and bushels he’s failed to fill.” When Zen Master Soeng Hyang lamented the apples that are going to waste in the Providence Zen Center’s long-neglected orchard, she was echoing the sentiment of Frost’s speaker, as I was when I wrote about the poem three years ago. It’s a shame, I thought then, to leave things undone: surely if I or others were more in control of our lives, our schedules, or our days, we wouldn’t let a single apple, a single opportunity, or a single second go to waste. Given the abundance of nature and the seeming fecundity of time, we’d squeeze every drop of succulence from sweet-soaked days.


And yet… Can anything go to waste in a world where worms live, too? I’ve never seen deer nibbling apples from these human-neglected trees–perhaps the apples themselves are bitter, not sweet–but then again there aren’t years’ worth of apples piled beneath them. Some sentient creatures–not humans, for sure, but an invisible band of someones–are eating these apples, or perhaps they’re only contributing to the health of their parent trees through their own demise and decay. These apples aren’t, in a word, being wasted even if human hands aren’t picking, eating, or preserving them, savoring their sweetness in the form of pies, applesauce, or cider.

Fallen in fall

These days I’m considering the merit of letting an occasional apple drop. Worms are hungry, too, as are deer and other foragers; even microbes, mites, and other agents of decay deserve an occasional taste of tart. When you’re an overworked farmer or paper-plagued professor, you ultimately realize you can’t do everything. There are too many apples to pick, too many bushels to fill, too many papers to grade, and too many patients looking for patience. The secret to surviving an overloaded semester, I’m learning, is to give up on catching up. Once you realize there are more apples in the Universe than you have the hands and energy to pick, you concentrate all your attention on the apple in your hand.

Tonight, I have a half-dozen paper piles, all of them demanding attention, but the realist in me knows losing sleep over paper is the most wasteful choice of all. Instead of apple picking, these days I’m doing all I can to tend to classes, students, and my own fragile soul. What benefit are brimming bushels if you reach harvest’s end with a life that’s been wasted?

View from the parking lot

On Saturday I took a break from weight-lifting to go to the Kwan Um School of Zen’s Dharma teacher retreat at the Providence Zen Center. During a semester where my days are overloaded with the mundane details of college teaching–classes to prep, papers to grade, emails to answer–Zen teaching is a welcome respite, something that requires no preparation, only careful attention. On Saturday morning, my longtime Dharma friend Ji Hyang and I led a workshop on “Zen & the Arts,” which we planned about five minutes before the session began. In college teaching, flying by the seat of your pants is a neglectful thing. In Zen teaching, it’s all but expected.

Although I had to leave before my fellow Dharma teachers started telling jokes, the half-day I spent in the company of other long-time practitioners reminded me why any trip to PZC feels like tapping into a mighty power source. Being prepared is a good thing, but sometimes it’s necessary and proper to drop the reins and trust yourself to the wide open meadow of your own creative mind.

Main Dharma room altar

On Saturday, I drove to Rhode Island to attend a Buddhist precepts ceremony and subsequent festivities at the Providence Zen Center. As I’ve noted here before, going to PZC always feels like a spiritual homecoming. Although I’ve never lived at PZC, I’ve spent enough time there on retreat and attending ceremonies that there’s something decidedly familiar about its buildings, grounds, and familiar faces.

And then there are the Gold Guys.

Providence Zen Center has not one but four gold Buddha statues: the largest in the main Dharma room, a second in the smaller upstairs Dharma room, a third in the octagonal peace pagoda, and the fourth in the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery up the hill from the Zen Center. (These pictures show the main Dharma room Buddha as well as the one in the monastery: I didn’t photograph the Buddhas in the upstairs Dharma room and peace pagoda during this weekend’s visit.) As I’ve noted in a previous post on Buddhist iconography, newcomers to the Providence Zen Center who come from a Judeo-Christian background are often uncomfortable with big gold statues that look like idols. Speaking from my own Catholic-turned-evangelical-gone-Buddhist perspective, though, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of the Gold Guys.

Main Dharma room buddha

PZC’s gold Buddhas aren’t gods or idols: truth be told, they’re actually hollow. But like a familiar doll or stuffed animal, these Buddha statues do seem to carry an aura of personality, as if they are looking down and watching the various goings-on happening in their midst.

During Saturday’s welcome ceremony for new Dharma teachers in training, Zen Master Soeng Hyang admired the newly re-gilt upstairs Dharma room Buddha, trying to remember how long she’d sat with him. Now that Zen Master Seung Sahn is gone, the Gold Guy who now sits in PZC’s upstairs Dharma room is one tangible link to the Gray Guy who founded the Providence Zen Center and the international network of Zen Centers and practice groups affiliated with it. Zen Master Gray Guy is dead and gone, but the Gold Guys he brought over from Korea–and the human men and women who sit with them–still carry on.

Dharma room Buddha

Although the Gold Guys are just statues, if you spend enough time with even an insentient object, you get a feel for the personality of the thing. If we attribute familiar personalities to our cars, boats, and other everyday objects, why wouldn’t we grow fond of the accoutrements of our spiritual practice, especially if they have human forms and faces? Given the long hours on retreat I’ve spent cross-legged and achey, cross-legged and sleepy, cross-legged and scatter-brained, or just cross-legged and cross, it’s comforting to think someone in the room is cross-legged and comfortable, even if he’s really a hollow man with gilt that’s only skin deep.

In my years of teaching college composition classes, I’ve read many essays by homesick freshmen describing the places and objects that mean “home.” After reading piles of papers describing the almost magical aura of places like Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’ve come to believe that the tendency to make icons out of everyday objects is an essential part of human nature. Children are creatures of habit, so they rely heavily on those simple rituals that remind them they are loved and cherished. The lesson of Grandma’s bottomless cookie jar or Grandpa’s magically replenishing candy dish is that there’s one place where you’re always loved, even when you’ve been naughty or Mom says you’ve already had enough sweets.

Dharma room altar

Although it might seem absurd to say that PZC’s Gold Guys feel almost grandfatherly to me, I do think these ritual objects carry the same sort of iconic power that Grandma and Grandpa’s house wields in the hearts of so many of my college freshmen. Just as Grandma and Grandpa will always (or so we hope) have cookies, candy, and other treats set aside whenever cherished children come to visit, Providence Zen Center feels like home to me in part because I know the Gold Guys will always be there. No matter how many times I nod off while meditating, slip and slouch in my meditation posture, or fall off the practice bandwagon entirely, I know the Gold Guys continue to practice unmoved and unmoving. No matter how many times my attention wanders and I find myself doing anything but meditation practice, I know the Zen Center with its Gold Guys will be there when my attention and intention return.

The Providence Zen Center just paid a hefty chunk o’ change to give their Gold Guys a makeover, commissioning master gilders to re-cover their hollow forms with gold leaf. So even though Buddha’s been sitting a long time, he’s looking fabulous these days with a fresh application of ruby-red lip paint and spring-green eyebrow and moustache appliques:

Dharma room Buddha

Precepts ceremony

Although to non-Buddhists it might seem silly to spend good money fixing up a statue that’s not much more than a glorified doll, the real value of a bright and shiny Buddha becomes clear during a picture-perfect precepts ceremony when rows of Gray Ones assemble beneath the Gold Guy. Providence Zen Center isn’t about a place or even the objects assembled there: it’s about the people who congregate in their midst. Just as the magic of Grandma and Grandpa’s house is really about Grandma and Grandpa, their hollow house being of secondary importance, the iconic power of a place like Providence Zen Center is only indirectly reliant upon liturgical accoutrements. Gold Buddhas are wonderful, but flesh-and-blood practitioners are even better, their beauties being far more than gold-leaf deep.

For this reason, my favorite image of this weekend’s Gold Guys is one in which a smiling statue seems to be leaning to listen as Zen Masters Wu Kwang and Dae Kwang give congratulatory speeches to new preceptors: a trio of smiling Buddhas, one of them gold-skinned and hollow and the other two gray-clad and whole.

Smiling Buddhas

Meditating frog

In case you don’t believe me when I say that frogs are natural Zen practitioners, here’s a shot of a green Master meditating in the pond behind the Providence Zen Center. This weekend the Kwan Um School of Zen is holding its annual Sangha weekend in commemoration of the late Zen Master Seung Sahn’s birthday. After this morning’s Zen ceremonies, I spooked a handful of frogs from the pond out back…but this massive bullfrog didn’t budge, letting me take a zoom-free Extreme Closeup. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

And in case you think only amphibians showed up this weekend’s festivities, here’s the requisite group photo taken after today’s precepts ceremony. (Thanks to JW for taking this picture…and for eventually returning my camera afterward.) The folks holding up certificates took various sorts of Buddhist precepts, thereby declaring their intention to find their True Self and save all beings…bullfrogs included. (If you want to search for my face in this sea of Zen Mamas and Papas, click on the image for a larger version.)

Post-precepts ceremony

Ji Jang Bosal

Make no bones about it: if you’re squeamish about Buddha statues and other overt examples of Buddhist iconography, the Providence Zen Center is the kind of place that will make you (repeatedly) lose your lunch.

Main Dharma room altar

One of the things we talked about at this weekend’s Kwan Um School of Zen Dharma Teacher retreat was the eye-popping Buddhist art that can be found in our Korean-influenced Zen Centers. Since most of the folks who practice in our School weren’t raised as Buddhists, these colorful cultural trappings can be very off-putting to newcomers. As someone who was raised Catholic and was “born again” in college, I came to Zen with something of a Christian double-whammy. The first time I walked into a Zen Center and saw a huge gold statue looking back at me, every fiber in my good little Catholic-turned-evangelical soul was screaming protestations: “No! Not an idol! Run away, sister, and repent!”

Apparently I’m not the only one who had (and eventually overcame) such a vehement first reaction. During his presentation on Buddhist iconography, Zen Master Dae Kwang, himself raised as a corn-fed Nebraskan Presbyterian, recounted how another Dharma teacher used to come to the Zen Center every morning for 5 am bows and then would immediately go to a church around the corner to pray for forgiveness. “Three of the Ten Commandments,” Zen Master Dae Kwang explained, “forbid idols and idolatry. That’s how much God hates gold statues!” God’s distaste for devotional art notwithstanding, the Providence Zen Center is chock-full of scarily exotic statues, altars, and other iconographic tchotchkes, so any Zen Center resident or Dharma teacher necessarily has to spend a lot of time doing damage control when freaked-out Christians, Jews, or Muslims gingerly set foot into a Zen Center for the first time.

Side altar, main Dharma room

So, here’s the skinny on all those Buddha statues: they aren’t idols. Although you’ll see Zen-heads bowing in front of such statues, you’ll also see us bowing to our meditation mats, and to our food, and to one another. Bowing is simply a sign of respect, a sort of Buddhist “pleased to meet you.” Although there have been times on retreat when I’ve felt like worshipping my food, that isn’t why I bow to my bowls before digging into an eaten-in-silence meal. Bowing is a physical sign of both humility and interdependence, an acknowledgment that our individual selves aren’t separate from the rest of the universe. When a Buddhist bows upon entering a Dharma room, they bow as a sign of gratitude to the silent practice energy of that place. The room isn’t a god to be worshipped, and neither is the statue that’s found in that room.

Instead, the purpose of Buddha statues, altar paintings, and other iconographic images is purely symbolic. Representations of the the historical Buddha, the Buddha’s heavenly incarnations, and various other mythic characters are designed to point inward, not outward. Meditating in front of a Buddha statue, a Zen-head isn’t worshipping much less praying to that statue. Instead, a Buddha statue is a physical symbol of one’s own true, compassionate nature. The historical Buddha never claimed to be a god; instead, his teachings point to the fact that everyone has a latent ability to wake up and realize their true connection to all beings. Like a sports-crazed kid who covers his bedroom walls with posters of Shaquille O’Neal, Buddhists simply surround themselves with images of someone they want to be like. Buddhists don’t worship the Buddha any more than sports fans worship Shaq or Lutherans worship Martin Luther. The flesh-and-blood man who earned the title Buddha simply showed one way of waking up. Statues and paintings of that man and his various mythic counterparts simply point to the need to enact that way for oneself.

Dharma room altar

If all these Buddha statues are simply symbolic, why have them at all? There certainly are religions (Quakerism being one) that eshew all religious trappings in favor of a bare-bones approach. For all of Zen’s emphasis on spiritual minimalism, it still derives from a visually rich tradition. True, Buddha statues, altars, candles, and incense aren’t necessary: it’s entirely possible to meditate and gain enlightenment without any of these fancy accoutrements. By the same token, though, we as embodied creatures rely on our senses to steer our thoughts and emotions. Separated from our family, we cherish photographs that remind us of our loved ones even though we technically don’t need such reminders. Although it’s possible to get romantic without candlelight and flowers, sometimes we need a sensory nudge to get us in the mood. At times, sitting Zen can feel no different than waiting for the bus: it’s easy to zone out and let one’s mind wander. A gleam of candlelight on gold or a whiff of wafting incense can serve as a powerful reminder: this room is special because this moment is unique. This truth applies everywhere at all times, but sometimes we need additional physical reminders.

Peace pagoda

Long-time Zen practitioners often use the term “Dharma candy” to refer to all the fancy Asian accoutrements that tease the eyes and senses of Zen Center visitors. Truth be told, meditation is boring. If we expected newcomers to sit following their breath in an unfurnished cinder block basement, we’d probably get very few repeat customers. As much as many Westerners recoil at the “smells and bells” of Buddhist practice, exoticism nevertheless has a huge appeal. Like candy, enormous statues and looming pagodas have very little nutritional value spiritually speaking. Simply looking at a Zen temple won’t earn you any karmic points; instead of snacking on candy, you have to dig into an entree called practice. But if the sight of a lovely Asian temple nestled in changing trees provides a sweet enough taste, perhaps you’ll be tempted to stay for an entire meal. Meditation can be bitter medicine, and devotional art serves as a spoonful of sugar. When your mind wanders during meditation, chanting, or bows, there is something colorful and interesting to focus your attention on. A peaceful Zen Center filled with beautiful things points to the special quality of one’s True Nature. Yes, enlightenment is no different from ordinary life, but at the same time it is special. Precisely because enlightenment can happen anywhere at anytime, we set aside special, extraordinarily lovely places to remind ourselves of that fact.

Greenhouse buddha

One of the intrinsic paradoxes of Zen practice is that it is simultaneously iconographic and iconoclastic. One famous Zen story recounts how an impoverished monk chopped and then burned his temple’s wooden Buddha to keep warm: when push comes to shove, fueling the practice fire is more important than devotional formalities. At the same time, though, Zen-heads are meticulously careful about tending their altars and practice spaces: how you keep your altar is how you keep your mind. Whether made of gold, wood, or stone, a Buddha statue is like your mind: efficacious only if you pay attention. Left to its own devices, a stone Buddha will collect dust like any other inanimate object: left to its own devices, a stone Buddha has no inherent power. The power of any iconographic symbol lies entirely in the eye of the beholder; although a sign can point you home, only your own legs can get you there.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

I just spent the past two days mingling with friends old and new at the Kwan Um School of Zen’s biannual Dharma Teacher retreat at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to sit a lot of retreats at both PZC and the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery which sits across a pond and up a hill from the Zen Center. Because of all those hours spent meditating, walking, and breathing there, the property I sometimes jokingly refer to as the “cult compound” feels like home to me. The earth there is steeped with memories, and the buildings hold a special cumulative power.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Although this weekend’s retreat was held at the Zen Center, many of us stayed Saturday night at the monastery. Before you think that staying in a Zen monastery is an excessively austere practice, let me set you straight. Although the monastery itself doesn’t have a phone or TV, the Zen Center down the hill has a TV room where I watched the first half of Saturday night’s heart-breaking Red Sox game while sitting sandwiched on a couch between two Sox-cheering Zen Masters. Whether lay or monastic, the Zen Masters in my school are delightfully “real”: they watch TV, go to movies, and shout “bullshit” at bad umpire calls. When I told Zen Master Dae Kwang that I’d recently bought a TV, he gave me an emphatic high-five. You know you need to get out more when even 60-year-old celibate Zen monks tell you you’ve been living too austerely.

After even Zen Master Bobbie Rhodes had given up on the Sox, I made my way uphill from the Zen Center to the monastery. I’d forgotten a flashlight, so I walked the gravel driveway in the dark, my feet following a dimly lit path strewn with beech leaves. This is a path I’ve walked countless times before: among my favorite memories of Diamond Hill Zen Monastery are all those early evenings on 3-week summer retreats when I’d walk back to the monastery after taking a postprandial sauna and hot shower at the Zen Center: a brief spot of bliss for meditation-weary legs. All those times when I’d climb the hill back to the monastery, I was utterly certain that Heaven consisted of three simple things: a full belly, heat-loosened muscles, and clean, still-damp hair. Saturday night was chilly and dark, and I walked back to the monastery slowly, carefully feeling the path underfoot with every step. If I’d ever claimed to be able to walk the route from Zen Center to monastery in my sleep, Saturday night I nearly proved that to be the case.

Temple bell

The first time I sat a retreat at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery, I slept fitfully: although the 4:30 am wakeup bell and rigorous day-long meditation schedule left me exhausted, I was nervous about a foreign practice form and unfamiliar physical setting. Having sat many retreats at the Monastery, though, I now sleep like a rock whenever I find myself there. Although 4:30 wakeup still comes too early, I usually find myself energized by the aura of practice that imbues the monastery. Just as sitting on a mat and cushion feels like returning, staying even for one night at the monastery feels like a kind of spiritual transfusion: here, I’ve found the power source, somewhere to plug into a site that is particularly charged with strong practice energy and good vibes.

Korean Zen monasteries are traditionally built on or near mountains: it is important to find a spot that is geomantically auspicious. Although I’m not well versed in the geographic features that make for good monastery-building, Diamond Hill has always seemed well-placed to me. Although both the Providence Zen Center and the monastery tucked behind it are surrounded by suburban housing developments, when you are in either the Zen Center or monastery, you feel like you’ve been removed from the ordinary workaday world. Yes, you can watch the Red Sox in the Zen Center TV room; yes, you can check your email from the communal computer also located there. Still, the sight of a Korean-style monastery on a suburban Rhode Island hill is surprisingly deceptive: it’s easy to think that incipient buddhas and bodhisattvas have been sitting here for thousands of years, not “only” since Zen Master Seung Sahn came from Korea to America in 1972.

Meditation bell

In a word, this site in Rhode Island is more than merely the Kwan Um School of Zen’s administrative head temple: it’s the School’s power source. Whether because of the particular way Diamond Hill’s bedrock is aligned or because of all the people who have practiced there, PZC and its monastery pump out a seemingly endless supply of high-octane practice energy. How many souls have gazed loosely on these floorboards as they followed their breath in and out; how many ears have hearkened at the sound of this bell as morning and night it shatters even the deepest realm of hell? The Dharma Teachers who gathered this weekend are merely the latest in a long line of practitioners past and present who have come to this particular corner of Rhode Island to find their true self and save all beings. Each one of them has soaked up a spot of this site’s energy, and each one of them has left a drop of their own. From the moment you arrive and lasting days after, you feel the power surge of sincere intentions and great compassionate vows.

This is my contribution for the Ecotone biweekly topic Energy of Place.