Zen 101

by Melannie Svoboda SND on April 11, 2016

One of the highlights of my month-long stay in South Korea in 2004 was my visit to a Buddhist seminary. I went with about 35 other Sisters of Notre Dame from all over the world. The seminary was in a remote area, nestled among the Korean mountains. 

Walking the monastery grounds, we are dwarfed by the buildings and mountains.

Walking the seminary grounds, we are dwarfed by the buildings and mountains.

About 200 monks (all of them women!) live in the seminary compound. Most of them are students, probably in their 20’s, who come from around the globe to study Buddhism. They are taught by the permanent monks who are easy to spot with their shaved heads and flowing gray robes. Most of the students stay only a couple of years. It is hoped that when they leave, they take what they’ve learned into the world. A few students might become permanent monks.

Our guide for the day was a beautiful monk named “The Only Truth.” She was in her late 40’s, had a very kind face, and exuded peace and calm. She showed us many of the buildings that make up the compound. We saw the dining hall, a library, and an auditorium sized room (with no seats, of course) where the monks prayed and meditated for hours each day. I noticed that one of the buildings had internet access. At the end of our tour, The Only Truth and a few students served us tea, rice cakes, and grapes.

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The Only Truth with Sr. Joan Marie Recker from Toledo, Ohio.

I have always been fascinated with Buddhism. Though certainly no authority, I will share some thoughts on this beautiful religion/philosophy. Buddhism traces it origin to a man named Siddharta Gautama who lived in India around 500 B.C. He was a prince who soon became deeply troubled by all the suffering he saw around him. He renounced his wealth and devoted himself to seeking understanding. After six years of asceticism and meditation, he reached enlightenment at age 35 and became known as Buddha, which means “one who is awake.”

Buddhism eventually spread to Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Today there are about 500 million Buddhists in the world, or 7.5% of the world’s population. In the U.S. there are 1.2 million Buddhists, about equal to the number of Muslims. In Canada there are 366,000 Buddhists. Buddhism is also the fastest growing religion in Australia.

Strictly speaking the word Zen refers to the Chinese version of Buddhism, but Zen is sometimes used interchangably with Buddhism. Zen stresses rigorous meditation. It also emphasizes personal insights and the personal expression of those insights in daily life—especially through deeds that benefit others. Typical monasteries have a daily liturgy where the monks chant sutras or aphorisms from Buddhist teachings. The rest of the day, the monks interweave long meditations with rest breaks, meals, and periods of work—all done with the same mindfulness or “the gentle effort to be present with experience.”

Buddha garden scuplture.

Buddha garden sculpture.

At the end of our visit to the Buddhist seminary, The Only Truth told us that she and the other monks in the seminary feel a real “kinship” with Catholic Sisters. She said, “I sense our lives are dedicated to the same end: our quest for the Divine.”

I will conclude this reflection with some Zen sayings. As you read them prayerfully, see if any resonate with you and your experience:

Quiet the mind and the soul will speak. (Ma Jaya Sati)

Smiling is one of the highest forms of meditation. (Amma)

If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. (Zen Proverb)

It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean. (John J. Muth)

The obstacle is the path. (Zen proverb)

If you plant a seed, it is you that blossoms. (Ma Jaya Sati)

I have lived with several Zen masters—all of them cats. (Eckhart Tolle)

To understand everything is to forgive everything. (Buddha)

Zen student to master: “How long will it take me to attain enlightenment?” Master: “Five years.” Student: “But what if I work really hard?” Master: “Ten years.”

 

Let us conclude this reflection with some Buddhist chants and peace music, sung by both men and women. This video takes 10 minutes.

What strikes you about Buddhism? What does our Christian faith share with Buddhism?

Do any of the Zen sayings stand out for you? What affect did the chants have on you?

Have you had any experience with Zen that you would like to share?

PS: A big thank you for your prayers for last Tuesday’s retreat day on Psalm 23. Thirty-seven women participated. A few of them knew me only through this blog. I enjoyed the attentiveness and goodness of all the women who came.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen April 11, 2016 at 5:11 am

Sr. Melannie,

The first quote really touched me: Quiet the mind and the soul will speak. I try to mediate for 20 minutes each day and I have not always been consistent lately. A good reminder to get back to my practice.

Thank you for sharing. God bless!

Kathleen

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Rosemary April 11, 2016 at 9:49 am

Sister Melanie, As always a perfect way to begin my week! My oldest granddaughter will graduate this May, with a degree in International Business Relations, and a minor in Chinese. She spent her fall semester, last year in Shanghai China, studying and seeing different parts of China.
Walking on the Great Wall was quite an experience, but her favorite was a weekend in a Buddist Yoga Monastry. She observed the silence with the monks, and worked with a Yoga Master, as Yoga is a part of her day. She loved China, and the Budest Monastery. Peace to mind, body and soul! Blessings to you this week….and thank you❤️ Namaste

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Kim April 11, 2016 at 9:56 am

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful experience you had. Sharing our love of God and each other is what we are called to do. My very favorite quote from your blog today is something that is so easy to lose in society. Too many distractions…mindfulness or “the gentle effort to be present with experience.”

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Kathy McCoy April 11, 2016 at 11:06 am

I too, have always been fascinated by Buddhism and its beauty. The saying that resonated with me today was, “Smiling is one of the highest forms of meditation.” A simple smile can bring such joy to a person’s life.
Thank you, as always for your postings. They are all so beautiful and touching.

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marietta samz April 11, 2016 at 11:12 am

Thanks again for a very meaningful reflection. The quote that immediately stood out for me was: “It is easy to believe we are each waves—” I have to remind myself of that very often. When I do, I find it helpful to realize that I am a part of a much bigger world Community.

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Wendy Stanek April 11, 2016 at 11:17 am

Sr. Melannie,
I happened upon your blog while searching for a Svoboda family who had lost children to a car accident in the 80’s. Since my subscription via email I have looked forward to reading it. Thank you for your insight and I also Thank God for bringing me to you.

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Maryann April 11, 2016 at 11:28 am

I really enjoyed reading this. Reminds we that I really should make an effort to learn to meditate–the mind is always bouncing! One quote to which I can relate is “Tension is who you think you should be Relaxation is who you are.” So much of our time can be spent doing what we think we’re “supposed to” do and being who we’re “supposed to” be for some form of external validation. The other quote that made me smile was “I have lived with several Zen masters, all of them cats.” My little furry Zen master is purring away on my lap as we speak!

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Suzanne Sayer April 11, 2016 at 11:42 am

I like the reflection, “If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life.” Too often we do not enjoy the present because we are too worried about the future or we are too impatient to move on to the next activity. We should learn to slow down and enjoy NOW–every second of it.

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Patty April 11, 2016 at 11:54 am

Thank you, Sister.

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Julie Teder April 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Thanks, Melannie,
I found all the quotes to be so true and full of wisdom. I like the one about missing the moment too.

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Jean April 11, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Super….Thank you Sister Melannie.

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Marie Grewe April 12, 2016 at 9:46 am

Sr. Melannie,
Visited Shrine of Buddha at Hakone, Japan and was very moved by the sense of holiness and peace I felt there. The chants also give such a spirit of calmness. I feel our Catholic faith and Buddhism share the spirit of meditation and concern for all God’s creation. Loved the saying – If you plant a seed, it is you that blossoms. If we pray even a little bit, God changes us for the better.
Thank you.

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srv April 12, 2016 at 7:28 pm

I admire their quietness of spirit and peace within themselves. Things which are so difficult to carry inside during a day filled with unpredictable students and happenings in school. The quote “Tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are.” Tension absorbs so much time and energy. To feel relaxed is so much more life-giving.

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John Hopkins April 12, 2016 at 8:11 pm

Lovely, wonderful, gentle, and just so, so zen!

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