By Mr. Jim Ehrenhaft
In February 2017, during a semester-long sabbatical, I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to stay for eight days at the Upaya Zen Center, a Zen Buddhist retreat facility. The center was set in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains—an idyllic setting for engaging in Zen practice focused on sitting meditation or zazen and mindful physical labor or samu. Though I am not a practicing Zen Buddhist, I had studied and taught about the tradition for years, so I was eager to experience Zen practice in person and to have the opportunity to be in a community of committed Zen Buddhists, if only for a short while.
Upon arrival, I quickly discovered that I was the only “lay” or non-practicing guest, but that status was in no way a deterrent to my participation for the upcoming week. I was expected to be at all meditation and work sessions and to be engaged fully in every activity. While I was intimidated by the three 1-2 hour daily meditation sessions especially, I was excited for the challenge, which began that next morning. I knew from my own experience that the process was not so much about suppressing thoughts but instead about recognizing them and letting them pass—manageable enough in the comfort of my home for 10 minutes or so on a most-everyday basis, which I had been doing to that point.
Once that time threshold was expanded at Upaya, the bulk of each session entailed trying to combat my inevitably wandering thoughts while focusing on my breathing. And yet, but the end of the week, the effort had become not so alien, and I had come at least a bit closer to feeling a sense of serenity rather than anxiety.
Throughout the week, the days encompassed a rigorous rhythm: up at 6:00 am, to the zendo (meditation hall) for meditation, a short breakfast followed by samu, which for me meant assisting a resident named Mary Ray with cleaning the center’s bathrooms and kitchens. Though the work was meant to be mostly silent, at times Mary Ray and I would chat, and conversations like these—mostly at meals following the first 15 minutes which were silent—became one of my trip’s highlights, as I was able to gain insight from Zen Buddhists into the nature and meaning of their practice and how it fit into their lives and livelihoods.
Mary Ray, who was in her sixties, had developed a strong interest in Japanese culture from the time she was a child, since her parents shared that interest and had plenty of books in that broad field as she was growing up. One of her formative experiences as a Zen Buddhist—which didn’t come until 4 years ago—was spending several weeks at a Zen retreat center in Plum Village, France. She decided that she wanted to pursue a Zen path more rigorously, and when she returned to the US she realized that Upaya was just down the road from her house, so she began practicing regularly here at that point.
Mary Ray these days was trying to balance running an art studio with part time work as a doctor working with illegal immigrant children. With no health insurance, the families would have nowhere else to turn for medical help, so she would not be leaving Upaya or Santa Fe anytime soon. The Zen experience, for almost everyone I met, coincided directly with serving others—the awareness engendered through rigorous practice fueled compassion that led inevitably to trying to alleviate suffering in others.
That same outlook was evident in others I spoke with: one who worked with the Lakota Sioux and LGBTQ youth in addressing social injustice; another who has been to a Zen retreat in Auschwitz numerous times, located there precisely for the purpose of remembering the injustices committed during the Holocaust; and another who works with incarcerated individuals in maximum security to help them manage the suffering that marks their sense of isolation. At the heart of these efforts were a common ethical purpose and motivation that underlie how Zen Buddhists perceive their relationships with the world, with others, and with themselves. What Zen aspires to do is to allow one to see others as they are so that the causes of suffering can be mitigated and life can be enhanced.
One evening, one of my roommates and I were talking in a common area, and the talk meandered from strategies for meditating to which NHL teams were stuck in mediocrity. In the midst of that conversation, a huge spider emerged from under the couch he was sitting on, and he immediately took off his shoe and crushed it. Then he looked up at me and said, “That wasn’t very Zen of me, was it?” His tone was wry but simultaneously earnest. No one I met at Upaya saw themselves as saintly; rather, in as much as I could in any way generalize, what I would say is that the practicing Zen Buddhists I met saw themselves clearly, and their constant efforts to cultivate that clarity of vision became a galvanizing force for helping others open up to their own truths in order to address the heart of what causes suffering in themselves and in the world.
Simply to be part of such a community—even for such a short time—opened a window into human nature for me that I hope will never close.