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n ze

e world as it e i ng t h truly s e t ou is b is a

During the fall of my senior year as a Johns Hopkins University student, I decided to embark on a weekend zen retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY. Using the grant I obtained from the Louis E. Goodman, MD award, I entered a mountainous, spiritual world, encountering customs and people I would otherwise never have met. Here is the beginning of a life-long journey and a project of reflection.

INTR DUCTION We were led into rooms with bunk-beds, as if we were going camping. By the time I had reached the Zen monastery after 6 hours of riding and transferring buses, other women had already chosen their beds for the weekend: a middle-aged woman with a red-flowered bandana hiding her scalp, a small Asian woman with a bowl-cut, a girl my age with a soft-spoken face, a woman reading a book and keeping to herself. These were to be my roommates, coming from all walks of life but sharing a common motive – to find peace through Zen practice. After choosing a top bunk, I joined the rest of the retreat members downstairs for a light supper. We began with a prayer, the deep sound of a bell announcing the time for congregation, its sound provoking thoughts of Japanese temples. The new members watched the older members and monastery students move through the prayer routine. Even without guidance, somehow the collective confusion was comforting and gentle. Everything on the table was vegetarian, following the traditional custom. We ate together at long, wooden tables with benches, filling ourselves with personal stories. Why was I here? My explanation to this was simple. I had taken a course on The Buddhist Experience with Professor Bavo Lievens. Finding the material interesting and wanting a fuller experience, I asked him for retreat recommendations and was told to attend the Zen Mountain Monastery. What a studious answer. Why was I really here? To this day, I have yet to understand my reason for being interested in Buddhism. Perhaps because of my background growing up in Japan, surrounded by a culture immersed in Buddhism and Shintoism, I had grown naturally interested in the subject. But I believe the interest stems from something deeper than just cultural roots – I believe it stems from the roots of being a human being.

At some point in our lives, each and every one of us wonders the ultimate question: what is the meaning of life? As a logic-driven person, I was (and still somewhat am) inclined to conclude there is no meaning – we only desire to create meaning so death does not seem futile. And yet we live on – how can we comprehend such a meaningless life filled with suffering and live on to accept the inevitable end? And what makes an individual feel a part of this universal Life and yet also feel so isolated? These questions nagged (and continue to nag) me, and only when I took the Buddhism course, did I realize that many people in the past had been asking the same questions and were trying to answer them through Buddhist practice. Unlike other religions, Buddhism has no deity and is more of a way of living rather than a worshiping of a higher power. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to understand the world and the self as it truly is, to comprehend this incomprehensible life, and make peace with our sufferings. I have had a satisfying life: no deaths in the close family, no massive injuries, no traumatic accidents, no health maladies. And yet I still seek mental peace, happiness, and an enjoyable life. That’s why I was really at the monastery. Others, meanwhile, came with distinct and compelling answers: one woman suffered from insomnia and wanted to use meditation to treat it, one man recently quit his job and wanted to find a new purpose in life, one boy wanted to become a student at the monastery. Each person came with so many different experiences, but all were sociable, extremely positive and caring. Just from looks, you could not tell their personal backstories. Maybe that’s why I came – to hear their stories and to find commonalities between me and these people I would have never met otherwise. And so began my retreat.



Because Buddhism covers a large scope of sects and religious customs, I decided to focus on Buddhism in Japan, a subject that already felt familiar to me. Because this Zen project is not meant to be a historical account of Buddhism, I will only introduce the basic timeline of how the religion evolved over generations. Before the introduction of Buddhism, Japan was structured by clans, each worshiping a different god or kami. The hierarchy of gods was establish through battles, hence making the nation divided. In order to unify the nation, an imperial clan decided to adopt Buddhism, modeling China’s method of unifying their nation. With time, however, different sects of Buddhism were born, dividing the nation once again. Warrior monks began to play a large role in society and Buddhism as an institution became full of corruption. During the twelfth century, power was transferred from the Japanese emperor to the Bakufu or shogunate. During this time, there was more religious freedom and Myoan Eisai established the first Zen temple in Kyoto. Zen was modeled after the Chinese Ch’an. Much of the foundation of Zen was established by Dogen Kigen, popularizing the foundational philosophies such as the achievement of enlightenment through meditation and the integration of Zen aesthetics in the arts such as poetry and architecture in order to embrace the present moment.

zen mountain monastery top photo courtesy of

MEDITATI N Much of the practice of Zen is achieved through meditation and to be fully aware of the present. Right before we sleep, our bodies begin to slow, our heart rate begins to steady, our limbs, trunk, and neck relax, and our breathing becomes deeper and fuller. But what about our minds? Even during our last breadth of consciousness, our minds are whirling with thoughts of the past, present, and future, crafting up situations and strategizing appropriate actions and consequences. And these thoughts tend to flow through our minds out of our control. Before meditation, I never realized how my thoughts could carry me away into their persuasive spell, blinding me to my surroundings and dragging me deeper into an inner sphere.

Zen is essentially “dethinking thinking” – going beyond thought to achieve Dharma-nature. This can be explained by the genjo koan “the practice of regarding the immediate present as one’s object of meditation” achieved by “just sitting”.

Select a seat: a. zafu b. pillow c. chair d. bench

Sit in half-lotus or full lotus position




3 Fold the hands in a cosmic mudra and try to maintain the circular shape: a person’s internal thoughts and state of mind easily manifests in the structure of the mudra – a sleepy person has a collapsed mudra, a stressed person has an uptight mudra. Let it rest and open up the circle to reveal the naval area. The mudra opens the access to the universe within and increases selfawareness.

You must not move – even if there is pain, acknowledge that pain, focus on the pain, feel how it feels in your body, and let it go. Sometimes a monk will come around with a keisaku, an encouragement stick, to hit the shoulders of a meditator and reinvigorate him or her.




Let thoughts be free – if a thought arises, acknowledge the thought and let it go. You will begin to notice how automatic and free-running our mind is. The thoughts we have are almost reflexive and we do not fully live in the present. We are all insane!

4 For beginners, it helps to begin with the counting of breath practice: Inhale and exhale, counting to 10 and repeat. Keep the eyes open to avoid the temptation to sleep – hold a gentle gaze on a spot in space.

Stock photos courtesy of q83, Iwan Beijes. Julia Freeman-Woolpert at Photos courtesy of,, wikipedia.

Having almost no previous meditation training, I found myself antsy and drained after the first 45 minute session. My conclusion after the first session: I am insane! Thoughts kept arising from no where, with almost no cause and no pause. I could not even count to 10 without some interruptive thought. Sometimes the counting would become so automatic, it would be a background beneath my impetuous thoughts, and when awareness returned I had reached 30 or 40 counts. Being in such a quiet room with the windows open amplified the mind’s voice, making it easier to pay attention. It felt as if my attention was a separate being from my mind, observing the workings of the mind like a chaperone, when in fact, these two beings should be one. For only then can we achieve no-self and be one with everyone else.

CARETAKING PRACTICE A meditative mind is not just practiced in the Buddha Meditation Hall – we did caretaking practice and morning routines in meditative silence as well. Doing chores with special care and attention to the task at hand made me realize how much we normally crave social interaction even though most actions can be done without verbal communication. Ironically, observing silence and an introverted state made me feel more connected to the people working along side me. Even a mundane task such as washing garden kale felt somehow significant, important in order to carry over into the next meal. Moreover, the next time I opened my mouth to talk, I was more conscious of my thoughts and spoken words, making conversations more meaningful.

D KUSAN Like any school, the relationship between student and teacher is furthered with the growth of the student. Monastery students are given the opportunity to leave in the middle of the zazen session to present the “answer� to a koan and show the state of their practice or ask questions. Zen retreaters were also given the opportunity to see Shugen Sensei. The pressure of asking intelligent and worthwhile questions in a short span of time made me prepare and think deeply about the questions I wanted to pose. One thing that concerned me was how to maintain this zen state outside of the monastery. We are constantly surrounded by the expectations people pose upon us, the pressure to succeed and work hard and yet still maintain happiness. In the midst of such chaos, how does one achieve Zen? Are we all just molded by the influences of society, our natural desires reshaped to the extent that we do not recognize or do not even realize that we had an original form? To this, Shugen Sensei gave these words: As long as the intensions are true, it does not matter what path you choose. Reaching enlightenment does not necessarily mean it changes the essence of who you are. An asshole who achieves enlightenment is still an asshole. We do not all have to go through monastic training to achieve enlightenment: enlightenment can be achieved whilst trying to achieve a career path such as becoming a doctor. As long as these goals and steps are made because of a true desire to fulfill these goals, we can all reach enlightenment. Let’s meditate on such words.

Stock photo courtesy of Mikiyo Yamanaka at


Stock photo courtesy of Fumio Kaneko at

ZEN THROUGH NATURE Zen Buddhism also attracted me because of its influence on the arts and the aesthetics of Japanese culture. Much of the architecture of buildings and gardens, paintings and traditional ceremonies come from Zen practice. This Zen Project is meant to mimic the Zen philosophy to use nature and art as avenues for enlightenment. Visiting the garden at the Silver Pavilion temple in Kyoto was like seeing the miniature prototype of Mt. Fuji next to the sea.

Into the ancient pond

A frog jumps

Water’s sound! 古池や 蛙飛びこむ


BASHO Many Zen monks used poetry as a means to stay in the present and achieve enlightenment. Haikus were born from this practice. One of the most famous poets during the Edo period is Matsuo Basho. I would now like to highlight some of my poems inspired by the nature aorund me:

Forest Bed Nature’s blood vessels hugging the earth, a carpet of moss between veins.

Cairn Making Loose on its hinges, the wooden gate keeps nothing in or out. But as I walk through, I feel the air change, the lighting change. Even the ground changes from pebbles to a green carpet, its organic thickness engulfing my every step As I near the headstones. They emerge From the ground like yellowed-teeth, In uneven rows. I do not recognize the letters Carved by hand, and yet I stay, counting The number of pebbles stacked on each grave. Some stacks are taller, some large at the base, Some in a constant state of near-tipping. All of them reach towards a common place. I do not know the meaning of the tradition But find myself placing a pebble On each cairn, partaking in a ritual Somehow familiar.

Trespassing A tree engulfs a metal fence, Its trunk a slow-moving fluid, molding Into the rusting arches, bending The metal’s stance into a purposeless bow. What the fence used to keep out Or keep in, nobody knows. Only the tree knows no bounds: Tree becoming metal, metal becoming tree.

Bottom of the Fall Like an incense’s smoke thread, A streak of water plummets down From the mountains. I watch the thread get thicker As I walk up the uneven stones. I do not use the rusting railing. Surrounding me, the silence is carried By the air, somehow crisp Even in the summer humidity, perhaps Filtered by the cycling of the leaves. Slowly, the tops of trees loom from below And the roaring sound of water begins. I know the fall is close. By the end, both my knees begin to crack And my breath is heavy in my chest. But the roaring sound masks All my senses. I stare And drown in the mist rising from the violent pounding of the water, The sound constant and unrelenting. Above, the water cuts off into the sky, Its descent so fast, I see it falling up. Stories had been told of what the bottom Of the fall would be like. They never mention The return journey down.

CONCLUSI N Back in the real world, it’s been hard to maintain the Zen state I acquired during the retreat. But having the knowledge and experience of this spiritual world has made me more confident in my thinking. Knowing I have control over my thoughts and my perceptions of the world is a comfort. Everyone wants to know the essential truths: what is life and how do we escape this wheel of suffering associated with living? Whether these answers are obtained through meditation or some other practice, we must approach these questions knowing that happiness is attainable. It is all in the matter of how we perceive reality and of nurturing our curiosity towards this world in which we live.

“The dew seemed to sparkle more brightly on the green leaves; the air to rustle among them with a sweeter music; and the sky itself to look more blue and bright. Such is the influence which the condition of our own thoughts, exercises, even over the appearance of external objects. Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the somber colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.” - Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist

The End We are like sparks of ash Flitting chaotically into the night Sky. A bonfire beneath us. Ephemeral smoke.

The Zen Project  
The Zen Project  

The product of my Louis E. Goodman Award, a weekend retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery, and my Japanese background.