Mary Adamski

View from the Pew
A look inside Hawaii's houses of worship

By Mary Adamski

Saturday, May 5, 2001

Getting lost in meditation

Breathe in, breathe out slowly, counting one. (After this, there's grocery shopping, the library -- and what else is on the list for today?)

Breathe in, breathe out, counting two. (What would she have said if I answered her complaint with one of my own?)

Breathe in, breathe out, counting three. (My left foot is asleep, and if I move I'll disrupt everyone else.)

Breathe in, breathe out, starting over. (This is not easy, to clear the mind of distracting thoughts.)

There were six of us at the orientation session Saturday at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha being gently led in this first small step in Zen meditation by Don and Vicky Stoddard.

No, the correct verb is not step, but sit. The Japanese word "zazen" translates as sitting in silent meditation.

Stoddard compared this mind discipline, based in Buddhism, with developing a regimen of physical exercise. Don't talk about what will happen, don't set a goal and measure where you are as you go along.

"You are working toward being fully engaged," Stoddard said. "Buddha means awake and attentive. It doesn't have to do with reading a lot about it; the Zen attitude is characterized as just doing what you're doing. We often separate ourselves from our own experiences and the things we are doing; we don't fully engage."

Stoddard, a boat designer, has been at this since the 1960s, when many Westerners became interested in Eastern religions. He and his wife, a psychologist, are about to establish a Hilo branch of this lay community, which was founded by Robert Aitken.

How hard it is to engage with your mind -- that's the impression a neophyte carried away from three hours with these tranquil guides.

How hard it is to be in the hive of your mind without focusing on the buzzing of memories, daydreams, lists, other people's voices.

The Zen center deep in Palolo Valley is as peaceful as it gets in urban Honolulu, but there is the roar of wind in ridge-line trees, the piercing cry of a peacock, the hum of distant motors. The idea is not to escape to some space where they disappear, but to recognize them as buzzes.

Like other religious or cultural traditions, Zen has rituals that set the stage for the experience. You enter the room with a gassho, a standing bow with palms together. You sit in a specific way, three points down on the mat to stabilize the meditating form.

"The thrust of this orientation is to try to give you a feeling for what it's like to be in the practice," Stoddard told the neophytes. The Stoddards clearly avoided filling our minds with things to be memorized in a broader look into Buddhist teaching.

One dogma the guides shared was the "three jewels" in Buddhist teaching. "Sangha" translates as the body of practitioners, but it could also mean the greater body of mankind. "Dharma" means the teaching, but it can also mean phenomena or things as they are. "Buddha" could be the historical character who meditated into a state of enlightenment, or the state of enlightened being.

As the guide told the beginners, "Zen is as complex as your life is."

Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
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