Theravada

“You may sit here,” the monk said, pointing to a section of floor toward the back of the room. A photocopied prayer book lay at the spot. I sat directly on the carpet, which was so magnificently plush there was no need for a meditation mat.

I thought: so, this is a monastery of the Theravada tradition. The monks here do not seek to hold off attaining Nirvana for the sake of teaching others about that egoless state. Unlike the Mahayana tradition, these monks strive daily to dissolve their individual identities. This effort is their unique contribution to society. While not so prevalent in the U.S., this type of Buddhism is the most practiced in some Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Many young people, some just children, spend a portion of their lives working in monasteries and ascending the various monastic ranks. They receive education and Buddhist training. Most will leave eventually to rejoin mainstream society and have families, others will stay on. It’s a bit like the military in the United States, only theirs is a different method of obtaining peace.

Several younger monks, also in orange robes, filed in. They arranged themselves along with the older monk on the floor at the front of the room near a tall gilded statue of Buddha. Radiance from the setting sun flooded in from west-facing windows. I pressed my palms to the carpet, which was a rich crimson hue. Everything was glowing gold from the sun, the statue, the robes. The monks alternated between periods of quiet and chanting. From the snippets in English, I understood they were paying homage to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Their deep tones vibrated the air and lingered. Light and sound saturated the room, spreading a buttery warmth. One of the young monks began to nod off, slumping forward by degrees. He would catch himself and sit tall, only to slowly melt again.

I had no idea I would be witnessing this sight—completely ordinary in the lives of these monks, but extraordinary in mine. I’ve operated under the impression that worship practices of the Theravada tradition are too private to have much effect on society at large. This experience gives me a new perspective. Like contemplatives or hermits of other traditions, they are working diligently to capture all that is bright and good and, through sheer force of concentration, send that energy out into the world. Sitting in the room with them, I was overcome with gratitude for their commitment to this taxing exercise meant to benefit us all. Even if most of us never see it, it is happening on our behalf every day.

A Thai temple

Not every Buddhist temple is set up for outsiders wishing to saunter in and grab a meditation pillow. Just a few doors down from the Zen center stands a Thai temple. I couldn’t find a website, so I called the phone number and spoke with a resident monk. I asked if there was daily mediation. In a thick accent, he explained that meditation and chanting took place in the sanctuary twice a day. I asked when and he offered the hours and I thanked him.

A few minutes before the evening session on a weekday, I arrived at the temple. The openings in the high gate—one for foot traffic and one for cars—were both shut tight. I loitered in front, thinking someone would come to unlock them, but no one did. A few days later, I phoned again to make sure I had the times right. The same monk answered. “You called before,” he said. He assured me that my information was correct. Then it occurred to me to ask, “Am I permitted to attend?” “Of course,” he said, though he seemed surprised by the request. “Tomorrow?” I asked. “Of course,” he replied.

The following evening, the opening in the gate for cars was ajar. Beyond was a scene of hustle and bustle. I could see through to a kitchen as two young men worked diligently scrubbing pots. Another attended to a small pond outside while still others carried large tables from one end of the courtyard to the other. Some wore ordinary Western-style clothes, and some donned the traditional marigold-colored robes. These were unlike the robes that the monks wore at the Zen center, which were subdued hues but ornately layered with folds as complicated origami. The robes here looked to be a single swath of fabric wrapped around the body and casually tossed over one shoulder, leaving the other bare in the mild afternoon air. The color shocked in its vibrancy, but the loose drape was relaxed. I stood watching them, but no one paid me any attention. Finally, I approached the kitchen door and caught a young man’s eye. He was wearing shorts and flip flops. “Meditation?” I called to him. His English was not so good, but he understood what I was asking. He came out of the kitchen and motioned for me to follow him. We went around to the back of the building and he pointed to a door up a flight of stairs.

Inside, I was greeted by the older monk I had spoken with on the phone. He bowed slightly and welcomed me. At last, it dawned on me what was going on. I was being permitted to observe their spiritual practice, but not necessarily to participate.

The grin

In the zendo, the meditation period begins and almost immediately my cheek begins to itch. I try to ignore it. I’ve noticed that most people manage to stay absolutely still during meditation, which has been a challenge for me. I seem to require little readjustments—my knee gets a cramp or my hip twinges. But the face-tickle thing is new and while this particular itch starts out mild, waiting for it to subside on its own quickly escalates into a tiny form of torture. I contort my face in every direction. As the sensation begins to fade, a series of itches erupts across my scalp. Suddenly I understand something more is going on here. Either I’ve contracted a rare case of chicken-lice-pox or my mind is playing tricks on me. I’ve read that the meditative task can create revolt from the part of your mind that controls the thought-highway. I spend the rest of the time engaged in the excruciating task of refusing to respond to the phantom itches that dance across my head. It is a battle of wills, both mine.

After the breakfast, we do a walking meditation; together, single file, we left the zendo. I was near the back of the line trying to stay in step with the person in front of me. We walked out of the garden onto the street. In the neighborhood, regular people were going about their mornings: an old man walking and a couple of teenage boys skateboarding. They froze in their tracks and watched us snake up and down. The front half of the line had doubled back on the sidewalk; I could see my fellow meditator’s gazes as they passed: cast down, a soft focus on the ground, looking at nothing in particular. Their faces were expressionless. I couldn’t put finger on it, but a chill went up my spine.

Perhaps “being present” can become a new story so powerful that you miss what’s happening before your eyes. Buddhist exercises—the meditating, chanting, burning of incense—are meant to encourage the practitioner to recognize the truth. By reminding us to stay in, or come back to, the present moment, they help remove the veil of illusion. We are not the details of a story, good or bad. We are simply living right here and now, a part of everything else. In fact, our true nature is much bigger than the story allows.

But the same exercises that encourage us to grasp this reality can just as easily strengthen our illusions. This is not the fault of the exercises themselves; rather, some aspect of our human nature hates any diminishment in our sense of isolation. It feels more real when we stand apart. We may engage in an act and think, “I am extraordinarily spiritual” or “I’m not spiritual enough.” Either way, it’s back to living in the story, away from the present moment.

I was glad then for what I did during the walking meditation.

The old man who stopped in his tracks to watch us looked baffled by what he was witnessing. As the front of the line snaked around, it passed feet from where he was standing. I could see that no one was even glancing at him. It didn’t seem right to maintain a trance-like state, unable or unwilling to acknowledge other members of society right in front of us. The man was, after all, inhabiting the present moment with us. So when it was my turn to pass him, I caught his eye and offered up the toothiest grin I could muster.

Oryoki

As people arrive, we make our way into the zendo. Inside, exposed support beams create a series of lovely wood arches overhead. The windows are high and designed not so much for looking out as for adjusting air flow and light; some are propped open, letting a gentle breeze circulate. A simple altar occupied one end; around the perimeter of the room sit raised platforms covered in straw mats and cushions. I select a spot and hop up. After adjusting my pillow, I settle in.

It’s a full morning that’s planned here. We will enjoy a special ceremonial breakfast, called oryoki, served inside the zendo followed by walking meditation and a dharma lecture.

Oryoki is no ordinary breakfast; it involves nesting bowls, a tiny spatula, loads of bowing and other small gestures to communicate in the absences of words. It’s so complicated that I stopped by earlier in the week for a 20 minute tutorial. At some large monasteries, this is how Zen monks regularly take their first meal of the day. It is meant as a hybrid of meditation and eating, the idea being that you are so intimately familiar with the movements that they become second nature and you can relax into a tranquil breakfast ballet. The ritual also has a utilitarian quality; as part of the ceremony, every person washes their own dishes so nobody is stuck with all the cleaning.

The breakfast is served in pairs, and I am coupled with a resident monk, an older white guy in an elaborate robe. His eyebrows reach up and out into an impressive wing span, making up for what he lacks in hair. He understands I am new to this, and indicates with a slight nod to follow his lead.

As previously instructed, I lay out my three bowls from big to small, and arrange my utensils on my creatively folded paper napkin. When the server reaches us with her vat of oatmeal, my monk and I bow to her in unison. I raise my smallest bowl, and bow again. I lift my cupped palm of my right hand to indicate to the server that the content of one ladle is sufficient. Small bowls of condiments sit between me and my monk. While we wait for everyone to be served, he sprinkles his oatmeal with a topping of sesame seeds and sugar. He bows and hands me the bowl. I garnish mine generously, only to find it is sesame seeds and salt. Everyone eats methodically, in silence. I had worried that I would eat too quickly, a problem solved by the taste of briny porridge.

The second course, served in the middle bowl, is a tofu stir-fry. Not a typical breakfast, but surprisingly flavorful. I eat each bite deliberately, sneaking peeks at everyone around me to make sure I am doing it right.

The last and biggest bowl, called “the Buddha bowl,” is filled with orange juice. I recalled the instructor saying that when I was finished using the middle bowl, I should place my chopsticks across its rim. She said it with such firm urgency; it seemed like a vital piece of information. As I lay my chopsticks there, I congratulate myself on remembering this small detail.

Finally, we clean our bowls. The server pours hot water into the biggest bowl. We wash out that bowl and pour the hot water into the next bowl, and then repeat this procedure for the last bowl. At the end, the water is dirty with leftover bits of oatmeal and stirfry, but we are invited to drink it as everyone offers a final chant that includes, “…the water with which we wash these bowls tastes like ambrosia.” I sipped and said these words but I didn’t believe them. The water didn’t taste horrible, but I would hope that nectar of the gods would have a more pleasant flavor.

The zendo

For most of my life, I’ve conceived of my past as something as solid and real as a ladder, and the events that comprise it as true as rungs underfoot. Frequently, I paused to consider the lowest treads, the particulars that had made it a difficult climb—the broken home, the financial insecurity, the frequent moving, the spotty schooling. In college, I clung tightly to the rails. I had to work harder than everyone else, I told myself. I had to hold down a job and study twice as diligently. I couldn’t let my white-knuckle focus lapse for even an instant, or I might lose footing. I was nudged forward by the sorrowful plot points. In a sense, the story was living me, not the other way around.

I was not fond of the ladder on which I stood. I thought if I changed my environment then everything that had led up to that moment might be transformed, that I might shed my story like a snake does its skin. I remember junior year I decided what I needed, the one thing that would brighten my existence, was an apartment with an outdoor space where I could sit. So senior year I moved into a place with a patio. But it was just a concrete slab with a few sad plants; I was no happier. My stupid story had followed me there.

To pursue Buddhism where I went to college is a funny task because it is here where my investment in “the story” solidified, where I fine-tuned and polished it to sparkly gleam. And it is just this sort of attachment to story that Buddhism attempts to rid us of by encouraging us to always come back to the present moment, to learn to release the steady stream of thoughts on which the story is built.

Still, being in Berkeley, a part of me can’t help but feel teleported into the past, to sense my ghostly doppelganger dangling precariously from her ladder. I see something and suddenly I’m looking through the lens of the 20-year-old me. This is exactly what happens when I enter a Zen center with a lush exterior courtyard. “This is just what I had in mind,” I think, referring to the outdoor space I thought could miraculously soothe me senior year. As this thought putters by, I am aware of how silly it is. Even if time collapsed and the old me somehow had access to this sumptuous garden, it wouldn’t have mattered. My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.

This particular Zen center is on a residential street within walking distance to the places I lived junior and senior years—the one without, and the one with, a patio. It is made up of two houses next door to one another and their separate backyards have been combined to create an oasis of serenity and to accommodate other structures. One is a zendo, a traditional Buddhist meditation hall that looks like a Japanese gingerbread house and adds to the charm of the courtyard. Long wood steps lead to the zendo’s porch and offer a perch for removing shoes.

When I arrive, the sun is only starting to rise. I’m 15 minutes early for the seated meditation that begins at 6 am. I enter the yard quietly, cognizant of the fact that several people live in these houses—a couple of monks who run the place, one of whom is married and raised his children here. As I sit on the zendo’s steps, the garden slowly illuminates, and I hear the reassuring rustle of people starting their days.

Oshoko

At the end of the service, everyone who wishes is invited to the altar to burn a bit of incense.

I didn’t know what to expect as I stood in the line that formed up the center aisle. I could see each person bow, and then I saw a thin plume of smoke rise and chase after them in the wake of their departure. When I got to the front of the line, I bowed with my hands at my heart as I had observed others do. I was surprised to find that the incense wasn’t a stick, but a heap of fine granules like sand. I took a pinch between my fingers and placed it in a box with a red-hot surface. Instantly, it smoldered and I inhaled the intense woody scent.

As I turned, I could see the smoke bend in my direction. I followed the smoke from the previous person, and mine followed me. It was already dissipating in my wake. Like the words of chants or songs or prayers, like appreciation itself that starts in our hearts, it was moving up and out into the world in ways I was only beginning to understand.

Buddhist church

A bell’s chime indicates the beginning of service. A Japanese man in a western style minister’s robe makes his way to a podium by the altar; in the program he is called “Reverend” though in person people address him as “sensei,” the Japanese word for “teacher.” While most people in the pews appear to be of Japanese heritage, some couples are mixed and a few solos, like me, are non-Asian. The minister’s assistant is a beautiful black woman with long dreadlocks.

After a few opening remarks by the minister, everyone falls silent and we enter a period labeled “Quiet Sitting.” In Pure Land, the practitioner is not expected to strive for nirvana alone, but to rely on the assistance of the compassion of the Buddha. Chanting in unison with others replaces meditation as the primary means to awaken and express this unconditional reliance. Here, this peaceful moment is preparation for the central task, not the central task itself.

Together, we chant sutras called “Vandana” and “Ti-sarana.” The first is a statement of homage to Buddha and is offered in Pali, the ancient language of India. Like some Christian and Jewish prayers that are voiced in a language other than the speaker’s primary tongue, these are chanted in Pali not for the comprehension of the brain so much as the heart. Each syllable is broken down and drawn out so that it more closely resembles tonal breathing, like long exhalations with sound attached. Then everyone recites it slowly in English: “Homage to him, the Exalted One, the Enlightened One, the Supremely Awakened One.” The second sutra is a declaration of the “Triple Treasures.” Again, we recite it first in Pali and the air vibrates with syllables hummed loudly, surfaces resonate with breath. Then we recite the sutra in English. Slowly, as if we are dazed, we say: “I go to the Buddha for guidance. I go to the Dharma for guidance. I go to the Sangha for guidance.”

Like in many churches, books are tucked into the back of the pews and the program tells us from what pages to read. Now it directs us to page 174 of the Large Service Book for “Namu Amida Butsu,” which is perhaps the most important statement one can utter in this version of Buddhism. It’s a proclamation of gratitude for Buddha’s vow that all beings who call his name will one day be born in the Pure Land where enlightenment is attained automatically. “Namu Amida Butsu” is recited in fragments: Na… mu… a… mi… da… bu… tsu. The words translate approximately as “I entrust in the immeasurable compassion of Buddha.” We intone them again and again; some notes dip and shimmy, and others step higher and higher slowly. It is said that to emit these sounds, and to listen as others do the same, is to receive a message, not to send one. Buddha has been calling to us since the beginning of time, reassuring us—at last, we are expressing that we’ve heard and understand and our appreciation is boundless. As the sangha chants, I try to follow along, to slip my voice in here and there when I can find the right note. I want to offer my thanks as well.