Readying for quiet–but joyous–celebration

Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune: For some Zen practitioners, an all-night session of intense meditation in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment is a virtual Buddhist boot camp–a rigorous regimen that prepares them to rise above any challenge, whether mental, physical or spiritual. For others, like Nabi Anita Evans, it’s a welcome respite from the other holidays’ hustle and bustle–a chance to clean the clutter from her mind and start the year anew.

“I really feel like I need to recharge myself,” said Evans, a Chicagoan who took the name Nabi when she became a Buddhist last year. “I like to go in and not expect anything and be open to how it affects me. I do hope it gives me some renewed energy to start the new year with a kick in the butt.”

Although some Buddhists celebrate their founder’s birth, enlightenment and passage into nirvana in the spring, followers of East Asian traditions observe the enlightenment anniversary in December…

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Called Bodhi Day, the holiday celebrates Buddhism’s beginnings, when its founder, the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama, attained enlightenment. After a six-year journey to find the meaning of life, he fasted to free his spirit, replenished himself with a dish of rice and milk, then sat overnight meditating underneath the Bodhi tree. When he awoke, he turned his eyes to the heavens, saw the morning star and was enlightened.

On Friday, Evans and other members of Chicago’s Buddhist Society of Compassionate Wisdom will begin a five-day retreat at Zen Buddhist Temple, 1710 W. Cornelia Ave. The retreat ends Wednesday, but not before members complete an eight-hour overnight sitting to commemorate the holiest day of the year.

In Zen Buddhist sects, predominant in the Chicago area, the occasion calls for intensive meditation, or sesshin, a metaphorical re-enactment of the Buddha’s quest for spiritual enlightenment.

In a meditation hall with mirrors, practitioners will sit from 8 p.m. Tuesday to 4 a.m. Wednesday, just as the Buddha did roughly 2,500 years ago.

Although members can meditate in two-hour intervals between 8 p.m. and midnight, those there at midnight must stay sequestered until 4 a.m.

To clear the mind, novices are taught to focus on their breathing, counting as they inhale and exhale. More advanced students concentrate on spiritual riddles referred to as koans.

Questions can include: “What is it?” “Who am I?” and “Where does a flame go when it goes out?”

The riddles, which have no answers, force the students to suspend their thought processes to reach a deeper truth.

“We always use our mind in a reasonable, reasoning fashion,” said Sensei Sevan Ross, who is head of Chicago Zen Center, 2029 Ridge Ave., Evanston. “What Zen requires is that we use it in a very different way. It’s like working a weak muscle. We must alter the way we use our minds for spiritual growth.”

Regardless of the tools available, sitting for even a half-hour in the lotus position and emptying one’s mind can be arduous.

Knees, ankles and other joints begin to ache. The mind starts to wander and daydreams take hold, as does exhaustion.

Thinking about the suffering only makes it worse, said Kosu Diane Snider, who became a Buddhist in 1997. The purpose of the sesshin is to rise above it, she said.

“I can be struggling and feeling like I’m going nowhere, and in a moment it clicks,” Snider said. “All of a sudden I can concentrate, and it feels wonderful.”

Kojun Kim Rodriguez remembers crossing that threshold during her first Bodhi Day sesshin in 1997.

Her body temperature suddenly rose as if a fever were washing over her. Then, as if the fever had broken, she was overcome by euphoria.

Ross said Zen is a practice of spiritual cleansing from experience instead of doctrine.

“The sesshin may be the most noble and most intense experience that a human being can pass through outside things like childbirth or near-death experiences,” Ross said. “Most people after sesshin feel like a lot of the weight has been lifted from them. What’s been lifted is the weight of their personality.”

That feeling of accomplishment is celebrated when the meditation ends. Practitioners leave their coats behind, venture out into the frigid dawn and look at the stars. The awakening is exhilarating, Evans said.

“There we are, just a bunch of Buddhas standing in the street laughing at the stars.”

Snider said what the Buddha saw when he looked at the morning star is yet another koan.

“What he saw is something that is not visible with our eyes,” she said.

Back inside, members eat porridge of brown rice, seeds and nuts boiled in soymilk, similar to what the Buddha ate before his enlightenment.

It is another reminder that everyone has a Buddha nature and thus the capacity for enlightenment.

For Rodriguez, the meditation strengthened her resolve to stay on her spiritual path.

“Something inside me significantly shifted,” Rodriguez said. “Suddenly, going to meditation wasn’t a drag anymore. It kind of inspired me to keep meditating.

“It gets very crystal clear what it’s all about.”

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