Tim Madigan: My own halting attempts to meditate had begun about six months ago after I stumbled across a meditation manual in, of all places, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reference library. Several days a week I would enter my den in my sweat suit (or whatever clothes I happened to be wearing that morning), shut off the computer and find the comfortable chair in the corner of our den. But on a recent evening at Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the nuns would have none of that.
In a parlor at the monastery, they giggled when I put on my own gray meditation robe. Their laughter grew louder as they forced me to contort my fat Western legs beneath me in the position known as the half-lotus. Learning to ignore physical pain, they said, was part of the process.
Then I joined them in the temple, where I bowed toward the statue of Buddha and took my meditation position, sitting down on a big pillow and pulling my creaking legs beneath me. A layperson was on the mat to my right, the nun Cinnamon a few feet to my left. I laid my hands in my lap, looked out at oaks in the fading sunlight and began counting my breath, one to 10 then over again.
“If any thought arises, recognize this as not your true nature,” Cinnamon had instructed me earlier. “Drop it right away and return to your breathing. When conscious thinking stops, all that remains is calmness and awareness.”
So as I sat there that night, I thought of work, then returned to the counting. My son’s hockey team, then the counting. My daughter’s new apartment . . . the anniversary of my brother’s death . . . my aching legs, then back to the counting. I eventually switched to Tibetan mantras, then the Catholic rosary. Every so often, there were moments of true calm, a few blessed seconds when the wheels of my life ceased to spin, which, I take it, is the whole point of meditation.
After an hour or so, I began to cheat, looking around at the others, the nuns who had become my friends, plying me with mangoes and Vietnamese cooking at every opportunity, laughing at my Western jokes, trusting me with their ancient ways. They were from Vietnam, London, Denver, California, Washington state. One was a widow who had raised a family before becoming a nun. Another a lawyer. Another worked in banking before answering the spiritual call. To me, their kindness and tranquility were a testament to the efficacy of meditation.
An alarm clocked beeped, and one of the nuns lightly tapped a bell. The nuns rolled their heads and briskly massaged their arms and legs. When the nuns emerged from meditation, they seemed surprised that I was still there.
“Maybe,” a nun named Hue Thanh said, “you were Vietnamese in a past life.”
Opening the door to meditation
Inside the new temple, the floors are covered by lush gray carpet, the walls painted a vivid yellow, but the focal point, of course, is the huge statue of Buddha at the head of the room, surrounded by flowers, fruit offerings and a fluorescent halo (behind the statue’s head).
Each day begins here for the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery nuns, who at 4 a.m. walk from the small buildings where they sleep, moving through the darkness like apparitions in their gray robes. One of them lights incense, another rings the large bell near the altar. The nuns prostrate themselves toward the statue three times, then move to their separate mats, facing outer walls. For the next two hours (and again for 90 minutes in the evening), they sit with their legs crossed beneath them, as still as the Buddha statue itself.
But they are not in trances as they sit, as many Westerners might assume.Meditation is not a form of self-hypnosis, the nuns say, but the practice of emptying the mind while remaining aware. For beginning meditators in the Zen tradition, that typically means sitting quietly and focusing on breathing, while calmly trying to banish any intruding thoughts.
Such is the central practice of one of the world’s oldest religions, one handed down from Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince born six centuries before Christ. As a young man, Gautama renounced his wealth to become a wandering ascetic. After years of study and suffering, Gautama is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating beneath a ficus tree, henceforth becoming known to history as the Buddha, or “awakened one.”
Greatly distilled, Buddhist teaching comes to this: Life is an unpleasant cycle of birth, death and rebirth that continues until a person achieves enlightenment. The chief cause of the ubiquitous suffering is the chaotic, ego-driven human mind, which hops maniacally from thought to thought “like a monkey in a tree,” as the Zen nuns say. Meditation is the Buddhist antidote.
“You say to your mind, `I am the boss,’ ” the nun named Cinnamon said one day, smiling.
By calming the mind through meditation, a person’s “Buddha nature” (the Christian equivalent, perhaps, to the Holy Spirit) is allowed to emerge. Enlightenment, the full and permanent understanding of transcendence, is only rarely achieved, Buddhists say. But recent research shows that even a few minutes of meditation a day is beneficial to the meditator’s physical and mental health.
At the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the nuns say they can sit for hours, with thoughts only occasionally flitting by like wispy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. But in Zen, they say, meditation is about more than sitting. It also is an admonition to living in the moment. As such, the nuns say they meditate while walking, while eating, while watering the flowers.
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