Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cultivating right mindfulness

This week I made a visit that did not involve singing in a choir. I went to the Zen Buddhist Temple, located in a big old house at 1214 Packard St. in Ann Arbor. The heritage of Buddhism is in Asia from the founder, Gautama Buddha, and Zen in particular is from the more eastern parts of Asia, with origins at the Shaolin Temple in east-central China, but it spread also into Korea and Japan. However, most of the followers in Ann Arbor and throughout much of North America are not of Asian origin, but simply have decided that the teachings and practices of Buddhism are worthy of their belief and time.

As at least an aspect of introduction to Zen, my friend Carolyn Christopher lent me a CD to listen to--titled "Deep in the Ocean--New American Buddhist Songs, volume 2" by Nathaniel Needle, apparently a local person from Ann Arbor. It has musical tracks that depict Buddhism in a somewhat humorous way. One that really caught my attention was a calypso-style song called "Pull the Arrow Right Out." This line was repeated many times, and it was a catchy tune, so it prompted me to do a web search for "Buddhism pull the arrow right out." This led me to learn here of the Parable of the Poison Arrow. The upshot of it is that if you are facing a problem, such as being shot by a poison arrow, don't waste time and energy by asking questions like who shot the arrow, who made it, who made the poison, and others that do not help to solve the problem and may be unanswerable. Instead, pull that arrow right out! This illustrates Buddhism's status as a faith that is low on dogma, particularly in things like the origin of the world, and more focused on morals and self-improvement.

Another song was called "Truckin' on the Eight-fold Path." The Eight-fold Path is an important underpinning of the practices of Buddhism, and consists of: 1. Right view, 2. right intention, 3. right speech, 4. right action, 5. right livelihood, 6. right effort, 7. right mindfulness, and 8. right concentration. It turns out that during my visit at the Zen Buddhist Temple, the one of these that I heard most about was mindfulness.

The practice of meditation is a primary means of cultivating understanding of the teachings and spirit of Buddhism and of working toward living the ideals of the Eight-fold Path. So when I arrived, I got a really quick primer on meditation from a member named Kuman (members have a name that they use in the temple that is usually different from the one that they use outside) gave me a very quick primer on meditation posture and techniques. Most people sit on mats and round pillows that are small but quite thick and firm, although some sit on chairs. We spent a lot of time sitting and silently meditating, and also doing a few physical exercises--stretching and so forth, but there was also some time for talking and teaching.

One part of it was a reading from the teachings of Buddha, in which the part that most resonated with me was something like, "Anyone who harms someone who is simply seeking happiness will not achieve happiness himself." Since I didn't pull out my notebook to write down this quote immediately, I was helped in recreating it by finding this in a web search.

The priest of the temple, Rev. Haju Sunim, gave a talk that tied both into this reading and Mother's Day, and incorporated an actual meditation practice. She said that in thinking about our parents, we often think about the things that bother us rather than the larger picture, giving a highly slanted view. She extended this to other people as well, and asked people to think about someone they have had problems with. Then we were first asked to think of that person as being another copy of ourself, with the same desire for happiness. Second, flip that around--think of ourselves as being those other people. Finally, also think what it would be like if one of your closest friends were acting like that person. These were exercises for cultivating compassion and a type of mindfulness.

They also spent some time talking about their upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday, which will be May 23. It is his 2554th birthday, and one member, Geehyun Kim, a University of Michigan graduate student, showed a slide show of how it is celebrated in Korea. One of the major traditions is to create lotus-shaped lanterns out of paper and plastic. They also have parades--big ones in Korea, a small one in Ann Arbor.

After the service, I went outside to the garden, where Haju Sunim was talking to a group visiting from Alma College. I was expecting more of a lecture full of facts, but instead got some hands-on experience. First, we did some walking meditation practice. We employed mindfulness again, and deliberately walked, thinking about first bringing each heel up, then bringing the foot forward, then putting the foot down heel first and rolling forward to the toe. It's actually regular walking, but done with a high degree of consciousness of each phase in the process (trying to avoid the word "step" here). The idea is that in order to understand where you have been and what you have done, you need to understand what is happening presently, and in order to understand the future also, you must understand the present.

After that, I also stuck around for a short while to do some work in their garden, also a form of mindfulness and meditation. Buddhism teaches that people often reach enlightenment through manual labor. In this case, I pulled weeds with the instruction to use both hands, or at least keep both hands near each other, so that the mind was not distracted by having one of the hands pointing in a different direction than the other.

One of the things that impressed me about the Zen Buddhist Temple is that they didn't seem to explicitly push to get people to join their faith, but they were very helpful to newcomers. Starting with Kuman giving me the quick instructions on meditation, they gave explicit announcements and instructions on what was going to happen next, such as at the end when people lined up and processed to the front of the meeting room and then back to the exit.


  1. Hi Brent, So great to have you attend services! I enjoyed the commentary on your visit - particularly pulling the arrow out! Sorry we don't sing - actually that is one aspect that I do miss from my days as a Unitarian/Methodist. See you soon, Irgwan (Consistent & Unswerving)

  2. I'd like to pay a visit. Any info on when newcomers are most welcome to pay a visit?

  3. Thank you Brent for a lovely little portrait of the temple and its practices. (I'm the person who greeted you at the door). And Verdi, visitors and newcomers are always welcome! Public meditation services are on Sunday at 9:30 AM and 4 PM.

  4. PS Brent--have you ever sung Sacred Harp Music? If not, there are opportunities in the area to experience it--and an all-day singing coming up in early june.

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. To Tongsan, I have sung just a little Sacred Harp music. I doubt that I will have time for a full-day sing in June. To Verdi, my comments in the blog reflect what appears to me to be a readiness to have newcomers at any time. They had some extras on Sunday--a group from Alma College, but they seemed to already have some basic knowledge of Zen practices.

  6. There's a photo album of this particular service, provided by Carolyn Christopher (aka Irgwan), at

  7. 人有兩眼一舌,是為了觀察倍於說話的緣故。.........................