Zen Buddhist abbot: War comes from internal struggle externalized

The Repository, Mar. 29, 2003
By DAVID LEWELLEN, Repository staff writer

CANTON — The silence is deafening.

At the biweekly Zen Buddhist meeting in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, eight people sit cross-legged on mats to meditate. Each person is lost in the world of his or her thoughts. Any sound — a rustle, a footstep, a shift in weight, a passing car — cuts through the room like a round of artillery.

But all that really means is that the listener hasn’t gone very far in meditation. “We’re trying to develop a mind where the Ohio State band could come through,” said the Venerable Shih Ying-Fa, “and we’d hear, but we wouldn’t mind.”

Shih, the abbot of a Zen Buddhist monastery in Cleveland, has a wry sense of humor and an acceptance of however people want to use Buddhism. “You can practice it as a religion, you can practice it as a philosophy, you can be a casual observer,” he said. “It makes no demands, but all of those options are available.”

Indeed, one regular attendee at the Buddhist sessions is the Rev. Zev Rosenberg, pastor of St. Paul’s. “Buddhism is more a set of practices than a set of beliefs,” Rosenberg said. “It does not presuppose that you have any religious belief. … You can, as a devout Christian, engage in Zen meditation as a spiritual practice.”

Kim Clark of Canton, who has been studying Buddhism for several years, said, “I was searching for something different from mainstream religion, something you could relate to.” She was raised Methodist, but committed to Buddhism last year. It’s given her “a better understanding of mind and peace, especially in business life; I have more compassion for people.”

Shih said, “Buddhism is more concerned with truth than it is with dogma. … One may use whatever they have to to become a better, nicer, more enlightened person,” including other religions’ teachings.

When asked about Buddhist theology, he responds, “But we don’t have a ‘theo.’ … There is no separate deity, because that would be an implied dualism.”

The Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism, are that life contains suffering; that suffering is caused by desire; that desire can be overcome; and that the way to overcome it is through the Eightfold Path of right knowledge, thinking, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Buddhism has many sects and branches. The one widely known as Zen, which Shih follows, “puts a high premium on meditation and experience,” he said. “It emphasizes one’s true nature seen through the practice of meditation, and doesn’t overly rely on texts.” But, he added, “For a sect that doesn’t depend on texts, we have a lot.”

Shih was not raised Buddhist. “I became a high-paid, high-stress burnout,” he said. “I got into Buddhism essentially to save my life, and it worked.”

Rosenberg said that Christianity’s goal “is to know one’s true self as Christ. Buddhism says that if that’s how you describe it, that’s fine. … Buddhism does not have a problem with God. Buddhism has a problem with the concept of God.” God cannot be intellectually described, he said: “Am I worshipping my idea of God? If so, that’s idolatry.”

Christian mystics, he said, believe that “God cannot be described, but he can be experienced.” Meditation is “a method worked out by world religions to enable you to have this experience. It’s a scientific method of spirituality.”

At the meeting, eight people sit quietly on cushions, backs straight and chins high; this is actually by far the most comfortable position. The smell of incense is sweet and musky. A table contains a small statue of the Buddha, two candles and a basket of fruit.

The abbot rings a bell to end the meditation; then everyone ritually paces the room in a circle. At the sound of another bell, they bow to the four points of the compass; then it’s time for more meditation and chanting. One man beats a drum to keep time for each syllable while the group chants a Buddhist doctrine.

Shih delivered a talk, using the possibility of war as his starting point. “We have to be conscious about our own peacefulness,” he said. “For us, wanting peace is OK, but it is fraught with peril, because it can become an egocentric desire. … One of the great oxymorons of all time is fighting for peace. Just be peace, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Great peacemakers, he said, such as the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, “had very little or no internal struggle going on. … Wars come from people who struggle internally and externalize that struggle.”

He asked several first-timers about their meditation experience, cautioning them not to try to empty their minds. “Your mind is there for a reason. It does things.”

One woman said she thought she had found a brief glimmer of enlightenment. Shih asked, “Next time, what do you think you ought to do?”

“Focus on it?”

“Let it go!” Shih laughed. “That moment is never repeated again. … That’s what we call Zen poisoning, becoming attached to enlightenment.”

The group meets every other Monday at 7 p.m. in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 425 Cleveland Ave. S.

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