Friday, April 21, 2006

Soldier of the Dharma, Part II: Compassion

It is said that upon the gates of early Buddhist temples, an inscription could sometimes be found. It read:

"Those who enter are welcomed. Those who leave are not pursued."

The Lake Superior Zendo is located in Marquette, a scenic college town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior. It's an unassuming beige two-story home on Longyear Street, technically in a poor area of the city, but well-maintained and shaded by tall willows and red pines. It is owned and maintained by Tesshin Paul Lehmberg, an English professor at Marquette's Northern Michigan University, and Ichiryu John Moran, a professional care provider. Both men are ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and Lehmberg has been ordained as a lay Zen priest.

The Zendo is located not far from the NMU campus, and sports a large, sparsely furnished front porch. Most of the parking is in the back, and the house is usually deserted, for what little activity goes on there occurs in the very early mornings and late evenings. The interior is similarly spartan, with an immaculate kitchen and a small space for coats and shoes near the back entry. Footwear is strictly prohibited within the Zendo.

Upon entering the Zendo, one notices the strong smell of sandalwood incense--an important part of the daily rituals which occur there. A sense of hush pervades the space, not so much a hollow silence as a sense that all ambient noise has been mysteriously dampened. The place never holds more than four occupants or guests, and those who do enter are usually university students, meeting with the monks for small classes on zazen, or sitting meditation. Conduct within the Zendo is governed by a simple but strict code of ritual etiquette, a holdover from the Zen monasteries of Japan.

The sitting room is closed off by black curtains, and deep-pile beige carpet pushes up against one's feet. Lighting is either by candle or recessed fixture, and is appropriately low-key. At the far end of the room, in front of the large bay window, sits a small wooden table, which serves as a makeshift altar. On it sit a pair of small potted bamboo plants, two tall candles, a bowl of incense as well as rice, and a tall mahogany statuette of the Buddha--The Awakenened One--lovingly crafted in the slender and ornate style traditional to northern India. Black sitting cushions, zabufons, sit on matching padded mats, facing the walls. Each school of Buddhism--Theravada, Mahayana, Mantranaya, Nichiren, and Zen--identifies itself by different colors of robe and banner. Zen Buddhist monks wear black, admiring its simplicity.

Morning ceremonies are held on weekdays at 0600. They typically last an hour, and are virtually empty save for the attending monk, usually Ichiryu. One gets the impression that Ichiryu often performs these ceremonies alone, and that the extended weekend meditations are often conducted only by Tesshin and Ichiryu together.

Some find that sad, but I find it beautiful.

These two men, quiet and reflective, perform the daily rituals of their faith in virtual silence, and perform them without regard to whether anyone will attend, and barely acknowledging even when people DO attend. Their practice is like a force of nature--quiet, single-minded, and utterly unconcerned with the distractions of human affairs. It occurs like the waves of Lake Superior; like the rivers that weave through the Hiawatha Forests. All visitors are welcomed, but treated as clouds casting shadow over the mountainside--Like all things, utterly temporary. Those who enter are welcomed; those who leave are not pursued.

How can that be anything other than beautiful?

I still remember those Marquette mornings, bitter before sunrise, when I would wake at 0500 just to make it to the Zendo before six. I remember the hush of waiting to enter from the foyer, how I exchanged bows with the attending monk and joined him in bowing to the Buddha. In Buddhism, one never truly bows to the Buddha. Rather, one bows to the divine Buddha nature that lies dormant within all things, and within all people. I still remember the chime of the singing bowl, that rich single note in F as the monks signaled the cue to begin zazen. I remember the counting of breaths, the straining agony that comes from maintaining zazen over the course of forty minutes, and remember the draining of attachment, the clearing of mind that signaled the ascent into samadhi, until even the pain and numbness could not touch me.

At the end of the forty minutes--120 breaths--I remember the bowl, and the droning chants from the Heart Sutra.

"Avalokiteshvara, when practicing deeply the prajnaparamita, perceived that all five skandhas are Empty, and thus was released from all Suffering and distress..."

I found such power in those words, those teachings about the temporary nature of existence, but I found even more in the silence that preceded that prayer. I remember, too, the silence that inevitably followed, when at last I would have to abandon samadhi, and give my final bows to the monks. I remember my joints aching as I uncurled from my mat, and I remember with stunning clarity the new richness in every sensory input. There is nothing that I can write here to describe the sensation of stepping out, forty minutes later, into the Lake Superior sunrise, and feeling in a thousand ways transformed.

To every fire-and-brimstone preacher, every individual who might look at me with skepticism or scorn, and ask why I pay tribute to false teachings, I say this: I have seen a facet of God whose beauty you will never know. I've seen the world with new eyes; seen every tree and leaf and cloud with a clarity which I never believed attainable. I have seen the way in which all things fade and die, and in spite of all that, seen that much more beauty in the world, for all of its ephemera. I have felt God, and heard Its whispers in my ear, and Its message was this: silence. Silence, pure and empty; a symphony for and of life which continues on, within and without us.

For all your talk about Sin and Grace, I have seen the true worth of such things, and I tell you, they mean nothing, will be nothing long after we and our time have gone. That which you call God, I call the Dharma, and Its message is one whose true beauty and depth I can never truly hope to transmit.


Blogger dave said...

Thank you for writing this. You've sirred up some mighty poignant, but still pleasant nostalgia in me. I can't begin to guess how many times I crunched through the hard snow up the back steps into the warmth of the zendo, or across campus to sit in the chapel before we got the farm house.

In the close to four years it's been since I left Marquette I've thought of Paul, John and the zendo often. There's something to the grace-in-simplicity they embodied and that your writing captured that has stuck with and sustained me.

So, again, thanks. I'm deeply appreciative of the chance to connect with someone else who knows that zendo so well. I wonder if there may have been some overlap in the times we spent there. Yes or no, I hope you're well.

in gassho


8:25 AM  

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