Monday, February 22, 2010

At a Buddhist Temple, I learned to breathe with Jesus

By Patty Maher

I had been living at the Zen Buddhist Temple on Packard Street in Ann Arbor for about two weeks when I discovered, I just couldn’t breathe without Jesus.

Fortunately, Haju Sunim, the petite and compassionate female priest at temple was helpful and understanding with this issue. A Korean form of Zen Buddhism is practiced at the Temple which has sister temples in Toronto and Chicago. Haju’s Canadian name is Linda but she has been the priest at the temple in Ann Arbor for decades now. She has two grown daughters. I think her former husband drove off on a motorcycle one day in the 70s or 80s. That probably isn’t exactly accurate, but it is the impression I have had. Haju carries herself like a woman who has acquired her mercy and wisdom through pain and practice of doing the next right thing one moment at a time. Somehow, I just never had it in me to ask the whole story about her former husband. It didn’t seem to matter. What mattered to me was that Haju was a very kind and helpful spiritual mentor during a difficult period in my life. She taught me how to breathe with Jesus and helped me to find my way as a contemplative Catholic.

I had started taking meditation classes at the Temple just after I was fired from my paper newspaper job in March 2005. Paper newspapers had been my life and I was alarmed and frightened. Five years earlier, the Ann Arbor News had phoned me and asked me to apply for a job there. It was the third time that I had received such a call from this particular family of newspapers and after interviewing, and -- because of the fact that I have always loved Ann Arbor -- I decided to take the 40-percent pay raise and leave the town where I had owned a home and worked with some pretty cool people. I was fired for spelling and accuracy issues and booted without any severance – about two months before my pension would have been vested, about three months before I had my first Multiple Sclerosis attack and about four months before I turned forty. I have had better years.

The Ann Arbor News never replaced me and in July 2009 the entire paper folded completely. In some respects it has been healing for me, the closing of the paper. It’s true that misery loves company. As much as people told me it was not my fault that I had been fired, I didn’t quite believe it until the whole ship sunk. A few months before I was fired, I had gone to see some well-respected local attorneys and they told me there was nothing I could do about an unfair performance review, they had seen it happen with other people. The Ann Arbor News had decided they wanted to get rid of me and that would be final. There was nothing I could do to stop this chain of events from unfolding. I didn’t react especially well to this. Having lost more than 100 pounds in the five years that I lived in Ann Arbor while working a 12-step program for people with eating disorders, I was just starting to reclaim my sense of personal dignity. I was not only working full time but also very devoted to my 12-step recovery, sailing competitively and swing dancing. Job hunting didn’t fit into the picture. To be honest with you, I’d never really done it. After landing my first job as editor of a weekly shortly after graduating from college, newspaper jobs had fallen into place seamlessly for me.

But now suddenly there were no jobs at newspapers. Everyone was cutting staff. Editors I had respected were taking jobs in public relations. I did what I could to pay my bills. I waitressed, canvassed door-to-door for an environmental lobby, worked as a church secretary, conducted social science interviews for the University of Michigan. Still, I ended up in bankruptcy. My ends wouldn’t meet. My car was repossessed. I was completely ruined, financially.

All I had left was my dignity. All I had was my soul. So, I went to the Zen Temple in my neighborhood. The beautiful organic gardens drew me in. I asked Haju if I could work in the gardens. She let me have the front garden, the flowers. I spent hours there with the Widows Violet, the Day Lillies and Forget-Me-Nots, weeding and replanting, shifting dirt around, putting stones into rows and piles.

Then I became a resident at the Zen Temple. It was convenient for me. It was about a mile walk to my work place at the University of Michigan and my food was part of the rent. It was very healthy food and I was one of the cooks. We made our own yogurt and had kale every morning with our quinoa for breakfast. I enjoyed eating together in a group every morning. We would observe silence for a few minutes in the beginning but then we could talk and, having grown up in a large family, I enjoyed this very much. Usually there were four to six people for breakfast.

I went to Mass every Sunday while I lived at the Temple but also, I was required to keep the Temple Meditation schedule. At 5:30 a.m. one of the residents woke the household by chanting the Great Compassion Dharani and beating a maktak, a gourd-like percussion instrument. We were required then to gather for meditation practice from 6 to 6:30 a.m. My cushion faced a window through which I could see Mars. It was lovely. But I couldn’t settle into my meditation like the other residents. I had trouble focusing. I felt jittery on my cushion. For meditating, it can be helpful to pick a focal point. Some people meditate on light and imagine their breath as light on the inhale and exhale. I have done that before in meditation classes and it has been fairly effective. This time it wasn’t working. Some people like to meditate on a word such as “peace” or “love.” I guess some people pick a phrase as the focus of their meditation. I tried all sorts of things and nothing was working for me. I was always agitated. Then I tried focusing on the name Jesus and all the anxiety slipped away. I could meditate very contemplatively. I felt peaceful. I wasn’t certain what to make of this, exactly.

Because I was a resident, I had regular interviews with Haju who gave me tips and instruction on my breathing. When I went for an interview with Haju, I sat on a cushion and meditated and breathed in front of her. She observed my posture and technique and made recommendations for how I might engage more fully and more deeply in my meditation. Shortly after I had taken the name “Jesus” as the focal point of my meditation, I went in for my interview and practiced my meditation. She asked me if I had a focal point, a word of any sort. I told her yes, I had taken the name “Jesus.” She told me this was good and told me to say the name out loud while I meditated so that she could observe me. Haju suggested I say the “Je” on the in breath and the “sus” on the out breath. It worked very well. She watched the posture of my chest while I did this breathing and made suggestions on linking the in breath to the out breath in a way that was natural, following the rhythm of my body.

Haju was very happy that I had found my focal point in Jesus and encouraged me with this undertaking. She wanted me then to take on the way of Jesus in everything I did, in all of my practices around the Temple. “See,” she would say when I was pouring the yogurt from an enormous mixing bowl into a jar in a way that more effectively demonstrated haste than love. “You are not like this Jesus. When you are doing your work practice in the kitchen, you must be like Jesus. You must practice. You must be gentle. You must do no harm.”

I spent a few hours cooking and cleaning in the kitchen each day and she would stop in and watch me. “That’s better,” she would encourage when she saw me carefully folding the cloth napkins. “You are learning.”

After about a month she gave me a student because she said it was time for me to be a teacher. “I do not think you realize how much spiritual energy you have,” she told me once. She was very happy with how I was learning to do no harm in the kitchen. And if only you could hear the jokes about my cooking that my family recycles at holiday gatherings, you would understand it truly had been a spiritual transformation.

My Zen student was an incredibly attractive undergraduate who wanted to experience work practice in the kitchen. He had grown up in the Detroit suburbs and his family was Muslim but I don’t think he was practicing any religion. The day he came, I was making applesauce. I told him he could help me by climbing the tree in the yard and getting all the apples that I could not reach with my step stool. He spent the whole morning gathering the apples and his face was aglow when he brought them to me in the kitchen. His father was a doctor. His parents were disappointed that he did not want to be a doctor, too. I think it was spiritually healing for him to climb the tree on a sunny day. Haju came and observed our apple practice and she was very happy with my Zen instruction. “This is good,” she said. She was very pleased with the first lesson I had given my student. He came twice a week for a few months and we tried to observe silence in the kitchen but sometimes we talked. The handsome undergraduate would stay and eat lunch with me and Haju. He quit coming after Christmas Break and I left the temple a few months later and have never seen him since, but it was quite interesting for me to have had this experience of being a Zen teacher for a short while.

Not only did I learn that I can’t breathe without Jesus during the time I was living at the Zen Buddhist Temple, I also started learning about the love of Mary, Jesus’ Mother. While I was living as a resident at the Temple, I had it on my heart to start drawing St. Mary, Mother of Jesus. Haju also was encouraging of this desire of mine. She suggested that I block out ½ an hour each day and devote it to my pastel drawing practice. So, every day, after breakfast, I went up to my room and worked on pastel drawings of St. Mary for ½ hour. Sometimes I kept drawing for a full hour. I felt during this time that I was coming to know St. Mary. At this time I also began to pray the Rosary – something I hadn’t done ever on a regular basis in my life. Up until then, I had really only prayed the Rosary in a group at funeral homes after relatives had passed. I found both of these spiritual practices – drawing Mary and praying the Rosary – to be life enhancing and centering.

When it was time for me to leave the Temple, I left behind a few of my drawings of the Virgin Mary. I took with me the practical experience I had gained in living out love in the world through everyday chores. This is a practice I have fallen down on quite a bit lately – and it is very much a Catholic practice, too. I think it is probably a recommended practice in any spiritual tradition. At the moment, my room is what my big sisters always have called “a disaster.” It is not my natural inclination to treat objects with love. It is my natural inclination to throw clothes on the floor and to leave empty cups sitting on my nightstand for days at a time.

In addition to treating objects with love, while I was at the Buddhist Temple, we practiced Thoughtful Speech. I know Thoughtful Speech is very important in Catholicism, too. In Confession once a priest told me that if we can control our speech, we can control all of our behaviors. I have fallen down in the practice of thoughtful speech quite a bit lately and I am on my way to Confession to let go of that sin. I think it is especially difficult to practice thoughtful speech on the Internet because communication is so instantaneous. It is so easy to fire off an e-mail without any thought or to post a comment that will be hurtful. Throughout the rest of this Lenten Season, I am going to focus a bit more on careful speech and acting with love in simple ways throughout my day.

And I am going to remember to breathe with Jesus.

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