The healing powers of Buddhist meditation

By Nick Pinto, Town Online Staff Writer, May 5, 2005

ACTON, Massachusetts (USA) -- Members of the Clocktower Sangha speak very little as they trickle into the South Acton Congregational Church for their weekly meeting the evening of April 25. Those who have brought cushions or small wooden kneeling-benches on which to sit arrange them in a circle on the bare wood floor. Others add folding chairs to the circle. At the front of the circle, one member lights candles and arranges a picture of the Buddha on a small table to create a makeshift shrine.

When everything is ready, the lights are dimmed, and the nine people in attendance bow and sit. One woman strikes a small hand-held bell, and the group settles into 25 minutes of silent meditation.

The Clocktower Sangha has only been meeting at the church since last fall, but it has existed in one form or another for nine years.

"The group started when my wife and I moved to Maynard in May of 1996," said Andrew Weiss, a founding member and teacher of the group. "I had been one of the founders of a meditation community in the Boston-Cambridge area which for a while went by the name of the Community of Interbeing. That had begun as a group of people who had gone on retreat with the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh in 1989. I helped to start that group and run it, but then I moved to Maynard, and it became unrealistic to continue my involvement."

Upon arriving in Maynard, Weiss decided to start a new group for himself and people in the area. He told the few people he knew who lived in the area that he wanted to start a Buddhist practice group in his home and waited to see what sort of interest he could raise.

"At our first meeting, eight people showed up, most of whom I didn't know," Weiss said. "That showed me that there was a real need for this sort of thing."

The group met at Weiss's house every other Thursday for the first two years, but soon members were asking to meet more often. For a time the group met weekly, alternating between Weiss's home and that of another member. In 2002 the other member moved away, and Weiss and his wife decided it was time for a break from opening their home to the group every other week. The group met at another member's home in Maynard until the opportunity to meet in the church presented itself.

"It was a nice coincidence," Weiss said. "Katrina Wuensch, the woman who became the new pastor at the Congregational Church, moved into a house near our house, so through that and other connections we were able to use the space in the church."

The shift from meeting in homes to meeting in a more public space has changed the dynamics of the group somewhat, Weiss said.

"It's different - a home is more intimate and can be more casual. That has advantages and disadvantages," Weiss said. "The intimacy of a home leads to an openness in which it can be easier for members of the group to reach a deeper level of sharing. That's not to say that you can't reach a deep level of sharing in a more public space, but it can take longer and be more difficult. On the other hand, the drawback of that intimacy and casualness that comes with meeting in a home is that 'casual' can become 'sloppy.' We tried hard to make sure that we didn't become sloppy in our practice, but I think it may have happened some."

Back in the dimly lit room of the church, the silence deepens. At first it seems that the only sounds are those of a passing train and the occasional car whispering past on School Street, but eventually more subtle sounds present themselves - the ticking of the heating system; the quiet rush of air vents; the soft in-and-out of the sitters' breathing. Finally, the bell sounds again, and the group bows, rises, and turns to face left. At another signal from the bell, they began to walk slowly around the circle in a form of walking meditation. The room settles into a new kind of silence, punctuated by the popping and creaking of the floorboards under the group's stocking feet.

The sitting and walking meditations practiced by the Clocktower Sangha have their roots in Asian Buddhist traditions, but this Buddhism has traveled a long way from Asia. In fact, none of the members of the sangha are Asian themselves, and all of them have come to their Buddhist practice on their own - none of them were born Buddhist.

For Weiss, this distinctly American quality, the fact that the Sangha's members are practicing ancient traditions born in Asia but are approaching them from the perspective of their own distinctly American experiences, is both interesting and irrelevant.

"To give a very Zen answer to the question of why I practice, I practice because I practice. There doesn't have to be a reason. But I think more generally, if you ask people who engage in Buddhist practice you'll get a whole bunch of reasons. People come to Buddhist practice because they are facing something in their lives. There is often a difficulty or a dilemma that causes them some suffering - it doesn't have to be intense suffering. Some people are attracted to Buddhist practice because Buddhism doesn't have a creed attached to it. In it's purest form, Buddhism is about waking up to what is, with as few preconceptions about what that is as possible. Put another way, questions are more important than answers."

Weiss said that the purity of this approach transcends regional and cultural differences.

"That's not so say that there aren't a whole lot of religious overlays on top of that as Buddhism is expressed in different parts of the world," Weiss said. "Buddhism started in Northern India about 2600 years ago and then traveled elsewhere, to China, Japan, southeast Asia, and Tibet. As it traveled, it met with and absorbed the existing religious traditions that were in those places already. The Bon worship in Tibet, Shinto in Japan, and Taoism in China - all of them were incorporated into Buddhism as it was expressed in those cultures."

This adaptation and evolution of Buddhism as it spreads is a process that continues to this day, Weiss said.

"Something we're seeing now is that it is developing its own unique flavor here in the U.S. as well," he said. "It's a process that we're part of or practice now."

For Weiss, the American values of independence, self-determination, and democracy are some of the most powerful cultural factors shaping American Buddhism today.

"A lot of people come to Buddhism in the U.S. with experience in Congregational or Quaker communities, and they're looking for an egalitarian community - something, if not exactly leaderless, at least with substantial involvement of the general practitioners in the leadership. That's not the Asian model at all. In Asia, the Buddhist community is generally run by monastics, and there is a strict hierarchy within the monastic leadership."

The evolution of Buddhism in America often prompts a skeptical response among observers. Some people wonder whether American Buddhism loses authenticity as it strays from its Asian roots. Historically, this anxiety about legitimacy in a new Buddhist tradition has some precedent. When Buddhism first spread to China hundreds of years after the Buddha's death, Chinese monks made long and perilous pilgrimages over the Himalayas to ancient Buddhist monasteries in India, where they hoped to reconnect with an original and authoritative Buddhism. Over time, Chinese Buddhists became more self-confident in the authority of their own Buddhist traditions and experiences.

Weiss sees the same process taking place today in America.

"We're at a very early stage in the transmission of Buddhism to the U.S.," he said. "Buddhism first came to America in the 1800s. In fact, some of the first translations of Buddhist texts in America were actually done by Henry David Thoreau. But Buddhism didn't really begin to flourish in America until the 1950s, so if you were to map this onto the Asian evolution of Buddhism, we're still living in the first 50 or 100 years of the Buddha's death. It's very early, so we don't know what it will look like 300 years. We just know that whatever it does look like is going to depend in part on who we are and what we do."

Weiss believes that American Buddhists are beginning to trust themselves, however.

"We're starting to emerge from that period when American Buddhists are lacking in self confidence of our own American Buddhist experience," he said. "There are still people who feel like a teacher has to come from Asia to have validity, but I'm seeing less and less of that. And you see how many Asian teachers have made a real effort to nurture American leaders. We're getting into the second generation of American teachers now. if you look at the Vipassana, or insight meditation tradition, the leaders there are Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Marian MacDonald. They're all U.S.ers, and they're training U.S.ers as well."

Weiss is an ordained priest in two different Buddhist traditions - a Japanese Zen tradition known as the White Plum lineage, brought to America by Maizumi Roshi, and the Kwan-Um school of Zen, brought to America from Korea by Seung Sahn.

"When you look at those two groups today, you see that most of the teachers in those traditions are American today," he said. "Maizumi Roshi ordained Bernie Glassman, a nice Jewish boy from New York as his successor. If you look at the top level of leadership in that group, there is not an Asian person among them."

Weiss said he does not believe this passing of the torch to be accidental.

"What these Asian teachers did, with a lot of foresight and a lot of magnanimity, was say, 'Buddhism is going to flourish here,' and they cultivated it by cultivating a generation of American teachers," he said.

After the walking meditation, the group sits again in silent sitting mediation before reading together from a book by the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. Afterwards, they sit together sipping tea and speak about their own efforts to apply Buddhist practice in their lives. The conversation is slow and contemplative, with each member bowing before they speak and the group waiting for three breaths before responding. Sometimes these conversations are very intimate, sometimes they are not.

The story of how Weiss himself came to Buddhist practice is decidedly intimate, but he shares it readily nonetheless.

"I had survived the death of my first wife and the dissolution of an engagement a few years after that," he said. "At that time I found myself in Thailand, going around on a bicycle to different temples there and sitting in the shrine halls, which are generally outdoors, and just crying and crying. One of the monks I met there began to help me, and I continued that practice when I returned to the U.S."

Weiss said that his practice has helped him to become less reactive and less defensive.

"It has helped me to live a steadier life," he said. "It has helped me to have a more direct experience of the parts of my life that can teach me."

After the conversation has dwindled, the group members stand up to wash their tea cups and replace the chairs and cushions. The candles are extinguished and the altar disassembled. People step out into the darkness and make for their cars.

"We don't teach people in the Clocktower Sangha. That's not what we do." Weiss said. "We are a group of people trying to liberate our minds from our preconceptions of what the world is, and what our roles in it are. We're trying to come at the world with a softer, more open, more questioning perspective, rather than a harder perspective that presumes to know the answers before the questions have even been asked."

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