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Now, Time to Sit

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

THE various details that were once mere facts of life become major decisions when you’ve been forcibly locked inside the house by a virus. New developments everyday force us ever more to retreat inwards, but inside a space filled with dread. Maybe a touch of true silence will make that place a little better.

BusinessWorld interviewed Zen sensei (teacher) Rollie del Rosario. In an e-mail, he said, “Zen is not a philosophy, nor a religion, nor a belief system. It is a practice to realize the True Self. Zen is a discipline in which we silence the body and mind using our breath and thus come to know our True Self. Another way of saying ‘knowing the True Self’ is achieving enlightenment. This knowing is not an intellectual understanding but an experiential awakening. As we become more and more attuned to our True Self, we naturally find genuine serenity, clarity of thought and propriety of action.”

Mr. Del Rosario is part of the Zen Center for Oriental Spirituality in the Philippines, more commonly known as Zen Center Philippines or ZCP in short. According to their website, The Center is a “lay Zen sangha — a community of spiritual seekers practicing the way of Zen in order to realize wisdom, compassion and wholeness in our lives and in the larger context of society.” The center provides a setting that enables members to practice zazen (sitting meditation) and to sustain the Zen experience in daily life. In light of recent practices of social distancing, the ZCP has also taken measures to hold online sitting meditation sessions.

According to Mr. Del Rosario, the community (sangha) took shape when Sr. Elaine MacInnes, a Canadian Catholic nun, established the Manila San’unZendo with the blessings of her teacher Yamada Ko’unRoshi, the second abbot of the Sanbo Zen lineage of Kamakura, Japan. In its early days, zazenkai (meditation sessions) were conducted on Sunday mornings in a temporary zendo (meditation hall) in the chapel of St. Bridget’s School at the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS) compound in Quezon City. In 1984, they were able to acquire a property in Provident Village, Marikina and this is where the main zendo, the Marikina San’unZendo, stands. Today, ZCP also conducts regular meditation sessions in two other zendo in Metro Manila — the Full Circle Zendo in the RGS compound in Quezon City, and the St. Scholastica Zendo in the St. Scholastica Archives and Museum compound in Manila.

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In the same e-mail, Mr. Del Rosario expounded on the origins of Zen, as well as its various schools. The ZCP belongs to the Sanbo Zen International (Three Treasures Zen) lineage of Kamakura, Japan. The Sanbo Zen lineage combines the best practices of the Soto (sustained zazen) and the Rinzai (koan studies) schools of zen. According to him, “Unlike most other schools of zen, Sanbo Zen does not require its followers to embrace monastic life or to convert to Buddhism. Some of the Sanbo Zen masters, associate Zen masters and Zen teachers are in fact Christian priests, pastors or nuns.”

“The origins of Zen are shrouded in the mists of time but it would be safe to say that the practice of one-pointed concentration and absorption are deeply rooted in ancient contemplative yogic practices,” said Mr. Del Rosario. The first human in recorded history who is believed to have used the method of Zazen to come to enlightenment is Siddharta Gautama, otherwise known as Shakyamuni Buddha. The word Buddha means “Enlightened On” or “Awakened One.” So one could say that without Zazen, there would have been no enlightenment for Siddharta Gautama and thus no Buddha. Mr. Del Rosario thus outlines the difference between Zen and Buddhism. “First of all, Zen and Buddhism are two different things. Zen is a spiritual practice, a method to realize our True Nature. The classic definition of Zen attributed to Boddhidharma is ‘a special, living transmission outside scriptures, not relying on words and letters, pointings directly to the nature of mind, and seeing into one’s True Nature, i.e., “achieving enlightenment”,’” he said. “Buddhism is usually seen as a religion. However, this is a term that gained traction after Western explorers encountered the followers of the Buddha Dharma (literally the Way of the Enlightened) during the colonial expansion of Europe during the 17th to the 20th centuries.”

The ZCP’s members today are described by Mr. Del Rosario as coming from all walks of life, different age groups, and social strata. “Most are professionals and belong to a more mature bracket,” he says. According to him, “The common denominator among the expectations of people attracted to Zen is an existential thirst for genuine peace of mind. Zen practice results in wisdom, compassion, harmony and wholeness in our lives.”

A normal session with the ZCP would entail a series of 25-minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation) punctuated by five-minute periods of kinhin (walking meditation). There is also teisho, loosely translated as “public teaching,” during which a teacher delivers a presentation of the Dharma. More periods of zazen follow after teisho. During the zazen periods, dokusan, which is a one-to-one encounter, takes place between the teacher and students. The ZCP also holds sesshin, which is a Zen retreat. A sesshin usually lasts anywhere from two to seven days. A sesshin affords practitioners plenty of time for zazen — eight to nine hours on average. The intensive sitting is punctuated by kinhin (walking meditation), work periods, meals and rest periods. There are also teisho and dokusan. In their community, they include one hour of group exercises as part of the daily sesshin schedule.

Since the beginning of the “enhanced community quarantine,” of course, the ZCP has taken it upon itself no longer to gather. They did find an alternative by holding zazenkai online. “We chose to ensure the well-being of our members but in doing so, we had to give up one of the main elements of our practice — meditating together as a community. The suspension of the two sesshin and the weekly zazenkai brought about plenty of pain and regret,” said Mr. Del Rosario.

Virtual zazenkai is a communal activity that takes place in each of the participant’s houses. “The Virtual Zendo itself has no walls — it exists in cyberspace,” said Mr. Del Rosario. “The thread that keeps the sitters together are their common meditation practice and the synchronous timing of the sits, wherever the participants are.” The invitation, registration, and coordination of the sitting periods and their timing are done through e-mail and Viber.

Absolutely anyone can participate in the Virtual Zazenkai. Those who wish to participate are requested to become a member of the Zen Zazenkai and Sesshin Viber group. The members are informed through Viber and e-mail when the Virtual Zazenkai will be held and the schedule of the sits. The participants sign in by sending a “Ready to sit” message just before they start to sit. “We ask for their names, as it would inspire our sangha members to know who else are sitting with us. This is more than just a formality. Seeing the names of the other participants will give a boost to each member, and will help make everyone feel that they are part of a greater community, benefitting from the ineffable web of wisdom, compassion and healing,” said Mr. Del Rosario. The participants, whether they are seasoned sitters or newbies, may sit for as long as they are disposed, according to him — and trust us, these days, you’ll find the time. “Even if someone sits with us virtually for only 10 minutes, those 10 minutes of sitting with us are priceless and we would be deeply grateful for each of those minutes.”

The first Virtual Zazenkai was held on March 14. Mr. Del Rosario was a bit cheerful about the response. “The response and the participation were overwhelming, totally exceeding our expectations. Aside from the more than 180 people who signed up, scores of Sanbo Zen sitters from other countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, Singapore, Spain and the United States sat with us. Some of the overseas teachers sat with their respective sangha and we have no way of knowing the exact number of sitters in the first Virtual Zazenkai.”

We asked Mr. Del Rosario two more questions, which we think are very timely to ask in this climate.

Q: Why do you think the tenets of Zen more important right now, especially in a world filled with even more tension and worry than the levels we’ve been used to?

A: We have been deluged by fear and anxiety brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. So many of us are seeking silence and peace of mind to help us find our lost selves amidst all the noise and confusion in our daily lives, our country, our world, as well as in mass and social media.

Zen is a vehicle that takes us to the innermost center of our being. With the discipline of Zazen, we silence the body and mind using our breath and thus come to know our True Self. As we become more and more attuned to our True Self, we naturally find genuine serenity, clarity of thought and propriety of action. The result is new heightened awareness can be summarized in two words, two states of mind that summarize the virtues that flow from sincere and earnest Zen practice: wisdom and compassion. In the present atmosphere of crisis, uncertainty and fear, wisdom cannot flourish is unless we realize what we really are, that everything that happens in one corner of creation affects all other parts of the whole. Compassion, the active counterpart of wisdom, manifests in appropriate action, responding to each situation with full awareness and commitment.

Q: What do you think can a world wracked with illness, both inside and out, learn from Zen?

A: Each individual, as well as society at large can surely benefit from the wisdom, compassion, harmony and wholeness that Zen brings to earnest practitioners.

It may be simplistic to say that all illness begins and ends with one’s self and a lot of people may debate this. But the interconnectedness of all creation becomes plainly obvious to someone who has seen what his or her True Nature really is. If this realization is genuine, that person cannot but act in ways that manifest True Nature, and this includes the profound seamless unity of all creation.

To learn more about the virtual zazenkai, e-mail virtual.sitting@gmail.com.

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