Zen and the art of meditation

Anne Broache and Anne Broache

To run a center for Zen Buddhist meditation, where silence and stillness are sacred necessities, a college town can provide more pitfalls than peace.

“Particularly students screaming as they walk past,” said Sevan Ross, director and resident teacher — or sensei — of the Chicago Zen Center.

Despite such noise and in spite of its name, the Chicago Zen Center has resided at 2029 Ridge Ave. in Evanston since the mid-1970s.

A group formed and opened the local center after Zen expert Roshi Philip Kapleau, who had founded the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1960s, held a public workshop in Chicago during the early ’70s. For years the center was affiliated with the Rochester center, which sent teachers to Evanston a few times each year to conduct meditative retreats.

Then Ross, a former Catholic who was ordained in 1992 as a Zen Buddhist priest, became the Chicago Zen Center’s director in 1996. He was sanctioned as a teacher two years later.

From the outside the Zen center resembles a typical Evanston house. It has a sprawling front porch, ample windows and gray-green siding. Ross said he hopes his bamboo plantings on the center’s north side will grow into the most massive grove in the city.

Inside, the aroma of incense — a difficult-to-find, Japanese temple variety, Ross noted — wafts through the halls. Walls have been added and subtracted. Bathrooms glow with bright blue and green paint.

“If you’re going to be a Zen teacher in the West,” Ross said, “you have to know carpentry and electricity and all of that.”

Meditation occurs on the polished wooden floors of the zendo, a large room that overlooks Ridge Avenue from the second floor. A small Buddha statue poses on an altar at the front.

EXPERIENCE AND DISCOVERY

Zazen, Japanese for meditation, is the core of Zen Buddhism. Ross said he expects his students to practice zazen daily, either on their own or at the center.

“Zen practice is not about doctrine or belief,” Ross said. “It’s about experience and discovery.”

Zen Buddhism teaches that no truth resides outside oneself, and zazen forces a reorientation inward. Not all meditation involves silent sitting; some involves walking or chanting.

Wearing dark robes, Zen practitioners position themselves on round and rectangular gray cushions lining the zendo’s perimeter. A series of strikes on bells and wooden blocks guide them through the initial stages of meditation.

The third and final piercing strike on the inkin bell, a small handbell, signals that sitters must stop readjusting their posture and remain completely still for the meditation period.

“People who come here are not really looking for doctrine,” Ross said. “They’re looking for truth that can be discovered in themselves — not in a psychological sense, but deeper.”

During sesshin, two- to six-day intensive retreats scheduled throughout the year, sittings can last up to 14 hours per day. Participants eat simple vegetarian meals centered around rice and sip tea produced by the Chinese Tenren Tea Company — Ross’s vendor of choice in Chicago.

At such retreats members divide their time between sitting, chanting, work, lectures and extremely private interviews, or dokusan, with Ross.

“It’s a meeting about one’s meditation practice,” Ross said. “Therefore it is often not verbal because words and letters are going to be misleading past a certain point.”

The physically demanding retreats employ senior Zen members as monitors, who use “encouragement sticks” to slap acupuncture pressure points on meditators’ backs. Not to be interpreted as punitive, Ross said, the hits aim to prevent stiff, hunched bodies and to promote open, Zen-like posture.

“Americans are armored: We walk with our heads down, shoulders bent, armored to the world,” Ross said. “That’s one of the things that Zen training does — it opens them up to the world.”

SMOOTHING HILLS AND VALLEYS

Senior member Elie Nijm, 54, a school psychologist who lives in Buffalo Grove, Ill., has wielded the encouragement stick. He started coming to the Chicago Zen Center around the time he started practicing Zen, about 15 years ago.

Nijm spent his childhood as a Christian Arab in Israel but has lived in the Chicago area for 32 years.

“I grew up in a religion where I was always shown the pictures of God and was told stories about God,” he said. “But no one taught me to taste God directly.”

A combination of such feelings and circumstances led Nijm to Zen. He read a book about Zen practice in one sitting and, captivated by its ideas, decided to seek a local center.

“For me,” he said, “the most fundamental questions I was seeking was the question of, ‘What is reality?”’

Similar questions confounded Evanston resident Steve Cole, 49, when he decided to begin Zen practice about five years ago.

Cole had arrived at a “personal dead end,” he said, when his eight-year career as a Harvard University professor ended abruptly. The Babylonian history scholar found himself teaching in Helsinki, Finland, and meditating at a Zen center there, where he hoped to regain control of his life. He later discovered the center was connected to a network that includes the chapters in Rochester and Evanston.

Now employed at a fast-paced software development company in Park Ridge, Cole practices Zen meditation for at least 45 minutes each morning. He tries to attend sittings at the Evanston center every other week and to go on as many retreats as his vacation time permits.

But Cole said he considers Zen more of a lifestyle than a religion.

“It’s a way of living in the world realistically and comfortably despite the ups and downs,” he said. “It really helps you to smooth out the hills and valleys.”