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The Way of the Zen

A Spiritual Pilgrimage to America

June 27, 2023

Sometimes it takes going far away from home to ‘come home’ closer to oneself. Surprise opportunities and unanticipated experiences can move and enrich us beyond our imagination! One just knows that one is in the hands of a benevolent force and that one is exactly where one is meant to be. One can truly trust and surrender to the intelligence of life and breathe each breath, each moment as a precious gift from the universe. One is left with a feeling of immense gratitude and awe for the flow of generosity and serendipity.

I am beginning to write this on my flight back to India, having just concluded an incredible 5 week visit to the United States, which felt more like a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ to America—something I had not quite anticipated.

Earlier in April, while facilitating a field-trip in the Himalayan forest mountains of the North-East India, I received an invitation to be part of the ‘Spiritual Changemakers’ gathering in Orange, California. It was organized by Ashoka Changemakers and MIT’s Presencing Institute. I was recognized with the ‘Soularize Award’ for my engagements in the field of Education, Mindfulness and Mental Health. This invitation-only event promised to bring together inspiring group of human beings from diverse faith traditions and spiritual backgrounds—people operating at the intersection of social change and spirituality. I was invited to participate in the youth development track. While there was some excitement, the critic in me held some doubts about any value America would have to offer in the realm of Spiritual Changemaking. I felt unsure about making such a long trip to the US just for a 3-day gathering!

The main impetus, however, came from Roshi Joan Halifax–the prominent American Zen Buddhist teacher and the founder of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had the good fortune of meeting Roshi last year as one of our mentors at the Compassionate Leadership Dialogue with HH the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. The connection with her had felt quite instant and affectionate. The moment I received a warm, welcoming invitation from Roshi to be a guest resident at Upaya, something in me instantly knew that I was really meant to go on this journey! Thanks also to great support and encouragement from my father, one thing led to another and I was soon on my way to Los Angeles, CA.

Soon after landing in LA, a very kind Servas host named Paige took me to see the Simon Norton Art Museum in Pasadena, CA. Seeing the beautiful Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures with detailed descriptions of their teachings and philosophy, I was very captivated. The next morning, we went to pay homage at Swami Paramhans Yogananda’s crypt. As I bowed down, knees bent, a shower of blessings swept over my body, it was a very moving experience. Later that day, we also visited the Self-RealizationFellowship founded by Sri Yogananda on Mt. Washington, which was a very calm, serene space for meditation.

At the Self-Realization Fellowship Headquarters, Los Angeles, CA

The Soularize gathering in California was a powerful energizer, which set the tone for my spiritual pilgrimage in America. Being with faith-leaders and spiritual changemakers from diverse traditions around the world, bound together with a sense of shared aspiration–that of creating a more just, purposeful, joyful and a sustainable world for all, I had a ‘felt sense’ of ‘One-Earth--One-Family’ or ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ as in Sanskrit. Apart from getting an experiential understanding of ‘Theory U’ developed by the Presencing Institute, the highlight for me really happened to be a spontaneous co-creative group meditation circle that emerged on the last evening of Soularize. We really bonded over singing, dancing, sharing silence, prayers, closing out with a big tree-hug and deep reverence for Mother Nature. I offered a few Sanskrit chants to the circle and really enjoyed singing the Metta song with all. Soularize also presented me with a very special opportunity to reconnect with a dear mentor friend and a really inspiring hero of compassion--Nipun Mehta, the founder of Service Space.

A meditation circle and a tree-hug at the Soularize gathering

For the next 3 weeks, I was to be at Upaya Zen Center, which really felt like a gift from the universe. Landing for the first time in the highland desert mountains of New Mexico, with its expansive blue skies and arid green landscapes, I knew I had really entered the ‘Land of Enchantment’. It was my first exposure to the Zen Path and I went in with an open mind and heart to immerse myself fully and to soak all the wisdom that this experience had to offer. I was really fortunate to be able to join the Varela Symposium themed on ‘Precariousness, Uncertainty and Cooperation’, a ‘Planting Life’ gathering and the ‘Zen Youth Retreat’ during my brief stay at Upaya. Below, I would like to highlight some of the key insights and observations from my time at Upaya.

With dear mentors: Roshi Joan Halifax and Richie Davidson at the Varela Symposium

Sangha: The Community Of Practice and Community As Practice

In a world marred by increasing loneliness and distress, divisive polarization, uncertainty and crisis at multiple levels, a space like Upaya truly stands out as a beacon of hope, a refreshing oasis of all that can be true, good and beautiful.

I experienced it as a very sincere, dedicated community of practice aligned on common purpose and values, living and working together with great integrity and harmony as ‘One-Body Sangha’. It is the deepest longing of every human heart to get a sense of ‘I belong’, ‘I am appreciated’, ‘I am safe and respected’, ‘I can serve and contribute’, ‘I am seen’ ‘I am heard’, ‘I am understood’ and ‘I am cared for’. A close-knit community of about 15 residents at Upaya continued to silently ring these messages for me through their gentle, kind, loving presence, individual and collective actions exemplifying excellence and joyful togetherness. They inspired me to ‘awaken’ myself and to bring out the best in me (to tap more into my ‘Buddha Nature’ I may say). We were more than sum of our parts—supporting each other, rising together, constantly tending to a collective field of mutual trust, respect and understanding. The community culture enabled and encouraged clear, open, direct, courteous and courageous communication.

One of the weekly practices that created a culture of deep, authentic sharing-listening was a community ‘Council’ drawn from the Native American traditions. Members of the community would gather in a circle for reflection and sharing. A safe container was held together for all that needed to be heard to be welcomed. Also, weekly ‘Dharma Talks’ by eminent Zen scholar-practitioners continued to shower the Sangha with great inspiration.

Upaya showcased a beautiful microcosm of our collective human potential and possibility. How wonderful it would be if every family unit, every school community, every organization and the world at large was infused with such loving kindness! I have been in many community spaces, human networks and spiritual circles around the world. What struck me at Upaya was the depth and sincerity from which the actions emerged. Not even once did I catch anyone gossip or share ill-will towards anyone else in the community. The residents took to abide by the 16 Bodhisattva preceptsvery sincerely when they committed to being part of this community.

In my brief stay at Upaya, I had so many ‘corrective’ experiences –experiences that reconfigured my ‘default settings’ of how I am received and how I relate with fellow human beings and the world. Seeking or offering genuine forgiveness, constructive feedback, a kind appreciation or politely vocalizing something that is not sitting well in a relational dynamic for example was helping me to be more authentic to myself and others. I felt much safer to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to ask for help and to come in touch with parts of me that would otherwise remain hidden from my own self! Being in a community and working through the inherent tensions it brings up is a practice in itself – one of the Zen teachers shared an apt metaphor for it that of ‘rock tumbler’ – where our rough edges are smoothened out by being consciously together. An opportunity for no escape from the Self!

At the conclusion of the Zen Youth Retreat at Upaya

Zazen: The Space of Silence

Three times a day, morning-afternoon-evening the entire community sits together in silence for 40 minutes of Zazen practice in the ‘Zendo’—a beautiful meditation space. The Zen way of meditation, I found to be very non-prescriptive. Everything that arises within the mind-body field is welcomed with curiosity and care, no clinging, no resisting, no ignoring–just patiently sitting with it, allowing it to come and pass as it may. Holding it all with wide-open awareness, compassion and non-judgement. It seemed very much in-line with my Vipassana meditation practice and I blended in well with the daily Zazen sessions.

I would call the Zendo as the heart of the community and a real powerhouse! I believe that this collective practice of silence—Zazen, is the core, the secret sauce that creates the subtle, invisible energy field or Dharma vibes (if I may call it so) for all that is true, good and beautiful to manifest itself. Something I also really appreciated about Zazen was the opportunity to consult one-on-one (Daisan) with a lead teacher about any questions and difficulties that we may encounter during our practice. It offered me new perspectives on Zen philosophy, practice and the Zen way of life.

A Zazen session would often conclude with the following Bodhisattva vows—a powerful reminder of our highest purpose:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.

The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

The Zendo at Upaya

Samu: Work As Practice

The entire Upaya campus is tended to by various Samu or work teams–the cooking, the grounds, the housekeeping and the temple. Around 6 hours of community service-time is an integral part of the daily routine. I had the opportunity to clean the restrooms, the temple and some of the residential facilities, attend to the compost pile, do some weeding, water the plants, sweep the grounds, help out in the kitchen and do the dishes etc. The part of me that is used to having house-help for pretty much everything back home in India had to really ‘stretch’ itself during Samu! It wondered whether I flew half-way around the world to do these tasks. I had to catch myself when such judgements, inner-resistance or even boredom arose in me!

Sweeping outside the Zendo. A resident friend mentioned how this is an 'infinite game'!

Apart from appreciating each Samu task in service to the larger whole, I slowly began to realize how Samu is a practice in itself. As work teams, we held a brief round of check-in and set our collective intentions at the beginning of each Samu session. The team would regroup at the end of each Samu session to ‘bow out’ and to express gratitude for all that was accomplished collectively. For the most part, the entire practice is done in silence, with mindful attention poured into every task. Every physical movement, every thought, emotion and sensation can be observed as we simultaneously engage with our inner and outer world. Samu and community life thus act as a great training ground for bringing the insights and wisdom arising from the formal meditation practice out into the world, in our daily living. It was important for me not to fall into the trap of monotony, old habit patterns of thinking and acting, or doing something mechanically just to ‘tick it off’ the list but to engage with every moment afresh, with awareness and joy, during and beyond Samu.

The Samu Gatha below is a beautiful reminder of our collective intentions for this work-time together:

“May this work be done in a spirit of generosity,

Not driven by ego, greed or delusion.

May kindness sustain us and prevail in conflict.

And compassion guide us and lead us to understanding.

May we rejoice in the successes of others.

And remain unmoved by praise or blame.”

The Joy of Composting!Structure and Discipline

It was remarkable to notice the strict discipline and structure within which the community life r-evolved. The de-schooling, non-conformist part of me brought up some inner-resistance to being on such a regime. Showing up for every activity 5 minutes before the scheduled time, I must admit, required some effort on my part! Everything we did as a community was guided by detailed instructions, clear procedures and high level of Japanese precision! How we enter the Zendo, how we sit on the cushion, how and when we bow, how and precisely when the bells are rung…everything was an intricate art. Mediocrity stood no chance here!

As I suspended my inhibitions and surrendered to the flow of things, it all began to feel more natural and at ease—aiding mindfulness, skillfulness, harmonious order and excellence at the individual and community level.

I am reminded of J. Krishnamurti when he talks about discipline that arises out of inward state of awareness and freedom:

“Discipline means to learn, not to conform, not to suppress, not to imitate the pattern of what accepted authority considers noble. This is a very complex question for in it are involved several things: to learn, to be austere, to be free, to be sensitive, and to see the beauty of love….So learning is the highest form of discipline. Learning demands intelligence and sensitivity. Learning all day long, and during sleep, has its own extraordinary discipline which is as gentle as the new spring leaf and as swift as the light. In this there is love. Love has its own discipline, and the beauty of it escapes a mind that is drilled, shaped, controlled, tortured. Without such a discipline the mind cannot go very far.”

The Upaya community exemplified this kind of a voluntary self-discipline, a sense of orderliness which emerges from a compassionate, joyful, loving heart.

Ceremony and Intentionality

Growing up in a traditional orthodox Jain family in a little village in India, I was always surrounded by festivals, rituals and ceremonies. As a child, I would go to the temple with my grandfather and my eldest uncle and ask them many questions about the Jain philosophy and practices. As a teenager and young adult, I began to slowly move away from the traditional norms and ritualistic forms of worship. My rational ‘educated’ mind could not see much value in them and often I would disregard them as superstitious impositions.

It is only in more recent years that I have begun to rediscover some of the hidden wisdom in a traditional way of being. The chanting, the drums, the incense, prayers and the many beautiful offerings at the altar, the bowing, the symbols and the aesthetics of a space…I ‘experience’ them in a new light now. Being at Upaya supported my growing curiosity and respect for rituals and ceremonies.

Every moment, every space, was regarded as being sacred and auspicious, every activity brought alive a sense of ceremony and reverence. For example, compost wasn’t just a pile of waste and dirt but a sacred temple that we would worship before getting down to the needed task.

At various points of the day, we would pause in silence as a community, get in touch with our breath and body as well as with our intentions for being here. Be it before beginning cooking in the kitchen or watering the plants in the garden, or before cleaning the toilets, the respective Samu teams would often hold a mini-ceremony with the offering of an incense, a flower and a Gatha Chant. Eating meals began with an expression of gratitude and eating in silence for partial or whole time. The food, mostly organic and vegetarian, was cooked in silence with utmost care and mindfulness, often in Ayurvedic style. During the youth retreat, I also had the special opportunity to experience the ‘Oryoki’ meals, which was a very intricate art of receiving and eating food together as a Sangha.

It felt so meaningful to chant the following Gatha before each meal in the community:

“Earth, water, fire, air and space combine to make this food.

Numberless beings gave their lives and labor that we may eat.

May we be nourished that we may nourish life.”

While at Upaya, on a full-moon day, the extended local Sangha gathered along with wisdom-holders from the Pueblo and Mayan indigenous people of this land. An auspicious ceremony was held when we planted a ‘3 sisters’ garden–preserving and promoting indigenous organic seeds and traditional-ecological wisdom. It brought so much cheer to everyone.

The 'Planting Life' ceremony began with a quote by Robin Kimmerer in 'Braiding Sweetgrass'. It was a beautiful invitation to embrace the ceremony wholeheartedly: Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable. Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”

The Zen in Everything: Embodied and Applied Spirituality

As it may already be evident by now, the way of Zen is not limited to formal sitting practice in the Zendo (although that maybe foundational). Being Zen, as I understood and experienced it, pervades every aspect of life—walking, eating, serving, is the way of being with oneself and the world. The real test of Dharma lies is in the playing field of our multi-pronged relationships is what I began to realize all the more at Upaya.

I found the practice of ‘Kinhin’ or the walking meditation, taking one mindful breath and one mindful step at a time, was particularly very helpful in slowing down my often scattered and restless mind. Does it mean I have to be slow and serious all the time? Not at all. When I went to play a game of basketball with a group of residents from Upaya, I was amazed at the swiftness and highly competitive and yet a very fun-loving spirit with which they engaged in the sport! There was high efficiency and effectiveness in everything we did together as a community, whilst it was also often sprinkled with art, beauty and lighthearted humor. The way of Zen embodies ‘skillfulness in action’–which interestingly is also one of the definitions of Yoga (yogh karmasu kausalam).

A silent group hike to the Castle Rock during Zen Youth Retreat

Socially-Engaged Spirituality

At Upaya, it is so inspiring to learn how spiritual practice and compassionate action can go hand-in-hand together to serve the world. Many service-oriented projects have emerged through Upaya creating beautiful ripples in the local as well as global community. It was inspiring to learn about the prison outreach program, the Nomad’s Clinic, the chaplaincy and the street ministry being run through Upaya. The way of Zen, I began to see, is not that of ‘withdrawal’ or ‘isolation’ (although that maybe helpful and necessary someties) but that of compassionate engagement with the world. It calls for embracing the whole of life and its demands in their totality and to act upon our deepest convictions with kindness and courage. As I read her book ‘Fruitful Darkness’, I am inspired by Roshi’s life journey as being a stellar example of socially-engaged Buddhism. Another beautiful verse we would often chant and that speaks to the spirit of serving a higher purpose:

Vast is the robe of liberation A formless field of benefaction I wear the thathagatha’s teaching To awaken countless beings The Awakened Way

On my last day at Upaya—a new moon day, we concluded an intense 5-day silent youth retreat called the ‘Seshin’. I witnessed a very special ceremony called the ‘Gate of Sweet Nectar’—an invitation to feed and satisfy the ‘hungry ghosts’ within and around us. It was a very profound experience for me—bringing tears and laughter at the same time. I felt as a free-spirited child and danced to my heart’s delight in the Zendo. When the entire group of around 30 of us began to chant the vows of three refuges: ‘Buddham Saranam Gachhami, Sangham Saranam Gachhami, Dhammam Saranam Gachhami’, I felt transported to a different era altogether. The boundaries of time and space began to blur for me. Here I was, standing on American soil, soaking in the voices of ancient wisdom that had traveled over centuries from India to China to Japan to America—and evolved from Dhayna to Chan to Zen. Upaya offered me a glimpse into a more beautiful world. I left Upaya with immense gratitude for all the blessings I received from being part of this incredible community. I now carry with me many precious seeds of insights, intentions and inspirations from this journey. The following chants from the Zazen sessions will continue to ring true and act as important reminders for me: All my ancient twisted karma From beginningless greed, hate and delusion Born of body, speech, and mind, I now fully atone. Let me respectfully remind you: Life and death are of supreme importance Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost Let us awaken, awaken, take heed, Do not squander your life.

With Sanathvihari Bhante, an American Theravada Buddhist Monk, At the Cerro Gordo Temple, the oldest Stupa in North America located on the Upaya Campus

My final week in America was spent in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. In many ways, it felt like a continuation of the spiritual pilgrimage that this journey had come to be. Two beautiful beings, artist-beekeeper-nature-loving friends named Debra and Joe, very kindly hosted me on their forest-farm.

A profoundly healing meditation amidst 120,000 honeybees, a Native American fire and smoke pipe ceremony to mark the summer solstice, my encounters with the Black Bears and other wildlife in the woods, a visit to the Ayurvedic Institute in Asheville, a Mexican quincenera ceremony, Yoga and the Gayathri Mantra chanting with my American friends—everything felt so very magical and deeply nourishing to my heart and soul. As I got on my flight back to India, I reflected on how my relationship with America has continued to evolve over the years. I had first come to this country as a teenager on a youth cultural exchange program and right after landing in Minneapolis, I remember my host-family had very enthusiastically taken me to see the ‘Mall of America’ and the feeling of overwhelm I had experienced! (that would be a story for another time! :)

Experiencing the Minnesota winter and the'Mall of America' as a Teenager

During my travels in the US this time, I met some very sincere students of eastern mystics such as Swami Yogananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Maa Amrita, Neem Karoli Baba, Nisargadatta Maharaj, J.Krishnamurti, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche etc. It was inspiring to notice their keen interest and devotion towards Yogic and Ayurvedic practices, studies of Sanskrit, Pali or even Hindi language, the Hindu, Jain or Buddhist texts as well as other ancient wisdom traditions of the world.

I felt a sense of kinship with the Native American Pueblo and the Mayan elders whom I had the chance to meet during this trip. Across the States, I connected deeply with the mountains, the trees, the skies, the waters and many of the forest beings. There were moments when I felt as if the ancient soul of this land was speaking to me, the tragic loss it had suffered over several centuries of colonization. Some of her precious wisdom was still vibrant, singing through the birds, the rocks, the rivers...It brought up some grief in me, thinking about my ancient land of India and the terrifying speed at which the 'development' machine is re-enacting some of the patterns of colonization--with tremendous loss to the natural environment and the indigenous, rural communities. When bidding goodbyes to Upaya, I prostated and kissed the ground with gratitude and sincere prayers in my heart. 'What is mine to do (and not to do)?' is the question I shall continue to lean into.This trip to America made me realize that former dualities and distinctions in my mind, such as–‘light’ and ‘darkness’, ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, ‘the material’ and ‘the spiritual’, ‘the scientific’ and the ‘mystic’, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’, do not hold rigid ground for me anymore. I sense more readiness for greater integration at personal and perhaps in our collective consciousness as a human society. I also feel more purposeful to embody the awakened way and to continue to serve as a ‘bridge’ and a ‘cross-pollinator’ as my humble offering in this life. A deep, deep bow of gratitude for all the visible, invisible forces, the multiple causes and conditions that made this pilgrimage possible. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings move through the world with ease. May all beings know peace in their hearts. In Zen, an ensō exemplifies the various dimensions of the Japanese wabi-sabi perspective and aesthetic: fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), kanso (simplicity), shizen (without pretense; natural), yugen (subtly profound grace), datsuzoku (freedom), and seijaku (tranquility). It also symbolizes the mu (the void). The form and the formless both dimensions of the same reality. Written by: Vipul Shaha, Pune, India Educator-Facilitator, Presence-Oriented Psychotherapist, Gap-Year Coach, Youth Mentor, Yoga and Mindfulness Trainer

@mindful_being_india For further interest in Zen philosophy -- 1. A book recommendation:


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