Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Church Hopping #3: And Now for Something Completely Different, Part 1: Buddhist Meditation

OK, so this blog isn't about a church visit at all. Inspired by Abdullah Antepli's part in our Goodson Chapel service last Thursday and by watching the video of a recent interfaith panel on 9-11 at Duke Divinity, I decided that my exploration of various worship settings needed to expand beyond Christianity. So I looked up the website of the Buddhist Community at Duke and decided to attend one of their weekly meetings, which includes meditation and a talk from a Dharma teacher. I've decided to keep this and any other non-Christian explorations in my "Church Hopping" series, but with the dubious subtitle "And Now for Something Completely Different." Hope that's OK.

Just so we're clear, I know next to nothing about Buddhism. I raised my hand as someone who had never meditated before, because although I have done short mindfulness meditations in a Christian context, I had never done it like this before.

My first-time status was obvious, but I wasn't the only one. The Buddhist group at Duke shares a meditation room on campus with the Hindus, and the floor was populated with cushions and a few chairs along the walls. We left our shoes outside. I was greeted warmly by Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim, the Buddhist chaplain, who was part of the interfaith panel I mentioned, and by a statue of the Buddha (not the laughing Buddha). As we gathered, I met a graduate student in the Environmental Management program who was surprised that, as a divinity student, I had never been there before. I was reminded that although Duke Divinity is an all-Christian institution, places like Harvard and Yale are not. I chose Duke in part for the sense of community and formation that comes with sharing a common faith and call, but there are definitely educational and formational aspects I've missed out on by limiting my theological education to within Christianity (and, in very limited ways in undergrad, Judaism and Islam).

We started with a 12-minute sitting. I have back issues, so I'll admit that a fair chunk of this time was consumed by a preoccupation with an intense pain and tightness in the center of my back. I am also very easily distracted, which is why I pray most often in the car, so my mind kept wandering away from my breath (we were led in a form of mindfulness meditation). However, as the leader gave gentle instruction for the newcomers, he anticipated such wanderings and encouraged us to acknowledge distractions without chastising ourselves, to take note of sounds and thoughts and images without letting them take control. It reminded me of similar teachings on prayer and self-compassion I heard from the monks at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, where I spent my spring breaks in undergrad.

The guest teacher tonight was John Orr, who teaches here at Duke and is an ordained Buddhist monk. (Side note: as he talked about his experiences in India and Thailand, I was struck by how much crossover there is in language from Buddhist and Catholic monastic systems, though I suspect the terms don't always mean the same thing; but I heard "monastery," "monk," "nun" and even "prior.") He spoke about developing and/or deepening a practice of meditation. He used language of "doing" versus "being," in that meditation is not something you can necessarily control or accomplish; it requires a degree of passivity and release. Orr spoke of his own struggles with letting go and learning a meditation practice that worked for him, of having to realize that anytime he was seeking after a specific experience or feeling in meditation, he was grasping for control. He identified this with the solar plexus chakra (one of seven) and said that the way to free oneself from that grasping was to move to the heart chakra, the place of wisdom and compassion. Since I can't help but put what I was hearing in terms of my own experience, I was reminded of what Henri Nouwen called "the inner voice of love," a deep place of self-compassion and knowledge of God's love. Only by knowing one's own belovedness can one rightly love others.

I feel like this post is fantastically choppy and ill-educated, but this is just my raw take on my first experience of Buddhist meditation. I'm hoping to learn a little more about Buddhism; years ago, I bought the installments of Oxford University Press' Very Short Introduction series on Buddhism and Hinduism when I realized that my undergraduate religion degree had introduced me almost solely to the Abrahamic faiths (though I have read the Bhagavad Gita). As minimal of an exposure as tonight was, I can say that I needed to hear a lot of what Orr had to say about love, wisdom and compassion, and I'm glad that I went.

2 comments:

Stephen Schettini said...

It's a shame when Buddhism is seen as a religion comparable to (and in competition with) Christianity. It is entirely compatible — in fact complementary — and can only deepen one's contemplation and practice.

Sarah said...

Thanks Stephen. It was not my intention to disparage Buddhism at all, only to admit my own ignorance upfront. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Church Hopping #3: And Now for Something Completely Different, Part 1: Buddhist Meditation

OK, so this blog isn't about a church visit at all. Inspired by Abdullah Antepli's part in our Goodson Chapel service last Thursday and by watching the video of a recent interfaith panel on 9-11 at Duke Divinity, I decided that my exploration of various worship settings needed to expand beyond Christianity. So I looked up the website of the Buddhist Community at Duke and decided to attend one of their weekly meetings, which includes meditation and a talk from a Dharma teacher. I've decided to keep this and any other non-Christian explorations in my "Church Hopping" series, but with the dubious subtitle "And Now for Something Completely Different." Hope that's OK.

Just so we're clear, I know next to nothing about Buddhism. I raised my hand as someone who had never meditated before, because although I have done short mindfulness meditations in a Christian context, I had never done it like this before.

My first-time status was obvious, but I wasn't the only one. The Buddhist group at Duke shares a meditation room on campus with the Hindus, and the floor was populated with cushions and a few chairs along the walls. We left our shoes outside. I was greeted warmly by Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim, the Buddhist chaplain, who was part of the interfaith panel I mentioned, and by a statue of the Buddha (not the laughing Buddha). As we gathered, I met a graduate student in the Environmental Management program who was surprised that, as a divinity student, I had never been there before. I was reminded that although Duke Divinity is an all-Christian institution, places like Harvard and Yale are not. I chose Duke in part for the sense of community and formation that comes with sharing a common faith and call, but there are definitely educational and formational aspects I've missed out on by limiting my theological education to within Christianity (and, in very limited ways in undergrad, Judaism and Islam).

We started with a 12-minute sitting. I have back issues, so I'll admit that a fair chunk of this time was consumed by a preoccupation with an intense pain and tightness in the center of my back. I am also very easily distracted, which is why I pray most often in the car, so my mind kept wandering away from my breath (we were led in a form of mindfulness meditation). However, as the leader gave gentle instruction for the newcomers, he anticipated such wanderings and encouraged us to acknowledge distractions without chastising ourselves, to take note of sounds and thoughts and images without letting them take control. It reminded me of similar teachings on prayer and self-compassion I heard from the monks at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, where I spent my spring breaks in undergrad.

The guest teacher tonight was John Orr, who teaches here at Duke and is an ordained Buddhist monk. (Side note: as he talked about his experiences in India and Thailand, I was struck by how much crossover there is in language from Buddhist and Catholic monastic systems, though I suspect the terms don't always mean the same thing; but I heard "monastery," "monk," "nun" and even "prior.") He spoke about developing and/or deepening a practice of meditation. He used language of "doing" versus "being," in that meditation is not something you can necessarily control or accomplish; it requires a degree of passivity and release. Orr spoke of his own struggles with letting go and learning a meditation practice that worked for him, of having to realize that anytime he was seeking after a specific experience or feeling in meditation, he was grasping for control. He identified this with the solar plexus chakra (one of seven) and said that the way to free oneself from that grasping was to move to the heart chakra, the place of wisdom and compassion. Since I can't help but put what I was hearing in terms of my own experience, I was reminded of what Henri Nouwen called "the inner voice of love," a deep place of self-compassion and knowledge of God's love. Only by knowing one's own belovedness can one rightly love others.

I feel like this post is fantastically choppy and ill-educated, but this is just my raw take on my first experience of Buddhist meditation. I'm hoping to learn a little more about Buddhism; years ago, I bought the installments of Oxford University Press' Very Short Introduction series on Buddhism and Hinduism when I realized that my undergraduate religion degree had introduced me almost solely to the Abrahamic faiths (though I have read the Bhagavad Gita). As minimal of an exposure as tonight was, I can say that I needed to hear a lot of what Orr had to say about love, wisdom and compassion, and I'm glad that I went.

2 comments:

Stephen Schettini said...

It's a shame when Buddhism is seen as a religion comparable to (and in competition with) Christianity. It is entirely compatible — in fact complementary — and can only deepen one's contemplation and practice.

Sarah said...

Thanks Stephen. It was not my intention to disparage Buddhism at all, only to admit my own ignorance upfront. :)

 

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