Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Waking Up at the Zen Center

This morning I wake up at 4:30 a.m. This is an hour earlier than needed. In another Zen center 4 a.m. might be time for people to gather for practice. In a Buddhist monastery 4 a.m. might be oversleeping. Here, in this urban Midwest Zen center, our morning practice starts at 6 a.m. Of course waking up too early is always a bit frustrating, but doing so at a Zen center seems appropriate because there’s always something to do: meditate, clean, catch up on temple paperwork. I surf the net.

At 5:15 I go downstairs and unlock the front door for those who show up for practice. I do this every weekday, and most of the time it’s a gesture motivated by wishful thinking. Morning practice is terribly unpopular, even at our late, non-monastic hour. Practice begins with 108 full prostrations and is followed by the long morning bell chant and 30 minutes of sitting meditation. No one shows up anymore except on Wednesdays, today. Wednesdays my teacher gives kong-an interviews during morning practice, and this opportunity attracts one regular, Leo, an enthusiastic young college student and rapper. (Kong-an interviews are the notorious Zen tradition in which the teacher asks tricky questions of the student as a means of training for enlightenment. Some people find interviews intimidating, even though one might not have a kong-an in it to deal with at all. The session might just be a chat about practice. We’ve discussed coming up with a less intimidating name than “interviews” to encourage new people to try them out. My flippant suggestion of the term “enhanced interrogation” met with proper disapproval at a meeting of center teachers.)

I look outside through the front door. It’s cold out there and has been for days. The old snow no longer looks real. It’s more like flat white paint. Through it I’ve cut a trench across the front lawn to the sidewalk. Cold.

Cold. It’s definitely time to go to the kitchen to make coffee. But I’m already thinking about mice. The cold has driven mice into the house, and we’ve removed several using live traps. It’s a relief to find the kitchen trap empty this morning. Maybe the mouse population is depleted. Getting rid of pests in a Buddhist temple is always problematic, what with the proscriptions against killing. Live traps seem like a solution just as long as you don’t think about the released mouse’s fate, and that’s impossible to forget when you turn a mouse out into this bitter cold.

I’m still thinking about cold when I grind the coffee beans, making extra since Leo’s bound to show up. My mind’s always wandering this way. That’s one reason why I train in meditation: to improve concentration. But, darn it, it seems cold in the house. Our thermostat is in the dharma room, the room with the big Buddha statue where we meditate. I go in there and check out the temperature.

It reads 59°. The thermostat is set for a frugal 64°. The vents should be blowing heat. I hear the furnace beneath the floor, but the fan’s not running. I try to turn on the fan. It doesn’t start. Check the temperature. 58°.

Normally I wake my teacher for up for morning practice at 5:55 by hitting an instrument called a moktak, a hollow, wooden bulb, but the dharma room isn’t getting any warmer, a guest is probably on the way and there’s the matter of freezing pipes. I go upstairs to my teacher’s door.


“Mrarm… Yeah?”

“Sorry to wake you up a little early, but the furnace doesn’t seem to be working.”

Our Zen center is lucky to have residents in it, even if only two, to spot household malfunctions before they become emergencies. It’s especially lucky to have a live-in teacher qualified to give kong-an interviews who is also a retired general contractor; an all-around handyman. We head for the basement where he removes the side of the furnace, takes a seat on a box and inspects wires and tubes. I, in the stock role of someone who wants to be helpful but doesn’t have a clue, stand a couple of paces off watching in silence. He turns the furnace off. He disconnects this. Unscrews that. Then there are noises above us unrelated to heating ducts and too heavy to be a mouse.

I go upstairs and greet the cause. “Hi, Leo. The dharma room may be a little cooler than usual today.” Then I add the unfortunate phrase of an old guy trying to sound hip. “But it's always is cool in the dharma room.” Leo is a good sport.

It’s 5:57, so I put on my bowing robe for practice. We’ll start without Poep-sa if he needs to keep working on the heating. Leo sits down on a cushion in the dharma room. Before I get to the altar to light the incense, the heating ducts are blowing again. Poep-sa comes up from the basement. Normally I’d have already started the mini-marathon of prostrations, but Leo and I wait, standing with our palms together, for our teacher to join us. In a minute he’s in the dharma room too. Before we start bowing we recite the Four Great Vows.

Sentient beings are numberless. We vow to save them all.
Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.
The teachings are infinite. We vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable. We vow to attain it.

*"Poep-sa" is an honorific Korean term for a teacher.


  1. An interesting peek into life at the Zen center. As for the mice, I just did a Google search on "mouse terrarium," and lo and behold, it is possible to keep mice in a terrarium. Doesn't look too difficult, either. You could store them in the terrarium and care for them on the side. Then, when you've got eight or ten mice (hopefully not killing each other), you could take them out to a mountainous national park somewhere and quietly release them into the wild. They'll fend for themselves, true, and they might become some predator's meal, but at least they'll be integrated, more or less, back into the larger ecology. And who's to say that making a hungry owl or snake happy isn't a form of compassion?

    1. Thanks, Kevin. Of course, it's impossible to sort out the chains of cause and effect, to say nothing of the food chains!