- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

This column came about because of an oversight by President Obama.

As he listed religious groups in his inauguration speech, he left out Buddhism, the world’s fourth largest religion (after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism). The following day, during the National Prayer Service at the Washington Cathedral, there were no Buddhists seated among the pantheon of religious leaders on the dais.

What to do about this oversight? Perhaps folks inside the Beltway are truly clueless about this 0.7 percent segment of the U.S. population — 2.1 million people. But the president should know better: 6 percent of the population of his home state, Hawaii, is Buddhist.

Picking up an issue of Tricycle, a national Buddhist publication, I discovered some local meditation groups devoted to Zen, a school of Buddhism originating in seventh-century China. This is how I found myself meditating one Wednesday evening in a quiet room at Christ Congregational Church, the host for the Silver Spring “zendo” or meditation hall. Just after the gong sounded, everyone in the “sangha” or community began the following chant:

“All thinking is cut off. Wisdom grows, enlightenment appears, confusion is left behind. …”

Then followed the “gata” of repentance as we pressed the palms of our hands together and bowed:

“All evil karma ever committed by me since of old on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and consciousness, now I atone for it all.”

Then we meditated for 25 minutes. Well, maybe the other 15 people in the room meditated as they sat or knelt. Drugged by the aroma of the sandalwood incense, my head began to droop.

The gong sounded again and up we rose for “kinhin” or walking meditation to shake out the kinks in our legs. During the second sitting meditation, Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, the “sensei” or teacher of the gathering and 50 years a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, read a short essay penned by Thomas Merton, the famous Jesuit practitioner of Zen. Lots of Zen masters, she told me, come from the ranks of Trappist and Jesuit orders. Rabbis also are big fans.

I was puzzled as to how a religion that requires no deity but is devoted to the Buddha can mix so easily with Christianity’s strict devotion to Jesus, but Zen, I was assured by several practitioners, does not conflict.

“It’s a practice, not a religion,” Martine Palmiter, president of the Silver Spring zendo, told me. Raised an American Baptist, Zen “is a deepening in my life so I can become more aware and alive.”

I asked Jesse Palidofski, a Catholic-turned-Quaker who’s been practicing Zen for less than four years why he meditates en group.

“When people gather together, the silence gets deeper,” he said. “There is an energy.”

The youngest person there, Craig O’Brien, 39, echoed the others in saying how meditation “has given me a much better understanding of myself. The practice is paying attention to what is happening. You learn about yourself and your relationship to things about you.”

So there it is. Slowing down to be more awake. Zoning out to become more aware. Facing pain so as to dull its impact. Paradoxes all.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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