One of the highlights of my month-long stay in South Korea in 2004 was my visit to a Buddhist seminary. I went with about 35 other Sisters of Notre Dame from all over the world. The seminary was in a remote area, nestled among the Korean mountains.
About 200 monks (all of them women!) live in the seminary compound. Most of them are students, probably in their 20’s, who come from around the globe to study Buddhism. They are taught by the permanent monks who are easy to spot with their shaved heads and flowing gray robes. Most of the students stay only a couple of years. It is hoped that when they leave, they take what they’ve learned into the world. A few students might become permanent monks.
Our guide for the day was a beautiful monk named “The Only Truth.” She was in her late 40’s, had a very kind face, and exuded peace and calm. She showed us many of the buildings that make up the compound. We saw the dining hall, a library, and an auditorium sized room (with no seats, of course) where the monks prayed and meditated for hours each day. I noticed that one of the buildings had internet access. At the end of our tour, The Only Truth and a few students served us tea, rice cakes, and grapes.
I have always been fascinated with Buddhism. Though certainly no authority, I will share some thoughts on this beautiful religion/philosophy. Buddhism traces it origin to a man named Siddharta Gautama who lived in India around 500 B.C. He was a prince who soon became deeply troubled by all the suffering he saw around him. He renounced his wealth and devoted himself to seeking understanding. After six years of asceticism and meditation, he reached enlightenment at age 35 and became known as Buddha, which means “one who is awake.”
Buddhism eventually spread to Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Today there are about 500 million Buddhists in the world, or 7.5% of the world’s population. In the U.S. there are 1.2 million Buddhists, about equal to the number of Muslims. In Canada there are 366,000 Buddhists. Buddhism is also the fastest growing religion in Australia.
Strictly speaking the word Zen refers to the Chinese version of Buddhism, but Zen is sometimes used interchangably with Buddhism. Zen stresses rigorous meditation. It also emphasizes personal insights and the personal expression of those insights in daily life—especially through deeds that benefit others. Typical monasteries have a daily liturgy where the monks chant sutras or aphorisms from Buddhist teachings. The rest of the day, the monks interweave long meditations with rest breaks, meals, and periods of work—all done with the same mindfulness or “the gentle effort to be present with experience.”
At the end of our visit to the Buddhist seminary, The Only Truth told us that she and the other monks in the seminary feel a real “kinship” with Catholic Sisters. She said, “I sense our lives are dedicated to the same end: our quest for the Divine.”
I will conclude this reflection with some Zen sayings. As you read them prayerfully, see if any resonate with you and your experience:
Quiet the mind and the soul will speak. (Ma Jaya Sati)
Smiling is one of the highest forms of meditation. (Amma)
If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. (Zen Proverb)
It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean. (John J. Muth)
The obstacle is the path. (Zen proverb)
If you plant a seed, it is you that blossoms. (Ma Jaya Sati)
I have lived with several Zen masters—all of them cats. (Eckhart Tolle)
To understand everything is to forgive everything. (Buddha)
Zen student to master: “How long will it take me to attain enlightenment?” Master: “Five years.” Student: “But what if I work really hard?” Master: “Ten years.”
Let us conclude this reflection with some Buddhist chants and peace music, sung by both men and women. This video takes 10 minutes.
What strikes you about Buddhism? What does our Christian faith share with Buddhism?
Do any of the Zen sayings stand out for you? What affect did the chants have on you?
Have you had any experience with Zen that you would like to share?
PS: A big thank you for your prayers for last Tuesday’s retreat day on Psalm 23. Thirty-seven women participated. A few of them knew me only through this blog. I enjoyed the attentiveness and goodness of all the women who came.