Pete Digenerro can still remember when the venerable Maha Ghosanda of Cambodia paid a visit to his two-story, white-shuttered house on Mansfield Street in New Haven. “He was one of those people you meet and they just have light come out of them,” he recalls. “He was like a big, huge sun.” Digenerro lives in the oldest continuously operating center of the Kwan Um School of Zen Buddhism, first founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn in Rhode Island in the 1970s and now practiced in centers everywhere from Latvia to Israel. In his mid-thirties, he has lived at the New Haven Zen Center four years. “There’s a lot of history here,” he says. “You can really feel the presence of the house.”
But when I arrive at the Center on a dark, windy October night, it’s tough to sense any presence, house or human. There’s no one around—not even at the Center, I worry, when my doorbell rings go unanswered for ten minutes. I know almost nothing about Zen, and even this setting seems mysterious: only a small paper sign posted inside a front window marks the blue house as my destination. Getting closer, I read a weekly meditation schedule and a phone number, but no other clues tell me what to expect when the door is finally answered.
Keith, who greets me at the door, barefoot and in loose sweatpants, apologizes: It’s difficult to hear the doorbell throughout the house. I should leave my shoes here, just inside the door. A golf course superintendent, Keith tells me he came across Zen Buddhism in 1991, in a college religious studies class, but it took him years to begin Zen practice—as he puts it, “to find out that this was the only way I was going to be happy.” I am early for the meditation session, and he has time to show me around beforehand.
The house balances meditation space—the Dharma room, where a golden Buddha presides—with living space. The shopping list posted on the fridge downstairs supplements the staples of a healthy vegetarian diet with a few Eastern specialty items, like miso, udon and soba noodles, and something called “ko chi chang.” Above it hangs a photo of a crowd of men and women, robed and smiling, underlined with the inscription: “Happy Holidays from the Kwan Um School of Zen.”
In a living area, two huge bookcases contain books on spirituality from every branch of Buddhism and most world religions. One title reads, Wanting Enlightenment is a BIG MISTAKE. On another shelf rests a signed photograph of a hockey player, inscribed: “To NHZC, Thanks for showing me the PATH!” Soft rugs cover dark wood floors, and rooms are lined with comfy couches for when you’re not meditating.
When you are meditating, you sit on the floor. My leg will likely fall asleep, Keith tells me, briefing me on Zen practice before the session. In that case, he says, I should bow and stand without disrupting the roomful of people in light blue robes identical to the one I’m wearing now. “People think we’re a little goofy with these things,” Keith had said, laughing as he tied mine. The special square of cloth over Keith’s robe indicates that he has completed training in the five basic precepts needed for membership in this school of Zen.
When you are meditating, you sit with your legs crossed in any of four different ways. Keith demonstrates each position except the hardest one, saying “If I were to take this leg and put it up here, it would break—but that would be full lotus.” He tells me to stare at the floor in front of me and mentally repeat a mantra to get “in question mode.” He suggests I repeat “clear head” as I inhale and “don’t know” as I exhale, but I am free to choose something else: “You could do ‘coca-cola’ and it would be all right, as long as you meant it sincerely. The words aren’t so important—it’s how you’re holding your mind.”
Besides the technical details of “sitting,” Keith summarizes the story of Buddha and, very basically, a few principles of Zen Buddhism, whose precepts boil down, he says, to “being a decent human being.” As Ken Kessel, the center’s guiding teacher, will tell me later, the Korean words Kwan Um translate to “perceive sound,” and “perceiving the sound of the world draws you to that sound,” like a baby’s cries draw a mother.
Listening leads to compassion. But Kessel is quick to clarify that he doesn’t see compassion as a goal to work toward; rather, compassion is “our original nature”—roots that Zen practice can help us rediscover. Keith also emphasizes that the wisdom Zen practice brings must be used to help others, not just for personal betterment: “This isn’t the spiritual Olympics.”
Thirty minutes of sitting and doing nothing may sound simple enough, but Keith’s words have left me a little apprehensive. “We get a lot of people here wanting to chill out,” who think sitting will be easy, he says, but “it’s really difficult. You’re stuck with you.” Others in the room will follow the first sitting with a brief interlude of “walking meditation” and then another full session—but as a beginner, Keith says, I won’t continue past thirty minutes.
I have trouble clearing my head and focusing on my mantra: clearhead clearhead clearhead, don’t knowwww. After many minutes, I dare to look up from the floor. Across from me are a couple of young men with ties visible above their robes. I guess they are grad students, maybe stressed-out, over-competitive medical students needing to relax—the one on the left, with glasses, has that look to him. Next to them, a middle-aged man sits in a wooden chair, and I guess he has a bad back or knees too weak to sit on the floor. Brush paintings hang on the walls, and far to my right is the golden Buddha. It is customary, Keith told me, to bow when passing before it.
All the people here seem deeply focused, but what if someone looks up and makes eye contact with me? I concentrate on the floor. I memorize the grain of the wood and then try again to stop my thoughts. I breathe in and then out, a long sigh: don’t knowwww. Clearhead clearhead clearhead, don’t knowww. I feel pins-and-needles, and I pull my leg out from under me—and my mind wanders again. “The sitting is the key,” Keith had said, and I feel a little guilty. I can understand why Keith likened training a mind in Zen practice to training a puppy to sit.
Every few minutes, a bell rings from another room, and one of the experienced students leaves for an “interview” with Ken Kessel, the Center’s guiding teacher. As a first-timer, I won’t be called for an interview, and clueless of what that would mean, I’m as relieved as I am intrigued. Viewed from the Dharma room, the procedure seems a little eerie, as each student stands, bows, and exits the room soundlessly.
Kessel lives in New Jersey and comes into town monthly to conduct these interviews, which consist largely of kong-ans, short Zen stories or puzzles. “Like ‘The sound of one hand clapping,’” Kessel will offer, by way of explanation. “The original kong-an is, ‘What are you?’”
After the meditation, Pete tells me he first came to the center looking for “a spiritual home.” We have put our meditation robes away, and he has made himself a mugful of protein shake in the kitchen, where I notice two teakettles. Pete is now the center’s only full-time resident, but other students sometimes join him for his morning ritual, which begins with a 5:30am wake-up bell followed by bows, a chant, and finally, a sitting. Pete considers Zen practice everyday maintenance, like tooth-brushing or gym-going, but even more crucial: it’s “part of my job on the planet.” In fact, if he stops practicing, “it’s just a matter of time before I misstep. It feels like a race, sometimes, between my clear mind and my discursive mind.” Zen is powerful stuff.
During the second thirty-minute session, sitting alone in the upstairs kitchen, I can hear sounds from the interview room. I’m surprised to hear mostly low chuckles—that’s characteristic Kessel, as I find out when I speak with him—returned by giggles from the students. The process had seemed utterly mysterious to me, but now one thing is clear: they’re having fun in there. When I ask Kessel at the end of our talk if all the students have left, he says no at first—and then corrects himself: “I think some people may be sticking around to watch the World Series.” I forget to ask if they’re Yankee fans.