Walking Faith

Oct 102006
Authors: Geoff Johnson

I go to the Peaceful Heart Sangha’s meeting on a clear, warm Sunday afternoon. Sangha, in this case, refers to a community of Buddhist practitioners – Zen Buddhist practitioners here.

The meeting is at the Lory Apartments – between the Towers and Corbett Hall – on Laurel Avenue. The complex consists of two tan-brick buildings, three stories each.

It is calm outside – not many people walking around – and the leaves are just starting to change. I am looking for signs of activity – for someone who looks like he or she is going to a meditation meeting like me.

Four days ago, I went to the Zen Club meeting. There, I had my first experience with zazen – seated meditation – with mixed results. In my attempts to clear my mind, I was bombarded by thoughts ranging from my writing to women to more of my writing.

I was not planning on meditating – believe it or not – when I went to the Zen Club meeting. Now though, as I wait on this wooden bench outside the north building of the apartments, I look forward to seeing what will happen.

I see a woman walking up to the building with a small, round pillow similar to one found on a couch or easy chair. Based on my Zen Club experience, this pillow could quite possibly be for sitting on – for meditation.

Thinking she might be Viviane Ephraimson-Abt, I ask, “Viviane?”

She is not Viviane. She looks nothing like Viviane, she tells me. But she can lead me to the Peaceful Heart Sangha.

I walk into a room not unlike a common area in a residence hall – uncomfortable furniture, white walls covered in material promoting diversity. The only lighting is from outside, streaming through the west-facing windows.

There is a circle of folded blankets and stools on the ground in the middle of the room. There are about a dozen people, casually dressed in jeans, shorts, sweat pants and T-shirts. Several people greet me warmly – they shake my hand and say, “Welcome.”

At the Zen Club meeting, I sit on a pew to avoid zazen-hindering physical unbalance and discomfort. Here, though, I decide I will sit on the floor.

A woman hands me something resembling a foldout director’s chair without legs. Back support, I think. I place it in the circle between two blanket bundles.

I meet Viviane for the first time. She is small – I’m a bad judge of height, so we’ll say a lot shorter than 6’5″ – and slender, with shoulder-length brunette hair and a penetrating gaze.

She greets me warmly – a handshake and a smile – but is short on time and must do things. She presides over the meeting.

I’ve read in the Peaceful Heart Sangha’s newcomers’ packet before arriving that this session will involve walking meditation in between two short sessions of sitting meditation similar to what I did with the Zen Club.

Where the Zen Club is an official student organization, the Peaceful Heart Sangha is “more of a CSU community group,” Viviane explains (the word sangha itself, in this case, means Buddhist community). Though the two are listed on the same Web site, they are completely different entities.

The main connection, Viviane says, is that there are people who participate in both groups’ meetings – namely the Zen Club president, Erich Stroheim and members Tim Beecher and Huanyu Qiao (“Joe”).

The Sangha’s welcome literature explains that the group began meeting following a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (Tick Naught Hon), an influential Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and author living in exile in France.

With the second ringing of the bell at the end of the first round of sitting meditation, we can stretch out before we stand. The seated meditation begins with cool, resonant bell-ringing, much like the Zen Club meeting, and Viviane chants.

I breathe, and think about it and count, and am bombarded by thoughts. Difficult to think about breathing when someone’s talking outside; did I have homework to do; did I leave the stove on?

The bell rings – once, twice – and people stretch their legs out in front of them. As I spread out, I realize my right foot is completely asleep.

I see myself a minute from now – not being able to walk, still seated, rubbing my foot. Worried faces – fresh from meditation interrupted by the guy who can’t stand up because his foot is asleep – surround me.

A couple taps on the carpeted floor restore feeling.

We turn to the left. With another cool, resonant hum, we walk slowly, one foot’s length at a time. It’s difficult for me – a person who spends his days in constant hurry – to walk so slowly, but I find a rhythm – I’m not even really sure that’s what I’m supposed to do, but I do.

I find a kind of harmony between my steps and my breaths.

Left (in, one). Right (out, two). Left (in, three). Right (out, four). And the thoughts come. I worry about pacing. I worry that if I walk too fast, I will run into the back of one person, and if I walk too slowly, someone will walk into me.

Left (in, one). What if I fell on my face right now? I’d definitely take this guy down with me. And he’d take her down. Really, it would be a catastrophic domino-effect emergency – and one of the worst mindfulness practice sessions ever.

And the bell rings. We all take our places, seated once more, and we breathe.

Everything is connected

In an e-mail, Viviane expresses to me that people might see Zen and other meditation practices as “self-centered, indulgent navel-gazing.”

Although I don’t necessarily hold this, I can see where some might have gotten it. I was literally told to think about the area below my stomach (navel-gazing).

But Viviane explains that one of the most appealing things to her about Zen is the fact that the focus of an engaged Zen practice, like her own, is to improve the quality of life for all people.

What Viviane is talking about is compassion.

She adds, “This is why you will see a strong Zen influence in areas where there is great suffering or a need to transform society.”

She mentions Bernie Glassman Roshi (Roshi is a word for the highest level of Zen teacher). Glassman has gained notoriety for founding the Greyston Mandala and the Greyston Bakery. But it wasn’t for notoriety that he did it; it was out of compassion.

The bakery is really a social project helping New York’s “chronically unemployed” people in providing valuable training and paychecks.

According to greystonbakery.com, the bakery now employs 55 people.

The aim of Glassman is to bring mindfulness outside zazen (sitting meditation) and into the world.

The practice of zazen, she says, helps to center a person, making him or her more “helpful and available to all for this purpose.”

Tim Beecher explains to me that part of mindfulness is the realization that “everything is connected.”

This can mean buying things that are ethically produced.

“It might be using the knowledge that a company uses pesticides, and their workers are exposed to them,” Beecher says. “And not supporting that.”

It occurs to me that it doesn’t do anyone any good to realize that everything is connected if the connected parts don’t really matter to him or her – if he or she doesn’t have compassion.

It can also come down to a much smaller scale.

“It can be as simple as who I say ‘good morning’ to,” he said.

Walking meditation and mindful eating, as practiced with the Peaceful Heart Sangha (the Zen Club does walking meditation, too) are small, fundamental ways – training wheels – to bring mindfulness outside of the seated position.

Walking meditation is exactly what it sounds like: walking around while meditating – practicing mindfulness while meditating.

“Eating mindfully is a way of being here,” Erich Stroheim tells me in the basement room of the Lory Apartments after the Sangha’s meeting, pointing down to the ground – indicating he means “in the moment.”

“Tasting your food and being mindful of the act of eating is different from just wolfing down a meal in front of the television.”

Dharma Discussion

As meditation ends and I force feeling back into my right foot again, it is made known that there is tea, and also fresh-made grape juice and cookies – ginger snaps and chocolate chip.

I choose grape juice over tea – bowing with my hands narrowly steepled at my chin as I do so – because I don’t believe I’ve ever had fresh-squeezed grape juice.

This juice is magical – so sweet. Not sour like grape juice you find in a bottle – like no juice I’ve ever had before, in fact.

For several minutes, the only sound to be heard is the crunching of cookies – the ginger snaps are louder than the chocolate chip.

It’s time for the Dharma discussion, Viviane says. The group members will discuss all things Buddhism – their practices, stories they might want to tell.

People continue to crunch cookies and sip drinks as one group member bows in – people must bow to the group before speaking – and is, in return, bowed to by the rest of the group – the group bows out of respect to the speaker – to let her know we’re listening.

She brings up a problem she’s having in her meditation. She has a song stuck in her head – playing itself over and over – and she doesn’t know what to do about it.

I think about how this happens to me all the time – with the worst songs possible – and I’m just glad I didn’t have Kelly Clarkson’s “Since you’ve been gone” stuck in my head while I was meditating.

Other group members offer suggestions – interpreting the lyrics’ meaning, meditation accompanied by mantra (a repeated word or phrase).

The Web

I didn’t have an official religious affiliation when I started meditating with the Zen Club and the Peaceful Heart Sangha.

Knowing this, my boss asked me after a few sessions, “So are you a Buddhist now?”

I said, “No.”

Truth is, I’m still not anything in particular – spiritually speaking – but I’ve learned from these experiences.

I’ve learned things we should all know, like the basic “Be nice to people because everything is connected and your actions have consequences.”

An image of literal, physical interconnection that has stayed and I think will stay with me is one I heard toward the end of the Dharma discussion with the Peaceful Heart Sangha.

A woman I will refer to as “Janet” – she didn’t want her name mentioned – bows in and recounts an experience. Janet has her hair in a long ponytail – almost to the floor as she sits on it – and a warm demeanor as she regales.

When His Holiness, the Dalai Lama came to the Shambala Mountain Center (a Buddhist retreat near Red Feather Lakes in the Poudre Canyon), Janet explains that there were white scarves – squares of white fabric – available for those in attendance to buy.

The crowd tied the scarves together – she ties an air-knot with her hands as she tell this part – in rows across the crowd as well as columns up through the crowd, all the way up to the front. This created a web of sorts – a literal connection between everyone there, including the Dalai Lama himself.

I picture this web, as seen from above – though I know it’s nothing like the real thing – as breathtaking, like a giant white flyswatter sprawled across a light-green, sage-spotted meadow, with a tiny person in each hole.

Staff writer Geoff Johnson can be reached at features@collegian.com.


Want to learn more?

Healing the Soul of the World: The Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life

Public talk 7 to 9 p.m. Friday

Lory Student Center, Room 228

For information, visit


or contact Erich Stroheim: erich@colostate.edu.

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