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First time in a Chan temple... do I have the wrong idea?

Invincible_summerInvincible_summer Heavy Metal DhammaWe(s)t coast, Canada Veteran
edited December 2011 in Sanghas
So after about a year of practicing meditation and trying to uphold the 4/8/5, I decided to hit up the local, well-established Mahayana (I'm pretty sure it's Chan/Pure Land) temple. I attended the English Dharma session (a majority of the sangha consists of Chinese-speaking practitioners) which consisted of seated and walking meditation, then sutra reading.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but I felt like the whole session was very impersonal and procedural. What I mean by impersonal is that when the monk that was leading the session spoke to the group, he hardly even looked at us, and often fidgeted and checked the clock as if he wanted to get the whole thing over with. Also, there was supposed to be a question period at the end after the stura reading, but with 5 mins left in the session, he just left the room without a word... I had no idea what was happening and the others (who appeared to be regulars) didn't follow him or anything, so I just assumed we were supposed to leave.

I enjoyed the sitting and walking meditation (as much as one can enjoy sitting and walking in silence), but the sutra reading and abrupt ending of the session (or what I assumed was the ending) felt very ritualistic for the sake of ritual, not to garner any sort of deeper understanding or appreciation for the teachings.

Then again, I didn't go to a session that had a dharma talk (which they usually have on another day when I am not available), which could be a reason it wasn't as "engaging?"


I realize that I probably (foolishly) expected that a dharma practice meeting would be inviting and engage/support one's desire to practice. But am I wrong to assume that that is the point of a sangha?

Or is Chan (and I guess by association, Zen) generally easy to dismiss as "procedural" and "impersonal" since it's up to oneself to meditate, not the sangha to stimulate one intellectually? That's not what I get from watching youtube videos of the Empty Gate Zen center though. Then again, that's a Western-style Seon Buddhist centre, not one created for and by the Chinese Buddhist diaspora.




I'd appreciate any thoughts on my little rant.

Comments

  • Could you describe a little bit more how you were hoping it would be? I am just curious because I would then compare it to how I wish to practice or reach out to a sangha.

    I'll share my experience of a course I am taking. A have coursebooks. And I practice alone. I have had numerous questions (e-mail) answered by the lama and the answers she gives blow me away. A forum with the sangha and some extra reading courses with a weekly post from a small discussion (each member posts). I have been happy with it because I really feel the teachings they give are a little different and have been very powerful in my life.

    So I was curious what you were hoping for? Were you hoping for a question and answer session of the monk?
  • I really should sign up for a meditation course at least, living in Thailand it is also too easy. It is just me stopping me.

    The monk you spoke of does sound rather detached from what he was meant to be doing, I do not know if this is your point of view alone, or if others felt the same. Maybe you could ask around with the other members?
  • The monk was just not focused on what he was doing and sounds like he had someplace else he wanted to be. That just means the monk assigned that day still has a ways to go, or you might have just caught him on a bad day.

    My suggestion? Go again. If the same monk is leading the meditation and sutra reading, or you get the same vibe and the monk gets up to leave before asking for questions, speak up. Politely ask if they have a monk who can spend a few minutes answering questions. See what happens.
  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    The first formal Zen practice I ever did was at a center where there were public-meeting nights -- times when there would be seated and walking meditation, a short talk by some senior student, and then an informal tea afterwards. Public-meeting nights differed from member nights in the sense that member nights were strictly sitting and walking. Seldom was there a talk and there was no informal tea afterwards: Just go, sit, walk, sit, walk until it was time to leave.

    But during the informal teas at public meeting nights, there was room for questions and conversation. I asked the questions I had at the time and was terribly frustrated by the answers I got. Everyone seemed determined to evade my questions or at any rate didn't answer in ways that made much sense to me. This became so frustrating that I can remember sitting at one tea and thinking, "Why don't you just tell me what I want to know so I can get the hell out of here?!!!"

    But of course people were doing their best to be helpful -- to answer questions and encourage me. The fact that I couldn't hear them was a function of my own lack of experience. It is the sitting and walking that provided experience ... and as time went by, I got less cranky. If the upshot of spiritual endeavor could be explained, we could all just go to the library or a lecture and stop wasting time sitting and walking.
  • Give it another try. It might've been an off day for the monk. Ch'an Noob might be able to give us a good answer, but he hasn't been around for awhile. Are there any other Ch'an practitioners in the house?
  • Invincible_summerInvincible_summer Heavy Metal Dhamma We(s)t coast, Canada Veteran
    Could you describe a little bit more how you were hoping it would be? I am just curious because I would then compare it to how I wish to practice or reach out to a sangha.

    I'll share my experience of a course I am taking. A have coursebooks. And I practice alone. I have had numerous questions (e-mail) answered by the lama and the answers she gives blow me away. A forum with the sangha and some extra reading courses with a weekly post from a small discussion (each member posts). I have been happy with it because I really feel the teachings they give are a little different and have been very powerful in my life.

    So I was curious what you were hoping for? Were you hoping for a question and answer session of the monk?
    Well, that's the thing, I'm not 100% sure what my expectations were/are. Like many Western Buddhists, I grew up going to a Christian church, so perhaps the whole sermon and choir thing is still lingering in the back of my mind. Obviously that doesn't happen with Chan/Zen Buddhism though.

    So going along with the sermon thing, I guess I expected a dharma talk (which they have on another day unfortunately) and some Q & A. To me, those would be signs that the sangha is here to encourage people along the practice, not just a fancy place to do meditation in.

    It is the sitting and walking that provided experience ... and as time went by, I got less cranky. If the upshot of spiritual endeavor could be explained, we could all just go to the library or a lecture and stop wasting time sitting and walking.
    Yeah that's really true.

    But that begs the question... what is the point of going to a temple/centre to practice with others if you could just do that on your own? I'm not trying to be antagonistic, just asking a rhetorical question.




    Thanks for the responses everyone. I do intend to go again in the event that it was an off-day for the monk, as well as to see if there's something more that I missed from feeling self-conscious as a first-timer in a temple.




    Btw: what is one supposed to "do" when reading sutra passages? Think about the words? Or just read it? It's quite a lot of text to read and think about at the same time. I guess since I felt like I was just reading for the sake of reading (i.e. I wasn't sure what to think about), the experience felt quite ritualized, but in a bad way.
  • MindGateMindGate United States Veteran
    Does this temple have a website?
  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran
    edited December 2011
    Every temple is different but just regular practice session are really not that engaging. Scheduled dharma talks are much more engaging usually. Personal interviews with the teacher or monk are even more so. Providing a nice place to practice meditation, is itself, encouraging people along in the practice. Practice with others is beneficial because practice with others makes it easier to maintain the discipline that is necessary. It also bring out more of your own flaws so you can see them more clearly. IMO, you are placing too many judgments on the people and the temple. It would be better to just follow along rather than to always be judging it as good or bad. It's a Buddhist temple. All of it is good! :)
  • Invincible_summerInvincible_summer Heavy Metal Dhamma We(s)t coast, Canada Veteran
    Every temple is different but just regular practice session are really not that engaging. Scheduled dharma talks are much more engaging usually. Personal interviews with the teacher or monk are even more so. Providing a nice place to practice meditation, is itself, encouraging people along in the practice. Practice with others is beneficial because practice with others makes it easier to maintain the discipline that is necessary. It also bring out more of your own flaws so you can see them more clearly. IMO, you are placing too many judgments on the people and the temple. It would be better to just follow along rather than to always be judging it as good or bad. It's a Buddhist temple. All of it is good! :)
    Yeah I do realize that I am very judgmental of the temple. I think my negative experience stemmed from the fact that I felt very self-conscious and anxious as a newcomer (I struggle with social anxiety disorder) and wasn't just open to the whole experience.


    As I said, I do plan to go back and give it a few more tries at least, since I realize I was probably just not being "open.| I really wish I could make it for the dharma talks though.
  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    edited December 2011
    "what is the point of going to a temple/centre to practice with others if you could just do that on your own?"

    @invincible_summer -- This is a reasonable question, one response to which is this: The danger of practicing meditation alone is pride; the danger of practicing with others is laziness. So, in one sense, it's screwed if you do an screwed if you don't. But that is the name of the game -- meeting the dangers that crop up in spiritual endeavor and seeing them through.

    Without getting too ooey-gooey about it, there is a also great power to be found in practicing with others. Literally, it cannot be described ... and it is not simply a figment of an a typically over-active believer's imagination. Likewise there is great power in practicing alone ... and again it cannot be described.

    So, no matter where anyone turns, there is both danger and power in spiritual endeavor. Determining which is which and not getting tricked ... well, practice helps in that regard. :)
  • Hi @invincible_summer

    I remember when I visited places, well Dharma centers are probably not exactly Churches that is for sure (laugh). Go again, and if you do not like it at all, then find another one nearby.

    Best wishes,
    Abu
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