Arcata’s Zen group offers respite from today’s tumultuous times

By Casey Barton
Flapjack Staff

Wondering how local Arcata Zen Buddhists are handling this tumultuous time in America? After experiencing a Dharma talk with The Arcata Zen Group,  you could return home feeling more refreshed and willing to utilize practices such as “radical acceptance,” to empower yourself and your community.

At 8 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, Local Zen Buddhists arrive at Trillium Dance Studio where the Arcata Zen Group accommodates its larger Sunday crew. Newcomers are greeted by the very sweet Rose Brewster, a long time member of the group who was helping to set up for morning meditation.

“There will be a potluck at the main house this afternoon, following the Dharma talk,” Brewster said. “You’re always welcome to join us if you have the time.”

After removing shoes and quieting down, individuals enter the well-transformed dance studio which serves as the group’s alternative zendo (meditation hall). For beginners, it’s good to brush up on basic zendo procedures to be respectful and properly prepare yourself for meditation with this group. AZG provides a great introduction to their meditation style and zendo etiquette on the Beginner’s Handbook page of their website. Sunday gatherings begin with multiple periods of meditation, both zazen (sitting) and kinhin (walking). After meditation, there are a series of prayers or dedications and the recitation of a holy mantra. The Prajnaparamita, sanskrit for “Heart Sutra,” was read on Sunday. As a well known writing which comments on the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism hearing the Prajnaparamita is a special feature for those interested in the depth of this tradition. When the meditation services came to a close, students gathered before Soto Zen Priest, Eugene Bush, for the morning’s Dharma talk on how the Buddha’s teachings relate to current issues.

Bush opened the Dharma talk by recognizing the turbulence of America’s political and social realities; specifically how individuals can be seriously affected by current events.

“Enduring trust is what we need,” he said. “Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha, will help us to understand the current issues at hand.”

The attention of the room settled in his words. The teachings presented here essentially confirming that one should take reliance on the teacher, the duties and teachings of life, and the community that one serves. He began to comment on the method one should approach uncomfortable times with, which boiled down to the following primary qualities:

Daily practice— Within this tradition, high importance is placed on embodying the Buddha’s teachings and practicing meditation to contemplate their influence. The changes that happen within oneself inevitably ripple outward and affect others. “We can take our peace gained during [periods of mediation] into the world and spread that peace and compassion with others,” Bush said.

Willingness— Bush reminded the group that a huge key to successfully reaching acceptance is having “a willingness to continually expand one’s view.” Willingness can also help someone to fully express the compassion within themselves, which again translates to how one sees and interacts with the world around them.

Radical Acceptance— “When one begins an acceptance of life as it is, they may begin to live in accordance with it as it is,” Bush said. Yes, this may seem like a radical perspective to hold; especially in a time that seems so badly to need force to get things done. However, force was somewhat discouraged and its alternative aspect, acceptance, was upheld.

As the teachings were discussed further during a period of Q&A, Margaret Shaffer, another long term member of 16 years and a local activist with the Humboldt Buddhist Peace Fellowship, openly questioned the inclusivity of radical acceptance. “Radical acceptance seems difficult to achieve,” she said.  “How can we begin to share this perspective compassionately, when so many seem to be resistant?” The answer to this question being what many are still working to perfect on the Zen path.

It seemed clear that many in the Zen community remain quite involved in creating both inner and outer peace, for the betterment of all beings. Joining AZG on their home grounds in north Arcata for the afternoon potluck,  a deep reflection of the group’s members revealed just how active everyone is in perpetuating peaceful action. Multiple Buddhist Peace Fellowship members, volunteers from AZG’s prison sangha program and independent “warriors” of peace, gathered to carry on the earlier discussion.

Paula Arrowsmith, another wise member of the group and volunteer of the prison program, shared her early experiences questioning the underlying intention of varying world religions.

“At that age, I just couldn’t accept that any religion was based in hatred,” Arrowsmith admitted. “I still don’t.”

This opened some conversation to the effect of her Zen practice and how transformative it has been for her.

For anyone who is interested in visiting the Arcata Zen Group during their service schedule or for further inquiries, please follow the website link arcatazengroup.org.

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