By Karen Sivan
Karen Sivan recounts her stay in a Zen Center near Kodaikanal, and her return to the ‘marketplace’ to set up a Zen meditation center in Kerala
From 2007 until mid 2012, I lived in a Zen center, Bodhi Zendo, near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, and in July 2012 returned to ‘the marketplace’ with the aim of forming a meditation group, which I called Kin Hin near Trivandrum.
I had moved to India in 1997, looking for a way to live my life more honestly, attempting to remove the division between work life and the other life. The idea had been sprouting for some time, and when I visited Kovalam for a three-week package holiday in April 1997, it immediately felt like a homecoming. I cried on the verandah of my hotel, overwhelmed by the endless view of palm trees and sea. I told myself that I was tired after the long journey, perhaps slightly nervous about being alone in India, and thought no more about it.
I carried with me a journal, and a few days before the holiday, a paragraph in a book review had jumped out at me and I had it taped to the cover:
“Let the journey begin, let it be magical. The way has been prepared, people are expecting you.” In hindsight, that was exactly how it was. Within three days, I met all the people that would help me make India my home. A great number of these people are still in my life today. I never imagined I would leave Kovalam, as after having lived there for 10 years, I believed it to be my home.
However, seven years ago, I grappled with the question of whether or not I should leave Kerala, and go to live at Bodhi Zendo. More recently, I tried to answer the question of whether or not I should stop living at Bodhi Zendo and return to Kerala, and what Zen terms ‘the marketplace.’ I think with both these questions, I grappled with why (or if) I really wanted to, worried about the logistics of how I would actually be able to do it, and had internal debates over the right and wrong of it all for about a year and a half.
In both cases, at an imperceptible moment, there were suddenly no more questions, just a decisive, ‘Yes, do it.’ All the ‘hows’ were no longer given any credence. I left them to take care of themselves, and for faith and trust to take care of me. Gratefully, I watched as life miraculously responded to taking charge of the ‘hows.’ This has been the way of nearly all the big decisions in my life. When I finally let go of the logistics, the ‘yes, buts,’ and all the many reasons why I could not just ‘Do It’, life has made things happen, and at incredible speed.
In June 2003, I first visited Bodhi Zendo to attend a mini ‘sesshin.’ Much as I liked the place, it took me until November 2004 to return for another mini ‘sesshin.’ Fr. Ama was out on both these occasions, and I did not meet him until the January ‘sesshin’ in 2005. I remember shyly approaching him in the library after the ‘sesshin,’ as I felt compelled to tell him how much his ‘Teishos’ had touched me that week. I was coming to terms with a break-up of my marriage, and felt in the midst of an emotional tsunami. I recall I spent most of the ‘sesshin’ in tears, yet sensed that my wounds went far beyond my current situation.
I was drawn to spending more and more time at Bodhi Zendo, and marvelling at Ama Samy’s direct way of speaking to my heart. Still, I was convinced I was not a ‘community’ person, and afraid my desire to stay longer at Bodhi Zendo was a form of running away. In the following two years, I visited Bodhi Zendo 11 times. Each time I stayed just that little bit longer, and each time grew a little bit less nervous about speaking to the Master.
I debated my doubts and questions until there was no longer a question. In October 2006, Fr. Ama accepted me as his disciple, and shortly after, I moved into Bodhi Zendo as a staff member. It was a good decision, and was a most rewarding experience for me, providing amongst other things, a steep learning curve on the many aspects of living in a community.
Swimming against the tide is never easy but life may call us sometimes to take ‘radical’ decisions; to go against our cultural upbringing and instilled belief system, to move away from our comfort zone and do what our heart knows is correct.
Living and working in the center meant my days were full. There was a compulsory daily schedule for meditation and sometimes 40 guests keeping me engaged. It suited me to live within the confines of the schedule for I feel that often it is too much choice that ultimately unsettles us. Knowing what one is expected to do at a certain time can actually be freeing as opposed to constricting. At certain times in our lives, though, our needs change and for me I realized that the time had come to move on and look afresh at how I wanted to live my life.
Luckily, I did not really consider the extent of the shift I made leaving my ‘comfort zone’ of the center. It was a hard transition finding myself in a new situation, concerned again with supporting myself financially and being responsible for house maintenance. The spiritual journey is often portrayed as a life of bliss but this is a fallacy. I went through some dark weeks, doubted my ability and had serious concerns about how I would manage. There are difficulties in community living, but there is always support holding us up. Suddenly, I was on my own again and initially I floundered.
On a deeper level, I did not regret leaving the known for the unknown and hung on to faith and trust to help me. My idea in establishing Kin-Hin was to enable people (myself included) to come together to sit in meditation and be nourished by the experience. I was ready to leave the center but wanted to keep my practice alive. Koun Yamada wrote in his book, The Gateless Gate that “to sit zazen alone is so difficult it is almost impossible. For effective zazen it is very important to practice sitting with a group, at least occasionally.” Alone I might sit for 20 minutes in the morning and then not every day. I knew that once a sitting group was established, the rest would fall into place.
It began with one man coming to stay and us sitting together morning and evening for an hour. In December 2012, Ama Samy honoured me by inaugurating the center and many came for the opening function.
After that, it all seemed to fall into place. The pieces of the jigsaw came together and seeing my dream manifest before my eyes was a humbling, incredible experience. I understood that it would not have been this way without the preceding difficulties.
Walking meditation with 10 people behind me and looking at the mats we had got up from with amazement, my heart today overflows with gratitude.
Sitting with a group gives us the chance to connect with one another on a profound level without the need for words. All too often we are spinning around in our own worlds, driven by the demands and desires of our mind and sadly feeling somewhat lost and disconnected. Someone asked me what I got from sitting. I replied that it reminds me of who I’m not!
I myself do not understand exactly why it is so important for me to practice. When we sit together, I understand a little more. I am thankful for all of the life turns that brought me to the place I am today. The support found in group sitting is incalculable. It gives me the strength to carry on and helps me through the times of doubt that invariably come to test me.
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