Monastery Hopping with Yale’s Religious Studies Dept.

Last weekend, I went on somewhat of a monastery-hopping trip funded by the Religious Studies department. It was a chance to explore some of the things I’m learning in my freshman seminar, Buddhist Saints and Sinners, a course which allows students to infer Buddhist doctrine by reading stories about the Buddha’s life and his past lives, his family members, and also the biographies of several eccentric saints. While the class is awesome enough as it is, the chance to see Buddhist theory in practice (and on Yale’s money!) was an added bonus.

We got up bright and early on Saturday morning to take a bus to the Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The giant Jesus edifice on the side of the building kind of threw us off before one of the monks explained that it had previously been a Christian monastery. The monastery currently has several practicing monks and 35 residents who have chosen to live at the monastery for a period of up to two years.

Quaint Zen monastery in nestled in the Catskills

We observed the monks and residents perform a ritual with several bows and chants facing a Buddha figure before eating a delicious lunch of salad, cheese, and some type of cheese dish with cooked vegetables and sauces (meatless, of course). Then we headed to the zendo, the meditation hall, where we took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on pillows to hear a lecture by Ryushin Sensei, the abbot of the monastery. Ryushin is his christened Buddhist name; his actual name is Konrad Marchaj. Before accepting the monastic life, he actually earned a B.A. in anthropology at Yale and practiced both psychiatry and pediatry before arriving at the monastery in 1992.

Small Buddha figurine outside of the Zen monastery.

Ryushin Sensei’s lecture on Zen Buddhism brought out some interesting points. He said the fact that we were at the monastery meant we were seeking something, and he was only trying to help us find what we were looking for. It was an intriguing statement from a clear practitioner of Buddhism. He also discussed the temporary happiness that depended on changing conditions versus permanent fulfillment that could be found through Buddhism.

Finally, the moment we were all waiting for: the zazen meditation that marks Japanese Zen Buddhism. Ryushin Sensei instructed us to sit a little bit toward the front edge of the pillow instead of the center so that our body would be perfectly straight. We didn’t close our eyes but lowered them to a point that we would try to maintain throughout the 15-minute session. Our hands were cupped so that the dominant hand was on the bottom (to suppress the dominance) and our thumbs barely touching together; Ryushin Sensei explained that the hands were a window to the mind – if a person lowered the thumbs, they weren’t concentrating hard enough. We were supposed to concentrate solely on our breathing by counting our inhales and exhales and ignoring everything else around us.

The hand posture for zazen meditation in Zen Buddhism. (At which I failed miserably.)

Unfortunately, my lack of sleep the night before had me struggling to keep my eyelids from drooping. I tried the counting breaths technique, but that only led me to calculate how much more time I had to endure – count 10 seconds 6 times and a minute would pass … do that 15 times for 15 minutes to pass … I secretly prayed that Ryushin Sensei was concentrating enough on his own thumbs so that he wouldn’t see how many times my thumbs slipped past each other. Halfway through, the cross-legged position also started to kill my legs. Finally, finally, Ryushin Sensei rang the gong to signal the end of our session. After my pitiful attempt at zazen, I have even greater admiration for those who are able to concentrate on something for that long.

Our second monastery was a Tibetan institution called KTD (short for Karma Triyana Dharmachakra), also in the Catskills. Compared to the austere Zen monastery, the Tibetan monastery had a beautiful shrine, adorned with various Bodhisattva figures and detailed embroideries. Even our guest rooms had elaborate Buddhist wall decorations.

Shrine at the KTD monastery.

Various figures of Bodhshattvas beside the giant Buddha

Awesome embroidery for sale outside of the shrine room. Too bad I didn't have $500 on me.

We sat in on two meditations, the first one with a single monk playing various instruments and chanting songs. The second one was also based on music, but this time, we were able to follow translations of the songs, one dedicated to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Buddhist paradise, and another dedicated to Chinrezig, the Bodhisattva associated with compassion.

Dinner was again meatless, but I could actually contemplate eating a diet of soups, salad and fruit, bread, and cheese if they were as fresh as those served at the monastery. The rice pudding was also a nice treat.

Since there’s not too much activity at a monastery after 8 p.m., I went to bed at the earliest time in ten years and woke up at 7 for breakfast. The bus that was supposed to pick us up actually broke down, so we took a nice jaunt through the Catskills. We met the fixed bus on its way to pick us up, and the driver even offered to take us back to the temple for the remainder of the distance — but we decided to take the “Dharma Path” instead to build up our asceticism :) .

In need of some dharma? Just take this path.

Our last stop was at Kunzang Palchen Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist center still in construction, so we met the Venerable Bardor Tulku Rinpoche in the upstairs shrine room of his house. Born in Kham, East Tibet, he was recognized as the third incarnation of the terton Terchen Barway Dorje.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche was recognized as the third reincarnation of Terchen Barway Dorje, pictured here

Overall, it was an awesome trip that showed me how Buddhism has spread to America as well, although coming back to an Easter Sunday service has made me realize all the more why I am a Christian and not a Buddhist … but that is another post for another day :)

5 thoughts on “Monastery Hopping with Yale’s Religious Studies Dept.

  1. My Philosophy of Religion professor John Hare said he also tried zen buddhism, but the sitting still for 15 minutes killed him. He also said after like five minutes, all he could think about was how much his legs were killing him.

    Now I wanna try it.

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