I arrived early at temple this past Sunday. I lolled in the main hallway outside the hondo,  which is the room where our services are held, so I could finish my coffee before entering. Noticing that a zazen, or meditation, service was already underway in the hondo, I tried to stand still so the heels of my boots wouldn’t clack against the linoleum floor and disturb the group.

As the clock ticked toward ten, the large carved temple doors began swinging open and injecting groups of chilled Buddhists, mostly elders, into the hallway. In Buddhist culture, warm greetings are common, almost expected, as people pass one another. And so the hallway was soon filled with the sounds of friendly exchanges and the unwrapping of coats, scarves and hats.

Soon the doorway of the hondo was filled with a large man wearing a frown. He sternly surveyed the crowd in the hallway and then loudly proclaimed, “People are trying to meditate in here. It would be nice if you could all keep it down next time.” The man marched back to his seat in the hondo and returned to his meditation.

The group was silenced for a moment, followed by a chorus of low-volume, “polite” snickers. The elders were chuckling like discreetly disobedient students in the back of a classroom.

“If he wants to learn to meditate, he might remember that it is wise to learn to meditate through the distraction,” someone said. More chuckling. Nods of agreement.

Anyone can meditate in silence,” chimed in a tiny woman who must have been in her eighties. More nods.

This was their polite way of referencing a recurring theme found in Buddhism: other people are not the problem. You are the problem.

In other words, look inside yourself for the root of any distress before you look outside. (And the wisest Buddhists would add that if you’re looking for the right thing, you will always find the root inside; it will never be outside.)

This man was missing the point of meditation. The goal is not to create a calm, peaceful sanctuary where focus arrives with ease, almost like a gift. If we meditated that way, what would be learning? After all, few things in life arrive this way.

The goal of meditation is to harness not just our nagging, unpredictable thoughts but also to harness our senses – to learn how to focus our energies despite what’s going on around us, despite the tumult of outside forces. That serves us much better outside the meditation room; that’s how we learn the skills that will help us remain steady through the ebb and tide of life’s trials, triumphs, disappointments and surprises.

In true Buddhist fashion, the elders didn’t scold or correct that man; I didn’t see anyone address him later on as we filled in for the main service or broke into groups for dharma school. Unless he asks for guidance, they’ll wait for him to get there on his own, to figure out that next time he shouldn’t break zazen, stand up, walk out, scold the crowd and then try returning to meditation. They’ll wait for him to figure out that he disrupted himself far more than they disrupted him. When he does, he’ll realize that the solution to his problem is to move deeper into his thoughts, farther from his distracted ears, until he realizes that he has the power to control his own world, that he has the solution – and he need not ask anyone else to provide it for him.

Image: Staffan Scherz via Flickr Creative Commons


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