My own halting attempts to meditate had begun about six months
ago after I stumbled across a meditation manual in, of all places,
the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reference library. Several days a week
I would enter my den in my sweat suit (or whatever clothes I
happened to be wearing that morning), shut off the computer and find
the comfortable chair in the corner of our den. But on a recent
evening at Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the nuns would have none of
HOW TO MEDITATE 101
In a parlor at the monastery, they giggled when I put on my own
gray meditation robe. Their laughter grew louder as they forced me
to contort my fat Western legs beneath me in the position known as
the half-lotus. Learning to ignore physical pain, they said, was
part of the process.
Then I joined them in the temple, where I bowed toward the statue
of Buddha and took my meditation position, sitting down on a big
pillow and pulling my creaking legs beneath me. A layperson was on
the mat to my right, the nun Cinnamon a few feet to my left. I laid
my hands in my lap, looked out at oaks in the fading sunlight and
began counting my breath, one to 10 then over again.
"If any thought arises, recognize this as not your true nature,"
Cinnamon had instructed me earlier. "Drop it right away and return
to your breathing. When conscious thinking stops, all that remains
is calmness and awareness."
So as I sat there that night, I thought of work, then returned to
the counting. My son's hockey team, then the counting. My daughter's
new apartment . . . the anniversary of my brother's death . . . my
aching legs, then back to the counting. I eventually switched to
Tibetan mantras, then the Catholic rosary. Every so often, there
were moments of true calm, a few blessed seconds when the wheels of
my life ceased to spin, which, I take it, is the whole point of
After an hour or so, I began to cheat, looking around at the
others, the nuns who had become my friends, plying me with mangoes
and Vietnamese cooking at every opportunity, laughing at my Western
jokes, trusting me with their ancient ways. They were from Vietnam,
London, Denver, California, Washington state. One was a widow who
had raised a family before becoming a nun. Another a lawyer. Another
worked in banking before answering the spiritual call. To me, their
kindness and tranquility were a testament to the efficacy of
An alarm clocked beeped, and one of the nuns lightly tapped a
bell. The nuns rolled their heads and briskly massaged their arms
and legs. When the nuns emerged from meditation, they seemed
surprised that I was still there.
"Maybe," a nun named Hue Thanh said, "you were Vietnamese in a
past life."Opening the door to meditationInside the new temple, the
floors are covered by lush gray carpet, the walls painted a vivid
yellow, but the focal point, of course, is the huge statue of Buddha
at the head of the room, surrounded by flowers, fruit offerings and
a fluorescent halo (behind the statue's head).
Each day begins here for the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery nuns, who
at 4 a.m. walk from the small buildings where they sleep, moving
through the darkness like apparitions in their gray robes. One of
them lights incense, another rings the large bell near the altar.
The nuns prostrate themselves toward the statue three times, then
move to their separate mats, facing outer walls. For the next two
hours (and again for 90 minutes in the evening), they sit with their
legs crossed beneath them, as still as the Buddha statue itself.
But they are not in trances as they sit, as many Westerners might
assume.Meditation is not a form of self-hypnosis, the nuns say, but
the practice of emptying the mind while remaining aware. For
beginning meditators in the Zen tradition, that typically means
sitting quietly and focusing on breathing, while calmly trying to
banish any intruding thoughts.
Such is the central practice of one of the world's oldest
religions, one handed down from Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince
born six centuries before Christ. As a young man, Gautama renounced
his wealth to become a wandering ascetic. After years of study and
suffering, Gautama is said to have attained enlightenment while
meditating beneath a ficus tree, henceforth becoming known to
history as the Buddha, or "awakened one."
Greatly distilled, Buddhist teaching comes to this: Life is an
unpleasant cycle of birth, death and rebirth that continues until a
person achieves enlightenment. The chief cause of the ubiquitous
suffering is the chaotic, ego-driven human mind, which hops
maniacally from thought to thought "like a monkey in a tree," as the
Zen nuns say. Meditation is the Buddhist antidote.
"You say to your mind, `I am the boss,' " the nun named Cinnamon
said one day, smiling.
By calming the mind through meditation, a person's "Buddha
nature" (the Christian equivalent, perhaps, to the Holy Spirit) is
allowed to emerge. Enlightenment, the full and permanent
understanding of transcendence, is only rarely achieved, Buddhists
say. But recent research shows that even a few minutes of meditation
a day is beneficial to the meditator's physical and mental
At the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the nuns say they can sit for
hours, with thoughts only occasionally flitting by like wispy clouds
in an otherwise blue sky. But in Zen, they say, meditation is about
more than sitting. It also is an admonition to living in the moment.
As such, the nuns say they meditate while walking, while eating,
while watering the flowers.
"You think of only water and flowers," the abbess, Princess Snow,
explained one day, waving her hands across her face. "Nothing
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