Open Mind, Open Heart

A couple of weeks ago some students from the college that I work at mentioned that they were going to be visiting a local mosque to learn about their culture and religion. This fascinated me because I didn’t even know there was such a place for worship here in our area. Part of the direction of the Only Love Zen Sangha is to build bridges, tear down walls, and spread love and compassion where possible. One of the ways in which I want to try to achieve this is to visit/study other places of worship from all different faith backgrounds. My Great Teacher is doing this very thing in Michigan, and he has inspired me to do the same.  I thought this might be a place to start.  I went to the website and filled out the information to set up a visit. In my request to the spiritual leader there, I requested information on the proper etiquette for visitors to make sure that I didn’t do anything offensive. I think this is very important to try to appreciate other customs and rules because they are allowing me to visit.

 

Other religions fascinate me!  I love to study other cultures and traditions, so I was pretty excited about my adventure.  When the day finally came and I realized that I was going, I started to have some unusual apprehension that I had not planned on. It dawned on me when I got in the car that the scarf that I had on my head could might make it appear that I am a Muslim. This frightened me a little bit.  It wasn’t that long ago that a Buddhist priest was mistaken for a Muslim and was beaten.  I honestly looked out the windows of my car, and I pulled the scarf off my head. I realized then what some Muslims in our culture in America have to go through on a daily basis. It made me a little sick at my stomach the fact that certain groups have to walk around in fear all the time just because they have a tradition of covering their heads out of respect.  I realized then that the way people are judged by their looks is terrifying.  Why would anyone assume that all people of any particular background,race, religion or anything should be condemned or hurt or worse? So I decided that I would drive to the mosque (also more appropriately called a masjid) and honor everything about what they did and how they did it.

 

I got lost looking for the place so when I finally arrived it was raining, and a lady drove up in her car in full dress and I watched her walk in because they have a separate door for sisters as women are called. So I very quietly walked in behind her and I sat down after I realized I needed to take off my shoes.  I observed the woman in another room bowing in silence and praying. There was something very beautiful about her doing this and it reminded me of why I was there. I was there to find the similarities not the differences.  I bow in my practice as a Buddhist.  I do prostrations in my practice as a Buddhist.  I pray and chant in my practice.  There was absolutely no difference between her and me.

 

About that time a lady who was walking with a crutch came into the room where I was sitting and was very nice and asked me if she could help me. She identified herself as the Admin there and asked how I knew the teacher there.  I said that I had talked with him earlier that week via email and that he had told me that I could come to the class. She was very gracious and said that she had seen that email and made me feel welcome.

 

The first lady who came in before me told me what to expect and just told me to have a seat and make myself comfortable. She asked me what was my reason for being there, and I said that I was there studying different religious paths because I was a Zen Buddhist priest and I wanted to get to know a little bit about other traditions and other religious values and other places of worship so that in my quest to build bridges I would be able to speak with a little bit of knowledge about each and every place that I visit.  We chatted for a few minutes about looking for peaceful connections in things rather than creating opposites.

 

After I saw where I needed to sit, I sat beside her on the carpet in this big room very sparsely decorated. There were no statues, no crosses, no deities of any kind.  The man at the front of the room was dressed in a long, white robe with beads around his neck and white cap on his head.  He was standing next to a whiteboard and a few books on a little stand and he introduced himself.  

 

The next hour was filled with the beginning history of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather and talking about the history of Islam as it relates to the Prophet Muhammad, his grandmother and Medina and Mecca and how all of that kind of tied together. He said that this was like the beginning of a 6 to 8 week course; just a very generalized history of the Prophet’s life and his timeline.

 

The whole hour went by so fast because I was captivated by all the stories I had never heard before, a beautiful story. I was enthralled and really enjoyed listening to everything.  People came in during the class to sit and listen or just take notes.  It was very relaxed.  People could ask questions and comment about things that he was talking about.

 

After the class was over I sat and talked with the lady that walked in before me and we just talked about different aspects of the class and then she asked me what my purpose was for being there. My answer: “LOVE”, and she smiled.  We chatted some more about similarities and that people want peace and love in their lives.  Nobody wants to hurt and suffer.  I want to spread peace in the world and I want to figure out ways to do that. She shared with me some more about her Buddhist background and how she could relate to what I was doing.

 

After the class the teacher and I talked for a little bit about why I had come and my purpose.  I shared with him that in the past I was an activist with anger and how that never solved anything.  It never made anything better.  He seemed to understand and opened the book he had in his hand called “The Book of Wisdom”.  The very first few lines of the first chapter says, “One of the signs of relying on one’s own deeds is the loss of hope when a downfall occurs.  Our desire for isolation, even though God has put you in the world to gain a living, is a hidden passion.  And your desire to gain a living in the world, even though God has put you in isolation, if a comedown from a lofty aspiration.”

 

He invited me to an interfaith dialogue dinner later this month where 12 different religious leaders come together and eat dinner and talk about their paths. He asked if I would come as his guest and then he gave me the book that he had been reading from.  He said that in the past he had not found a Buddhist to participate in this gathering before and he said that he quit trying much like the passage in the book had said and when he did, I came to the class.  

 

This meant so much to me.  I went with an open heart and an open mind and I feel as though I made new friends.  I wrote him after class and asked him if I could continue to come to classes so that I can continue to learn. He said that I am very welcome to come and continue to listen to his classes and that he was excited that I was coming to the dinner.  
This was a beautiful experience!  When we go out in the world with an open heart and an open mind, beautiful things can happen if we are willing to listen and trust that moment.  We find good if we are looking for good.  We find peace if we are willing to cultivate it.  We spread love if we can be love!  The choice is ours!  Peace, Saij

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Waking Up…

So one night I am Skyping with my Great Teacher, a monk/priest in the Zen Buddhist tradition. As we are wrapping up the teaching, he asks me….”Are you awake?” I said…um…yes. I think so. Being awake requires one to be present in the moment and actually pay attention to what is happening in that moment all around you moment after moment. It’s the ability to be that way in each and every moment…something that escapes me 99.99% of the time every single day! When I try to be awake in the moment and pay attention, I try to hold on to that feeling, that presence of mind. This particular evening, I thought that when we get done with our teaching session, I would try to hold on to this thought long enough to walk through the house and onto the deck to tell my partner about what it meant to me to be awake. Now, let me also say that that requires walking through five small rooms to get to my deck. I am not proud of the fact that it took me literally two rooms to lose my present moment. I thought to myself, this is hard….remaining completely present in the moment and only being in this moment alone. I almost instantly and without any effort leap to the future or go to the past. It is very hard work maintaining “awakeness” every moment…moment after moment. Needless to say, by the time I walked through the five small rooms in my house to get to the deck, I had worked out so many things in my head, planned several events, figured out what we should have for dinner, redesigned my bathroom, etc. etc. all in my head and at the same time realizing that that is exactly what I was doing and thinking to myself…how is it that I can’t hold onto a thought for more than a nanosecond? Living in the moment, paying attention to the here and now takes practice every single day. On the rare occasion when all the stars align and I can actually stay in the moment for more than a moment, I feel more, I hear more, I see more, I love more….I am aware of more than just myself. I am awake…..even if just for a moment…..Zen Ragamuffin