Kent Zendo Offers Free Buddhism Instruction to Local Communities

Oct 16, 2017

Words by Marissa Nichol

 

Walking into the Kent Zendo, silence and incense linger. The only source of light comes from two windows hidden behind translucent white curtains.

A woman who practices Zen Buddhism six days a week at the Zendo — Anne Davis, 66 — expresses a welcoming greeting.

“I’m the cleaning lady, that’s the big joke,” Davis says playfully.

The Kent Zendo is a non-profit group and Buddhist community located at a house at 555 Franklin Ave. Meditation and Buddhism instruction is offered for free here to anyone with a sincere interest in practice.

“One of the things we decided was important to us was the concept of compassion,” Davis says.

To execute this, a brass figure of a woman sitting on a moon that Davis says is the saint of compassion hangs in the entryway. Japanese characters are engraved on the moon as Japanese Zen is practiced here.

To the left of the saint is a simply decorated room with a shrine of Buddha, a candle, and a round vase holding a single flower. Traditional cushions are set up for instruction along the border of the chocolate-colored floor for one to eight people at a time.

Following Davis to the fellowship hall, she politely explains no shoes are to be worn inside as she sits cross legged on the floor.

The Zendo practices Zazen, the traditional form of meditation taught in Zen Buddhism, Davis says. The specific method of practice is called Shikantaza, which means single-minded sitting only.

This is done by sitting on the ground with eyes open, holding a specific posture that suggests perfect symmetry. Those who practice eventually stop thinking involuntarily and feel the universe recognize them.

“You focus on the mind. You don’t try to stop anything from happening,” Davis says of the practice. “Buddhism doesn’t separate the mind and body. The body is another sense just like seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting. [Buddhists] count it as a sixth sense.”

Tim McCarthy, founder of the Kent Zendo in 1984, enters the room and joins Davis sitting in the same position. A larger saint of compassion stands between the two as well as shelves filled with Buddhism books.

McCarthy, 63, is a Doctoral student and Teaching Fellow in the English Department at Kent State and has served as the teacher of Shikantaza at the Zendo since it opened. He explains the unique feeling he feels while meditating.

“Zen is an Asian method of managing your body and your mind in such a way that you recognize your true relationship with everything,” he says. “It feels like you’re hugging the universe and it feels like the universe is hugging you, too.”

The location of the Zendo changed for the second time when McCarthy purchased this house a year ago. The place of worship provides people from Kent, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Youngstown and surrounding areas an established place to do their sitting.

There are no dues, memberships or ordinations, though they do welcome donations.

Instruction is offered from 6 to 7 p.m. Sunday through Friday and 11 a.m. Sunday. Sitting Shikantaza lasts for 30 minutes and some choose to take a 10 minute break of walking followed by one more session of sitting.

A core group of people that have been practicing with McCarthy since he started teaching 33 years ago stop into the Zendo periodically, alongside others new to the practice.

Davis started practicing at the Zendo three years ago when it was located in a plaza down the street after doing yoga led to her to meditation. However, she says she has been on a spiritual path her entire life.

“What we gain by engaging in Shikantaza as a group is really just affirmation and encouragement to continue our spiritual journey,” Davis says of practicing with McCarthy.

McCarthy started practicing at 11 years old when he met a Zen Buddhist priest to find guidance in fear of going to hell as he was raised by Baptist parents. In response, the priest taught him how to do the zen form of meditation and has been practicing ever since.

He learned how to be a teacher himself from studying with Roshi Kobun Chino Otagawa at the Jikoji Zen Center in Los Gatos, California.

“The teacher is somebody who can train somebody to the point where that person can be a teacher too,” McCarthy says. “It’s a bittersweet sensation that you’re trying to draw people into a reality that you’ve stepped into at some point in your life.”

Although he is considered the teacher or “Roshi,” he doesn’t like having a title. In fact, his favorite part of teaching is watching the process of practice off to the side.

“By saying I’m the teacher, I automatically make myself different from you and that’s a contradiction. Part of the teaching is to sometimes withdraw the teaching while someone’s looking for it,” he says.

Teaching in this way allows McCarthy to share an identity with those who learn from him in a dualistic way.

Davis admires his teaching method.

“Often, because Tim is not pretentious and pompous, people think he is not the real deal. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is compassionate, dedicated, and very, very, learned,” she says.

Aside from regular meetings, people who practice here also take residential three-day retreats in Warsaw. A couple there provides a facility with log cabins where they sit Shikantaza most of the day and eat in silence.

Rather than charging groups, the couple asks them to take money from each other as if they were renting the place and donate that to a charity. The people of the Zendo have donated this money to an animal charity called Love All Serve All and to the Mennonite relief fund.

Davis says those who attend these retreats and practice at the Zendo don’t feel comfortable speaking on their own experience with Zen Buddhism.

Buddhists as a rule are very self-effacing,” she says. “They don’t believe that the individual is important because it is temporary, so they feel very uncomfortable putting themselves forward.

McCarthy, however, can speak on the covert changes he sees in those he teaches over time that are so subtle, they may not even notice it themselves.

“They start to drop the divide between their judgmental selves and their real selves,” McCarthy says. “I think I see people treating themselves less like objects.”

Marissa Nichol is a reporter, contact her at mnicho34@kent.edu.