January 13th, 2017
When things work out, I like to get up early on Saturday mornings and start my day at the Great Lake Zen Center. The center is part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, which is a Korean flavor of the tradition. I will not attempt to explain Zen. The very act of explaining is self-defeating. Zen is best summed up (for me) as “sit down and shut up”. Anything else is superfluous. We spend an hour chanting (in Korean), sitting in silence, and walking in silence. There is usually a brief reading from the works of the founder, Sueng Sahn, and then an even briefer discussion of his obscure and cryptic lessons. After that, we go for coffee at some shop that is connected to some fundamentalist, Bible-based local church. Why not?
The coffee time is sometimes the best part of Zen practice. We have a very tight sangha (community). People at the center care about each other, and it feels like a family. We meditate together, and we always seem to be in each other’s hearts. This is a big deal to me. When we sit and suck coffee after our practice, I feel strongly connected with those around me. I can’t adequately describe the feeling. It’s not rational. It’s totally intuitive. However, it is very, very real.
When things work out, I drive from the Zen Center to Lake Park Synagogue. Lake Park is another spiritual home for me. The synagogue is an Orthodox shul. Intensely Jewish. Big time Halacha. The folks at this shul take their tradition very seriously, but somehow, some way, they have accepted me into their midst. I’m not Jewish, and I never will be. They know that, and I know that. However, this synagogue is my home. For real. I belong there. I don’t know why. It makes no sense. It doesn’t really matter. I need to be with these people. I feel it in my gut. And they want me there with them. That’s the weird part. They know that I should be there.
Shlomo was there in the shul. Shlomo was the first rabbi that I ever met. He was the perfect person to introduce me to Judaism. He was the rabbi at Lake Park when I first visited there in October of 2009. He was welcoming and tolerant and patient. He is my friend. On Saturday morning, when I walked into the synagogue late (because of Zen and coffee), he greeted me and asked me to sit next to him. That felt good. It felt right.
Shacharit (the morning prayer on Shabbat) is almost entirely said in Hebrew. My knowledge of Hebrew is minimal. I know just enough to listen to the Hebrew that is spoken, and then connect it with the English translation in the siddur. I can follow along with most of the prayers. Some of them I can say with everyone else. It’s strange. My experience with Hebrew prayers is similar to my experience with Korean chants. I understand very little, but I flow with the words and the cadence. I feel the meaning, even when I can’t think through the verbiage. It all feels right. It all feels true.
After shacharit, we have kiddush at the shul. It’s the Jewish equivalent to Zen coffee. We eat kosher snacks, and we do shots of scotch. We talk about what is important in our lives. We care about each other. We give a damn about people we do not often see. We connect. We are one.
What am I? The Zen answer is: “Don’t know.”
If pressed for more details, my answer is: “Zenjew.”