As my readers know, I’m a big fan of mindfulness. The research on its benefits is so compelling that it has become an integral part of many of the most effective psychological treatments for problems ranging from depression, to anxiety, to even addiction, and self-harm. (See my previous article for more details.)
Given the extent to which I emphasize and integrate mindfulness in my clinical practice, many of my patients have asked about local groups, meetups, and classes in mindfulness. Having only recently moved to the Bay Area, I was frustratingly short on answers. I’d heard about the Zen Center of Sunnyvale and wanted to check-it out. The opportunity to do so presented itself this fall when they offered another cycle of their popular Level I Zen Buddhism class.
In the 15 years since first being introduced to mindfulness, I’ve had my fair share of exposure to teachers, approaches, and methods for cultivating mindfulness. I can honestly say that none of my previous experiences were as valuable or transformative as the time I’ve spent at the Zen Center these last several months. What makes the Zen Center so awesome? Oh let me count the ways:
Many of the places I’ve frequented for meditation seem so entrenched in their particular sect of Buddhism that they feel inaccessible to people outside of those traditions. Services are not always offered in English and, when they are, there is still a very specific way in which you are supposed to do things that somehow everyone else seems to know. As a result, I’ve often felt like an uninvited guest crashing someone else’s party at these services.
On the other hand, the academic approaches to mindfulness often swing too much in the other direction. Afraid of scaring people off with tradition and formality, many have stripped mindfulness of its religious and cultural roots. In so doing, they’ve inadvertently abandoned many of the components that are critical to deepening one’s practice.
The Zen Center of Sunnyvale offers somewhat of a middle path between these two extremes. They identify with a distinct lineage and actively pay respect to their heritage. They are true to their tradition in their emphasis on how to act within the Zen Center (how to sit, how to bow, etc.). However, not only do they provide clear instructions to newbies on what to do, they also go above and beyond in explaining the significance of these customs. Having to bow a certain way might seem rigid, even off putting, to outsiders. Knowing the reasoning behind Zen’s attention to detail, however, makes these seemingly foreign formalities immediately relevant, even to someone who has no interest in being a Buddhist and just wants to practice mindfulness. They explain that paying sharp attention to how you carry your body and attend to the space around you helps you stay focused on the present moment.
That being said, the Abbot consistently encourages students to ask questions and share their thoughts or uncertainty about the practice. In so doing, the Zen Center succeeds at maintaining the essence of their tradition, while genuinely considering how to adapt this approach such that it is accessible to people of various religious and cultural orientations.
2. They practice what they preach
The extent to which experiences like “mindfulness” and Zen Buddhism have been commercialized is hard to deny (I recently saw a $250 Zen blanket for sale on Amazon. To be clear: this was just a blanket). Those seeking to learn more about how to cultivate a mindfulness practice or deepen their current practice will find that doing so can cost you an arm and a leg. Weekend retreats can cost thousands and formal training in various types of meditation are often equally expensive.
I’ve paid my fair share for all of the above over the years, so suffice it to say I was skeptical when I heard that the Zen Center offers its courses to the public for free. Little did I know that their free classes were just the beginning. The Center offers half-day retreats every Sunday as well as various workshops and activities throughout the year, FOR FREE. They even provide a 7 day silent retreat each year, again, FOR FREE. In addition, they provide lunch and dinner (all vegetarian) to practitioners every day of the week. And I am not kidding when I say that this is some of the best vegetarian food in the Bay Area. Seriously their daily buffet has 5 star Yelp reviews.
They are supported by a committed group of volunteers and are sustained by donations. The Center is full of reminders to “take only what you need,” and “reduce, reuse, and recycle” is a mantra that is taken as seriously as any other.
This complete lack of concern for profit and absence of greed is foreign to say the least. More importantly though this approach communicates their teachings on loving-kindness and altruism in ways words cannot. In coming to the Zen Center I’ve learned that our attempts to understand selflessness are made easier by being in the presence of those who practice it.
This is a quick point, but an important one. The Center puts some serious effort towards building community. Those taking classes will enjoy potlucks and small group discussions. In addition, the Center hosts countless events including movie nights, food drives, and even Thanksgiving. As I mentioned, they also have a close knit group of volunteers that come together regularly. If you are new to the area, or just looking to expand your social network, the Zen Center won’t disappoint.
4. Dude knows his stuff
As we all know, the culture of a place is often determined and reinforced by the people at the top. Think of Jobs’ effect on Apple, or the culture of “do no evil” that Larry and Sergey reinforce across Google’s campus.
The Zen Center is no exception. Their success at maintaining an influential yet egoless presence in the heart of Silicon Valley might seem like a contradiction. That is until you meet the Abbot, Venerable JianYing.
Originally from Taiwan, Ven. JianYing has been an ordained monk for 10 years and has more than one doctorate beneath his belt. His education and training enable him to effectively explore heady topics like impermanence and suffering in ways that resonate and are palatable to a diverse audience. He speaks Chinese; he speaks English; he can speak in terms of science; he can speak in terms of philosophy or spirituality. His ability to speak so many different “languages” reflects his deeper commitment to flexibility in general. He appears completely uninvested in getting you to see things his way. Instead he seems intent on helping you see things as they are.
For all of the reasons listed above, I highly recommend the Zen Center of Sunnyvale to those interested in developing a mindfulness practice. They regularly offer courses throughout the year. In the context of these courses participants meet weekly for 2 hours - the first half of class is typically spent in meditation, the second half is devoted to a lecture. The next beginners course will be offered on Monday evenings starting in January.
Those who do not wish to commit to a weekly class can participate in their Sunday morning Zen Retreats and other workshops throughout the year. For more information on upcoming events, check out their website.
In closing I’m including a picture that was shared by the Abbot in one of our recent lectures. It provides a much more succinct explanation of how solving problems often comes down to taking a unique point of view. For me, the Zen Center has reaffirmed that, at its core, the practice of mindfulness is really nothing more than a way of staying connected to our innate capacity to see things clearly and plainly.