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February 13, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, February 13, 2004

No stopping Zen center No stopping Zen center (February 13, 2004)

Protest of early hours falls flat at City Council

By Grace Rauh

When the Kannon Do Zen Meditation center opens at its new location on Rock Street, Mary Leigh Burke will be able to walk down the road at 5:30 a.m. for silent mediation sessions.

"I'm going to be the person living closest to the new Zen Center," she said. "If it's up the street from me, I'll be there often."

Kannon Do won approval from the City Council Tuesday night to open its doors at 5:30 a.m. when they move to 1972 Rock Street, despite recommendations from city staff that the center open at 7 a.m., to limit the noise impact on neighboring residents.

Several people from the nearby residential neighborhood opposed the early operating hours and were concerned with the potential noise disruptions from Zen Center members arriving in the morning to practice silent meditation.

According to Kannon Do teacher Les Kaye, pre-dawn meditation is a "vital component" of the Zen spiritual practice, as is quiet.

"In 25 years, we've never had a complaint," he said.

Kannon Do board member and public defender John Sullivan echoed Kaye's statement.

"Early morning meditation is really at the core of our practice," he said.

Sullivan invoked the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when he urged the council to approve the early morning opening. The act states that governments cannot make a land use regulation that "imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution," except when there is a "compelling" concern.

He asked the council if noise concerns are considered "compelling" concerns.

Council member Rosemary Stasek, who cast the sole dissenting vote, interpreted Sullivan's reference as a lawsuit threat. It "just makes me very, very angry," she said, referring to Sullivan's comments. No other council members expressed similar sentiments.

Kannon Do members said they were certain that early morning meditation sessions would not create any extra noise for the neighborhood. The center's members were willing to park several blocks away from Kannon Do and walk there in the early morning to ensure their cars did not disturb any residents, Kaye said.

The Zen Center also conducted a noise study, which found that any noise produced by car doors slamming was no louder than the typical early morning sounds in the neighborhood. But Jason Spencer, who lives on Rock Street, dismissed the studies as inconclusive.

"I think its very difficult to say there is some level of background noise" that would cover up sounds created by Zen Center members', he said.

Ultimately, the council sided with the Zen Center. Every council member, except Stasek, voted to allow the Zen Center to open at 5:30 a.m. and close at 9:30 p.m. They also gave Kannon Do permission to stay open past the closing hour six times a year, when they host retreats.

Residents who have noise complaints were told they could approach the city's zoning administrator, who can then opt to review the center's operating hours.

Stasek feared that without setting aside time to review noise complaints in the first few months after the center opens, the onus would be on residents to come forward and point fingers.

"It makes the neighbors the bad guys," she said.

Other council members said they felt assured that noise complaints wouldn't be an issue. Prior to Tuesday night's meeting, two council members conducted their own noise study and determined that the neighbors' fears were unfounded.

Council member Greg Perry spent an early Saturday morning at the Zen Center to listen -- for everything.

"And awake, I couldn't hear a car door," Perry said.

Mayor Matt Pear strolled neighborhood streets near Kannon Do's current location on College Avenue to talk to residents about the Zen Center and early morning traffic. He couldn't find a single person with a noise complaint.

"So I feel very confident with the noise aspect," Pear said.

Kannon Do members praise the center and say meditation is a welcome antidote to their stressful work-lives.

I have "all kinds of upheaval going on in my life," said Mary Leigh Burke, a 10-year Kannon Do member. As a technical writer in Silicon Valley, Burke treasures her time at the Zen Center.

"I can't imagine my life without Kannon Do," she said.

E-mail Grace Rauh at

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