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Zen center offers an oasis of quiet

Koshin Cain conducts the Enlightenment Day Ceremony, done in December to commemorate the Buddha
Koshin Cain conducts the Enlightenment Day Ceremony, done in December to commemorate the Buddha's enlightenment, while Jodo John Candy assists.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

By JULI GOETZ MORSER
For The Beachcomber

On the small hill above KVI Beach, a modest sign on the green door of stately house reads Puget Sound Zen Center (PSZC) and marks the building’s most recent incarnation as a Zen Buddhist temple.

Behind the door is a small vestibule with a rack for guests to place their shoes before entering the meditation hall, a spare, elegant and serene space. Two rows of meditation cushions rest on the wood floor, each facing the other in traditional Zen fashion. At the end of the room, before French doors that open onto a deck overlooking Tramp Harbor, a simple alter holds a large wooden Buddha, a vase with flowers and two candles. Like any space dedicated to the sacred, the room emanates a reverent beauty. But unlike the nave of a typical church where spoken words of scripture continuously fill the air, this meditation hall mostly contains the spacious quality of silence.

“That’s because Zen Buddhism is a path,” explained Abbot Koshin Christopher Cain, head and founder, along with his wife Soshin Lidunn Cain, of PSZC. “It has religious aspects like chanting and bowing and ceremony, but what distinguishes it ... is that Zen is a practice, something you do with your body. In Zen Buddhism, the primary duty of a Zen practitioner is to learn to meditate deeply.”

The tradition of Zen Buddhism practiced at the center comes from a Japanese word that means “just sitting,” said Elizabeth Fitterer, a board member at the center.

“The focus is on getting to know your own mind,” she said.

Fitterer explained the practice of meditation how Cain once explained it to her: like being in a deep, dark forest and trying to find the way to the cool water.

Attend a morning meditation session — all are welcome with no previous meditation experience required — and experience first hand a taste of this Zen practice. A member from the center greets and orients visitors.

First comes the tea ceremony, followed by chanting, walking meditation outside on the deck, sitting meditation inside on the cushions or chairs, a short

eading from a Buddhist text and then five minutes for clean up, also considered part of the practice. Aside from the chanting and reading, the entire session is observed in silence.

While silence may seem a bit daunting, a bit cool at first glance, a second look at the programs and people who make up the center shows nothing but warmth, connection and a rising interest in the center.

With the increase of membership from both Vashon and the greater Puget Sound area plus the expansion of programs and activities, the center, celebrating its 10th year this fall, is bursting the seams of its much-loved home. PSZC now seeks a larger place, with more room for meditation, a kitchen, ample parking and an outdoor area for walking and reflection.

While PSZC offers classes in Zen Buddhism, discussion nights, a women’s group, half-day sits and retreats, the greatest energy currently generated in the center comes from a couple of programs that Koshin Cain referred to as two ends of the spectrum: “In our family group with lots of young kids and in our groups that explore the end of life.”

Family Zen, led by Soshin Cain, meets the second Sunday of the month. All family members who wish to explore Zen Buddhism are invited to attend. Zen Center member Marsha Morrison portrayed Family Zen as an opportunity to share with her granddaughter the format and rituals of a spiritual tradition.

“She loves the neat rows of cushions on the floor, the teacups and the bells,” Morrison said. “This Sunday morning experience each month fills my heart with joy.”

Based on a program from Oregon’s Sacred Art of Living Center, PSZC’s Waking to Living and Dying, led by Carol Spangler and Cheryl Ellsworth, offers classes and discussion about living one’s life fully, with intention, and embracing one’s death as a natural part of life.

As part of the Waking to Living and Dying program, PSZC will work this fall with Vashon Community Care to record the residents’ stories.

“There is a long tradition of honoring the elders in Eastern traditions,” said Koshin Cain. “We’d like the center to be a place where people can talk about end of life, and we’ve always wanted our living and dying program to have a community aspect.”

“Community” is a word that often comes up when talking with Cain. Not just Zen community, but island interfaith community. Several years ago, Cain and other Vashon ministers created an annual interfaith Thanksgiving service. For Cain, the experience opened up an unexpected sense of joy and unity.

“Often one’s colleagues are within one’s own faith. My colleagues here are leaders of other faiths. It is quite rare to have a truly interfaith service. The island culture encourages interfaith,” said Cain. “There is an island identity that we all share, a strong identity that brings people together … and trumps other things that might keep us apart.”

“Story” is another word Cain frequently uses. It surfaces when he speaks about the Waking to Living and Dying program.

“There is general thinking that one of the greatest gifts is the ability to tell one’s story,” he said.

The word also appears when Cain narrates the story of his own journey into Zen Buddhism.

“My grandfather was a Presbyterian missionary to Thailand. When he came back he taught Eastern and Western religion. About that same time, I stumbled across a book in the attic, “The Way of Zen,” by Alan Watts, and saw the Bill Moyers’ interview with Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth. That series rocked my world. It rang so true then, and affects me now, as I really do think it is all about stories. There’s the Zen story; we have our story and our practice. But our story and practice are linked to other people’s stories and practices, more than we think. I am happy that I did one thing (the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism) and did it down deep, but by doing that I always hoped I would connect with other paths down there.”

The center’s mission is to “provide a welcoming place and a nourishing community for the study and practice of Zen.” It does so by encouraging interfaith services and organizing community outreach programs.

It is possible the story of Puget Sound Zen Center is not only about going deep within Zen Buddhism but also about connecting with other paths and people right here, on Vashon Island.

All are welcome

6:30 to 7:30 a.m. meditation Mondays through Saturdays and 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

For more information, see www.pszen.org.

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