My Adventures in Zen Meditation in Arizona

Hi all,

It’s Sunday, and I decided to try something different. As readers might recall, I try to treat Sunday’s as my version of the Buddhist “sabbath”, meaning I try to engage in more Buddhist practice (修行, shugyō) and try to eat at least one vegetarian menu. This weekend, since I am all by myself in Arizona, I looked up Buddhist temples on the Web, and found a small but nice temple in Tempe called Haku-un-ji. It is a Rinzai Zen (rinzai-shū 臨済宗) temple.

I’ve never been to a Zen service or meditation session before. As readers might remember, I took an Ajikan meditation course in Tokyo for Shingon Buddhism, but I didn’t do very well. So, I was a little nervous about it.

Anyhow, the Haku-un-ji temple was located in a nice house in the suburbs of Tempe. If you’re going there, look for the house with the lemon trees out front. I thought they were apple trees. ;p Behind the house is a small meditation hall (zendō 禅堂) which had rows of cushions, benches and so on. They were pretty accomodating for people of different meditation styles.

The service itself started at 9:30 but at 8:30 the priest had an orientation for new people. Rev. Sokai gave a nice explanation of Buddhism, and a thorough explanation of meditation which helped me a lot. I’ve learned some bits of meditation online, but never really had a good explanation about technique and other things (eyes closed/open, etc). He provided a lot of tips based on his own experience as well, which was helpful. Since my background is in Pure Land Buddhism, meditation isn’t a priority, and priests rarely teach it.1

When the actual service started, about 8-10 other people filed in. The service format was:

  1. 25 minutes of sitting meditation (zazen 座禅)
  2. 10 minutes or walking meditation (kinhin 経行)
  3. 25 more minutes of sitting meditation
  4. A brief dharma talk, plus time for questions and discussion
  5. Another 10-15 minutes of sitting meditation
  6. Then we chanted the Heart Sutra.
  7. They did announcements and we all left and had coffee/tea/cookies

Overall, people really conducted themselves well. There was a mix of newer people and some ordained people, plus some “veteran” members who clear had been doing it a long while. I talked with a few of them afterwards and they were very nice and gave me some good tips about places to go around the Phoenix area. Most were not too familiar with Jodo Shu/Pure Land Buddhism though some knew of Jodo Shinshu (which has a large presence in the US).

Talking with them was fun because we kind of compared notes about our Buddhist experiences. My experiences were somewhat different, but I learned a lot and they seemed open-minded too as opposed to some experiences I had in the past with Western Buddhist temples. It was certainly refreshing.

But how did I do? Better than I expected. I have done meditation at home, so I wasn’t too far off, and I was surprised to see that I could meditate for 25 minutes without too much trouble. I followed the priest’s advice and kept my eyes open, not closed, and it did help. Also, using his advice, I had a better meditation experience than what I do at home, because I learned to avoid certain mental pitfalls (getting upset at the first sign of discomfort, etc).

The only trouble I had was the dry Arizona air. My sinuses are still dry and irritated, so I couldn’t breathe through my nose. So, I breathed through my mouth. However, this made me salivate a lot at first (I think because I was nervous too), and so I did lots of swallowing. It was so quiet in there, you could hear my swallowing, which was embarrassing. By the 2nd session, I was more relaxed, and the meditation went really well. The late Chinese Chan master, Ven. Yin-Shun, explained meditation like this in his book The Way to Buddhahood:

The pleasures of meditation are complete and permeate the entire body, as if rain were filling everything, from gutters to ponds and swamps.

For me, I had this sensation during the 2nd session. I just felt really good, calm and somehow “alive” like my mind and my thoughts were more stable than before. It was really refreshing.

One funny story happened though. I didn’t dress properly and wore jeans and a t-shirt (they’re OK with it). The jeans were too tight and ripped when I sat down for the second session! It was really embarrassing, but luckily the jeans were old and I guess it was time to throw them away. The lesson is: dress in loose, comfortable clothing if you can: shorts, sweat pants, etc.

Anyhow, my experience with Haku-un-ji was very positive, and I was sad that I can’t visit them again anytime soon (I fly home Friday), but they do have smaller session near the hotel on Wednesday. I might stop by again for one last session after work. Rev. Sokai did suggest some good temples up in Seattle, so I might try visiting those someday. Given my schedule and such, I don’t know if I can easily sustain this in Seattle, but I am certainly going to try my best. I find it compliments my practice of the nembutsu too, so I have no trouble doing both.

If you’re in the Phoenix area even for a weekend, I highly recommend this temple. It’s a good balance of the traditional without being hard-headed, yet still maintains the Zen tradition without being too revisionist either. They’re a flexible and accommodating community.

Thank you Rev. Sokai and Rev. Shinkan!

P.S. It’s a nice reminder for me that I can still put Buddhism into practice and that I am not hopeless. 🙂

1 Priests in Japan and the US do often teach meditation alongside the nembutsu, but is just not a central focus.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “My Adventures in Zen Meditation in Arizona”

  1. What a nice coincidence! This past weekend I also went to a zazen session for the first time. It was something like “Zazen day” and we did a lot of zazen. Maybe too much, since I could barely concentrate in the last one(my feet hurt…) but now I decided I’ll try to do a little bit of meditation at home every day.


    1. Ha ha ha, what a funny coincidence. 🙂

      Yeah, the teacher explained that you should only do what you’re comfortable with. You might try a different sitting position first (something easier, like Burmese style), or practice only a little per day.

      Good luck!


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