A visit to the Montreal Zen Center

The Road to the Montreal Zen Center

So for a bit of a departure from the usual technical content, a personal anecdote. I went to the Montreal Zen Center today for a workshop, which was a most illuminating experience. I’d been pretty fascinated with the idea of zen for a while (see this post of mine from 2006, for example) but was pretty stuck on how to put it into practice (aside from being sure it was something you had to live). So, this was a step in that direction. After having gone to it, I wouldn’t say I’ve figured anything out (in fact I’m more confused than ever), but I would say one thing with conviction: this is the way to learn more.

It was pretty simple stuff: exactly how they describe on the web page I linked to. A short verbal introduction on some of the ideas of zen, then a tea break, then instruction on how to begin practising meditation, another tea break (this time with biscuits), then actually practising meditation, then question & answer about the meditation. It doesn’t really sound like much, and it wasn’t. But nonetheless I can’t stop thinking about the experience.

As far as I can gather, the “revelation” offered by Zen Buddhism is simple: our existence as separate, unique beings is an illusion of the mind. This illusion makes us suffer. However, it is possible with practice to overcome this illusion and realize your true nature as being one with the world. I’m probably butchering it a little bit by writing about it in this way, to a certain extent that’s me, but in another way it’s rather unavoidable since in a way the concepts are beyond words (since words imply a dualism). Regardless, the important thing isn’t to grasp zen intellectually, but to come to a natural understanding through the practice of meditation (aka “the practice”).

And on that note, the meditation is austere and almost certainly less than you’d expect. There is no prayer and very little ritual. Just a very minimal breath counting exercise conducted in a seated posture for 20 minutes, followed by a short walking exercise that lasts 5 minutes, then repeating the breath counting exercise for another 20 minutes. For its utter simplicity, I found it incredibly difficult. I imagine like anything with weeks, months, years of practice it (and the variations of it that experienced practitioners use where they meditate on koans) it would become easier.

I’m still giving thought on whether I want to take the next steps with them and begin a regular meditation practice. It sounds like really hard work (self meditation practice 6 days a week by yourself, plus regular visits to the zen center), which brings up the question: why do you want to do this? There’s a weird contradiction between realizing that you as a self don’t really exist and committing yourself radically to this kind of practice. The only thing I can call it would be a “leap of faith”. My current thinking is that I’m not quite ready for that right now, but maybe in a while. For now I think I’m pretty happy going to yoga a few times a week and living my sham of a human existence. ;)

5 thoughts on “A visit to the Montreal Zen Center”

  1. I have been following your site for a while solely due my interest in the technical work you are doing, but just this morning I picked up and started reading a new book “The Places That Scare You” by Pema Chodron. I came to work, logged on my PC, and I found this post in my news reader. As a recent reader of “The Alchemist” I am inclined to say that this is an omen and that the universe is talking to me in its own language :)

    I hope you find peace and joy in your personal Zen journey.

  2. Glad you shared the experience of your journey out of self into oneness with the world, which I envy you, not having even attempting to make it myself. It leads me to ask why I am not more tempted by the experience. Is it because my level of suffering is too limited to desire to find a path to escape it? Do all practioners of zen come to it through the path of suffering? Is it possible to experience the sense of oneness with the external world without first becoming alienated from it? What is the difference between zen consciousness and Christian faith? Don’t both represent abandonment of “lucidity in the face of existence”? If existence as separate beings is an illusion, and the source of suffering, why is it the starting point? If consciousness does separate the self from the exterior world, is it an illusion to recognize that this is what it involves? Would it not be an illusion to believe it could be otherwise? I’m curious about the extent to which teachers of zen are capable of doubting their own enlightenment. At the same time as one induces through meditation a sense of oneness with external reality, or more precisely the sense of separate consciouness and an external world disappears, is it not possible that it is that state of mind which is the illusion? Could one ask that question during a zen meditation or in the period just before or just after meditation? If so many questions reflect skepticism, I remain curious about the experience of meditation and wonder if it is something like singing or dancing which may be beyond my capabilities.

  3. Hi Paul Lachance aka Dad,

    A lot of things to unpack in your reply. Here’s what I can safely reply to:

    1. I don’t think “oneness” is really the right word for the experience of zen, because it implies a dualism of “oneness” vs. “manyness”. It really is beyond words.
    2. I think people come to zen practice for all sorts of reasons. In fact that was one of the things that the leader of the zen center encouraged us to think about: why are you interested in following this path? Physical health, mental health, “spiritual” discovery (zen this week, probiotic diet next week, yoga the week after?)?
    3. From what I can tell, the difference between Zen and Christian faith is pretty difficult to define, since there’s certainly a manifold of different interpretations of Christianity (and probably zen too, but I’m not familiar enough with it to really say much). I would say the appeal for me is that Zen never asks you to believe in what I consider to be outright nonsense (e.g. creationism, reincarnation, the holy trinity). Zen certainly does make claims, but they are on the *metaphysical* plane — that is, beyond what physics is able to tell us.
    4. For your other questions, I think the only “proof” of the approach of zen lies in the content of your experience. This is where the leap of faith comes in, I think: you have to be willing to tune out the part of your brain which is constantly categorizing the world around it for long enough in order to understand what experience is truly telling you. This is entirely hypothetical for me, by the way. The only thing I got out of meditation was a better awareness of how difficult it is to turn off my standard waterfall of categorical judgements about the world around me.

    Finally, I don’t think meditation is any more beyond your abilities than singing or dancing is. ;) It looks like there’s a similar workshop in Ottawa, if you’re interested:

    http://wwzc.org/content/introduction-zen-workshop-ottawa

  4. I’ve been meaning to investigate the Zen Center. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Zen is definitely an interesting from of Buddhism – my understanding is that it doesn’t contradict Christianity in any way. I also find it seems more logical to me in that that it doesn’t require you to accept the existence of large numbers of deities and near-deities (like, for example, in Tibetan Buddhism). I’m still not sure I buy the metaphysics of it, but there are definitely interesting ideas there…

    Aside from the metaphysics, there are scientifically proven benefits to meditation. I’ve been practicing for about 20 minutes (usually using a guided meditation track) once or twice per week, and I’ve been meaning to do it more…

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