Indianapolis Zen Center
Report by: Kate VanDerzee, December 2018
The College of William and Mary
The Indianapolis Zen Center is a Buddhist Temple in Indianapolis, IN, and a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen founded by Master Seung Sahn. The Temple is housed in a residence on the North end of the city, where members have the option to participate in residential practice, living with other members of the Sangha. Weekly practices and monthly retreats are offered at the center to members and visitors, who are primarily Western.
Members of the Indianapolis Zen Center come from a variety of backgrounds and religious traditions. Many members of the Indianapolis Zen Center are Indiana natives who came to Buddhism in adulthood. The Center encourages members to participate in regular weekly practice as well as retreats at least once a year and suggests that regular members donate $25 dollars a month per individual or $35 dollars a month per family. For non-members, participation is free and open to all, although donorship to help support the Sangha is encouraged. Members also have the option to live communally in the residence that houses the center in order to strengthen their practice under the tutelage of Dharma teacher John Melvin and Linc Rhodes, JDPSN.
Regular mindfulness practice is central to members of the Indianapolis Zen Center as well as the greater Kwan Um School of Zen Sangha. Every week the Center holds several practice sessions for members to attend. Morning practices at the Center are held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 6:45am, and include a 25-30 minute meditation followed by a reading and discussion, after which the members are welcome to gather for coffee and a viewing of the sunrise. On Saturdays, members may meet again for 9:30 am practice, which includes chanting and sitting or walking meditations. At 10:30am, after Saturday practice, members are invited to engage in work practice, for which they have a choice of gardening, working in the woodshop, or participating in Dharma room activities with other members. Evening practices are held on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:00pm and include chanting and meditations, followed by tea and refreshments. For prospective members, Linc Rhodes, the Sangha’s guiding teacher, holds introductory sessions on Wednesdays at 6:30pm.
In addition to these practice-oriented gatherings, the Center also hosts family game nights where families and community members gather in the Dharma room to play Go, an ancient Chinese board game dating back to the 4th century (B.C.E.), thought to be the oldest board game still in practice. Mastery of Go, then called yi, was one of the four skills of Chinese gentlemen, called Junzi, during the reign of Confucius. The game is played with black and white stones, called goishi, which are held in the goke, two wooden bowls for stones waiting to be played. A wooden block, called the goban, supports the game board, which is traditionally crafted from the wood of the rare golden-tinged Kaya tree, whose oil is sometimes burnt for lengthened Morning Star meditations in Japanese Shingon Buddhism. For members of the Indianapolis Zen Center, Go gatherings are a time for honing one’s mind and connecting with the community. Go nights are free and open to all, and are accompanied by snacks and refreshments.
The Center usually holds group retreats on the third Saturday of every month. Retreats give members the opportunity to strengthen their practice with extended meditation and work practice. Beginning at 9:30am, members gather for chanting before engaging in alternating sitting and walking meditations until 12:00pm. After a short break, members attend work practice in the garden, woodshop, and Dharma room until the retreat’s conclusion at 4pm. These retreats are understood as a way for members to recommit themselves to mindful practice and exercise extended meditation skills.
Kwan Um School of Zen
The Indianapolis Zen Center is a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen, founded by Master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Master to bring Zen to the United States. The Kwan Um School was founded in 1983, after the opening of Providence Zen Center by Sueng Sahn in Rhode Island in 1973. Today, the school has over 100 centers and 40 authorized Zen Masters in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The school is well-tailored for Western reception. Practice is at the center of Kwan Um philosophy, with special emphasis on maintaining a beginner’s mind, which Seung Sahn called “Don’t Know”. In addition, the school practices traditional 90-day retreats called “Kyol Che”, in which monks, nuns, and laypeople can practice Zen as part of one of these three-month retreats. According to the school’s website, linked below, a primary motive of the organization is to reach broader audiences and bring Zen to people of all backgrounds regardless of prior experience. Consequently, the school offers a library of teachings and sutras which are free to access on their website. In Korean, Kwan Um means “perceive world sound,” to hear the suffering sounds of the universe and offer help. This, too, is a central tenet of Kwan Um’s mission, and many centers participate in community outreach within their localities.
Seung Sahn Soen-sa
Master Seung Sahn was born in 1927 in Duk-in-Lee, Korea to Protestant parents. As a young man, he became involved in the underground Korean Independence movement, for which he was imprisoned by Japanese police. Upon his release, Sahn attended Dong Guk University, and as political tensions in Korea continued to grow, he was exposed to the Diamond Sutra. Sahn was inspired by the sutra to pursue the path of enlightenment, and in 1948 he left school to become a monk and receive the pratimoksha precepts. In the mountains of Korea, Sahn engaged in a 100-day retreat, during which he is said to have gained enlightenment. His enlightenment was confirmed by Zen Master Kobong of Seoul, who reminded Seung Sahn to always practice with a beginner’s mind.
After opening several centers in Asia, Seung Sahn came to the United States in 1972. He was known for his charismatic leadership and accessibility to Western audiences, including allowing laypeople to wear the robes of monastics. Allowing laypeople to wear long robes, traditionally reserved for monks, was disapproved of by the Jogye Order in Korea, to which Seung Sahn belonged. In 1988, Sahn was the subject of Western criticism, as he was accused of maintaining sexual relationships with several of his students. Sahn preformed two repentance ceremonies after admitting his wrongdoing, and the School has since established a board of ethics and strict guidelines for student-teacher relationships.
Indianapolis Zen Center Blog
The Indianapolis Zen Center maintains a blog page where community members can write about Zen life, upcoming events, and community values. In one such post, Dharma teacher David Culp describes his experience working with inmates at a maximum-security prison in Pendelton, IN. As community outreach is a core Kwan Um value, David Culp’s work is vitally important to the Center. Every Wednesday afternoon, David leads practice for 10-15 inmates, who practice a combination of Buddhist and Zen practices including meditation, Kwan Se Um Bosal, and the Heart Sutra. He says getting to know the inmates personally has been incredibly rewarding, and enjoys watching them grow through their struggles into better practitioners of Zen.
Another post featured on the blog contains an interview with Master Bon Soeng of the Kwan Um School of Zen, who discusses his experience watching his niece perform in a high school play about the Holocaust. In the play, children are being held in Prague and are aware that the Nazis are taking them in groups to a concentration camp. Grasping the gravity of the situation, one of the children asks what the point of living is if we know we are going to die. Master Bon Soeng was struck by the poignance of the child’s question, and goes on to discuss how that question arises in a time of strife, but is applicable to the lives of all. Death, he says, hangs over the shoulder of every person, but should not be seen as a threat. Rather, we should understand death as a tutor, reminding us of our impermanence which is suffering, and that the best way to combat our impermanence is to practice mindfulness. Death is a reminder of the vital and potent importance of each and every moment, and we must experience those moments as they arise. The moment is precious, the moment is the point of living.
The Indianapolis Zen Center is a group of practice-oriented Zen followers, who emphasize the importance of mindfulness and presence, work, and community outreach. Support for the center comes from membership dues and donations. Teachings and active discussion are central to life at the Indianapolis Zen Center. Community life is an integral part of the Center as well, with opportunities for all members of the community, of myriad identities and backgrounds, to gather for meals, tea, coffee, and comradery. In the middle of central Indiana, the Indianapolis Zen Center brings peace and balance to a historically Christian area of the United States.