White Cloud Zen, Williamsburg VA
Report by: Benjamin Stilwell
Introduction to Buddhism, Fall 2018
Located at 326 Monticello Avenue in Williamsburg, Virginia, stands the small modest office park that holds one of Williamsburg’s only meditation centers. To get to it you must drive down a narrow, cracked side street that opens up behind a set of medical practitioners’ buildings. As you walk into the square of offices, a red maple stands alone in the courtyard giving a sense of natural calm to an area not even one hundred feet from one of Williamsburg’s busiest streets. Somehow the sound of Monticello Avenue is drained out by the way the building is placed into the hillside and a sense of peace fits perfectly into the rest and recovery that makes up this office park. Inconspicuous would be an understatement compared to the grand temples displayed at many other locations.
In early January of last year Joseph Garcia, the community’s founder, began holding meditation sits a few blocks away on professional drive until that building became “uninhabitable”. From there they moved into their current building to one of these practitioner’s waiting room while Joseph waits patiently for more space to open up downstairs. With cushions stacked up against the back wall of the room and a small Buddha statue siting in the center of it, the room feels like anything but a meditation center. However, as he talked with me and we slowly set up the cushions, it all started to come together. He brought out a small gong, incense, chairs and cushions explaining that we were to set them up facing the walls. Slowly, as twilight set in and the room transformed from a waiting room into a temple, a sense of serene calm began to creep over me. With the light dancing off of the red maple and the smell of incense in the air, I began to interview Mr. Garcia.
He told me that for a long time he had followed many different forms of spiritual practice but that none had offered him the type of grounding and spirituality that came with Zen meditation. After happening upon the practice of mindfulness meditation, he felt he had to share it with his own community. Eventually, Joseph did his dissertation on loving-kindness meditation and found that he needed to learn more and then pass on the teachings of mindfulness meditation. Mr. Garcia was originally trained in Savanah and eventually became a student of the Chapel Hill Zen Center before coming up to Williamsburg to start White Cloud Zen. When I inquired about his connection to these past places of learning, he elaborated that all of these places had been from the San Francisco lineage and that they still often talk to exchange ideas and perspectives on Zen and meditation.
Mr. Garcia went on to tell me that he and his peers had for a long time practiced, after hours, in the waiting room of this building for it afforded both a central location and provided an inexpensive way to get Zen started in Williamsburg while they waited for a more spacious temple. However, by coincidence the very next day, he was retrieving keys for an official White Cloud Zen room downstairs directly next to the red maple.
From what I gathered, White Cloud Zen flows from the tradition and lineage of San Francisco Soto Zen founded by Suzuki Roshi. Mr. Garcia told me of the many texts, sutras and teachings associated with the Soto Zen tradition, but he put the emphasis on meditation as the number one focus of his practice. This seemed largely in line with many of the American traditions of convert Buddhism. After all in our stressed lives what could be more beneficial then an hour of quite contemplative, or simply mindful meditation? Within White Cloud Zen, all forms of Buddhism are welcome as is advertised on their website. Even those with no affiliation to Buddhism or any religion are welcome to come practice. Such was my lot.
The reason for meditation being the primary focus, according to Joseph, sprung from the idea that it is when we are deep within meditation that we find our own Buddha Nature. We find the truth in who we are, in the interconnectedness of all things as well as a deep grounding in the true us. From what I saw I also felt that for those who came to White Cloud Zen, meditation had brought a great sense of inner peace, understanding and grounding within the tumult of modern life. Somehow the location, right next to a busy road, felt like a perfect microcosm for what mediation should be. A retreat into the mind and body without attempting to fully escape life itself.
Mr. Garcia graciously offered me the opportunity to sit with them for their meditation to which I could hardly think of refusing this wonderful opportunity. So we sat down in this waiting room temple, right next to a busy road. Somehow the sound never penetrated the walls. Nothing but the sound of us and the occasional rumble of the HVAC system entered our ears.
Those who come to White Cloud Zen are not only residents of Williamsburg. I was told that people come from as far away as North Carolina and Virginia Beach every Sunday for meditation. They do not have any practitioners that were born into Buddhism as I suspected, however they have a wide range of people from those looking to gain grounding and insight occasionally, to those that come religiously every single time they offer a sit (which is every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday). Every one of their members appear to be converts from a wide range of life’s callings. It did not for even a second feel as if there was a clique or specific demographic other than those seeking peace that were present.
What shocked me was that other than Mr. Garcia, everyone who came including myself, looked like they should not belong to a Buddhist temple or meditation center. Some members came in looking like they had just driven a truck across country while another stepped outside to light a cigarette right before we began. I suppose it is unfair of me to simply say we didn’t belong. A student, a bearded trucker, and a stressed Williamsburg woman. What demographic did meditation have any more to offer than the lives of those under deep stress such as us? Not for a second did I feel out of place or like I didn’t belong, White Cloud Zen felt like a place for every walk of life. With our eclectic band of stressed compatriots, we filed into the waiting room and awaited instruction.
Practical Practice of meditation
As we entered the waiting room “temple”, we removed our shoes and bowed to the sacred space in reverence to it, and thus our own, Buddha Nature. We then walked slowly over to the small statue of Buddha and once again bowed before again bowing to our own cushions. I was told the reason for all this bowing was that within each object, each person and each space, we could find our own Buddha Nature and thus we must respect it by bowing.
After bowing to our cushion, we unfolded the flat mat and slowly lowered ourselves onto it, facing the room. Once seated, we turned clockwise, which I was told was the sacred way to turn, until we faced the wall. Sitting erect with our spines straight, our chins tucked ever so slightly in and down, we placed our hands in the universal Mudra position right in line with our naval. I was told that holding this position was the only way that you could be both relaxed but alert for what was about to come. I closed my eyes and was instructed to at first, listen to the sounds of others getting ready, the creaks of the building and when the gong rung, I was to begin meditating.
The form of meditation we were practicing was mindfulness meditation in which we were to focus on simply where we were. To keep our “mind’s eye” alert to thoughts passing through but to see them without emotion almost as a person watching a play unfold. I was instructed to focus on my breathing at first and then slowly become the “audience of my own thoughts”. This at first proved to be quite difficult. With the mind of a student, it was as if a million thoughts of deadlines, family, job searches and my social life were flooding my brain. However, as the minutes crept by, I slowly detached and began to observe my thoughts in a far more impartial way. Slowly they moved from worries to kind, loving thoughts before fizzling out into pleasant static all together. When the gong rang 40 minutes later, my eyes fluttered open and the most tranquil sense of calm emanated from within. Slowly we all got up and began silently putting away the cushions. In the most surreal, quiet and cordial sense, we bid each other a good day and I walked out into the night past the stunning red maple. My mind calm and excited to see what this experience would be like in White Cloud Zen’s new home downstairs.