About Campus: Students of zen

BY BRANDON CONRADIS

Published January 27, 2009

It’s about 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning at the Zen Buddhist Temple on Packard Street. LSA junior Joslyn DeVinney is demonstrating how to do a prostration in the sonbang, or meditation room. She slides a mat onto the floor in front of an altar, kneels down, bends over until her head is almost touching the floor and sits back up, her elbows bent and her hands in a praying position in front of her face. Every morning — except for Wednesdays, when the residents of the temple hold a group meeting — she does 108 of these.

Illustration by Laura Garavoglia

“You don’t have to do it with a mat, but if you don’t, your knees are going to kill you,” DeVinney said. “But 108 — it’s a good workout.”

DeVinney, one of the temple’s seven live-in members, isn’t who you’d expect to find in a Buddhist temple. Or rather, the temple isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to be a student residency. But several of the residents are like DeVinney: non-Buddhist students who were drawn to the tutelage of Reverend Haju Sunim, the temple’s resident priest.
“I came to the meeting, talked to the other residents and I got a good vibe,” she said.

Consisting of a modest house, sangha hall and garden surrounded by an imposing wall, the temple is not a typical college residence, nor does it look like a typical temple.

Sunim said that before it was converted into a temple in 1981, the house was at separate times a doctor’s office, a bordello and a fraternity.

While the temple is far from the cinematic imagining of Buddhist monastic life — there’s no monument on the mountain and no thousand steps to climb for the daily water —DeVinney endured an extreme lifestyle change after moving in last September.

“It was difficult,” she said. “It’s counter-student lifestyle.”

The daily regiment is enough to make any undergrad shudder. Every morning, except for Saturdays, residents wake up at 5:30 a.m., stretch and practice yoga for a half-hour and do the aforementioned 108 prostrations — all before breakfast. Then there are the smaller but equally important rituals they must do throughout the day, whether it’s making the traditional breakfast of grains, vegetables and yogurt, bowing when entering or leaving certain rooms like the sonbang, or saying prayers before meals.

“Initially, there was a lot of confusion,” said Daniel, a graduate student who preferred not to give his last name because of the nature of his work at the University. “There’s lots of rituals and I was afraid to do the wrong thing.”

Like DeVinney, Daniel, who considers himself “a Jew who’s interested in Buddhism,” made the decision to move into the temple primarily out of convenience.

“I was moving from Kansas and I was looking for a place to live,” he said. “I had been exposed to meditation and had traveled through Southeast Asia. I showed up for a Sunday service, and came back again and it turned out there was an opening … so I took the leap.”

Both Daniel and DeVinney noted the soothing, welcoming atmosphere of the temple as one of the best reasons for living there.

“I look forward to coming back here,” Daniel said. “There’s a real peacefulness to this place. It has this really profoundly calming effect.”

The residents come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from a middle-aged auto industry worker to an ordained priest, but there’s a unifying philosophy that creates a positive community.

“It’s a refuge in a way,” DeVinney said. “The people who come here are on the same page. We’re looking for real connections with people. It’s been very helpful to have this kind of support as I’m navigating my way through the world.”

Each daily routine in the temple has served as a learning experience, although some, like the early morning shoveling of snow — a task signaled by the ringing of a bell — seem physically grueling before spiritual.

“I’m happy and sad when I hear the bell,” Daniel said, referring to both the hardship and bonding that come with waking up early to labor alongside his housemates. “Even when we shovel, it’s an opportunity to practice mindfulness.”

Chad Johnson, a student at Shimer College in Chicago who commutes, agreed that a mixture of joy and apprehension are a part of adjusting to the temple lifestyle.

“I’m enjoying (the experience), but I’m exhausted right now,” he said.
But despite the difficulties of living there, the temple has had profoundly positive long-term effects on the residents.

“It’s having this slow, subtle effect on me, particularly in my work,” Daniel said. “It’s just been improving the quality of my life.”

DeVinney originally moved into the temple because she felt she wasn’t ready to spend a year abroad in France. But she said that living in the temple, with all its cultural differences, has turned out to be “kind of like studying abroad” itself.

“I’m definitely more mindful,” she said. “I might get caught up in school issues … but being here, it’s just kind of like, ‘Stop. It’s going to be OK.’ ”