Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery Konrad Ryushin Marchaj ate with, spoke to, and meditated with University students, faculty, and community members on Monday, Oct. 7 and Tuesday, Oct. 8.
On Monday, Marchaj spoke in Memorial Chapel, delivering a lecture titled “ZEN: and What Happens When You Forget the Self.” Before his talk, he ate Thai food with students and answered their questions concerning Buddhism.
He opened the talk by explaining why he chooses to speak to college students on a personal level.
“The reason why…this works very much in this context is that when I think back and place myself in my life in the late teens and early twenties, [I think] about what my life was like and how desperately I was searching for something without knowing I was searching for something,” Marchaj said. “[I remember] how hungry I was, and how I was satisfying this hunger with everything that had nothing to do with it. It turns out that it was this that I was looking for. I was working my way towards the completeness of my humanity.”
Marchaj explained how college students can apply zazen, a form of meditation, to their busy schedules.
“Please start by deeply appreciating where you are,” he said. “You’re in an amazing position to be here, to find your way, whatever you’re going through. Suck the life out of this place. Not just the education, but the friendships and the mentorships you can seek. Inspire your teacherLet them learn from you. Don’t rebel against the establishment; use the establishment and the fact that you are here. Take a moment once a week and just reflect on your needs. What does your heart need?”
On Tuesday morning, Marchaj practiced zazen with a small group for about 30 minutes in the mediation room of Buddhist House (BuHo). He then answered participants’ questions about Buddhism, Zen, and how these teachings can apply to college life.
In response to one question, he explained why zazen is traditionally practiced with the eyes open.
“There are many things that will come up with your eyes closed that will pull you away from that sense of wakefulness,” Marchaj said. “There’s the basic association that people bring, that I bring, that you bring, when you close your eyes that we’re checking out or falling asleep. That’s actually proven scientifically. When you close your eyes, you’re accessing a deep associative state. Your mind is essentially speeding up in terms of being free as far as fantasy and subconscious chatter. Sleep waves, delta waves get activated, and you begin falling asleep.”
He also emphasized the difference between seeing and looking.
“The more practice-oriented reason is that what you’re trying to do is look at the world and see it, but without any pragmatic necessity to organize it for yourself,” he said. “Train yourself to see, without looking, without solidifying your visual experience into things.”
BuHo manager Nikki Dodd ’15 helped coordinate Marchaj’s visit to the University as one of the house’s six required events per semester. She noted that he has spoken at the University several times before, as well as at other colleges throughout New England, and that he leads a meditation retreat for college students in March.
“The talk and meditation were really insightful,” she said. “We asked the questions that were on our minds. We asked about his life, both before and after he joined the monastery.”
Sarah Koch ’16, who has practiced some meditation before, said she thinks Marchaj is a good exemplar of meditation and that he was very articulate when describing abstract concepts.
“Obviously, we all want the goal of being really present all the time,” Koch said. “I liked that he’s sort of taught us how to do that a little bit. He explicitly said that if we do it every day, and our brains…wander every 10 seconds…it’s O.K. because that’s the training process. I thought that was really comforting. When I was sitting for meditation, literally every two counts I had a thought. It was really hard.”
Mira Klein ’17, who also attended the mediation session, found the environment to be very welcoming.
“People don’t usually think of taking 25 minutes out of their day just to sit—not just to relax, but to focus on the relationship between your being and your thoughts,” Klein said. “It was interesting to feel and mentally observe the process of my own thinking, which is something that usually just ‘appears.’ I like the idea that being aware of what is inside your head makes you more present in interactions with the world around you.”