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Listening to the silence

April 5, 2009

From The Daily Record

There’s a peaceful simple room on the second floor of the 19th-century parish house at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown. It’s called the Empty Bowl Zendo.
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Tuesday evenings and Thursdays at dawn, members of the 10-year-old sangha (community) sit zazen (seated meditation), practice walking meditations and listen to a teaching by Sensei Ray Ruzan Cicetti of Mountain Lakes, a 58-year-old psychotherapist with a private practice in town.

One recent Tuesday, the group sat on cushions or chairs in perfect facing rows, two deep. Once they became silent and their meditation deepened, the sounds of trains, sirens, car horns and snippets of passing conversations on the busy street below blended into one. And then fell away.

For the members of the sangha — from teens to the elderly — this rich silence is welcome in an otherwise cacophonous and frantic world.

“There’s an experience people get when there’s a deep silence,” Cicetti said. “Sometimes that experience might come when you’re standing at the edge of the ocean looking at the sun setting and there is no noise and there are no cars and no work and there’s a silence that is immediate and vast and beautiful and alive.” He smiled. “Sometimes people find that here.”

Zen disciplines the mind to stop grasping and churning the long trains of thoughts that occupy it and keep a person’s awareness on the outer world. The tradition is known for its koans, or unanswerable paradoxical questions that frustrate the logical mind and cause it, so to speak, to surrender. A famous one is the contemplation of the sound of one hand clapping, but there are, the sensei said, 1,700 books of koans, mostly from China and Japan.

They help with the point of Zen — to actually empty out the whirling mind for the purpose of reconnecting with something greater than the self. While it’s true that those who sit zazen sometimes meet distressing and painful aspects of themselves in the silence, they simultaneously awaken an ultimate inner healing power filled with joy and clarity.

“Healing is not curing,” Cicetti said. “It is a willingness to be with what is happening to you, to embrace life as it is — both the good and uncomfortable parts.”

Sitting with a koan, for instance, can be good practice for life’s larger and more complex paradoxical questions, he added, such as those that arise from marriage, for instance, or cancer.

The healing agent Zen practitioners find in the silence behind their thoughts can be called God, according to the sensei. Or reality. Or love. Or compassion. The name isn’t the point. The experience is.

The Empty Bowl Zendo — part of the Zen Peacemakers Order — embraces and contains people of all and no faiths. Being inclusive is an easy matter, really. The Catholic person sitting zazen may encounter Catholic aspects of himself, and the Jewish person Jewish aspects, and so on.

“We’re not trying to make anyone a Buddhist,” Cicetti said. Indeed, this diversity resides at the heart of the Peacemakers order, founded by Bernard Glassman.

“Glassman is revolutionary in that he is the first to say you don’t have to be Buddhist first to become a teacher,” Cicetti explained. “He made a Muslim a Zen teacher. He made a rabbi a Zen teacher. He made a Catholic priest a Zen teacher.”

The priest — Robert Jinsen Kennedy, a Jesuit professor — is the teacher with whom Cicetti studied for 19 years. Kennedy was able to transmit the dharma (teachings) particularly well to Cicetti, born and raised in a Catholic family in Newark. At a certain point Kennedy asked Cicetti to teach.

“So here I am — a Catholic boy in an Episcopal church working with people of all different faiths practicing Zen,” Cicetti said. “It’s beautiful. It’s quite a mosaic.”

Catholicism was not Cicetti’s door into the Zen world, though. Psychotherapy was. After earning a master’s degree in social work at Hunter College, he worked in an employee assistance program and then at Saint Clare’s Health System, where he and a colleague, the late John Flynn, became fascinated by the nexus of psychotherapy, spirituality and healing. It was a hot topic in the late ’60s and ’70s as famed therapists Alan Watts, Fritz Perls and Jay Haley also explored the territory.

Cicetti went on to find his teacher and then become one.

That Tuesday night he taught a 15-minute lesson on the ubiquitous nature of dharmas. Zen Buddhism refers to the Dharma — the ultimate truth of existence, or the teachings of the Buddha — and dharmas with a small “d,” the ubiquitous life phenomena, large and small, that impart truths.

He told the story of author Andrew Harvey’s pilgrimage to a monastery in Tibet, as described in his book “A Journey in Ladakh.” Along the way, though, Harvey found his dharma as he contemplated the way pebbles darkened as water from a stream ran over them.

The theme: The road to seeking a dharma is paved with dharmas. We’d best not miss the ones right in front of us.

After chanting the practitioners tidied the room. Ingrid Vandegaer of Mendham, a Unitarian Universalist sitting with the sangha four years, was among them.

“When I bring the calmness and centeredness that comes up here into my everyday life,” she said, “life becomes easier.”

Vandegaer and the others then joined the stream of life, traffic and noise into a bigger sangha — the neighborhood of downtown Morristown. But they proceeded transformed and with the silence within them just a little louder.

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