Students and residents find their inner Zen

Luis Garcia, visiting scholar from Spain, and Sophomore Communication Studies major Benjamin Capka practice sitting; a form of Zen Buddhist meditation. Photo by Rachael Le Goubin.

Luis Garcia, visiting scholar from Spain, and Sophomore Communication Studies major Benjamin Capka practice “sitting;” a form of Zen Buddhist meditation. Photo by Rachael Le Goubin.

Christina Suttles

With a single chime, members of Kent Zendo took their cross-legged positions on the floor of Room 311 in the Student Center, readying themselves for 30 uninterrupted minutes of meditation.

Barefoot and facing the white walls of the modest enclosure, a stranger would see nothing but dim lights and hear nothing but light breathing — a simplicity these individuals work hard to achieve.

They sat on black zafus, which are firm, round cushions traditionally used in China and Japan for meditation purposes. Their bodies were so still that the slightest movement could become a distraction to an inexperienced student of Zen.

Zen, which roughly translates to “meditative state,” emphasizes personal insight into the teachings of Buddha and Buddhist traditions.

To Kent resident Arthur Wilson, Zen Buddhism is a means of answering universal burning questions that have boggled mankind for eternity.

Wilson said the story of Buddha, one that many in Western society are not familiar with, is simple to tell but complicated to understand. He, as well as the other members of Kent Zendo, is fascinated with questions such as, “Why are there so many problems in the world?”

“Sometimes it’s simplified as, ‘human life is suffering.’ Human life is certainly painful, everybody knows that, but the Buddha said suffering can be overcome,” Wilson said.

Zen Buddhism also involves the attainment of “enlightenment,” which means different things to different sects of Buddhism, but encourages the understanding of one’s true nature and life’s purpose.

To understand Zen Buddhism is to understand suffering — and, by extension, end it through finding the origin of the suffering and eliminating cravings for nonessential things.

“I think the Buddha was able to show people there are ways to deal with issues of being a human being and overcome,” Wilson said. “The best way to do that is be quiet in body [and] mind and experience what that is.”

Kent Zendo:

Kent Zendo hosts discussions and sittings Sundays and Mondays throughout Kent, Akron and Cleveland. Those interested in attending can check kentzendo

for more information.

McCarthy, who is currently Zen master at the group’s Sunday meetings, began teaching Zen in 1984. He said the Mennonite mindset of community and plainness was his inspiration for hosting the gatherings in his home for so many years.

“There’s just something much more informal and friendly when you’re on someone else’s home turf,” McCarthy said. “It’s less professional, and something that I very much dislike about religion nowadays is it tends to be more professional than spiritual.”

McCarthy said Kent Zendo offers students a “user-friendly message of understanding how their mind works,” but he wouldn’t ask anyone who was uncomfortable participating to do so.

“A lot of the times the way you develop as a spiritual human being is to lean into something that exposes you to changes; changes that you need,” McCarthy said. “Just like exercise: something you put off, something you remember was a little painful. But you understand its benefits, so you work with your unease and turn it into a passion. I think spirituality is the same way.”

Benjamin Capka, sophomore communication studies major, registered Kent Zendo as an official organization during his freshman year at Kent State. The organization was a continuation of a group that already met in the Kent Free Library downtown.

“When I was a freshman, there wasn’t actually a stop in the Student Center for us to meet because all the practitioners weren’t enrolled in the university,” Capka said. “To have a student group, you need students. So I volunteered to sign the paperwork and got some of my friends to fill out the papers. I would rather say I reinstated or relocated [the group].”

Capka said he liked Kent Zendo’s informal, casual feel, and it was sometimes more like a social gathering than a religious one.

“I’ve been to plenty of meetings where the discussions didn’t even really touch on Zen until the sitting because, unless there’s a new member, we’re pretty much content to talk about whatever comes up,” Capka said.

Capka then went on to explain how the group gives him the discipline he needs to make time for meditation during the sometimes-hectic school year.

“Typically, one would sit every day by himself, but to meet with people on a regular basis just to discuss or to sit is pretty common,” Capka said. “So I came just to have somewhere to be able to talk to people.”

Jayce Renner, Kent Zendo member, read Alan Watts’ “This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience” in 1994 and was instantly interested in Buddhism. He met McCarthy the same year after hearing there was a Zen master living in Kent.

Renner said although he enjoyed the homey feel of McCarthy’s sessions, it became problematic when McCarthy’s love for animals became a little too distracting.

“There were always dogs and cats trying to sit with us,” he said.

Though Kent Zendo now holds meetings in the Student Center, the group is still relatively small.

The Sunday and Monday meetings are open to the public, and Capka said he believes the very act of meditation can be significantly helpful to students who may be overwhelmed by anxiety.

“I think it’s typical for students in college to seek stress relief,” Capka said. “I also think it’s typical to pursue it in unhealthy ways. So, definitely if anyone is looking to learn a little more about meditation, that’s the focus of the group … [and] to really kind of just experience yourself is definitely a big part of it.”

The group also hosts occasional two-day retreats at Hermitage at Beaver Run in Warsaw, Ohio, where it collects funds for organizations such as Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, Cleveland Foodbank and US Campaign for Burma as a means of giving back to the community and beyond.

Contact Christina Suttles at [email protected].