Staff writer

It’s a rainy Sunday night in May and a small woman dressed in “koromo,” the black robe for priests, is welcoming people who have come to practice “zazen,” a type of Zen Buddhist meditation, at Taisoji Temple in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.

People take their seats on “zafu,” a special cushion used for zazen, and rock back and forth on crossed legs until they find a stable position. The bell rings to signal the start of the meeting.

Silence prevails — apart from the sounds of the pouring rain and the participants’ breathing. “The important thing is to concentrate on the moment,” explains the Rev. Jiho Sargent, 66, an assistant Soto sect priest — and a United States citizen. “One’s thoughts do wander about at times, but try to feel each moment you are sitting,” she says.

Sargent meets about half a dozen participants monthly to offer instruction in English on zazen and to discuss dharma, the Buddhist law. “This meeting makes me feel relaxed,” said one participant. “That’s why I come here.”

Sargent has traveled a long road to reach this point. As a child she went to a Presbyterian church back in the U.S., but was more enthusiastic about choir activities than listening to sermons. At the age of 16, she stopped practicing as a Christian, unable to reconcile the contradictions she felt were inherent in the church.

In 1974, at the age of 43, she arrived in Japan to work as the project leader for a special-purpose computer system being installed at Haneda Airport. During her stay in Tokyo, she recalled, “I visited Kyoto on a three-day trip and was fascinated by Kannon-sama, a being in Buddhism who symbolizes compassion, in temples there.”

That experience changed her life forever. After returning to Los Angeles, she visited a Zen temple there and started practicing zazen.

Going through a divorce at the time, she found that meditation helped her control her emotions when she felt troubled. “It was greatly attractive to me to learn that I could just sit still even when I was greatly upset about something,” she laughed.

Sargent now uses a Buddhist first name, Jiho, which means “the aroma of compassion,” only retaining use of her birth name, Ann, in her passport and official documents.

She first thought of becoming a Buddhist priest in the late 1970s. An English-speaking priest, the Rev. Zendo Matsunaga, had been holding bilingual zazen meetings in Tokyo at a center Sargent had attended since moving to Japan. He became busier at a temple he worked at in Shizuoka, however, and there was no one to replace him in the Tokyo center.

She then underwent training for several years at a temple in Toyama Prefecture, as well as at others, and finally qualified as a priest in 1989 when she was nearly 60.

Her next meeting is June 28 from 6:30 to 9 p.m at Taisoji Temple, a 10-minute walk from Sugamo station in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. For more information, call (03) 3910-8234.

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