Thank you for Damien Okado-Gough’s June 27 article, “Zen Buddhist monk aids peace efforts in native Belfast,” which is about Paul Haller, my Zen teacher. In addition to visiting Ireland a couple of times a year to lead sesshin, he keeps in touch with students through interviews and classes on Buddhism that he delivers via Skype from his home in San Francisco. It is a considerable commitment on top of his role as the abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, which incorporates the first Buddhist training monastery built outside Asia.
In addition to his peace-building and work in stress reduction, Haller conducts Zen training. There is generally a jukai ceremony at which a number of people take precepts, including many who work in caring professions. As mentioned in the article, however, all sections of our divided society are represented: I am a journalist, while others are factory workers, civil servants, academics and office workers.
Polish and other Eastern European immigrants have also become involved. The emphasis is on practicing zazen daily. I understand that lay people do not always practice zazen in Soto temples in Japan, but in the West it is a basic commitment.
It is a remarkable achievement for this practice, which demands some self-discipline, to have spread to such a wide cross section of a society with little or no tradition of meditation. Haller’s success is partly due to his personality; he has a very calming influence on most gatherings. He seems able to tune in to what people are feeling and to respond in the most appropriate and helpful way. He seldom gives the impression of being pushed for time, though he lives a life filled with commitments.
Involvement in Zen practice has introduced us Zen students here in Belfast to a rich literature, particularly the teachings of Dogen Zenji, Suzuki Roshi and Kodo Sawaki. Learning from another culture stretches habitual methods of thinking and helps us put our own society’s problems in perspective. We are grateful for Sony, Nintendo, reliable cars and sushi, but zazen may turn out to be Japan’s greatest gift to the West.
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