What is meditation?
Meditation includes a wide set of practices where we use the power of the mind to understand the mind better. There are hundreds of styles of meditation, but one way we could categorize them is as familiarizing or cultivating meditations. Familiarizing meditations help us to become more familiar with how our minds work, such as by seeing what types of things distract us or hook us. It is difficult to change our habits without first understanding what our habits of mind are. Cultivating meditations, in contrast, help us to practice and gain new habits of mind, such as by gaining equanimity or compassion. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Some styles of meditation come more naturally to different people, and our goal is to help people work with a wide range of styles so that they can get the multiple benefits from meditation.
Meditation can also be thought of as a laboratory - where we can put our habitual reactions under the microscope to see them more clearly. This allows us to begin to see what types of things make us happy and which make us suffer with discontent. This is the key to gaining true power to becoming happier and more resilient.
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a practice based on the teachings of a human man, Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as the Buddha, which means "awakened one." He lived about 2600 years ago. He sought answers to why we suffer and how we can transcend suffering in our lives. As a result, he went through years of intensive meditation, challenging yogic discipline and extreme asceticism before realizing that the way to liberation from suffering was through a middle path. Between the chasing of desires and the extreme ascetic practices was a Middle Path that led to liberation. Once Gotama came to this understanding, he attained enlightenment and was called the Buddha. He spent the remainder of his life teaching. After his passing, his teachings continued to be spread, and over the centuries more teachings were added to the Buddha's, which collectively became known as "Buddhism."
What is Zen?
Zen is a branch of Buddhist practice that formed in China when Indian Buddhism made contact with Chinese Taoism. Quite simply, Zen is the practice of "waking up" to reality. Zen teachings and practices are meant to help us wake up to life as it is right this moment, providing insight into ourselves and the nature of existence. When engaged as a discipline, Zen allows us to see more clearly where our suffering and dissatisfactions originate from and allow us to address them.
Do I need to be Buddhist to practice meditation or Zen?
Simply stated, no.
Although some prefer to devote their practice solely to a Zen Buddhist tradition, it is not required or necessary. Zen practice is meant to help us wake up to the present moment and address our suffering. Zen does not require a "belief" system (in fact, Zen claims that our beliefs are a part of the problem). Instead, it provides teachings and practices that will lead to awakening to the present moment. You do not need to convert and abandon your previously held beliefs and practices. Many people from several different faiths practice Zen while continuing to practice their original religions. Some have said that practicing Zen has allowed them to deepen their relationship to their original faith tradition.
Do I have to live near Ames, Iowa to participate?
No. We are a maha-sangha (a "greater" community) comprising practitioners, teachers, and affiliated sanghas around the country. We hold most of our programs and ceremonies both in-person and online.
What style of Zen Buddhism are you?
Because our lineage roots stretch back through Korea and Vietnam (see Lineage for details), we have some of the flavor of those styles. Yet, we are an American Zen, being about four generations of teachers from the masters who brought their teachings to the United States. We put emphasis on practice and individual testing of the teachings, so that we can see for ourselves whether they work or not. Nonetheless, many of our sangha have trained with Theravadin, Japanese Zen, and Vajrayana teachers, among others. We seek wisdom from all traditions, as they all have much to offer.
Do I need to have a teacher to practice?
No, but it helps. Our egos are very adept at tricking ourselves, so a keen-eyed teacher can help us to see our own delusions more clearly so that we do not stay stuck for so long.
If, however, you wish to ordain, then a one-on-one teacher-student relationship is necessary.
How do I start?
Just show up! Feel free to jump in and join our weekly practice group and/or our bi-weekly study group. Information and links are on the home page.
If I wanted to, how do I become a Buddhist?
There are many ways to answer this question. One is that it is the wrong question. This would just be one more idea about the self, and as such, it has no real meaning or importance. Another answer is that you can certainly call yourself Buddhist if you feel some connection to the teachings. The traditional answer, however, is that people simply declare for themselves that they take refuge in the three jewels. One can also participate in a ceremony where they take Buddhist Precepts and receive a Dharma name. Ames Mahasangha usually holds a precepts ceremony once or twice a year. For more information, see our Precepts page.
Why do people bow to a Buddha statue? Is it worshipping?
There are three aspects to bowing. The first is to pay respect to the Buddha, who worked very hard to attain enlightenment and who dedicated the rest of his life compassionately helping others become free from suffering.
Second, bowing is an act of humility. We all make mistakes in life and bowing allows us to recognize our mistakes and begin to shift our energies and mind to correcting them. Bowing allows us to redirect the effects of karma and habit energy that we create through our thoughts and actions.
Third, bowing is recognizing the Buddha in yourself. Buddhism teaches that we all have the ability to "wake up" and become Buddhas. We all have Buddha nature within us. When we bow to the Buddha, we are acknowledging and giving respect to our true self, which is already freed from suffering and at peace.
Is ordination possible within the Ames Mahasangha?
Yes. Those wishing to ordain would typically have been practicing with us for some time, and would enter into a teacher-student relationship with one of our teachers. They also would usually take seminary classes at our affiliated online seminary, Buddha Dharma University, or another qualified training program. For more information, see our Ordination page.