First Time in a Sangha

Yesterday, I went to the Honolulu Diamond Sangha for the first time. I’ve lived in Hawaii for almost 4 years and been too nervous to go. Afraid of tradition and ritual, I suppose – I’ve always wanted to see it but always been too afraid.

After breaking up earlier this year, I’ve really struggled with practice. To be honest, I’ve struggled with practice for the last few years. Sitting hasn’t been a priority of mine. Of course, when you go through a rough time, suddenly the idea of sitting peacefully sounds wonderful.

When I have particularly rough bouts of grief, I find myself sitting for long periods of time. Usually, because my practice isn’t well established, the sessions are an exercise of presence. The attention muscle in my head isn’t well stretched, so on the binge sitting, I have a tendency to come away exhausted and feeling no better than when I sat down.

Though, of course, we don’t sit to feel better.

It was easy to find the Diamond Sangha; it’s next to a popular hiking trail that I’ve done many times. In fact, I’ve driven by and stared at the beautiful architecture of the sangha a few times. It’s a beautiful area surrounded by trees and mountains. The cacophony of birds is both loud and peaceful – a strange combination.

The architecture of the sangha doesn’t immediately identify an entrance, so I stayed in the parking lot until someone else (completely dressed in black and not in hiking clothes) parked next to me. When she got out of the car, I awkwardly tried to make it seem like I had just arrived myself.

She seemed more confident about where to walk to, so I followed her and we introduced ourselves. At the base of the building, we were greeted by others who were there for orientation. We totaled 4 (including myself). There was a man and woman conducting the orientation and they introduced themselves to us.

After a bit of small talk, we sat down and spoke about our practices and what brought us to Diamond Sangha. For me, I’ve spent years reading books on zen but never really knew anyone who was familiar with zen. Most of my pronunciations are wrong because I’ve never vocalized a lot of the terms in books.

For example, it was relieving to hear them say certain words because it meant that I could imitate their pronunciation. I always thought that seiza (a way of formal sitting) was “s-eye-zah” – apparently it’s pronounced “say-zah”.

I embarrassed myself in 10th grade when I spoke to the psychology teacher about norepinephrine because I called it “nore-pine-phrine” rather than “nor-epin-efrin”. It’s what I get for reading books.

Anyways, soon we moved onto the zendo and learned about various postures and sitting techniques. Perhaps it would be better labeled as sitting styles. We were taught how to sit in full lotus, half lotus, seiza, and Burmese. The leaders emphasized that it’s important to do what works best for you and offered suggestions as they watched us try them.

I went through each leg formation and – after looking at many diagrams in books – was relieved that I could ask questions. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in the ways they had shown but I didn’t know how to rotate my hips or how to angle my feet.

After that, we took a break. When we resumed, they instructed us on zendo formalities. Bowing upon entrance, bowing towards others, bowing at the cushion, and finally kinhin. We sat in zazen for 15 minutes, did kinhin, then when back for another 15 minutes of zazen.

Surprisingly, it felt great. All my initial worries about formality and ritual were vanquished. We had a short session after sitting where we spoke about our experience, then migrated back outside the zendo to finish up.

It really saddened me that I’ve spent 4 years in Hawaii and I hadn’t worked up the courage to go until now. Though, I’m grateful that I still the opportunity to visit – with a little over a year left. I guess we’ll see where it goes from here!