Buddhist brings message of inner calm to Ridgewood

By HUGH R. MORLEY, NorthJersey.com, April 10, 2006

RIDGEWOOD, New Jersey (USA) -- As a probation officer overseeing troubled families, Jim Castner sees more than a little chaos. He keeps himself centered by studying Zen, the Buddhist philosophy that encourages the search for enlightenment through meditation.

So Castner, 45, of Wallington, came out energized Sunday afternoon from a lecture by Buddhist teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, on "Shifting our notions of the self: a Zen perspective."

O'Hara told the small gathering at The Unitarian Society in Ridgewood that the secret to achieving inner calm is to look outside yourself, and shake off the self-image or "narrative" you have held since birth.

The message hit home for Castner, who has studied Buddhism for 14 years.

"I like the way Enkyo explained the day-to-day experience of yourself," he said, moments after O'Hara finished her lecture. He characterized her message as: "Be very aware and careful of getting stuck in yourself. ... Be willing to take a look: Do I really have the whole story here, regarding myself and other people?"

O'Hara was the latest in a series of speakers presented by the Heart Circle Sangha, a Ridgewood group that studies Soto and Rinzai Zen traditions of Buddhism through meditation, study, services, retreats and workshops. Co-sponsor was the Dhamma-Chakra Society of New Jersey.

In January, Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest and Zen master, spoke on the two schools of religious thought, as well as immortality and salvation.

The group invited O'Hara a retired professor of media studies at New York University and an AIDS activist to speak because of her growing following and dynamic presentation, said Joan Hogetsu Hoeberichts, the Sangha's spiritual director. In one lecture, O'Hara used Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin" to illustrate a point about Zen.

On Sunday, O'Hara quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Albert Einstein and poet W. H. Auden as she encouraged her audience to throw off their self-perceptions.

"This self-absorption prevents us from connecting with what is the incredible reality of our lives," she said. The goal, she added, is to "let go of our small self, and be present in a spontaneous emergence."

"The trick is, how do we shift back and forth between the habits we have of myself, me, my needs, my wants, my story and that of the whole world?" she said. "How can I get away from this self-centered self, and enter into a compassionate interaction with reality?"

The answer is to understand the importance of both, and pay equal attention to both parts of the self, O'Hara said.

She noted that Tutu made a similar point when he defined the African notion of ubuntu, saying: "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, 'A person is a person through other persons.' It is not, 'I think, therefore I am.' It says rather: 'I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.' "