Buddhist Sangha offers peaceful contemplation

By Danielle Bukowski, The Miscellany News, November 3, 2010

Hudson Valley, New York (USA) -- The main focus of Vassar's Buddhist Sangha is sitting meditation. Students gather twice a week - 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays - in the Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library's quiet room to sit and meditate. Seven to 10 core students attend regularly, while many others drop by as needed.

Vassar's Buddhist group, called a "Sangha," which originates from the Sanskrit term for community, is comprised of students from all backgrounds with the common goal of clearing the mind. According to Arial Shogren '13, one of the leaders of the Sangha, "What we do is simple…I think people come [to Sangha] because Buddhism, or the concept of sitting meditation and experiencing the present moment, is more applicable to the lives of college students." In the race to finish papers on time, attend extracurricular events and remember to eat, Vassar students need to find ways to calm down and focus on the present moment, and for many, sitting meditation is a way to achieve that focus.

During the meetings, students practice zazen meditation, described as the study of the self. Attendants will sit on small pillows called zafus, meditate for approximately 30 minutes, and chant Buddhist vows at the end. While "sitting", participants chose to sit with crossed or bent legs, and traditionally keep their position for the duration of the zazen.

Vassar's Sangha is more lenient: students may switch positions. Yet all participants should be respectful of other sitters by keeping quiet and relatively still. The goal of sitting meditation is to clear the mind and bring unity to mind, body, and breathing.

Like most religious groups on campus, the Buddhist Sangha is welcoming and open to newcomers and anyone curious about the faith. Yet the Sangha is not comprised primarily of practicing Buddhists. One sitter described the group as "a melting pot" of various backgrounds. "Our Buddhist Sangha is very Zen-based, so we might not be able to represent all of the traditions of Buddhism," Shogren said. The group also sponsors periodical trips to Buddhist centers and hosts dharma talks once a semester.

The co-pilots of the group, Shogren and Amanda Howard '13, were not raised Buddhist. "I took a World Religions class in high school, and we went to a Buddhist monastery, and that sparked an interest. Occasionally I went to one of the talks, but I didn't learn to sit until I came to Vassar," Shogren explained. Howard recounts, "I started going [to Buddhist Sangha] in November last year. It was just something one of the old leaders of the group got me into. It's something I do every week that clears my head for a while."

One regular attendant, Chenxi Cai '11, said he is "in the process of understanding Buddhist teachings. I got interested over the summer and tried to feel the Buddhist way of looking at things. I come pretty much every week."

Even a few alumnae/i still come back to Buddhist Sangha.

"Sitting meditation can be very challenging. It is challenging to clear my head sometimes. It's a lifelong practice; there is no end goal," Howard said. Vassar's version of the meditations are more lenient—they allow sitters to change positions and leave if they want to—"so as to not scare anyone off," Shogren added.

Because Buddhist practice is such an individual journey, the students have no trouble incorporating the teachings into their daily lives. A person can meditate anywhere, so long as they have quiet and a place to sit, so it's more a matter of finding the time and learning to focus. Members of Vassar's Buddhist Sangha are eager to talk about their spirituality, and what meditating means to them: a sense of calm, a time to get away, finding a place in the world.

Participants within the Buddhist Sangha pride themselves on the open acceptance of all individuals. And though Shogren admits to a belief that spirituality if far more prevalent than faith on Vassar's campus, diversity of religion is seen as a statistic, as members note, but it is not seen as a negative.

"We are generally let to be," Shogren said.

Buddhists at Vassar are interested in spirituality, meditation and finding time for peace in their hectic schedules. Even though students spend most of their time sitting in classes, lectures, and the library, sitting meditation is the only place they are encouraged to deactivate and think of absolutely nothing if only for a few brief moments.