New Zen Buddhist center in Troy brings calmness

by Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press, December 29, 2014

Dharma Gate Zen also has yoga classes and Japanese sword classes, as well as a recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous but based on Buddhist ideas

Detroit, Michigan (USA) -- On a Sunday morning inside a former warehouse in Troy, the teacher guided the congregants through meditation.

"Let the room be filled with warm, bright light," said the Ven. Hoden Sunim, the abbot of Dharma Gate Zen. "Relax your body, release. ... Inhale nothing but that warm, bright light. Exhale."

The scene inside the center is the latest addition to the Buddhist landscape in metro Detroit. Opened this year, the 1,500-square-foot facility is part of the Taego Order, which is based in South Korea with branches across the U.S. and Europe. Sunim was trained and ordained at a Taego monastery in South Korea, but he opened this center with the intention of making Buddhism understandable to all.

"The goal is to be a bridge between the old, 2,500 years of Buddhist practices to what is practical and modern today, in this town, in this country, dealing with things at this time," said Sunim, 45. "It's a very practical application of the dharma,"a Sanskrit word that refers to teachings or laws.

To that end, the center offers meditation services, yoga classes, a recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous but based on Buddhist ideas, as well as Japanese sword classes that teach discipline and control and walking meditation in outdoor places like parks.

The center's opening comes at a time of growing interest in mindful meditation. Time magazine had a cover story this year on what it called the "Mindful Revolution." Some are touting the health benefits — both physical and mental — of meditation. And companies like Google even offer meditation classes for its employees.

"This stuff for me is essential," said Aaron Cozadd, 33, who attends meditation classes and the recovery program at the center. "It's a good way to get balance in your life."

Meditation has helped Cozadd recover from challenges with alcohol, allowing him to "ignore negative thoughts that are not who we are," he said. "It breaks our addictions to our animal side."

Raised in Oakland County as Brent Eastman, Sunim — who was renamed after becoming a Buddhist leader — would occasionally attend a Christian church with his parents, but felt a disconnect.

"I was interested in Christianity when I was very young, I was reading the Bible," Sunim said. "It just never struck home with me. I really had a hard time believing it, or finding value. ... I was drawn more to Eastern philosophy."

Since he was a teen, Sunim had wrestled with anger and anxiety, a restlessness that didn't subside even after he achieved success in the business world in marketing. "I had this massive hole," he said. "I was chasing that consumerism lifestyle, never happy."

But a visit to Japan in 2002 introduced him to a new world. "In Japan, I never felt more at home or at ease until I got into that culture," he said.

When he came back, he started learning about Buddhism from centers in Ann Arbor and in Royal Oak, where he eventually became a teacher at Muddy Waters Zen, also with the Taego Order. Zen refers to a school of thought within Buddhism that was believed to have been developed by Bodhidharma, a monk from India.

Michael Opipari, 60, a Dharma Gate Zen member who grew up Catholic, also "wasn't finding any answers" in Christianity, he said, and turned to Buddhism after becoming intrigued in an art history class.

But he and Sunim stress that the center is open to all religions and to those without a religion. "We're not asking anyone to change religions," he said. "Everyone has a different path."

Think of the services as "like a little vacation, a hour-and-a-half vacation where you sit and be quiet."

The idea of individuality — along with a supportive community — is rooted in Buddhism and stressed at Dharma Gate Zen. After meditation, Sunim talked to the members about Buddhist precepts. Behind him was a gold-leaf plated statue of Buddha.

"When we say we take refuge in the Buddha, what we're saying is we're taking refuge in the Buddha within ourselves, the ability in all of us to have an awakening experience" like Buddha did while sitting under a tree, Sunim said during services. "This statue," he added, pointing to the statue behind him, "is not of the Buddha. It's you."

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