Zen center in rural Monroe offers meditation retreats

By Mary Jane Grenzow, The Monroe Times, May 9, 2007

MONROE, Wisconsin (USA) -- At first, a Zen Buddhism retreat center might seem out of place in rural Green County. But traveling down Falk Road, past a few cows standing near the roadway and up a small rise to a white two-story house nestled behind a small timber, it begins to make more sense.

<< Zen practitioners meditate at the Myoshinji Subtle Mind Temple in rural Monroe.
Times photo: Brenda Steurer

It's very quiet here. On a warm spring day in late April, the only sounds are birds singing. It's also serenely beautiful as the countryside's last vestiges of winter's brown give way to a coat of nourishing green that meets an intensely blue sky.
It seems very Zen.

"I don't know how we came up with Green County," laughed Susan Andersen, a soft-spoken woman who serves as the spiritual director of the Great Plains Zen Center in Palatine, Ill. She was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1978 and a Zen teacher in 1995.

Tandy Sturgeon strikes a wood board that hangs on the porch of the retreat center to call practitioners in.
Times photo: Brenda Steurer  >>

The Chicago group meets weekly in a Unitarian Universalist church and used to rent space at different retreat centers for weekend events. But rental costs were high, Andersen said. Likewise, real estate prices in the Chicago area were prohibitive, so the Zen center began looking farther away for a site for a retreat center.

The Falk Road location works for a retreat center on a number of levels: it's conveniently located close to Madison and Beloit; the small acreage affords a closeness to nature; and the neighbors are nice, she explained.

"It's very peaceful," Andersen said. "It just felt right."

And so Myoshinji, which means Subtle Mind Temple, came to be.

To accommodate overnight guests, Myoshinji received a conditional use permit from Green County. Although it could qualify for tax exemption as a religious organization, Andersen said the center purposefully chose to be considered a business and stay on the tax rolls to help fund public schools.

"It's our philosophy to think about what's going on in the big picture," she said.

A clear mind

Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, an Indian prince who lived sometime around 500 B.C. Zen is one tradition of Buddhism that originated in China and developed in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Meditation is central to practicing Zen Buddhism. The practice of Zen "helps people become more focused, centered and more receptive," according to Great Plains literature.

"We don't mediate on something," but rather to clear the mind, Andersen said. "We meditate to let the body, mind settle down."

<< Michael Sheaf hand sews a ceremonial garment during the retreat.
Times photo: Brenda Steurer

It's all about keeping the chatter inside one's own head quiet.

"It's letting the mind be like the sky and not reacting to what comes in and out. By doing so, we see things more clearly," Andersen said.

"It's a chance to focus," she said, adding with a gentle laugh, "It's hard for some people."

Laura Lyons, a Michigan counselor and therapist who has been practicing Zen for seven years, finds the practice well worth it.

"I'm more accepting of everything in life -- good and bad," she said.

Intensive retreats

Myoshinji is used about once a month for Zen practitioners to have an intensive retreat, where they can learn, work and meditate. There are usually between six and 12 people attending.

"We have a pretty disciplined structure," Andersen said. The retreat is set up to help practitioners delve deeper into Zen and "recharge the batteries."

Participants rise at 4 a.m. each day. Periods of zazen (sitting meditation) and kinhin (walking meditation) are held for several hours daily in morning, afternoon and evening sessions.

There's a work period each day, during which participants work on the grounds. Zazen is held in what was the home's living room, but Andersen said the group plans to convert an adjacent freestanding shop building into a mediation hall. In an effort to be environmentally friendly, plans also include adding solar power capabilities and planting native prairie on the grounds. The center has also been adapted to be wheelchair accessible.

A typical day also includes breaks for meals and short services. Lights are out at 9:30 p.m.

Retreat participants wear plain, dark clothes that aren't distracting, Andersen said. And because the appreciation of life is a Buddhist precept, only vegetarian meals are served at Myoshinji. Andersen said individuals may or may not follow a vegetarian lifestyle when back in the "outside world."

The whole retreat is basically silent, Andersen said. Participants address each other or Andersen as needed to answer simple questions regarding work, but try to refrain from idle chit-chat.

Still, people do get to know each other by attending retreats together.

"There's a special connection" to others at the retreat, retreat participant Tandy Sturgeon said. Even in relative silence, "a lot more transpires than you might guess."

Zen in daily life

While Zen as a religion does include Buddhist scriptures, Andersen said the theology doesn't conflict with the teachings of other major religions, including Christianity or Judaism.

In fact, Andersen said, some people use Zen as an adjunct to practicing another religion. She invites people of all faiths to Myoshinji to experience the benefits of Zen meditation, such as a feeling of calm and improved concentration.

"They're very welcome to come here for that," she said.

In the "outside world," Andersen is the mother of two and an occupational therapist who works with developmentally disabled children. She said Zen helps her be more empathic with clients and in training others to work with disabled individuals.

"Zen emphasizes work," she said, noting that includes work outside a monastery. "We live it on a 24-hour basis."

Michael Sheaf concurred. The home builder from Indiana has been practicing Zen for 17 years and finds it allows him to calm down and look at his own follies.

"It keeps me profoundly engaged in life," he said.