The Zen professor

by PHYLLIS McGUIRE, Bennington Banner, September 5, 2006

Bennington, VT (USA) -- Over a span of 16 years, Thomas Redden earned the titles of doctor, professor and priest. "But people just call me Tom," said Redden, with a smile, during an interview in August.

With fair skin, a full head of brown hair, dressed in slacks and sport shirt with open collar, Redden was not the stereotype of a Buddhist priest, as pictured by many Americans.

Redden, the oldest son, second of eight children, was raised a Catholic.

"I was very much into religion. I liked going to church," said Redden. The Redden family lived in Connecticut near a Catholic church and school. "My mother is a devout Catholic."

His eyes misted as he added, "My father died when I was 11."

Now Redden, 51, lives in Newfane with his wife of 24 years and their two daughters, 14 and 10. On school days, he drives to Southern Vermont College, where he teaches history and politics. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Williams College; two masters degrees, one from Central Connecticut University, one from the University of Geneva, Switzerland; and a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Connecticut.

Redden was about the same age as his students when he became interested in Buddhism.

"I studied religion - Hinduism, Buddhism ... at Williams College," Redden said. "And at a winter study program, I took a course in Zen Buddhism. We skied and swam to develop mindfulness."

When people engage in a repetitious activity, their ability to focus is heightened, Redden said.

After graduating from Williams College in 1977, Redden lived in Japan about two years and traveled around the world.

"I was able to go to Japan because I had gotten a job teaching English there," Redden said. He considered himself very fortunate to have that opportunity because he had wanted to live in Japan ever since he had taken a Japanese history class in high school.

In Japan, Redden went to a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, the religious center of the country, and started a meditation practice.

When he returned to the United States, he began to practice at the Zen Community of New York, located in the suburbs of New York City, which later became the Zen Peacemaker Order.

"I was ordained a priest there," Redden said. "People came from New York City. They were thrilled. And my mother was very happy for me."

At the ordination ceremony, Redden undertook the 10 precepts.

"Some are a bit obscure, but the five core ones are: not killing, stealing, lying, misusing sex, or misusing intoxicants like drugs and alcohol. The presumption being that if you live an ethical life, you will be able to develop spiritually to be loving and kind," Redden said.

The teacher at the Zen Peacemaker Order moved west with the bulk of the community and Redden eventually went to the Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

"I became a formal student of (Zen Master) John Daido Loori there," said Redden. "You have a teacher all your life."

A year and a half ago, Redden became a formal member of the Mountains and Rivers Order, an American order founded by Loori in 1980.

Redden goes on retreat several times a year for three to seven days.

"It's very rigorous," he said. "You get up about 3 a.m. There is total silence for 12 hours a day." Retreats usually begin with meditation to "still the mind."

Redden has meditated an hour or two every day since 1978. "I have an altar at home," he said.

"A high percentage of converts in America meditate because that's how they were introduced to Buddhism. And they do not have the support of the cultural milieu in which Buddhism is recognized as an integral part of life. In Japan, they observe the holidays ... they live Buddhism. It is a religion based on what Buddha argued is the nature of life; suffering (dukha) is mainly caused by clinging to ourselves - being very caught up in our own ideas, opinions, preferences, etc. These very subjective views of the world lead to frustration, resentment, anger ... We all know a lot of people who cling so dearly to their own ideological positions, be they liberal or conservative, that they really get worked up just at the thought of some things," said Redden.

Scientists have evidence that Buddhists are happier and calmer than other people, as reported in New Scientist magazine.

Redden has found that Buddhism allows him to create stability and equilibrium in his life. "It's a great gift," he said.

"I come to school in a good state of mind. I can bring forth the compassion and deep affection I have for the kids and my job. It is a huge responsibility to create a positive educational environment for the kids. Compassion, patience and clear thinking is what it takes to be an effective teacher."