Anchorage Zen Community seeks awareness in the silence of winter

For more than three decades, members of Anchorage’s Zen community have gathered in unusual places — from a bustling mall to a converted garage — with the same intention: to simply sit and meditate in silence.

More nomadic, they found peace and stability in a small zendo, or meditation hall, nestled on the edge of two neighborhoods in Alaska’s most populous city and epicenter of urban culture.

Being a Buddhist in Anchorage is both universal in practice and unique to life in Alaska. Anchorage’s Zen community is influenced by the northernmost state’s seasonal rhythms, which include long, dark winters and short summers when the sun only dips below the horizon for brief periods, said Genmyo Jana Zeedyk, who has been the resident priest for over a year. decade.

Alaskan winters, she says, are actually conducive to sitting meditation in Zen Buddhism, or zazen, a practice they believe can help them achieve a greater sense of self.

“People have a very active and sporty life in the snow, but when the activities slow down, it gives more opportunities for zazen,” she said. “There’s the calm that comes with the snow – the conditions make it easier to be inside and sit down.”

Noise, family, responsibilities, nothing stands in the way of their zazen, which began when the community was founded in 1986 after meeting informally for years with followers of other branches of Buddhism.

Resident priest of the Anchorage Zen Community, Genmyo Jana Zeedyk, bows to a Buddha statue during a Sunday practice at the Anchorage Zen Community. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

On a recent day, Zeedyk entered the zendo, bowed to a wooden statue of the Buddha, then to members of the community, before sitting down on a round pillow. Dressed in long black and brown robes, she closed her eyes when a member of the group rang a bell signaling the start of the meditation.

Inside, only the inhaling and exhaling of single breaths and the occasional cough could be heard as silence shrouded the room. Outside, a plane roared above the sprawling metropolis. Anchorage is home to around 300,000 people and the starting point for waves of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts seeking faraway experiences in a romanticized state for its winters and adventures in the nearby mountains.

The long, sunny days of summer also provide Anchorage’s Zen community with a chance to practice meditation while walking in nearby parks, Zeedyk said.

“Zazen works best when practiced regularly, day after day,” said Judith Haggar, the center’s treasurer.

“However, in the summer, when the light seems to be everywhere, zazen seems to have a stabilizing influence amidst all the energy of 19 hours of daylight.”

A woman walks down the street dressed in long clothes.
Zeedyk walks past the zendo, or meditation hall, in Anchorage. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Back at the zendo, several minutes passed until zen clappers clapped, and the dozen people around her in the zendo got up and started walking slowly in circles. At the end, Zeedyk reflected on how practitioners can find steady, stable awareness and compassion in their daily tasks – taking out the trash, sweeping up dog hair, washing dishes.

Yaso Thiru, a member of the group, said that message resonated with her: “What I really like about this practice is that, as she said, it’s not like withdrawing from this world. .It’s about being part of this world and being a practitioner.”

Thiru grew up in a Hindu family in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country. She became interested in Buddhism and joined the Anchorage group after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

A sense of community is vital in sparsely populated Alaska, which is about one-fifth the size of all of the lower 48 states, Zeedyk said. Due to higher costs and limited supplies in this massive, remote state, they embrace an interdependent, makeshift philosophy for the benefit of their Buddhist community, she said.

A route inside a workbook.
A timer and clappers, used to signal time for rest and walking during meditation, are placed next to a program at the Anchorage Zen Community. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

“What’s unique about our community is that we’re far from everywhere and there’s always this commitment to come here, to practice in this very remote place,” Zeedyk said.

Their work goes beyond the walls of zendo. They offered a dharma school for children and do community outreach by cleaning streams, organizing community potlucks and visiting prisoners to share the Buddha’s teachings.

Meditation has been a transformative experience for many women in prison, Haggar said. For more than two decades, she and other members of the community have taught zazen, yoga and dharma to women at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. The program was halted during the coronavirus pandemic.

People meditate in a room near a Buddha statue.
Resident priest Genmyo Jana Zeedyk, second from left, and other members of the Anchorage Zen community meditate during a Sunday service in Anchorage, Alaska on October 9. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

“It was an education for me… It wasn’t holy of me at all. I absolutely loved going there,” Haggar said. “We had the most wonderful discussions. We connected on so many levels and it made my life so much better.”

As the meditation recently wrapped up at the Anchorage zendo, she said goodbye to the others. Brian Schumaker, who calls himself a beginning practitioner, reflected on the benefits of zazen in a frenetic world full of distractions.

“Nowadays we all hear so many words, we hear our monkey mind and it’s all crazy. Everything beeps you,” he said. “And if we’re going to be centered and present, then for me, it’s beneficial to take time away from all that stuff.”

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