- Deepening the Heart of Wisdom: A Course in Buddhist and Christian Contemplative Practices and Dialogue
A dozen seminarians and a professor file into a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled lounge in the main building of their campus. The left half of the room features a padded window seat beneath a bay of tall, leaded-glass windows, a coffee table, and a group of upholstered chairs around the table, facing the windows. On the right side of the room is a paneled wall, featuring painted portraits of white men in academic robes, hung well above eye level. On the floor, lining this wall, is a tidy row of rectangular black mats, each surmounted by round black zafu or a meditation bench. Nearest the double entry doors, two or three chairs face the wall. Opposite the door is a marble fireplace and mantle, also surmounted by a portrait. A few feet in front of this, in the center of the room, is a small wooden table, on which the most prominent object is a cube-shaped white pedestal. Upon the pedestal rests a miniature carved wooden chair, which is empty. To the viewer’s left of the chair is a small vase of flowers; to the right is a lit white candle. In front of the pedestal are a small, glass vessel of water and two censers: one a round ceramic bowl full of packed gray ash; the other a lacquer box with two compartments. The larger compartment is also full of packed ash; upon the ash rests a small, glowing charcoal. The smaller compartment contains a neat pile of incense composed of tiny wood chips and fragrant granules.
As the students enter the room, each steps through the open left side of the doorway (the right side of the door is closed). They enter on the left foot, take two steps forward, press palms together in a prayer-like gesture called gasshō, and bow from the waist in the direction of the empty chair. Each then curls the fingers of the left hand around the thumb, places the hand against the solar plexus, rests the right palm on top of the left fist, and walks forward, keeping the row of upholstered chairs on the left and the altar table containing the empty chair on the right. Just beyond the table, each person turns right and passes behind it with a slight bow, then proceeds to one of the chairs or zafus along the wall on the right side of the room. Arriving at a seat, each [End Page 83] makes gasshō, bows to the seat, turns 180 degrees clockwise, bows in gasshō toward the windows on the opposite side of the room, sits on a zafu, and turns clockwise toward the wall or steps around the back of a chair to sit facing the wall. The people settle themselves into upright postures, hands folded in their laps in the “cosmic mudra,” the fingers of the left hand on top of the fingers of the right, with thumb-tips touching gently. They place the tips of their tongues on their upper palates, behind their front teeth, and direct their gazes downward toward a point on the wall in front of them. They then bring their attention to their breaths, as they flow in and out.
A professor, wearing black robes, enters the room in a similar way but sidesteps to the right, in front of the altar, holding a burning stick of incense between the fingers of both hands. She bows again, sidesteps left, walks toward the altar, sidesteps to the right in front of it, touches the base of the incense stick to her forehead and places it upright in the round censer with the fingers of her right hand, making gasshō with her left. With her right hand she gathers a pinch of powdered incense, elevates it to her forehead, and sprinkles it on the burning coal in the rectangular censer, then adds a second pinch. Tendrils of fragrant smoke curl upward and dissipate. Making gasshō with both hands, she sidesteps again to the right, bows, turns clockwise toward the door, and walks...