Every Tuesday evening, a group of local residents and Kenyon students gather inside a small chapel at the United Church of Christ on North Main St. in downtown Mount Vernon. These people make up the Mount Vernon Zen Community, or sangha, a group dedicated to the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism through meditation and guided readings. Soto Zen is one of several schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism dating back to the 13th century.
Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m., though newcomers are encouraged to arrive half an hour early for a brief orientation. The KAT shuttle stops at the square, just two blocks from the United Church of Christ, but rides are also arranged from campus by Zen Community members.
The group was founded in April 2015 by Joy Brennan, assistant professor of religious studies at Kenyon. When Brennan joined the faculty earlier that academic year, she noticed a lack of any Zen Buddhist community either on campus or in Mount Vernon.
“I knew that I wanted to be on the path of being a teacher [of Zen Buddhism] and I really wanted to just have a community of practitioners,” Brennan said.
In forming the Zen Community, Brennan wanted to ensure that the group would be inclusive of both Kenyon students and members of the local community, so she intentionally looked for an off-campus space in Mount Vernon. She reached out to the United Church of Christ and arranged to use their space for weekly meetings. Since that spring, the Mount Vernon Zen Community has met nearly every week.
Brennan first developed an interest in Zen Buddhism when she met a Buddhist teacher as a child. In college, she spent time abroad in China, studying Chinese philosophy and religion. She continued to study Buddhism in graduate school and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in the summer of 2017. She compares the role to that of a Protestant minister, serving as a spiritual and community leader, but without adopting the monastic lifestyle required by other schools of Buddhist tradition.
Meetings of the Mount Vernon Zen Community begin with a half-hour of seated meditation, or zazen, followed by thirty minutes of chants and readings from selected Buddhist texts. In zazen, participants sit silently, in full-lotus or in a chair, focus on their breathing and try to release themselves from the burden of thoughts and anxieties. In doing so, one attempts to become fully immersed in the present.
Zazen is one of many forms of Buddhist meditation and is often practiced in concert with others, such as mindfulness. The practice of zazen can be accomodated to an individual’s needs and preferences, but there is a distinct emphasis on posture; if they can, the participant is encouraged to sit with their legs tightly crossed on a cushion, their hands placed together, and their back straight.
“I really focus on posture because the internal work is hard to talk directly about because there’s no kind of direct reference,” Brennan said. “We can point to tables and chairs but when we’re talking about our internal life things become more amorphous.”
Although the group keeps with the tradition of Zen Buddhism, it is not attached to any specific doctrine or belief system. “The only tenant of [Zen Buddhism] is liberation from suffering,” Brennan said. She encourages all who wish to attend to do so, regardless of their personal beliefs or religious background.
Although the community serves as an indispensable support for its members, Zen Buddhism teaches that such enlightenment can only be achieved through one’s own efforts. Because Zen Buddhism depends so much on one’s individual path, the group can serve a diverse range of beliefs and practices. The ritualistic nature of meetings serves mainly as a tool for spiritual guidance and achieving that relief.
“This is part of the Zen tradition, to think that the forms —all of the bowing, all of the bells—help us to anchor so that we can do a daunting, scary practice of sitting with ourselves quietly,” she said.
Members include a mix of Kenyon students, professors and Knox County residents. Some are regulars who have come nearly every week since the group’s founding, but the group also has a dynamic nature; there are many students and community-members who come and go.
Sangha offers students and residents alike the opportunity to engage with one another through shared community and experience.
Most importantly, the Mount Vernon Zen Community does not offer the same thing to all participants, with some seeking spiritual guidance, some momentary relief from the stress of a hectic life, and others a dedicated practice of the teachings of Soto Zen Buddhism.
Meetings are held each Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Mount Vernon.