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Chaplain’s Office hosts Zen Buddhist Meditation

Last Sunday, Nov. 5, the Chaplain’s Office hosted a Zen Buddhist Meditation in Skinner Memorial Chapel. The mediation was led by Minnesota Zen Center guiding teacher Ted O’Toole and was open to all students. Carleton students and members of the Northfield community attended the event, as well as College Chaplain Schuyler Vogel ’07 and the Student Chaplain’s Associates. 


A considerable amount of foresight went into planning the meditation event. “Planning for our meditation session began this summer when I met Ted O’Toole for lunch and a tour of the Minnesota Zen Center, where he serves as Guiding Teacher,” said Vogel. “Being new to my role as Chaplain, it was important to meet and get to know our program leaders. Ted had led meditation at Carleton before and came highly recommended by my predecessor and others in the Minnesota Buddhist community.”


The event consisted of three main sections. First, O’Toole led the group of about two dozen participants through a 15-minute guided meditation. Participants were encouraged to clear their minds of thoughts as much as they could and to focus on their breathing: “Our everyday thoughts are such that they build upon one another; that is, one thought causes you to think of another thing, and so on and so forth. In meditation, our goal is to stop that thought train in its tracks to the best of our ability.” Ted admitted that this may be a difficult standard for beginning meditators, which was completely fine. “At the very least, try to focus on your posture and breathing.” Ted suggested that the participants gently close their eyes to filter out any distractions. Participants recited positive experiences during the guided meditation portion of the event. “The meditation was really nice. This was my first time doing one, and it felt like a welcoming, non-judgemental space for people of all religions,” says Crystal Wu ’24. “Especially with all the stress that comes with the end of the term, this was such a nice way to relax for a bit.”


O’Toole then told the group about his background in Zen Buddhism, which started when he read Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” in his early adolescence. The main character of the 1958 novel journeys through the American West in search of Buddhist transcendence, similar to the way Ted was drawn to the religion in the different contexts of his early life. Ted finally felt he had arrived at his spiritual “home” when he attended the Ann Arbor Buddhist Temple and connected with sangha — the Buddhist community — for the first time. There, he also studied under Haju Sunim in the Korean Zen Tradition for one year. 


When O’Toole moved to Northfield in 1994, he “immediately looked up the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and became a member,” receiving Zen initiation in 1995. Here, he found a “small, eclectic” Buddhist community, which led him to establish the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center. “It was then that I realized I loved building sangha. Overall, I have to say, in all honesty, Buddhist practice has transformed my life in an incredibly positive way. I think that is why I am driven to share it with others, and why I enjoy teaching it so much.” 


The participants then convened for a communal dinner from Tokyo Grill of fried rice, sushi and teriyaki chicken in the chapel’s gathering space and enjoyed further conversation with Ted and the rest of the group. 


Vogel found Ted’s background story “illuminating, especially regarding how it took him so many years to truly become a regular practitioner. So many people try meditation once or twice, feel like it is hard, and then label themselves as a bad meditator and believe it isn’t for them. Ted’s story should inspire us to be kind to ourselves, to keep trying, and to recognize that our lives are always unfolding, often in unexpected and hopeful ways.”


Typically, the Chaplain’s Office holds two to three Zen meditations a year. However, there are Buddhist meditations led every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. in the main chapel. These meditations are led by two different Buddhist teachers: Bhante Santhi, who is the senior teacher of the Triple Gem of the North Meditation Center; and Roger Jackson, who is the John W. Nason Professor of Asian Studies and religion, emeritus. Anyone who is interested is welcome to join. 

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