Like the lotus blooming in muddy water, Zen at United Church had its origins in ground prepared by religious intolerance and anti-semitism. As mainstream Christianity lost its hegemony through America in the 1970's, the membership of the United Church of Rockville Centre became increasingly comprised of people who were not accepted in other churches because they had been divorced or were in a "mixed marriage" of Protestant, Catholic and/or Jew. One of the reasons I was chosen to be their pastor was that my Zen practice, as well as my being openly gay, demonstrated a commitment to religious diversity and pluralism.
The direct introduction of Zen into the church began when I gave a workshop on Zen Buddhism as part of an Interfaith Series that brought speakers from Islam, Hinduism and Judaism as well as Buddhism. In preparation for offering a weekly schedule of zazen, which I termed "Zen meditation", I gave several workshops at accessible times for the congregation demonstrating the process of zazen and specifically calling attention to the long-neglected history of contemplation that goes back to the mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
Probably the hardest part for people to accept was the presence of a statue of the Buddha and the practice of bowing to it. Staunch Protestants as most of them are, they were trained not to bow even to a cross, much less the personification of an Indian from a different religion. "Isn't this idolatry?" many asked. A brief explanation of the Buddha as the symbol of the ground of all being, a phrase made famous by German American theologian Paul Tillich in the 1950's, assuaged most resistance, especially when combined with bowing as a practice of surrendering one's personal ego.
The discussion of the relationship between Zen Buddhism and Christianity continues on a regular basis through Zen on First Saturdays, a monthly gathering for meditation, a brief presentation of some aspect of Zen teachings, such as the Heart Sutra or the Four Vows, and a discussion in which people make links to their personal experiences and their Christian faith and doubt.
The Zendo space is located in the living room of the parsonage, which is right next door to the church. We will resume a full schedule in the fall of zazen Mondays at 6:30 a.m., and 6 p.m., Tuesdays and Fridays at 7:30 a.m., and the First Saturday Zen at 10 a.m. We have barely begun to be known in the larger community around Rockville Centre, but already the church's website (www.uccrvc.org) and the link as an affiliate with the Village Zendo website has brought some new people to the Zendo.
Ten bows to Roshi and the support of the entire Village Zendo sangha, without which Zen at United Church would not be!
Robert Kaizen Gunn
Shuso, Summer Ango, 2009