In the lived-in rooms on the fourth floor of a Camp Street building, the New Orleans Zen Temple is very quiet — so quiet you can hear the bristles of a broom brushing the carpet as one of its attendees prepares the dojo (literally: the way place, or the place where you practice the way) for evening meditation practice. Outside, the bells of a nearby cathedral ring faintly; inside, people begin gathering and removing their shoes to prepare for a different sort of seeking.
“The Buddha never talked about God. [Zen] is much more about the nature of life, suffering, and how you have to life in this life with other people,” explains Richard Collins, the temple’s recently appointed abbot. “It’s not going to give you the answer to life, but it will certainly give you the discipline to appreciate the life you have.”
Though Collins has attended zazen (seated Zen meditation practice) at the temple for many years, he assumed the role of abbot in January, taking over for his teacher and abbot emeritus Robert Livingston. Meeting Collins at a party or academic function — he currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — you wouldn’t immediately realize you were in the presence of a modern-day monk, who leads the temple’s practices in the zazen tradition of “Homeless Monk” Kodo Sawaki, considered one of the Buddhist offshoot’s great teachers.
The explanation of what Zen and Zen practice entails can lead to surprising, and even baffling, conversations. As Collins says, “Zen is kind of a Rorschach blot. And in a way it still is, even after you practice.” Literally, what the temple’s practitioners do is sit. Just sit, during group meditation sessions that happen a few times a week. The ambition (although it’s not really an ambition, as Collins points out to me — you’re not trying to “achieve” anything, in the way we typically think of the word) is to sit without becoming engrossed in thoughts of the past, or regrets, or the future. The idea is to be totally, completely present, motionless in body and mind, for the duration of the session.
Collins says a lot of the people who are drawn to the practice are what he thinks of as “overachievers,” such as doctors, lawyers and artists. In his view, what they share is a need to calm their brains. After he began practicing years ago, he began to notice a new sense of awareness in his daily activities. Riding his bike back to the Faubourg Marigny from the temple, he’d anticipate the motion of cars; in his role as an English professor at Xavier University, he noticed an extra dimension in his ability to listen to students. But as he cautions, it’s probably not effective to go into practice hoping for fringe benefits, to try and increase productivity or tick off “enlightenment” on a checklist.
“What is offered is both more and less than what [new attendees] are [often] looking for,” Collins says. "'Just sit' is really the key to practice … having and creating time to do absolutely nothing, for no purpose.”
When new visitors come to the temple, they’re required to attend an introductory session to teach them the moves of meditation practice. (The next introductory session takes place Sept. 18; it costs $30 to attend.) Regular sessions, which are currently held three times a week, typically include two 30-minute seated meditation periods broken up by an intermediary meditation in motion. At some practices this is accompanied by a meal; usually simple or vegetarian fare such as quinoa or lentil soup.
Longer, more challenging meditation periods take place during periodic sesshin retreats, which are popular among students who want to deepen their understanding of Zen. In the past, students have even lived on the temple's property, helping with cooking, sewing, cleaning and tending the patio garden of bamboo and other hardy plants. The organization has owned the building, which once housed one of Cosimo Matassa’s studios, since the 1980s.
Only the abbot emeritus lives at the temple now, but Collins eventually will move in with his family. With his residency, he hopes to expand the temple’s practice schedule and share more about Zen practice with the community.
“As my teacher said, it works — I don’t know how it works — but it works,” Collins says. "It transforms the way you function in the world.”