It's a strange mix of the urban and the serene, the sacred and the casual, that draws visitors to the Meditation Center, located above Jenkin Jewelers at 313 Division Street in Northfield.
The Center, led by practice director Ted Tuel, began in 1996, but didn't move to its current location until 2002.
It was very informal in the beginning we met in members houses. "When the center opened, we had a $35-a-month budget," Tuel said.
Tuel and Professor Roger Jackson, a Carleton College faculty member, organized item and monetary donations and used them to furnish the Centers current home.
The group also expanded its selection of programs. The Meditation Center now hosts two youth programs. The first, Middle Path, is directed towards middle school students. It meets at 9:30 a.m. on alternate Sundays during the school year and is an introduction into the basics of Buddhism.
The meditation center's Youth Group is open to students ages 12-18. It meets each Wednesday during the school year at 7:30 p.m. Sessions for both groups include short lectures and discussions, occasional field trips, meditation and study activities.
"We want to give kids a place to go where they feel comfortable, are encouraged to explore and fully become themselves," Tuel said.
The Center also has regular 30-minute meditations on Monday through Friday and a longer session on Sunday. The Sunday session begins with 10 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation. It closes with a sitting chant. Each session is open to the public, and meditation orientations are offered on Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
Central to each session and youth group is the actual act of meditation. Buddhist meditation includes both movement meditation and sitting meditation. The meditations focus on repetitive action, like breathing or walking, to calm the mind.
"Meditation is beyond words; one needs to quiet the thinking part of the mind," Tuel said.
As practice director, Tuel leads the meditation sessions. Attendance at the meditations can range from five to 25 people. At sitting meditations, all attendees sit on zafus and zabutons, solid black floor cushions arranged around the meditation hall that make the meditation easier on the knees. In standing meditation, the practitioners walk slowly in a rectangle around the hall, taking care to avoid the Buddha shrine and the ankles of the person in front of them.
According to Tuel there is no particular goal in meditation. It's about being. If you have a goal it can be a distraction. "This [meditation] is a process of eliminating distractions and quieting the mind," he said.
Meditations also incorporate a certain amount of ritual, like incense burning and chanting, among others. The amount of ritual varies among three of the Buddhist traditions: Vipassana, Japanese Soto Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
The first, Vipassana, is a simple technique that draws on physical observation and experience. At the Meditation Center, Vipassana is frequently used as an introductory technique, but it is also practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and in other southeast Asian countries. Japanese Soto Zen concentrates on direct experience and close work with a teacher. It also involves a higher degree of ritual than Vipassana. Tibetan Buddhism includes extensive ritual and is the least accessible to beginners.
"We're an ecumenical center, we try to preserve the integrity of each tradition," Tuel said. To do so, the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center blends elements of each tradition into their meditations. For example, the small bell that is rung three times by the instructor at the beginning of each meditation is a ritual taken from the Japanese tradition.
Most students don't indicate an adherence to a particular tradition, Tuel said.
Tuel, a follower of Japanese Soto Zen, was ordained as a priest in that tradition in October 2005. He began studying Buddhism when he was in his late teens, influenced by his mother, another follower. He studied in a Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Mich., and for one year at a Korean Zen temple before coming to Minneapolis in 1993.
"I really like the way Zen emphasizes direct experience through teaching it's an awakening in daily life, as opposed [to an awakening in] studying," Tuel said. "Practicing Buddhism makes one more awake in the moment, focused, less likely to worry and compassionate."
There are roughly 20 active members at the Center and one does not have to be a practicing Buddhist to attend meditations. The Center is open to novices, or those who are simply curious. Its members are welcoming and eager to help a learner navigate the basic steps of Buddhism, as I found out when I attended a half-day retreat there.
We're pretty much like any other small church, Tuel said. We're a friendly place to come to, we provide spirit guidance, and we're good neighbors in the community.