Zen Out of Amsterdam

by David Swan

Those were the last words of my Buddhist teacher that suggested I should stick to what I know, mainly IT – which led me to my next contract and the ensuing love affair with the Netherlands and in particular Amsterdam. But after a year of getting to know every bar, club, and event going on I decided it was time to seek out my Buddhist roots again and attempt to tread the tranquil waters of Zen. It’s been a while since I practiced Zen meditation and my memories are of sore knees, a sore bum, and the occasional burst of inner calm. So it was with trepidation that I headed to the most northern part of the Netherlands to a town called Uithuizen.

As I sat on the train, densely packed buildings of Amsterdam were left behind. As I headed further north what was replaced was a reminder that green lands and open skies do exist.

‘Zen River’ was the name of the temple, a rather modest building surrounded by open farmlands. The temple belongs to the White Plum lineage, which was established by Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995), one of a few inspirational teachers who helped introduce Zen into America. The Abbot of Zen River is Anton Tenkei Coppens, born in the Netherlands in 1949, he studied art and art history. He started Zen practice in 1976 in the UK and went to the Zen Center of Los Angeles before returning to the Netherlands to continue his practice.

On arrival at Zen River you will be met by a resident who will show you your room and let you know what is next on the schedule. You would normally be asked to arrive before dinner on a Friday evening to settle in and meet some of the other people before the next day. The room, as you might expect for a Zen center, is sparse and clean.

Dinner, as with the other tasks, is part of a strict schedule. The food is vegetarian and, where possible, organic. Some vegetables are grown in their own garden. And in keeping with the Buddha’s instruction you eat only enough to fill your stomach three quarters full (so as not to make one sleepy during meditation).
This is the morning schedule :

4:55 Wake up (a time when most Amsterdammers would be going to bed)
5:00 Tea & Coffee
5:30 Zazen (3 periods)
7:30 Morning service
8:00 Breakfast

I decided to head to bed early to lessen the shock of rising at 5 in the morning, and as I lay there in my bed, breathing in the fresh country, one thing unnerved me most. The silence, no bicycle bells shrilling in the background or the gentle thud of the above apartment’s music, but real silence. I briefly peaked out of the window; no buildings, no cars, no cyclist, no noise, just a quickening dark sky.

You may well ask, if you are interested in a relaxing weekend why not a spa or a trip to Antwerp for some retail therapy. While those are all viable options it’s also nice to experience something that breaks not only your work routine, but your weekend routine and your lifestyle routine. At a Zen weekend you get up while the birds are still sleeping, you keep talking to a minimum, you sit and meditate, which sometimes is painful but at other times can be incredibly nurturing, to sit for 30 minutes then have a great moment of clarity. You can also mix with a community of people who are there to volunteer and in return get daily instructions on their meditation and a chance to deepen their practice. You can also assist with the cooking and cleaning while you are there because in Zen, meditation is not just about sitting cross legged but also about being mindful as you work, this is meditation in action.

But it’s not all early rises and work. There is time to yourself in the afternoon when you can relax in your room or walk outside or even continue to assist further, but my  9 to 5 party all weekend mentality was tired by the 5 o’ clock rise so I headed to my room to relax before the  teaching at 4 o’ clock. Whilst I lay there star shaped on my bed I just stared at the ceiling and watched my thoughts race by …must drink less…must learn Dutch…must get my ass down to the gym… and then I slept for about 30 minutes before my alarm woke me up.

There are many things to do on the weekend. As well as meditate, you also have teachings that are held in a less formal manner so you can relax. The Abbot, Tenkei Coppens, will lead the teaching on a specific Buddhist teaching or subject. This normally involves reading a small excerpt from the text, maybe something that you felt was important and then discuss what it meant to you.There are no rights or wrongs and there is plenty of room for humour in the teachings. After the teaching there is an optional Yoga class lead by one of the residents who would talk you through some Tibetan yogic exercises. Personally I am about as flexible as a piece of wood and would have to think back to childhood, to the time when I last touched my toes, but half way would suffice and still give me benefit. After 40 minutes of stretching to impossible positions we laid down on the floor,covered ourselves with blankets, and enjoyed the feelings of our bodies, which I promised to look after when I got back.

Despite it only being 2 days it was easy to think that time does stand still especially when you have no specific schedule to adhere to, to meet friends for a coffee, shop before the party tonight and fix the shelves on Sunday. My Zen weekend was an opportunity to forget all that, leave behind the madness, not just of work, but also  your social life. To be able to get back to the smaller details in life, being able to feel my body again, notice my thoughts, take a quick peak at nature, and have fun taking part in mundane activities such as cleaning the dishes. It’s best to phone before you arrive (+31 (0)595 435039) so the Abbot is aware and you are instructed in what the schedule is and whether you have had experience with Zen. If you have not, you will be given full instruction on how to sit and what to do during any ceremonies.

Uithuizen is a far cry from Amsterdam and both inhabit opposite worlds but it was worthwhile to recover those stressed bones, leave the mobile phone behind, and remind yourself of your simple nature.

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