For most of us, starting the day is turning off our alarm clock, getting dressed, having coffee or maybe water, and then starting work or school. But there is a little place in Detroit where the first things on the list are instead: sit, sing, and meditate.
As part of our series Mornings in Michigan, Michigan Radio’s Erin Allen looks back on a morning ritual that brings peace and mindfulness to her.
The Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple is what you might call a hidden gem. It’s a quaint space inside a converted duplex in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit. The south side of the house is rented by tenants and the north side is where utilities and gatherings are held.
“The main emphasis here is on returning to your own essential nature. And this is done primarily through sitting practice,” says Melanie Davenport, Abbot of Still Point. Most of the time, I call him by his Buddhist name, Anzen. Her role as abbot is a bit like a guardian of space, and I met her at the temple to hear about her morning practice.
At Still Point, Zen practitioners do a routine early before sunrise and again before dinner, Monday through Friday. It is a combination of meditation, chanting and prostration – a form of inclination and gratitude and humility.
I ask Anzen what she means by using seated meditation as a way to get back to your true essential nature.
“I kind of call it me without context,” she said. “You were born into a family, which gives you some context. So, you know, I was born into a black family. I was given a black background. I grew up in a black part of a city. black So all of that background is there.
But Anzen says our original nature has nothing to do with any of this. That our personality, our real selves, was there before the whole context was layered.
“So the practice was sort of learning to function from that original nature, which sort of gets lost in the context of life.” She says. “But also by embracing the context of life so that you can function more effectively in those contexts.”
Believe me, this is easier said than done. And that’s why we have to train.
In fact, Anzen and I were doing just that, together here at Still Point.
We met in 2010, after a friend from college introduced me to Zen Buddhism. I grew up a Christian – like most black people in Detroit – so I didn’t know there was a whole Buddhist community in Detroit, right there on Trumbull and Canfield.
I really wanted to know more about the tradition. So when I found out there was an open room at Still Point, I had no doubts about moving in.
I lived there for about eight months, and the whole time I felt like I was home away from home. As i was in Detroit, but somehow I was living a lifestyle that I didn’t know was an option.
I ask Anzen what this practice means to her. And why it has to be the first thing she does in the morning.
“It’s like making sure the sacred part of life is taken care of during the day,” she says. “So the practice of gratitude is part of it. Like, OK, I woke up with all my limbs, you know. I didn’t have a stroke in the middle of the night. You know, I did. I have food in a fridge. I can start there. So I’m good, most of the time. So when I start that way, I’m good. No matter what. “
It is around 7 a.m. A little later than usual, but it’s still a good time to start our morning practice.
We bow with our hands in prayer position at the door of the sonbang. What is the room with the altar and where the services and rituals take place. And then we go in, we greet in front of the altar and arrange our cushions – this is what we will eventually sit down to meditate on.
Then we begin our prostrations. Normally we would do 108. Kneel, bend forward, forehead against the cushion and stand up, 108 times. But today we’re only doing 25, because Anzen sometimes has knee issues. Yet even after 25 years, we are both out of breath.
After that, Anzen taps a singing bowl three times to begin our meditation. Twenty minutes pass, as we sit cross-legged on our cushions in silence. I can smell the incense burning somewhere near the altar, where the Buddha statue is also sitting cross-legged. I’m trying to focus on my breathing, and being here in this sacred space, now, in this fleeting moment.
And I remember that early on, it’s hard not to fall asleep at least once.
After the meditation, we get up to sing a song called Yebul, which – to put it very simply – is a tribute to all beings past and present, but especially to all the Buddhas who have come before us.
This part, the song, is particularly refreshing. It’s a moment of unison that I didn’t know I needed.
We finish singing and bow to the altar again. We bow once more at the entrance, and exit the sonbang. And now it’s time for a hug, tea, and conversation.
Coming back to Still Point is like a reminder of everything we need – always, but especially now. Peace. Gratitude for what we have in a time of so much loss. And one spring morning in 2021, when union seemed so forbidden, we can be here – socially distant, but here. Practice, together.