It’s a damp, wind-whipped Tuesday evening in central Toronto. Shaking off the chill, 20 people arrive punctually, remove coats and shoes, quietly line the room’s perimeter, and begin meditating. They sit facing the cement wall, some using cushions, others small wooden benches, with hands and legs in various positions. The only sound in the semi-darkness is the ticking of a wall clock.

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In Zen practice, this is zazenkai, or a “group sitting,” offered in this place weekly to support those who meditate, or “sit,” at home. It also provides occasion for a teacher to give public instruction and private interviews to the participants. After 30 minutes of silent zazen (sitting meditation), the jikijitsu (bell ringer) sounds his gong and participants arise to walk a few laps around the room, still with heads bowed.

Returning to the floor, and after a short prayer, they then settle in for the teisho, a talk by a Zen master. Tonight’s sermon, to borrow a Christian term, is about Zen’s oldest poem, the 1,500-year-old Shin Jin Mei, attributed to the Third Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Seng-ts’an. It is the closest thing Zen has to a statement of faith. The master reads the first few lines:

The Supreme Way is without difficulty.
It just dislikes picking and choosing.
If there is neither hating nor loving, everything is open and clear.

“The roshi [master or “old teacher”] says we are endowed with feelings such as hate and love,” gently explains the teacher, who sits in a chair at the front of the room. “But as long as we cling to such emotions, we cannot grasp the world where everything is open and clear… Loving and hating are ways of picking and choosing, are they not?”

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