For most of us, to start the day is to turn off our alarm, get dressed, have a coffee or maybe water, and then start work or school. But there’s a little place in Detroit where the first few things on the list are instead — sitting, chanting and meditating.
As a part of our Mornings in Michigan series, Michigan Radio’s Erin Allen returns to a morning ritual that brings her peace and mindfulness.
Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple is what one might call a hidden gem. It’s a quaint space inside a converted duplex in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood. The south side of the house is rented out by tenants, and the north side is where public services and gatherings are held.
"Mostly, the focus here is on going back to your own essential nature. And that's done mostly through sitting practice," says Melanie Davenport, the abbot at Still Point. Most of the time, I call her by her Buddhist name, Anzen. Her role as an abbot is kind of like a keeper of the space, and I met up with 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’s a combination of meditation, chanting, and prostrations — a form of bowing and showing gratitude and humility.
I ask Anzen what she means by using seated meditation as a way to return to your true essential nature.
"I kind of refer to it as self without context," she said. "You're born into a family, which gives you a certain context. So, you know, I was born into a Black family. I was given a black context. I grew up in a Black neighborhood in a Black city. So all of that context is there."
But Anzen says our original nature has nothing to do with any of that. That our personality, our true self, was there before all the context was layered on top.
"So the practice was kind of learning how to operate from that original nature, which gets kind of lost in the context of living." She says. "But also embracing the context of living too so that you can operate more effectively in those contexts."
Trust me, it’s easier said than done. And that’s why we have to practice.
Actually, Anzen and I used to do just that, together here at Still Point.
We met back in 2010, after a college friend introduced me to Zen Buddhism. I grew up Christian — like most Black Detroiters — so I didn’t realize there was a whole Buddhist community right in Detroit, right there on Trumbull and Canfield.
I really wanted to learn more about the tradition. So when I found out there was a room open 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 at home away from home. Like I was in Detroit, but I was somehow living a lifestyle that I never knew 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 just like making sure the sacred part of life is taken care of in the day," She says. "So gratitude practice is a big 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 have food in a refrigerator. I can start there. So I'm good, most of the time. So when I start out that way, I'm good. Whatever comes."
It’s about 7 a.m. A bit later than usual, but still a good time to start our morning practice.
We bow with our hands in prayer position at the doorway of the sonbang. Which is the room with the altar and where services and rituals happen. And then we enter, bow to the altar and arrange our cushions — which is what we’ll eventually sit on to meditate.
Next we start our prostrations. Normally, we’d do 108. Kneeling down, folding forward, forehead to the cushion, and standing back up, 108 times. But today, we only do 25, because Anzen sometimes has trouble with her knee. Still, even after 25, we are both winded.
After that, Anzen taps a singing bowl three times to commence our meditation. Twenty minutes go by, as we sit cross-legged on our cushions in silence. I can smell the incense burning somewhere near the altar, where the Buddha statue also sits cross-legged. I try to focus on my breath, and on being here in this sacred space, now, in this fleeting moment.
And I remember that this early, it’s hard not to fall asleep at least once.
After meditation, we stand to do a chant called Yebul, which — to put it very basically — is an homage to all beings past and present, but especially to all the Buddhas who have come before now.
This part, the chanting, is particularly refreshing. It’s a moment of unison I didn’t know I needed.
We finish chanting and bow again to the altar. We bow once more at the entrance, and exit the sonbang. And now, it’s time for an embrace, tea and a chat.
Returning to Still Point is like a reminder of all the things we need — always, but especially now. Peace. Gratitude for what we have, in a time of so much loss. And on a spring morning in 2021, when uniting has felt so forbidden, we can be here — socially distanced, but here. Practicing, together.