Visiting Dharma Cousins in Las Vegas

Main Building - 2
The Zen Center of Las Vegas

This last weekend, I was in Las Vegas for the second time in a month. I had been there a month ago for the Black Hat and Defcon computer security conventions. Generally, I only go to Vegas when my work sends me since I don’t really drink, gamble, or womanize. This time, I came back for a Zen retreat.

When I told people that I was going to Las Vegas for a Zen retreat, everyone seemed utterly shocked. They would ask me, “There’s Zen in Vegas?” I’d tell them that of course there was. Zen can be found in most major cities but the cognitive dissonance seemed to be pretty big for a lot of people. I shouldn’t have been too surprised because I had only been vaguely aware that there were Zen practitioners there before quite recently.

I was invited to attend by one of my teachers, Rev. Paul Dōch’ŏng Lynch, JDPSN. He is the head teacher of the Five Mountain Sangha in which I was ordained last year. This retreat was the first multiple day one held at the Zen Center of Las Vegas’ brand new temple. They have been around since the early 1990’s but had recently acquired two adjacent houses and refurbished one into being their new center. They did a wonderful job as well as you can see below and on my flickr photo set:

Dharma Room - 1
The Dharma Room
Pool - 1
The View Across the Property

The retreat was a Yong Maeng Jong Jin (in Korean) or “to leap like a tiger while sitting” retreat. These are generally three or seven day intensive retreats, similar to the Japanese Zen sesshins. The Zen Center of Las Vegas (hereafter “ZCLV”) is a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen, the largest Zen organization in the West, which practices a form of Sŏn, or Korean Zen Buddhism. The school was founded by Zen Master Sŭngsan and it is where Rev. Lynch originally trained before Sŭngsan’s death in 2004. Rev Thomas Kwanjok Pastor, JDPSN is the guiding teacher at the ZCLV and one is also one of Rev. Lynch’s closest friends. Because of this close relationship and history, we were invited to participate in this inaugural retreat at the new temple by Rev. Pastor.

I found the retreat to be very interesting. In a sense, that’s not actually true. The practice of the retreat itself, the sitting and walking meditation, the morning and evening ceremonies, and the interviews for koan work, were all not terribly unusual. We used the forms of the Kwan Um School but since we are, ultimately, derived from that school and its founder, they were almost the same as what we practice within the Five Mountain Sangha. What was interesting to me was to see how our Dharma cousins at the ZCLV practiced, interacted, and otherwise went about their normal practices. They did things slightly differently, emphasizing different aspects of practices, and had a little bit of a different outlook than what I’ve sen at our own Five Mountain Sangha retreats. It was close enough to not be terribly alien but just different enough that it stood out from time to time. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help officiate at a precepts ceremony for a Five Mountain Sangha member, Glenda, who is also an occasional student of mine. The ZCLV was kind enough to allow us to hold our ceremony separately from their own during the retreat, which also allowed me to see how they did the same ceremony. Again, same but different.

I also had an excellent opportunity to interview with Rev. Pastor and engage in koan work with him. I am very grateful for that. I also found the sangha members of the ZCLV to be overwhelmingly friendly, engaging, and welcoming to us. It would have been easy for them to not know what to make of the four of us who participated in their retreat but they didn’t treat us as anything other than fellow members of the Buddhist sangha. They even invited us to come back, reminding those of us from California that they are only a short flight or drive away. I know that I feel like I definitely have a welcome place to go when I find myself in Las Vegas. It is nice to know that the Dharma can be found in a city that I’ve often thought of us exemplifying everything that is wrong with American culture and society. It turns out that I was wrong and places like the ZCLV are beacons of sanity in a desert there.

Update: Rev. Lynch has put his pictures of the precepts ceremony up as well here. He has also written his own blog post about the retreat.