Memorial Day weekend seems an apt time for an "Inner Disarmament Training" workshop, but Sensei Robert Joshin Althouse didn't really plan it that way. Instead, his three-day lesson in nonviolent communication coincides with the first anniversary of the Zen Community of Oak Park.
Althouse, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, and his wife, June Kaililani Tanoue, bought their house on North Humphrey Avenue in February 2004 to establish a Zen Community here. "Growing slowly, one person at a time," according to Althouse, the group celebrated its first year last Sunday.
Although Zen can be considered a religion?#34;Althouse conducts services, marries people?#34;he prefers to view it as a "spiritual practice based on meditation, how you live in the world," he says. "Our intention is to liberate all beings, to transform one's life to live in that intention."
At the Zen Community of Oak Park, anyone interested can learn to practice meditation, and attend a variety of classes, services or retreats. There's a regular schedule of daily and weekly meditation at the house, along with beginning and
continuing classes in Zen practice. (See the website, www.zencommunity.org for specific information.)
Tanoue, who grew up in Hawaii, also teaches Hula classes there.
Zen is "all inclusive," notes Althouse. Although its roots are historically in Buddhism, there are Zen teachers who, for example, are rabbis and Catholic priests.
Althouse discovered Zen in college. Raised a Presbyterian, he bumped up against the Vietnam War as a teenager, and became "angry and rebellious."
"I had no personal relationship to God and had a need for spiritual meaning and truth," he recalls.
In college he was attracted first to existentialism and then Zen. "You could practice Zen, not just talk about it," he explains. "And there were teachers in the traditions. I was looking for a mentor." He found several in Tibetan Buddhism.
Althouse practices the Mahayana type of Buddhism that includes social action. "We think you can't have enlightenment just for yourself," he says.
A lineage holder and fully empowered Zen teacher in the White Plum tradition, Althouse founded the Zen Center of Hawaii in 1992. In 2000 he joined the Peacemaker Community in California, a global, interfaith organization that "supports Zen practitioners who have an actively engaged practice in the world, working in hospices, prisons?#34;activists with a spiritual basis," he says.
After doing a fair amount of traveling for that organization, Althouse and Tanoue came to Chicago when she took a job as the national director of Kid's Café, a program affiliated with America's Second Harvest that provides free food to hungry children across the country.
They moved to Oak Park, Althouse says, because it "feels integrated," and he started the Zen Community in their home.
Disarming from within
This weekend will be the first time Althouse has offered his Inner Disarmament Training workshop here. "Compelled," he says, to develop ways to work more effectively with conflict after 9/11, he has held the workshop in Mexico City and throughout the United States.
"The idea is to learn a language for communication that disarms our judgments that keep us separated from our direct experience," he says.
Althouse believes anyone can learn language skills that allow real communication, without resorting to blame, coercion or moral judgments.
In the workshop, Althouse teaches a four-step process. To explain, he offers this example of what not to do:
"A wife comes home on a Monday night and finds her husband, once again, staring at Monday Night Football. 'There you are, you lazy slob, in front of the TV. You'll never amount to anything,'" she says.
All that may be true, but saying it that way won't get her what she wants, explains Althouse.
Now consider his four-step approach: First, "make an observation of fact free of evaluation. No spin, no exaggeration." he suggests. Then "state what feelings are arising in you as a result of what you're seeing." ("I'm angry" is too general and is "not helpful," he adds.)
Next, "express an actual need." And finally, "make a request, not a demand."
So the wife might instead say, "I've seen you on the couch watching football for the last four Mondays. I'm discouraged. I need companionship; I need to connect. Would you be willing to turn off the television right after the game and spend 30 minutes talking to me?"
Believing that we all have a "natural generosity," Althouse says that when approached in this way, people will listen and find joy in being kind and helpful. It's a method that works not just with individuals but also with groups locked in conflict and activists who make the mistake of "demonizing the people they disagree with," he says.
Althouse is involved in a number of other projects that, he says, "bear witness to suffering." Zen Community members are preparing a Jizo panel for the Jizo for Peace Project, an effort to produce 270,000 drawn Jizos on panels to be sent to Japan in August on the 60th anniversary of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?#34;one for each person killed. (A Jizo is a small statue of a monk-like figure that represents a protector of women and children.)
Also to mark the anniversary, Althouse will attend an interfaith gathering in Los Alamos, N.M. in August to "advocate for the world I want to live in," he says.
The Inner Disarmament Training workshop runs from Friday evening through Sunday. The cost is $175. Call 445-1651 for more information or to register.