So my name is Joanne Cook. I’m the Buddhist chaplain at Syracuse University. Which is an amazing thing for me, because I came here as a student when I was 18, and this is where I learned about Buddhism and got interested in Buddhism. And then to come back much later in my life after I retired from a job teaching in the city schools here to to return to the very place that I used to hang out all the time. There’s a coffee shop around around the corner here, the people’s place. That is one of the few places in Syracuse University that is pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago when I was here. So I was raised Catholic mostly by my dad, who was a very sincere Catholic. And I what I learned from him is the importance of vow. I’d say that he was probably would have been a priest if he hadn’t not been a priest. You know, you had to, you know, make a living. And his son of immigrants and all that. So helped them get out of that that poverty. But anyway, so I knew that the spirituality was going to be important in my life.

I, I got to a point where I really didn’t like being a Catholic, wasn’t really where I needed to be. I didn’t really believe in it. I think and I know that I when I was a senior in high school, I joined the hiking club and we went hiking on Sundays and I couldn’t go to church and I went hiking instead and I was realizing that I got a lot more out of being in the woods and in the mountains than I did going to mass. But anyway, that kind of led to dropping away from Catholicism. And that happened here at Syracuse University, mostly because I was doing a lot of peace work at the time, protests at protesting against cruise missiles and very concerned about the threat of nuclear war. And it was hard to live in that world where there was such a thing as good and evil. And those things being separate really scared me. I couldn’t imagine really a world where there was good and evil and that evil could win. And it seemed like evil had a pretty good chance of winning. So, like, how do you just how do you live in that world? How do you be a spiritual person and just live with that and what do you do about it? And when I learned about Buddhism, something kind of clicked. I think the first concept was concept of emptiness, that there was no good and evil, that they weren’t separate things, that there wasn’t a dualist. This isn’t a dualistic world, but a whole a whole world with everything all connected that you couldn’t have one without the other, that in any situation we read novels every week and every novel there was a character who was in some ways evil, and yet you understood that character. There was a reason they acted that way. It wasn’t this evil force that made them that way. There were circumstances.

On mindfulness with students

So I actually thought, well, you know, they need it’s hard to justify yourself when you think you’re a busy person. You know, they’re busy. They have a lot of work to do, you know, to do nothing like to come here and do nothing for 30 minutes. Can’t justify that to the brain. So I created a certificate program and said, you’ll get a certificate.

There were part of a whole world that they were a part of. And just seeing things that way clicked for me. And I really allowed the Catholicism to fall away and got interested in this. And I started to meditate. And I remember early on to feel a spirituality in my whole body, right? Instead of in my head, like just, you know, this is what we believe. This is what we say. These are our prayers. Instead of that, it was something that happened in my whole body and this sense of oneness. And I remember a particular I don’t remember it well enough, actually, to talk about it, but I remember that I had it and that that confirmed that that meditation was a very important part of my understanding of the world and being in the world as it is. So I think that was my quest. All this all this time was the question of how to be in this world as it is with joy and compassion when it’s not the way I want it to be all the time. And that’s just the that’s the lesson that just kept happening, you know, through my life, because, of course, in everybody’s life, it’s not the way you want it to be. And that’s what you have to deal with. Right? And and the practice of meditation helps me really understand that in a lot of ways. I didn’t actually find a sangha until I was 41. So it’s a pretty long time of, you know, kind of being on my own and, you know, having this sense that, well, I’m a Buddhist, but I don’t really know what that means.

And this Buddhist point of view of evil is something
that made sense,that would that it wasn't a separate
and it wasn't separate from good,
that good and evil weren't separate things,
that this wasn't a dualistic world.

And I practiced yoga and had, you know, had somewhat of a sangha in the yoga community at times. But but not really. So. So finally, I found a teacher here in Syracuse, and it was just kind of an amazing thing that we have this amazing Zen teacher, Shinji Roshi, here in Syracuse. Syracuse isn’t the city you think of when you think of, you know, where are the great Zen masters in this country? But here she is. And so and I’ve heard a lot of stories from the other Sangha members that it always took a long time to actually show up at the Zen Center of Syracuse. We knew sort of had this sense it was there, but how do you go and how do you show up and how do you enter how do you enter into this? So it took me a couple of years, even after I learned about it, to actually show up. When I finally showed up and just kind of ushered in and given a little bit of instruction, now we have a much more elaborate instruction process of the new people showing up, but I just I came there was a certain night you’re supposed to come when you’re new. And I came on that night and they told me a couple of things. And since I sat before and I had a lot of meditation experience, you know, it was easy for me to just kind of come in there. But I sat down and it was a gong and I just heard that gong and I just let it wash over me. And I just knew that this was my home. And the first time I went on a Sunday, which is a longer service and included a talk by Shingo Roshi, I knew that I had to keep coming back, that I, that I needed to hear this woman talk, that I needed I needed this in my life. And, you know, once I started becoming a full Sangha member, I knew that right away. I wanted to receive the precepts and be a full member and just kind of jump right into it and at the time in my life, I was very insecure about myself. I was having a really hard time with a lot of things. I had trouble finding a job. I just didn’t. I felt like whatever I did, I was going to screw it up and when I look back at it, it’s kind of amazing how low I really felt. You know, I just kind of consider that kind of normal and just, you know, when I went through my day and went through my life and I had small children and that was the joy. But when I think about it now, it just seems like that was a really difficult time in my life that I should have been more upset about it. I think at the time. But anyway, that that I was maybe depressed, but when I started going to the Zen Center, I just learned a whole different way of being really. I learned that you could just make a mistake and it was just a mistake.

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