Joanne Cook, the Buddhist chaplain at Syracuse University, reflects on her spiritual journey. Raised Catholic by a sincere father who instilled in her the importance of vows, Joanne found herself drawn to Buddhism during her time as a student at Syracuse University. The concept of emptiness, the interconnectedness of all things, resonated with her, leading her to let go of Catholicism and embrace meditation.
After retiring from teaching in city schools, Joanne returned to Syracuse University, where she had initially encountered Buddhism. She shares how her practice, particularly meditation, helped her navigate life’s challenges with joy and compassion. It was during this time that she discovered the Zen Center of Syracuse and its teacher, Shinji Roshi. The Sangha became Joanne’s home, a place where she felt accepted and loved.
Joanne draws parallels between her experiences in Zen practice and her work as a teacher in a challenging environment. Learning to sit with discomfort and not taking challenges personally, she found that removing the “poor me” mentality allowed her to approach difficulties with curiosity and compassion. This shift in perspective had a profound impact on her interactions with students.
As the chaplain at Syracuse University, Joanne introduces others to the practice of meditation and Buddhism. The Sangha she leads provides a supportive and non-judgmental space for students seeking solace and understanding. Joanne emphasizes the importance of having a teacher, such as Shinji Roshi, who sees the entirety of a person and guides them through the journey of self-discovery. The relationship with her teacher extends beyond Zen practice, allowing for open conversations and a deep connection.
Joanne expresses gratitude for the wonderful Sangha she has at Syracuse University, where students come together for meditation, tea, and discussions. The sense of acceptance and community is a rare and valuable experience for them. Joanne’s life is a testament to the transformative power of Zen practice and the profound impact of having a supportive teacher and community.
Joann reflects on her journey of shifting beliefs, recalling moments of transition from her Catholic upbringing to Buddhism. She reminisces about attending Latin Mass and finding solace in the ritual, appreciating the beauty of the ceremony even as she began questioning her faith. The structured nature of Buddhism, with its specific ways of doing things, brought Joann back to the comfort of ritual, but in a more experiential and non-dogmatic way.
She describes a pivotal moment in a cemetery after Latin Mass when she felt a spiritual breakdown, symbolized by an artificially colored apple bleeding into its natural parts. This incident marked her struggle to reconcile the complexities of the world, particularly the looming threat of nuclear war. Joann’s exploration of Buddhism, especially through a class on evil from both Christian and Buddhist perspectives, helped her find a perspective that resonated with her. The Buddhist view that good and evil were not separate entities but part of a non-dualistic world provided a sense of understanding and connection that she found lacking in her previous beliefs.
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.
Joann discovered her spiritual home at the Zen Center, initially uncertain of its significance. Despite the ambiguity, she felt a deep resonance, committing to return regularly. Shinjiro’s talks became a source of inspiration, prompting a profound need for more. Joann navigated the unfamiliarity of Zen rituals, finding the experience intriguing. The ritualistic nature provided support, aiding her in overcoming self-doubt. Immersed in Zen, Joann embraced the teachings, eventually undertaking precepts. This transformative journey marked a commitment to growth, contributing to the Sangha. The Zen Center served as a refuge, granting strength to navigate life’s challenges, including a marital crisis. Grounded in the Sangha, Joann’s journey unfolded with moments of enlightenment, like a poignant encounter with the full moon, reinforcing the timeless beauty and wisdom always present amidst life’s struggles.
In the early stages of her Zen practice, Joann faced challenges explaining its significance to her family. Initially viewed as peculiar and disruptive due to frequent retreats, Zen stood apart from conventional family-centric religious practices. Unlike traditional congregations, Zen lacked the stability of family-wide participation and collective financial contributions. Joann’s commitment, however, gradually gained recognition, notably through her cooking and the subtle wisdom she brought to family dynamics. Her son recognized her as a quiet yet impactful force, capable of making unexpected, insightful observations. Meanwhile, Joann’s patience and acceptance played a crucial role in supporting her daughter through tough times, offering reassurance that despite challenges, she was understood and accepted. Joann’s approach extended beyond her family to the students she worked with, embodying genuine compassion that saw beyond outward behaviors, fostering a sense of belief and understanding in others. The nuanced impact of Joann’s Zen practice on her family unfolded quietly, leaving lasting impressions of acceptance, love, and unassuming wisdom.
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.
Joann, deeply influenced by “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” transformed her life through its teachings. The book served as her guide, offering insights on meditation, mindfulness, and the profound impact of living in the present moment. Initially learning meditation techniques, including breath awareness, Joann embraced the philosophy of experiencing life fully, letting go of dissatisfaction, and appreciating the present moment.
This newfound perspective extended into her dietary choices, leading her to become a vegetarian. Cooking, once a mundane task, evolved into a meditative practice, a form of alchemy connecting her with nature. Joann’s commitment to mindful living resonated in her daily routines, particularly in the practice of mindful eating, recognizing the spiritual dimension within this ordinary act.
As she delved into meditation in her twenties, Joann experienced moments of complete letting go, bringing vividness to her perception and a sense of aliveness. These transformative experiences influenced her interests, work, and commitment to peace. Although not raising her children as Buddhists, Joann instilled Buddhist sensibilities, encouraging them to explore their spirituality individually.
Joann’s dedication to the practice, marked by frustrations and morning services, revealed the transformative power of prostration in breaking down the ego. The practice impacted her interactions with others, fostering a sense of giving oneself to the world. Through meditation and Zen principles, Joann’s journey unfolded, shaping her outlook on life, work, and relationships.
Joann reflects on the complexity of karma, acknowledging its challenging nature to comprehend fully. Influenced by the Zen philosophy, she embraces the idea that everyone is perfect as they are yet acknowledges the potential for improvement. Compassion, in her view, involves understanding the intricacies of karma, recognizing that individuals are shaped by it and cannot be otherwise.
The concept of karma, as explained in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” contributes to Joann’s worldview, fostering a non-judgmental perspective. She emphasizes the importance of bowing to everyone as if they were one’s mother, promoting a life guided by compassion and understanding. Joann believes that living with this mindset leads to a fulfilling life.
Informed by the understanding that karma creates more karma, Joann sees the practice of getting unstuck from these patterns as a motivation for meditation. Sitting with curiosity, she acknowledges that the process of unraveling karma takes time, and through consistent practice, one can experience a transformative shift in consciousness.
Being Buddhist Chaplain
Joann shares her experiences as a Buddhist chaplain in the United States, emphasizing the unique challenge of working with students who are not necessarily Buddhists but are drawn to the practice for its deeper meaning, particularly the concept of compassion. She notes a shift in the mindfulness landscape, expressing concern about its commercialization through apps and the potential loss of its genuine essence.
To address the initial hesitation of students to engage in meditation, Joann created a certificate program, offering a tangible acknowledgment that helped justify the time commitment and attract more participants. She observes the transformative impact of in-person sangha interactions, contrasting it with the somewhat superficial experiences gained through meditation apps.
Engaging with college students, Joann notices that stress often stems from their struggle to form a coherent identity, shaped by societal expectations. She guides them in understanding that stress arises from attachment to a false self and encourages them to cultivate skills without becoming overly identified with external roles. Joann emphasizes the importance of letting go and not getting caught up in intellectual debates, always returning to the question of whether a particular focus or activity separates individuals from others and their lived experience.
Reflecting on clutter in various forms—physical, electronic, and emotional—Joann discusses its role in creating separation and stress. She encourages the practice of letting go, emphasizing the importance of reconnecting with the intimacy of life by releasing unnecessary attachments and judgments. Overall, Joann’s approach revolves around fostering compassion, self-awareness, and the mindful release of that which hinders a deeper connection to life.
As a teacher, Joann recounts challenges in handling disruptive students and the temptation to take such behavior personally. She reflects on the power dynamics in the classroom and how traditional disciplinary methods often prove ineffective with certain students. Sharing an incident involving an unruly student who verbally confronted her, Joann describes her unconventional response of remaining calm and focused on breathing instead of escalating the conflict. Through this approach, she ultimately encouraged the student to consider becoming a teacher and witnessed positive changes in her behavior.
Joann acknowledges the growth in her ability to handle such situations, attributing it to her years of Zen practice. She highlights the importance of breathing through challenging moments and having faith in the practice, even during periods when it seems less impactful. Joann shares her personal experience of attending Zen sessions after work, expressing the fatigue and distractions she faced but emphasizing the necessity of persisting through such moments for the long-term benefits. Ultimately, she notes the transformation in her mindset, where happiness becomes a constant state despite life’s challenges, and fear diminishes, allowing for a fuller and more effortless engagement with life.
Before discovering the Zen Center, Joann’s spiritual practices included sporadic yoga and viewing cooking as a spiritual activity, but she felt a sense of alienation and lacked confidence. In her late twenties and early thirties, Joann faced challenges and questioned her abilities, even becoming emotional during a job interview when asked about her strengths.
Upon joining the Zen Center, Joann found a welcoming and accepting environment, participating in the structured rituals that helped her gain confidence and recognize that mistakes do not define one’s identity. The immersion in Zen practice brought a transformative experience, leading her to feel a sense of wholeness and acceptance that she hadn’t experienced in a decade.
Joann’s initial retreat was challenging to articulate due to its profound impact, but it heightened her awareness of daily habits and speech. Silence during the retreat allowed her to observe how often she imposed her ego in everyday situations. Subsequently, Joann committed to attending numerous retreats at the Zen Center over the years, contributing to a rhythmic deepening of her practice.
The precepts at the Zen Center, particularly the freedom from engaging in frivolous conversation, provided Joann with a sense of relief. She appreciated the ethical focus, emphasizing an ethical life without the judgmental aspect of right or wrong. This contrasted with societal expectations, allowing her to be part of a community that aligned with her discomfort around gossip and negative behaviors. The Zen Center became a refuge where Joann felt accepted and embraced a new way of living that prioritized mindfulness and ethical engagement.
Joann sought a spiritual path deeper than the Catholicism she grew up with and initially explored various practices like yoga. During her freshman year at Syracuse University, she attended a talk by Guru Sri Shim NOI. The impactful moment occurred when he proclaimed, “A human life is not a burden,” challenging Joann’s perception of life as a burden and instilling a mantra of embracing the inherent value of human existence.
After facing challenges post-graduation, Joann turned to yoga as a source of solace, completing teacher training at Kripalu Institute. The traditional Indian approach to yoga, focused on spiritual depth rather than physical fitness, resonated with her. Becoming a yoga teacher, Joann prioritized creating a supportive and non-judgmental space for her students, contrasting the prevalent ego-driven culture in the yoga community.
While teaching yoga, Joann discovered the Zen Center of Syracuse and gradually shifted her focus from yoga to Zen practice. She found a deeper and more profound spiritual experience in the Zen community. Reflecting on her journey, Joann recognized that her meditation practice replaced the deep belief in God, providing a more direct and unfiltered experience of the world. The dichotomy of good and evil inherent in Christianity was replaced by an appreciation for the world as it is, bringing a sense of joy and fulfillment to Joann’s life.