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October 23, 2000

Emory Zen a quiet presence

By Michael Terrazas

Anyone who doesn’t know the Emory Zen group meets Mondays at 4:30 in the basement of Cannon Chapel shouldn’t be surprised. The group is fairly low-key, and they certainly don’t raise much fuss during their meetings.

In fact, anyone walking by room 106 might be startled by the sheer silence of the activity inside: anywhere from a couple to a dozen people sitting in the lotus position with hands touching lightly at the waist and eyes half-shut, making no sound whatsoever. They are focusing on their breath, just their breath and only their breath—any other thoughts, as soon as they enter the mind, are let go like balloons on a windy day.

“In Buddhist thought, there are six senses,” said Ken Sharpe, a 1974 alumnus of Emory College who practices Zen meditation when he’s not piloting planes for Delta Air Lines. “The mind senses thoughts. What Zen practice will teach is not to latch onto those thoughts but to just let them go.”

One of the University’s 29 official campus religious groups, Emory Zen was launched almost four years ago. Its sponsor is the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, located in Candler Park and founded in the early 1970s by Michael Zenkai Taiun Elliston-Roshi. Fred Rossini, another of the center’s primary teachers, is the main liaison between the Emory and the Zen Center, and Phil Hutto, a lecturer in math and computer science, is the group’s faculty advisor.

“At the time, we didn’t have a car and lived right near campus, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a nice sitting group here on campus,’” said Kim Boykin, who along with her husband, Brian Mahan, helped establish Emory Zen in late 1996.

Boykin, now a doctoral student in religion, was then a master’s student in the theology school; Mahan is a visiting assisant professor at Candler. Together the two recruited an eclectic mix of faiths to explore the way of Zen.

“We’ve had Christian Zen practitioners and Jewish Zen practitioners and Buddhist Zen practitioners and non-religiously committed Zen practitioners,” Boykin said. “A lot of the things people usually associate with religion—belief, doctrine, etc.—don’t really have much to do with Zen. It’s about practice.”

In fact, say some of the group’s current practitioners, Zen meditation is more about learning about oneself than one’s god.

“Self-discovery is a big part of it,” says Nishant Shah, a first-year medical student who recently began attending the Monday sessions. “So often people want to be spoon-fed enlightenment. Meditation allows me to ask ‘Who am I?’ without the stimulation of friends and media and other things.”

“The first thing you notice is you start sleeping better,” Sharpe said. “It doesn’t necessarily rest on a belief system—Zen is a long-term, sustained practice of meditation that stabilizes the mind and leads to a sort of ‘inner realization.’”

Barbara Sullivan, a graduate student in immunology, said Zen spurs her to “spontaneous compassionate actions,” like stopping to help a stranger change a flat tire. “It makes me feel more connected to people,” she said. “And it’s a way to get to know my body and my mind.”

Anyone is welcome to attend the Monday sessions, and there is always at least one experienced practitioner to guide newcomers. Participants should wear comfortable clothing and be prepared for a unique experience.

“Everything I’ve told you,” Sharpe said, “somebody else could come in and say, ‘Well, that’s not what it does to me.’ It’s a very personal experience.”

For more information on Emory Zen, call 404-727-0668.


What: A scholarly celebration of the 800th anniversity of Zen Master Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen tradition. The symposium will explore the practice of Zen, the practical application of Dogen’s insights, a historical and textual study of his life and works, and an examination of Dogen’s teachings in a comparative religious context.

Who: Speakers and panelists from university religion programs and Zen practitioners from around the country, including Tara Doyle, Shalom Goldman, Brian Mahan, Gordon Newby and Laurie Patton from Emory, and Michael Elliston from the Atlanta Soto Zen Center.

When & Where: Oct. 28–29 on the Emory campus.

How: Admission for the two-day event is $25, and participants are encouraged to register in advance due to space limitations. For more information, call 404-727-7596 or visit


Back to Emory Report Oct. 23, 2000