Jan Carli went from small-town Methodist to becoming a Buddhist monk in Cleveland.
Today, at CloudWater Zendo in Cleveland, she is known as Shih Zhong-Xin, Buddhist monk and instructor of Golden Wisdom Zen Meditation sessions in Canton. However, Jan Carli was not always a practitioner of Buddhism.
She grew up nominally Methodist on a farm outside of a small town. For her, church was more of an excuse to pass notes with friends than an opportunity to gain spiritual experience. She found herself unable to relate to the Christian messages presented to her. Reflecting on her childhood churchgoing, Carli said, “That didn’t connect with me at all. Pray hard, but they never told you how to pray, and it just didn’t mix.”
Later, as an undergraduate and graduate student at Bowling Green State University, Carli was exposed to various perspectives. A book called Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse was popular at the time, and when she was reading it something inexplicable clicked for Carli in a way that her Methodist upbringing had not. For a while she attempted Transcendental Meditation and checked out meditation books from the library, but after a week or two, she would fall out of practice.
This cycle repeated itself until Carli was in her early forties and found a Buddhist group to join. It was taught by Venerable Ying-Fa, the founder of the CloudWater Zendo. It was then that Carli learned to meditate with a group and had a teacher to approach with the typical questions that arise early in meditation. Her immersion in Buddhism took root.
Carli strongly advocates having a teacher and a group of fellow practitioners—known as a Sangha—to support the continued practice of meditation. Carli explains that a Sangha provides an opportunity to trade notes, and share successes and challenges during practices. It’s also a support system to prevent people from, as Carli says, “falling off the wagon.”
According to Carli, having a Sangha is especially important in the early stages of learning. The question almost everyone asks at the beginning is, “Am I doing this right?” What Carli learned is there’s no way to meditate incorrectly. The key is to continue practicing, to let thoughts be thoughts and emotions be emotions—to experience them fully and let them go.
Carli recalled a metaphor shared by an ancient Buddhist teacher. He said the ordinary mind is like looking at the sky through a hollow reed. If you look at the sky through a hollow reed, you only see that much—that little peephole of the sky. Practicing meditation is learning how to put the reed down and keep it down and experience everything, even when you want to put the reed back up. A major misconception about meditation is that it’s “clearing your mind.” In reality it is letting your brain function normally, producing and experiencing thoughts without attaching to them.
There are numerous types of meditation, Carli explains, appropriate for numerous types of situations. Silent, formal meditation is powerful because you to simply sit and face whatever rises in your mind while continually letting it go. Chanting meditations, which involves repetitive mantras like the name of the Buddha or a bodhisattva, help during times of intense stress and emotional turmoil when more complex forms of meditation may be difficult. Various forms of meditation are portable as well, such as meditative walking or mindfulness practices. Carli even meditates at the grocery store or Target, places one doesn’t commonly think of as appropriate for meditation.
Although Carli does belong to an order of monks, neither she nor the others live in a monastery. “We have jobs and families and things like that, and the challenge is to take our temple with us everywhere we go,” Carli said. “Having these portable meditative practices [is] a very good way to maintain a meditative mind, an open mind, whatever we’re doing.”
Because meditation is not focused on a particular belief system, it is compatible with other spiritual traditions—in fact, any spiritual tradition. Although she’s no longer a Methodist, Carli explains how meditation may benefit someone practicing Christianity. “If you can calm your mind, how much better would your prayer life be? If your job in prayer is to hear the voice of God, how much better can you listen with a clear mind, with a mind that’s available, with a mind that’s not pinging all over the place?”
However, not every spiritual tradition agrees with this philosophy. Over the years, students from local colleges taking world religion courses have visited the Zendo for projects, and Carli said with some amusement that it’s not unusual for college students to bring their parents out of fear of some sort of conversion.
Those fears could not be further from the truth. True Buddhists advocate against proselytizing, instead they simply let people know that the Buddhist practices exist and are available if anyone should be interested. For roughly the past six years, Carli herself has visited a women’s prison on Cleveland’s East Side, offering Buddhist meditation sessions. Additionally, a group of Zendo members work with the homeless and are planning to expand to the Cleveland immigrant community, continuing to take their compassion beyond the meditation cushion and into the real world.
Although Buddhism is over 2,500 years old worldwide, it has only been widely known in America since the 1950’s. Early Buddhist teachers came from Japan and China to serve American cities on the coasts, but gradually Buddhism spread from ethnic temples to Westerners. CloudWater Zendo founderSifu Ying-Fa likens people like Jan Carli to pioneers, and says because of them, Buddhism is becoming more prevalent in our culture—not through proselytism, but through those who are willing to teach and learn.
Abbey is a writer and sometimes-poet from Shadyside, Ohio. She currently attends the University of Mount Union, where she double-majors in English literature and writing with minors in art and Japanese. Her creative writing has been featured in student literary magazines ECHO and Calliope, as well as Ohio's Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology. Along with writing, Abbey enjoys painting, drawing, and hiking in her spare time.