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A Haven for Buddhism and Meditation in the Axe Factory

Center was founded in 2019 by a Zen Buddhist monk.

By Carl Wiser

Staff Writer


Venerable Shim Bo sits in the White Lotus Haven Zen shrine room, used for weekly morning liturgy and student-teacher meetings.

At 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I'm midway through the group meditation practice in the Collinsville axe factory when church bells ring out from across the Farmington River. They draw my awareness, but that's okay.


"The bell is ringing, so we take a deep breath and we actually hear the bell ringing," says Venerable Shim Bo, the Abbot and Spiritual Director at White Lotus Haven Zen, which hosts the practice.


"We take a deep breath and notice that we're attaching to some thinking and we let go of it. We come back to this moment in the body sitting on a cushion and letting things be as they are."


Shim Bo established White Lotus Haven Zen in 2019 after receiving Inka, a recognition of full teaching authority in Zen Buddhism. Born Eduardo Barrios, he was in the Catholic church studying to become a spiritual director when he was drawn to Buddhism.


"I decided to look into other faith traditions just to get some background," he says. "I was struggling a little bit in my own Catholic faith tradition with some of the dogma and some of my own thoughts around sin and how that was absolved - the nature of absolution. Things weren't quite lining up for me. Then I read the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how we create too much of this for ourselves. There was no God narrative in the teaching, rather it was like a diagnosis, and for me at that time, it was like, 'Oh, I'm responsible for the ways in which I am inaccurately perceiving the world within and around me and creating my own suffering.' I realized that I was directly responsible for freeing my own mind from wrong view."


Before White Lotus Haven Zen was formed, Venerable was simply practicing on his own.


"Then people who I had practiced with in the past started coming and asking me for teaching, which I didn't expect. I wasn't looking to start a practice center necessarily. I was just here doing my own practice and people appeared. They started asking for one-on-one meetings, which I happily provided. Then someone asked if we could have a weekend retreat, so our first retreat was at a YMCA camp. It was wonderful. There were maybe eight people who went to that retreat, and out of that experience, a small group asked to meet on a regular basis."


When COVID hit, the services went virtual, held on Facebook. Shim Bo handled it according to his teachings.


"We have this little mantra: 'Of Course.' Of course there's going to be suffering in the world, of course there's going to be COVID. We don't like it, but it's part and parcel of being human and all of the things that being human brings us."


After lockdown, many turned to group meditation to counter feelings of stress and anxiety.


"People come for so many different reasons. The fundamental reasoning is, they've tried to find contentment somehow or peace of mind in their lives in so many different ways, and in each of those ways they've bumped into themselves and they have not been able to find a kind of stillness or peace of mind in any of these other endeavors."


In Buddhism, statues represent qualities of peace, wisdom, compassion and diligence. Reminders and motivations for one's own practice.

Cookies and Community

I was surprised when, after the service, I was offered cookies and engaged in a discussion about football (I remember thinking that watching the Jets is a form of suffering). Don't Buddhists have to renounce such frivolous pleasures?


"Most people's idea of Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, is of a cold and stern and rigorous, somewhat aloof practice," Shim Bo explains. "We do practice with non-attachment of things, so on the surface it can seem like it results in people being kind of cold and unattached to everything, but it's not. When we can let go of our attachments to cookies, then we can actually taste a cookie and we can appreciate a cookie. It's a very subtle thing that maybe could only be understood as one practices.


"I've had students who at the end of the day will eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's. They just can't stop eating it, and there's so many reasons for that. It's an emotional connection for them, like a reward system at the end of the day. It becomes a problem because they find that they're doing this now every night. It's not good for you, but there's nothing inherently wrong with the ice cream. It's the attachment to the ice cream that's the problem. So in Buddhism, we're human, we have senses, and there can be desire for things. You don't cut yourself off and make yourself a robot. You can have the ice cream, but have it in a way that you practice with it. Make a ritual of it. Take a breath, take a spoonful, smell it, have gratitude for it. Really taste it and enjoy a little cup of ice cream, and then be done. That's really Buddhist practice with sensual things."


There is an ascetic form of Buddhism, but that's not what's practiced here.


"Zen Buddhism has to do with this moment now, the present experience," says Shim Bo. "Not getting caught in conceptual data and labeling. But it's not separate from Buddhism and the core teachings of the Buddha. It's just a different expression, and there's a whole history of schools and teachings and things like that that started with the Buddha, came through many centuries of study and practice, and ended up now in the modern times."


Many Buddhist communities, called sanghas, serve specific cultures. For instance, in Connecticut there are Korean temples, Vietnamese temples, and a Tibetan temple. White Lotus is framed in a Western style to make it accessible and understandable.


"We do chant in Sanskrit and Korean, but we also chant in English, and many of the chants that are in different languages have translations in the service book so that you know what you're chanting," Shim Bo explains.


Practice Energy

You're not likely to find White Lotus Haven Zen unless you're looking for it. "There's a practice energy that reverberates," says Shim Bo. "My way is to stay still, have integrity in the practice, and let those ripples expand outward. Don't go out there grasping. That's not part of our practice. Let it unfold organically."

Teressa Cohen found it through what she describes as a "stroke of good luck/karma." That and a Google search.


"I have long loved Buddhism, and after 30 years of self study and bouncing in and out of various centers, I felt lonely and eager for practice support and the kinship of a spiritual community," she says. "None of the places I visited felt like quite the right fit. One afternoon, with renewed hope and determination, I did a Google search and found WLHZ. I emailed Venerable Shim Bo immediately and to my delight, he responded within hours and invited me for tea. Our first meeting felt like arriving home."


WLHZ offers weekly Zen practice services which include group meditation, chanting, dharma talks and, on certain times of the year, devotional celebrations as seen here.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Shim Bo describes meditation as a technology, and mindfulness as a way of applying that technology.


"Meditation is a way to be with your body," he says. "Most people in the modern world live in their heads. When you're a little kid and you draw pictures of your parents, you draw a big potato head with feet, because when you're a kid, all you see is a big human, parental head.

That's what's in your awareness. We live like that, like we're walking around with a head full of ideas of things, but we also have this body that we need to use! Meditation is an embodied practice. It has to do with somatic experience, and we breathe in this experience.


We get to a place of calm where we're calming the nervous system down so that we can just be in the moment for a minute and not have to jump around. Know that we're embodied to breathe, to relax."


This practice extends to life outside the sangha, where Shim Bo provides graphic design.


"When I work on graphic design, I appear to the design with one point of concentration," he says. "I breathe when I do the work. I try to be completely present and as accessible to people as I can be. I have been practicing for a while to get to a more authentic place in my own life, which is before the labels of things. It comes down to letting go of clinging to identities so that I can be completely open and mindful and attentive to whatever comes into my field of view."


"The community provides open arms, deep care and nonjudgmental support," Teressa Cohen adds. "The sincerity and commitment of the members creates a kind of momentum, a rich environment which inspires me to remain faithful to the good work of 'waking up.' My meetings with Venerable have had a significant impact on my personal development. His kind-hearted, playful and wise insight has been beyond generous and has helped me see where I am suffering and how to become increasingly free. This has deepened my self awareness, my motivation to practice, the quality of my relationships, and my professional work as a psychotherapist. I am humbly grateful to Venerable and the sangha for their illuminating companionship as we walk together on the path with a clear mind and an open heart."


Buddha Day celebration, held each May, honoring the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha.

In Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is called "sati," meaning recollection or remembering.


"It's recalling and remembering that things are impermanent," says Shim Bo. "They're incapable of satisfying and they're not really personal. Everything is in flux, so pay attention to what you're doing. That's mindfulness from the Buddhist teaching. Remember that things are impermanent, so don't hold on too tightly to these things in your life or to these ideas that you have. Meditation can move out into the world of mindfulness in that way."


As for "enlightenment," Shim Bo feels that term has become trite and cliché. A better label for the end goal is "moksha," which means liberation from clinging, attachment and delusion.


"We have these little enlightenments all the time," he says. "You could also call it insight. Enlightenment, to me, shows you where you're having some trouble, but if you don't actively deal with that, then you'll never be free, and freedom is the end goal if there's a goal. To be free from that suffering so that you don't keep spinning that again and again."


Interfaith Practice

At Sunday morning services, there is bowing, chanting, a dharma talk, and offerings to the Buddha along with both sitting and walking meditations. The Buddha, who lived around 500 BCE, is revered as a teacher, not a god, so the offerings don't conflict with faiths that forbid the worship of false idols. Shim Bo likens it to giving an apple to your favorite teacher (these days more likely to be a Starbucks gift card).


"That's what we're doing when we make offering on the altar," he says. "It's about remembering and honoring our teacher, the Buddha, who was not a god. So there's devotion, but it's not to a god. There's devotion to a teacher."


Shim Bo is also the Buddhist chaplain at Sacred Heart, a private Catholic university in Fairfield (coincidentally, "Shim Bo" means "Sacred Heart"). He's part of an interfaith team that also includes Protestant, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim chaplains.


"I'm called the Buddhist chaplain but I listen to everyone," he says. "It helps because I came from the Catholic tradition so I know the language that is used. I don't use words like 'sati' because the students won't understand them and I don't want to confuse them, so much of my work there has been to listen to the students' own language and then to use their language to talk about the dharma, to talk about Buddhist practice."


Does that mean Buddhism is compatible with other faiths?


"There's no conflict unless human beings make one. At Sacred Heart University during Ash Wednesday services, one of my colleagues on the interfaith team was conducting a service. I went as the Buddhist chaplain to the service and I asked her to make a heart symbol with ash on my forehead instead of making a cross, and she did that for me. So I was able to fully participate in the service in that way. No problem."


"Loving each other is what we need to do," he adds. "Not getting stuck in our own religious identities."


Group Zen meditation takes place Sunday from 9 - 11 a.m. in the axe factory building, 30 Depot Street in Collinsville. For more information on the practice and the services offered at White Lotus Haven Zen, visit wlhz.org.


The Five Precepts are Buddhist guidelines for ethical living. They are:

1) Abstain from taking life

2) Abstain from taking what is not given

3) Abstain from sexual misconduct

4) Abstain from false speech

5) Abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind


The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhist thought. Here's how Shim Bo describes them:

"The first one is that there is unsatisfactory feeling in the human condition. There is suffering, which is called 'dukkha,' which is a pervasive dissatisfaction that we have.

The cause of suffering, number two, is attachment mind. Clinging to things in the hope that these things will bring us fulfillment, ultimate happiness or satisfaction. That's the problem. The next two are the kind of diagnosis.

The third one is, you don't have to live that way. We don't have to live in an attached way.

The fourth one is the eight-fold path of practice. This is the method or the way of practice that shows you how you are living your life in an attached way and how you can let go."


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