Meditation Space: Boston, MA

boston meditation

In Pamplona it’s the running the bulls. During Holi in Mathura it’s an explosion of colored powders. And at the Boston Shambhala Center it’s the stacking of the meditation cushion known as the Gomden.  Each of these traditions has its own flavor, developing slowly over time.

In 1981 the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the “Gomden,” a firm, foam core, meditation seat.  Not only did this enrich the experience of the meditator, but it made possible “the stacking of the Gomdens.”

Uniform size and stability of the Gomden means they can be stacked with geometric precision.  They can be stacked two Gomdens high along the entire length of a wall.  Six year old children particularly favor this configuration.  They can form higher columns reaching just beneath the window sills.  I have even seen intricate Rubik patterns emerging.

In our Boston Meditation Center, one makes the simple request, “could you please help stack the Gomdens” and the magic unfolds.  Whim and fancy of the first few people depositing the foam seats and mats establishes the pattern, an entire process accompanied by playfulness and the afterglow of a group meditation session.

My first encounter with this nascent tradition occurred some time ago, when I attended a refuge vow ceremony in Boulder, Colorado conducted by the Vidyadhara.  (The refuge vow ceremony is how a buddhist becomes a buddhist.) Three of us drove in from Chicago and were struck by the level of organization in Boulder and the crisp formality of the ceremony itself.  We were told that everyone would have a brief meeting with this remarkable teacher whom we had never met in person but whose books convinced us beyond a doubt that compassionate enlightenment was alive and well.  Ushered into a room for two minutes of awkward conversation you left thinking that anyone with such complete insight into your basic goodness truly deserved the title Rinpoche, or “precious one.”

Following the interviews we were schooled, in numbing detail, on the logistics for the upcoming ceremony.  Seated helter-skelter amid the fields, the devotees and monks of old listened to the words of the Buddha, but that was not the Boulder plan.  Specific rows at the front of the shrine hall were designated for those taking the vow, and each Zabuton and Zafu was alphabetically assigned.  It was a delicate operation.  (The Zafu is from Zen and was the meditation seat used by Shambhala in the early days.)

Calligraphies were created for each name and would be stacked on a table next to the Vidyadhara.  Once the ceremony was underway he would simply reach down for the next sheet, and you had better be lined up in the right order.

Following the ceremony there was a request for volunteers.  The dozens of Zabutons and Zafus blanketing the expanse of the pinewood floor had to be taken up and stacked.  Once I volunteered that fateful day in Boulder, the hallowed silence, modulated movement, and hushed solemnity disappeared in an instant. A motto of “easier to throw than walk over” soon emerged.  I was assigned as a “catcher” along one of the walls and soon whirling zafus filled the air, vying with the best of all frisbee tournaments.  They were quickly shaped into reasonably neat mounds adjacent to rising columns of stacked zabutons. Suddenly realization dawned!  I had taken refuge in a tradition that delighted in orderly chaos.

Orderly Chaos was written by Frank Ryan

Frank Ryan and his wife Susan live in Newton, Massachusetts.  A senior teacher at the Shambhala Center of Boston, Frank never tires of the play between the extraordinary vision of Shambhala and the pulsing immediacy of everyday life.

zafu rescue

zafu in the closet

I was visiting my mother recently in the house where I was raised and where the family has lived since 1958.  While I was browsing the web on the laptop she keeps in the kitchen, she saw the Samadhi Cushions website and asked me what it was.   Then she told me there was an old meditation cushion in an upstairs closet.  Turned out to be a zafu that she gave me for Christmas back in 1982 or so.

Zafu meditation cushion - carrying strap.

My name is written on a label that was added to the carrying strap, so I must have needed it at a group meditation retreat.   Maybe this was the Shambhala Buddhist Seminary which was held in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, 1982 to 1984,  in an old ocean liner of a hotel built before the Civil War when the area served as a summer retreat for President Buchanan.

On the underside of the carrying strap is a Samadhi Cushions label featuring Karmê Chöling’s name and phone number — which indicates the venerableness of the cushion, since the the cushion workshop hasn’t been at Karmê Chöling since 1996, when it moved to its current location in the village of Barnet and acquired its own phone number and street address.

zafu-label-2I have it from Sumner (the Manager at Samadhi Store) that the retail store followed the workshop to Barnet village zafu-home.shrineabout a year later, when Karmê Chöling’s old barn (Samadhi Cushion’s former home) was moved and transformed into the Pavilion practice space at Karmê Chöling — no one is exactly sure how this happened, but the Pavilion is nothing like the barn. It is a wonderful place to practice (or dance or drum or conference).

Anyway, my old cushion looked pretty lonely up in that closet, with its only company some tacky kids’ encyclopedias and an old US flag.  So, I brought it back to Vermont and put in my meditation room where it’s been getting along famously with my zabuton and gomden. Be nice if I could wash it — too bad it doesn’t have a removable cover.

Although it has flattened somewhat over the years, my zafu still provides a nice height when combined with a support cushion. If you’ve got an old zafu, chances are it has a little more life in it, a little more to give. Don’t let it languish. Rescue it.

The Pavilion, Karme Choling

The Pavilion at Karmê Chöling.

the oldest zafu


Couple of years ago one of the folks working at Samadhi Cushions found one of our zafus at a yard sale on the other side of the state and bought it just for fun.    We have it from our president Jeanine Greenleaf that it dates back to the company’s first or second year, ca 1976-77.

Most of the time it stays up on a shelf in the shipping department, but once in a while we let it hang out with its old pal Pencil Sharpener and watch the rain fall on Stevens River, which flows by Samadhi Cushions about a half-mile below Karme Choling.


We’ve put a Samadhi Cushions page up on Facebook.  So now if you’re on Facebook during working hours and notice that I’m online, that of course means that I am working diligently.

The slightly more exciting, if less time-wasting, news is that the Lojong Slogan Cards are back in print and back in stock and ready to ship.  So everyone who was missing a reminder to regard all dharmas as dreams, to self-liberate even the antidote, to be a child of illusion, to transform mishaps into the path of bodhi,  to be grateful to everyone, to always maintain a joyful mind, to abandon any hope of fruition, once again you can obtain this wonderful aid for training with slogans in all activities.

Kneeling Bench, Kneeling Bench, how do I use thee? Let me count the ways.

I noticed something the other day. In the midst of doing some research about how people find us, I stumbled on a website with a link to the kneeling meditation bench on our website. The thing is, this site was a bit out of the ordinary.

But first, yes, we are working on a meditation bench with folding legs. The Kneeling Meditation Bench – from the Zen tradition — is a bench suitable for those with trouble sitting in a cross-legged posture. Folding legs make for easier transport. Decent hinges – that is hinges with some tension that will hold their place are, however, very expensive. At the same time, we don’t want to make a bench with legs that flop around when the bench is carried. Stay tuned, we have a new design in the works and we’re optimistic.

Our video on Meditation Benches shows how to use the Kneeling Bench if you are curious. Ours is made here in Vermont from solid hardwood and is used with the Zabuton mat. The Zabuton cushions the knees, shins and ankles during sitting.

Now, about the referring website. We visited this site, with cheerful pastel colors for its design and upbeat copy with a helpful tone. OK, this is where it gets tricky. This site is dedicated to practices that come under the general heading of something often identified with two letters connected by an ampersand (&). These are the same two letters that head up the words “Sitting Meditation”. Connect the two letters that begin these two words with the ampersand and you should be following the drift.

The spiritual path, it is said, requires surrender, but here was discussed surrender of a different sort. Some say we are a slave to our own egos, but of course this usually involves being a slave to other things along the way.

“Not just for meditation” read the helpful comment next to the link. I guess it shouldn’t have as a surprise that the kneeling bench supports a posture that allows one to properly humble oneself before something less than the divine.

Our experience of the world, they say, is subjective. To one person, our meditation cushions and benches are support for a practice that uncovers the natural sanity and gentleness inherent in us all. For another, is an entirely different affair. To be honest, we were a little shocked by the referring web site. Still, perhaps we should take the long view. It might be better to have a meditation bench in someone’s toolbox than not to have one. Someday, that same bench may be used to free the buyer from the chains of ego and self-obsession.

While we wait for a bench user to wake up to the inspiration to move beyond the bonds of indulgence, we can still wish that the bench will bring someone happiness, if even for a little while and in unintended ways. Until then, we will submit to making and selling the Kneeling Meditation Bench to whomever wants one. It is our painful pleasure.

Michael Greenleaf (Samadhi Cushions Marketing)