For more than three decades, members of the Anchorage Zen Community have gathered in unusual venues — from a busy strip mall to a converted garage — with the same intention: simply to sit and meditate in silence.
Nomadic no more, they have found stillness and stability in a small zendo, or meditation hall, tucked on the edge of two neighborhoods in Alaska’s most populous city and epicenter of urban culture.
Being Buddhist in Anchorage is both universal in practice and unique to life in Alaska. The Anchorage Zen Community is influenced by the northernmost state’s seasonal rhythms that include long, dark winters as well as short summers when the sun only dips below the horizon for brief stretches, said Genmyo Jana Zeedyk, who has been the resident priest for more than a decade.
Alaska winters, she said, are actually conducive to Zen Buddhism’s sitting meditation, or zazen, a practice they believe can help them attain a greater sense of self.
“People have very active, sports lives in the snow, but when activities slow down, it gives more opportunity for zazen,” she said. “There’s the quiet that comes with the snow — the conditions make it easier to be inside and sit.”
Noise, family, responsibilities, nothing has come in the way of their zazen, which began when the community was founded in 1986 after meeting for years informally with followers of other branches of Buddhism.
On a recent day, Zeedyk walked into the zendo, bowed to a wooden statue of the Buddha, then to members of the community, before she took a seat on a round pillow. Wearing long black and brown robes, she shut her eyes when a member of the group tolled a bell marking the start of the meditation.
Inside, only the inhale and exhale of breaths in unity and the occasional cough could be heard as silence enveloped the room. Outside, an airplane roared over the sprawling metropolis. Anchorage is home to about 300,000 people and the starting point for waves of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts seeking far-flung experiences in a state romanticized for its winters and adventures in the nearby mountains.
The long, sunlit days of summer also afford the Anchorage Zen Community a chance to practice walking meditation in nearby parks, Zeedyk said.
“Zazen works best when done on a regular basis, day in and day out,” said Judith Haggar, the center’s treasurer. “However, in the summer when the light seems all pervasive, zazen seems to be a steadying influence amidst all the energy of 19 hours of daylight.”
Back at the zendo, several minutes passed by until some zen clappers clicked, and the dozen or so people around her in the zendo rose to their feet and began to slowly walk in circles. At the end, Zeedyk reflected in how practitioners can find steady, stable awareness and compassion on their daily chores – taking out the garbage, sweeping out the dog hair, washing the dishes.
Yaso Thiru, a member of the group, said this message resonated with her: “What I really like about this practice is, like she said it’s not like retreating from this world. It’s about being part of this world and being a practitioner.”
Thiru grew up in a Hindu household in Sri Lanka, a majority Buddhist country. She became interested in Buddhism and joined the Anchorage group after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
A sense of community is vital in the sparsely populated Alaska, which is roughly one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48 states, said Zeedyk. Because of higher costs and limited supplies in the massive, remote state, they embrace an interdependent and make-do ethos to the benefit of their Buddhist community, she said.
“What’s unique about our community is that we’re far removed from everywhere and there’s still this commitment to come here, to practice in this very far-flung place,” said Zeedyk.
Their work goes beyond the zendo’s walls. They’ve offered a dharma school for children and do community outreach cleaning creeks, organizing community potlucks and visiting prisoners to share the teachings of the Buddha.
Meditation has been a transformative experience for many women in prison, said Haggar. For more than two decades, she along with other community members have taught zazen, yoga and the dharma to women at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. The program was interrupted during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was an education for me… This was not saintly on my part at all. I really loved going there,” Haggar said. “We had the most wonderful discussions. … We connected on many levels … and it enhanced my life tremendously.”
As the meditation ended on the recent day at the Anchorage zendo, she waved goodbye to others. Brian Schumaker, who calls himself a beginner practitioner, reflected on the benefits of zazen in a frenetic world full of distractions.
“In this day and age, we all hear so many words, we hear our monkey mind and everything’s crazy. Everything’s beeping at you,” he said. “And if we’re to be centered, and present, then for me, it’s beneficial to take some time away from all those things.”