From the outside, the New Haven Zen Center looks just like the other two-story residential homes that surround it. But immediately inside, visitors are greeted by a bookshelf — for shoes. Upstairs, smells of calm from earthy incense and 20 different varieties of tea wafted through the pillow-lined meditation room. But on Saturday, the sounds of the center were not limited to calm voices and monosyllabic chants — talk of promoting Buddhism at universities across the country and tantra were also topics of discussion.
Approximately 18 students from eight different colleges and universities on the East Coast gathered at the Zen Center Saturday for the first Student Buddhist Network Conference. The conference hoped to establish an intercampus network of student Buddhist groups and encourage the formation of on-campus Buddhist groups.
The day consisted of intense sitting and walking meditation, information sessions, and discussion on how to develop relationships with universities and build a teaching curriculum. The conference concluded with a trip to a “Sacred Slam” at Wesleyan University — a performance of slam poetry and hip-hop artists, including “futuristic funk-estra” performer Akim Funk Buddha.
The conference organizer, Ravenna Michalsen ’01, was inspired to establish the conference because she said she recognized a need for cooperation and support among student Buddhist groups across the East Coast.
“Buddhism is not supported in schools,” Michalsen said over a cup of barley tea. “You want to do something your whole life and you also want to make sure it’s supported where you’re living.”
Michalsen said Buddhism resonates with her because of its teachings, which she said included watching her heart and mind and being aware of her motivations.
Michalsen has been a practicing Buddhist since age 14 but said that being an official practitioner of the religion is not a prerequisite for involvement in the conference or in the various Buddhist student groups.
Dan Hollocher, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said he “might” be a Buddhist and cited the need for meditation as a major draw to the religion.
“Right now, my practice is to try to stay with my emotions and not run from them,” Hollocher said.
Lodro Rinzler, a sophomore at Wesleyan, described Buddhism as “a way of life — not a discriminatory thing.”
The conference’s work schedule was just as equal. In accordance with the value Buddhism places on work, all meals during the day were prepared and cleaned up by the delegates themselves as a way of getting to know each other. Those who were not involved in meal preparation worked at the center itself in order to “acknowledge their appreciation.”
Brian Roiter and Vinny Miccio, two seniors at Tufts University, were among those at the conference attempting to establish Buddhist centers at their schools.
“There’s a huge difference between practicing Buddhism and leading a whole group of practitioners,” Miccio said. “I’m here to learn the more administrative side of things.”
Participants at the conference sought to raise consciousness of Buddhism at their respective schools and garner university support in the process. Ravenna said she would like to see more classes on Buddhism, such as “Zen,” which was offered in spring 2002.
“We would like to bring some attention to the fact that Yale has no full-time Buddhist studies professors right now,” Ravenna said. “‘Intro to Buddhism,’ taught by Morten Schlutter — only here for this semester — drew over 100 students during shopping period, and the graduate seminar in Buddhism was shopped by 23, yet there are caps on both of these classes.”
Ravenna would also like to see a designated Buddhist chaplain at each university. But others feel that universities need not take a role in supporting religious groups.
“New Haven has a church, which is nice to be able to attend, but it’s not necessary,” said Laura Manville ’06, a Christian Scientist. “To be a Christian Scientist, all you need is your own thought. It’s a very individual thing.”
Hillocher, who plans to establish a student Buddhist group at RPI, said the organization will provide an important service to students.
“Everybody needs meditation,” Hillocher said.
But Miccio and Roiter have a different, more intimate kind of appreciation for their Buddhist beliefs.
Both are taking classes about tantric sex, a combination of indigenous ritual and Buddhism, known for increasing male sexual endurance and orgasm duration. As a result, they said, they have received special attention from girls on campus for their rumored abilities. But this attention has not found Miccio lasting love.
“This girl came up to me at a party and said, ‘I heard this rumor about you — that you were totally tantric.'”
Roiter agreed that his special talents have yielded not-so-special results.
“One girl,” he said, “only loved me for my tantric.”