As a freelance writer, you never know where an assignment will take you. You do your best to prepare by studying the subject beforehand and forming questions. You don’t have to be an expert; you just approach the topic with curiosity and openness. You listen, take notes and craft the story to the best of your ability.

After the research and interview, it’s a bonus if you learn something completely new. Better yet, if a real connection is made with someone or something. But sometimes, something even more happens; something extraordinary.

As the story forms, perhaps you sense a spark, a shift or an expansion. You may not know it right then, but later you look back and realize it was an interview that set you on a new path, a path that would change your life.

Writer Jaime McLeod unknowingly took her first steps in a new direction the day she noticed a Zen center in the Pittsburgh suburb where she covered arts and entertainment for a weekly publication. Intrigued professionally, she scheduled an interview with the resident priest and teacher, the Reverend Kyoki Roberts.

A connection was made immediately. “I found her to be incredibly warm and down-to-earth, with a kind smile and easy laugh. She was so fascinating and comforting to talk to. I wasn’t sure what exactly she had, but I knew I wanted whatever it was.”

Even though the interview lasted three hours, the writer left wanting more. McLeod wrote her story. Then she and her wife attended an “Intro to Zen” at Roberts’ temple. The sitting meditation or “zazen” that the group practiced that night was, in McLeod’s words, “Boring. Uncomfortable. Difficult.” But it also included a question-and-answer session about Zen philosophy. Her overall takeaway from the evening: “Zen called the whole nature of reality into question in a way I found incredibly exhilarating.”

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‘Zazen forces us to be really still’

McLeod remembers that night well. Along with the rest of the group, she sat facing a wall, straightened her posture and attempted to find her balance while quietly following her breath for several minutes at a time. She found the effort to quiet her body and mind difficult.

As a beginner, McLeod continued to feel “restless and irritable ” instead of “joyful and relaxed” during zazen. Yet she had the unexplainable urge to keep doing it. She went to Roberts’ temple, visited other meditation groups and attended a retreat at a Zen monastery. She also read every book about Zen and other forms of Buddhism she could get her hands on.

During a recent interview in Oakland, Maine, 15 years after that first experience, McLeod says zazen is the heart of Soto Zen Buddhism. “Zazen forces us to be really still and to notice how much we resist that stillness. It’s the way to the vigilant self-discovery of living moment to moment. Through this practice we can find the answers to life’s big questions. They are inside us. Along the way, we may figure out that even spending time in pursuit of happiness can be a form of struggle,” she says. “Oftentimes, we’re afraid whatever it is we’re chasing will get away from us, or whatever we’re running from will catch up with us.

“We’re not even sure what exactly we’re chasing after or running from and we’re not sure we want to find out. So when we sit down for the first time, the result isn’t usually instant inner peace, like many people expect, but rather a sense of being trapped. It can be difficult to feel that. We expend so much energy doing whatever we can to not feel that, to the point that we can become prisoners of our own doing.”

In 2005 McLeod and her wife, Melissa, moved to Maine to be closer to Melissa’s family.

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McLeod continued writing and continued on her Zen path by seeking out the only Buddhist teachers in the state at the time, Stefano and Margaret Barragato. The two had moved to Maine from New York, bringing Zen Buddhism with them. Together, they founded Treetop Zen Center in Old Town, two hours away from where McLeod was living in Augusta.

Although McLeod did her best to make the commute work by carpooling, it was only when the Barragatos moved the center to its current location in Oakland in 2007 that McLeod was able to focus more on Zen.

One of the people she carpooled with was Peter Seishin Wohl, one of the few Zen priests in Maine. Ordained by Margaret Barragato, he became McLeod’s teacher. When Wohl first met McLeod, he had been practicing Zen for more than 20 years and had watched its growth in the state. As in the rest of the country, people in Maine were initially attracted to Buddhism at least partially because of its “Eastern mystique.”

Zen, a sect of Buddhism, dates back 2,500 years and first came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the Asian immigrants who practiced it in their home countries.

Soto Zen Buddhism, the sect McLeod practices, involves zazen (seated silent meditation), working with Zen teachers, koan introspection (wrestling with perplexing questions), something called “lovingkindness” meditation and chanting. According to the Treetop Center’s website, it also includes “open-hearted engagement with moral precepts” and the academic study of Buddhist texts — all undertaken in a “spirit of playfulness, curiosity, respect and intimacy.”

It wasn’t until the 1950s that interest in Zen grew in the United States, and it was the 1970s before Americans first received authorization to teach it.

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With that, the mystique faded over time. Today there are a few Zen centers in the state with six or seven authorized teachers, according to Wohl, as well as many secular “mindfulness” practice groups and teacherless sanghas offering meditation without the rigors of traditional Zen practice.

Wohl said there are two distinct groups of Buddhists, those who originally came from Asia where Buddhism is one of the dominant religions, and those who have adopted Buddhism here in this country. Some of the latter practice in secular mindfulness groups instead of in a formal Buddhist practice. For people who want a more transformational spiritual practice, Wohl recommends the guidance of a teacher who is part of a recognized, respected Buddhist lineage.

One of the nation’s youngest Zen priests

Under Wohl’s guidance, McLeod settled into Zen bit by bit. She says there were no big “aha” moments. She didn’t set out to make herself “smarter and calmer” through Zen; this wasn’t a self-improvement project, she says. It just was.

She certainly did not set out to be a Zen priest.

But Wohl saw his student as “a remarkable person, a Zen prodigy,” and in 2014 he made her a dharma holder (someone who is between being a student and a teacher) in the White Plum lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism after she’d been practicing with him and a few other Zen teachers for over a decade.

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That distinction gave her permission to teach beginning students, and to start her own practice group under his guidance.

Two years later, Heiku Jaime McLeod was ordained as a Zen priest — at 41, one of the youngest in the country.

Her desire now is to share what she is still discovering with others and to emulate that first Zen priest she met at that long-ago interview. She wants her students to know that Zen is very approachable and that “waking up to our true nature” is our birthright.

As an authorized teacher, McLeod says she attempts to make Zen accessible to all. She believes anyone can devote themselves to the practice within the life they’re already living. “The concept is so simple that it almost defies description,” she says, calling Zen a tool anyone can use to untangle from the complicated world people often manage to create for themselves.

“Zen means becoming intimate with ourselves, with what is happening in any moment, and with all of reality,” she says. “There’s nothing mystical or esoteric about it, except that most of us don’t make time for that intimacy. We may have flashes of it, unbidden, from time to time, such as when we’re holding a child, sitting alone in nature, or fully engrossed in a pleasurable or demanding task—what we might refer to as ‘in the zone.’”

Most of the time, however, McLeod says, we’re thinking about what’s going to happen next, what happened yesterday, or other’s opinions of us. “Zen is making a habit of creating the time and space in our lives to pay attention to all we usually miss,” she says.

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Because Zen isn’t a religion in which you have to believe a certain doctrine, Christians, Jews, Unitarian-Universalists, atheists, agnostics and others find the practice useful, according to McLeod. She says it can deepen a person’s connection with the core of their own traditions.

Teaching Zen on Bates College campus

These days, McLeod lives in Lewiston and makes her living as a text book editor and still engages in freelance writing. She is also raising a family and living her life while continuing her commitment to Zen.

She drives to Treetop Zen Center in Oakland most Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, where she holds zazen and conducts daisan, a time when students can talk one-on-one with her about life’s great questions. She also takes part in the leadership of seasonal weekend retreats at the center, and offers other opportunities for people to go deeper into their practice.

In addition, for the past year she has served as a volunteer chaplain at Bates College in Lewiston and as guiding teacher of Great Falls Zen, a Treetop-affiliated sitting group held in the chancel at Gomes Chapel on Bates College campus, offering meditation sessions on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. during the academic year to all Bates faculty, staff, students and community members.

While there are other meditation groups meeting in Lewiston-Auburn, Great Falls Zen is the only traditional Zen practice in the Twin Cities, according to McLeod.

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Abe Brownell, who attends Bates College, is just one of the students McLeod has worked with since she started Great Falls Zen. He got to know McLeod through meeting with her in daisan.

“Jaime is constantly challenging whatever understanding I have of Zen. At other times, though, the interaction is much gentler. If I’m going through something difficult, like a death in the family or an illness, Jaime is there in a really special way. She doesn’t say much, but her heart rushing out to meet me is palpable. That’s how I really came to know her.”

For Brownell, Zen opens possibilities. “This thing right here — your life, the world, or whatever you take it to be — is important. Zen practice is one way of responding to and validating that,” he says.

Brownell feels his practice of Zen has caused him to stop and reflect on what’s happening more than he used to. He recalls McLeod once saying to him, “We live to support each other.” He thinks of that as an ethical mandate. “In Zen, it’s critical that we make an effort to save all beings. That’s not something I can do on my own, so that’s why mutual support is so important.”

As a Zen priest and teacher, McLeod supports others by guiding them to better understand themselves, stand on their own two feet, not give away their own power, and to tap into their inner resources no matter what.

“Zen doesn’t depend on trappings, chanting or anything exotic. Zen points us back to ourselves. We are in flux. We are whatever is happening at the moment.”

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McLeod makes a final point about herself that offers more insight into the essence of Zen. “I’m an ordinary person. I’m not particularly spiritual or self-disciplined. I’m irreverent, impatient and self-indulgent. Zen has helped me have more of a sense of humor about myself. It’s about learning to see clearly,” she says. “If I can practice Zen, anyone can.”

Karen Schneider, a writer and editor, has been a regular contributor to the Lewiston Sun Journal for over 20 years. Contact her at [email protected] with your ideas and comments.

Below is a listing of places to receive guidance and to practice Zen meditation in and near the Sun Journal’s readership area. For groups in Portland and throughout the rest of the state, go to Maine Buddhist Gathering at https://sites.google.com/site/mainebuddhists/listing-of-sanghas-meditation-groups-practice-communities or to Maine Buddhist Directory at www.maine-buddhist.org.

Bethel: Mountain Heart Sangha (Tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn)

Contact: Cynthia Handlen, 671-1532

Email: [email protected]

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Farmington: Full Moon Sangha (Tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn)

Contact: Mary and Joe Rankin, 491-1731

Email: [email protected]

Freeport: Flying Point Zendo (Zen)

Contact: Phoebe Prosky, 865-3396

Email: [email protected]

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Topsham: Northern Light Zen Center (Zen)

Contact: 729-6013

Email: [email protected]

Website: nlzc.org

Topsham: Dharmata Maine

Contact: Susan 837-8906

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Website: https://www.sites.google.com/site/dharmatamaine/

Great Falls Zen or Treetop Zen Center

Contact Jaime at [email protected]

Website: www.treetopzencenter.org.

Buddhist Zen Priest Jaime McLeod officiates over the Zen service at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Deborah Kelly reads a book of chants during a Zen service at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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Deborah Kelly, left, Kathy Byrne, Brian Musselwhite and Robert Gorman meditate during zazen at Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Officiant assistant Jim Nowik hits the han to announce the start of meditation. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Buddhist Zen Priest Jaime McLeod meditates during zazen at Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Deborah Kelly leads the circle during a zazen activity at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Buddhist Zen Priest Jaime McLeod holds a kutsu during a Zen service at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland. Holding the kutsu represents holding your teacher’s hand. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

The Treetop Zen Center is in Oakland was founded by Stef and Margaret Barragato. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)


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