Center for Faith and Vocation

Indianapolis Zen Center

Zen Center Altar

(317) 921-9902
3703 Washington Blvd
Indianapolis, IN 46205
Email the Indianapolis Zen Center

Institutional History/Information

The Indianapolis Zen Center is not a Buddhist temple, but rather an institution that offers sessions of meditation and chanting, dharma discussions, and organized spiritual retreats. It follows the Korean Zen tradition, which is a subgroup of Mahayana Buddhism. The center is intended to provide a spirituality-focused atmosphere while not enforcing a strict religious environment. The Indianapolis Zen Center is a part of an international organization called the Kwan Um School of Zen. This school was founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen Master to teach in the United States. The Indianapolis Zen Center was founded in 1991 by a group of Buddhists who bought a house to use as a place to establish a community and a support system to follow the Zen practices together.


The Indianapolis Zen Center has about forty members, most of whom are Euro-American. Approximately ten people attend a typical Sunday service. The majority of attendees are younger adults and college students, with a good number of middle-aged adults. Most seem to be a part of the middle socioeconomic class.

Service Style

Zen Center Main Room

The atmosphere of the service is calming. The services take place in the living room of a renovated house. There is a small altar in the front of the room with a statue and flowers. On three sides of the altar, cushions are set up to form a square. The room is very simple, and the smell of incense fills the room at the start of the service. A bell and bowing begins the service, which lasts for about twenty minutes. One hundred and eight prostrations are performed to symbolize repentance and respect to the Buddha. The numerous prostrations can be very tiring, so it is understandable if a visitor cannot complete the full amount. If one must rest, repeatedly bowing from the waist (rather than fully prostrating) is acceptable. After the prostrations are finished, there is a forty-minute period of chanting. The chants are in Korean as well as English and include well-known sutras such as the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. The service concludes with a thirty-minute silent meditation. The meditation practices of the Zen Center differ slightly from other forms of traditional meditation in two ways: the attendees deliberately face a wall, and they keep their eyes slightly open. A legend about a monk named Bodhidharma (the putative founder of Zen Buddhism) explains why they do this. The story says that Bodhidharma sat facing a cave wall and meditated for nine years. He even cut off his eyelids so he would not fall asleep. They meditate in this specific way in imitation of Bodhidharma, and also to help ward off drowsiness. The meditation is followed by a very brief dharma talk. After the service, the attendees split up the housework, and then a light meal is served.

What To Expect

First time visitors to the Indianapolis Zen Center should call ahead of time to inform the teachers of their visit. In addition, they should ask what sort of clothing is appropriate to wear. As is common in meditation-orientated centers, it is acceptable for visitors to wear comfortable and casual attire to the Indianapolis Zen Center. Regular practitioners will wear traditional robes over their clothing. When entering the Indianapolis Zen Center, visitors should first remove their shoes at the door. When one enters the meditation room, one should bow toward the altar. The bowing is repeated when one leaves the room. A short preparation for the service, which sometimes includes instructions for meditation, is offered upon request. This session helps eliminate confusion for visitors and allows them to better concentrate on the service. Visitors should expect some form of bowing and chanting, as well as sitting for extended periods, during a typical Sunday service. Women and men are allowed to sit together; however, beginners are encouraged to sit closer to the altar. Although Buddhists are not required to attend services weekly, those who do attend are very welcoming to new guests and are eager to answer and explain questions one might have about the religion.

Biographies of People Associated with the Indianapolis Zen Center

"John Minninger," by Megan White and Danny Gardner

Continual inquiry into one's own true nature is a central idea in all Buddhist thought. This is especially true in Zen, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that literally means "meditation" in Japanese. Many stories throughout the historical texts of different strains of Buddhism relate various stages on adherents' paths to such mindfulness. More often than not, these stories begin with questions, distractions or frustrations, but end with a perception of the world that sees beyond such things. A modern day example of such a story can be found in the life of Abbot John Minninger.

John was born in New Jersey into a Jewish family. He had no noteworthy exposure to Buddhism until high school when he read a book about Buddhist meditation, and did some individual meditation practice. After high school however, John studied in Israel for two years and became much more acquainted with his family's religious heritage. He did not encounter Buddhism again until he was back in the states and attending New York University. While a student at NYU, John attended a lecture by Clark Strand, a notable Zen Buddhist writer, and was invited to an event intended for students who wanted to learn more about Zen. It was at this event that John was reintroduced to the practice of meditation in a group setting, and actually got to try it out for himself. This first experience however was difficult for him. In fact, after spending only a few minutes in meditation, he left the event. Meditation attracts many people because they think it streams an instant flow of peace and calm into one's life. John's experiences illustrate that this is not necessarily the case, and his retrospective explanations of the nature of meditation help to illuminate this.

According to John, true meditation involves sitting in the presence of one's own thoughts and whatever else is actually happening in the moment. The initial experience is often mentally and physically uncomfortable for people. He emphasizes how overwhelming it is for people to focus on, and be wholly mindful of, their own thoughts. After one has spent some time doing meditation practice, he says, one develops more of an ability to be present without judgment. Meditation gives rise to awareness and thereby responsibility for one to improve the areas of one's life that seem to be lacking. John illustrates it in this way: when someone meditates, they encounter, without distraction, what appears in their mind. Eventually, through becoming familiar with one's own desire, anger and ignorance, one has the impulse to "clean things up." Meditation engendered shock and distress for John. However, once he came to spend more and more time in meditation-once he started being honest with himself- he began to realize and experience its utility. He understood that the shock he felt was in response to a cluttered, reactive state of mind. This understanding, or realization, was not instant. In fact, it took John several years as well as several different experiences with Zen and lapses in practice for him to see that he really wanted to practice Zen Buddhism consistently.

Clearly, meditation and its uncompromising honesty played a large role in drawing John towards Zen. When asked what aspect of Zen practice is most important to him, however, meditation was not the answer. The question is technically unanswerable: one must accept the entire practice of Zen. Indeed, the effect of Buddhism on one's life is holistic. It can't really be said that meditation, or virtue, or anything else alone allows one to reach a particular stage. In fact, too much attention to progress in practice is viewed as a hindrance because it is focused on gaining benefit for oneself. John does say, though, that something he highly values is sharing the benefits of his practice with others who express an interest. In fact, when pressed, John said he has two central tasks in practice: (1) to find his true self, and (2) to help all sentient beings. In one of those ironic, "It's one of those funny things…" expressions common in Zen, John said that he understands the two to be one-and-the-same.

If meditation continues to help John find his true self in the clutter of his mind, then formal interviews now help him to help others in their practice. The importance of the two- meditation and formal interviews- in Zen practice is what sets it apart from other forms of Buddhism. Formal interviews are somewhat like a mentor-protégé relationship. Now the Abbot (administrative leader) of the Indy Zen Center, John conducts consulting interviews with the center's members. The interview is a time of assistance from the senior dharma teacher of the practice community.

There is also a Zen Teacher at the Indianapolis Zen Center who is authorized in the lineage of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn to teach kung-ans. John does not have such authorization-he is a senior student. Kung-ans are a teaching tool that is unique to the Zen tradition. Frequently, they consist of a question that one cannot answer through cognition, and that one can almost never answer right away. Instead, instinct or intuition is often the way in which one answers, and usually only after struggling with it in one's practice. This struggle or inquiry is viewed as beneficial in itself, and it can help an individual to come to realizations that might not otherwise occur.

Although John emphasized that formal interviews at the Indy Zen Center are rather subdued, the history of Zen is rife with anecdotes of Zen masters yelling, haranguing, and even physically striking their students to change their way of thinking. In fact, before finding the Indy Zen Center, John had a strained relationship with a dharma teacher in Chicago. Eventually, it became so adversarial that John had to leave. It was no longer beneficial; the experiment didn't work.

Experimentation is, actually, a common theme in Buddhism, especially in Zen. The Buddha even said of some of the things he prescribed, that if they were not beneficial to one's pursuit of enlightened, one should discard them. The diversity of the forms of Buddhism bears this out. Whereas Tibetan Buddhism places an emphasis on mantras, visualizations, and Buddhist scriptures, American Zen, as is obvious by now, emphasizes meditation. There are even differences within Zen. For instance, Japanese Zen utilizes black robes, and has relatively little chanting in its practice. On the other hand, Kwan Um, the school of the Indy Zen Center that originated in Korea, uses gray robes, and has chanting for nearly half of its practice. This notion of experimentation alludes to two aspects of Zen that John finds most appealing. The first is that it is truly inclusive of all other faith traditions. In contrast with his adolescent environment-an acceptance of other dogmas but a notion of the superiority of one's own tradition-Zen wants individuals to find what works for them. John says that if someone expresses interest in other faith traditions, he would encourage them to explore. If there were a specific part of the Kwan Um school's practice that didn't jive with a practitioner, then he would refer that person to another school of Zen. There are some who both practice Zen and attend a Christian church.

The second aspect of Zen that John finds appealing is that there are no required beliefs or dogmas- one does not "have to" believe anything. Certainly one will "connect with" certain beliefs, but one must come to one's own conclusions. Indeed, John said that at the Indy Zen Center, practice is primary, not adherence to teachings or dogma. It truly is an experiment: something that one replicates. The Buddha attained realization through meditation, and the modern practitioner is repeating the procedure. A centuries-old experiment, one must repeat the form, then figure it out.

Its antiquity does not, however, diminish its relevance. Some may wonder if Zen Buddhism is more relevant now than in the ancient world. After all, the 21st century is much busier with all its technology, production, and consumption. Wouldn't Zen, with its emphasis on quiet meditation, be a natural antidote to a frenzied post-modern age? John doesn't think the time period matters. A simpler yet harder life in the ancient world, or an easier but busier life in the modern world? Both still require that one deals with "the production of self."

Biography of "Charles Vance," by Bess Anderson, Adam Kegley, and Brett Hunter

Charles Vance is currently the Vice Abbot of the Indianapolis Zen Center. He has been a practicing Buddhist for about 8 years now, and took an hour of his time to speak with us about his life and experience as a Buddhist.

Vance was born December 16, 1970 in a "nominally" Christian household in Indiana. And though Charles was "really religious" and serious about Christianity in high school, he experienced a crisis of faith in his 20s. Vance found the exclusivity of Christianity, the view that "if you don't get it right before you die, you're condemned" to be difficult and unforgiving. Nevertheless, Vance had a strong desire to practice spiritually. This led him to pick up Houston Smith's World Religions, where he found the chapter on Buddhism particularly attractive. Thinking that Indiana had no Buddhist communities; however, he pursued the issue no further until August 2000, when he saw an ad for the Indianapolis Zen Center in a local alternative medicine magazine, Branches. Vance has been a part of the community ever since.

As of 2008, he has been on the Zen Center's board for five years and held the position of Vice Abbot for four years. Vance joked that he doesn't have too many responsibilities, "unless Robert [the current Abbot] drops dead." For the most part, Vance is responsible for maintenance and repairs and is also one of several Dharma teachers at the Center. As a Dharma teacher, he performs a variety of functions, from teaching training, liturgy training and leading practice periods to giving talks at universities and teaching meditation.

But what exactly attracted Vance to Buddhism? Egalitarianism is one of the most important aspects of Buddhism for him, and it was partially that which attracted him to the religion. As stated previously, Vance felt uncomfortable with the idea of a higher authority condemning people possibly to hell and a "no second-chances" ideology. In Buddhism, one becomes responsible for seeking one's own path, as well as for how open one is to that path. There is a certain egalitarianism that quickly drew Vance into the religion. The egalitarianism of Buddhism, especially experienced in the cultural context of American Buddhism, allows for the religion to avoid dogmatic laws. Vance states "There is doctrine, but the dogma isn't exclusive. People of different 'everythings' can practice together." Along with egalitarianism, reincarnation brought much comfort to Vance's growing involvement in Buddhism.

He states that reincarnation is a "safety valve" of sorts. Even if one tries to achieve enlightenment and fails, one gets another chance. However, elaborating his point more fully, Vance stated that one's focus should be on the current moment. It should be on striving to achieve a higher level of wisdom and understanding of Buddhism in the particular moment. Vance states "Whether one believes literally in reincarnation or not, modern science explains that one's body is constantly reborn at the cellular level. If your body is in this way getting a new life, what will you do with this life? How about this one?" With reincarnation, one has multiple opportunities to perfect your religious experiences and journey in each moment.

Vance said he had really aspired to try with Christianity but was afraid to be wrong. Buddhism allows you to be wrong and, if you are, gives you opportunities to get it right. This, according to Vance, is one of the reasons he chose Buddhism as his path. He said "The Buddha never said 'Believe what I say, but instead, do what I do and see if you get the same results.' He said 'This is what worked for me and you can try it and see what happens. It may work for you, and it may not.'" Vance really admires this because the Buddha was not acting as the one authority to all. He merely made a suggestion, giving everyone the opportunity to seek out his/her own individual enlightenment. This new insight into life provided Vance with the tools he needed to reconcile himself to changing faiths.

Vance experienced some "emotional turmoil, confusion, and feelings of being judged" while he struggled with the Christian faith. He tried so deeply to experience the religion, but that judgment and those feelings kept him from truly feeling "at home" in that faith. After leaving the Christian path, he did not want to think about it for a long while. Fortunately, after practicing Buddhism, he actually feels quite comfortable with Christianity and people of the Christian faith. After practicing for quite some time, he began to ask himself questions about why he was so angry, not simply as a former Christian but as a person as well. He would say to himself "What is it inside me that makes me uncomfortable around people who instill those feelings in me?" This was one of the most effective aspects of reconciling his faith. Buddhism provided him with the introspection needed to reconcile his negative feelings toward Christianity and the bias that had been held against the religion for a period of time. Needless to say, the introspection it provided him with a plethora of changes in his life.

It is apparent from what is written above that Vance settled down emotionally after his conversion. He learned to observe his anxiety rise up and learned not to suppress it but to address it. Vance learned to control his emotions and reactions to other people. He could choose how to act and how not to act. "Things seem more possible to me," Vance said after he spoke about this perspective given to him by his religion. His trip to Singapore and Malaysia in October of 2005 furthered this belief more than anything else. It expanded everything for him, especially the idea of possibility. He actually said the biggest reward he got from the trip was "growing up." This can be quite challenging as it brings the knowledge of vulnerability. As he stated it: "Practicing stillness can be scary." This is why practicing both alone and in a community setting is so important to him.

When asked which he prefers more, personal meditation or community chanting, Vance said he preferred a mix of the two. He mentioned that he enjoyed chanting very much. It was very nice for him because the support of a group environment is comforting and helpful. He also adores the fact that he helps others by chanting, too. He said, "Your getting out of bed is helping someone else." Still, it is hard for him to pick either chanting or meditation over the other because he considers the two to be quite important in their individual ways. The two ways of practice are, he said, "different flavors." It is not so much that one is better than the other but that the two forms of practice working together help to keep him grounded. Both bring you to focus, and that is what matters.

Vance has been part of the Zen Center since August of 2000 and is one of its longest standing members. The Zen center has been around for twenty years, but only found its permanent home in 2005. Before that the Center rented space or met in accommodating members' homes. Vance pointed out that the center is only one of many little "pockets" of Buddhism in the city and throughout the state. In 2004 with the induction of a permanent teacher at the Center, over forty of Vance's brethren throughout the community showed their support by attending the ceremony. (From 2000 to 2003 the Center had no permanent teacher of its own.)

Vance chose to practice at the Zen Center for several reasons. The Center is a member of the Korean Kwan Um school of Zen which, unlike the more commonly practiced Japanese Soto tradition, does not emphasize the role of priests or one practice form over others - although both traditions employ seated and walking meditation along with chanting. After attending worship services at several other centers in the city he found that the Zen Center embraced a more communal practice, with a stress on chanting and collective guidance rather than liturgy. An integral part of Buddhist practice is self-motivated meditation; however Vance impressed upon us the importance of group practice. He placed neither above the other, but highlighted their different virtues. He enjoys chanting with the group and feels a communal support and empathy with his practice partners. Individual practice affords him the time to concentrate on things he finds either uplifting or struggling, however both achieve the same goal. Vance put it better, "Practice is like that. It peels away your onion, but also makes you available to anyone who needs your help. Practice is for all Beings."

After years of practice Vance now understands his faith as a constant process. When first discovering his inner Buddhist he was full of questions. Now he recognizes that the Big Questions, such as "What am I?" and "What is my life for?" do not hold as much meaning for him as they once did. He also uses the scriptures less as a roadmap and more as a spark. During an especially enrapturing monologue he explained to us that a picture of an apple can't really satisfy your hunger, no matter how high the resolution. You must experience the apple to also experience the cessation of hunger. He then went on to explain that there are two types of reality. The Absolute Truth refers to the non-separation and interdependence of all things, the ground of being. The Relative Truth refers to our everyday perceptions of separateness. Vance distinguished the two beautifully: "I am Charles - you are not. I am a man - you are a woman. I was born - I will die. The Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains it this way: The ocean is the Absolute, the waves are the Relative. While it is true that each wave (person, etc) has a beginning, middle and end, it is also true that it is at all times water and thus not separate from the whole ocean. The purpose of practice is to realize the Absolute aspect (non-separateness) and learn to use it in the midst of the Relative to help all beings. To the degree that we realize that we are not separate from one another, we will naturally have compassion for each other, and act accordingly."

Biography of "Karen Timmerman," by Ariel Tyring and Samantha Hyler

Karen Timmerman was born into a Methodist family near Lafayette, Indiana and is currently a part time English professor and academic advisor at the University of Indianapolis. She is 36 years old and Caucasian. As a child she was expected to attend church with her parents every week despite her reservations about the faith. Christianity never felt quite right to her, and later in life, as she explored Buddhism, she realized why. She never believed in most of the key concepts of Christianity, such as the presence of heaven and hell. She believed that once a person dies, he or she is simply dead; their souls do not ascend into heaven. Buddhism provided a different worldview that made more sense to her. About five years ago, she officially became a Buddhist and is now a Dharma teacher at the Indianapolis Zen Center.

A few key events in Karen's life caused her to start thinking about other spiritual or religious paths. She received a Master's degree in English and was strongly influenced by Beat literature, especially that of Allen Ginsberg. While reading the book, Big Sky Mind; Buddhism in the Beat Generation by Carole Tomkinson, she had a revelation. Could Buddhism, a spiritual path followed by many of the Beat generation, be the right path for her? Furthermore, the death of a close friend caused her to dissociate herself with the Protestant church. It is customary for many Christians to try to console the surviving family and friends by telling them that the departed person has moved on to "a better place." This viewpoint did not make sense to Karen. Because she didn't believe in the afterlife, she couldn't understand the notion that her friend was in a better place--a glorified heaven. The religious viewpoint of Buddhism provided a better explanation of death, and therefore she felt more at peace. The Kuan Um School of Zen provided a structure for these beliefs.

When Karen first visited the Zen Center in Indianapolis, she did not immediately feel comfortable. It took time and practice of this school's specific exercises before she began to see the connection with her own beliefs, and feel more at ease with the structure of the meetings. She persisted because she found certain characteristics of this practice admirable. For example, the emphasis on compassion for all other beings was one of the most appealing attributes of the Indy Zen Center. Compassion is the central virtue emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism, of which Korean Zen is a part. The application of compassion leads to a wider, more open mind. Since she began practicing Buddhism, Karen has been more able to recognize and to feel genuine compassion for other's suffering without judgment, regardless of whether she knows them personally or not. Further, Buddhism does not rely on an outside force to validate oneself and one's life. For example, there is no need to pray and hope for someone or something else to help you because, as she explained, "the divinity and enlightenment are already within you." Being compassionate and practicing mindfulness allows you to see this in yourself.

The most important idea in Buddhism to her is the concept of the impermanence of all things. Accepting now that she has no "self" is a radical change from the Methodist tradition in which she was raised which taught her that every person has a unique soul. When we asked her how she felt "having no self," she made it very clear to distinguish no "self" from no permanent "self." To Karen, this means that no one has his or her own individual, independent self. The idea of impermanence further asserts that the body, mind, and all physical conditions are continually changing; nothing can be exactly the same from one moment to the next. It became easier for her to deal with the troubling situations in her life when she accepted the idea of impermanence.

Many non-Buddhists at first find the Buddhist worldview to be pessimistic. However, Karen believes otherwise. She believes Buddhism has a positive outlook because the tradition teaches that all people are interdependent in this world, rather than independent beings. She described this as the "circle of life." For example, she said with death, nourishment can be provided for other beings. This Buddhist concept acknowledges that things are not black and white, but there are shades of gray. She told us a parable to illustrate this point in which a monk is confronted by a hunter, who asks the monk which way a rabbit the hunter had been chasing went. The monk is torn between telling the hunter the location of the rabbit, which would cause harm to the rabbit, or not telling the hunter, which could cause the hunter and his family to go without food. The recognition of shades of gray is a really important shift for her from her previous Christian tradition.

Approximately five years ago, Karen decided that practicing at the Zen Center was a good fit. She eventually wanted to deepen her practice of Buddhism from when she took the five initial precepts. She continued practicing at the Kuan Um School in Indianapolis but has also visited the An Lac Temple located near the Zen Center. However, she prefers the style at the Zen Center because it contains a relatively equal mixture of chanting, scripture, and meditation. Later, she took another five precepts to become a Dharma instructor. The specific Dharma teachings from the Kuan Um School are compiled by the more senior members of the school into a syllabus, such as the emphasis on compassion and the concept of impermanence. Karen tries to use these teachings to guide her "outside" and "inside" work. Outside work refers to what a person appears to be from day to day. For example, she is a teacher, a wife, and a daughter. Inside work involves asking questions such as, "what else am I?" and "who am I?" She explained that because who we are, and what we are is constantly changing (impermanent), the Kuan Um tradition focuses on inside work. Accepting the ideas of compassion, impermanence, as well as the other teachings of this tradition focuses a person on inside work.

Naturally, this practice has affected her daily life outside of the Zen Center, including her relationships with people and the way she deals with daily life. For example, acknowledging that nothing has a permanent self has led her to recognize that, because everything is constantly changing, there will always be positive and negative aspects to life. This is a clear example of the first Noble Truth given by the Buddha which states that there is always suffering in the world and it comes from both the positive and the negative attachments we possess. Buddhists believe that once humans accept this fact they can be more comfortable and prepared for all of life's situations. This realization affects her relationships, especially the one she has with her husband who is a non-Buddhist, by allowing her to pay more attention in the moment and engage in its experiences more fully. She pays more attention to this by being more open to positive situations, and confronting negative situations. For instance, when the husband of one of her close friends died, Karen felt that she was much more prepared to help her friend because she began practicing Buddhism and understood the inevitability of bad circumstances.

What is particularly interesting about her personal form of practice is that while she accepts and holds true much of the foundational doctrine, there are a few relatively central points that she rejects. The notion of karma, which states that each action has a consequence, played an important role in early Buddhism. A person can receive the karmic results of his or her action soon after an action, much later in life, or even many lifetimes later. She described karma as "what goes around comes around," and indicated that she is not sure whether she believes in it, though she thinks it is a nice concept. Karen is also not a vegetarian. She jokingly told us that she "likes hamburgers and pepperoni on her pizza." Many Buddhists are vegetarians, though there is some debate within the tradition as to how far the Buddha himself took the practice. She explains that, similar to the story of the monk, the hunter, and the rabbit, eating meat is justifiable because she is not killing in excess, but simply using animals to nourish her body. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition has frequently used a concept of skillful means to explain changes and alterations in Buddhist philosophy and practice. In early Buddhism, some aspects of the Buddha's teachings were heavily emphasized which are no longer applicable, and vice versa.

There are many people close to Karen who are non-Buddhists, including her husband and parents. She explained that it took some time before she felt comfortable enough to tell her parents, who are devout Methodist Christians, that she had become a Buddhist. She found that her father was more immediately open to her becoming a Buddhist than her mother. For example, when she invited them to the Indy Zen Center on the day she took the five precepts, her mother chose to go to her Christian church, but her father came in support of her. She jokingly told us that she still feels that her mother is secretly concerned for her soul. Karen said that her husband is not Buddhist but is very supportive of her.

Buddhism has provided a new foundation for this woman's beliefs. Not only did this practice provide for her new ways of dealing with difficult situations, but it confirmed some of her own personal beliefs about life, death, and the way people should try to interact with one another. Even when her beliefs and Buddhist doctrines don't match up, she has never been discouraged but continues to follow and implement the practices she feels are helpful to her.