Thom Pastor, abbot and guiding teacher at the Zen Center of Las Vegas, is often asked to explain Zen. Simply telling folks it's about "being in the moment" doesn't usually suffice. So, he relies on the following scenario to crystallize things.
Imagine you're at the mall, he tells the Zen-curious. It's busy, customers bustle about. You're standing in a long line, waiting to make your purchase. In front of you is a baby in a baby carriage. The baby looks right at you and smiles.
"You have one job," he says. "What is it?"
If you reply "Smile back," you understand the concept of Zen. You may not practice it, but you understand it.
According to Pastor, Zen isn't a religion or a philosophy. It's a 1,600-year-old extension of Buddhism, and it's a lifestyle. Pastor tells his students that their minds are like Velcro and they're aiming to make it like Teflon. In 2012, a time that has society overwhelmed with smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, Zen might be more beneficial than ever.
The 40 members of the Zen Center practice formally at the temple through chanting, bowing and meditating. But they practice it in their everyday lives simply by not allowing their thoughts to get distracted by the past or the future. That means performing the most menial of tasks, such as brushing their teeth, without mentally going through the day's to-do list. It means greeting people, places and things without judgment. It means doing what you're doing, without letting your mind do something else.
Stacey Loffredo, 34, has been practicing Zen a year now. She has two children, a 12-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son with special needs. Her son's developmental delays caused her to spend a lot of time focusing on how she wished he would behave. Zen has changed that.
"It's allowed me to see him for who he is and be the parent he needs me to be," she says. "I want to be in the moment with my husband and kids. I want to give them me."
Erik Lee was introduced to Zen through a book he read on the subject. The 34-year-old took a special interest in the aspect of Zen that eliminates judgment. He thinks it prevents people from belittling their own lives.
"Money is an easy thing to get fixated on," he says. "With media how it is, you can see something on TV about someone halfway across the country who has a solid gold boat. You never knew it existed, but now you're jealous of a solid gold boat."
Zen has helped him value his life, not covet someone else's.
He realizes there are stereotypes and misconceptions about the lifestyle. "Like the soft voices and all that," he says, putting his hands in prayer position to mock the mockery. "That isn't Zen. The idea we'll all be blissed out and talk softly isn't what it's about."
Although the concept is simple - "Zen is moment mind" - fully grasping it isn't always so simple for outsiders. Pastor, whose day job is the secretary/treasurer for the Las Vegas Musicians Union, was introduced to Zen in the '60s. He originally thought of it as a self-help concept.
"I gradually found out it never was about me," he says. "With Zen, you don't do anything just for you."
That said, the grand symbol of Zen is a mirror because it points to the inside. It makes us fully aware of our actions, which, Zen teaches, provide our only true legacy.
Pastor, who founded the Zen Center of Las Vegas, played the saxophone on the Strip for 15 years with singers such as Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. He's been married 40 years. He says Zen made him a better musician and husband. He calls it the "foundation for everything" he does.
Although the Zen Center of Las Vegas has been in town 18 years, it only recently celebrated its grand opening. Having moved to its current digs three years ago, Pastor and other organizers wanted a Zen garden in place before calling it complete.
With 18 pine trees that stretch to the clouds, a short pathway that meanders through Buddha statues, turtles and fish that swim through ponds and waterfalls that crash on rocks, the garden was well worth the wait. Appropriately, it's hard not to walk through it and fully appreciate the moment.
For more information about the Zen Center of Las Vegas, 2461 E. Harmon Ave., call 293-4449.
Contact Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.