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A Meeting of Clear Minds at Huntington Zen Center


HUNTINGTON BEACH — Tom Becker didn't want to lie, but there didn't seem to be much choice. His mother would have a fit if she knew where he was headed. So, at 14, the altar boy from upstate New York took a deep breath and let out a whopper:

"Mother," he said. "I'm going camping."

With that, Becker grabbed his backpack, ran to the highway and stuck out his thumb. Destination: the Zen Mountain Monastery, high in the Catskill Mountains.

Becker, a 25-year-old Costa Mesa resident, laughs at the memory. Inspired by David Carradine's character in the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu" and impassioned with the martial arts, he and a buddy made frequent, secret pilgrimages to the Buddhist monastery over four years.

Today, Becker continues to practice Zen, though no longer on the sly. He is part of a growing number of young adults who frequent the Huntington Beach Zen Center, in the heart of a suburban housing tract. The center--open to all ages--doubles as the home of Paul Lynch, a 38-year-old manufacturing engineer who leads group meditation in his spare time.

Lynch opened the center two years ago, hoping it would become a resident base for serious students of Zen. Paris-born Carlos Montana, 29, who is training to be a Zen monk, moved in last April. Robert Fittro, 28, of Anaheim, is moving in today. Becker is considering the same.

The Buddhist school of Zen dates to about 600 BC. Through rigorous meditation, a student strives to empty his mind of thought, allowing him to see himself as he truly is. Only then, devotees say, can one approach the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment.


Of course, people have their own take on the subject.

"Zen is very boring," Lynch says, only half-joking. "Our main practice is just sitting on a cushion and not saying anything."

Says Becker: "Zen is not about gaining anything--it's about losing. Losing your opinions, your ego. There's a constant humbling process. You gain a bit of wisdom, then let it go."

Says Montana: "In Zen, they say if you open your mouth, you are wrong already."

Says Fittro: "It's, well. . . . Oh, hell. I don't know. It's Zen!"

Fittro, a psychology major at Cal State Fullerton, said he began practicing Zen on his own 18 months ago in hopes of gaining a better understanding of himself. Earlier attempts at self-awareness, he said, were lost in a party-hardy lifestyle, one that centered around everything from pot to LSD.

Now drug-free, Fittro says, he plans to become a clinical psychologist, a role he believes will benefit from his practice of Zen.

"Psychology is about understanding other people," he says. "Zen is what I do to understand me."

Montana can relate. Until recently, his life was a dizzying--and ultimately depressing--walk on the wild side, one in which pleasure was the ultimate goal. Among his circle of friends, he says, unprotected sex with casual acquaintances was commonplace, HIV be damned. Montana wasn't quite so cavalier, but he wanted out just the same.

He says he walked out of his Santa Ana apartment one day with the intention of getting lost. He spent three nights on the streets, sleeping on benches, listening to gunfire, watching people selling drugs or themselves. The surreal became real, the suffering overwhelming. Montana woke up on the fourth day with a mantra ringing in his brain:

No more .

He moved into the Zen center a week later, giving away the bulk of his possessions--clothes, books, CDs. As a trainee, Montana accepted a long list of vows, including abstinence from sex. He no longer spends hours preening in front of the mirror, but shaves his head and dons a simple gray robe.

He rises at 4:45 a.m. to perform his morning ritual of 108 bows. His vegetarian diet is heavy on tofu. And when he goes out, it's usually to walk Barney, the Zen center dog.

Montana earns his keep by keeping the Zen center tidy, sweeping the floor of the dharma room, where formal meditation takes place, making sure the purple floor cushions are in place when visitors arrive. He wears a string of yom ju, or meditation beads, around his wrist, twisting it gently as he talks about his lifelong search for peace.

His parents divorced when he was 5. His twin brother committed suicide at 18. Montana has spent much of his life asking why ?

Zen, he says, helps him better explore what's inside. The discoveries aren't always pleasant.

"Sometimes," Montana says, "I'm doing my meditation, and I feel like screaming. But those are just thoughts. You look at them, and, after awhile, they go away."

It is a key aspect of Zen, devotees say. The mind is cleared . . . thoughts appear . . . thoughts are let go. "A return to white paper," one informational pamphlet puts it. It is the state for which Zen students strive.


Becker became mesmerized by the process more than a dozen years ago and today is all the more intrigued. After a devoutly Catholic upbringing, he no longer fears the wrath of God while meditating, he says.

He chuckles at the memory of himself, as an altar boy, practicing Zen meditation during Sunday Mass. Those "camping" trips he took? It wasn't all a lie. Any time the monastery had an overfill of visitors, Becker rolled out his sleeping bag and snoozed under the stars.

And, as it turned out, Becker wasn't the only member of his family to develop a yen for Zen.

"My mom got into it about a year ago," he says with a laugh.

It's one thought he won't soon let go.

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