Posted in Buddhism, Disability, Michael Watson

Accesibility and the Dharma or The Pitfalls of Cherry Floors

Vermont Zen CenterA few weeks ago we attended the 25th Anniversary Celebration at the our local zen center. The day was splendid, and the ceremonies moving.

I have had a rather rocky relationship with the Zen Center due to issues of accessibility. Sometimes the Center has been very accommodating, other times attending functions there has been a challenge. Visits go best when I remember to bring my own slippers. Unfortunately, on the day of the Anniversary Celebration my slippers were at the office and I forgot to stop and pick them up.

The Zen Center has beautiful, very slippery, cherry floors, and I do best there when I can keep my brace and shoes on. For the celebration the staff of the center provided surgical slippers to those of us who need to keep shoes on. Unfortunately, the surgical slippers proved to be very slippery, and I had difficulty keeping my balance even with crutches. After the formal ceremony we left the Center building to attend a Taiko performance outside. When others returned to the building to listen to a storytelling performance I chose to remain safely outside.

During lunch I spoke about accessibility issues with some of the Zen Center staff. The gist of the conversation was that the Zen Center policy places protecting the cherry floors above providing accessibility for disabled visitors and members. It also became clear the policy is a source of discomfort within the center.

Since the celebration I’ve been wondering about the tension between the lack of access at the center for us folks with mobility issues, and the Buddha’s insistence on making the Dharma and Sangha available to all. I also wonder how it could be that in a structure so lovingly designed and built there could be so little attention to accessibility.

Very much like the monks in one of my favorite zen stories, I’ve crossed that river but seem unable to put this one down.

Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

15 thoughts on “Accesibility and the Dharma or The Pitfalls of Cherry Floors

  1. I’m surprised; though, I had a similar experience … getting dirty looks because becaue of the – quiet~ – sound of my oxygen tank puffing. I’ve had that experience at both church and meditation center. People don’t just turn and look to find out what the sound it, they will look again and glare. LOL! So much for putting ideals into action. I hope today is a better day for you, Michael.


  2. I had this type of repeated experience many years ago in a well known spiritual center. Gestapo qualities I would say in exaggeration. I would assume that 35 years later that the folks there have grown beyond their behavior. As you say….I lay down the story around this long ago and your account brought the memory back. We all do come to see our behavior eventually. What a play.


  3. As someone who has served on the board of Zen Centers, let me thank you for raising this, as it supports the Zen Center’s discernment and discovery of skillful means. It is so essential not to attach to form, even and especially when it is aesthetically lovely– but to remember the true direction of practice– which I would define as a path of service.


  4. Michael: As an “elder” who so often feels “invisible” re. the indifference that people show to us and the various challenges that come with “old age,” I definitely ‘resonate” with what you share. And.. I am more concerned about how you …well all of us… can “cross the river” and “put this one down.” I recently had an encounter with my ex-wife that taught me tons about this… Perhaps I can put it in a separate note. It is a bit long.


  5. Continuing above: I recently had a beautiful experience of “forgiveness” with my ex-wife (divorced – in early 1970) and, is often the case; we had not had much in the way real contact, much less “forgiveness,” over those ensuing years! To our credit, we both vowed way back then, that, whatever else happened, we would not in any way put our four children, now adults, in the middle of our “failed” marriage, and refused to fight over things that happened as we shared the responsibility of bringing up our kids over the next decades! But the” cost” of this decision, was that we rendered our relationship, what’s is the word, –sterile, moot, or neutral— over the following decades for the sake of “peace.”

    Move forward in time to the current year. As you may remember, my second wife, Phyllis, died of December last year. After she learned of her death, my first wife, Carolyn, called to send condolences and her sincere best wishes for my health and well being over this difficult time of grieving she sensed I must be feeling. I cannot begin to describe what impact this phone call had on our relationship! We couldn’t get off the phone! We were able to say what we needed to say that, among other things, allowed us to “set aside” the past–entirely! We could speak honestly about the mistakes and “failings” that had caused our marriage to end in divorce. We could acknowledge that, despite these mistakes and failings, we had done a wonderful job of parenting our four children and that we were very proud of them and who they had become. We were able to acknowledge that we “just children” ourselves when be began to bring our children into the world. We had managed to “learn as we went along” and managed to grow from our mistakes over the ensuing years.

    In subsequent phone calls, we have managed to continue to heal and grow from increasingly deep and loving contacts of forgiveness–and so much more. It has been interesting to note that the experience of “forgiveness” allows one to truly put the “past in its place” so to speak! It allowed us to see each other as the lovely, dear, people that we initially saw when we first fell in love. We recognize that we are entirely different people with new “stories” and paths to explore AND that we could see something essentially and good in each other that had been there all along!


  6. This makes me sad. It is a classic example of putting the “letter of the law” before the “spirit of the law.” I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a young novice. I ignored a newcomer who needed help because it was the time of “grand silence.” The gospel that morning was the story of the Samaritan who was the only one who stopped to help someone in need. The “good” people passed him by because it was the Sabbath. To be honest, my failure to help that young woman is a regret I still carry with me. I hope the administration of the center stops and thinks about what message they are sending.


  7. While I understand the feelings shared, as an occupational therapist, I also feel that there might be a solution. Is there ANY room for a discussion about what might be acceptable? Could a temporary, thin non-skid product be rolled out to provide a “path” that could be used, that will protect the floor, while allowing participation? I may be naive but still like to believe that sometimes we can eventually find solutions that make sense for everyone.


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