Each Sunday, while others are in church, a group of Cordovans gather in a candlelit chamber to meditate and silently circle the room as bells ring. Kneeling beside the altar is Kelly Weaverling, the black-robed Zen lay priest who directs the ritual. It’s all quite enigmatic — at least until Weaverling starts talking.
“What I do is take the mystery out of it,” he says. “I spoil it, in a way. Some people really want all the bell-bonging and incense and chanting and all that kind of stuff, and we do that, of course. But I explain what the bells mean, which takes away the mystery from it.”
Weaverling is known to many as Cordova’s former Green Party mayor or as the Newsweek-certified hero who rounded up oil-soaked animals after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Since 2003, however, Weaverling has led the Pathless Way Zen Community as an ordained lay priest, organizing retreats that have drawn attendees from around Alaska. Combining a systematic and down-to-earth approach with a touch of puckish irreverence, Weaverling seems a natural ambassador for Zen, a Buddhist tradition that thrives on humor and paradox.
In 2003, Zen priest Tozen Akiyama visited Cordova to deliver a presentation on the fundamentals of meditation. Weaverling’s interest in Akiyama’s teachings was not exactly theological — meditation benefited the brain and the body, or so he’d heard. After Akiyama left, Weaverling formed a meditation group with friends who’d found it challenging to keep up self-motivated practice. Weaverling was asked to lead the group, ringing the bells marking the beginning and end of meditation. Slowly, the meetings grew to include walking meditation, readings and discussion over tea. Weaverling takes pains to point out that each of these ritual additions were supported by other group members — that, in spite of the robe, he doesn’t regard himself as “some kind of holy man.”
When Akiyama came to visit, Cordova’s meditators had only folded blankets to kneel on. Weaverling quickly created meditation cushions using foam bought at a fishing supply store. Almost everything used in Pathless Way’s Zen practice, from the kneeling benches to the round zafu cushions, Weaverling built, bartered or improvised himself. Even the somber Japanese Buddha on the altar, which at a glance passes for cast-iron, came from a plastic motorized garden fountain.
Pathless Way’s weekly meditation sessions and monthly services take place at Current Rhythms, a dance studio whose spare and spacious practice room suits the Zen sensibility. Week-long retreats at the Orca Adventure Lodge combine meditation, chanting and ōryōki, a meditative method of eating. By doing “work practice”—that is, chores—retreatants are able to attend for free.
Beliefs and practices among Buddhists vary at least as widely as among Christians. Tibetan Buddhism, with its ornate artwork and pantheon of deities, is as removed from Zen as Unitarian Universalism is from Russian Orthodoxy. Zen’s focus on inner self-control over metaphysical speculation lends itself to Weaverling’s agnostic outlook. To join Pathless Way, he says, you don’t necessarily have to be Buddhist, or even Buddh-ish.
“Whether meditation has any spiritual benefit, I really couldn’t say,” says Weaverling. “I’m not even sure I know what that is. But that it has both physical and mental benefits I can say with total confidence … It gives you an opportunity to watch all the crazy stuff running around inside your mind, which you ordinarily don’t notice. But, here, you have to notice it, because there’s really nothing else to do. After a while, you may realize that you don’t need to pay attention to a lot of that stuff that goes on in your mind.”
Molly Mulvaney, who’s known Weaverling since before he shaved his head and donned his black robe, says she’s unsure whether to consider herself Buddhist. For Mulvaney, whose favorite Buddhist book is Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Zen practice offers a path to greater self-possession.
“[Meditation] is an exercise that you start doing so that the things that bothered you previously don’t bother you as much,” says Mulvaney. “For me, it started out as a way to handle the stress of life … If you want to add those tools to your de-stressing kit, it’s a really good practice.”
While some other Zen groups have put Mulvaney off with their stiff decorousness, she feels at home with Weaverling’s careful yet flexible application of ritual.
“We don’t proselytize,” says Weaverling. “You won’t find anybody coming knocking on your door, trying to sell you the Buddhist Watchtower or saying, ‘Have you heard the good word about the Buddha?’ or any of that kind of stuff … We figure inquiring minds want to know.”