by Vany Penolio
In the second quarter of 2014, a colleague suggested that I try Zen meditation. Intrigued, but not knowing how, I did a Google search and Sr. Sonia Punzalan’s name appeared. There were other links but somehow my attention was drawn to wherever her name would appear.
Having gone on a retreat at Cenacle House some years back, I dialed the Cenacle number and asked to speak to Sr. Sonia. Our exchange was brief. She told me to go to the HERMA building on Scout Rallos one afternoon and have my Zen orientation with Jay Batoon. And that’s how I got started.
Zen meditation became a new addition to my afternoon routine after clinic hours. I initially thought that it would be a Band-aid or a balm to ease my weariness after work, but I was wrong. It was more than that. Zen sits made me enter a door into unlearning, into quiet, into nothing.
There was a yoga class taught at HERMA just before the Zen sit. The first yoga class was taught by Jessie Severino and it served as my introduction to Iyengar yoga. It was at HERMA that I met Elena who taught the succeeding yoga classes. We happened to be in the comfort room together, and I noticed her two bayongs full of yoga props. We clicked right away and I started to attend Iyengar yoga classes in the basement of her house on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. My initiation to Zen practice dovetailed nicely with that of my Iyengar yoga experience.
Elena and I were and will always be “classmates” in this Zen journey. The first time we attended a zazen where Ruben Habito Roshi gave the teisho, we were asked at the door which sangha we belonged to. Disoriented newbies that we were, we awkwardly mumbled, “Bahay Dalangin” and sheepishly took our zafu. Sitting was a struggle at the start, but somehow, we persisted.
One afternoon, we were told that the sits at HERMA would come to a halt. Elena at that time had already conceived the idea of putting up a yoga studio along Esteban Abada, so she said that the sits could continue there. Soon after Elena’s Sankalpa studio opened, Jay, Elena, Wendy, and I agreed to start sitting on Friday afternoons. Elena also conceptualized yoga for meditation which preceded the sit at six o’clock in the evening.
For many months, it was mostly just Jay, Elena, and I sitting. Whenever Jay couldn’t make it, there were times when Elena and I would easily abandon the idea of sitting and hie off to UP Town Center to watch a movie or eat or both. Though we went rogue at times, we slowly began to have a Zen community. We acquired our own small singing bowl, crucifix, a little Buddha statue, incense, and prayer cards. People would come and go.
After almost a year of sitting (in Herma), Elena and I finally met Sr. Sonia when she joined the sit at Sankalpa on July 29, 2016. Perhaps what’s written in the Tao Te Ching is true: “when the student is ready, the teacher will come”. Elena came up with the idea of sharing tea after our sits. It was definitely more than just tea that we partook at table, as Elena brought her oven toaster and homemade sourdough bread. Jay brought mostly vegan stuff and one time Grace Ang Te whipped up a really nice Indian dish in a flash. Sr. Sonia would then come every last Friday of each month and stay for tea sharing.
I have a few special memories of Sankalpa that evoke some laughter and fond remembrance. Once a young girl peeked at the glass door while we were sitting and Jay motioned for her to enter through the other door. He then pointed to an empty spot for her to take. The girl had a puzzled look on her face, sat through one zazen then hurriedly left, obviously terrified. She was just probably going to inquire about yoga classes! There was also our first Sankalpa Christmas party where Sr. Sonia led us in shibashi and Jay showed us a long piece of fabric which depicted his life and was painstakingly embroidered by a dream weaver. There was also rune-making at Elena’s house post-Christmas. We had so much fun making our own set of runes!
I continued to be a regular sitter up until the time I moved to Legazpi. I had a key to Sankalpa, so there were times I intentionally arrived early, eager to have some quiet time alone in the studio that I considered my happy place. Time spent in discernment. Time to be empty.
I had hoped that there would be a community I could sit with in Legazpi, as I don’t have the self-discipline to regularly sit alone. But there was none, and as the days turned into months, I stopped sitting. Building my private practice and teaching residents at the regional hospital took up most of my time. Sr. Sonia sometimes flew to Legazpi and that made me really happy. I would go to Mary’s Sanctuary to meet her so we could catch up. I was embarrassed to admit that my Zen practice had dwindled.
Once, at the airport, while waiting for her flight, Sr. Sonia said, “Let’s sit.” I didn’t think it was possible to experience calm and tranquility in a public place with passengers and porters scurrying about, but I did. After she left, I resolved to sit again using an app called Insight Timer. Sadly, I wasn’t able to sustain it.
All throughout this time, however, I kept tabs on the Sankalpa community through our Viber group. I was glad that the community was continuing to grow. Elena quipped that unlike the two of us, many of them were hardcore in their Zen practice. There was an attempt to hook up online, so that people like me based outside Manila could join the Sankalpa sits. But that didn’t work out as the time set coincided with my clinic hours.
Then COVID happened, and the pandemic gave me an opportunity to join the sits again. Sometimes my mind still wanders off in these morning sits and I have to put some effort into going back to my breathing. But as I enter into quiet, I meet myself in the here and now. And everything just is. I breath in and out, with gratitude.