Each Sunday meeting, based around a monthly schedule, explores the teachings and practices of our tradition from various approaches. We always keep the newcomer as well as the experienced practitioner in mind. There is a beginner session, a longer meditation session, a Dharma service session and a study session based on the STO reading assignments schedule. A comprehensive monthly newsletter is sent out to keep our members informed of our schedule. Additionally, starting this year, we have been offering a second weekly meeting time for zazen, a sort of more informal "drop-in" session. All activities are available in English and French, save for the service, which I am working on finding adequate French translations (down the road, it would be interesting to have these translated into Inuktitut as well). We have occasionally offered other activities outside of this schedule. Some years ago, we have held a full-day zazenkai for the New Year, something we hope to do again soon. More recently, we have offered a parent-child meditation session. We have also held a movie night, during which we watched the Korean film "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring," followed by a group discussion. In all, these many circumstances seem to fit the needs of the group well.
In this location, thousands of kilometres from the closest Zen group, I have kept two objectives in mind: to competently offer Zen activities in respect of our lineage, and to discover how Zen could find its home here. Certainly, it is no small thing to bring a Far Eastern tradition and hope it will take root in the Arctic tundra. Iqaluit is a unique town: founded by the American military during the 2nd World War, it is interestingly not a traditional Inuit community. Another particularity is that, as it became a regional centre, then the new territory's capital, the population has dramatically increased. The trappings and consequences of clashing civilisations quickly followed: colonisation in the form of residential schools and government on the one hand, and Christianisation and the acquisition of modern means of survival on the other, brought to the Inuit a period of transition that is still running its course today. Here, it should be noted that 65% of Iqaluit's population is Inuit, the remainder being many Qallunaat or "Southerners" who have come to seek their livelihood here. Save for a few, they are very transient and many leave after but a few years, some taking with them their important contributions to community development. Many tragic hardships are also encountered here: suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence and so on occur at rates many times higher, if not a dozen time, the Canadian average. Finally, because of the Christianization of the Inuit, Christian faiths exert a considerable hold on the culture, so that a group practicing meditation might be negatively viewed.
For perhaps such reasons, perhaps others, our group has had few long-term members. A shifting core of three or four individuals, in addition to myself, has made up the heart of the group. In contrast, we have had many, many visitors. There have also been collaborations with community organisations, such as with a mental wellness survey coordinated by the Embrace Life Council and another one with the Réseau des services en santé francophones du Nunavut ("The Nunavut Network of French-language Health Services"); a contribution to a research project exploring the effects of waste management in the Arctic; a calligraphy workshop en français with the Association des francophones du Nunavut for their Semaine de la francophonie (a series of cultural events celebrating Francophone culture); a workshop on zazen meditation in the classroom for the Nunavut Teachers' Association territorial and regional conferences; and interviews on Iqaluit Francophone community radio CFRT 107.3FM and on CBC North. Zen has also found itself on my own radio show, "Hurlements sur la toundra" ("Death-screams on the Tundra"), on which I twice explored the relationship between Buddhism and Black Metal, a sub-genre of extreme heavy metal music often dealing with themes of cultural decay, personal dissonance and natural savagery. Finally, in the future I am interested in exploring collaborations with other community organisations, such as the Qimaavik Women's Shelter, the Iqaluit Humane Society and the Baffin Correctional Center.
I of course must mention a very personal activity, two exhibitions of my drawings at the local museum and art gallery, the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum. Entitled "Lessons from Town and Tundra: Zen and the Art of Living in Iqaluit" (2010) and "Finding a Path: Zen Practice, Iqaluit Life" (2013), both series documented my encountering of Zen lessons within my adapting to living here. Each drawing, rendered as a kind of visual koan, illustrated an occasion for the opening of the Self that occurred to me as a result of my being a student of Zen and of Iqaluit (is there a difference?). These I then shared with my fellow Iqalummiut, who enjoyed seeing their unique town and local life, especially the wily ravens, in such a fresh, new light. Many also appreciated the honest depiction of discomforting issues. The greatest value for me, however, was discovering the quiet dignity expressed in the life's everyday struggles here: patient sled dogs, ravens caught in a blizzard (or worse, in a bad situation caused by hunger!), the migration of snow buntings, alcoholism, pollution, meagre housing—all this speaks to this dignity, which is there as a lesson for those who will listen.
So, after many years and diverse activities, the group has endured. I will dare say it is thriving. This year, two members, Murielle and David, have brought a true support to the group by volunteering their time and efforts to time-keep or lead introductory sessions when I as practice leader was unavailable. They have also shown great interest in the readings, and their contributions during Dharma talks cannot be underestimated. What is more, these two members have expressed their intentions to go through Jukai initiation, something that is currently in its final stages of planning. As for myself, I fully intend on pursuing my Zen path. I do make my annual "pilgrimages" to the Halifax sangha and maintain a good relationship with its practice leader Tesshin James Smith, whose guidance as my senior brother in the Dharma has been an immense encouragement, especially now as I am leading into priesthood. I do also keep contact with my transmitted teacher, Abbot Taiun Elliston, whose experience and openness have been of great service for this Arctic explorer. His wise words and humour still profoundly resonate within my practice. But beyond this, my path is truthfully to be found right here, in the pathless tundra. If enlightenment can be found right where we are, as Dogen reminds us, then here I will find it, encountering the Buddha of survival and joy, the Dharma of bones and rocks, and the Sangha of ravens and people—an Arctic Zen.
Shogon François Ouellette
Iqaluit, 22 April 2016