University of Calgary

Agents of Transformation

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 04/02/2016 - 21:01.

Agents of Transformation

Meet six extraordinary individuals who were not only awakened by their experiences at university — but emerged transformed, ready to disrupt, energize and change their communities and the world.
Photographs by James Mason


Tim Sampson
Inspiring insight and awareness

by Erin Carpenter

In a narrow, half-lit room on the third floor of Mac Hall, Tim Sampson, BSc ’84, greets visitors in his bare feet. His black robes sweep below his knees as he welcomes newcomers and regulars to this weekly Zen Buddhism meditation.

Sampson has placed round brown cushions, or zafu, atop rectangular mats that line the walls. There’s a wooden bench or two for kneeling. Near one end of the room is a low, square candlelit altar displaying a statue of Buddha, along with a brass bowl of flower petals floating in water.

With measured steps, the meditators find a zafu. They bow and settle in facing the walls, either kneeling or cross-legged. Thus begins nearly two hours of zazen meditation, marked by sessions of sitting, walking and chanting.

“Meditation is basically sitting still and quietly together,” Sampson says. “My life, as I live it, reveals itself in the simple act of sitting still and quietly.”

Zazen meditation is at the heart of Soto Zen, the branch of Zen Buddhism that Sampson practices. And, if zazen meditation aims to bring peaceful clarity to one’s life, that’s not how Sampson’s path toward Buddhism began. His geography studies at the University of Calgary were marked by restlessness.

“I was good enough as a student, but also discovered my fellow human beings — students, grad students, even some professors — were interested in exploring things other than education,” he says. “So we were in the bar a lot, we were skiing a lot, we were experimenting a lot and it was at that very key phase of my life that I began discovering humanity.”

After graduating from geography, Sampson earned an education degree in London, Ont. He then worked as a teacher and as a bicycle activist before taking a life-changing trip to northern Thailand. That’s where he began an intensive solitary meditation program at a Buddhist monastery, where he suffered a breakdown.

Yet, despite this, Sampson was later drawn back to Buddhism as a guest student at the San Francisco Zen Center.

“I got there and basically felt like I had come home. Given my experience in Thailand, I can't imagine what possessed me to continue down this path. The only thing I can think of is a recognition of the power of this tradition; that anything that would have that kind of effect on me, maybe there's something to it,” he says.

“What I practiced in Thailand is considerably different than Zen Buddhism, where meditation is always done together, with other people”.

Sampson lived at the Zen Center for four years, and, during a later trip to Japan, he was ordained as a Zen priest. Upon returning to Calgary, he decided to serve others by opening his home for meditation groups, and by leading a group at UCalgary along with an English professor.

Seven years ago, he completed a chaplaincy training internship to became the university’s Buddhist chaplain.

Sampson compares his role to the zafu; the supportive cushions people use during meditation.

“Then they, the people, have to do all the work. It’s their intentions, it’s their commitment, their willingness, their curiosity, their wonder,” he says. “I'm trying not to influence, I'm trying not to tell anybody anything, but, if I can be of support, then fabulous.”

Victoria Stamper is one practitioner who says Sampson’s meditation group has changed her approach to the practice of Zen, by offering a sense of community.

“You have a connection to your practice, and that really does make a difference in terms of how I personally go forward and participate,” she says.

“Buddhism is a path of compassion and it's a path of wisdom and awareness, as well as a path of humility,” says Sampson. “And, the more sincere I am about my own tendencies, and the more intimate I am with them, there's a greater chance of me actually responding appropriately.”

Sampson adds the notion of community, or sangha, is vital.

“Sangha supports me, challenges me and reminds me that, whatever it is that might be going on, I am not alone,” he says. U