The Great Vow Monastery is located in Clatskanie, Oregon, a self-proclaimed Christian township of 1700 persons. It is the residential practice center for the Zen Community of Oregon and is under the leadership of Jan Chozen Bays and her husband, Hogen.
Great Vow is dedicated to Jizo Bodhisattva, the protector of children, which seems appropriate for a monastery headed by a woman who is a pediatrician as well as a Zen teacher. There must be hundreds of Jizo statues throughout the building and in an extensive Jizo Garden, where people have left statues in commemoration of lost, sick, or dead children. They are decorated with scarves and knitted hats; some even have booties.
The monks I met during my visit in 2013 ranged in age from “just turned 20” to a man in his late 50s. The majority are very young. The days start at 4:50 and end after 9:00. There are two two-hour sessions of zazen. The rest of the day is taken up with work assignments and study. But study can take unusual forms. One young woman described a formal orioki breakfast at which a dead bird had been passed around for students to examine. Chozen had found it on the property and later dissected it to determine what caused its death.
She explains that many of the young people who come to the monastery had dropped out of university and were still very ignorant about the nature of the world in which they lived. An introduction to basic biology is provided but also training in fundamental life-skills like sewing and cooking.
And then there is marimba playing and square dancing. This area of Oregon is one where marimbas are made, and, after Chozen learned how to play, she started going to the local schools to teach the children. It was one way to help to overcome the initial community suspicions about a Buddhist center. Square dancing was something Chozen (who was 67 when I met her) and her husband had taken up to help keep in shape. Now all Great Vow monks are required to go square dancing at least once. One shy young monk admits that acquiring social skills is also a valuable part of what he is learning here.
It is a serious practice center, but the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Chozen smiles easily and is relaxed with her students. She admits she has a mother’s temperament, seeking to ensure that the family all gets along. The Oregon Community does not have an “Ethics Committee” as has been established at many centers, but it does have a “Harmony Committee.”
Besides her work as a teacher and abbot, Chozen still maintains a small medical practice (mostly teaching), consults in child abuse cases, and has become recognized widely as a proponent of mindful eating.
“Is mindful eating a spiritual practice?” I ask.
“Definitely. I mean, spiritual practice is about intimacy, if nothing else. We’re born into separation, and that’s the source of our suffering. This idea of self and other is the source of our suffering, and all of these things that we do—drinking, gambling, pornography—all of the addictive things in our life are based on wanting to get back to Oneness. So we can teach people to be one with what they’re eating. That’s the most intimate thing, where you take another being into your body literally, literally intermingle with your body. So we talk about sex as the ultimate in intimacy, but actually eating is the most intimate thing we do, three, four, five, six times a day. So to be conscious and present to it is a Dharma gate into the experience of Oneness.
“There’s an exercise called ‘Look Deeply into Your Food.’ So if you look into the life of a raisin and play it backwards. I ask people to look at how many peoples’ or beings’ life-energy flowed toward you in this raisin which is in your hand. And I say, ‘Invite those people to the table. Thank them by eating mindfully.’ So here you are at the interface. There’s all of that, and then, within us, there are more living organisms than there are our own cells. So there are others inside us, more DNA from other beings than there are our own cells. So, I help people understand, ‘You’re feeding a universe of beings—not an apartment building, not a city—a universe of beings, 10-to-the-16th beings are being fed by what you eat. So recognize that you’re nourishing them, that you’re giving them a gift.’ So it’s a spiritual practice to help people understand where they are in this continuum of life. Some of them get it, some of them don’t. But for most people, it’s like a big, ‘Ah ha!’”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 111, 117-18, 122, 227, 239, 271-88, 289, 293, 296, 297, 298, 299, 365, 437, 476
The Story of Zen: 271-72, 302, 309, 320, 327, 343-49, 351, 353, 356, 424