Enpuku-ji is a small Rinzai temple on rue Saint-Dominique in Montreal. It is entered through a small side-garden. The only signage is a notice on the gate post bearing the single word “Zen,” an arrow pointing right, and the street address.
The abbess, Myokyo Judith McLean walks up the street just as I pull into the drive. She unlocks a rear door, and we enter into a single long, narrow, room. The back end is a small kitchen. A table with three wooden chairs is against the wall; this is where we chat. The rest of the room is taken up by the zendo, which currently has two rows of five zafus facing one another.
More than forty years ago, she accompanied a boyfriend to California to attend a sesshin directed by Joshu Sasaki. The boyfriend needed to return to Canada on family business. She stayed. In fact, she remained in the United States illegally for ten years, training under Sasaki Roshi. When he eventually asked her where she wanted her Zen Center to be located, she said Montreal—because it seemed the most interesting place in Canada.
People learn about the temple through word of mouth.
“When I introduce people to the practice sometimes it’s a knock on the door, but most of the time it’s organized so that people are together in a group, and I begin by asking them why they’ve come. So that kind of flushes out all the possible reasons they might have or all the possible ways in which they think about Zen. And then I speak to each of those things. And I basically say that Zen is a practice; it’s not a lifestyle; it’s not a way of thinking. You don’t need to believe anything when you start Zen practice. It’s a practice. And everyone does the same practice. And through the practice of zazen, peoples’ minds become clearer, and we begin to dissolve the mind that separates us from everything else in this world.
“I think most people come to Zen because they want to make themselves better. So they have a goal in mind. And that goal is usually about becoming a different person, becoming a better person. So I’m pretty clear about slashing that idea to bits.”
The practice, as she describes it, is very simple. “So following the breath but eventually that kind of tightly following the breath disappears. So just very basic zazen, and that’s actually what I’ve done up to this point. Maybe it is shikan taza after a while. You know, just sort of sit.”
She does warn new people, “Anything you’ve read may or may not be something that’s going to happen to you. But mostly what’s going to happen to you is that you’re going to be very uncomfortable sitting in a cross-legged posture, and you’re going to really start thinking a lot about your notions of how life should be and what you should be like and how you are. And so you’ll begin to question all that in the context of quiet sitting in this upright posture that has the potential for making you very present and very ‘in the moment.’ So an experience you’re not having usually. We’re usually way, way far away in our minds.
“I talk about seed thoughts: notions, ideas, feelings, physical sensations, or emotions. As we become conscious of one of these, we decide, first of all, whether we like it or not, or maybe it’s neutral. If we don’t like it, we stuff it back, way down somewhere back and get rid of it. If we like it or it’s just neutral, we just add another thought and that carries on into a story. I reassure everyone that there’s no problem with that. Our minds are creative. The creative process is what our minds are for. The problem is we think that that story is our life. And so in zazen you begin to learn that that’s not correct, that our story is not our life. The effort is to observe what comes up and then to simply let it go away before you even begin to discriminate or make a judgement about that thought, to be so clearly present that you can actually observe what comes up in the mind and then let it go by.
“So people can visualize that or understand the words, but then when they go to do it, it’s absolutely, absolutely difficult. And then, immediately, they’re not present. Right? And so they know that, and I know that, and I say, ‘Then you need to keep going back to the present.’ You need to physically keep placing yourself here. Most of them probably won’t have the . . . the. . . What do you call it? . . . The verve, the desire . . . the tenacity to continue. But, you know, we need to be sparked by something to be tenacious. So I say, ‘Probably most of you won’t have it.’ That’s okay, too. You know?”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 39-45, 47, 48, 49, 51, 54, 56, 66, 67, 108, 286.
The Story of Zen: 289-90, 326
Zen Conversations: 48; 74-75