When I visited Zen Mountain Monastery in June 2013, the abbot at the time – Konrad Ryushin Marchaj – was leading a wilderness retreat listed in the program calendar as “Born As the Earth: Wilderness Skills Training.” It was described as an opportunity to learn “basic outdoor skills and engage the teachings of the wild in the context of Zen training.” Wilderness camping and zazen. Torrential rains had been falling for several days before my arrival, and, when Ryushin came in for our interview, he was soaking wet. As he dried his face with a towel, I asked how the retreat was going. “They are learning about desire,” he tells me. “The desire to be dry; the desire for a nice hot cup of tea.”
He was born in Warsaw and came to the US with his parents at the age of 13. He still has a slight Polish accent which gives his words a sense of gravity. He was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, careers he gave up in order to become a monk. He admits that his mother had difficulty when his life changed directions. “I went from being ‘my son the doctor’ to being ‘my son the monk.’ It was not easy for her.”
I ask what drew him to the practice of Zen, and, without hesitation, he replies: “My own pain. Although my life was a success on the surface, I was not a happy human being. I was anxious, dissatisfied.” His girlfriend of the time introduced him to Vipassana meditation, and immediately he recognized that meditation provided something which addressed the issues he was struggling with more effectively than did therapy. As befits a person with psychiatric training, he is articulate and detailed in his description of his growing involvement with Zen and monastic life.
Not long after my visit, however, Ryushin will be asked to step down as abbot of ZMM. By his own admission, he had been engaged in “an intimate relationship with someone outside our sangha” thus betraying his partner, “breaking our spiritual union vows and ending our marriage.” He is not the only Zen teacher to have a messy personal life. The history of North American Zen is rife with stories of teachers who had to either resign or make reparations to their sanghas because of their sexual activity.
Ryushin also admitted that he had been exploring “shamanic traditions and religions” and that his inclusion of elements of these in his presentation of the Dharma “was irresponsible and might have caused some confusion.” I suspect that had at least as much to do with his resignation as the affair. Still, during my brief time with him, I found him insightful and witty.
“Zen, as such, has no function,” he tells me. “It is only to the degree to which a person engaging in the practice considers that question that it becomes an issue. To ask, ‘What is the function of Zen?’ it would be as if Zen had some sort of an intention within it. And that intention would then mean that there would be something intrinsically identifiable within Zen that could actually direct itself in some particular way. And that’s impossible. That’s impossible to even imagine especially in a tradition which states that there’s absolutely nothing intrinsic anywhere. So, I am not sure if there is a function of Zen. I think that to the degree that each human being—each person—engages Buddhist or Zen Buddhist practice that intention will then emerge to the degree to which they can clarify what it is that they, each individual as an individual, want to do with their life. So, I don’t think I could even take on that question on that level. I would need to reframe it in a very personal way; simply ask the question, ‘What is my intention in practicing Zen? And how my intention as a human being is affected by the teachings embedded in Zen Buddhism.’ And then something will start becoming clarified. Because if there is an intention in Zen, then we have already turned Buddhism into a dogmatic tradition. Which it can be.”
But – it is implied – should not.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 14, 258, 262. 268
The Story of Zen: 336