The head of the Mountains and Rivers Order – and the man who succeeded Ryushin Marchaj as abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery – is Geoffry Shugen Arnold. They are both Dharma heirs of the founder of the Order, John Daido Loori.
“I wasn’t raised in a religious home,” Shugen tells me, “but, when I was in high school, I began to read and to think about things and to wonder about my life and the world, and if anybody knew what was going on.”
“What prompted the wondering?” I ask.
“In retrospect, I can look back and there weren’t any decisive moments. It was just part of my evolution, growing up and being involved in a social scene that became more and more meaningless and not very satisfying. And I had always had an inclination toward solitude, and I did a lot of outdoors work – canoeing, camping, bicycle riding. And as a young man, I realized I was going to be making choices that would determine the course of my life, and I didn’t see a lot around me that was inspiring. I didn’t feel called to make money or have a particular career or have a family. It was easier for me to think about what I didn’t want to do than it was to think about what I wanted to do. So I started going to churches to see if there was anything going on there that I might be inspired by, and that didn’t really yield much.”
Eventually he came across the few books available at the time on Buddhism. “They weren’t based on a belief in God. They really weren’t based on any beliefs that stopped me, which was usually what happened when I explored other traditions; there would be something that didn’t make sense to me, that I didn’t resonate with, but I didn’t have that experience with Buddhism. It was allvery positive and compelling. I felt like I was encountering a way of seeing the world that I certainly didn’t understand but that on some deep level I trusted and believed was true.”
He taught himself to meditate by following the instructions in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen while he was in college, where he was studying music and mathematics. Afterward graduation, he gave some thought to pursuing a career as a classical performer. “But I decided that it wasn’t a very good way of spending a life. It wasn’t what my life needed to be.”
In 1984 he was living in New York state not too far from Zen Mountain Monastery. “I was about an hour away and started coming every week to hear Daido Roshi give talks. And I became a student so I could begin training with him and then in early 1986 I moved into residency. At that point I felt pretty clear that I wanted to be a monk.” He chuckles. “But of course, what did I know?”
I ask if he remembered his first meeting with Daido.
“Yeah, well my meeting first with him was just him sitting in the zendo and giving teisho. You know, for ten years Buddhism was a very solitary – and, in a sense, a very small – experience. It was just me. I knew Buddhism was a major world religion, but I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t really interested in religion; I didn’t think that way. I didn’t really want to join a group; that wasn’t my kind of thing. Even talks about spirituality made my skin crawl a little bit. But I felt very connected to him right away. He was American; he spoke my language. He was very powerful; he seemed to know my mind. He talked about things I had been feeling for so long. I had almost never dreamt that I would be able to encounter something that would speak more directly to that and offer a path. So it was really an overwhelming experience, and I didn’t want to leave. Which started a sort of internal conflict because I thought, ‘What do you mean, you don’t want to leave? You’ve got a life to live. And you don’t join things. Remember?’ But I just felt called to him, to study, to the monastery.”
But he didn’t enter immediately. Instead he went back to school to work on a master’s degree in mathematics.
“And pretty much as soon as I began that, I knew that it wasn’t going to work. And so, externally, my life was – from the outside to an observer – would look like a normal progression for a person my age at that time. I was sort of moving into some kind of career. Internally, I was coming apart. I was in immense internal confusion and turmoil. But it wasn’t like I could point to anything. Nothing was wrong. But nothing was quite right either. So it was really out of that almost volcanic stirring that I . . .” He pauses. “I remember exactly where I was. I was coming back from classes, and I was walking down the street, and I was just stewing this. And I realized that I wanted to be a monk. That was what I wanted my life to be. So I came to speak to Daido Roshi about it, and he was very encouraging” He smiles, then adds with a laugh, “The head monk at that time was also there, and she didn’t take me very seriously.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 262, 266
The Story of Zen: 357-58