The image on the cover of my book, The Story of Zen, is of the zendo at Mountain Gate Sanmonji in New Mexico. It is located in a township, Ojo Sarco, that we couldn’t find it on our road map when we drove there. Nor is there signage other than the post box number at the top of the drive to identify the center.
“It is an hour drive to Santa Fe and more or less an hour drive to Taos,” Mitra Bishop – the teacher who established the center – tells me. “Most of an hour’s drive to Española. They’re the three cities nearest us. So it’s kinda out in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of people don’t know of it.”
It is a peaceful and quiet place, suitable not only for Zen practice but also for the RegainingBalance Retreats for women with PTSD which the center offers. It is not, however, a place one comes to by accident; there are no street drop-ins. People have to want to come here. “That’s important to me,” Mitra Roshi says. “There are so many places where people can do a less intensive, less committed practice. America abounds with places like that.”
The first time we spoke, I had asked her what the function of Zen was. “For people willing to pick up that ball,” she told me, “it can lead to nothing short of total freedom, total liberation. And by total liberation, what I mean is liberation from your hang-ups, your conditioning, liberation from places where you’re stuck. In other words, if you take it far enough you’re able to freely move in concert with life in effective, positive ways. We have the precepts in Buddhism, and in Zen—Japanese Zen—we follow the sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts. What ‘total liberation’ means is that your behavior naturally accords with those precepts. And there is an incredible sense of freedom and joy that runs akin to a quiet river within. That is your potential. But . . . it’s not anything instantaneous. It takes a lot of hard work.”
The most recent time we spoke, she reiterated that serious Zen practice “takes a lot of commitment. I mean, it’s there for people, but most people are so titillated by their toys – and their toys can be relationships, they can be possessions, they can be all kinds of things, including a self-image – that it’s not that easy. People have to be pretty determined to be willing to undergo what is essential, which is the releasing of your own hold on these things in order for it to really happen. And that takes a long, long time.”
Nor is it simply a matter of having an experience of kensho or awakening.
“It’s not enough to have had a kensho, or even two or three. There is what Torei Enji, Hakuin’s premier disciple and Dharma heir, called the Long Maturation. Kensho allows us to see a bit more clearly, but then we have to work with what we become aware of in our own behavior and bring it into line with that clear seeing. That kensho isn’t anywhere near complete until we have integrated that into our daily life so that everything we do or say or think accords with what we’ve realized. That kensho has to manifest in our daily life to be of any value whatsoever.”
I ask her how she would describe kensho.
“Kensho is an opening . . .” she says, then pauses. “No . . . Let me back up a minute. Kensho is a temporary – and it can be more permanent depending how deep it is – clearing of the misunderstanding, the delusion, the misperception of reality so that we can see more clearly. And, of course, kensho varies significantly. It’s been said that kensho these days, in the west – and I would say ‘these days’ are this century and the past century – are pretty shallow because we have so many things to play with, to take us away from that search.”
Serious Zen training, in her opinion, isn’t satisfied with an initial awakening no matter how profound. There is “a continuing motivation to go deeper, either by being prodded or our own innate sense that there’s something that we do need, that we need to continue this. And people who have had a certain degree of transformation in their lives are often, but not always, motivated to go deeper in this way.”
And that is what motivates some of them to seek out Ojo Sarco and Mountain Gate.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 54-55, 117, 146, 369-83, 389, 470
The Story of Zen: 302, 358
Zen Conversations: Pp. 54-55; 124-25.