Tenney Nathanson

Tenney Nathanson – a Dharma heir of Joan Sutherland – is the resident teacher at Desert Rain Zen. He is also a professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona.

He briefly worked with Eido Roshi at the Zen Studies Society New York Zendo in the late ’70s but tells me that he found it too arduous. “I was there about a year and a half, went through the great formal thing about being a provisional student, then becoming a regular student and buying my robes and all that. And I tried a weekend retreat, and I couldn’t quite do it. And I read something about Maureen Stuart once, where she talks about finally going to her first retreat and she just couldn’t do it. And she called her husband and said she wanted to come home. And he said, ‘Oh, you’ve been wanting to do this for years. Why don’t you keep doing it? Why don’t you put some more pillows under you and keep trying to stay?’ And I wish I’d done that. I think also that group was fairly forbidding at that time. Nobody offered me any practical suggestions. You know? ‘Why don’t you try to do X? Why don’t you try to do Y?’ And I really felt like I couldn’t do it. I’m sure there are a fair number of Zen stories like that.

“Then I came to Tucson to take a job at the university in the fall of ’85 and didn’t really resume practice until probably about ’95 when somebody told me there’s a good Zen Center here. That was Zen Desert Sangha, which is the Diamond Sangha place that was affiliated with Aitken Roshi and where Pat Hawk was the roshi. He was a Redemptorist Priest who also taught contemplative retreats, so when I started sitting, I didn’t do retreats with Zen Desert Sangha for a while, and then by ’97 I felt I was ready to do a retreat, and Pat was sick with prostate cancer, and John Tarrant  was coming down to cover his retreats, with Joan an advanced sensei working with him. So the first retreat I attended, Joan and John were the teachers. I was pretty sure that I’d met my teacher at that point. So Joan came down the following February— that’s seven months after I first met her—to do another retreat, and I asked her to be my teacher at that point, which was early February ’98.”

He was 52 years old at the time, which – I remark – is late to take up practice.

“Yeah. I always . . . When I stopped studying at the Zen Studies Society, I always felt a fair amount of regret about that. And I was busy writing poetry and being a scholar. But it was always something I hoped to get back to. For a while I didn’t think I would.”

“What was it about Joan that made you think, ‘Okay, this is the person I want to work with’?”

“A lot of people will say this, but she has an incredible kind of luminosity about her. There’s something that kind of shines from her. And I also remember her at that retreat saying to somebody—we were asking questions in one of the evening sessions—you know, how she would define awakening, and she just said, ‘Attentiveness and compassion.’ And the person was kind of scandalized and said, ‘That’s it?!’ She said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

One of the characteristics of sanghas associated with the Tarrant-Sutherland lineage is that they have relaxed some of the intensity which earlier centers considered an important facet of training.

“I remember John writing someplace that when he was supposed to be starting to take over in Hawaii when Aitken started stepping down, he went down there and gave a talk that really offended people ’cause what he noticed was this kind of barrack’s mentality, and he just thought that was really wrong-headed. And I think all of the centers around John—and maybe especially around Joan’s groups—have a really different atmosphere. There really isn’t that sense of first let’s be cold and rigorous, and then, after we’ve known you twenty years, we’ll smile at you.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 175, 187, 189.

Other Links:

Desert Rain Zen

Joan Sutherland Dharma Works

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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