One of my favorite zendos in the US is located 140 miles northeast of Portland, Maine, in the small coastal community of Surry. The Morgan Bay Zendo is well-hidden. There is a small parking area on the road, but one has to be alert to locate it. I find something pleasing about the idea of small zendos hidden in out of the way places such as this—Yoshin Radin’s place on the Lieb Road south of Ithaca, Mitra Bishop’s in Ojo Sarco—delighting in the thought of something vaguely subversive taking place in these isolated locations. A rough path leads from the parking area through the woods. At its end is a statue of a head with a finger raised to its lips inviting you to silence. There is a moss garden to the left of the path and a little further on, to the right, a statue of Kannon – the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The sculpture is the work of Lenore Straus, who attained kensho during a sesshin with Hakuun Yasutani at Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania. Her enlightenment story is one of those included in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. The Kannon statue marks the path to what is called the Roshi stone, a large glacial boulder bearing a plaque proclaiming: “Here lie some of the ashes of the Japanese Zen Master Goto Zuigan, my teacher. They were placed here in October 1968, with hope that his teaching will continue.”
The ashes were placed there by Walter Nowick, who died in February 2013, a month before I began my tour of North American Zen centers. The following November, a portion of Walter’s ashes were buried there as well.
The zendo is a rustic but elegant wood structure situated by a small pond. Inside, two rows of tatami-covered tans face one another. Once the bell is rung in the zendo, there is almost perfect silence. There are no electric hums. There is no sound of traffic. All one hears is the chirping of birds and the peeps of the frogs in the pond.
Nowick was a Julliard trained musician who studied Zen with Goto Zuigan in Japan for sixteen years and became the first American authorized to teach in the Rinzai tradition. When Goto died in 1965, Nowick returned to America and to this farm on the Morgan Bay Road. He had no intention of teaching Zen right away, but people found out about him and started arriving.
It was a working farm and sawmill, and students spent as much time working at these as they did in the Zendo. Walter also performed piano recitals. “He used to have Sunday evening concerts in the summer time, pretty much every Sunday night,” Susan Guilford tells me. She is a current board member at Morgan Bay. “Kind of informal. He’d play the piano. I mean, having used his hands running a saw mill and all of the farm chores, somehow he would manage to sit down and play just beautifully. Very informal. We sat on kind of a conglomeration of chairs that were in the barn. There’d be hay stacked in the corner and occasionally a chicken walking in and out.”
In the mid-1980s, while the Cold War was still simmering, Walter sought a way to promote greater understanding and tolerance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Because his expertise was in music, he launched the Surry Opera Company which did choral performances. Several of his students became members of the chorus, others felt he was spending too much time with music and not enough time teaching. When they expressed their concerns, Walter replied by resigning his role as a Zen teacher.
A handful of former students set up a board in order to maintain the zendo and reincorporated as a center for meditation practice unaffiliated with any particular school of Buddhism. The mission statement of the Morgan Bay Zendo declares that its purpose is “to establish, maintain, and support a religious and philosophical community center or centers dedicated to the study, precepts, and practice of Buddhism.” “It does not say Zen Buddhism,” Susan point outs.
The zendo operates nine months year – when there’s no pandemic interferring with its schedule – offering zazen on Sunday mornings. In the summer, there is also a Wednesday night sitting. During the covid crisis, the center was able to maintain meditation sessions by Zoom.
It is a beautiful place but underutilized. Susan tells me that she loves “the idea of there being places for people to be able to come for short or even longer periods of time to work on themselves. And so to provide a place for them to do that and a structure for them to do that. Encouraging retreats from different traditions so that people can find what speaks to them. And having a lot of younger people involved so that it’s evolving. Because I feel it has a future that is not knowable at this point. I see it evolving, and we—the people who are on the board right now—are caretakers of it. Whatever its future is is not clear, because we’re not part of a tradition. If you’re part of the Catholic Church, you know where that Church is going to be, potentially, a hundred years from now. We don’t know that.
“Walter didn’t intend to start this, but he allowed it to flower at that particular moment in time in his own way. And here it is. People have picked it up, not because he asked them to pick it up, but because it’s here. And I think it has a purpose in our culture that we don’t even know yet. And so right now, we need to keep it going and take small steps so that it can survive and so that we can encourage that growth.”
The Third Step East: 183-97
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 469-476
The Story of Zen: 290-95