My hosts at Zen Mountain Monastery had told me that Dai Bosatsu was just on “the other side of the mountain.” But when I arrive, I feel like I’ve travelled much further.
All things, of course, are relative. I had thought that the Morgan Bay Zendo in the Maine woods had been isolated, but to get to Dai Bosatsu one travels along a rough secondary road and then up a partially eroded gravel path. I had thought that Zen Mountain Monastery was large. But the front gate for Dai Bosatsu is two miles from the main monastery building.
The property is on Beecher Lake. The guest house had been the hunting cottage of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother and is pretty much what one would expect a wealthy 19th century family to build as their mountain getaway. But then one comes to the monastery itself – constructed in traditional Japanese style – and one could believe one had taken a wrong turn somehow and wound up in Kyoto.
The formalities are Japanese. Lunch is eaten jihatsu, with three nesting bowls and chants in Japanese. Western monks with Japanese Dharma names, wearing Japanese robes, respond with a sharp “Hai!” when addressed. The walls are decorated with calligraphy. There has been a Japanese flavor at other centers I’ve visited, but nothing as pervasive as this.
It’s also fair to say that this is the first place I’ve visited where I did not immediately feel at ease. It’s beautiful. It’s entrancing. But that’s part of my problem. I find it exotic, and I wonder if Zen benefits from being exotic.
If I am not entirely at ease with the structure and forms, it is not at all difficult to feel at ease with the abbot—Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat. She comes to our interview with her dog, Nikita. Throughout the conversation she’s relaxed and informal. She pauses reflectively before answering my questions, and her responses are cogent and articulate. She interviews well. One of her students tells me that he sees in her someone who genuinely embodies the Four Vows.
Her family situation, when she was a child, had been difficult. Her step-father was physically abusive, once taping her mouth shut because he felt she was making too much noise. But she early learned that if she went off on her own and just sat still, with hands clasped, she could gain a sense of peace otherwise unattainable. In her eighth grade World Studies class, there was a unit on Zen Buddhism, and she recognized that what she had been doing was Zen. She had intuitively discovered zazen.
Shinge refers to Dai Bosatsu as the “gem of North American Zen.” It is the first Rinzai monastery to be established outside of Japan; officially inaugurated in the US bi-centennial year, 1976. Aesthetically—regardless of my reservations about the Japanese accoutrements—it is a marvel. And one is conscious of the spiritual power of the temple. This is a place for serious practice.
However at the time of my visit in 2013, the numbers were down. The revelations of the sexual misconduct of the previous abbot, Eido Shimano, was part of the problem. But also there is the fact that this is not an easy place to get to; Zen Mountain Monastery, by comparison, is just down the road from Woodstock (the Woodstock), where there are a plethora of yoga studios and like-minded people.
Five years later, I have another opportunity to speak with Shinge, and she tells me that the community has begun to recover. Membership is growing again, and they are attracting people in their 20s.
“Really? What are they like?” I ask.
“There seems to be a lot more what I would call desperation among the generation under 30 these days. They feel abandoned by those to whom they would have looked for leadership and guidance in their lives. There are no assurances that jobs will be available once they get out of college. They’re not sure it’s worth going to college. There’s a lot of very deep soul-searching going on, and – from what I understand – they’re looking for something that will bring them meaning, that will bring their lives a sense of purpose. So volunteer work is important – I mean, social justice work is important – and we’ve been doing outreach work at all these places because we feel that too. And so I think that’s, in part, responsible for bringing in new people. In other words, trying to meet them where their concerns are. Not assuming that the old ways will work.”
“When I began, in 1971,” I say, “there was very much a concern with achieving the kind of awakening experience people like D. T. Suzuki described or the enlightenment stories in The Three Pillars of Zen. Do people still come seeking that?”
“Absolutely. One of the things I’ve noticed is that people who have tried other forms of meditation, what we might call . . .” she hesitates “. . . Zen-lite?”
“It’s a term I’ve used,” I admit with a laugh.
“People try it, and if they’re really looking for something that will be life-transformative, they come to Zen – Rinzai Zen in our case – they come to a place where they can really be assured of a strong and dynamic program of practice. Something very different from, ‘Try this. It might help you feel better about your life.’ We’re not interested in that. We’re not giving out band-aids. We’re saying, ‘If you go through a rigorous training, you may be able to break through a lot of the old habits, a lot of the conditioning that you’ve been defeated by in your spiritual quest, and come to awakening which will bring you true happiness, not a slightly better feeling about yourself.’”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 69-82, 125, 213, 295
The Story of Zen: 335, 338, 367-71