Albert Low, the Director of the Montreal Zen Center, died in 2016 at the age of 87. In 2013, I had arranged to interview him and four of his students for Cypress Trees in the Garden; however, three of the chapters, including the one on Albert, were omitted to keep the book under 500 pages. It was a decision I regret. Albert’s life was worth commemorating, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. Although I was introduced to sitting practice by a Jesuit with whom I worked in the Dominican Republic, Albert was my first formal Zen teacher. He wrote the foreword to my first book, Zen Masters of China.
In 1975, Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center established a practice center in Montreal. Half a duplex was rented in the anglophone neighborhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace on the city’s north side. It was a turbulent time in Quebec politics. The separatist Parti Quebecois had a majority government and were preparing a referendum on independence from Canada. The head of practice at the Zen Center was anxious about the looming vote and moved out of the province. So it was perhaps counter-intuitive that Kapleau sent an English immigrant with a very British accent to Montreal to replace him.
When I arranged the interviews in 2013, one of Albert’s senior students, Monique, wrote to make sure I realized just how remarkable his achievements at the predominantly francophone center had been:
“He has to deal in French and/or English in his daily encounters with people and in his dokusans. I would think it is certainly a feat in itself that he has been able to establish an harmonious bilingual sangha and succeeded in maintaining it without conflict throughout the years, given the strong nationalist tendency in Québec. I do think it is a proof of the power of his dedication and compassion. It acts as a magnet on people. It also demonstrates his capacity to meet challenges, for it certainly must not have been always easy for him.”
My interview with Albert took place in the ground floor parlor of the Center. Over the fire place, there was a reproduction of The Solitary Angler by the 13th century Chinese painter, Ma Yuan. Albert had a warm, welcoming manner and an elfin twinkle in his eye when he smiled. He did not claim the title “roshi.” Most of his students referred to him by his given name; those who wanted something more formal called him Mr. Low.
He had been born to a working class family and grew up in a low-income London neighborhood. “I was ten years of age when the war broke out. I was sixteen and a half when it ended. And I went through the blitz and the doodle-bugs and V-2.”
I was unfamiliar with the term “doodle-bug.”
“They were the pilotless planes, or pilotless flying bombs. They sounded something like a two-stroke motorbike as they went over, and, when they cut out, you made a dive for it. I was in the dockland area of London, and that took a particularly heavy hit. There was very little of it left by the time the war came to an end. And I remember asking, ‘Why do they want to kill me?’ It gets very personal when you’re that young and that intense. And that’s what stuck with me. There was this question, ‘What’s going on here? What’s it about?’
“Then after the war, I think it was Churchill decided we must know why we engaged in the war. And the films of the concentration camps, when the allies liberated the concentration camps, were shown at local cinemas. You can imagine. You’d just seen some Hollywood razzmatazz, and then, without any warning, these things are projected on the screen. It was absolutely horrific. I can’t tell you how I felt when I left the cinema. I was absolutely stunned.”
“How old were you?”
“I was about 18; it was just before I joined up. And it took me years, really, to even be able to ask the question. But I think that started me off on questioning. In any case, after the war—I’d been in the navy—I started becoming very, very anxious about everything.”
He had also had a number of experiences which suggested there was another dimension to life. While lying on the grass in a park as a 17 year old, for example, he had the passing sense that he was more than just his physical body. Elsewhere he described that it felt as though “I were the space and that everything were made of space. The trees, the grass, the sky were all of one substance, and that substance was, in some way, me.”
“After the war, I was fortunate enough to have a GP, Dr. Nothman—he was a Polish fellow—and he was quite a philosopher,” he said chuckling. “And he ran a small group of young people. And we used to get together quite regularly, and he introduced us to all kinds of philosophy. I didn’t even know the word ‘philosophy’ existed then; ‘psychology’ was a new word. And gradually he introduced various things. And then his wife got hold of a book by Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, and she recommended it very highly. And by luck—I don’t know how it was ever possible—I found it in the local library. And that transformed my life. That was a real eye-opener, that there were such possibilities in the world. Ouspensky was a student of Gurdjieff, and Gurdjieff was a man, I think, who opened me up more than anybody else.
“Gurdjieff’s main theme was ‘intentional suffering and conscious labor.’ He also pointed out that we’re asleep; that we have potentials that we don’t realize. And it was really the duty of a true human being to open ourselves to these possibilities. He was a very remarkable man, and he traveled a great deal, India and Egypt and so on. And he was looking for various ways that we can open ourselves to our true potential. And he managed to condense that into a very intense kind of understanding. And, of course, practice as well; he had various practices, although I couldn’t do these. But he also emphasized the necessity of what he called ‘remembering yourself.’ And it is interesting because Dogen says we must forget ourselves, and both are saying the same thing. And that became something like, you might say, an aim in my life—to be present, to remember myself. And it all developed from there.”
The group examined another system of thought popular at the time which led to what Albert calls a “rather a dismal part of my life. But anyway, what the group was about, really, wasn’t simply philosophy—Dr. Nothman was looking for some way by which he could help people at a psychological level. He wasn’t satisfied with Freudian theory. And he did take up hypnosis, and we were engaged in hypnosis for a while.” Then they came upon a book about human development popular at the time. “And I must say it was very plausible. It was plausible for him as well. There was a number of people that were interested in it. And we started doing something, really, similar to Carl Rogers’ non-directive therapy.”
Albert was recently married, and he and his bride, Jean, forsook their honeymoon to take part in a nine month evening course on the program. “And then after the nine months, I thought, ‘Right. This seems to be something I should get interested in.’ So I gave up my job and became one of its teachers and went to South Africa on that basis. I built up a center in South Africa.”
But as he became more familiar with the program, he found many of its claims questionable which put him in an ethical dilemma. Although the teaching was lucrative, he could not continue to present it to people who sought and needed real solutions for the problems they faced in life.
So Albert, Jean, and a couple of friends began a new quest for an effective spiritual path. They experimented with forms of yoga, dervish whirling, and automatic writing. He returned to his study of Gurdjieff and what that teacher called “The Work”—the effort needed to see reality as it is, independent of the distortions of one’s subjective perspective.
Another writer Albert came upon during this period was the French psychotherapist, Hubert Benoit, whose The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought dealt with themes similar to those found in Gurdjieff. Benoit’s book introduced the Lows to Zen, and echoes of both Benoit and Gurdjieff are found in Albert’s later writing and teaching.
They remained in South Africa, although he needed to find other employment.
“I had a difficult time to start with. I started to sell tiles and roofing, and that’s the last job I should ever have had. I made an absolute balls-up of it. Then I went to the country; I went to a ranch, and stayed there for a year. And then I came back. I had a degree by then—because I was studying for a Bachelor’s Degree extramurally—and I got a job as a personnel officer in a very large company, the biggest book, paper distributing company in South Africa and rose fairly rapidly.”
The political situation in South Africa at the time, however, was deteriorating. “In 1961 there was the Sharpeville Incident in which authorities shot about 70 black people—they were demonstrating perfectly peacefully—and wounded hundreds of others. That was when Jean and I started thinking, ‘Can we stay here?’ We were always uncomfortable with the way it was there. And then there were the treason trials with Nelson Mandela.
“Anyway, by that time I was the senior personnel manager in this company, and they were going to send me either to Harvard or to the Glacier Institute of Management for extra training. And I realized if I took that, I couldn’t very well leave. I mean, I was fixed. So Jean and I sweated that one out. And I said, ‘I know. We’ll go to Canada.’ And that was it.”
They chose Canada because a friend had moved there before them. “Hilda was very close, sort of a grandmother to the children. She was a bit older than us, and we related well.”
He found work with the Union Gas Company in Chatham, a town a little less than 200 miles southwest of Toronto where Hilda operated a shop. He and Jean had continued their reading, and they came upon Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. “And then, I don’t know whether you call them accidents, coincidences, whatever occurred. Hilda came to see us one day and said, ‘You know, there’s a fellow came into the shop the other day, and he was talking about a guy called Yasutani, apparently he’s from Japan . . .’ You know, yackety-yak. And Jean said, ‘Well, look, we just read a book about that man.’ So I said to Hildo—because I was in a job already, and I couldn’t leave it very well—I said to her, ‘Why don’t you go to New York and see if you can get on one of these courses that he’s giving?’ Sesshins, really. So she phoned and tried to get on, but they told her it was full. Then later they said, ‘We’ve got a cancellation.’ So she phoned me and said, ‘Look, I’m going there.’ So I said, ‘Okay, when you meet him, ask him if he’ll come up to Canada, and I’ll set up a group for him.’ I didn’t know who the hell it was going to be, but there it was. So anyway, she did, and Yasutani agreed. So between us we managed to conjure up eleven people, and we hired a hunting-shooting lodge about fifty miles north of Toronto, and that’s where we met Yasutani.”
Albert found Yasutani dynamic and felt an immediate connection with what he recognized as an authentic spiritual tradition. The gathering in Ontario was essentially an extended workshop, but, when it was over, Yasutani announced “that he was going to give a course, a sesshin, a five day sesshin, at a place called Painted Post. It was a country club, actually, in Rochester, New York. So we tried to get on. I phoned Kapleau, and he said, ‘It’s full. We can’t provide a bed and food for you.’ Well, we said, ‘Don’t mind about the bed and food. We’ll provide the food and sleep on the floor. He said, ‘Well, with enthusiasm like that, I can’t very well refuse, can I?’ So we did the five-day sesshin.”
This began Albert’s twenty-year relationship with Philip Kapleau and the Rochester Zen Center. He was driven in his practice by personal distress and an anxiety about death which had remained with him since his youth. He describes his condition in an article first published in the Rochester newsletter and then reprinted (pseudonymously attributed to “Roger”) among the enlightenment accounts included in Kapleau’s second book, Zen: Merging of East and West.
“I was saturated by terrible anxiety and psychological numbness. I was terrified of being alone. On one occasion I was so sure that I was going to die that I stopped the car and got out so that I would not die unattended. As it happened, the shock of the cold air when getting out of the car braced me and brought me back to my senses.”
Kapleau encouraged Albert to view these anxieties for what they were, illusions, and to use the energy they generated to bolster his practice. Simultaneously, the exigencies of work prodded his effort as well. “The very mundaneness, the inconsequential problems, the battles and disagreements were spurs to continue my practice. The constant humiliations that were suffered through my trying to introduce new ideas were very powerful ego abrasives.”
His struggles were rewarded during the 1974 Rohatsu sesshin when he achieved a kensho experience that redirected his life. “After this, I was really gung-ho. And again Jean and I sat down, and I said, ‘I think I really ought to get more involved in this. I’d like to get other people—help other people along the line.’ So we decided to move to Rochester.”
In 1976, he resigned his position at Union Gas, and for the next three years he and Jean took part in the residential program at Rochester. It was not an easy transition. To begin with, they were generally fifteen to twenty years older than the other residents. “It was difficult, you know. We didn’t fit in. We were neither fish nor fowl.”
Perhaps because they were more mature, the Lows were uncomfortable with the competitiveness that many students brought to practice. They also recognized that some of the structures established at Rochester—which younger members accepted without question—were unnecessary, and they were suspect of the severity of the forms Kapleau retained from his training in Japan. By 1979, Rochester had lost some of its appeal. Albert spoke to Kapleau about his feelings, and that was when Kapleau asked if he’d like to go to Montreal. “I had been to Montreal on business several times, and I’d also been here, with him, when he ran a workshop. And I really liked it—I was a bit of a Francophile—and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to go there.’ So, anyway, that’s how I came.”
He was originally posted there not as a teacher but as head of practice, although there was not much of a practice save for evening zazen. If the members were not particularly active, they were slavishly loyal to the models established in Rochester. Even the color of the walls was the same. Albert made changes slowly and—because he was still under supervision—had to seek approval from Kapleau for each suggestion he brought forth. It wasn’t until Kapleau authorized him to teach in 1986 that he had a free hand in organizing things as he saw fit.
He scheduled monthly sesshin and held introductory workshops not only in Montreal but elsewhere in Quebec and Eastern Ontario as well. Membership grew, and it became clear that that the duplex in NDG was too small to meet the needs of the expanding community.
Albert and Jean spent days walking about the city looking for prospective sites to relocate the center. One day, they went for a picnic lunch in a long, narrow park running alongside the Rivière des Prairies in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville neighborhood. Across the street from the park, there was a large three-storey turreted house with extensive grounds for sale. It seemed unrealistic to believe they could afford it, but they made inquiries and, on the off-chance that the vendor might be eager to sell, made a low offer. Eventually they negotiated a sale price of $155,000, which was still more than the sangha could afford. But $55,000 was raised from various sources—the Lows themselves contributed $15,000—and they assumed a mortgage of $100,000 at 12% interest.
Extensive remodelling was required; Albert described the interior of the main house as more suitable to a brothel than a Zen Center. Further renovations were needed to transform a separate structure on the property—a small building which had previously been a schoolhouse and then an auto mechanic’s garage—into a meditation hall. The zendo proper was established on the second floor with raised tans and seating for twenty-eight.
The rooms of the main house were rented to center members. “We had to do that because there was no way we could pay the mortgage,” Albert explained.
The Lows lived on the third floor and eight residents rented spaces on the first two floors. Although it was a residence, rather than a monastery, there were a few stipulations prospective tenants had to agree to before being accepted.
“If they were residents here, they had to practice in the morning, they had to practice in the evening, they had to attend as many sesshins as I could let them on. That was the condition. And we had to eat together, because that was the only way it would work. We couldn’t have everyone cooking separately, so we had communal cooking. That sort of thing. So there was a degree of community.”
One of the senior students I interviewed, Roch, had been one of those early residents. Like Monique and the other two students I spoke to, his mother tongue is French, and, from time to time, he had to discuss with others the best way to express something in English. The five of us met in what is called the Lower Zendo, a large open room on the ground floor of the former school and garage. There was an altar to Kannon at one end with a bowl of three Granny Smith apples as an offering and a vase of freshly cut flowers. In the stairwell leading up to the zendo proper, there was a large circular sawmill blade suspended by a rope. It served as the zendo’s gong and had a surprisingly sonorous tone.
“I was living in the bush, on my own, because I was in really deep pain. So, I locked myself in an old farm house, and I couldn’t tolerate people anymore, so I just isolated myself.” He was 23 years old at the time. “My brother was traveling on the west coast, on his bike, and when he came back, at Christmas time, he had a book, The Three Pillars of Zen, and he handed it to me. He said, ‘That’s for you. You need that.’ And I had never read something so sharp. Straight to the point!”
When, after ten months, Roch came back to the city, he saw a poster at a bookstore.
“It said: ‘Zen workshop in Montreal. Albert Low.’ And I called, and I came to that workshop, September ’81. And I felt, ‘Well, I’m gonna come back here.’ And then I left, went back home in Gatineau, and, a few days after, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to write to him.’ But I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted a contact. I was writing poetry at that time, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to send him a few poems. Just to have contact.’ And he wrote to me, ‘Dear Roch. Don’t try to fill up the hole that can’t be filled.’ And I cried. That’s it. Like I say, I was in deep pain. Deep pain. But you don’t know why. It’s just . . . You stop breathing.”
The other three nodded their heads in assent.
“So I left Gatineau, and I spent two months in a small apartment in Montreal, and I was taking my bike every morning to come to the morning sitting at the Zen Center. And Albert told me one day, ‘Why don’t you live here? You won’t have to make that ride every day.’ He said, ‘There’s a room free. Would you like to come in?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And I think it was like that for most of the people who came.”
He lived in residence for 1982 and ’83. “ We shared evening meals and breakfast. There was sitting every morning, weekdays. Sunday mornings, we had a longer period. There were no official rules, just being quiet and behave properly. If I had to try to sit on my own at home, I don’t think I would have done it. But when the bell rang in the morning, well you just put your robe on and get in the zendo. And, of course, living here you meet other people. And what was interesting was meeting people that you lived with at a Zen Center and going to a restaurant with them, going for a bike ride. I used to go to the pool with Albert. That was important, too. I knew Albert as a man before a teacher, and that was really important. Albert, for me, is an ordinary man. Then he became a teacher when we would go to dokusan. But I met him drinking tea, swimming in the pool, mowing the lawn. That was very important for my practice.”
The residential program eventually came to an end, allowing the Lows to move into more spacious quarters on the second floor.
Monique first heard Albert on the radio. “One afternoon I turned on the radio, and I heard him in the middle of a sentence. I did not know who was speaking but I heard him say: ‘You cannot have what you are.’ And I realised that he was speaking about happiness. That struck me. ‘You cannot have happiness; you are happiness.’ I was instantly attracted. Not only by what he said but also by the quality of his voice. This was not the kind of voice we hear in the media in general. It was the voice of someone who does not try to sell something to you. The voice of someone who does not force anything.
“So listening more, I learned there was a Zen Center in Montreal, and that he was the master of that Center. At that time, I knew about Zen having read a few books, but somehow it had stayed at an intellectual level.” She paused, then corrected herself. “No. It was more than that. I had been deeply interested by the way of Zen for years, but until that afternoon, I had never been able to muster my determination to actually start the practice. I was waiting for something to happen that would push me, make me plunge into the water so to speak. So hearing Albert on the radio that afternoon was decisive for me. I phoned the Zen Center, and it was Jean who answered, and I didn’t even know what kind of question to ask. I said, ‘Well, so you’re practicing Zen there?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ‘So, I would like to come.’ So she said, ‘Okay, there’s a workshop.’ And I went. And that’s it. At the very moment I entered into the zendo for the workshop I knew in my guts that I had found the place. And when Albert came into the room and started to speak, it was clear for me, without any doubt, that he was someone I could trust. This trust has gone deeper and deeper over the years. I feel very grateful for that.”
Since the four of them are francophone, I raised the issue of language.
“We have a bi-lingual community here,” Monique told me. “But some people come from Ontario or other parts of Canada or from USA and don’t speak French. A few, from Montreal or Quebec don’t speak English. So the remarkable thing is that it does not prevent us to work together. But that does not mean that it is not a challenge. It is. For some, given the history of Quebec and the nationalist movement here, it can become a problem. Albert is very aware. He has a keen understanding of the situation here. So if someone begins to resent the fact of ‘too much English speaking,’ he can help this person to work with this problem, to see that this particular problem is also part of his practice. It is not something outside of the practice. Everything is ‘grist for the mill’ as he says often.”
The board president, Roger, adds: “You’re not a definition of a Quebecois or an Ontario person or whatever. This is what makes you suffer. This is what makes you say, ‘I’m this instead of that. And, unfortunately, everybody is looking at that, and I’m this. How come I don’t get that?’ This is the source, very fundamental, of how human beings massacre each other. It is the same with language and religion. Because religion is how we define ourself. Language is also how we define ourself. But that’s not who we truly are.”
The language difference between us, however, did give me the sense, at times, that they struggled to feel confident I understood what they are trying to express about Albert:
“There’s something to say about the teaching of Albert,” Monique insisted. She has a forceful way of putting things. “He is teaching an authentic Zen. I would say he is teaching a radical Zen. I mean the Zen of the ancient Chinese Zen masters. And Zen is not a psychotherapy. The Zen he teaches is not a psychology and, also, is not a morality. Which, of course, does not mean that he shrugs off morality, far from it. But when I say he teaches an authentic and radical Zen, I mean he teaches the Zen of Rinzai and Hakuin. ‘You have to penetrate completely the Great Affair,’ like Hakuin said. ‘It is a matter of life and death.’ Many people come to a Zen center thinking or wishing that meditation will enhance their personality, make it better, more lovable; they want to be a good person and be loved as a good person. Albert repeatedly tells us: ‘There is nothing here for the personality.’ And he says also, ‘Don’t come here to practice Zen.’ It means, among many meanings, don’t come here to make or to gain some personal benefit from your practice. You are not here to gain a medal because you have, you know, passed your first koan. You’re here because you suffer and you want to go to the root of suffering. And that’s the Zen that he teaches here. We have to go to the root of our suffering. In that way, our whole life is our practice.”
“Well, yeah,” Roger added, “From the beginning you’re a Buddha. So, what more do you want?”
“So this is a demanding Zen,” Monique continued. “It does not give comfort. It’s not a Zen that makes you feel that you . . . you’re . . .” She returned to French and looked to the others for assistance.
“That you’re succeeding,” Louis, the most soft-spoken of the four, said. The other agreed, laughing gently.
“Some people look for something that’s entertaining,” Roger said. “The way things are done, using Japanese and Chinese and so on and all the big words and all the big chants and so on, and you wear beautiful clothing and so on. A lot of people are looking in that direction. They’re totally lost as to who they really are, but that’s what they’re looking for. The exotic.”
“Yes,” Louis agreed. “At the Center here, it is really focused and oriented on the practice. It exists for practice.”
In the parlor with the reproduction of the solitary fisherman floating in an empty sea, I asked, “What is the function of Zen?”
Albert replied without hesitation. “Oh, there’s no function of Zen.”
“So why do people come here?”
“Because they think there is a function of Zen.”
“And they discover?”
“There is no function of Zen. If they work long enough.”
The Story of Zen: 372
Zen Conversations: 49; 70; 87; 123