Ken Morgareidge is one of three teachers at the Zen Center of Denver. “There’s myself. There’s Karin Kempe and Peggy Sheean. We were all sanctioned on the same day by our teacher, Danan Henry Roshi, in 2010, as the co-directors of the Zen Center of Denver. So there’s no primary person. The three of us are sort of the Unholy Three.”
Our conversation took place during the social turmoil of the rancorous 2020 US election campaign, when Americans were dealing with both the corona virus and the exposure of blatant systemic racism in the country. Ken reflected on the value of Zen training in such circumstances.
“One of the paramitas” – virtues cultivated in Buddhism – “is Ksanti Paramita. The perfection of patience and forbearance. That’s one of the things that I think we can all work on in a very deep way. Nothing is ever going to happen as we would like it to happen. So one of the aspects of our practice is to deal with all the craziness that comes up, whether it’s something like this corona virus or political outcomes we’re not happy with or changes in the economy. All those kinds of things. So it’s not like this is a totally unique situation. It’s unique in that it’s happening to everybody all at once. That we all have stuff coming up in our lives that is sad, tragic, or irritating or infuriating. And our practice helps us to look at these things in a way where we’re not dragged around by them, where we don’t have to respond in a wildly emotional way. We can look at it and say, ‘Okay. That’s what it is. This is my karma in this moment. What do I do now?’ without going into recriminations or ‘If only this had happened; if only I’d done that’ – which is useless.”
Like everything else in Zen, however, the development of patience and forbearance is not something anyone else can do for one. The role of the teacher, Ken tells me, is that of a guide. “I tell my students, ‘You’re hiring a guide – that’s me – but the guide’s not going to carry you. You have to walk the trail yourself.’”
He also compares himself to a coach.
“I was in competitive fencing for many years, and I trained like a fiend for quite a period of time. And so when I went to my first sesshin in Rochester with Kapleau Roshi, it was very familiar – the type of intensity you have to put in in sesshin practice – and Kapleau was the coach. So I think of myself as a coach. When people come to me, they’re coming for coaching, for me to warn them about the pitfalls, help them out if they fall into one, to keep them on track, to encourage them as much as I can, and to admonish them when I need to. Just as a coach with his players, I can’t get out onto the field and play the game with them. And that’s tough. So many times you want to help them in ways you know you can’t. But I provide as much guidance as I can. And if they’re struggling with a koan, I’ll encourage them, but, of course, they have to solve the koan on their own. There’s only so much I can say. And that’s tough. But I tell them, ‘You have to do this yourself.’”
“What are you guiding them to?” I ask. “Where is the trail taking them? To what end”
“It’s taking them deeper into their practice. That’s all I can say.”
“Well, again – to what end is the practice?”
“To what end is the practice? The end of the practice is practice. If you look for an end – like enlightenment or some state of mind – you’re not going to get there. Because you’re already there. Your job as a practitioner is to be here in this moment. But you’re already here. The Buddha said all beings are enlightened from the very beginning. We just have to strip away the stuff – the accretions of many lifetimes – and see the truth of that and trust in it and then live out of it. That’s our job as a Bodhisattva practice. We’re not practicing for ourselves. At least not exclusively. We’re practicing for the world, and that’s one of the great challenges we’re faced with right now. How do we help each other and how do we help the world in a time of crisis. And everyone has to come up with their own answer. So if there’s any kind of a goal, it’s just to go deeper. Go deeper into myself. As a teacher, help the student go deeper into their own true nature – their own Buddha-nature – and find out what that is and then live from that.”
Tetsuzan left the Denver Center of Denver in 2020 and retired to the Iron Mountain Hermitage in Florence, Colorado, where he still meets with students.