When I spoke with Kokyo Henkel in early April 2020, he was just retiring as the resident priest of the Santa Cruz Zen Center and preparing to undertake what was intended to be a three month retreat in the Crestone Mountains. With the covid crisis, it became longer.
Early Buddhism was less a faith tradition for the general population than it was a specialized way of life for people who chose to separate themselves from the world. Similar to the monastic tradition within Christianity, it was a life dedicated to meditation and study. Monasticism has never been a common way of life – and is, if anything, less so now – but it is a form of Buddhism in which Kokyo feels at home.
He first encountered Buddhism while a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where representatives from Seung Sahn’s Korean Zen temple led weekly meditation sessions on campus.
“College was kind of a busy and sometimes stressful life. And I remember the first times of sitting in meditation and feeling that access to that vast sense of peace and presence and simplicity. And walking home after the meditation and seeing the grounds of the campus so fresh and clear. I came onto it quite quickly.”
After graduation, he headed to California
“I’d heard of the San Francisco Zen Center. I didn’t know anybody who practiced there, but I had their magazine, The Wind Bell, which was floating around my dorm in college. And it was winter when I graduated, so that was a good excuse to go to California. I took the bus across, and when I got out to California, I started looking for practice places. I didn’t have any savings. I just had a backpack. So I was looking for places which would take me and I could work some for my stay.” He discovered that such places were rare.
“But one that said, ‘Yes. You can come right now’ was the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the Chinese Chan Temple in Ukiah. I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s a very traditional Chinese Buddhist monastery with maybe a couple hundred monks and nuns living there. And they were in the middle of their annual retreat, which is basically a Zen sesshin but for three weeks. They sat from 3:00 in the morning until midnight. I had never done any retreats or anything longer than a couple of periods, but they said I could come and do some work around the place and join the retreat. It was mid-way through, and I did the last ten days of this retreat with this wonderful kind of beginner’s mind. If I had known what it involved, I might not have gone. But it was wonderful.”
He tells me it “hooked” him “at a level deeper. But at the end of the retreat, they stopped all silent meditation. They went into their daily schedule, mostly ritual chanting, and, at that time, that was all a little bit foreign to me. I wanted to find a place to do a lot of silent sitting. So by the spring I found my way to Tassajara.”
Tassajara is the monastic training area in the Los Padres National Forest associated with the San Francisco Zen Center. “When I got there, that’s really where I felt like I had come home, and basically I just stayed there. And then there’s Green Gulch Farm, which is kind of a semi-monastic farm community up in the mountains. And so between those two temples, I basically spent the next twenty years.”
He had become head of practice at Tassajara by the time he was asked to move to Santa Cruz and work with the community there. “In some ways, I think, I never really fully stepped into that transition in a way that everybody could relate to. I have such a love for sesshins and retreats and deep Dharma study and so on. I definitely played that role, and that worked for many people. But others, I think, wanted someone more like the village priest and counsellor. Someone to hang out with like that. I could play that role a little bit, but it didn’t come quite as naturally to me.”
We talk a little about Zen practice during situations like the current pandemic.
“Being present I think is really key these days,” he tells me, “because we spin out about, ‘How long is this going on for?’ So to be present, and, of course, zazen is such a gift many people feel these days to keep that practice going. And I would even encourage people to use the opportunity of sheltering in place to do more retreat. Maybe people have more time than they usually do. They’re working less hours. I suppose some have a hard time finding a quiet place to sit if they’re home, if there’s others around working at home. But that’s part of my own thinking of going onto Crestone and to retreat at this time is like, ‘Well, nothing else is really happening.’ And it’s beneficial to others to not go out and interact, so it’s a natural retreat time. And of course all the teachings that apply to suffering in daily life are the same teachings that apply now in these days.”