When I was working in International Development with the YMCA, I used to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter, in part because it had a leftist slant on the Catholic Church—my birth heritage—with which I was comfortable, but largely because it was one of the best sources I could find for hard news coverage of events in Latin America. It covered other stories of general interest to Catholics as well, of course.
I first learned of Father Robert Kennedy—a Dharma heir of Bernie Glassman—in an NCR article in which it was announced that Kennedy, a Jesuit priest as well as an authorized Zen teacher, had recently given transmission to a Trappist monk, Kevin Hunt [see photo]. If I remember the article correctly, Father Hunt, when asked what a Trappist Zen Master did, replied that he wasn’t sure but suspected he was going to find out.
Robert Kennedy maintains the Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. At the time that I spoke with him, the Zendo was actually a one bedroom apartment in which a room had been set up as a meditation hall.
Kennedy had spent several years in Japan in the ’60s – was ordained a Catholic priest there – without having any interest in Zen at all. After he returned to complete his graduate studies in America in the early ’70s; however, while driving one day, he heard Alan Watts on the radio pointing out that “nothing in nature is symmetrical.” “I don’t know why that statement hit me with the strength that it did, but I had to stop the car and think. It was an extraordinary moment.”
He went back to his rooms, took a blanket off the bed, folded it to make a cushion, and began sitting. His Zen practice had begun. “Something in my spirit said I had to stop doing theology and turn to experience. Turn away from theory and learn from my own doing.”
Eventually he realized he needed to work with a formal teacher. He had a sabbatical in 1976 and went back to Japan—“not as a teacher this time, but as a pilgrim.” The Jesuit order, which was committed to understanding other cultures and faith systems, supported his desire to undertake Zen training and arranged for him to meet Yamada Koun Roshi, the teacher with whom Sister Elaine MacInnes had studied.
Father Kennedy remembers the first time he saw Yamada Roshi walk into the zendo. “I was sitting in the back, up against the back wall, and I remember he walked in to light the incense and to begin the day of sitting. I remember it vividly. Again, I cannot explain it. The very sight of him walking into the zendo was life changing.”
When the sabbatical year was up, Kennedy continued training in the United States – at Yamada Roshi’s suggestion – with Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Glassman, and when Glassman received inka from Maezumi and returned to New York, Kennedy became his student. Glassman’s approach to Zen training was very different from that of Kennedy’s first two teachers. He had a strong sense of social responsibility. Kennedy described participating in Glassman’s street retreats among the homeless. “Glassman Roshi said that a lot of people like Zen because they like to sit in a zendo and be quiet and there’s a certain artistic flavor. The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, he said to me, ‘Some people like Zen clubs were they can sit together with like-minded people.’ But he brought us out onto the street.”
After Glassman acknowledged Kennedy as a Dharma heir, Kennedy’s first inclination “was just to sit quietly by myself—you know—which is a good idea after you become a teacher if you sit quietly for about ten years.” He smiles. “Ripen a bit.” But Glassman immediately assigned him a student, a Catholic nun – Janet Richardson – whose training he was put in charge of. Then other students began to appear. At first they were Catholics, but eventually people from other—or no—traditions came as well.
He has now acknowledged several Dharma heirs of his own, including the Trappist Father Hunt. In the course of our correspondence I refer to the two of them as “Catholic Zen teachers,” and Kennedy corrects me. Rather, he says, he is a Zen Teacher who happens to be Catholic. “The phrase ‘Catholic Zen’ can imply we are mixing Zen and Catholicism into something new. Kevin and I strive to practice Zen as it is taught by our Zen teachers, but Catholics can pay attention too.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 303-10, 318-19, 468, 469
Catholicism and Zen: 66, 148-55, 158, 162-64,172, 195
Zen Conversations: 12; 31-33; 107-08