Shodo Spring – a Dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura in the Soto tradition – gained acclaim in 2013 for her Compassionate Earth Walk, a three month spiritual hike along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route in the Great Plains. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, she led retreats at her farm in Fairbault, Minnesota, which put an emphasis on human interdependence with the natural world.
She grew up in a Lutheran family in Ohio and admits she was “one of those obnoxious super-religious people until I was in my late twenties.” Eventually, she left the church and her marriage and came to live in Minneapolis where, one day, she saw a notice on a bulletin board for an introductory Zen class at Dainin Katagiri’s Minnesota Zen Center.
“I went to it. And they had stuff that wasn’t interesting, but they gave us zazen instruction, and I had to sit for fifteen minutes, and I liked that. So I started sitting at home. I had no idea why people sat together or any of that. But I was sitting by myself, at home. I made a cushion which had lots of bright colors in it and was stuffed with rags and was made with scraps.”
“You said they had stuff that was un-interesting?” I asked, to ensure I’d heard her correctly.
“It was not interesting. I knew everything, you see?” she says with a laugh. She was 35.
Over time she began visiting the center on occasion and chatted with some of the members, asking questions about sesshin. “What people said was that the first two days were the hardest.” So she decided not to do a short one and waited until there was a week long sesshin she could apply to attend, which turned out to be the rigorous Rohatsu Sesshin in December. “And for some reason, most of the time I did not have knee pain, and I did have energy rushes, and, on about the third day, Katagiri Roshi’s talks started making some sense. I no longer remember much about what happened during it, but I remember that I came out realizing that I didn’t know anything, and I was really excited about that. So then I became a regular. I was working full time, but I was also at the Zen Center at 5:00 a.m. if I could out of bed.”
“And if someone from your Lutheran past had asked you, ‘What is this Zen thing all about? What does it do?’ How would you have answered them?”
“What does it do for you? You know, ‘what does it do for you’ is really easy. Of all the religions in the world, Zen is the one that actually helps you with your daily life. Well, Buddhism is. Christians pray. I haven’t noticed that helps a lot. They think somebody’s gonna help them. But Zen actually gives you tools to make your life work. Now, what’s it about?”
“Sure. They’re just curious. They remember – as you said – that you were one of those super-religious kids. Now you’re into Zen. So, what it’s about?”
“Okay, it helps me to be alive. It helps me to be here with the life that I have, and it helps me to be happy. For me, Christianity was always intellectual. I know it wasn’t supposed to be, but my sense of religion was out in the fields and trees. The things that were supposed to be meaningful in the church, they didn’t click, although I kept trying and trying. And let me say this: Buddhism has this teaching about the three poisons, and Christianity has this teaching about sin. And the definition of sin that I always liked since I discovered it in fifth grade is that sin is separation from God. What my Buddhist practice helps me to do is to not be separate. Separation has been an issue forever. And somehow what the church offered did not help with that. But the practice of sitting meditation and being with people who actually are interested in spiritual life . . .” She smiles. “Here I know that I am welcome as I am. I know that as a woman I can do whatever role I want to, which I didn’t have in the church. This practice and this teaching works for me.”
After a brief pause, she continues: “They say that God is everywhere, God is in everything. Well, that’s not just words; that’s for real. You know? God is a word – to me – that describes the incredible power of the universe. And we use that word to talk about something that can’t be talked about.” She mentions the Judaic Tetragrammaton. “It’s something that you can’t name, something you can’t say. Shouldn’t even speak it. That’s for real! That’s not just an idea, that’s for real. And so practicing Buddhism, I get to actually live the life that I just heard about and read about in the church.”