Larry Johanson is a Zen student working with Sunyana Graef Roshi in the Philip Kapleau lineage. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, he had previously been the Director of Public Relations for the Jamaican Economic Development Agency. Now living in Canada, he is a Corporate Trainer. “I create on-line courses and programs geared to helping people to be the best that they can be.” The strategies he outlines in his book, From Carp to Dragon, are based on his personal experience coming from “the gritty streets of Kingston, Jamaica, to places that I had never thought I would ever end up.”
His life as a boy in Kingston had been difficult. There had been a great deal of violence on the streets, in the home, and even in the school system. He was deeply unhappy and leery of the form of Christianity common in the country. So while still very young he began what he calls a Vision Quest, seeking an alternative spiritual tradition. “I read a lot of books and came upon the Bhagavad Gita. I was fascinated by the notion of God as something you could discover within yourself through meditation.” However, the Gita didn’t include instructions on how to meditate, and he didn’t know how to proceed.
In 1971, after his father’s death, Larry went to live with an older cousin. “And her son – who is a doctor – he studied abroad, and he brought home a whole bunch of books. And when I got there, one of my little jobs was to kind of curate the medical books that he brought home for his library. And I came upon one barrel, and it was just full of books on Eastern philosophy and meditation.” At the bottom of the barrel was a copy of Philip Kapleau’s, The Three Pillars of Zen.
“This was what I had been looking for all my life. This wasn’t an abstract philosophical thing. There’s this guy who went to Japan, who studied and worked with the roshis and came to awakening. And this book is a manual. You want to meditate? You want to see God? You want enlightenment? This is what you do.” He began following the instructions in the book and immediately felt the benefits.
“Because I could meditate, I could study better! I could sit longer. I could read a book and could be so focussed that I retained more. And because I could retain more, I did better in school. And because of all of that, my attitudes, my disposition changed a little bit. And I realized, ‘Something fantastic is going on here.’”
In 1974, after some initial hesitation, Larry wrote to Kapleau to tell him how inspired he had been by the book, and he received a reply. Kapleau and his daughter were coming to Jamaica on vacation, and they arranged for Larry to meet them at their hotel in Montego Bay.
“His presence stunned me. There was a stillness, a quiet, and a silence to him, an authenticity, an assurity to him, and a serenity. And, of course, as a young person, whose whole life was in turmoil – my mind, my emotions, everything – it showed up in sharp relief when meeting him how I felt and what the possibilities were. I was just in awe.”
He committed himself to attain whatever it was he sensed in Kapleau and eventually found his way to Rochester where he began a lifelong study and practice of Zen.
Living in Toronto, he joined the Kapleau center there and met Sunyana Graef. “She was the person I jokingly say ‘gave birth to me’ in terms of my practice. She was the Bodhisattva of Compassion that my practice needed.” Until he’d met her, his practice had been very stern, but he still hadn’t experienced awakening. During his first sesshin with her, she asked him how long he had been practicing. He admitted it had been twenty years. “Then she said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for? Why not this sesshin?’” That was the challenge he met.
“The difference between then and now,” he tells me, “was that I was burdened by a self. It is the difference between . . .” – holding up a sheet of paper covered with print – “and bam!” He turns the blank side of the page towards me. “On the side where the writing was on was growing up in Jamaica. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re male, you’re this, you’re that. That is the conditioned mind, the whole karmic experience that you’re having, and you’re wondering, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ And you’re angry at God and everything, and you’re lashing out at the world. It’s ego and conditioning. So the difference between then and now, as I’ve gone much further down the road after the initial kensho, is that the more you train, the more you realize exactly what is meant by” – he quotes the Heart Sutra – “‘the Bodhisattva of Compassion, from the depths of prajna wisdom saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds of suffering.’ Over time what happens is that your ego becomes more diaphanous, and you can see more clearly through. Then you begin to understand the truth of what the Bodhisattva was saying. There is nothing that one attains. ‘Not even wisdom to attain. Attainment too is emptiness.’ Before that, there was this thing that Roshi Kapleau had that I had to have. But, in truth and in fact, what it really is is just letting go of the conditioned mind.”