In October 2013, I visited Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, in order to interview Gerry Shishin Wick. I was working on a book which profiled some of the direct successors of the pioneer teachers who established Zen in North America, and I was interviewing Shishin because he was an heir of Taizan Maezumi. But I had a sense, while at Great Mountain, that there was a broader story there than the one I was getting.
In the on-line journal I kept while researching “Cypress Trees in the Garden”, I commented on the feminine ambiance at the Center.
Statues, banners, and paintings of Kwan Yin prevail. There is a large Kwan Yin on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means “Body of Light.” Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn’t join us.
The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. “Are you the abbot?” I ask. “Is that the title you use?” No. Shinko is the abbess. “And you are?”
“The consort,” he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the “Spiritual Director.”
On the Great Mountain website, Shishin and Shinko are identified as “Co-Spiritual Directors.” He is also identified as the center President, and she as the “Abbess.” Six years after my visit to Berthoud, I finally had an opportunity to interview Shinko and learn the other half of the story.
She begins by telling me of an experience of what she calls the “Sacred Feminine” that she had while still a child in Puerto Rico. The impact of that experience stayed with her during a long period of study in the Zen tradition which began at Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center. She studied with Kapleau until Parkinson’s Disease prevented him from further teaching. By that time Shinko was living in Florida, where Kapleau had retired. “We had a sangha of only five people, and we were really his family. We were like a family. But when he got sick with Parkinson’s, they called people from Rochester to be like his attendants in the house.”
She sought out one of Kapleau’s heirs, Danan Henry, in Colorado. But throughout this time, she had a sense that there was a difference between masculine and feminine approaches to practice that the men with whom she worked didn’t fully appreciate.
She practiced with Pat Hawk Roshi – a Catholic Priest and Dharma successor of Robert Aitken – whom she describes as the kindest person she had met until then in her Zen practice. They worked well together for a long while; she even was given to believe she might become his heir. Then she had another powerful experience of the Sacred Feminine during a sesshin with him. When she described it to Hawk during her next dokusan, however, he told her to forget about the experience – which he interpreted as a form of makyo, illusions Zen students may have during prolonged periods of meditation. Shinko was certain the experience was not makyo and chose to leave the retreat.
“It was very painful,” she tells me. “Very painful losing my teacher, and having nobody to talk about this. At the same time, I was so grounded in my experience that it was unshakable.”
Then she heard about another Zen teacher who had recently moved to Boulder. “I went to meet him. I told him about my experience. This is Shishin, and Shishin told me, ‘I don’t understand your experience, but I encourage you to find out.’”
After that, she visited Tsultrim Allione at the Tara Mandala Center in Southern Colorado. Tsultrim is a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and she was able to tell Shinko that what she had had was an experience of the Dakini, the Sacred Feminine presence identified in Vajrayana Buddhism.
“I had never heard the word before, but it fulfilled me. I didn’t care what the dictionary said; I knew empathically what she meant. I knew my experience had a name. I was just so happy somebody knew what it was. I went back home; I went to see Shishin, and I just said, ‘It’s called a Dakini experience.’”
There are two approaches to Zen, Shinko tells me – the way of the Samurai and the way of the Heart. She and Shishin chose the way of the Heart. “That’s why we created the Great Heart Work, to teach the students how to hold the emotional body as part of practice.”