In addition to the Japanese teachers who came to North America in the ’60s and ’70s, there were also Zen teachers from China, Vietnam, and Korea. The focus of my early books had been on the tradition as it came from Japan, but people frequently mentioned the importance in America of the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn. John Tarrant, for example, told me that his first breakthrough had occurred during a retreat with Seung Sahn.
Zen Master Soeng Hyang is one of Seung Sahn’s heirs and currently the School Zen Master of the international Kwan Um School of Zen. She was residing in Berkeley, California, when I spoke with her. She had previously been in Providence, Rhode Island, where I had originally hoped to be able to visit her.
When I learned that she had relocated, I arranged a Skype interview. We were a few minutes late getting started, and she contacted me, introducing herself as “Bobbie.” The title “Zen Master” is a rank within the Kwan Um School of Zen, and the name “Soeng Hyang” means “Nature’s fragrance.” “Like incense, kind of,” she tells me. She carries her lap top into the bedroom as we begin, and she continues the conversation while lying back in bed.
Her father had been in the Navy, and the family relocated several times. She had been born in Providence, but then the family moved to California. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, and, as a young woman, Bobbie was struck by the words of the Creed. It became so difficult to claim to believe these statements that she would become physically ill and have to leave the church. “Jesus rose again on the third day, ascended to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God. Where is the right hand of God?” she wondered.
She volunteered to supervise some of the younger Sunday School participants – “I watched them color” – and on a particular Sunday one of them asked her, “Where’s Jesus?” Where, indeed, she wondered. “He was here last week,” the child insisted. She was referring to the bearded father of one of the other students who had been telling stories to them. But the question stung Bobbie. “‘Where was Jesus?’ It was my first koan.”
In 1963, she had a nurse’s license and was working with Mexican-American farm workers in California. A doctor at the clinic introduced her to marijuana and LSD. She would take the drug and wander about in nature. It was an important opening for her. Eventually, however, it didn’t lead anywhere else, and she decided to look for a Zen teacher. She wanted to do koan study. “I went to Tassajarra [the San Francisco Zen Center’s training center in the Ventana Wilderness area] and I couldn’t get in because they were having a sesshin. But I talked to a couple of the monks there, and they told me that they didn’t do koan practice. So I decided, right away, ‘Well, okay.’ They were so sweet, but I just wasn’t interested. So . . .” She shrugs and laughs gently.
Then on another acid trip, she got the feeling that she should go back to Providence and “make amends” with her parents to whom she hadn’t spoken for two years. So she crossed the continent, found work in Providence, and looked for an apartment. One of the apartments she looked at happened to be over Seung Sahn’s temple. “It was just his apartment, really.” She didn’t take the apartment, but she did meet Seung Sahn and, shortly after, moved into the temple with two other students. She stayed at the temple as it moved to larger accommodations until her daughter was born and they needed their own house.
The focus of the Kwan Um School is mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness is somewhat easier to do in Seated Meditation (the Kwan Um school avoids using Japanese terms like zazen), but it is supposed to continue throughout all of one’s activity. It was a natural aid to her work as a nurse, to be able to encounter people and situations clearly and directly. She tells me, “My teacher never encouraged samadhi [concentration meditation]. He discouraged samadhi.” Zen was not to be something separate from daily activity; it was to be part of all one did. Constantly to ask, “What is this?” What is this specific situation I am in? Who is this specific person I am encountering?
When I ask about the membership of the Kwan Um School, she says that most of the members are older and admits that she had expected Zen to “bloom like crazy” because it had made so much sense to her. To her disappointment, it hasn’t. “I don’t know. Maybe people have stopped taking LSD as much,” she jokes. Then more seriously, “I don’t know what happened. I do think there’s a real addiction to electronics now.” And that certainly may be a part of it. Zen is about encountering reality, and “virtual reality” – by definition – is not reality.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 423-437
Zen Conversations: 36-38; 91-92
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