I would eventually have an opportunity to spend time at Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji in Seattle, meeting its abbot – Genjo Marinello – and joining the regular morning sitting group not only for zazen but also for coffee at a local cafe which has a table waiting for them. No one blinks an eye at their robes when they come in. But my first contact with Genjo (the name attached to his email is “Joe Marinello”) was by Skype.
One does not get the same feel for a person via Skype (or Zoom) as one does in person, but Genjo struck me during our first conversation as having that settled self-confidence and ease which is often a characteristic of long-term Zen practitioners. His scalp is shaved, and he wears a head-set during the interview. As I get to know him, he proves to be something of a Renaissance man – pilot, amateur astronomer, software developer, mental health counselor, Zen priest. He has a killer smile.
During in a freshman English class in the ’70s, the teacher introduced the class to the idea that there “was a way to experience, or penetrate, reality beyond the scientific method; that you could have something called insight, inspiration, or intuition. You could tap into some fundamental truths heuristically by investigating your own internal condition.” The question for Genjo was “how” one did that, which ultimately led him to the practice of Zen. He was living in southern California at the time.
Later, while serving as a VISTA volunteer in Seattle, he practiced with a group established there by Glenn Webb, a professor at the University of Washington. In 1978, Dr. Webb invited a Japanese Rinzai teacher to Seattle. This was Genki Takabayahsi Roshi, who then founded Dai Bai Zen Cho Bo Zen Ji, or “The Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple on Great Plum Mountain.”
Genjo was sitting with this group when he happened to attend a lecture given by the Dalai Lama. The talk was interrupted by a group of Maoist-students who heckled the Dalai Lama for failing to support the Chinese Communist regime in Tibet. Genjo was so impressed by the way the Dalai Lama handled the situation that he announced to Genki Roshi that he was ready to commit himself to Buddhist practice.
He spent a short time in Japan, at Ryutakuji, where he met Soen Nakagawa Roshi. He was surprised to learn there that often the Japanese students were only there because “it was their lot in life. They couldn’t at all understand that I came there voluntarily to train, because no one would do that. And that was incomprehensible, truly incomprehensible. So when I settled on saying that I had been sent there, they could understand that. But if I tried to say I wanted to train in Zen, they would just shake their head. ‘No. That can’t be the reason.’”
His time at Ryutakuji was hard. His own training methods now are considered traditional and a little strict by American standards, but he makes it clear they are nothing like what he went through in Japan. “It was a very martial style. I remember one time sweeping a gravel path outdoors with a bamboo broom and whistling a little, just a little bit, and being told, ‘No! No, you can’t whistle! This is a Zen temple!’ And you couldn’t do anything right. There was a rule that for six months it didn’t matter who told you what to do, when you did it, it was wrong. And if you did it to someone’s satisfaction, someone else would come by and un-do it and say, ‘No. That was wrong. It has to be done this way.’ And whoever was closest to you—because everyone was more senior to you—was correct. So you just had to learn—through sort of an ego-annihilation—that you could not do anything right.”
For Genjo, Zen “points at our deep, true nature.” We don’t often tap into the deepest part of our nature, he explains, as a result of which we tend to have a fairly narrow and individualistic sense of ourselves “and who we are and our place in the universe.” Zen, then, provides a training that helps us to transcend “our ego identity and discover our deeper, seamless nature” with all other beings.
Genjo places as much emphasis on the attainment of karuna (compassion) as he does on the attainment of prajna (wisdom). “My initial training was dominated by—say—the wisdom component, with the idea that without deep wisdom you could never get to deep compassion, and that wisdom had to come first, and that compassion was the natural outcome of deeply penetrating the wisdom. And I still agree with that, but I also think that you can start with compassion and get to wisdom. And that you don’t have to start with wisdom to get to compassion. And that they’re different sides of the same coin. So we’re trying to strike a balance at Chobo-ji between these two legs, and both legs are important.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 83-97, 111-12, 113, 115, 247-49
The Story of Zen: 5-9, 337, 407-08
Zen Conversations: 102-03; 143