Bodhin Kjolhede

There is a bumper sticker on Bodhin Kjolhede’s car that reads: “Ask me about my vow of silence.” We are driving to the Rochester Zen Center’s retreat house, located at Chapin Mill, forty minutes from the city. Bodhin’s hair is short, but not shaved off, and he is dressed in a navy blue short-sleeve shirt with a banded color and matching slacks. The Vietnamese woman in the back seat is similarly dressed. “As part of the process of adapting Zen to the west, my teacher—Roshi Kapleau—and I didn’t feel inclined to maintain the Japanese samugi,” he explains. “We chose something more western, but we also wanted a way to distinguish those who were ordained. So we came up with this.” Unlike a samugi, it is something one could wear on the street without appearing too foreign or exotic.

The conversation during the drive is largely casual, but I leave the recorder on. “There has been a recent increase in interest in our introductory workshops, our training programs, and our sesshin—all three,” he mentions.

“Interest in workshops has gone up?

“Yeah. We have to turn people away. We cut it off at fifty.”

“What age groups show up?”

“It’s all over the place, but there are definitely more people in their 20s and 30s than there were five years ago. The baby-boomers are still coming, but now there are fewer of them. And there are a lot more younger people.”

“Any idea why this current increase in interest?”

“I have hypotheses. There are those who say it’s so hard for young people to get jobs that they don’t lose much by coming. But I think it’s something more intangible, some greater interest in the spiritual.”

“Probably different factors than in the 60s, though, when drugs were a big reason people got involved.”

“They were for me.”

“Yeah,” I admit. “When people ask how I got interested in Zen, my short answer is often, ‘Mescaline.’”

He looks over at me with a grin and says, “Me too! Mescaline was my drug of choice. I was a beer-drinking fraternity guy until my first mescaline trip, and then I just saw the world in a whole different way.”

By this time, I knew I was going to like this guy.

The Rochester Zen Center is located in a fairly ritzy neighborhood. The grounds and structures are impressive and maybe a little daunting. When I arrived early for my 9:00 appointment with Bodhin in June 2013, I was told I could wait on a sofa in the foyer. Young people dressed in dark navy short-sleeve shirts and matching loose pants hurry about their business—men and women barefoot and with close-cropped, but not shaved, heads. I’m reminded of what someone had said about the San Francisco Zen Center in the days before Blanche Hartman became abbess: “Well, they’re not unfriendly.”

But if there were a certain stiffness among the students (or perhaps they are just focused on carrying out their duties), Bodhin is relaxed, humorous, and very capable of putting others at ease.

“The atmosphere here seems less formal than some of the monastic centers I’ve visited,” I say.

Philip Kaapleau’s grave at Chapin Mill

“One of the distinctions that Roshi Kapleau—as  compared to his peers from Japan—was very adamant about, that we have to Americanize Zen. And Americans are much more informal than the Japanese. So we try to keep things taut, in terms of the training, but not with those elegant, elaborate, Japanese rituals. So, for example, I’ve heard that there are other Zen Centers where the teacher, to start off the morning zazen, will go through the zendo and people will all do this deep bow. That strikes me as inappropriate. Not to go off on this, but what I’m constantly aware of—maybe even a little more than Roshi Kapleau was—is how much of Zen from Asia is conditioned by the Confucian ethos of hierarchy and all. And I’m trying to find a balance between not throwing that out completely, because there’s a place for it, for hierarchy—I’m not going to apologize for hierarchy—but not over-doing it.”

It is because of his commitment to conserve the practice as he had received it that he is cautious about the degree to which he involves his students in social action.

“We have a program where our members go into soup kitchens. And there’s a whole kind of blossoming of different ways of engaging with the wider world. For example, I’m trying to give some leadership in the whole specter of global warming. In fact, recently we had a meeting where we talked about how we might have a public demonstration of the spirit of Zen the way that we did about thirty years ago when the Minnesota Zen Center organized a three day Zazen Vigil in New York City. This was on the occasion of public protests in New York regarding the proposed deployment of Cruise Missiles in Europe. And so the idea came up of inviting Zen Centers to convene across from the United Nations in a place called the Peace Park and just sit for three days. That had quite a strong effect on me. I thought it was powerful, something I could get behind more than waving protest signs and marching. So I’m trying to get something like that going regarding climate change.

“We’re really just getting into this area of social engagement. And—as you know probably—the danger of it is if you become too one-sidedly engaged—socially or politically—then you run the risk of losing the real root of Zen practice.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 146, 204, 321-336, 340, 342, 344, 345, 346, 374, 375, 388, 402, 420, 468

Catholicism and Zen: 100-07, 168

The Story of Zen: 427

Zen Conversations: 117-18; 146-47

Other links:

Rochester Zen Center

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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