Taigen Henderson

The Toronto Zen Centre is on High Park Gardens in a well-to-do neighborhood on the west side of the city. I follow a stone path around the house to the back entrance passing carefully cultivated and maintained flower beds adorned with elegant Bodhisattva statues. Downstairs there is a Zendo (with about twenty-six places) and a Buddha Hall opposite. A student takes me up to a sun-room on the second floor where I meet Taigen Henderson. “It looks like the property taxes might be a bit steep here,” I say. He nods his head.

Taigen is a Dharma heir of Sunyana Graef, who had expressed surprise that I had not included him on the original list of teachers I had intended to visit. She had been right. It was a major oversight on my part.

The Toronto Zen Centre, the first affiliate center of the Rochester Zen Center, is also the first official Zen practice center to be established in Canada, and Taigen is the first Canadian teacher to be trained in Canada. “He wouldn’t tell you that,” one of his students informs me, “because he’s so humble.” I was aware of that humility while I talked with him, but I was also aware of his self-confidence. He’s a man with a lot of life experience who is very much at ease with where he is at this moment.

When I ask the two students I met afterwards to describe him, the first thing they both noted was that he was inspiring. “You think, wow, if I could be like that.” They tell me that he embodies the teaching.

I’ve heard other students describe their teachers in similar terms. Zen training does—if one persists in it—forms people of strong character. I suspect that, at least in part, it’s because these are people who know themselves deeply and have nothing to prove to anyone else. They are the “true man of no rank.”

I remark on his sense of humor. “He has a great sense of humor,” the students tell me, and has the ability to use that humor to lighten tension when things become challenging or difficult.

He has a very expressive face and is a wonderful story-teller. And he has some pretty amazing stories to tell: The story of spending several years in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when a young boy, at which time he got his first taste of Buddhism. “Somebody showed me a high school year book in which I said I wanted to be a Buddha when I grew up. I was just being a smart-alec at the time.” A story of spending months deep in the British Columbia interior, 200 miles from the nearest road, with two other young men. “We didn’t see one other human being in that time.” A story of working in an asbestos mine. “They were just realizing how dangerous this stuff was. In Toronto they were worried about brake-linings, and here I was sweeping asbestos dust half an inch thick up off the floor.” A story of waking up and seeing smoke pouring through a vent and realizing that the house next door was on fire. “The firemen came and broke the windows, and the house went up just like that. It made me aware just how impermanent life is, and I thought if I didn’t start doing something now, then when?” A similar sentiment is inscribed on the han outside the zendo.

He went to Rochester to do a workshop with Philip Kapleau and told Kapleau that he would like to train there for a while. Kapleau told him to stay in Canada. So he returned to Toronto and joined the affiliate branch here. He found work in the construction trades, doing house renovations. Eventually, he worked on providing low-income housing as well as training to homeless people. He also helped build some women’s shelters.

Sunyana Graef by this time had become the teacher in Toronto, while also maintaining centers in  Vermont and Costa Rica. Taigen expressed an interest in living a life more fully committed to practice, and she told him that it wasn’t time yet. His work with the homeless and women’s shelters was, after all, an example of Right Livelihood—the fifth step in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Eventually difficulties with a sub-contractor resulted in him leaving the trade, and then the time was right for ordination.

The Centre had been at another location, in a neighborhood where prices were low because of fears that an expressway was going to be built alongside. When the expressway plans were withdrawn, house prices jumped. The Centre was able to sell its place for $400,000, and purchase its current property for $350,000. At the time, it was also considered a less desirable neighborhood because of the occasional stench drifting in from nearby stock yards. When the stock yards were closed, house values went up. “The property is now probably worth $2,000,000,” Taigen admits.

It is axiomatic that when one enters the path, opportunities arise. At times, events occur which appear to support that axiom.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 346, 353-67, 369, 387, 389

Zen Conversations: 57; 149-50

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Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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