When I first met Dosho Port, he was still living and working outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, in a place called White Bear. It was not somewhere I was going to get to when I was doing my tour of centers in 2013, but, as chance has it, he was giving a workshop at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester on the same weekend I traveled to Montague to interview Bernie Glassman.
My wife, Joan, and I pulled up to the Temple on the morning after the workshop to find Melissa Blacker, David Rynick, and Dosho drinking coffee on the veranda. The clematis on the trellis behind the large Buddha in front of the Temple was in luxuriant bloom, and Melissa proudly showed us a Kannon statue that she’d recently rescued from a second-hand store.
The agreement I had made with Dosho was that we’d conduct the interview over breakfast and then Joan and I would drive him to Logan Airport.
After a long practice with Dainin Katagiri in the Soto tradition, Dosho went to Japan where he became involved in koan practice. He has continuing the practice with Melissa and David at Boundless Way. I remark that it’s a fair distance between Massachusetts and Minnesota, and he explains that he had done some of the work via Skype. Electronic dokusan. At the time it was a new concept, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
Dosho grew up in a devout Catholic family, and, when he ordained as a Buddhist priest, his grandmother blamed his mother, “She was completely fine with me, but she was mad with my mother for about a decade. She figured it wasn’t my fault that my mother had let me go astray.”
We continue the conversation in the car. Joan is driving. It is her first time in Boston, but, with one eye on the GPS and the other on the highway signs, she manages. Meanwhile, Dosho and I are discussing the way in which the koan curriculum operates. “Shikan taza is difficult,” he points out. referring to the objectless form of meditation preferred in the Soto school.
Years later, he will elaborate on this: “I think the purpose of koan introspection and just-sitting [shikan taza] combined with dignified behavior, the way it’s taught in Soto monasticism, are the same. But if the goal is to realize the same mind as Buddha and live accordingly – or ‘to practice awakening’ as Dogen put it – koan work is more effective for most householders than just-sitting.” “Householders” is the term used for lay Zen practitioners.
“What Harada Daiun Roshi and Yasutani Roshi did in the 20th century was simplify the Rinzai koan curriculum so that it was portable, so that practicing awakening as a householder was within reach of anyone who approached the work with persistence and skilled guidance. I don’t know that making it available to householders was their intention. It could be that they were just trimming the hedge that had grown up since Hakuin’s time, but that simplification, or refocusing, made it possible for English-speaking Westerners to do post-kensho koan training without being Chinese classics scholars.
“At about the same time, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and others were here trying to figure out how to teach people how to practice in householder life in the West, and so they simplified dignified-behavior training from the Soto monastic system in a way that was similar to what Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi had done with the koan curriculum. But, in my experience, without the monastic container, the impact of dignified-behavior training is rarely as effective as the koan curriculum. It just isn’t as obviously portable.”
On the way to Logan Airport, we discuss the difficulties some centers were having now that the first and second generation of teachers were no longer with them. A lot of the attraction of Zen in the early days had been based on those strong personalities. “I heard Leonard Cohen say that he felt such a connection with Joshu Sasaki that he would have learned shoe-making from him if he’d been a shoe-maker rather than a Zen Master. I like to think my relationship with Katagiri Roshi was like that,” Dosho tells me.
It strikes me, however, that it’s not just a matter of personality. In the same way that the youth drawn to Zen in the ’60s and ’70s were challenging the values of the previous generation, young inquirers into Zen today question some of the structures associated with it, including the Japanese cultural characteristics. “In the old days,” Dosho remembers, “when we’d meet people from other centers, we’d all compare how tough our training was. Now it’s almost the reverse. Now centers are vying with one another about how accommodating they can be. There was this young man at a talk I gave who raised his hand and asked, ‘Please, sir, what is the minimum amount of asceticism needed to practice Zen?’”
It is also, as Bobby Rhodes had pointed out, a more electronically engaged generation. And if dokusan can be done by Skype, why not experiment with other ways of using the internet to promote Zen?
We left Dosho at the airport in time to meet his plane, and time passed. We kept in contact, and Dosho briefly moved to Maine before settling in Omaha, where he is now the principle teacher at the Nebraska Zen Center. During his stint in Maine, I was able to visit him a couple of times, and even arranged to have him give a workshop in New Brunswick, where I live.
Then the teacher I had been working with, Albert Low, died in 2016, and after giving some thought to how I was going to proceed in my practice, I decided to continue my own koan work with Dosho by Zoom.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 118, 207, 409-21, 468-69, 476-77
The Story of Zen: 275, 439-443
Zen Conversations: 71; 90-91
Further Zen Conversations: 10; 49;55; 128-30; 155-56.
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