Santa Fe architecture, even for private homes, largely adheres to a handful of local styles—Pueblo, Mission, and what they refer to as “Territorial.” The Mountain Cloud Zen Center on the Old Santa Fe Trail is in Pueblo style: thick adobe walls, flat roof, softly rounded corners, and projecting viga rafters. It was built by Philip Kapleau and a handful of volunteers – including Mitra Bishop – in the mid-1980s. Kapleau had not enjoyed the winters in Rochester and hoped the New Mexico climate would be more congenial. The building is small but appealing with a zendo, just inside the front door, which seats twenty-two on a raised tan.
As it happened, conditions in Rochester required Kapleau to return there, and he didn’t get back to Santa Fe. A small group of practitioners, however, remained and maintained the zendo and their practice without a teacher for next twenty-eight years. The membership diminished over time, until there were only three people left. One was a man named Will Brennan who learned of a student of Albuquerque Zen teacher, Joan Rieck, who had been recently authorized to teach in the Sanbo Zen tradition.
Henry Shukman was born and raised in Oxford, England. He is lean and flexible with an easy and good-humored manner. When I show him the first photo I take of him, he declares it much too serious, and we do another. When I look at the Mountain Cloud website sometime later, I see that second photo alongside his bio.
When he was eighteen years old, his father thought a period of manual labor would be good for his son and arranged for him and a friend to work on a ranch in Argentina. After a year on the farm, “when we’d got enough money, and we’d done our time, we put on our backpacks and hitchhiked from the end of the drive—literally, the end of the farm drive—and went north into Bolivia and traveled right across the Altiplano.” The trip became the basis of his first book, Sons of the Moon.
One day he was watching the sunlight on the ocean off the coast of Ecuador when he had what he called a “run of the mill experience of oneness” which left him feeling “flooded with love, and that love seemed to be everywhere.” There is still some excitement in his voice as he describes the event. His narrative reminds me of a story Melissa Blacker had told me in Worcester, and my own experience in 1971 sitting on a metal bench outside a cottage called Birkenbrae in Fredericton.
But while he was certain this experience was the answer to everything, he did not know what to do with it. He uses the word “suffering” to describe the next ten years, during which he alternately tried to forget about the experience or sought to address it without knowing how to.
He came to New Mexico for the first time in order to research a book on D. H. Lawrence. “Which is the only place he ever owned a home. And while I was here, I very quickly met some very nice people, one of whom was a Zen student, actually a student of Katagiri’s. And one evening we were sitting on our porch downtown, and she was reading to me a passage of Dogen, who I’d never heard of ’til that day. And it was totally bewildering, and I couldn’t forget it.” Although the passage didn’t immediately make sense to him, Shukman realized it was based in the same kind of understanding he had come to on the seaside in Ecuador, and he felt compelled to investigate Zen.
For the next eight years or so, he sat with a variety of teachers both in America and England but wasn’t drawn to accept any of them as his personal teacher until he met John Gaynor. As he tells the story, he muses for a moment on what it is that draws one to a particular teacher. In his case, he says, it was that Gaynor’s Zen was free of the Japanese trappings common elsewhere. Henry knew from his original experience that whatever this was, it was not something limited to a particular culture or people.
Gaynor introduced him to Joan Rieck, with whom he worked after he returned to New Mexico in order to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He later studied with the abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan school, Ryoun Yamada Roshi – the son of Yamada Koun – in Japan. When he was finally authorized to take his own students, he was recruited by Brennan to come to the Mountain Cloud Center.
When I visited in 2013, Mountain Cloud was only a year old, but was already showing signs of vigor. Five years later, I had an opportunity to chat with Henry again and asked about the Center’s growth.
“Well, of course, one never knows how stable and durable it might be, and the assumption might be ‘neither.’ But if you look at numbers, our sangha – our membership – has been growing quite significantly or quite undeniably over the last five/six years. When I first arrived at Mountain Cloud, we were two, three, four, five people. You know, seven people was a big night. And that was sitting once a week, and now we have a sit every weekday, and we have several other events each week as well. And on a major weekday night, it can be well over forty people. That’s not at all uncommon.”
That was, of course, prior to the pandemic.
Under other circumstances, Mountain Cloud is a center I believe I would feel at home in. The stripped-down characteristics of Sanbo Zen – which derives from the Harada-Yasutani lineage – makes sense to me. It is the style of Zen to which I’d been introduced by Albert Low, who was also in that lineage. The focus is on lay practice; most teachers are lay; the paraphernalia of priestcraft is downplayed. As Henry put it in a recent correspondence, “Sanbo Zen is rather narrow in its focus, which is basically on the awakening process through koan training.”
What more does there need to be?
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 145-154, 173, 174, 213, 377, 473
Zen Conversations: 40-41; 60-63; 85-86; 108-09