Tetsugan Zummach

I met Tetsugan Zummach when she and her husband, Dosho Port, were teaching at Great Tides Zen in Portland, Maine. She later explained that she began her study of Buddhism when she was still in her 20s, prompted by what she termed “an overall feeling of discontent”

“Discontent in what way?”

“Wondering, looking around and seeing my family and friends and the trajectories that they were on and just this feeling of dissatisfaction and ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ The idea of a successful life seemed to be going to college and getting a job, getting married, having kids, having a nice house, having a vacation house. The people that were around me at that time of my life, that seemed to be the level of success that they aspired to. But they didn’t seem all that happy, so I thought, ‘Really? This is all we have to look forward to?’ So I wanted something more, wondered if there was something more.”

One of the most striking changes that has occurred in Zen since it first arrived in the West is what draws people to it. If I ask teachers who are twenty years older than Tetsugan, they were largely drawn by the allure of awakening, kensho, enlightenment. When I ask Tetsugan what brings people to practice today, she explains that when they have introductory workshops, “We always start off the intros by going around asking people what is bringing them, what are they interested in, what do they want to get out of the session? And most people are dealing with some level of suffering. More and more people are struggling with anxiety, depression, stress. They want to learn how to deal with stress. They want to learn how to regulate their emotions. They want to learn how to be more calm and present. They want to know how to be more mindful. The secular mindfulness movement has really taken off, so they might’ve heard a little bit about mindfulness. They want to be more present in their lives. So that’s generally what we find.”

“Do big awakening experiences still occur?” I ask.

“I think they do. But it takes some time for people to shift from what I just described. They often come looking for well-being – and I think that’s an important doorway – but the heart of the practice is about the ground of being. So I think there’s a shift that needs to take place for people to go more deeply into the practice. Maybe they do clean up some parts of their lives. Have some stability. Gain some stability in order to go deeper. For some people that is needed. But it takes time. One of the things we emphasize is that you can’t expect to just dip a toe in once a week or every couple of weeks and have some grounding, let alone some kind of awakening. You need to have consistency and diligence in your practice. Dosho gave a talk recently, and he said, ‘It’s like the idea of you think you’re going to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But you rub for two seconds and then you stop.’ There’s no heat. There’s no spark. So consistency is really important.”

“So people come for ‘well-being,’” I say, “and then through immersion in the practice – though that’s not a term you used – but with engagement in the practice, they evolve to what? They start by seeking well-being and then discover what?”

“Well, I think in the beginning, and this was certainly true of me, I didn’t know anything about enlightenment or awakening. I read some books and heard a few stories, but I kind of dismissed that as ‘Oh, yes, that was for some Indian sages or whatever.’ So I think oftentimes when people come looking for that well-being, they don’t even know about the full potential of what Buddhism or Zen practice has to offer. And so I think there’s a learning curve that happens, and through consistently engaging with the practice, establishing a relationship with a teacher, I think those things help open up fields of opportunities and what’s possible.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 468-69, 476

Zen Conversations: 64-65

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Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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