I first met Patrick Gallagher in 2013 when I had arranged to interview Sister Elaine MacInnes, the first Canadian to receive Dharma transmission. She was living in a home on the east side of Toronto for members of Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns associated with the Scarboro Fathers. She had asked Patrick to join us, and, just as I pulled up in front of the house, he arrived by bike. Later I asked him how much courage it took to ride a bike in an urban environment. He laughed the question off, but I had been serious. I hadn’t found Toronto motorists to be particularly considerate.
Since that first meeting, Patrick has moved up through the teaching ranks of the Sanbo Zen lineage, even though he – like Sister Elaine – does not consider himself a Buddhist as such. He remains a practicing Roman Catholic. And yet his promotions as a teacher have come fairly rapidly. “Embarrassingly fast,” he tells me. He is currently the principal teacher at three communities, Oak Tree in the Garden in Toronto, as well as groups in Hamilton and Ottawa.
His first opening experience occurred about three years after he started study with Sister Elaine. I ask him about the time he spent in the zendo before that opening, whether he had found practice immediately rewarding or if it had just been drudgery.
“I wouldn’t say it was drudgery, but it was a definite act of commitment on my part, to persist. I will tell you a story though about how things work when you’re unaware of it. I hadn’t been doing it all that long – less than a year, I think – and there was some kind of event, I don’t remember what it was, and for some reason my wife was there, and I introduced her to Sister Elaine. And Sister Elaine asked her, ‘Have you noticed any change in Patrick?’ And I thought until then that I’d been unsuccessfully trying this Zen stuff, and it was hard work, and I wasn’t sure I was doing it right, and all that kind of thing. And to my astonishment, Nikki said, ‘Well, if I didn’t know he was the same man, I’d think he was a different man from the one I’d married.’ And you could’ve picked me up off the floor. I felt I was exactly the same. But apparently I was changing.”
When I ask him to describe the opening experience, he finds it difficult to express in words. After some hesitation, he tells me, “In its simplest terms, I had an experience where I was no longer there, and yet I was there.” He doesn’t put a lot of weight on that initial experience, however, pointing out that, “When people have some kind of experience or insight that’s just the beginning of the work; that isn’t the end of the work. You really have to nourish that and feed it and work on it. You’re not transformed instantly into St. Francis. You’re still the same miserable cuss you were before. You need to work on it.”
Awakening, he explains, isn’t an event. It’s a process, and a process which, to be meaningful, needs to be expressed in one’s life in some manner. “I tell people this often: if this has no implications, if this has no consequences in your life off the cushion, then it’s just an eccentric habit. It’s like a weird form of stamp collecting. It must be alive in your life. I have no doubt about that. And to the extent that it is alive in your non-cushion life, it’s alive in you.”
In his orientation talks to new students, Patrick describes what he calls the Three Fruits of Zen: Joriki [or concentration], kensho [awakening], “and then making it active in your life. Making it part of your life.”
I’m curious about how he sees students “making it part of their lives.” He admits he doesn’t have a lot of contact with many of the students outside the zendo, but he does observe them interacting when they are at the center, and his impression is that continued practice brings about change. “People seem kinder, more patient. The longer they practice, the more open they are to one another. And I’ve also noticed that when people are not that way, they seem often to be stuck in their practice too. The two go together. It’s not first this happens, and then this other thing happens as a result. The two work together. They’re two sides of one coin in a way.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 140-45
Catholicism and Zen: 95-96, 182-92
Zen Conversations: 132.