Gerardo Gally is a lay teacher in the Kapleau lineage and the director of Casa Zen in Mexico City.
He explains that he first encountered Zen through his wife. “About six months into marriage, I felt curious about why did she get up at six in the morning to sit facing a wall. And it was a small group then – still small – and a nice, collegial environment. She went to sesshin one day, and I decided to try.”
So while she was away, Gerardo sat by himself, but it was difficult.
“And she said, ‘Oh, maybe you want to go to the next retreat.’ The next sesshin, which was a four-day sesshin with Roshi Kapleau.”
The marriage didn’t last, but Gerardo remained with the practice and became the de facto leader of the Mexico City community. Then he attended a sesshin with Kapleau in Costa Rica. “And he asked me, ‘Well, you are in charge of the group in Mexico.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you must know how to time.’ I said, ‘Well, I can do that. Twelve rounds. I can do that. But all the rest, I don’t have a clue.’ And he says, ‘Oh, okay. Here’s the bell. You go down there to the garden and practice.’ And I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ But I learned that being the timer really nails you to time. And you cannot go to sleep. You cannot just doze off. You just gotta be there. And that turned around my practice. It was a gift.”
He started attending sesshin in Rochester. “I just got into it. And no matter what, I kept going and I kept going, going. I don’t know where the persevering, the willingness, the being engaged in the practice came from. I don’t have a clue. But what I do know is that it started to help me. My life got better. I married. I have two children. And jobs and the whole thing. And I just kept practising. And got through the system of koans and all that. And practised. Did this. Did that. And I kept going for sesshin, and in 2002 Bodhin Kjolhede became my teacher. He’s one year older than I am. He asked me if I wanted to be a teacher. He didn’t want to travel so much. He wanted to let his students who were in charge of other groups just take over. And I said yes, and I started teaching. So I’m still teaching. So I’m a firm believer – because of my own experience – I believe there’s a way for lay people, outside the monasteries or outside a formal setting such as Rochester, we can go through the hoops and the loops and practice. That’s where I am.”
The group he works with in Mexico City, he tells me, has a great sense of community.
“Let me describe how we start sesshin because it’s kind of different. The first night – we start on a Friday – and we start sitting informally and then we have a bonfire so that everybody can relax and talk and catch up on each other and what you’ve been doing and being able to talk, especially people from outside Mexico City. And then the next day we start with sitting and breakfast and it’s informal, and we keep going and going until we have the opening ceremony. And then we keep silence. But we start very slowly so that people can really create a sense of community. Not only because of the practice itself, the intensity of the practice, because of the silence of the practice and the deep connection you develop there.”
I ask what it is he hopes for for those who practice with him.
“To awaken to their Buddha Nature. That’s what I say every day in different ways and step by step and by example – giving examples – and trying to be a living example of what it means. And trying to get them to see that all their struggles are part of the path. By the way, because we are a small sangha, I can give longer dokusans. I’m not in a rush with dokusan. I don’t give them more than what they need, but they’re longer dokusans, and I can put much more about daily life. And so that’s where I really try to inspire. It’s a lay practice, what I’m doing here, and so it has to be significant for a lay person.”
He speaks emotionally about the way in which he has personally benefited from practice. “It just gets deeper and deeper in the practice; despite being practising for 38 years, there’s still much more to discover; it’s endless in that sense. It has the power to change how we are, who we are, and gives us this tremendous personal freedom to be free of our own attachments that will take us to the next century and beyond that. And that’s what we really need to teach is not only the forms but how to use those forms to transform. It can’t just be the shell. It can’t just be the structure. We have to teach how to use the structure. How to use the sitting. How to use our inner resources to become Zen people.”