Great Tree Zen Temple in North Carolina is specifically intended to be a women’s residential center. The teacher is Teijo Munnich, a former Roman Catholic nun and Dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri. In 2018 there were several guests at the temple but only two permanent residents, Teijo and Chimyo Atkinson. Chimyo tells me that her official position is Head of Practice. When I ask what that means, she says, “I’m basically the . . . well . . . everything. Ino [manager], chiden [caretaker], tenzo [cook], tanto [assistant to the teacher], everything, because there’s only two of us living here.
“Our mission at Great Tree Zen Women’s Temple states that it’s a way of allowing the feminine to manifest itself in a way some may not have been allowed to in the past – ancient and recent – simply because, as in anything in society, it’s kind of dominated by men. And so the feminine aspect of what Zen could look like hasn’t – maybe – been nurtured as much as it needed to be or celebrated as much as it needed to be. So here’s a place where, because it is centered on women and women’s practice, you see what comes up, what it looks like, and how is it different – if at all – from the way men’s practice manifests itself. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be different, but we’re trying to give it a chance to develop and be what it can be.”
“What are the women who come there looking for?” I ask.
“I think they’re looking for compassion and empathy. They’re looking for a place where they feel comfortable and safe in doing their spiritual practice, whatever that is. They have a sort of a sense of community with us in a non-intellectual way. We do our study groups, and we can get heady in those, but I think – mostly because of Teijo – they feel a warmth and a nurturing here that is maybe unusual at some American Zen centers.
“People have this incomplete idea of what Zen is, and I think they come sometimes looking for that. The sort of peace, bliss, kind of thing. I think the people that stick around are looking for community and looking for a place to be that is open, where they don’t feel judged, and can just have a conversation about anything, really, with people who care. Our main practice is shikan taza, but it’s also being able to be with each other and comfort each other when we need to.”
“Is there a connection between shikan taza and the capacity to develop compassion and empathy?” I ask.
“Well, the whole point of doing this practice is to develop compassion, to develop that sense of interconnectedness and empathy for each other. That’s where the clarity comes from, so that you can act from that compassion, so that you can act from that understanding of connectedness.”
“If someone shows up for the first time and asks, ‘What’s this going to do? How is this going to make me more compassionate?’ How do you respond?” Chimyo doesn’t immediately answer. “Maybe she just needs some kind of assurance, needs her anxieties assuaged a little bit before she can commit to trying this.”
“I can’t give you that assurance. Because it is your experience that will bring that about. Maybe this is or is not the practice for you; maybe this is or is not the practice for you at this time. Everybody has a door. We are here to help you find that door. There is no guarantee. There is no goal here and no instruction that we can give you other than sit down and experience the world. You know, how do you tell someone how to ‘go in and go through’ in Zen practice?” She laughs. “That’s all I can say. You sit down, and you sit with your fears and you sit with your discomfort and you sit with your dukkha and all that and you work with it. All I can say to a person who comes to Great Tree is to sit down and try it.”
I ask if the Temple has anything to offer that can’t be found elsewhere.
“Not a thing. What do we offer? We offer you a cushion and a room to sit in. That’s it. I mean, what else can we say? We offer you a cushion in a room and our support in doing this, our support and empathy in doing this practice. We offer the guidance that comes from our experience, which is just our experience. Nothing that is magical or scientific or any of those things. Just our experience. And a little faith in the Buddha’s word that there is a way beyond suffering.”
“And what is your hope for the women who come here?”
“I hope that they are able to find their way to a lifelong practice in this tradition or any other. I’m hoping that they find a refuge with us. I’m hoping that they find a way to share their own wisdom in the world, because that’s part of it. A lot of times in a de facto male-dominated situation, women are reluctant or not encouraged or outright prevented from sharing the wisdom that they have. And I hope that I myself can learn from whoever walks in that door, because everybody brings something. Whether they practice forever or whether they’re just discovering it.”
“A lifelong practice to what end?”
“To what end? To relieving their suffering and the suffering in the world.”
“Not awakening or kensho or whatever you want to call it?”
“You can find those things, but compassion and benefit to the world, what else is there? What else is there?”
The Story of Zen: 413-19
Zen Conversations: Pp. 69-70.