There are those – whether ordained or not – for whom teaching Zen is a career. Other teachers – again, lay or ordained – need to have a job on the side to pay the bills. Still others pursue an entirely different professional life while teaching on the side. And there are those who teach for a while then quietly pull away.
I visited the Victoria Zen Center in Sooke, British Columbia, on April 1st, 2013. It was Joshu Sasaki’s 106th birthday; he would live another year, dying at the age of 107. Sasaki was the Zen teacher who made national headlines the previous year – 2012 – when it was confirmed that he had long been engaged in sexual interference with several of his female students. The man who revealed the extent of the problem was Eshu Martin, the teacher I’d come to Sooke in order to interview.
The center was in his home, a small wooden house on a lot with a second building used for rentals. The path to the front door is lined with a statue of Kannon and a couple of garden gnomes. I knock on the door of the rental house and a young boy, approximately eleven years old, comes out of the other house and asks if he can help me. He introduces himself as Eshu’s son and directs me to the correct building. He, his mother, and his younger sister, leave as I arrive. “I hope it goes well, Dad,” he calls as they get into their car.
Eshu is 6’4”, with a shaved head, but a well-developed auburn beard. He has a deep belly laugh. The house is both his family’s living space and the zendo. We sit at a moveable table in the dining area, next to the kitchen. It is very much family space. There are colored eggs on the table and Easter decorations on the wall. A central fireplace separates this space from a small zendo that sits 12; if the dining table and chairs are removed on this side of the fireplace, there is room for another ten. His bedroom, downstairs, has a double mattress on the floor which he takes out into the hall so the room can be used for sanzen.
Eshu was raised in Pickering, Ontario. When he was nine, his mother went into a coma, and he prayed for her recovery. When she died, he became very angry and began acting out. He became a vandal and started using drugs early. He was 15 when his father remarried, and he would wake every morning and think about how he was going to make his stepmother miserable that day. Eventually he became involved in martial arts, discovering that it was a better way to work off his anger than destruction of property.
The martial arts instructor gave him a book which provided the philosophical background to their discipline. In it he found the story of the two monks – Tanzan and Ekido – who come upon a young woman unable to cross a stream because the bridge had been washed out. The elder monk, Tanzan, picked the girl up and carried her across; the younger monk, Ekido, fretted about this all day until at last he asked, “How could you do that?” Tanzan said, “I put the girl down back at the stream. You’ve been carrying her all this distance.” Eshu becomes a little emotional retelling the story. “It made me realize that it was me who had been carrying all that anger for so many years.” It was his introduction to Zen. He bought a copy of Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen and began following its instructions on how to sit.
By that time he had a girl friend, later to be his wife, and they decided they needed to leave Pickering. She had some contacts in British Columbia, so that was where they went. And in Victoria he found a notice for the Victoria Zen Center. He went there and found the membership was made up of a number of elderly women who sat for a short period on their meeting evenings and then had tea. “Each evening the session ended with a discussion about who would be responsible for bringing the tea next time and who would bring the cookies. It drove me nuts.”
Eventually he began working with Eshin Godfrey, Abbot of the Vancouver Zen Center. Godfrey was a student of Joshu Sasaki and arranged for Martin to go down to Sasaki’s residential community at Mount Baldy. The training there was severe, but Martin took to it easily. The regime worked for him, and he decided that he wanted to stay and become a monk. He phoned his girl friend, who was then working at a L’Arche community and told her his decision. Then he met with Sasaki and asked to be ordained. Sasaki told him, “No. You go back to Victoria. Get married. Then we think about monk.” Eshu called his girl friend and proposed.
Eshu eventually disaffiliated from Sasaki’s order. After a period of training with Genjo Marinello in Seattle, Eshu was appointed abbot and teacher of the Zenwest Buddhist Society, a position he resigned from five years later. He is now a consulting hypnotherapist with Monarch Trancework in Sooke and Victoria.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 15, 43-44, 46, 47, 50, 52, 84, 98-115, 203, 468
The Story of Zen: 326