The person who organized my first visit to the Morgan Bay Zendo in Surry, Maine, was Susan Guilford. We speak about how she first learned about Walter Nowick and what was then still called Moonspring Hermitage.
“I was living in a commune in Cambridge,” she tells me. “It was a Zen group. We had a zendo in the house and had meals together and so forth.” They were not, however, affiliated with a formal teacher. “We were just people living in Cambridge who wanted to have a place to sit together and so on. It was the 1970s,” she explains with a laugh. “Anyway, one of the people who lived there for a few months was moving up here to Maine. I hadn’t heard of Walter Nowick, but we remained friends and maybe a year and a half later I came up to see him and to see what was going on. And I just met Walter very, very briefly, and then I was put to work on the roof of one of the cabins here. That was it. I was put to work for the day and ended up boarding—I had never done much carpentry work, but it was easy enough to follow directions—I ended up boarding a roof exactly above where my bed would be when I moved to Surry. I was, in effect, boarding my own roof.
“I never did get to see Walter again that day. He’d intended to have us come back down to the farm and talk with him, but he was busy or he just forgot. So I didn’t see him. And then I came back a couple of years later with this same friend. He was no longer living here; we’d just come back because he wanted to see the farm again. And I went to a concert in the barn where Walter played the piano. He used to have Sunday evening concerts in the summertime, pretty much every Sunday night. I mean, having used his hands running a sawmill and all of the farm chores, somehow he would manage to sit down and play just beautifully. And very informal. We sat on kind of a conglomeration of chairs that were in the barn. There’d be hay stacked in the corner and occasionally a chicken walking in and out.So that was my second time. And I was teaching in Boston and just made up my mind that the thread in my life that seemed to be continuing was Zen practice, and I wanted to pursue that more intensively.”
“Had you worked with any other teachers prior to Walter?” I ask.
“Not really. I hadn’t really looked for a teacher. I was affiliated with the Providence Zen Center in Cambridge because the zendo was just a few blocks from where I was living, and it was a convenient place to sit. But I honestly wasn’t looking for a teacher.” She pauses. “There was something about what I had heard about Walter from this friend who’d been up here. It was intuition more than anything.”
She moved to the hermitage, and it was here that she met her future husband, Charles.
“I had intended always to support myself when I was here. It actually never occurred to me not to do that. I had a teaching certificate, and I had a master’s degree, and I looked for a teaching job when I arrived. Which I got. So my first two years here, I was actually commuting 25 miles to a rural school and doing Zen practice. Which is difficult. And on the weekends, I would work on the farm, and, in the summer, I could work on the farm as well. So, I had something of both.”
“What was Walter like as a teacher?”
There is a long pause before she answers. “Well, there’s the formal practice. Walter, as Zen master, we encountered when we were having sanzen [personal interviews]. And that was a rather formal affair. We would actually have sanzen and koan practice, and it was—I suppose—somewhat akin to what would happen in Japan. But Walter’s way of translating Zen, for this motley crew of ’70s folk who were coming back to the land and discovering Zen and all, was to really modify a lot of what went on. But this part was pretty formal. We would go in the sanzen house and bow and present our answer to the koan. Walter was in black robes and very . . .” – she laughs – “. . . you know, very intense.”
A little later she tells me, “Walter was, I’d say, the most honest person I’ve ever encountered. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that I felt would reflect back to me what he was seeing. Not by saying, ‘This is what I’m seeing,’ but he would perceive what was really going on, and I trusted him to reflect that back accurately. So there was that formal side in the sanzen house; there was also working with him on the farm.”
“What did you get out of it all?” I ask.
“That’s a very hard question to answer. Walter stopped teaching at a time in my life when I was having children, so I was having to pull back at that time from the intensity of the practice. I wouldn’t have been able to sit in the zendo when he stopped. So I guess, as far as the koan study goes, I was sort of in the midst of it. It wasn’t finished. But once he stopped teaching, we stayed in touch, but the course of the relationship changed. What did I get out of it?” She reflects for a while.
“Well, let’s try it this way,” I suggest. “If someone had asked what they might get from the practice if they took it up, what would you say?”
“What would they get out of it? The opportunity to experience silence. Stillness. Seeing what arises in the mind. The opportunity to find that centered place. It’s kind of like jumping in the water and you settle down and your feet touch bottom. On the cushion, your feet are touching bottom. Whatever’s going on in your mind, whatever anxieties you have, or things are rolling around, it’s not that that will all stilled, but you’ll be very aware your mind is going.”