Nancy Hathaway was a resident student of Seung Sahn in Providence at the same time as Bobby Rhodes. “We raised our babies together.” When I met her – several years before the pandemic – she was living in Maine and hosting a weekly meditation session at the Morgan Bay Zendo.
I ask her how her sits differed from other opportunities offered at the zendo at that time.
“That’s a good question. The Kwan Um School of Zen has its own traditions. And there’s an etiquette here, in this zendo, that’s used on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, so I’m incorporating the Kwan Um Zen School traditions into this setting but trying not to make it too disruptive to people who sit both. So, for example, we chant the Evening Bell Chant. It’s a special Kwan Um School bell chant. If someone were to ask for instruction, I would give them Kwan Um School of Zen, Dae Soen Sa Nim, Zen instruction. Which all goes to the same place, but . . .”
Susan Guilford – a board member at Morgan Bay and the person who organized my first visit there – is with us, and both she and Nancy stress that, while the Morgan Bay Zendo has hosted teachers from various lineages, it has avoided establishing a resident teacher since Walter Nowick resigned in 1985.
“I think there is, in fact, a little resistance to having a teacher,” Nancy tells me. “In the past, there’s been resistance to the word ‘teacher’ and having a teacher. My guess is that people here have just sort of had it with teachers.”
The issue of what the term “teacher” implies in a Zen context is frequently challenging. I know, for example, that Nancy leads retreats at the zendo, and I ask if the people who attend those don’t look upon her as a teacher. She admits they probably do but points out that she is only one teacher among others. Hugh Curran, she points out, also teaches at the zendo.
Susan senses the difficulty I’m having with this. “Nancy and I are very good friends, but I don’t think of her or her role here as ‘teacher’ with a capital T. Or Hugh. I think of it as lower-case t. I think of Nancy’s role in this context as a person who has tremendous wisdom and in other parts of her life teaches, does workshops, is part of the Kwam Um Zen School.”
“So you are officially a teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School?” I ask Nancy.
“I’m trained in the Kwan Um Zen School to be a teacher. I think that’s an important fact. I don’t talk about it much, because people think of me as a peer, and that word ‘teacher’ has held so much . . . Walter was the teacher. So that relationship to ‘teacher’ is very powerful.”
Susan explains that at that time the zendo still occasionally received requests from people seeking to do personal retreats at the location. It’s a service that they hoped to explore further, recognizing that if it did so, it would require someone to be resident on the site.
“A caretaker?” I ask.
“We’d call him a resident manager or something,” Nancy says.
“But not a teacher. You’re not looking for someone guests can go to and ask for spiritual guidance.”
“I think that’s the last thing that Morgan Bay Zendo wants.”
While there are people here to whom those guests could turn to if they wished, the goal remains to maintain the zendo without a central authority figure. It’s a model I find appealing.
I ask Nancy what, in her view, the purpose of Zen is. “What’s its function? What’s it do?”
“So, it’s sitting here talking to you.”
The three of us laugh.
“Let’s say I’m someone from the area who just drops by to find out what’s going out here,” I suggest, “I’ve known you were here for a while, and I’m just curious. So I come out and ask, ‘What’s this all about?’”
“Yeah, I would probably give that answer, and then he would want more, would ask for more, and I would explain that Zen is a practice, and we’re a practice center, and it’s to encourage, to cultivate the mind that’s before thinking and to open to what we call in this school ‘not knowing.’ Master Seung Sahn was really big on ‘Only go straight don’t know.’”
“And what good does that do?”
“It allows me to sit here and talk to you without going into my thinking and thinking about, ‘I wonder what I’m going to have for dinner tonight?’ I just start thinking, like, ‘Who is this guy I’m talking to?’ So it allows me to be here, talking, talking with you.”