Richard Shrobe

It was at the suggestion of Bobby Rhodes that I made contact with Richard Shrobe. I found him listed in Wikipedia as Wu Kwang Soen Sa Nim. Members of the Kwan Um school had also referred to Seung Sahn as “Soen Sa Nim”. So when our conversation began, I asked Richard if he were now the head of the order. He admitted that he probably was for North America, but that, in fact, Bobby Rhodes was the Head of the Order. Well, I had missed that entirely during my conversation with her.

Soen Sa Nim, it turns out, is a title meaning Zen Master. Soen is the same as Zen; Sa means master; and nim is an honorific. So when members of the school used it to refer to Seung Sahn—or to Richard or to Bobby—it was much like members of Japanese Schools referring to their teacher as “Roshi.” Both Richard and Bobby wear the title lightly. At the time I spoke to them, they also both had “day jobs” by which they support themselves. Kwan Um teachers don’t make a career of it. Bobby Rhodes was a hospice nurse. Richard was a psychotherapist. One gets the sense that the Korean school, on the whole, is a little less stiff, a little less formal, than Japanese schools can be at times.

Richard is a former jazz musician and hard-drug user. “The two kind of went together.” When he realized he needed to do something about his life, he, his wife, and young daughter moved into a Hindu Community run by Satchidananda. It was the ’60s. Satchidananda was the opening speaker at the 1969 “Woodstock Music and Arts Festival”—the one with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplan, and the Jefferson Airplane.

Five years later, Richard decided that the Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga program wasn’t doing all that he’d hoped it would, so the family moved out. Later, he learned about Master Seung Sahn and found his teacher.

He had been raised in a Jewish household. I ask how his family responded to his interest in Eastern religions.

“Well, I think,” he says with a laugh, “the fact I wasn’t using drugs anymore meant something. But also I remember periodically my father would ask me—both when I was practicing with Swami Satchidananda and later when I was practicing with Seung Sahn—he would ask me things like, ‘Is Zen a religion or a way of life?’”

“It’s a good question,” I admit.

“Right. And I remember one day asking him, well, exactly how did he see the difference in those two? You know? And first I would initially answer him it was more a way of life than an organized religion as such. But that’s not totally true either. But—you know—it’s true to a large degree, I think. But he never had an answer when I put it back on him.”

Richard wasn’t, he admits, one of the students who went out of his way to attend every retreat or rush off to Korea. He made it clear early on that he was intent on balancing family, career, and his Zen practice. But he was committed to the practice, and eventually Seung Sahn gave him inka—the first of two stages of authorization. The second—transmission—came some time later.

When I ask Richard what the function of Zen is, he tells me: “Zen is a practice of becoming clear, returning to your original mind before concept, opinion, and idea.” It is the same answer I’ve received from teachers in Japanese-based lineages. I ask Richard if he believes there’s any difference in the way the Japanese Schools and the Korean School approach this function. “Not fundamentally. The flavor might be a little different in terms of the cultural underpinnings.”

An interesting aspect of Kwan Um training is that, before a student is given inka, he or she is sent to visit a number of Japanese Zen sites in North America to undertake Dharma Combat with the teachers in those centers. Richard sat sesshin with Taizan Maezumi, Eido Shimano, and others.

The Kwan Um School makes use of the same koan (kong-an in Korean) collections as the Japanese Rinzai—the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff Record. But their approach is a little different. Early in their training, students are assigned an initial kong-an such as “What is it?” which if dwelled upon with sufficient sincerity and perseverance will help the student arrive at what they call “Don’t Know Mind.”

“It’s like the story of Bodhidharma,” Richard tells me, referring to the opening case in the Blue Cliff Record. “When he’s before the Emperor Wu, and the Emperor asks him, ‘Who are you?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘Don’t know.’”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 423-438

Other Links:

Chogye International Zen Center of New York

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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