Ed Oberholtzer

Ed (Sanshin) Oberholtzer is a Soto priest teaching in the Joseph Priestley Zen Community in Northumberland, PA., the Greater Boston Zen Center, and the Empty Moon Zen Sangha. He is a Dharma heir of James Ford, and – as James was when I first met him some nine years ago – Ed is wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we speak. I ask if it’s a lineage thing. He doesn’t deny it.

“You know, old farts wear these,” he tells me. “We’re actually trying to reclaim them from the Boogaloo Boys.”

When I contacted him, I was aware that he held an affiliate position with the Unitarian Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley and was under the mistaken impression that – like James – he was combining a Unitarian ministry with Zen practice. It took me a while during the course of the interview to recognize my error. He has had a number of careers. He practiced law for ten years, worked in bookstores and libraries, but he has never been ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, although he’d probably be pretty good at.

He left law after recognizing that it was a career path he wasn’t suited for. “I realized that I wanted a profession that was not harmful, and it hit me that I could become a librarian. What could be less harmful than that? And, of course, it turns out that you can be incredibly harmful if you want to be.”

His quest for a spiritual practice came about after his father’s death. “It was one of those lingering affairs. He had COPD. I was by his bedside when he died, and I can remember thinking, ‘This is going to be me.’ You know? ‘What am I going to do about that?’” He was 40 at the time.

He tried a couple of meditation centers which didn’t seem a good fit. Then “I stumbled into the Cambridge Buddhist Association. There was a guy there at that time named Dharman Stortz.”

I don’t immediately recognize the name of the Cambridge group and ask about them.

“They’re Harvard,” Ed tells me. “That’s the best way to put it. The story that I was told was that in the ’50s a group of Harvard professors who had huge book collections wanted a place to keep them, and they created the Cambridge Buddhist Association, and they got D. T. Suzuki to be president.”

In the 1950s there had been a number of wealthy New Englanders – including John and Elsie Mitchell – who developed a semi-academic interest in Zen. The Cambridge group, I remembered, was established by the Mitchells.

“Anyway, I started sitting with Dharman. Dharman made it clear that he wasn’t a teacher and that you really needed a teacher, and I was desperately looking around for a Zen teacher. I started driving out to Zen Mountain Monastery, which was a four-hour drive to get there for a 9:00 service on Sundays.”

It wasn’t a very practical arrangement. Then he learned “they had a sitting group in Framingham that was easier to get to with a bunch of lay people. I went and sat with them, and, at one point, one of them said, ‘You know, there’s this guy who’s just shown up in the Boston area who does koan practice.” The guy was James Ford.

“He had a group that he was meeting at the church he had in West Newton, and there was kind of a satellite group with another teacher in a really, really appalling dark basement room in Sommerville. It was so small you couldn’t do kinhin.[1] When the bell rang, you stood and that was it because there was no place to actually walk. And once a month, James would come, and he would do dokusan.”

After a period of working with James, going through the koan curriculum, Ed decided upon another career path and sought ordination. I ask him what he imagined his role as a Soto priest would be.

“It was primarily pastoral. That’s what was really clear about what James had to offer and what he expected from the people he ordained. He sees us as ministers, as someone taking care of a congregation, of a sangha.”

Although his ordination is through the Soto lineage, Ed is also in the Harada/Yasutani lineage through James’ work with John Tarrant. Koan work is central to the latter but not necessarily. the former, and Ed has completed the Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum.

“Koan practice is fun,” he tells me. “It is an enormously amusing form of something that is deadly serious. And that if you can’t laugh . . . well . . .”

I ask what he sees the purpose of Zen practice to be, and he answers personally.  

“It’s about me wanting to know who I am.”

“And how does it help you do that?”

“I sit quietly, and I look. And I ask myself, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ My grandmother’s best friend was the registrar at the Harvard Business School for a long time, and I remember her sitting there and shaking her head and saying, ‘You know these people, they don’t have time to greet their own souls.’”

It’s a lovely phrase which stays with me for a long while after our conversation.

[1] Walking meditation.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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