At the inauguration of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo last April, Karen Do’on Weik received “denbo,” the second stage in full authorization within the Soto tradition. Do’on is the wife of the temple’s abbot, Rinsen Weik. They met in an aikido class. “I punched him,” she tells me. She was studying to become an Episcopalian priest at the time.
Her first encounter with Buddhism occurred during a high school outing to the Rhode Island School of Design.
As she describes her childhood, it sounds like a novel written by one of the Brontë sisters. She was born in a mental hospital where her mother abandoned her two weeks after her birth. When she was about a year old, and the authorities could not locate her mother, she was placed in foster care. “I think I probably couldn’t talk or walk and probably wasn’t that responsive to much because they sent me to a foster home for handicapped children. So I grew up with mentally and physically challenged kids. You can see how this all threw me back on my own resources.”
She was eventually adopted – as a four-year-old – by a family which, as she puts it, had its own issues. Her adoptive family was Catholic, as her birth mother had been, and Do’on found solace in church services. “I loved the security of it. I loved the ritual of it. I loved being able to sit inside that ritual and have it work on me. Because I knew what was coming, I didn’t have to do a lot of extra work. I could just sit in the ritual and let it just wash over me and work on me.”
Then when she was in high school, her class visited RISD.
“They have a lovely museum there. And that’s what we were there to see. The largest wooden Buddha in the country is there. I distinctly remember walking into this room and sitting down with the Buddha, and I was like . . .” She makes a face of open-mouthed astonishment. “That level of peace, and that level of, ‘Yes,’ of fundamental okayness. I recognized that I’d been functioning with that for a long time. At the same time as the tears and the trauma. I immediately recognized that.”
“You recognized that as a state that you were personally familiar with?” I asked.
“Yes. That was what was sustaining me.”
When she was seventeen, a friend took her to a Zen gathering hosted by Richard Clarke, a controversial student of Philip Kapleau who – it is generally held – began teaching without Kapleau’s authorization to do so. But the practice appealed to her, and she found Clarke a supportive teacher. So she began sitting regularly and attending sesshin. She had also enrolled in Divinity School, leaving when she realized it wasn’t a good fit.
After meeting Rinsen, she accompanied him to retreats at Zen Mountain Monastery. They had the opportunity to work with Daido Loori and, later, Myotai Treace. But the situation became difficult after her daughter was born, and she was no longer able to attend regularly.
Eventually she and Rinsen came to study with Melissa Blacker and James Ford at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester. They became so deeply involved in the practice that eventually Melissa told them, “‘Hey. You guys are priests. You’re doing it. So let’s just ordain you.’ We’d been studying for decades and were doing the retreats at Lourde’s College, which is a nunnery basically, and we decided to do the ordination at the nunnery. So, I think I’m the only woman to get ordained as a priest in a convent.”
I ask her what her responsibilities are now that she has received denbo.
“Well, my primary responsibility,” she tells me, “is to fully inhabit Buddhahood.” She resists any efforts to get her to be more specific. It is, for her, a matter of embodying the Dharma.
“You’d considered being an Episcopal priest at one time,” I point out. “Is there a pastoral aspect to your work with students now?”
“I’m just there for them. It’s just living my life and making my life available for everybody. So my priesthood is like, ‘My hands are for you. My eyes are for you. My brain is for you. My life is for you.’”
I ask how she expects Zen practice to impact people.
“I fully expect that everyone is going to recognize they are a Buddha.”
“That’s your hope for your students?”
She nods her head. “Yeah. That everybody fully awakens to their Buddhahood. Buddhas are here to make sure all people are Buddhas. So you are constantly giving your practice away, and God knows there’s plenty of work to do.”