Mountain Cloud Zen Center

Mountain Cloud outside of Santa Fe has recently been designated the hub Sanbo Zen community in North America, although for many years it was barely hanging on.

The building was constructed in mid-1980s by members of Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center who skillfully and beautifully combined the structure of a traditional Japanese zendo with local architectural features such as exposed vega beams and adobe walls.  It was intended as a place for Kapleau to retire to, although that didn’t work out as he had hoped.

I think there were two factors that entered into his leaving after a year,” Mitra Bishop tells me.

One was the situation in Rochester where the person left in charge – Toni Packer – realized she could no longer claim to be a Buddhist. The other had to do with the community that had formed in Santa Fe.

“I picked him up at the airport when he moved here. We’d already bought a house for him and renovated it to work for him, but I took him directly to a picnic that the sangha had planned as a welcome for him.  At the picnic, one of the sangha members – one of the local sangha members – stood up and said, ‘Roshi, we love having you here. We want to have you here. But we don’t want you to tell us what to do.’ He quietly took it in.”

Will

When I visited Mountain Cloud in 2013, the teacher – Henry Shukman – and Mitra both told me about Will Brennan; it would be another nine years, however, before I meet him. Will is from Chicago where, after a short stint in the Peace Corps in the late 1970s, he first encountered Zen Practice at a local center maintained by Wally Muszynski. “Wally was really part of the Rochester Zen Center,” Will tells me, “and he was stern. But there was some sweetness underneath there. But when I sat down there in the zendo – oh, boy! – I knew I was home. I knew I was home; however, I got the impression, ‘Well, yeah, this is the practice, but this,’” he laughs, “‘this is not the group I want to work with.’ I’m an intimate fellow. I’m one of these touchy, huggy guys. And I didn’t feel it there.

“But I was down in the basement one day about three or four months after I started – that’s where we hung our coats – and I noticed a sign, and it said, ‘Zen Center starting up in Santa Fe, New Mexico.’ And I said, ‘Oh, shit! I had a dream one time about New Mexico.’ So, I immediately got my airplane ticket.”

The group in Santa Fe was very different from the people he had met in Chicago and Rochester. “Everyone was laughing, everyone was smiling. I stayed here for a week – stayed in Santa Fe for a week – and I knew immediately that, ‘Yeah. This is my home. This is where I’m going to practice with these people.’”

But first he needed to return to Chicago to tie up some business, including explaining to Lucie – the woman he was seeing at the time – that he was moving to New Mexico. The next thing he knew, she had packed all her belongings in her old Volkswagen, and they drove west together.

Over time, however, the group which established the Santa Fe center dissolved.

“I’d say by about 1985, Lucie and I looked around. ‘Where is everybody?’”

Rachel

They and a handful of others kept the center open in part by renting space to a local Vipassana Meditation Group. Rachel Belash was a member of the Vipassana Community.

“The Vipassana people were renting from the Zen community because the Zen Community had shrunk to almost nothing,” she tells me. “There was Will and Lucie and two or three others, and that was it. And so they needed the income from the Vipassana group. And I sat with the Vipassana group for ten years on a Tuesday night, but then they lost their teacher, and they decided they were going to continue without a teacher. But I began to feel the practice melting away because I didn’t have a teacher.”

In the meantime, Will – who had established a plumbing business in Santa Fe – was commuting to Albuquerque in order to study with Joan Rieck, a Sanbo Zen teacher there. She eventually introduced him to Henry. “Henry is a person who exudes love,” Will tells me. “So it felt just right for me.”

“Will Brennan brought me here,” Henry told me in 2013. “He’s a friend and kind of sometime-student of Joan Rieck. And at a certain point when our abbot – Yamada Roshi – had appointed me as a teacher, Will invited me to come here and join the very last remnants of the original Kapleau group that had built the center, which was basically he and his wife, Lucie, and maybe one or two other people. And they were sitting here regularly on Wednesday nights and had never stopped for twenty-eight years!” he says in amazement.

When the Vipassana group lost its teacher, Rachel noticed that the Zen community appeared to have acquired one. “And this was Henry. So I made an appointment with him one day and said, ‘I would like you to be my teacher.’ Of course, I had no knowledge of Zen at all. I just wanted him to be my teacher, and he said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ And I was so amused and taken by that response that I thought, ‘Mmm. I’d better find out what this is all about.’”

Karen

Karen Klinefelter had a similar experience. She had been working with another Zen teacher in the area but felt uncomfortable with him.

“A good friend of mine was one of the originals at Mountain Cloud with Will, and she kept saying, ‘Karen, you should come. There’s this guy. I really like him. Will found him. You should come.’ And first I just went to one of the daily early morning sits. And then I did a week-long sesshin with Henry, who I really admired because he said to me, ‘Karen, you know what? You are someone else’s student. Until you clear that up, I’m very happy to see you in dokusan, but I cannot formally be your teacher.’”

So she spoke with the teacher she had been working with and formally separated with him, after which she was able to join the Mountain Cloud community.

The community has thrived since Henry has been there, and he is no longer the only teacher. Valerie Forstman – an heir of Ruben Habito – is now teaching at Mountain Cloud as well. I also mention to Will that I’d heard that he too had recently been appointed an Assistant Teacher in the Sanbo Zen lineage.

“Yeah,” he says. There is a sense of wonder in his tone. Then he laughs. “But don’t tell nobody! You know, I had a wonderful time with Valerie and her husband, they came over and we had a little gathering at our house. So we were sittin’ there, and I said something to the effect, ‘You know, this Assistant Teacher business, it’s kinda like a meditation robe. But it doesn’t fit!’” He laughs and shakes his head in amazement. “It doesn’t fit! Maybe someday, some year, but it just feels so weird.”

I suspect it fits him better than he imagines.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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