Jissai Jeanette Prince-Cherry

When I first looked up the website for the Louisville Zen Center, Bodhin Kjolhede of Rochester was identified as the Guiding Teacher. The local “Group Leader” and “Resident Novice Priest” was Jeanette Prince-Cherry. At the time, I asked her what the difference between the two roles was.

“A Group Leader is just a hands-on person that helps make things happen,” she explained. “So, because I’m in Louisville and Roshi’s in Rochester – ten hours away – I make sure sittings happen, and I’m authorized to do some instructing. But for people who really want to connect and do longer retreats, they need to go to Rochester to work with Roshi directly.”

“You’re ‘resident’ there in Kentucky?”

“Yeah, it’s my home that we use for most of our sittings, for our retreats, for when we have teachers come. I raised my family here, and I’m the only one left. It just made sense to use this house in some useful way other than there being the echo of me talking to the cat. So this is where most of the things happen with the Louisville Zen Center.”

Because at the time she’d been identified as a “novice priest,” I ask how her situation will change when she receives full ordination.

“It won’t,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll just wear different robes. The thing about our tradition is that regardless whether it’s for ordination or head cook, you start slowly doing more and more of that work until you’re doing it all the time, then it gets recognized. ‘Yeah, okay, I guess we can call you Head Cook now ’cause you’re doing that already.’”

After I interviewed her, she received full ordination on October 23, 2022, and was give the Dharma name Jissai, meaning “True Encounter.”

She grew up in North Carolina in a Southern Baptist family. “My sister is a minister. My father did ministry. So we were well steeped in religious tradition.

“I grew up in this little city High Point, North Carolina. And it was very, very segregated. I grew up in a Black neighborhood. My parents owned their home, but we lived across the street from a sprawling housing project. People in the projects thought we were rich because we had our own house. But we were ‘house poor.’ Most of my parents’ income went towards paying the bills for the house. We were just as poor as my friends in the projects were. Not only was my hometown segregated, it was racially hostile with few meaningful job opportunities for Black people, so I left when I was 18 and went into the Air Force. My older brother had gone into the Marines, and I was like, ‘I’m getting’ out of here, too!’ And I think the Air Force, the military, and those experiences opened the door in allowing me to practice Zen. Opened up that possibility in my mind and my heart.”

When I ask how it did that, her answer surprises me.

“The military lifestyle. Everything was standardized. We wore uniforms. Everything was uniform. But even within all of that structure, there was so much freedom. It’s like when one of my sons, before he learned to swim, he would hold onto the side of the pool for support. Because he didn’t know how to swim he could only circle the perimeter of the pool holding onto the sides. Then when he learned to swim,he could go anywhere in the pool – on top of the water, under the water, the shallow end, the deep end – but it was still a pool. He was still bound by the swimming pool. But he had all this freedom in it. That’s how I felt in the military. There was this firm, stable structure that let me find out what I liked, what I didn’t like, who I was. I was able to explore with the help of the supports.”

When she left the Air Force after eight years, she found the transition to civilian life challenging.

“I’d spent my entire adult life in the Air Force. I mean, I didn’t know how to dress. I didn’t know the language. I’m in a new area. I was working as an industrial engineer here in Louisville, and I was used to military etiquette. As a civilian that’s different. I was a supervisor, and as a supervisor in the military, you just tell people what to do, and they just do it. It’s not quite the same as a civilian. I’ve got to be nice and all that. I didn’t know any of that. Truly. I had no idea. So I had a hard time.”

Then she was house bound for a while, recovering from gallstone surgery. “Feeling sorry for myself and flipping channels on television. And all the talk shows seemed to have got on the same programming. I would go to the Oprah Winfrey show, and she had this segment on meditation. I’m like, ‘Nope.’ Click. Went to the next talk show, and that person had a section on meditation. Click. And then with the third one, ‘Okay. Maybe I need to pay attention to this.’ And so I watched the show and went to our public library to get a book on meditation.”

She read all the books the library had on secular meditation but was reluctant to look at the Buddhist books. Eventually, there were no more secular meditation books left.

“But I’d gotten enough insight to see the resistance about these Buddhist books. I still identified as Christian. And as a Southern Baptist, you don’t even touch books about other religions. But it felt really unhealthy to reject them out of hand. So, I was, ‘I’m going to pick up the most Buddhist book I can find.’ The thinnest, but the most Buddhist book. ’Cause I don’t want to be committed to reading some big book. The book I chose was What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, and I was so embarrassed to check that out of the library! So I read this book and discovered the way I feel about the world in its pages. I could not believe it. I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t believe how . . . Yeah . . . It was like reading my heart.”

“In what way?” I ask.

“In Christianity there’s all this talk about original sin and original impurity, and that was absent. It talked about original perfection, and how it is through our own habits and conditioning where we don’t function out of that perfection. That really resonated with me. It talked about suffering, and I could immediately understand suffering. I remember it said dukkha was like a wheel not being right on its axle. And it reminded me of grocery carts, ’cause there’s always this cart that’s not rolling right. And you can function. You can go to the grocery store, get your groceries; you can make your way through the grocery store, but it’s a pain and a struggle. Okay! I understand that. Dukkha. You could still function, but it’s a struggle. And these concepts, even the realms of unenlightened existence as psychological states of mind. Hell and hungry ghosts and thirsty spirits and fighting humans and animals and all of that, I could so relate to it. Maybe I could relate to Christianity now, as an adult. I don’t know. But the dharma – the Buddhadharma – it just really spoke to me. I felt like I had been trying to fit myself into the mold of Christianity, whereas in Buddhism, it just flowed in me. I flowed with it. There wasn’t the need to put this round peg into this square hole.”

Further Zen Conversations: 106-08; 119.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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