Hogen Bays and his wife, Jan Chozen Bays, are the co-abbots of Great Vow Monastery in Oregon as well as being the spiritual directors and primary teachers with the Zen Community of Oregon.
“In 1968 or so, a friend and I went up to Rochester. He had done a sesshin with Philip Kapleau at Florida Presbyterian College. He said, ‘This is really interesting. Let’s go.’ So we got on an airplane in 1968 and went up to Rochester and spent a week – or a weekend – at the country place they had then. And I remember I didn’t say a word. I asked something about vegetarianism, which was the only thing I could think to talk about. But it was sort of in my mind. So, after my second year of college, I had some angst, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ house. I went to Rochester. So the marker in my mind is that at 6:00 a.m. on June 9th 1969, I drove into Rochester just about sunrise, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is a new beginning of something.’ In a way, maybe, I think my birth is 1969.”
When I ask him what he was anxious about, he corrects me.
“Not anxious. Angst. Angst about the existence of life. Angst is about, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ Angst is angst in the sense of those fundamental questions which gnaw at one’s heart.”
“Did you associate that angst with a particular set of circumstances?”
“Well, I think many people – certainly me – were just afflicted with doubt, with depression, with the kind of deep, core feelings unresolved. So the impetus to resolve that movement inside has been with me my whole life. And that’s the particular shape it took.”
He eventually left Rochester and moved to the west coast, where he started practice with Taizan Maezumi and the Zen Center of Los Angeles. It was there that he met Chozen, with whom he would revive the Oregon Zen community which originally had been established by one of Walter Nowick’s students ten years prior.
He has been a full-time Zen priest since the mid-1990s. I ask what prompted him to be ordained.
“Some people have a calling, and this just called to me. What I tell people sometimes, I say, ‘Look, if you find something that is helpful and beneficial, you want to share it.’ And you want to find the most skillful way to share it. If you’ve something that has liberated you from suffering, then what way can you help other people be liberated? And I think the commitment, the kind of vow of me stepping forward overtly and consciously as an ordained person was important. Is important.”
“What is the role of a priest?
“There are so many different aspects. There is a story I like to tell about Yamada Mumon Roshi and my teacher, Shodo Harada, who was his disciple. Mumon Roshi was ardently against war. And, after World War II, as an act of atonement, he travelled to places of violence offering ceremonies for all the war dead. One day, when they were travelling together Mumon Roshi saw a person in a military uniform. He said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful.’ And Harada said, ‘Why wonderful? That is a person dedicated to violence.’ Mumon Roshi said, ‘Yes, but this person really shows what they believe in. They are expressing their faith, and that – in this time and age – is very important.’
“I think it is vital that we are people of visible dedication. I think it is significant when people step forward and say, ‘I am reliably confident in this path of Dharma. I wear my faith overtly.’ As you know, in the traditional story about the Buddha encountering the four messengers, the fourth messenger was an ordained priest, a spiritual seeker, a monk. That willingness to be recognized as one who points out that there is a path to awakening is an aspect of being a priest.
Over the years, Great Vow has hosted teachers from several different traditions.
“We have had many Buddhist teachers come here such as Ajahan Amaro from the Theravadan school and several Vajrayana teachers with a Dzogchen perspective and others. In recent years I’ve worked with Byron Katie. My Zen practice has been quite rich, quite wide, looking at the truths of life from many different perspectives.”
“Is there something, in your experience, that distinguishes Zen from other forms of Buddhist?” I ask.
“Well, I think that’s exactly it. It’s experience. If you’re involved with the Theravada or Vajrayana or so other forms of Buddhism, they often first require intellectual understanding, a cognitive understanding of the Path. This is fine. But, in Zen, scholarly understanding is secondary. For example, often in the Vajrayana tradition the teachings go through layer after layer of, ‘This means this, that means this, this means that, therefore, therefore, therefore.’ So when I read the teachings of Tsongkhapa or Kalu Rinpoche, they appear to divide Buddhism up like the early Indian texts do. They describe Dharma as a granularized teaching. Modern Zen – or at least the Zen I’m familiar with – does not do that. It just asks, ‘What is at the root?’ The mind can endlessly think and particularize things, but what is at the heart of the matter? How can you step into that? Emphasizing what is before words does not make Zen special – because fundamentally everything begins before words – but in Zen Buddhism there is an emphasis on recognizing truth before words, before differentiation. This is important. And this insight can be embodied. It can be lived.”
 Both Yamada and Harada are common names. Yamada Mumon was a Rinzai teacher who lived from 1900 to 1988. Harada Shodo is the residing abbot of Sogen-ji in Okayama. He also maintains Tahoma Sogenji in Washington State.