Donna Kowal

Donna Kowal has recently been appointed co-director of the Rochester Zen Center along with John Pulleyn. When I interviewed her in October of 2021, she was the Head of Zendo at the Center’s retreat house located at Chapin Mill, where I once practiced tai chi chuan beside Philip Kapleau’s grave, then laid a stone on it and was glad to have had the opportunity to do so.

Kapleau’s grave at Chapin Mill

Donna also practices tai chi, as well as kung fu and qigong, disciplines which eventually led her – in an indirect manner – to Zen.

“The reason I took up Kung Fu is that I wanted to learn how to fight in the wake of an assault. I was living in Pittsburgh, and I was the victim of a random physical assault that was incredibly traumatizing on many levels. I was hanging out with friends in a club; there was a band playing and a lot of people there. All of the sudden a woman came through the crowd and choked me. Out of nowhere. It turned out she had been discharged from a psychiatric hospital the day before. What really stuck with me was how I didn’t fight back. I just froze. If not for the quick response of the people around me, it might have turned out differently. That’s why I started studying martial arts.” 

“So you took up kung fu, tai chi, and qigong. Qigong is a meditation technique, isn’t it?”

“So is tai chi,” she tells me. I don’t disagree with her. “It’s very intensive physical training, and it requires you to be fully present.”

“And how did this get you to Zen?”

“At around the same time, there was this new vegetarian café that opened in town, and I went to check it out and got to know the owner. I started talking to her, telling her about tai chi and qigong, and then she tells me, ‘Oh, you would like the Zen Center.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And it turned out she was an early member of the Rochester Zen Center from back in the ’70s. She’s like, ‘Yeah, they offer workshops.’ So I signed up for a workshop.”

“And what was it like?”

“It was a powerful experience. After I signed up for the workshop, the Zen Center sent a brochure in the mail. I opened it up, and there was a picture of Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede. That was my first time seeing him. I didn’t know what a teacher did in the context of Zen, but I immediately felt like there’s something here, something I’ve been looking for. And when I walked into the main entrance, it immediately hit me that this place is for me. This was before the workshop had even started.”

We talk a little about what brings people to Zen practice. The first students to seek out Philip Kapleau in Rochester often did so because they had read his book, The Three Pillars of Zen, and they came seeking awakening, enlightenment, kensho. I ask Donna if that’s still what draws people to Rochester.

“I don’t think so. It is for some but not for all. There are people who are looking to practice with others, they’re looking to learn how to do meditation, and what brings them here is their struggles with stress, anxiety, life difficulties that they’ve encountered. So many people have stories to tell about dramatic life events that led them to pursue meditation, while for others it’s everyday dissatisfactions. On the other hand, in my interactions with new people, there are still those who are inspired by reading Roshi Kapleau’s Three Pillars. They feel this drive, this aspiration to awaken, and I, myself, experienced that. When I first started, I had this drive to experience kensho. But at the same time, I was also seeking to be part of a community of like-minded people.”

“And the people who come because of stress, anxiety, dramatic life events,” I ask, “are they coming to practice as a kind of therapy?”

“I think that is the case for some people, at least initially. They may hardly know anything about Zen and Buddhism. They may not know about the Rochester Zen Center and its reputation at all. Even in the city of Rochester there’s lots of people who don’t have a clue about what the Rochester Zen Center is. I think we are more recognized nationally and internationally than we are locally. There are people who come to the center to sign up for a workshop whose only sense of meditation is from doing it in a yoga class, or maybe they read a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn or some other reading about mindfulness. Or they learned about it at work; there was some meditation program at the organization they work at, and they got a little taste of it, and that led them to see what resources there are locally, and then they come upon the Zen Center, not really knowing anything about Buddhism.”

“I’m still not clear what it is that they’re looking for in that case,” I admit. “Is it that they’re just looking for a technique?”

“Perhaps. I think it runs the spectrum. There’s no one thing that people are looking for that draws them to the Zen Center. Some do aspire to awaken while others are just seeking relief.”

“And as Head of Zendo, what is it that you hope for for the people who come here?”

She laughs. “I hope that they get hooked on zazen, so to speak. I hope that they practice with persistence and patience, that they give it a try long enough to see what fruits might come from it.”

Further Zen Conversations: 121-22; 149-50.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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