When Jeff Shore was twelve years old, he was enrolled in a class to prepare him for baptism in the Presbyterian Church. “We were learning the catechism, and the teacher was a young girl, older than us, but a teenager. So she was trying to get us to memorize the catechism, and I would ask questions about it, ‘What does it mean that life is eternal?’ And she would kinda, ‘Please don’t actually ask difficult questions. We just need to memorize this.’”
In spite of his doubts about what he was being taught, “There was a longing there – for lack of a better word – to live truth. No matter how difficult or demanding that may appear, that’s got to be the thing to do somehow. It was pre-rational in me. To live the truth is what we must do no matter what, and it’s not always easy.”
When he was 16, he had a cleaning job in a department store. “I would mop the floor and collect the trash. But they had a very shitty bookstore – department stores don’t have very good bookstores – but they had An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki. So at night, I would dust-mop my way over to the bookstore and open up D. T. Suzuki. In about a week I had read the whole book, and it made an impression on me.”
“What about it grabbed your attention?” I ask.
“One was those Zen koans, those mondo exchanges. I remember going home and telling my mother them, and she just thought they were wonderful. But underneath there was some kind of . . .” He pauses. “It was okay to have doubt. It was okay to not know. In a way, it was almost a good thing to realize that you don’t know and that you need to make a search.”
“So you grew up in a Protestant Christian environment in which they tried to teach you a creed that you were then supposed to profess you accepted as true – even though you didn’t necessarily – and that was contrasted with the Zen book which essentially said, ‘You know, you really don’t have to believe anything. It’s alright to ask questions.’ Is that about right?”
“You put it a lot more succinctly than I did,” he says with a laugh.
It was the ’60s, and interest in Asian religions was part of the culture. “I hitch-hiked to Woodstock when I was fifteen. I experimented with soft drugs. A lot of us were desperately seeking something, but we didn’t know what it was. But Buddhism and Zen spoke to me. I remember reading the life of Gautama Buddha, and I just felt like an arrow that had been shot twenty-five hundred years ago. Like, he had the same questions, and he refused to compromise. He wanted to live the truth. No matter what. And he was able to do it. That really hit me.”
He experimented with sitting but didn’t begin formal practice until attending graduate school in Hawaii, where he had an opportunity to do a sesshin with Robert Aikten. It did not go as he expected.
“There was this strange kind of vegetarian fare and some of the rituals and things. I was never much into that. I was able to do dokusan, to do the Mu koan with Robert Aitken, but it didn’t work for me it seemed. So what happened at the end of the retreat, ‘Well, I finally got to do a sesshin.’ It didn’t appeal to me at all somehow. But about two days or three days later, I happened to be cooking, and the garlic – I love garlic – the smell of the garlic wafted up from the frypan, and it just went right through me. And I realized Mu. I realized everything is Mu. Just completely. The world was translucent, and I had no idea what to do with it. I went over and sat on the bed, and I think I tried to chant the Four Vows as best I could.”
The next morning he went to see Aitken. “He was able to confirm it, but he could also see that I was very stuck to it. So – if I remember exactly – he said, ‘Yes. But you have very much the stink of Zen.’ And I realized, ‘He’s right. What do I do about this?’ So I continued to practice, but I really struggled. The way I would put it now is I wasn’t ready for that experience. I didn’t have a foundation and so I struggled very badly for a couple of years. Finally everything fell apart. That’s when I first got serious. I decided to go to Japan and practice.”
He remained in Japan training at Tofukuji and eventually became the sole non-Japanese full-time professor at Hanazono University in Kyoto, where until his retirement he taught what he called “Blue-eyed Zen.”
He explains that formal Zen training in Japan is arduous, and many of the students at the university are bewildered by why Americans and Europeans have any interest in it. “Westerners, look at Zen in a very peculiar way.” Most of his students were the sons of priests who would inherit their father’s temple. For these young men, “It’s a very different system. They don’t want to be a priest, but they have to be. And then here’s people like us coming halfway around the world. We’re not even going to become priests; we’re not going to have a temple. And yet we’re putting ourselves through this. Why? So that’s how I try to interest the students because the Japanese students are not interested.”
“You’re teaching Japanese students how westerners see Zen?”
“More or less, yes. What do we see that they don’t?”
The Story of Zen: 423-24, 440
Further Zen Conversations: 53-54; 72-73; 127; 131; 132
One thought on “Jeff Shore”