Judy Roitman

Judy Roitman is one of the primary voices in Further Zen Conversations. She and her husband, Stan Lombardo, are the founding teachers of the Kansas City Zen Center in the Kwan Um School of Zen. Kwan Um is a Korean Linji (J: Rinzai) lineage established by Master Seung Sahn. Judy has the official title of Zen Master in the school, which puts her fairly high in their hierarchy of teachers. Her first encounter with Buddhism, however, wasn’t auspicious.

“In my senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, it was advertised that a Buddhist monk would come and give a lecture. It turned out he was Tibetan. I didn’t know what he was at the time because I knew nothing about Buddhism. He had the one-shoulder robe, and he was accompanied by an American guy also wearing the same kind of robe, and the American was very hairy. And the other guy – the teacher – his facial skin was so tight he was like a mummy. And the American attendant/translator looked like a Marine. And they’re just sitting there as everyone’s coming in. You know, the way I tell this story is: I’m from New York; I’d never seen anyone sit still. And that’s actually sort of true. And I was just completely freaked out by these people. The deal was, you’d write a question, and then you’d put it in a little basket, and then they’d open them up sort of randomly and pick one out and answer it. And the answers didn’t make sense. In my memory somebody would ask something like, ‘Is there life after death?’ And the teacher would respond with something like, ‘A butterfly lands on a flower.’ The answers had nothing to do with the questions, so I was getting really freaked out by this, seriously freaked out. I reached a point where I couldn’t sit there anymore, and I walked out. And when I got out of the building, I started screaming. That’s how affected I was.”

It seemed unlikely, at the time, that she would have anything more to do with Buddhism.

She had a difficult time after leaving Sarah Lawrence.

“I’d had an emotionally very difficult childhood and suddenly it was all coming out. I was so angry I didn’t know I was angry. I was over-bearing; I was unpleasant. I didn’t have a sense of proportion. I was delusional. I was suicidal.  I was just sort of weird and strange and deeply, deeply unhappy. To soothe myself I was a binge eater; if I’d known about bulimia, I would have thrown up. That had started my freshman year in college, but I stopped binge eating by becoming a smoker my second year in college, and immediately lost a whole bunch of weight and became a chain-smoker. But then I stopped smoking, and I became a binge eater again. I was deeply, deeply miserable. And I called up this woman, Ludmilla Hoffman – back then you’d call up shrinks and they would actually answer the phone themselves – and so I would call these people up and say, ‘I need an appointment.’ And it was, ‘Well, I have an appointment in six months; I have an appointment in three months.’ And so I called Milla. She goes, ‘I have an appointment in six weeks.’ Then she goes, ‘Is this an emergency?’ And I said, ‘Yes! Yes! It’s an emergency!’ ‘Oh, okay. I can see you next week.’ She saved my life.

“I was very intellectual. I really lived up in my frontal lobes. And with regular shrinks, which I’d had since I was 15 — I knew how to dance and step aside and never really look at what I needed to look at. But Milla was a Gestalt shrink. I don’t know if you know anything about Gestalt technique, but here’s an example. One time I walked in Milla’s office, and I said, ‘I actually remembered a dream.’ ‘Oh, great. Tell me about it.’ ‘Okay, so I’m walking down this road.’ And she, ‘Oh. What’s it like to be the road?’ I said, ‘No! That’s not what my dream is about.’ And she says, ‘Well, tell me about the road.’ ‘The road. Let’s see. It’s made of asphalt, and it’s grey, and everybody walks on it, and nobody loves me!’ It’s like kong-ans.[1] They get you from the side. You know? You don’t see it coming. So you can’t dance around it.

“So Milla cured me. Around the same time, I saw an article in the New York Times on relaxation response meditation. And I grabbed that and started doing relaxation response meditation. I worked with Milla, and I did relaxation response meditation for about two years. Then one day I was in Milla’s office, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘I don’t have to be this way, do I?’ And she said, ‘No, you don’t.’ And it lifted, like a tornado. It was just gone. I still get unhappy and angry, but that hint of insanity, that skewed vision, that weird kind of distortion that colors everything, that was gone. It was just absolutely amazing.

“That’s when I decided I could meditate with a group. Before that, I just couldn’t do it. I was too unstable, too self-absorbed. But then I thought, ‘Okay, now I can go sit with a group.’ So I was living in Cambridge, and I would take walks, and there was this beautiful Zen Center that I would walk by. It was just beautiful. Broad manicured lawn and beautiful old building gorgeously maintained. So I looked up Cambridge Zen Center, and I discovered it was in Allston. And I thought, ‘That’s weird. I guess they moved.’ And, of course, it was a different Zen center. But I didn’t know that. So I walked into this funky old building and Mark Houghton – who later became a teacher – and the woman he was married to at the time, Dyan Eagles – who is also a teacher now – they were in long robes and were chasing each other around with little brass plant sprayers. And Larry Rosenberg, who later became a Vipassana teacher, was in the kitchen, washing the dishes with another guy, Peter Harrington, and I just felt like, ‘Oh, these are my people.’ I walked into the kitchen and one of either Larry or Peter said, ‘Well, what practice do you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I count my breaths.’ And Peter whirls around and said, ‘How many have you counted?’ And I just thought, ‘I’m home!’”

Further Zen Conversations: 36-39; 62; 110; 141.

Judy Roitman with Master Seung Sahn – 1978

[1] The Korean term for “koan.”

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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