Karin Kempe

When Karin Kempe was 17 years old, she walked into the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and came upon a copy of Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel. “Reading it, I absolutely recognized, ‘This is it! This is what reality is actually like. This is the way things operate.’ The way these masters described the nature of reality was what I saw.”

Her parents were both physicians. Her father, C. Henry Kempe, along with Brandt Steele, first defined the “battered child syndrome” and founded the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Denver. Her mother was a pediatrician and psychiatrist. Karin herself eventually became a physician, although she first thought she would have a career in art and attended the Rhode Island School of Design.

Henry Kempe’s family escaped from Germany during the Nazi era when he was only 16. Karin’s mother was raised Lutheran. “My mom converted to Judaism,” Karin tells me. “But because she wasn’t – you know – a Jewish woman, we didn’t have a super Jewish household.” Karin remembers arguing with the Temple Rabbi when she was only 13 years old about how he knew God existed. His answer didn’t convince her.

I ask her what she meant by saying that the Tibetan masters described things as she saw them.

“That really we only know this moment. Our conception of time is a conceptual process that links together different aspects of what we call reality. It’s a made-up concept. But our actual life, our actual experience is this moment.”

“That’s pretty heady for a 17-year-old, isn’t it? Had you been questioning the nature of reality?”

“Absolutely because like many second-generation survivors – although I didn’t realize all of this until much, much later in my life – I had huge survivor guilt. My dad felt that to be alive, you had to deserve it. He had a great deal of survivor guilt. He was absolutely determined to save these kids, and he wanted all of us – me and my four sisters – all to do something in the world to make a difference. And I felt a great deal of angst, although I didn’t understand it for a long time. And it’s interesting to me that although I decided I wasn’t Jewish – while still only 17 or 18 or 19 years old – I was interested in a religion in which the first vow is to save all sentient beings. Do you see what I’m saying? I think for me, karmically, there was a big relationship between my affinity with Buddhism and my past.”

She was in her teens during the 1960s, a turbulent period in American history when thousands of young people abandoned their traditional religious heritages and flocked to places like Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center. While Karin was attending RISD, she managed to convince the school “that going to Rochester would be a good part of my schooling. So I went to do a training period at the Rochester Zen Center.”

The experience was profound enough that after graduation, she moved to Rochester.

“I thought I had found my path, and I was very determined. It was a very intensive practice. There was a whole group of people who were not monastics.” Many of these – including Karin – would go on to be significant figures in the development of Zen in North America.

“There were about 300 people in the community, living in houses very close, and we were doing very intensive practice. We’d go early in the morning to sit. We’d go every evening to sit. And then we’d often sit during the day. Many of us were sitting four to six hours a day and going to multiple sesshin a year.”

Karin was cleaning houses to earn money. When she realized that that was not going to be an adequate way to support herself, she received help from her family to enter medical school. While at university, she passed her first koan, married, and became a mother. After completing her residency, she and her family lived for a while in Northern Florida, which turned out to be a political environment which, as she puts it, “was very much at odds with how I wanted my kids raised. I had a few encounters with colleagues which made it clear that their views on racial issues was dramatically different than mine, and the year before I left, the school board labeled ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ a Satanic piece of writing and outlawed it in the schools.”

Danan Henry

They moved to Denver, where – in addition to maintaining a medical practice – she eventually received Dharma transmission from both Danan Henry (a Kapleau heir) and Shishin Wick.

I go back to her remark about being drawn – while still only 17 – to a religion whose first vow is to “save all sentient beings.”  

“What does that mean?” I ask. “To vow – not just promise, not just consider, but to vow – to save all sentient beings.”

“The vow means that we align our life in a particular way, that we align our energy in a particular way. Sometimes these are called the ‘impossible vows’ ’cause they’re never accomplished, but still we align our energy in that way. That we recognize that that alignment is an expression of who we are together. You and me. And ‘liberate’ does not mean that from the outside I liberate you, but rather that because we are not separate this awakening, opening, which is sort of the functioning of the awake universe – I can’t explain it another way – that that happens simultaneously.”

Or one could say that it was a vow “to do something in the world to make a difference.”

Further Zen Conversations: 44-45; 69-70; 98-99; 113; 131; 157.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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