Gyokuko Carlson

Dharma Rain, Portland, Oregon

Gyokuko Carlson is the retired abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, which she co-founded with her husband Kyogen Carlson, who died in 2014. The two met at Shasta Abbey, the primary teaching center of the Soto teacher, Jiyu Kennett.

Although Gyokuko served as Kennett’s attendant for a while, she tells me that it was less Kennett herself than the abbey and its schedule which became her teacher.

Her first contact with the abbey had been through a meditation course offered at Reed College by an ordained married couple, Shuyu and Gyozan Singer. One evening Shuyu gave a talk on the ethical Precepts of Buddhism.

“And I started to cry while he was going through this because coming back to that kind of groundwork was like coming home, bringing me back to my Christianity without the Christianity. And one of the things that was important in the way that Zen was presented to me was that it’s method, it’s practice, and it’s a way to discover what is true and not have something dictated and imposed.

“One of the things that had bothered me in my teenage years was that I was supposed to ‘love Jesus,’ but I don’t know how to manufacture love. And to love Jesus and to love God as a commandment felt like an unsurmountable hurdle. It’s like from here to there and no intermediate steps, just go from here to there.  And I felt what Zen was offering me was, ‘Don’t worry about there. Just work the steps right here. Just take the next step and see where that leads, and then take the next step.’ And that sense that there is method and there is transformation possible one step at a time was such a relief to me.”

“When you said that you saw the abbey and the schedule as your teacher,” I ask, “what do you mean by that?”

“Well, as I said about the method and the step-by-step, I felt that I was being immersed and disciplined into a way of life that was structuring my mind. We sometimes say about the meditation posture that you’re using your body to direct the mind. And I felt that everything in the schedule and the method of being, the deportment, it was all there to direct the mind.”

“To what end?”

“Clarity in general. I think in my case coming to a realistic and holistic sense of self. A sense of this person being integrated into a larger whole. So I suppose being in community is actually a model for that last piece. You were given a place, a rank, a seat at the table, a seat in the zendo, and you have the integrity of that place, but you also have a responsibility to the whole of the zendo, the whole of the lecture hall, the whole of the community. It’s the model or the microcosm for a larger sense of being a piece, an integral piece, of the whole of the universe. I think one of the gifts in Zen practice is a sense of  what Roshi Kennett used to call ‘natural pride,’ a sense of self worth that is not larger than anybody else’s – does not supersede anybody else’s – but is the basis of respect for all things, that puts you in relationship to all things. I had this sense once walking down the cloister and just being centered in my own breathing and having the sense that my in-breath and my out-breath was the same in-breath and out-breath as the whole of the Earth beneath my feet. And it was not powered by me, and it was not not powered by me.”

“What is about the Precepts that make them so meaningful to you?”

“They are a way of sharpening understanding of self, understanding of karma, understanding where things get screwed up, and how to unscrew them.”

“You’d also said one of the things that caused you to fall away from Christianity was it made demands such as ‘You must love Jesus.’ So how are the Precepts different from the rules and regulations of Christianity?”

“Well, you can teach the Precepts that way. But the way I was taught the Precepts and certainly the way that I try to teach the Precepts, each one of these is a mirror, a koan, it’s something that you cannot keep literally, and because you cannot keep it literally, you need to dig deeper. One of the Precepts that caught me fairly early on is there’s one that says, ‘Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others.’ And, coming out of depression and this feeling that I was worthless, I thought, ‘No problem. I don’t devalue others. I devalue myself. So no problem.’ But then studying the Precepts and reading them over – gliding over that one because it doesn’t have to worry me – there was a day when I realized, ‘Oh! If I turn that upside down, it’s the same Precept. If I’m devaluating myself and elevating others, I’m violating that Precept. So get over yourself, girl.’ Just that if you are making that separation that some are high and some are low, you’re violating that Precept. So where’s the respect in that? Where’s the compassion? So I see the Precepts as a path to joy, not as a path to despair and self-loathing.”

Further Zen Conversations: 102-03.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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