Rafe Martin

Endless Path Zendo, Rochester, NY

Rafe Martin’s Endless Path Zendo is located three blocks from the famous Rochester Zen Center established by Philip Kapleau.

“You went toe-to-toe with the Kapleau people?” I ask, in surprise.

“No,” he assures me. “My wife and Roshi Kapleau and I were very, very close. His daughter says we were like his family.”

Like many of the people who made their way to Rochester in the early 1970s, Rafe learned about Zen from Kapleau’s book, The Three Pillars of Zen. He was attending graduate school in Toronto at the time and had the opportunity to meet Kapleau during one of the latter’s visits to that city. Kapleau invited the Martins to consider relocating to Rochester, but they didn’t take the suggestion seriously.

Rafe did, however, practice on his own, following the instructions provided in the book. For a while things went well, then he ran into problems. “Serious ones,” he tells me. “In the end I really messed up my nervous system from an unhealthy combination of mis-placed confidence while practicing Zen without a teacher – not recommended! – doing drugs, and being deep in the throes of a combined Masters/Ph. D. program.”

He dropped out of graduate school (one paper and one course shy of completing his Master’s degree) and moved back to the US.

“Rose and I were married already, and we wound up in backwoods Pennsylvania near where we had gone to college – Harpur College which is now Binghamton University – and became part of an extended dropout community. And then we ran into a guy on campus at Harpur who had a sitting group and was going up to Rochester for sesshin. We started sitting with him. And we had lunch with Roshi Kapleau again, this time in Binghamton. And something began jelling. I was still in bad shape. And Roshi kept saying, ‘You should move to Rochester. Then when our son was born, we realized we had to grow up as human beings. Now. It was not a joke. It was up to us to take care of this child and do something about it. So we basically gave up whatever last things we still had and moved to Rochester and started going to sesshin.”

When Rafe and Rose arrived in Rochester, they were the same age as many of the other people making their way to the Zen Center, but their situation was different. “We came already married, with an eight-week-old child. So we were in a totally different realm from most of the people our age who planned on being monks or nuns ’cause that’s the only thing they knew about Zen. We had to actually invent our own path.”

The process was slow. “It took me about fifteen years of very painful practice, a lot of sesshin, while our son and then, later, our daughter were both growing up before I finally settled back down and could move on from there. And all along Roshi Kapleau kept telling me, ‘Just keep at it.’ And I did that for about fifteen years, and then things opened up pretty quickly and I moved along.

“But it became clearer and clearer to me that even though Roshi Kapleau and I were extremely close, the style of training going on there would not be mine. In fact, Roshi Kapleau encouraged me to find my own way. He saw early on that the kind of institutional, semi-monastic residential training was not what I was going to be about. And I think less and less it’s what most people who are interested in an actual practice of realization are about these days. I think family, friendships, affinities, vows that bring us to a certain kind of personally meaningful work, all of these are important parts of the Vow of the Bodhisattva, helping us make our way in this world and do some good. Essentially we mature as the people we are, not by turning away from ourselves, to become something or someone else. This is our foundation, our ground.”

After Kapleau retired, Rafe was invited to Hawaii as a storyteller and writer, and there he connected with Robert Aitken. “I had old friends who were working with him. And I found significant value in re-doing some of my koan practice with Aitken Roshi, which we did for about four years both in-person and by mail.”

After that, he continued koan work with Danaan Henry, who had transmission from both Kapleau and Aitken. “He had both my backgrounds and so could see places where I might be – and usually was – stuck and helped me work through it. Which was transformative. Eventually, working with him, I was able to find a synthesis of the two lineages that had been so deeply important to me.” Danan became Rafe’s transmission teacher.

“As a lay person, for me the Zen Center was not an optimal kind of training, and I don’t present that kind of training here at Endless Path Zendo, even though I’m three blocks away and we have cordial relations. I respect what they do, but I’m very non-institutional. We’re small, intimate, non-hierarchical. I see breath and koan practices – carried on in your own life just as it is – as the foundation of what we offer.  We have, at this point, twenty or so members most living in Rochester, with some in other far-flung parts of the country and one in Europe. Many of my students have worked in other traditions as well as other Zen lineages, some for some time, though we also have a few total newcomers. All in all, I think we’re a good mix with lots of years of solid sitting as our communal foundation.”

The purpose of lay practice, Rafe tells me, is personal maturation. “You mature as a human being. That’s the whole point of the Bodhisattva in Zen, which really means ‘wisdom-being,’ which means someone who is wisely choosing to mature beyond their own unconscious, habitual self-centeredness. So a ‘wisdom-being’ is simply a ‘growing-up human being,’ and lay life is the perfect ground for that. It isn’t a lesser form than residential training or monastic practice. It has its own form. It’s not only valid but totally so, because you can’t hide out in it. You can’t think you’re getting something and then not function in your actual life. You’ve gotta function in life or people couldn’t care less what your training is or that you’re a Zen Buddhist. It’s how you treat them right then. How you interact.”

“What is there about Zen that makes it worth preserving?” I ask.

He takes twelve seconds to consider the question before answering it.

“It’s a path of practice-realization. Let me clarify what I mean. I don’t have much feeling for Japanese style, for wearing certain kinds of clothing, maintaining a certain kind of protocol or certain formulaic behaviors. But I do have a very deep feeling that maturing as a human being is why we’re here. And I also feel very deeply that Zen is one of the most accessible paths to growing up as a human being that there is. And by ‘growing up’ I simply mean becoming aware of that habitual unconscious self-centeredness and not continuing to build our comfy nest there, not continuing to cling to that, not keeping it in the driver’s seat but gradually – and suddenly – to see through it and let it go, so that more and more of whatever we already selflessly actually are can function in and as this life. To me a Bodhisattva is one who is maturing beyond their own anciently habitual self-centeredness. Who knows what’s possible in such a life? But I feel it’s the happiest form of life we can aspire to as human beings. And when you get through all the cultural clutter surrounding Zen, that’s what it’s about. Zen can help us — to one degree or another — actually do this.”

Further Zen Conversations: 7-8; 59-61; 111-12; 134-37; 147.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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