Zen Center of Denver
Peggy Sheehan is one of the Spiritual Directors – along with Karin Kempe – of the Zen Center of Denver founded by Danan Henry, an heir of Philip Kapleau. Both Peggy and Karin have medical degrees, although Karin is now retired. I ask Peggy if she is jealous.
She laughs and admits, “I didn’t use to be, but I’m getting’ there.”
She encountered Buddhism just prior to entering medical school. She was visiting a friend, Lola Lee, in San Diego. Lee had moved to San Diego to work with the early Zen Pioneer, Henry Platov. While she was visiting, Peggy attended the practice sessions facilitated by Lee and Platov, and, at one them, Lee spoke about the differences between the Christian and Buddhist perspectives. Although she can’t remember the exact words Lee used, the impact of what she said struck Peggy deeply.
“I think the difference was that one is based in ‘original goodness’ and the other emphasized ‘original sin.’ And that had a strong resonance for me, the sense that, ‘Oh, yes, you possess this original goodness that just needs to be touched and uncovered and experienced’ in contrast to being brought up with a strong emphasis that we are originally bad and need healing.”
I was unfamiliar with Lola Lee and Henry Platov, who – it turned out – were responsible for establishing the Hidden Valley Zen Center near San Diego, whose current guiding teacher is Mitra Bishop. In later correspondence after our conversation, Peggy tells me that Platov was briefly referenced in James Ford’s book, “Zen Master Who?” and that she appreciated Ford noting: “without clear documentary evidence, these early pioneers will continue to be footnotes in the history of Zen Dharma in the West. Nevertheless, they and many others devoted years to sharing the Dharma in the West. Although their influence is gradually vanishing, many contemporary teachers owe a great deal to these increasingly forgotten ancestors.”
“I am one of those who owe a great deal,” Peggy says.
Listening to Lola speak, Peggy says she felt as if “for the first time I heard some authentic teaching. I thought, ‘This I have not heard, and this I have wanted to hear my whole life.’ And that planted a seed that would not go away, would grow and grow over time. I did have to go to medical school and do residency. But I got myself a little meditation cushion and a mat. Lola had given me a koan to work on that I never did work on. But at every transition in my life, I would get out my mat and cushion and would sit there. I would have a place for it. Some weeks or months would go by, and I’d roll it up and put it back in the closet. That happened for ten years. So we call this ‘awakening your bodhicitta’ – the mind that seeks the way. We all possess it. You never know when it will get touched or awakened, but that’s what happened. Lola awakened my bodhicitta, something that I wouldn’t have said I knew was there.”
Peggy didn’t take up what she calls “serious practice” until she had finished her residency and was working. “That kernel stayed with me all that time, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘When are you going to go back to that?’ So, I had been in a relationship that was about ten years strong, and it just fell apart. And that proved to be the right time to go back. That’s when my questions arose again, in those times that are sort of distressful to us. I would wake up very early in the morning, and I would walk to the park. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, you know, what is this thing called “unconditional love”? Because if I truly understand it and embody it, then, of course, it would be completely fine for my lover to leave me like that because I would want them to be happy and to do what they need to do. So that was my question. ‘What is this thing that we call “unconditional love”?’ And I think everybody has some question that drives them to take up a serious spiritual practice. They may not always be able to articulate it. But the question stayed with me, and as you continue to practice there are more things that you inquire into, that open for you. But I’m always happy to remember, to reconnect with that original question.”
She looked “Zen” up in the white pages of the phone directory – webpages were still a thing of the future – and she found the Denver Zen Center listed there.
“I knew when I made that phone call, I was making a commitment. I didn’t care what it was like, honestly. It felt like genuine practice. It felt like a place that was dedicated to helping us see into the nature of our selves and the world. So, it wasn’t a warm and cuddly place. For a long time, I would go to zazen, and – you know – you put a robe on, and there was a changing room where you might say ‘Hello’ to someone, then you go sit, then you take your robe off, and you leave. And you didn’t really get to know people. You just knew something was compelling you to be there. In my gut and heart, I knew that this practice had this potential. But the container was strong, although it wasn’t – as I said – warm and friendly.”
She pauses a moment then smiles and says, “Oh, here’s one thing that happened: it was only a couple of months in, there was a big snowstorm, and I was at zazen, and they decided to close early. But we were invited to have tea with Danan Roshi. So we went and had tea. And there was – I don’t know – about half a dozen of us sitting there. And Danan Roshi proceeded to tell us about the attrition rates from people taking the introductory seminars. ‘One of you will come back after a seminar. And after five years, only one of you will still be here.’ And as I’m listening to that I knew. I said, ‘Well, I’ll be that one who’s here.’ I just knew it.”
Now that she and Karin are the spiritual directors of the Center, she tells me that they “try to have a little more warmth and friendliness and social time.” But she remains grateful for the training she received and for that initial seed planted by Lola Lee.
Further Zen Conversations: 44; 70-72.
Photo of Peggy Sheehan by Geoff Keeton