Cynthia Kear

Russian River Zendo

Cynthia Kear is a Soto priest in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage attached to the Russian River Zendo north of San Francisco. She is also one of the most articulate spokespeople for that form of Zen I have interviewed.

She was raised on the East coast, but after college she moved across the country to the west coast. “I was looking for a big change, mostly to get away from my suffering family.”

“Suffering in what way?” I ask.

“I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with lots of -isms – alcoholism, undiagnosed, untreated mental health – the usual kind of chaos. My father was an alcoholic. We have a lineage going back as far as I can see back to all my ancestors having some sort of an -ism. Alcoholism. Co-dependency. My mom was also a heavy drinker. I don’t know if she was an alcoholic, but she did her best to keep up with my dad. And she certainly was a co-dependent. Right? So, yes. And sadly my father suffered greatly with this all the way through to the end of his life and wound up being estranged pretty much from his family and being a very isolated person who never found a paradigm for resolving his suffering. A solution. And all of my siblings had some form of addiction. So, I thought, of course, as most people who grow up in dysfunctional families think, ‘Oh, I will never be like them.’” She laughs wryly. “My drinking was wine out of very nice crystal; theirs was Budweiser out of Styrofoam coolers.”

“Did your family belong to a faith tradition?

“Yep. Catholicism. We had priests, and we had nuns, and we had very devout practitioners of Catholicism. And by my own choice, half of my education was in Catholic schools including high school. So yes, but in my sophomore year I was introduced to the existentialists and the nihilists, and I thought, ‘Oh, finally! Here’s a paradigm that makes sense! Life is suffering and meaningless. Okay.’ I did eventually grow out of that, but . . . So, yes, after college I wanted to get away and kind of establish a different life. So I came to San Francisco.”

Then when she was 32 she was involved in “a car accident that was definitely due to being under the influence, and I knew I needed to wake up and to do something different.” The something different was to enter recovery.

“My youngest sister was a cocaine addict who was shipped out to me because I was the ‘more stable one’ – relatively speaking – and together we discovered recovery. And it was kind of like finding Buddhist practice. It was eye-opening. It was like, ‘Oh, wait a second! This is not insanity. This is something very specifically that we can call a certain type of suffering. And here is the solution. Here is the medicine to wake up and transform that suffering.’”

She has now been in recovery for 37 years.

There is a spiritual component to most recovery programs; Cynthia, however, tells me that she knew “a Judaeo-Christian paradigm was not going to work for me. Having, by my own efforts, spent a lot of time in Catholicism, patriarchy, theism, too much emphasis on an afterlife as opposed to here and now. So when I found Buddhist practice, it was like, ‘Wow! Here’s a solution to any other type of suffering that I have in my life.’”

I ask how she discovered the practice.

“A friend of mine was going to the San Francisco Zen Center, and we were having dinner, and I said, ‘I’m looking for something else.’ And she said, ‘Well, why don’t you join me?’ And so I did, and I entered the doors at 300 Page Street and that started my journey about 35 years ago. And I really haven’t left. I mean, I kind of stayed on the periphery because at first I thought they were all a little intimidating, and I wondered, ‘Was this a cult?’”

She admits that she didn’t find the people particularly friendly at first.

“But I loved the Dharma talks. They really fed my heart and my mind. So I kind of stayed around the corner – around the periphery, if you will – and a lot of friends said, ‘You should get more involved.’ And I knew that I wanted to get more deeply involved. But I think that from a personal perspective, what kind of deepened my practice and both drove me deeper as well as invited me more deeply into the Dharma of the transformation of suffering was when my younger sister was dying of breast cancer. She was just my favourite person in the world; ten years younger and with little kids, and it was just so traumatizing. I was about 50 at the time. I hadn’t experienced a close or a young death at that point in time. And so I clung to the Dharma. I dove into the Dharma and clung to the Dharma in terms of understanding – you know, trying to understand – with just great fervour. And I did find a lot of wisdom and, again, solace and a way of contextualizing impermanence. Right?  Then Blanche Hartman was giving a Dharma talk one day. And, you know, everybody has kind of their Dharma talk that they give – the essence of it – and this was one of her jukai Dharma talks. And she was talking about the etymology of ‘jukai,’ and that we plunge, we plunge into this life, into these vows knowing that they’re impossible to take. And, you know, I’d been hanging around for three or four years, and I just thought – it was just an epiphany; it was just in that moment – ‘Oh! Like swan diving from up above off of a cliff into the ocean! That’s what I want to do! I want to just plunge! And I want to keep plunging! And I never want to stop!’”

Further Zen Conversations: 17-20; 50; 100-01; 134-40.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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