Kate Hartland

Bright Sea Zen Sangha, Weymouth, MA

When Kate Hartland was growing up, her parents were atheists, but Kate wondered if she was missing something. “My neighbors were all involved in churches, and I felt the lack of something.” So at the age of ten, she walked to a local church, “maybe a mile away,” went inside and wondered “could I be part of this? Is this for me? And I absolutely realized it was not right for me.” She was still, however, “casting about for something meaningful to fill that hole.” She didn’t find it until she was in high school and came upon some books about comparative religions. “And the Buddhist part really appealed to me.”

“In what way?” I ask.

 “The questioning. Like, ‘What is this about? How can this be happening? What is this reality?’ Questions about what it all was.”

For her 16th birthday, she gave her parents “a list of books from the Vedanta society. I said, ‘Get me these. Here’s where you can send for them.’”

Then in college, one of her professors invited Philip Kapleau to give “a one-day seminar. The first half explained how to practice, and in the second half we got to do it. So here it was. I was given a way to begin. And this professor created a sitting group, which I attended.”

After graduation, she used vacation time from work to go to retreats at Kapleau’s Rochester Center. She was still traveling back and forth between her home in Maryland and Rochester, when Toni Packer – who had been left in charge of the Zen Center when Kapleau briefly moved to Santa Fe – announced that she could no longer practice as a Buddhist. Packer started her own community which eventually became the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry.

Kate followed Toni. Her retreats, Kate says, “were refreshing. One of the mind-blowing things was that all the sittings were optional. I always had difficulty around 2:00 or so, that mid-afternoon time when I’m just as sleepy as can be. So I decided I would give myself a chance to take a nap. And I always like to get up and sit in the middle of the night. So I could nap at that low part in the day and then I could have my very quiet time in the middle of the night to come down and sit in the zendo. I loved being able to order things that way, that I was trusted with that.”

For fourteen years, she regularly attended retreats at both Rochester and Springwater. Then – as she puts it – her life exploded. She and her husband divorced while their children were still young. “I was basically a half-time single mom working full-time; I was also in graduate school and overwhelmed by all of it. So practice went to nothing. I wasn’t practicing any more, and that was the case for the next twelve years. And I found out firsthand how completely I could run my life into the ground by focusing on what I wanted and driving relentlessly towards that and how much suffering that created for me and everyone around me. I recognized that I needed to start over. I had a friend in Boston. I went up to visit. I liked it. And I applied for one job. I thought, ‘If I get the job, I’ll make the move, and if I don’t, I’ll stay in Maryland.’ I got the job. So that changed everything, and, in a way, it didn’t change anything, because, of course, I brought my mindset with me – right? – that had caused me so much trouble.

“About a year and a half or two years into my time here in Boston, I woke up one morning and felt so miserable, so forlorn, and so lost. And I looked over into the corner of my bedroom, and there was my old zafu that I had carried with me all those years. And I thought, ‘It’s time for me to get down to it. I can’t keep going in this direction.’”

She started sitting on her own, “Then I thought, ‘You know, I really need a teacher. I need somebody to help guide me here and maybe some support of other people.’ So I started looking into what was in the Boston area. And lo and behold, a short bus ride was a smorgasbord of different types of Buddhist groups.”

She went to the one nearest her, which was an Insight Meditation Center. “I went a few times, but I’d pretty much imprinted on Zen and that wasn’t this. I went to the next one, which was the Korean Cambridge Zen Center. That felt a little bit more like what I recognized as practice but was very formal, and after sitting with Toni for a while I’d lost my taste for that.” The third center she visited was in James Ford’s Boundless Way collective. The teacher – Josh Bartok – was younger than she, but she immediately felt at home and trusted him. “In speaking to him in dokusan and listening to his talks, I recognized something that felt true to me. I felt like we were on the same path and speaking the same language, so this was someone I could work with. And he had just enough lack of confidence in himself to make me feel comfortable with him,” she says, laughing. “He wasn’t a towering figure.”

Kate eventually became Josh’s heir.

She had already received transmission when the Boundless Way collective fell apart after James moved to California. Then Josh was dismissed by the board of directors at the Greater Boston Zen Center, and he returned his robes to James.

Kate and the Bright Sea Zen group are no longer affiliated with GBZC, and she admits that several of the communities no longer affiliated with the former Boundless Way collective “are struggling to find some other model than what we have experienced that supports teachers so that we can teach and be useful and relevant. That was not emphasized at either Boundless Way or Greater Boston. Somehow teachers were supposed to be a finished product. That is not my experience. We have to reinvent what works for us because there’s nothing to fall back on. That’s been the difficulty at least since leaving Greater Boston. Finding out what works for lay people teaching lay people independently. I don’t really want to be independent. I want to have a like-group of teachers. So we’ve created this Dharma Wheel Asanga which is a consortium of teachers and not of their separate groups. We teach independently, but we respond to one another and support one another and have group functions such as retreats or jukai. But I really feel like we’re inventing it almost from the ground up. That’s what I see as the challenge for us right now.”

She also recognizes that it is not Zen per se that is essential. “Awakening happens regardless of Zen. Right? It’s not dependent upon that. So, should the entire practice of Zen die away, someone will reinvent it according to their culture. So there’s nothing that can get lost – right? – reality is this way, and if we just look, we will find this out.”

Further Zen Conversations: 46; 146-47; 157.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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