Katherine Senshin Griffith

Zen Center of Los Angeles

Katherine Senshin Griffith is an actress, a writer, and a stand-up comedian. She is also the current head teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. She was raised in Texas and, on occasion, slips back into the regional accent.

Her father had been a professor at Our Lady of the Lake, a Catholic university in San Antonio. “He taught English,” Senshin tells me. “But also sometimes he would do the Great Ideas or Theatre and Film and all that sort of stuff. He was a great guy.”

“Were you a Catholic family?” I ask.

“My Dad was very liberal, and my parents left the church when I was in about fifth grade, and I was never confirmed. But my father was – to paraphrase Joyce – ‘super saturated in the religion in which he said he disbelieved.’ He was just totally Catholic, but he left the raft behind, I would say.

“I went to a Catholic school that was connected to teachers learning how to teach at the college. It was a private school that we got free because my father worked there. Although my mother said, ‘Wasn’t free. Your father earned that.’ But all the professors started having home masses, like very guitar and ‘Kumbaya,’ and you passed around the host and all that kind of stuff. And my littlest brother had his first communion ’cause he just took the wafer and he ate it, and my parents were like, ‘Aww!’ When my parents stopped going to church, we weren’t allowed to stop going to mass unless we gave a week’s notice. But what was cool was that when I was going into high school – I was the oldest – my father gave me a choice. ‘You can either continue to take catechism or you can go on walks with me, and we can talk about the big issues.’ So we would take these long walks in the country, and he would type up these questions like, ‘What is God? What is Man? What is one’s purpose? What is the purpose of the state? What is one’s duty to others? What is pantheism? What is . . .’ He just brought these alive questions, and it was so cool.”

“Alive questions” is a term Senshin returns to several times during our conversation, questions that demand our focus and attention but which often don’t have clear answers

Senshin left Texas to go to New York where she studied at Julliard and began a career in the performance arts.

“I first heard the word ‘zazen’ when I was doing a performance art piece on the lower Eastside with Tim Miller, and he came into one rehearsal in the morning, and he said, ‘I just did zazen.’ And I thought, like, ‘Hmm? That sounds like something I should do.’ At Julliard, we did a lot of Alexander work which has a Zen quality, and we would lie on the floor forever just breathing. Just breathing. And then we all realized, ‘Oh, wow! This breathing stuff makes us more focused before we have performances.’”

“And did you immediately seek out a zendo?” I ask.

“No. I think that was, like, in the summer of 1984, and it wasn’t until February of 1987 that I actually got into a zendo, which I looked up in in the white pages.” She laughs. “That was the only thing there was. The Zen Studies Society. This was in Manhattan.”

ZSS was led by the controversial Eido Shimano, although – as Senshin explains – he was seldom actually in Manhattan, preferring to remain at the elegant Dai Bosatsu Monastery he had built in the Catskill Mountains.

Senshin attended regular sittings at the Society from 1987 to 1990. She was limited in how often she could participate because she was also performing a lot at the time.

“You could only go on Thursday nights until you became a member, and you couldn’t be a member until you’d gone to six Friday classes, so I didn’t do that. I wasn’t a member until 1990, and then I thought, ‘Whatever. I’ll be a member.’ And then they said, ‘Oh, we’ve changed the rules. You can just pay and you’re a member.’ And then from 1990 I did as many of the weekend sesshins as I could, and I went to almost every Thursday night and Saturday morning. If I was out of town performing or something, there were times I missed. But I really took to it. It was just delicious.”

“Did you identify Eido Roshi as your personal teacher?”

“I didn’t even know you did that.”

The conversation inevitably veers towards Shimano’s reputation for inappropriate behaviour with his female students which resulted in the board pressuring him to resign in 2010.

“I had read a little bit,” Senshin tells me, “so I knew he had had a past problem, and I thought it was just like a lonely guy, and I didn’t see it. But I have to say when the Aitken stuff came out that changed everything for me.”

When Robert Aitken released his private papers to the University of Hawaii, it became known that Shimano’s sexual interference with female students went back as far as 1963, when Aitken and Shimano had been invited by the director of a Medical Center to volunteer with patients suffering from mental illness. Coincidentally, two women associated with the Aitken’s Zendo had recently been hospitalized there because of “breakdowns.” A social worker reviewing their case files discovered that each reported having been involved in an affair with Shimano.

“I will say this, I always saw him as flawed. And I think I was too yang for him ever to put any . . . I was never in danger of any moves or anything like that because I was always coming in expressing the Dharma to him. And I didn’t give power to him. And he expressed the Dharma really well. I never realized the nature of the non-consent and the power dynamics. I mean, I was kind of young so I didn’t know that. It was a different era.”

“You’re a teacher now. You’re in an environment where you work with students. How do reconcile the fact that there were a lot of people who saw him, as you did, as a strong teacher, how do you reconcile that with the Bodhisattva Vows, ‘Endless passions, I vow to uproot’?”

“It’s like artists can create great art, but then there’s what they’re like in their personal life. I think that’s a great cautionary. You need to see the whole. Be aware yourself. Call it out no matter who they are. The Zen Center of Los Angeles has an ethics document that’s like a book practically. It’s called a Sangha Sutra. And we take boundaries classes and all this. But I think it’s a good cautionary. I think it’s better to see flaws than to ‘guru’ someone and just say, ‘This is problematic.’

“I would say,” she continues a moment later, “you can’t escape your conditioning, but you can work on it. And I don’t know if he ever faced that properly. I read that he said he was sorry, but he never really admitted it in a deeper way. He came from a samurai family. He was of a particular generation. I can just look to myself, and I have a lot of flaws. So you can be insightful and flawed. That’s a biggie. But if he wasn’t called for his behaviour, I feel like we’re all part of it. I think you have to call these things out. And I know from my own experience getting out of your own conditioning in one lifetime is not that easy. But what I would tell someone is, ‘Don’t swallow everything, even if you’re maybe not as insightful about the universe, you can still call that out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.’ And so holding that contradiction keeps you alert. And use that to keep you alert and don’t pedestal anyone. Except maybe Thich Nhat Hanh.” She chuckles. “Speak out and use these as cautionaries.”

She left New York and moved to Los Angeles in order to work in television. There she became involved with another center whose founder had been engaged in inappropriate relationships with students. Taizan Maezumi, however, publicly admitted his failings, including alcoholism, apologized, took full responsibility, and went into treatment.

Maezumi died in 1995, while on a visit to Japan. When Senshin, and her partner – Darla Myoho Fjeld – first came to ZCLA in January 2001, the abbot was Wendy Egyoku Nakao, an heir of Bernie Glassman and a founding member of the Zen Peacemakers Order.

“I would say Egyoku Roshi was really my teacher,” Senshin tells me.

“If your father, who used to take you for Sunday walks and discuss the big issues with you, if the two of you were walking and he asked, ‘Kathy, tell me what this is all about. What is Zen about?’ How would you have responded?”

“How I would’ve talked to him about it is, I would say, ‘Dad, you are a bodhisattva. You live your life as a bodhisattva. And Catholicism was your raft that let it go. This is a raft that governs me, that gets me in the moment, that makes me think of others, that lets me see life from the largest viewpoint. And it is just a raft.’ And I think I could have, in dialogue with him, come around to it. My mother is alive, and I do talk to her about it and share some things. I would also say it’s the great – like, Great! – common sense.”

“It makes you think of others?”

“As Bernie Glassman said, it makes you a mensch. It channels you into it.”

“Which brings us back to Eido Roshi. Brings us back to Taizan Maezumi’s problems with booze. There are lots of other examples. So why doesn’t it always work?”

“I would say, who knows? In the past, Eido Roshi could have even been worse. And you’re still responsible for your behavior, but that is a great question. I would say his starting point – and he might have some culpability – but the surrounding society at that time, all those things men have gotten away with in every field, got away with because it hasn’t been called upon because of a power thing. People wanted the Dharma so bad they let him get by with that.”

“Okay, that maybe helps explain how he got away with it, but that’s not what I was asking. If this is a practice that’s supposed to develop both wisdom and compassion, how is it that people can spend their lives not just practicing but, in fact, conveying, promoting, teaching, and yet seem to fall short in the compassion department?”

She considers the question a moment before responding.

“I would call that an ‘alive question.’ A valid alive question. And I would say that itself is a koan, and I wouldn’t let that drop or have an easy answer on my part. I would say to myself, ‘Keep coming back to that question. Why is that?’ And all I can do, I can’t really explain all the casual things with him. I can say, ‘Boy! That exists.’ That existed. That contradiction existed. What can I do with my students, with my practice knowing that I’m full of flaws – they’re not maybe as damaging – that I stay alive to that and not rest and not let that go. I would just say it’s a cautionary, and it’s a non-answered question. And I would say, don’t let it drop, and don’t just answer it easy for Rick. You know what I mean? It’s a ‘keep that to the forefront’ question.”

We circle back to the issue of the Bodhisattva Vows a little later.

“They’re very important. I tell students we want, ‘If I do this, then I get this.’ But why I love the Bodhisattva Vows is it’s no matter how many times! No matter how flawed! Let’s do Eido Roshi. No matter how flawed I see Dharma teachers, I vow to stay alive. I vow to not succumb. No matter how contradictory things seem, I vow to zero in on the truth The endless dimension of it. The boundless dimension with this concrete action, this concrete manifestation of giving my life to this endless quest.

“One of the best things about Eido Roshi was he loved ‘The Impossible Dream.’ ‘This is my quest; this is my passion!’ I understood that as an artist. Zen and arts are very connected. You go into the center of trouble, see the beauty in the simplest things. And you look at problematic aspects of life. One great thing about Shakyamuni, he didn’t say, ‘It’s all cozy.’ He said, ‘Life is suffering.’ That’s the playing field. There’s ways to approach this suffering. But impermanence and attachment are what we’re working with. Even when you look at someone like Cornel West and he says, ‘I’m not surprised that there’s going to be more trouble.’ You know? They say, ‘We’ve solved the race thing,’ or ‘We’ve gotten better with women’s . . .’ No we haven’t! And it might be endless. And there may be backlash. So how do you approach that as a bodhisattva? That’s why the Endless Vows are so fabulous. No matter how much, you have a job to do. I say to people, ‘Both as an artist and a bodhisattva, you don’t need life to be good or pleasant for you to have a job to do. Your job is in negotiation with the world and others. How best can you serve given each moment’s circumstance?’”

I ask, “What does a Zen teacher teach?” When she doesn’t immediately reply, I prod a little bit. “It’s an interesting term – isn’t it? – teacher? We don’t say minister or facilitator, rabbi, priest. We say teacher. You’re the ‘head teacher’ at ZCLA. So what do you teach?”

“I think there’s a koan that says there’s no Zen teachers,” she says, referring to the eleventh case in the Blue Cliff Record.

“Yeah, you’re all a bunch of dreg slurpers.”

“Exactly,” she laughs. “So I would say we hold the training facilities.”

“That’s it? You set out the cushions and mats?”

“Well, we help facilitate the on-going training of Zen. And really trying to bring it out of the students. But I think that’s another alive question that I wouldn’t reduce to an answer. But how do you approach it in practice? Where you don’t feed the students – they say – like a grandmother. ‘Okay, open your mouth. I’ve chewed it for you, now shallow.’ Everyone is so different. Some students, you just witness them. Some are just so caught in their conditioning. Some have been practicing, and they’re gradually letting go, but they’re not even asking the big questions. Some are stuck in the idea of a big question. So you might say, which is the rug that you’re gonna pull out? It’s a dance with meeting people where they are, and everyone’s so different.

“And your students? What do they expect from you? Or of you. What do they come looking for?”

There is a long pause before she speaks in a softer tone.

“I think it’s really weird because I just became a transmitted teacher in December of 2019.[1] But I don’t think . . . Each one comes differently. I would say people are mostly working on themselves. And I don’t know if it’s a witness they want or guidance. In some ways they just check in about their practice.”

“Well, Los Angeles. So there are lots of options. Why you? What did they come to you for?”

“That’s a great question. And I’m not sure there’s one answer. I think what I said, I think some people do want to check in. They want accountability to stay on course. And then, why they choose me? I don’t know.”

“I didn’t mean you specifically so much, but why did they choose Zen? After all, they could have taken a weekend mindfulness course, and they could even get an instructor’s certificate after about 48 hours.”

“That also is a great point. I do think Zen students have . . . It’s not for everyone. And it does have a bit of rigor to it. I love Zen students. There is something . . . You’re willing to sit and be uncomfortable and be told what to do and yet not fall into a trap of guruness. And face yourself and sit still and work with others. There’s something in you that goes, ‘This is helpful.’ I think a shadow-side of the people who come to Zen is they’re very dedicated. They’re very serious. They’re willing to sit through it all. And they have a little bit of perfectionism. I’m against fundamentalism. They can be hard on themselves. They’re very serious and, I tell them, ‘Stop taking yourself seriously. Put yourself in a bigger context. You’re not the center of the universe.’ You know what I mean? And we’re all full of flaws.

“Of course, there’s a beauty to Zen, too. And a beauty to life even in its suffering. There’s a kind of peace and joy going into the center of what is problematic. And going back to the Eido Roshi thing, if you can go into the center of it and just say, ‘This is!’ I’m not saying it’s not. Beautiful little babies can get cancer. And things happen in life. This is the nature of things. And let’s not be purists. Everything’s got kind of an ingredient, and how do we work with all those ingredients for benefit? And facing those harsh things in life, and with a bit of . . . I used to do an act where I played a Texas channeler Miss Pretty Hand. She would go under, and then she would channel all these spirits. And it was right when I was doing my first Zen stuff, but I parodied a lot of religions. I had an apocalyptic weather team. I had a blind preacher and a parrot saying, ‘This is good. This is bad.’ It was kind of a vaudeville thing. But dissolving that kind of thinking is what Zen is. Like in the Diamond Sutra. ‘There is no such thing as Tathagata. Tathagata is just a name, and therefore we call it Tathagata. And that’s the Tathagata!’ There’s such beauty in that. I always say to people, ‘Do you really want to be able to say it?’ Do you want to resolve it and put it in a box? Or is that open-endedness, that aliveness what is really the nature of existence and your alignment with it?”

[1] Our conversation took place November 11, 2022.

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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