Hogen Bays and his wife, Jan Chozen Bays, are the co-abbots of Great Vow Monastery in Oregon as well as being the spiritual directors and primary teachers with the Zen Community of Oregon.
“In 1968 or so, a friend and I went up to Rochester. He had done a sesshin with Philip Kapleau at Florida Presbyterian College. He said, ‘This is really interesting. Let’s go.’ So we got on an airplane in 1968 and went up to Rochester and spent a week – or a weekend – at the country place they had then. And I remember I didn’t say a word. I asked something about vegetarianism, which was the only thing I could think to talk about. But it was sort of in my mind. So, after my second year of college, I had some angst, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ house. I went to Rochester. So the marker in my mind is that at 6:00 a.m. on June 9th 1969, I drove into Rochester just about sunrise, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is a new beginning of something.’ In a way, maybe, I think my birth is 1969.”
When I ask him what he was anxious about, he corrects me.
“Not anxious. Angst. Angst about the existence of life. Angst is about, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ Angst is angst in the sense of those fundamental questions which gnaw at one’s heart.”
“Did you associate that angst with a particular set of circumstances?”
“Well, I think many people – certainly me – were just afflicted with doubt, with depression, with the kind of deep, core feelings unresolved. So the impetus to resolve that movement inside has been with me my whole life. And that’s the particular shape it took.”
He eventually left Rochester and moved to the west coast, where he started practice with Taizan Maezumi and the Zen Center of Los Angeles. It was there that he met Chozen, with whom he would revive the Oregon Zen community which originally had been established by one of Walter Nowick’s students ten years prior.
He has been a full-time Zen priest since the mid-1990s. I ask what prompted him to be ordained.
“Some people have a calling, and this just called to me. What I tell people sometimes, I say, ‘Look, if you find something that is helpful and beneficial, you want to share it.’ And you want to find the most skillful way to share it. If you’ve something that has liberated you from suffering, then what way can you help other people be liberated? And I think the commitment, the kind of vow of me stepping forward overtly and consciously as an ordained person was important. Is important.”
“What is the role of a priest?
“There are so many different aspects. There is a story I like to tell about Yamada Mumon Roshi and my teacher, Shodo Harada, who was his disciple. Mumon Roshi was ardently against war. And, after World War II, as an act of atonement, he travelled to places of violence offering ceremonies for all the war dead. One day, when they were travelling together Mumon Roshi saw a person in a military uniform. He said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful.’ And Harada said, ‘Why wonderful? That is a person dedicated to violence.’ Mumon Roshi said, ‘Yes, but this person really shows what they believe in. They are expressing their faith, and that – in this time and age – is very important.’
“I think it is vital that we are people of visible dedication. I think it is significant when people step forward and say, ‘I am reliably confident in this path of Dharma. I wear my faith overtly.’ As you know, in the traditional story about the Buddha encountering the four messengers, the fourth messenger was an ordained priest, a spiritual seeker, a monk. That willingness to be recognized as one who points out that there is a path to awakening is an aspect of being a priest.
Over the years, Great Vow has hosted teachers from several different traditions.
“We have had many Buddhist teachers come here such as Ajahan Amaro from the Theravadan school and several Vajrayana teachers with a Dzogchen perspective and others. In recent years I’ve worked with Byron Katie. My Zen practice has been quite rich, quite wide, looking at the truths of life from many different perspectives.”
“Is there something, in your experience, that distinguishes Zen from other forms of Buddhist?” I ask.
“Well, I think that’s exactly it. It’s experience. If you’re involved with the Theravada or Vajrayana or so other forms of Buddhism, they often first require intellectual understanding, a cognitive understanding of the Path. This is fine. But, in Zen, scholarly understanding is secondary. For example, often in the Vajrayana tradition the teachings go through layer after layer of, ‘This means this, that means this, this means that, therefore, therefore, therefore.’ So when I read the teachings of Tsongkhapa or Kalu Rinpoche, they appear to divide Buddhism up like the early Indian texts do. They describe Dharma as a granularized teaching. Modern Zen – or at least the Zen I’m familiar with – does not do that. It just asks, ‘What is at the root?’ The mind can endlessly think and particularize things, but what is at the heart of the matter? How can you step into that? Emphasizing what is before words does not make Zen special – because fundamentally everything begins before words – but in Zen Buddhism there is an emphasis on recognizing truth before words, before differentiation. This is important. And this insight can be embodied. It can be lived.”
 Both Yamada and Harada are common names. Yamada Mumon was a Rinzai teacher who lived from 1900 to 1988. Harada Shodo is the residing abbot of Sogen-ji in Okayama. He also maintains Tahoma Sogenji in Washington State.
When I first looked up the website for the Louisville Zen Center, Bodhin Kjolhede of Rochester was identified as the Guiding Teacher. The local “Group Leader” and “Resident Novice Priest” was Jeanette Prince-Cherry. At the time, I asked her what the difference between the two roles was.
“A Group Leader is just a hands-on person that helps make things happen,” she explained. “So, because I’m in Louisville and Roshi’s in Rochester – ten hours away – I make sure sittings happen, and I’m authorized to do some instructing. But for people who really want to connect and do longer retreats, they need to go to Rochester to work with Roshi directly.”
“You’re ‘resident’ there in Kentucky?”
“Yeah, it’s my home that we use for most of our sittings, for our retreats, for when we have teachers come. I raised my family here, and I’m the only one left. It just made sense to use this house in some useful way other than there being the echo of me talking to the cat. So this is where most of the things happen with the Louisville Zen Center.”
Because at the time she’d been identified as a “novice priest,” I ask how her situation will change when she receives full ordination.
“It won’t,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll just wear different robes. The thing about our tradition is that regardless whether it’s for ordination or head cook, you start slowly doing more and more of that work until you’re doing it all the time, then it gets recognized. ‘Yeah, okay, I guess we can call you Head Cook now ’cause you’re doing that already.’”
After I interviewed her, she received full ordination on October 23, 2022, and was give the Dharma name Jissai, meaning “True Encounter.”
She grew up in North Carolina in a Southern Baptist family. “My sister is a minister. My father did ministry. So we were well steeped in religious tradition.
“I grew up in this little city High Point, North Carolina. And it was very, very segregated. I grew up in a Black neighborhood. My parents owned their home, but we lived across the street from a sprawling housing project. People in the projects thought we were rich because we had our own house. But we were ‘house poor.’ Most of my parents’ income went towards paying the bills for the house. We were just as poor as my friends in the projects were. Not only was my hometown segregated, it was racially hostile with few meaningful job opportunities for Black people, so I left when I was 18 and went into the Air Force. My older brother had gone into the Marines, and I was like, ‘I’m getting’ out of here, too!’ And I think the Air Force, the military, and those experiences opened the door in allowing me to practice Zen. Opened up that possibility in my mind and my heart.”
When I ask how it did that, her answer surprises me.
“The military lifestyle. Everything was standardized. We wore uniforms. Everything was uniform. But even within all of that structure, there was so much freedom. It’s like when one of my sons, before he learned to swim, he would hold onto the side of the pool for support. Because he didn’t know how to swim he could only circle the perimeter of the pool holding onto the sides. Then when he learned to swim,he could go anywhere in the pool – on top of the water, under the water, the shallow end, the deep end – but it was still a pool. He was still bound by the swimming pool. But he had all this freedom in it. That’s how I felt in the military. There was this firm, stable structure that let me find out what I liked, what I didn’t like, who I was. I was able to explore with the help of the supports.”
When she left the Air Force after eight years, she found the transition to civilian life challenging.
“I’d spent my entire adult life in the Air Force. I mean, I didn’t know how to dress. I didn’t know the language. I’m in a new area. I was working as an industrial engineer here in Louisville, and I was used to military etiquette. As a civilian that’s different. I was a supervisor, and as a supervisor in the military, you just tell people what to do, and they just do it. It’s not quite the same as a civilian. I’ve got to be nice and all that. I didn’t know any of that. Truly. I had no idea. So I had a hard time.”
Then she was house bound for a while, recovering from gallstone surgery. “Feeling sorry for myself and flipping channels on television. And all the talk shows seemed to have got on the same programming. I would go to the Oprah Winfrey show, and she had this segment on meditation. I’m like, ‘Nope.’ Click. Went to the next talk show, and that person had a section on meditation. Click. And then with the third one, ‘Okay. Maybe I need to pay attention to this.’ And so I watched the show and went to our public library to get a book on meditation.”
She read all the books the library had on secular meditation but was reluctant to look at the Buddhist books. Eventually, there were no more secular meditation books left.
“But I’d gotten enough insight to see the resistance about these Buddhist books. I still identified as Christian. And as a Southern Baptist, you don’t even touch books about other religions. But it felt really unhealthy to reject them out of hand. So, I was, ‘I’m going to pick up the most Buddhist book I can find.’ The thinnest, but the most Buddhist book. ’Cause I don’t want to be committed to reading some big book. The book I chose was What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, and I was so embarrassed to check that out of the library! So I read this book and discovered the way I feel about the world in its pages. I could not believe it. I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t believe how . . . Yeah . . . It was like reading my heart.”
“In what way?” I ask.
“In Christianity there’s all this talk about original sin and original impurity, and that was absent. It talked about original perfection, and how it is through our own habits and conditioning where we don’t function out of that perfection. That really resonated with me. It talked about suffering, and I could immediately understand suffering. I remember it said dukkha was like a wheel not being right on its axle. And it reminded me of grocery carts, ’cause there’s always this cart that’s not rolling right. And you can function. You can go to the grocery store, get your groceries; you can make your way through the grocery store, but it’s a pain and a struggle. Okay! I understand that. Dukkha. You could still function, but it’s a struggle. And these concepts, even the realms of unenlightened existence as psychological states of mind. Hell and hungry ghosts and thirsty spirits and fighting humans and animals and all of that, I could so relate to it. Maybe I could relate to Christianity now, as an adult. I don’t know. But the dharma – the Buddhadharma – it just really spoke to me. I felt like I had been trying to fit myself into the mold of Christianity, whereas in Buddhism, it just flowed in me. I flowed with it. There wasn’t the need to put this round peg into this square hole.”
Mountain Cloud outside of Santa Fe has recently been designated the hub Sanbo Zen community in North America, although for many years it was barely hanging on.
The building was constructed in mid-1980s by members of Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center who skillfully and beautifully combined the structure of a traditional Japanese zendo with local architectural features such as exposed vega beams and adobe walls. It was intended as a place for Kapleau to retire to, although that didn’t work out as he had hoped.
“I think there were two factors that entered into his leaving after a year,” Mitra Bishop tells me.
One was the situation in Rochester where the person left in charge – Toni Packer – realized she could no longer claim to be a Buddhist. The other had to do with the community that had formed in Santa Fe.
“I picked him up at the airport when he moved here. We’d already bought a house for him and renovated it to work for him, but I took him directly to a picnic that the sangha had planned as a welcome for him. At the picnic, one of the sangha members – one of the local sangha members – stood up and said, ‘Roshi, we love having you here. We want to have you here. But we don’t want you to tell us what to do.’ He quietly took it in.”
When I visited Mountain Cloud in 2013, the teacher – Henry Shukman – and Mitra both told me about Will Brennan; it would be another nine years, however, before I meet him. Will is from Chicago where, after a short stint in the Peace Corps in the late 1970s, he first encountered Zen Practice at a local center maintained by Wally Muszynski. “Wally was really part of the Rochester Zen Center,” Will tells me, “and he was stern. But there was some sweetness underneath there. But when I sat down there in the zendo – oh, boy! – I knew I was home. I knew I was home; however, I got the impression, ‘Well, yeah, this is the practice, but this,’” he laughs, “‘this is not the group I want to work with.’ I’m an intimate fellow. I’m one of these touchy, huggy guys. And I didn’t feel it there.
“But I was down in the basement one day about three or four months after I started – that’s where we hung our coats – and I noticed a sign, and it said, ‘Zen Center starting up in Santa Fe, New Mexico.’ And I said, ‘Oh, shit! I had a dream one time about New Mexico.’ So, I immediately got my airplane ticket.”
The group in Santa Fe was very different from the people he had met in Chicago and Rochester. “Everyone was laughing, everyone was smiling. I stayed here for a week – stayed in Santa Fe for a week – and I knew immediately that, ‘Yeah. This is my home. This is where I’m going to practice with these people.’”
But first he needed to return to Chicago to tie up some business, including explaining to Lucie – the woman he was seeing at the time – that he was moving to New Mexico. The next thing he knew, she had packed all her belongings in her old Volkswagen, and they drove west together.
Over time, however, the group which established the Santa Fe center dissolved.
“I’d say by about 1985, Lucie and I looked around. ‘Where is everybody?’”
They and a handful of others kept the center open in part by renting space to a local Vipassana Meditation Group. Rachel Belash was a member of the Vipassana Community.
“The Vipassana people were renting from the Zen community because the Zen Community had shrunk to almost nothing,” she tells me. “There was Will and Lucie and two or three others, and that was it. And so they needed the income from the Vipassana group. And I sat with the Vipassana group for ten years on a Tuesday night, but then they lost their teacher, and they decided they were going to continue without a teacher. But I began to feel the practice melting away because I didn’t have a teacher.”
In the meantime, Will – who had established a plumbing business in Santa Fe – was commuting to Albuquerque in order to study with Joan Rieck, a Sanbo Zen teacher there. She eventually introduced him to Henry. “Henry is a person who exudes love,” Will tells me. “So it felt just right for me.”
“Will Brennan brought me here,” Henry told me in 2013. “He’s a friend and kind of sometime-student of Joan Rieck. And at a certain point when our abbot – Yamada Roshi – had appointed me as a teacher, Will invited me to come here and join the very last remnants of the original Kapleau group that had built the center, which was basically he and his wife, Lucie, and maybe one or two other people. And they were sitting here regularly on Wednesday nights and had never stopped for twenty-eight years!” he says in amazement.
When the Vipassana group lost its teacher, Rachel noticed that the Zen community appeared to have acquired one. “And this was Henry. So I made an appointment with him one day and said, ‘I would like you to be my teacher.’ Of course, I had no knowledge of Zen at all. I just wanted him to be my teacher, and he said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ And I was so amused and taken by that response that I thought, ‘Mmm. I’d better find out what this is all about.’”
Karen Klinefelter had a similar experience. She had been working with another Zen teacher in the area but felt uncomfortable with him.
“A good friend of mine was one of the originals at Mountain Cloud with Will, and she kept saying, ‘Karen, you should come. There’s this guy. I really like him. Will found him. You should come.’ And first I just went to one of the daily early morning sits. And then I did a week-long sesshin with Henry, who I really admired because he said to me, ‘Karen, you know what? You are someone else’s student. Until you clear that up, I’m very happy to see you in dokusan, but I cannot formally be your teacher.’”
So she spoke with the teacher she had been working with and formally separated with him, after which she was able to join the Mountain Cloud community.
The community has thrived since Henry has been there, and he is no longer the only teacher. Valerie Forstman – an heir of Ruben Habito – is now teaching at Mountain Cloud as well. I also mention to Will that I’d heard that he too had recently been appointed an Assistant Teacher in the Sanbo Zen lineage.
“Yeah,” he says. There is a sense of wonder in his tone. Then he laughs. “But don’t tell nobody! You know, I had a wonderful time with Valerie and her husband, they came over and we had a little gathering at our house. So we were sittin’ there, and I said something to the effect, ‘You know, this Assistant Teacher business, it’s kinda like a meditation robe. But it doesn’t fit!’” He laughs and shakes his head in amazement. “It doesn’t fit! Maybe someday, some year, but it just feels so weird.”
During my conversation with Ruben Habito, he mentioned that his wife, Maria, was now the principal teacher at a Zen center in Indiana. “Where in Indiana?” I asked.
“South Bend, near the campus of Notre Dame.”
“I grew up in LaPorte, about 25 miles west of South Bend,” I told him. “It’s been a while.” (Well, fifty years; however, childhood memories linger.) “But certainly, when I was living there, there was no Zen anything in Northern Indiana.”
“Well, you never know where these Zen communities will mushroom up,” Ruben said.
It is a basic principle of Buddhism and Zen that all things change – even, it appears, Indiana.
Maria grew up in Germany, and like many Europeans is multi-lingual. When I ask how many languages she speaks, she tells me, “I think about six maybe. Five or six.”
“So many you can’t remember!”
“Well, of course, you don’t speak Latin as such. We start out with German and then, of course, French and English. Chinese. Japanese. And now I’m learning modern Hebrew.”
I ask how she came to learn Chinese and Japanese, and thereby hangs a tale:
“After I graduated from high school, my mother knew a Chinese Catholic priest in Taiwan. And he had invited her and my aunt to visit, and so she said as my high school graduation present she would bring me along. So I went, and I fell in love with the country and the language, and it was very easy for me to pick up everything. I had already been involved in the university in Saarbrücken to study sociology and philosophy, but I had always been interested in Chinese philosophy, so I decided to go back to Taiwan and learn the language. And that’s what happened.”
She enrolled in the Taiwan Normal University in Taipei and resided in the international students’ dormitory. When she had been there a few months, one of the other residents asked if she would like to meet a Buddhist hermit. “And I said yes, and that’s when I met my Buddhist master, Hsin Tao. Now he’s well-known, but then nobody knew him. He was meditating in graveyards and lived in this little tiny tucked-away hermitage near a lake in the middle of Taiwan.”
Hsin Tao was still a young man of about 30 at the time, although he was already being addressed as Shih-fu, or Master. “He grew up in Myanmar,” Maria tells me. “He was born of Chinese parents in Myanmar in ’48, and there was still some struggle going on between the Communists and the Taiwan Kuomintang. He got caught up in this. So he lost his mother when he was three, lost his home, and his father died when he was about four, and so he was an orphan and became a child soldier.”
“Yes. At age eight. So he saw so much wars, suffering, death. And as a child he had all these questions on his mind, ‘What is life all about?’ So when he came to Taiwan, he continued being in the army school, and actually it was not easy for him to leave. But he finally decided to become a Buddhist monk to explore these questions of ‘What’s the truth of life?’ And ‘What’s suffering?’ And he found that the traditional training that he received as a monkwasn’t enough for him. So he decided to go on and practice on his own in the wilderness.”
There were several other people at the event to which Maria had been brought. “I didn’t speak Chinese then. I had just been in Taiwan for three months, and I knew a little bit but not too much. And Shih-fu was sitting on the terrace, serving tea to a handful of people. I was just contemplating the lake until I realized that they were talking about me. And then I asked the gentleman who’d brought me, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘They are all excited because the master has said there’s a very deep karma between him and you.’ And I said, ‘Karma? What does that mean?’ I wasn’t even familiar with that expression. And then the Dharma Master said, ‘It’s a connection from a previous life.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What connection can there be between a Buddhist master and a German Catholic?’”
At the end of this visit, Hsin Tao told her, “You are a tree that can bring rich fruit. Therefore I want to plant your roots in fertile ground.” He invited her to come see him as often as she wished, and, although she felt her roots were firmly planted in Christianity, she did feel drawn back to the hermitage and returned frequently.
In 1983, he told her that because she understood him better than many of his other visitors, he would like her to formally become his disciple. He was planning to undertake a world tour, and he would value her assistance as a translator. When Maria explained that she felt her German-Christian heritage made her an unlikely disciple of a Buddhist master, he said that in order to open up “to truth completely, you need to learn not to make an image of yourself. Don’t cling to your German ‘I’ and to your Christian notions. Don’t make them into hindrances on your path but let them help you instead.” She took refuge vows and was given the Dharma name Hui-yueh (meaning “Wisdom Moon”). With that, she said, she became a “freshly hatched Buddhist Christian.”
Just a month after the official opening of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo on April 23, 2022, a young woman in the sangha died. Her body was brought to the temple where a public visitation was held followed by a 24-hour vigil. Such rituals are vitally important to families, friends, and communities, but they are not the type of activity that a Zen Center would ordinarily be able to host. That, perhaps, is the major distinction between a “temple” and a “center.”
It takes me a while to realize that the temple’s abbot, Rinsen Weik, uses the term differently than I do. For him the temple is more a concept than a physical structure. “The temple predates the facility,” he tells me in a conversation I had with him and his wife – Do’on – who received final Dharma transmission during the opening ceremonies.
“So it is not a temple in the sense that it is a building,” I say.
“The temple has a building, but the temple was in a different building. Same temple, different building. I think of it more like a sangha.”
The way Rinsen and Do’on explain it, the temple is the culmination of a process. When they first moved to Toledo and were not yet ordained as priests, they established a “sitting group.”
“We became a temple when Do’on and I got ordained. So initially it was a sitting group because we were under the auspices of other organizations, and we were calling it the Toledo Zen Center for a while. Once we got ordained – which was in 2010 – we renamed it a temple, and we made a big thing about renaming it. But that was still a micro-version of what it now is. Now it actually is what we’ve been approximating for all that time. Now it actually is the thing.”
“Okay, so you originally called it a Zen Center,” I say, “and I know what that means. I’ve been to lots of Zen Centers. But why call it a temple? Which, at least to me, implies a place of worship.”
“It started off as a sitting group, a meditation group,” he explains. “Then a Zen Center, and then finally a temple. When we first got here, we were not near to being teachers yet. And there was also some concern about is Buddhism – is Zen – going to be anything the people of Toledo can relate to? So it’s been a progression from the secular, digestible kind of meditation-based thing to more and more overtly what it actually is, which is a Mahayana Zen Buddhist temple. It’s a religious practice, a religious community. And also before we were ordained, we really couldn’t do any of the officiating for services or anything like that, so our ability to facilitate and do the ritual things was not there yet.”
“There’s a kind of spiritual evolution inside of that as well,” Do’on adds. “We emphasize the Mahayana religious aspect of Zen training. We totally emphasize the village temple where you bring your kids and where you have your funeral and where you have your wedding and where you do your retreat every month, you do your workshops. It’s pretty like much non-stop activity going on at the temple that really is well-rounded.”
The meditation and koan practice remain central, but that is “just one thread,” she tells me. “It’s very important – it’s the golden thread – but there are a lot of other threads around it.”
“When it was a sitting group, it was just about zazen,” Rinsen continues. “And then we started adding components.”
The first new component came about when they were authorized to offer retreats.
“And that was a big deal,” Rinsen says. “We had the derivative authority to lead retreats. The next thing to happen was creating a Sunday service. And when the Sunday Service came online then a whole other aspect opened up. A Dharma School for kids quickly arose as an interest that for the sitting group it would not even occur. It just wasn’t relevant. And then it was kind of balancing the Sunday Sutra Service community family kind of thing with the Wednesday night sitting meditation group. And for years – decades really – those were the two feet of what we had going. And now, in the new facility, now we have a whole other series of things coming online. We can have morning sitting every day. That’s new. We’ve never had a facility that allowed that. That’s been a huge thing.”
And – as in the Village Temple model Do’on described – they can perform the traditional rites associated with religious communities.
“We had our first funeral,” Rinsen says, “where a tragically young sangha member – she was in her early 30s – passed away of ovarian cancer. And we had a full Buddhist funeral with the body and a vigil and all the rites and rituals that would not have been able to happen in the earlier settings. But interestingly, it turned into a retreat for everybody. Not a sesshin, but a very powerful practice with people reciting the Diamond Sutra with the body for a twenty-four vigil between the community visitation and the final rites that we did. All that texture, it’s way more than what we consider a secular meditation group. It’s a much fuller thing.”
Valerie Forstman is the Guiding Teacher at Mountain Cloud in Santa Fe. Previously she had been a professional orchestral flutist. “Finding Zen,” she tells me, “came out of my life of music.”
She was living in Dallas and preparing for an audition, which, she says, “is rather like Olympic training. For three months, I did all the things that I knew to do to prepare. Yet as the time came nearer, I found myself waking up in the night visited by past failures. Disappointments. During the day, I was practicing and training in order to play a certain way at a future time. It was all oriented to that. In the process, what you might call the present moment became increasingly elusive. It felt like the space where the present would be was opening up like a chasm between the past and the future, and I was losing my love for playing. The week before the audition, a friend said, ‘Hey! How are you?’ I said, ‘Well, something needs to change.’ I told him briefly about this sense of a gap in time and of having lost the joy of playing. He said, ‘I’ve got just the thing. Come and sit.’”
“The audition was on that Saturday. The next Monday I was at the Zen Center for the orientation talk, and the next Wednesday for the second orientation talk. I had done spiritual practices; had had some taste of that experience, but somehow it felt like coming home. In the beginning, I would sit for three twenty-five-minute rounds facing the wall, five minutes of kinhin – walking meditation – in between. Sometimes, turning around at the end felt almost dizzying. In three periods of sitting, there might be just a handful of moments of real stillness; otherwise, it was what we call monkey-mind. Then, chanting, bowing. Going out to the car and driving home, the street signs were more clear and distinct, and the light on the pavement was somehow more luminous. There was something happening. I didn’t even try to say, ‘Oh, this is clarifying,’ or ‘This is bringing the world to life,’ or ‘Something’s falling away.’ I didn’t have any of that language. I just knew the need to be doing this.”
That October, she attended her first sesshin. “When I arrived and saw the schedule, I thought, ‘Whoa! I can’t do that,’ but there was no turning back. It was just wonderful, potentiating naiveté. It can be so helpful not to have a clue what you’re getting into.” The venue had, as she puts it, “no particular symbols. Just a small altar with a photograph of Yamada Koun Roshi, Ruben’s teacher, and Yasutani Roshi, Yamada Koun’s teacher, and a candle, a flower. In kinhin, we walk by this altar and might glance at it. Otherwise, it was a concrete block room that had been turned into a zendo.”
On the third day of the sesshin she had an unexpected experience. “I grew up in a progressive Protestant environment. My father was a theologian, but I had not been in a church for a long time. And I’m sitting zazen and suddenly . . .” – she laughs softly as if a little reluctant to proceed – “. . . there appears a figure before me. It’s white. The sense was that this is Christ. And I heard the words, ‘This is my body.’” She pauses, then resumes speaking more slowly. “For a few moments, I was riveted, utterly transfixed. Then came the thought, ‘That’s blasphemy. This is my body?’ And, of course, it all went away. I came back to breathing, following the breath. Soon the bell rang and the clackers, and we began walking kinhin. And as I passed by that altar, my eye happened to fall on the photograph, the image, of Yamada Koun Roshi, this person I knew was my teacher’s teacher, a person obviously loved by Ruben, but for me, an inscrutable Japanese face. Right? In that moment of walking by, of the eye just chancing to glance at the face, suddenly that face was flooded with an outpouring of compassion, and I knew why. Not discursively, ‘Oh, I can explain this to you.’ It was just compassion – boundless – just pouring out, as I was walking back to the seat. Fairly soon I was tapped for dokusan. Fortunately, there were four people waiting ahead of me and one person in the dokusan room. So I sat down, sitting with the koan Mu. Just sitting there, not reflecting, but with tears coming down. By the time I got to the seat right before the door, my lap was wet. The bell rang, I went in, and Ruben said, ‘What’s happening?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ Then, somehow, this experience came, and I simply told him, ‘Well, I was sitting, and this appeared and . . .’ He began to ask checking questions, guiding questions. And suddenly they were just answered. It just came. Just so.
“That was just a beginning. But what a relief! For each one it’s so different, but there are clear characteristics that are common. This sense of walking and no one walking, or of creation coming up here and here, here, here! Totally new. Nothing at all and yet this! In some sense, it feels like a baby being born, and the protective film on the eyes falling away, things coming into view. Just getting used to that amount of light. In the beginning, it’s blinding. Gradually you focus, and you see this world as it is, this world in which we can practice.”
She didn’t get the position for which she had been auditioning. “I ended up as runner-up. Had that not happened, it’s likely life would have still been full of Zen, but it was a glorious failure. I’m really grateful.”
At the inauguration of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo last April, Karen Do’on Weik received “denbo,” the second stage in full authorization within the Soto tradition. Do’on is the wife of the temple’s abbot, Rinsen Weik. They met in an aikido class. “I punched him,” she tells me. She was studying to become an Episcopalian priest at the time.
Her first encounter with Buddhism occurred during a high school outing to the Rhode Island School of Design.
As she describes her childhood, it sounds like a novel written by one of the Brontë sisters. She was born in a mental hospital where her mother abandoned her two weeks after her birth. When she was about a year old, and the authorities could not locate her mother, she was placed in foster care. “I think I probably couldn’t talk or walk and probably wasn’t that responsive to much because they sent me to a foster home for handicapped children. So I grew up with mentally and physically challenged kids. You can see how this all threw me back on my own resources.”
She was eventually adopted – as a four-year-old – by a family which, as she puts it, had its own issues. Her adoptive family was Catholic, as her birth mother had been, and Do’on found solace in church services. “I loved the security of it. I loved the ritual of it. I loved being able to sit inside that ritual and have it work on me. Because I knew what was coming, I didn’t have to do a lot of extra work. I could just sit in the ritual and let it just wash over me and work on me.”
Then when she was in high school, her class visited RISD.
“They have a lovely museum there. And that’s what we were there to see. The largest wooden Buddha in the country is there. I distinctly remember walking into this room and sitting down with the Buddha, and I was like . . .” She makes a face of open-mouthed astonishment. “That level of peace, and that level of, ‘Yes,’ of fundamental okayness. I recognized that I’d been functioning with that for a long time. At the same time as the tears and the trauma. I immediately recognized that.”
“You recognized that as a state that you were personally familiar with?” I asked.
“Yes. That was what was sustaining me.”
When she was seventeen, a friend took her to a Zen gathering hosted by Richard Clarke, a controversial student of Philip Kapleau who – it is generally held – began teaching without Kapleau’s authorization to do so. But the practice appealed to her, and she found Clarke a supportive teacher. So she began sitting regularly and attending sesshin. She had also enrolled in Divinity School, leaving when she realized it wasn’t a good fit.
After meeting Rinsen, she accompanied him to retreats at Zen Mountain Monastery. They had the opportunity to work with Daido Loori and, later, Myotai Treace. But the situation became difficult after her daughter was born, and she was no longer able to attend regularly.
Eventually she and Rinsen came to study with Melissa Blacker and James Ford at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester. They became so deeply involved in the practice that eventually Melissa told them, “‘Hey. You guys are priests. You’re doing it. So let’s just ordain you.’ We’d been studying for decades and were doing the retreats at Lourde’s College, which is a nunnery basically, and we decided to do the ordination at the nunnery. So, I think I’m the only woman to get ordained as a priest in a convent.”
I ask her what her responsibilities are now that she has received denbo.
“Well, my primary responsibility,” she tells me, “is to fully inhabit Buddhahood.” She resists any efforts to get her to be more specific. It is, for her, a matter of embodying the Dharma.
“You’d considered being an Episcopal priest at one time,” I point out. “Is there a pastoral aspect to your work with students now?”
“I’m just there for them. It’s just living my life and making my life available for everybody. So my priesthood is like, ‘My hands are for you. My eyes are for you. My brain is for you. My life is for you.’”
I ask how she expects Zen practice to impact people.
“I fully expect that everyone is going to recognize they are a Buddha.”
“That’s your hope for your students?”
She nods her head. “Yeah. That everybody fully awakens to their Buddhahood. Buddhas are here to make sure all people are Buddhas. So you are constantly giving your practice away, and God knows there’s plenty of work to do.”
Sister Elaine MacInnes died yesterday, November 29, 2022. She was 98 years old. She was a member of the order of Our Lady’s Missionaries and a recipient of the Order of Canada. She was also the first Canadian to be authorized to teach Zen, in fact she was one of the very first North Americans authorized to do so.
James Ford told me this anecdote about Sister Elaine. “When she decided she should join the American Zen Teachers Association, one of our more famous Zen teachers was assigned to interview her because she was having difficulty filling out the forms. And he said he’d never been more nervous than when having to ask her if she was qualified.”
Recognized as a peer by Zen teachers in Japan and America, Sister Elaine did not always sound like them. For example, she defined Zen (“depending on the occasion,” she was careful to qualify) as “responding to God’s presence at all times, in all circumstances.”
She was closer to Buddhist orthodoxy when she stated that “Zen practice does not start and end on our cushions. Each day should be twenty-four hours of harmonious practice.” Or that “Being one with our present activity is central to Zen practice.”
“The secret in Zen,” she adds, “is not to think, not to assume, but to be.”
When I met her in June 2013, Sister Elaine did not introduce herself to me as a Zen teacher or even as a Catholic nun. “I’m a musician,” she told me. And I wondered if that were a factor in the sensitivity with which she responded to Zen training.
She was born in 1924 in Moncton, New Brunswick – in the Canadian Maritimes, less than 200 km from where I now live and write – on the 7th of March which is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, something her devoutly Catholic family made note of.
Her mother was a musician and took care that her children were all introduced to music. Elaine was taught violin. The state of mind a performing musician needs is close to the meditative state. One cannot think while playing, Sister Elaine points out; one “is no longer conscious of the left-hand fingering and the right-hand bowing. The artist could not possibly consciously control all these as rapidly as the composition demands.” Her Zen teacher, Yamada Roshi, once said, “Everyone has two hands. When we are absorbed in doing something with both hands, we are not aware of them. My two hands are in fact living my life, which is not two. From life’s point of view, there are not two hands.”
When she was ten years old, she happened upon a book in which she found a reference to Thomas Aquinas’s argument for a Prime Mover. It was one of the arguments the 16th Century Jesuits had used to explain the necessity of a Supreme Being to their non-theistic Japanese hosts. The Japanese had not been convinced, but the idea struck the young Elaine forcefully. “I remember being deeply affected and impressed. Incredibly, I seemed to understand. God the Prime Mover! I closed the volume quickly and believed it with my whole heart.”
When she was in her teens, the Second World War broke out. A number of training fields were established around Moncton for British pilots, and local residents made an effort to welcome the young men into their homes. Romances were common, and both Elaine and an older sister formed attachments to English airmen who later died in action. That was no doubt a factor in her decision to enter the convent, but it was not a step she took immediately. First, she completed a degree in music at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and then did further studies at Julliard, after which she went to Alberta and performed for a while in the string section of the Calgary Symphony.
She entered religious life somewhat later than usual and was 30 before she completed her postulancy. While in the novitiate, she came to reflect upon the passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians that (although she would not have known it) Thomas Merton believed expressed the spirit of Zen: “I live, now not I but Christ lives within me.” Later she wrote, “I do not know or remember how I came to be attracted by that phrase and can only say that it seemed to be given as gift. Of course I desired earnestly to know it experientially, and at the same time I was equally determined to discover how I was going to practice it.”
Then she happened upon the book One with Jesus by a Belgian Jesuit, Paul de Jaegher, in which he writes about the significance of that passage in his own life. He also said that he experienced the Divine Indwelling not as intimacy but as identification. “Identification!” Sister Elaine wrote, “When I read that, my head-world and heart-world exploded from two to one, or – as Zen masters say – ‘not even one.’ The joy of the raindrop is to enter the ocean. Total identification. Now how to practice that?”
Although attracted by what she read, she was unclear what to do about it. De Jaegher did not provide directions on how to proceed, although the book was, as she put it, full of encouragement. She attempted a few experiments on her own, “but they all went through the thinking process, which I soon discovered was creating an objective twosome. I did, however, have my own inspired insight, that the secret or core of that teaching lay in the two words ‘not I.’”
After taking final vows in 1961, she was assigned to Japan where she taught music to school children. She felt an immediate respect for the culture and immersed herself in it. During her time in Japan, she studied several traditional arts including flower arrangement, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony. She first encountered Buddhist spiritual practice when a friend introduced her to the Tendai monk, Somon Horisawa. He served tea to Sister Elaine and her companion, then turned to her and inquired, “How do you pray?” When she asked what he meant, he said, “For example, what about your body position?”
“I hastily assured him that body position is not important in prayer, and he heartily disagreed. ‘Body position is very important in prayer.’”
Her introduction to Zen came a little later. She was studying Japanese music terminology at the Jesuit University in Hiroshima where she met a Jesuit practitioner of Zen, Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle. “As far as I can remember,” she tells me, “that’s the first time I heard anything about Zen. And I’m so glad I heard about it from him. The rest of my time in Japan, I met so many people who admired Lassalle. I was reading everything on spirituality then because that was my first mission abroad. And I liked what I read about Zen, but it was when I got all of this from Father Lassalle that I had a deep inner conviction that this is okay, that this is the legitimate stuff.”
But when she asked him to teach her, he demurred, telling her he wasn’t qualified. “And I thought, ‘Well, gracious! What’s this? Here he is, a Jesuit priest, and he says he’s not qualified!’ And he said, ‘I’ll find somebody to teach you.’ And I said – and I’m not sure why I said this – I said, ‘I think I’d rather go to a Buddhist nun than a Buddhist priest to learn my Zen.’”
Lassalle arranged for her to attend a Zen temple in Kyoto for women, Enkoji. “So on my own, I went there and met the old roshi.” This was Fukagai Gichu. “And at first she wasn’t too keen on me. She looked at me. She had almost no English. Well, my Japanese wasn’t too bad, but it was pretty primary.” The roshi quoted the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer in Japanese, then she said, “‘If you think your father’s in heaven, if you think that’s God’ – she said – ‘there’s no place for you in Zen.’ And I said, ‘Whoa!’ I thought she had made quite a jump. So I said, ‘There are some things you’re going to have to trust me for.’ And I don’t know whether she liked that or not.
“They were an ascetic group, and it was terribly difficult. They said, ‘Well, you’ll have to come and make this sesshin, and we’ll get someone to give you your orientation at that.’ The rising bell for the nuns at that time was 3:00 a.m., and you had to be in the zendo, all dressed, and doing zazen at 3:05. And it was really tough going. And I didn’t have the opportunity for a real dokusan because we had no translator, and the roshi was still pretty convinced that there wasn’t much hope for me because of my Christianity and my sense of God. I think I probably thought at that time that her conception of what I thought of God was wrong. I sensed that. But I had limited Japanese, and the fact is that you can’t speak very much to most teachers. I never had interviews with her. I’d go in for dokusan, and she might say something. She might not. She might ask me to say something. And then I’d leave. The dokusan was less than a minute. Which was fine. Sometimes dokusans are like that. But I must have got nourishment from somewhere because I kept going back. To the end, I never got very far with her, but she kept me at this thing.”
Sister Elaine sat with the Buddhist nuns of Enkoji for eight years and under Fukagai Gichu’s guidance came to learn, as Somon Horisawa had told her, that the way in which one sits is indeed important. Meditation engages one’s whole being, body, mind, and breath.
By this time, Lassalle had been authorized to open a Zen Center, Shinmeikutsu, in Hiroshima, and Sister Elaine assisted him there. She told me that during one of the retreats he facilitated, “I had some kind of a little experience. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know enough about that experience. I’ve got to get you with a real teacher.’ So he took me to Yamada Roshi on the way home from the retreat.”
Sister Elaine would come to refer to Koun Yamada as her “father in Zen.” He was more at ease with Christians than Fukagai Gichu had been and was pleased to learn that Sister Elaine was a musician. Musicians, he told her, tended to be less “head bound.”
“He never pretended to understand Christianity or just what we meant by ‘God,’ but he was very positive. He said, ‘I don’t understand it, but the church has gone on for centuries.’ And he said, ‘Zen belongs in the Church.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re losing it in Japan. It’s falling apart. Buddhism is failing terribly. Buddhism has failed my family,’ he said. ‘Not me. But my children.’”
She tells me that he expressed the hope that Zen might eventually become a “stream” within Catholicism, then added wryly that she didn’t expect to see that happen in her lifetime.
The Rohatsu sesshin of 1972 was her second sesshin with Yamada, and, during the first few days, she was uncomfortable about some of the things said during his Dharma talks. She spoke to Father Lassalle, who was also participating in the retreat, about her concerns, and he told her to trust Yamada. She was, he suggested, on the edge of overcoming the sense of being “separate” that is so strong in Westerners.
“That evening,” she writes in her autobiography, Zen Contemplation: A Bridge of Living Water, “dokusan with the roshi was uneventful, but he brought me into the concrete-me more fully. I returned to my place in the zendo, looked at the ‘me’ that seemed to be ensconced in a hard shell. Suddenly, the very core of that shell burst open. Its lovely contents shot out into every part of my being. I was inundated until there was no me left. No boundaries anywhere. How beautiful and clean and pure . . . born into this world of the Infinite . . . belonging and fitting and home-ing! How utterly perfect.”
Her kensho reminded her of a time when, as a child, she had been playing with globules of mercury from a couple of broken thermometers and noticed the way they were drawn to one another. “When the raindrop enters the ocean there are no boundaries,” she wrote. “There is just the ocean.”
“I’d been sitting for years,” she told me, “so it wasn’t too remarkable. When you have a real teacher, they use their Zen techniques that work. And I think I was primed for that too. I came out very, very much believing in Yamada Roshi. So much so that I just spoke to the sisters and went up to Kamakura to be where I could be close to the Roshi.”
In 1976, the OLM closed its missions in Japan, and Sister Elaine was sent to the Philippines, although she made regular trips back to Japan to continue her koan work with Yamada. She also received Dharma transmission from him that year.
In the Philippines, she met Father Catalino Arevalo. “He was the outstanding Jesuit in the Philippines at the time. And he knew that Zen is an Oriental type of prayer. And when he heard I was there – this is before he even met me – he said, ‘Good. We’re Orientals here, you know.’ And the Jesuits – the foreign Jesuits – were getting old, and they were turning over their community bit by bit to Filipinos, and Father Arevalo was certainly one of the most outstanding.” With his encouragement, she opened her first zendo in Manila.
In her autobiography, she wrote: “By November, we had about 30 sitters and a chapel in which to sit, so we organized a formal installation of the Manila Zen Center on November 21, 1976. Father Arevalo spoke at the mass, and his opening words were: ‘Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Every particle of creation is filled with the beauty of Christ, the love of Christ, the truth of Christ, and the goodness of Christ.’ I couldn’t help but think most Buddhists would feel at home with that statement.”
They may have, although it is unlikely their understanding of “Christ” would have been precisely the same as hers. But as she had told the abbess at Enkoji, there were things the Buddhists would have to trust her for.
It was a tense period in Philippine history. The authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos had established martial law in response to the rise of the New People’s Army that sought the overthrow of the government and the expulsion of US influences in the Philippines. In spite of the NPA’s affiliation with the Communist Party, many priests and nuns supported the rebel cause, and as a result Government forces in Manila tended to be suspicious of the Church.
“The vast majority of people who came to me in the Philippines were anti-Marcos,” she tells me. “And I had to be careful where I went because I didn’t want to be put in prison too. And I learned that the government had sent somebody to join my zendo to hear what I was talking about because we sat on the floor. ‘There’s something wrong with those people. They sit on the floor!’”
“So you were known to the authorities?” I say.
“Oh, yes. Yes. Well, every foreigner was. We had to be careful at that time.”
One of the most significant figures in the revolutionary movement was Horatio “Boy” Morales, who had served for a time as a senior economist in the Marcos government. He was arrested in 1982 and held at the Bago Bantay detention center where he and nine other political prisoners were regularly subjected to intensive interrogation and torture. While Morales was imprisoned, a visitor brought him a pamphlet put out by the Manila Zen Center. He read it with interest, then send a note to Sister Elaine asking her to visit him.
“And the authorities allowed this?” I ask.
“Yes, although some of the guards were nasty, of course. I was told more than once, ‘We know what you’re coming in here for. You’ve got full access to Boy Morales, and now you’ve got time alone with him, too. You’re not fooling any of us.’
“He sat many hours a day,” Sister Elaine tells me. “At least four hours a day. So, that’s going to work, eh? But he had a lot to get over; his torture had gone on and on.” He achieved kensho and was halfway through the Sanbo Kyodan koan curriculum when the revolution finally ousted Marcos. After his release when Morales was asked how he had survived his time in detention he credited Sister Elaine and Zen practice.
“Oh, yes,” she laughs. “I got phone calls from all over the world because the revolution itself was worldwide news, and he was the last person left in that particular prison. And he gave me full credit for going in. He said what a risk it was for me to go in given the prevailing conditions at the time. ‘Because we were the bad guys in prison,’ he said.”
One of the phone calls came from Ann Wetherall of the Prison Phoenix Trust in England. “She was a judge’s daughter born in India when he was on circuit there, and then back in England living in Oxford. Quite an accent! And very sincere. Lovely person. Not well. She’d been having cancer bouts for some time when I met her.
Ann was looking for someone to continue the work of the Trust when her disease would prevent her from doing so. “The Prison Phoenix Trust was a staff of two people who wrote letters to inmates and that’s all they did. They didn’t go into prisons. Ann asked me if I would go to England, and I was on my way to a meeting in Europe—you know how they have these international Zen meetings—so I went via England to visit her. And she told me about her cancer and about her group.”
Ann asked Sister Elaine whether meditation could be taught to prisoners. Sister Elaine agreed that it could. “‘But,’ I said, ‘you can’t just do that through the written word. Teaching meditation was a face-to-face thing.’ She said, ‘My bouts of cancer are getting more and more problematic. And I’ve just got to do something about getting this better organized.’ She asked if I was interested. I told her I wasn’t interested in letter writing. I said, ‘To me, the prison is where I want to be. It’s got to be face-to-face.’” After Ann died, the board contacted Sister Elaine again and invited her to offer a meditation program in the prison system. She accepted the opportunity. The first prison they worked in was “a therapeutic prison just outside of Oxford. And the warden was Tim Newell who is a Quaker. And we became very good friends. Most of the prisoners had been in for some years and were in therapy. Almost all the staff were trained in therapy.”
Newell appreciated her work, and gradually she was able to establish a network of volunteers who taught yoga and basic meditation practice in eighty-six prisons throughout Britain.
After she retired from the Phoenix Trust, Sister Elaine returned to Canada, where she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001 in recognition of her humanitarian work. Ironically, when she tried to duplicate the work she had done for the British prison system in Canada, she ran into resistance.
“I suspect because the people I was talking to didn’t appreciate meditation and didn’t know what it could do for human beings,” she suggests.
One of her students, Patrick Gallagher, was with us during this meeting, and he added, “One of the problems in the early days was that Zen didn’t fit into any of the slots that they were used to. It wasn’t a chaplaincy. It wasn’t a specifically religious thing. It didn’t fit. So they didn’t know what to do with it. I think that your Order of Canada helped. You’d been honored by the country, so you weren’t” – he searches a moment for the proper word – “flakey.”
We all laugh.
In addition to founding the Three Treasures Zendo in Toronto and establishing Sanbo Zen practice in that city, Sister Elaine’s legacy includes the “Freeing the Human Spirit” program in which now currently thirty-six volunteers provide yoga and meditation instruction to incarcerated people in ten Canadian prisons.
She was a remarkable woman, and I cherish the memory of the day I spent with her.
With virtually no prompting, Marinda de Beer reviews her early biography, born in South Africa, family moved to Canada when she was 11. Raised in the Methodist/United tradition but pulled away from Christianity when in college, rejecting the concept of God as a judgmental male figure. A 20-year career as a stage manager in Toronto. Happened upon Steve Hagen’s books Buddhism: Plain and Simple and Buddhism Is Not What You Think It Is. The books, she tells me, “came to her”; however, she skipped the chapter about meditation in the latter because she didn’t consider herself disciplined enough to take up the practice.
“Then about thirteen/fourteen years ago, I got to a point where I was very stressed. I wasn’t happy. And I read that book again; I read the meditation chapter this time, and it suggested sitting with people.”
“Why were you feeling stressed?” I ask.
“Why was I stressed? Well, now I think if I look back, it was because I wasn’t paying any attention to my own needs. I wasn’t paying very much attention to my own authenticity. I had basically given myself over to my career and my family. And the idea of sitting and meditating and being with myself, I was doing the opposite of that in the way I was living my life pretty much. You know, with all the right intentions. And I was thinking, ‘I gotta do yoga; I gotta exercise.’ Well, that wasn’t me. I just didn’t believe I was that kind of a person. And also, the theatre world, you’re working approximately sixty hours a week, six days a week And I’m raising two children. I get one day off a week. Like, when do you want me to exercise? It wasn’t happening. So I decided to try meditating. I immediately googled my area, found a place, went and sat twice with four random people on a Wednesday afternoon, enough to get some instructions on ‘just sitting’ – zazen basically – and was doing a show that was touring to Vancouver, and the director of my show had been sitting in the Zen group for many years. And I remember going into his hotel room and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve started to meditate.’ And I looked over and his cushion was setting against the wall, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s where I sit.’ And I was like, ‘Oh?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I sit facing the wall.’ And I was like, ‘What!?’ ’Cause I was sitting on my bed with my cushions. And he sent me a couple of videos from – I don’t know – a sangha somewhere in the States. What I remember from them is that our thoughts are clouds, and can we sit and imagine these clouds passing. And I’ll never forget that image ’cause I just understood it, and it became the basis of my sitting. And I sat every day – not very long, but I sat – and very quickly my life started to change. Within two weeks, I’d say my stress level was reduced by 25%. I could feel a difference in myself.”
“You’re still practising by yourself at this point?” I ask. “Even though the Hagen book said to sit with other?”
“Still by myself. And I started to dialogue with this friend who had been sitting for a long time, and very quickly I was asking him questions which were beyond his capability to be able to help me. I was saying, ‘Okay, these emotions are coming up, but if emotions are just . . .’ I mean, my world was exploding all of a sudden in trying to understand this new perspective on what was going on inside me. And he said, I think you need to talk to Patrick, my teacher.”
“So Patrick and I made a date to meet in the park near Loblaw’s grocery store, and it was August, and we sat on a bench, and I kind of told him what was going on with me and what I was doing. And he kind of talked me through a little bit of technique. You know, just physical technique and also what I was doing when I was sitting. And then he said, ‘I think you would be a pretty good candidate for our group that starts in September.’ And I had just that year left stage management and had tried to go into administration which actually meant I had my evenings free, which hadn’t happened in eighteen years. So, again, it was like, ‘Oh! Perfect. For the first time in my life, I’m actually free on a Wednesday night, and I’m being invited to sit with this group on a Wednesday night.’ And – you know – thus began my journey with Zen.”
Through koan work, Marinda had an opening experience. Tradition holds that people not speak about these or koan work, so I put the question generally, asking if it had made a difference. She doesn’t answer immediately but eventually says, “It made a big difference, and it made no difference.” She pauses again. “I wasn’t able to hang onto it very long. I tried my best, but I came back to the city, and I came back to my life, and – you know – all that happened. And so, in a way, it didn’t. But there is something about, for example, this idea that the opposite of everything is always true. These kinds of concepts for me . . . I think what it did was, it deepened my faith. And my faith is what makes me trust sitting and the truth and wisdom that everything is unfolding as it should. Faith in my journey, even if it has all kinds of suffering. It’s not about everything turning out great, and it’s not about me being ‘happy.’ It’s about it being as it should. And I do think my opening was one in which I understood that on a very deep level in that moment, or in the period of those days, there was a wisdom I already had but didn’t have access to. So this is, for me, a really big thing. The act of sitting every day helps me access something that’s already inside of me, a wisdom that I have. But there’s all this noise that comes. The things that in Buddhism we call attachments are the things that cause our suffering, but also our belief systems, our emotions, all this stuff is noise that can cloud our wisdom of trusting that everything is unfolding as it should, which allows me to accept what is happening. And if I can accept what is happening, then I’m not suffering.”