Julie Nelson

Julie Nelson is a Senior Assistant Teacher with the Greater Boston Zen Center, although – she tells me – “I don’t consider myself so much a Buddhist as a Zen student.” I first became aware of her through her blog, in which she wrote about the events which led up to the separation of GBZC from the Boundless Way collective. Zen is just one of the topics the blog deals with. It also includes essays on economics, which she had taught at universities both in California and Massachusetts. “I do feminist and ecological economics. I’m a fringe economist from the point of the mainstream.”    

Her introduction to meditation came at a time when – as she describes it – her life was “falling apart.” Her marriage was dissolving, and she was engaged in a dispute with the university over tenure. She felt a general panic about things. “How was I going to support my kids! Where was I going to get a job! I couldn’t just move anywhere in the country; my kids were in joint custody. I had to find a job in my field in this area. Find a place to live. You know, deal with all the emotional repercussions of that, dealing with the law suit, the charge against my employer.”

She was also scheduled to have surgery at the time and took part in an adult education workshop intended to help people prepare for surgery and to heal more quickly afterward. The workshop included some guided meditation. “The interesting thing was that I found as I sat quietly listening to the guided meditations or just without them, I could also watch my panic rise up and fall away. And that was very powerful, because I would have thought I was my panic, was living from my panic, was panic all the time, but sitting quietly I could see it as something that arose and left.”

After the surgery, she decided to investigate meditation more thoroughly. “I got some books, and for the next few years I did some meditation at home just on a kind of as-needed basis. Ten minutes here; five minutes there.” One of the books was by Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center which is in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. “I went to a few retreats there. I was a member there for a couple of years. Didn’t get there regularly. I found the teachers relatively inaccessible. That is they would only teach group things. You had to be a very senior student to get a one-on-one meeting with them.” When she applied for a personal interview, she was given an appointment six months off.

Then she learned about James Ford, the Zen teacher at the Henry David Thoreau (“we call it ‘Hank’”) Zen Community in Newton. Once a month, James offered dokusan to anyone who wished to attend, whether they belonged to the center or not. That was one appeal. Something else also struck her during her first visit to Hank – the chanting of the Five Reminders.

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

“That grabbed me. You know? Here’s a group of people that face facts. I found that very appealing.”

Slowly she began a regular practitioner at Hank. I asked if it gave her a clarity about things, and she said, “More like a visceral sense of direction, that this was something I wanted to do.”

Other links:

Greater Boston Zen Center

https://julieanelson.com/

Larry Johanson

Larry Johanson is a Zen student working with Sunyana Graef Roshi in the Philip Kapleau lineage. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, he had previously been the Director of Public Relations for the Jamaican Economic Development Agency. Now living in Canada, he is a Corporate Trainer. “I create on-line courses and programs geared to helping people to be the best that they can be.” The strategies he outlines in his book, From Carp to Dragon,  are based on his personal experience coming from “the gritty streets of Kingston, Jamaica, to places that I had never thought I would ever end up.”

His life as a boy in Kingston had been difficult. There had been a great deal of violence on the streets, in the home, and even in the school system. He was deeply unhappy and leery of the form of Christianity common in the country. So while still very young he began what he calls a Vision Quest, seeking an alternative spiritual tradition. “I read a lot of books and came upon the Bhagavad Gita. I was fascinated by the notion of God as something you could discover within yourself through meditation.” However, the Gita didn’t include instructions on how to meditate, and he didn’t know how to proceed.

In 1971, after his father’s death, Larry went to live with an older cousin. “And her son – who is a doctor – he studied abroad, and he brought home a whole bunch of books. And when I got there, one of my little jobs was to kind of curate the medical books that he brought home for his library. And I came upon one barrel, and it was just full of books on Eastern philosophy and meditation.” At the bottom of the barrel was a copy of Philip Kapleau’s, The Three Pillars of Zen.

 “This was what I had been looking for all my life. This wasn’t an abstract philosophical thing. There’s this guy who went to Japan, who studied and worked with the roshis and came to awakening. And this book is a manual. You want to meditate? You want to see God? You want enlightenment? This is what you do.” He began following the instructions in the book and immediately felt the benefits.

“Because I could meditate, I could study better! I could sit longer. I could read a book and could be so focussed that I retained more. And because I could retain more, I did better in school. And because of all of that, my attitudes, my disposition changed a little bit. And I realized, ‘Something fantastic is going on here.’”

In 1974, after some initial hesitation, Larry wrote to Kapleau to tell him how inspired he had been by the book, and he received a reply. Kapleau and his daughter were coming to Jamaica on vacation, and they arranged for Larry to meet them at their hotel in Montego Bay.

“His presence stunned me. There was a stillness, a quiet, and a silence to him, an authenticity, an assurity to him, and a serenity. And, of course, as a young person, whose whole life was in turmoil – my mind, my emotions, everything – it showed up in sharp relief when meeting him how I felt and what the possibilities were. I was just in awe.”

He committed himself to attain whatever it was he sensed in Kapleau and eventually found his way to Rochester where he began a lifelong study and practice of Zen.

Living in Toronto, he joined the Kapleau center there and met Sunyana Graef. “She was the person I jokingly say ‘gave birth to me’ in terms of my practice. She was the Bodhisattva of Compassion that my practice needed.” Until he’d met her, his practice had been very stern, but he still hadn’t experienced awakening. During his first sesshin with her, she asked him how long he had been practicing. He admitted it had been twenty years.  “Then she said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for? Why not this sesshin?’” That was the challenge he met.

“The difference between then and now,” he tells me, “was that I was burdened by a self. It is the difference between . . .” – holding up a sheet of paper covered with print – “and bam!” He turns the blank side of the page towards me. “On the side where the writing was on was growing up in Jamaica. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re male, you’re this, you’re that. That is the conditioned mind, the whole karmic experience that you’re having, and you’re wondering, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ And you’re angry at God and everything, and you’re lashing out at the world. It’s ego and conditioning. So the difference between then and now, as I’ve gone much further down the road after the initial kensho, is that the more you train, the more you realize exactly what is meant by” – he quotes the Heart Sutra – “‘the Bodhisattva of Compassion, from the depths of prajna wisdom saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds of suffering.’ Over time what happens is that your ego becomes more diaphanous, and you can see more clearly through. Then you begin to understand the truth of what the Bodhisattva was saying. There is nothing that one attains. ‘Not even wisdom to attain. Attainment too is emptiness.’ Before that, there was this thing that Roshi Kapleau had that I had to have. But, in truth and in fact, what it really is is just letting go of the conditioned mind.”

Other Links:

https://www.larryjohansonseminars.com/

Vermont Zen Center

Gerry Shishin Wick

Maitreya Abbey is located in Berthoud, Colorado, north of Denver. This is an area of farmland and horse ranches. Shishin (Lion Heart) Wick has a couple of horses, as well as goats, and chickens (“Fresh eggs every day”). The abbey is his home, to which he has added a zendo and sleeping quarters for retreat participants. Hand painted signs, statuary, a koi pond, and Tibetan prayer flags identify the site. The colors of the house are more Tibetan than Japanese, bright primary colors—green, yellow, red. There is an invocation by the entrance to the Zendo: “Enlightened ones of the universe, Bodhisattvas, Protectors of the Dharma, together with planets, stars, and all sentient ones. We open our hearts to transform the five poisons of ignorance, attachment, pride, envy and anger. May healing love and peace prevail throughout the whole Earth and entire universe. Maha prajna paramita.”

There is a feminine ambiance here. Statues, banners, and paintings of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, prevail. There is a large Kannon on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means “Body of Light.” Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn’t join us. It would be six years later before I meet her.

The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. “Are you the abbot?” I ask. “Is that the title you use?” No. Shinko is the abbess. “And you are?”

“The consort,” he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the “Spiritual Director.” He punctuates his speech with brief, bright smiles.

Shishin was trained as an atomic physicist and is an oceanographer. He is one of Taizan (Great Mountain) Maezumi’s Dharma heirs, although he received inka—the final authorization as a teacher—from Bernie Glassman. He first came to Colorado when a group of students in Boulder asked him to do so. From there he moved to Lafayette and finally to Berthoud. He admits that the community with which he works has gotten smaller with each move.

He and Shinko have held both art retreats and retreats in what they call “Great Heart Practice.” Their web site describes this as “a program that combines traditional Zen meditation with intensive workshops aimed at uncovering how personal conditioning obstructs our experience of oneness.” Their first traditional sesshin had been held only a month before my 2013 visit; it had eleven participants. Berthoud is out of the way. There is no local community; the participants all came from elsewhere.

It is a lay sangha. “Maezumi was basically interested in the people who were going to be his heirs”—in other words, people who were going to become Zen clergy and teachers. Shishin’s focus is lay practitioners. For him, the purpose of Zen is to “disseminate the essential teachings of the Buddha in a way that can be digested by a non-Buddhist public, in order to build a strong enough base of interest in meditation.” Meditation is valuable in itself. Not everyone who comes to Zen will become “awakened,” but they can still benefit from the practice. Hopefully, as well, there will be people who “go deep enough into it that they have realizations which will preserve the original intent of the teachings, to carry it forward.” But those individuals will always remain a minority.

Maitreya Abbey demonstrates some of the changes which have occurred throughout North American Zen. There is as much emphasis on compassion as there is on wisdom. There is a stronger focus on the feminine, in contrast to the Samurai Zen of the ’60s and ’70s. The discipline is still strict, but the kyosaku is only used when requested, and one can ask for a shoulder massage instead.

Shishin Wick does not seem to fear that Zen is dangling by a thread, as some of the other teachers I’ve interviewed have suggested, but he admits he doesn’t know what Zen will be like in the future. It will be very different from what it was when the pioneers brought it here. It will be more accommodating. But it will always need those who go deep enough to “preserve the original intent of the teachings.”

Awakened or not, we all have enough to do dealing with the five poisons.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 19, 19-20, 125, 289-302, 472

The Story of Zen: 271-72

Other Links:

Great Mountain Zen Center

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerry_Shishin_Wick

Rinzan Pechovnik

Rinzan Pechovnik of No-Rank Zendo in Portland was the last teacher I interviewed for The Story of Zen. I gave him the final word in that book. He has received full Dharma transmission since I first spoke to him, which means that he can now identify his own heirs, an important element in ensuring the continuation of the tradition, although he admits he currently only has one postulant and is, therefore, a long way from identifying a successor.

In the course of our conversation, we touch on the issue of whether or not there is a particular way in which Buddhists should respond to the environmental challenges of our time. 

“I hear it on the internet, when they’re talking about Buddhist action, that the only Buddhist response is a loving response. In my view, the only Buddhist response is a non-attached response. And the skill that our Zen practice teaches us is how to not be attached. That doesn’t mean not to be engaged, because I think it does call for us to be engaged, but it does say, ‘Don’t be attached.’ If I say, ‘The only response is a loving response,’ then I’m attached to a loving response. And that’s going to close out the possibility that I might have a harsh or an aggressive response that may be what is called for in that moment. I have to be open to that possibility. At times it may be a hug; at others it might be a shout. But we have to be non-attached to whatever response comes out of us in order to be truly responsive. We have to be non-attached to the sense that I know what is right and what is wrong. But it would be a mistake to say since ‘I don’t know’ – fundamentally, Zen is the religion of not-knowing – that I’m denying my own interaction with the world. I don’t know, but this is what’s coming forth from me now, and I’m going to put it into the field of play to see what happens. This touches what Bernie Glassman was doing with not-knowing and bearing witness, to see what comes next. So I’m non-attached to being right, but I’m willing to let come forth what comes forth. Koan study is key in this because of the call-and-response in koan study between teacher and student that says do something. Give me something here. Don’t just talk about it. You have to do something. You gotta let yourself out there into the world somehow.

“And then, I think we have to be non-attached to attaining or getting any outcome. Zazen teaches over and over again that in this practice there’s nowhere to get. So if I go out to save the world it may be my own narcissism, my own inflatedness, when I say, ‘We have to stop global warming!’ Now I personally believe we should do everything we can to put the brakes on that. But I recognize that that’s what’s rising up from me in this particular moment. I also have to be open to the possibility that the Earth is in hospice right now, and that our civilization is in hospice, and that we may be saying goodbye to it. Now if all I want to do is save the Earth, I’m not going to be able to be of service to an Earth’s that dying. Similarly if I have a beloved one who is dying of cancer and I have the idea, ‘We have to save this person’ or ‘we have to make it be a certain way,’ then I’m going to miss the point, which is, ‘We’ve tried everything, and now how do I show up to be with you? How can I be with you now?’ It’s not, ‘Well, it’s pointless. You’re gonna die. Sorry. I’m gonna go on to try to save the next person.’ We’re all going to die, and at some point we say, ‘Okay, my outcome is gone. So I just need to be with you right now. And I’m curious how I’m going to be with you in these closing days in a way that is intimate, tender, non-attached to how I am, non-attached to how you are.’ And so this is the dynamic that I think comes out of a life of Zen that interacts with the world which is completely in flux. Some Zen practitioners get caught in, ‘It’s all mind, and it just comes and goes.’ That’s true, everything comes and goes. But how can I be so deeply engaged that I allow my heart to break, I allow myself to weep, I allow myself to touch, and I allow my self to be part of this dance at the same time?”

The Story of Zen: 405-10, 436-37

Other Links:

No-Rank Zendo

Northwest Dharma Association

Shodo Spring

Shodo Spring – a Dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura in the Soto tradition – gained acclaim in 2013 for her Compassionate Earth Walk, a  three month spiritual hike along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route in the Great Plains. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, she led retreats at her farm in Fairbault, Minnesota, which put an emphasis on human interdependence with the natural world.

She grew up in a Lutheran family in Ohio and admits she was “one of those obnoxious super-religious people until I was in my late twenties.” Eventually, she left the church and her marriage and came to live in Minneapolis where, one day, she saw a notice on a bulletin board for an introductory Zen class at Dainin Katagiri’s Minnesota Zen Center.

“I went to it. And they had stuff that wasn’t interesting, but they gave us zazen instruction, and I had to sit for fifteen minutes, and I liked that. So I started sitting at home. I had no idea why people sat together or any of that. But I was sitting by myself, at home. I made a cushion which had lots of bright colors in it and was stuffed with rags and was made with scraps.”

“You said they had stuff that was un-interesting?” I asked, to ensure I’d heard her correctly.

“It was not interesting. I knew everything, you see?” she says with a laugh. She was 35.

Over time she began visiting the center on occasion and chatted with some of the members, asking questions about sesshin. “What people said was that the first two days were the hardest.” So she decided not to do a short one and waited until there was a week long sesshin she could apply to attend, which turned out to be the rigorous Rohatsu Sesshin in December. “And for some reason, most of the time I did not have knee pain, and I did have energy rushes, and, on about the third day, Katagiri Roshi’s talks started making some sense. I no longer remember much about what happened during it, but I remember that I came out realizing that I didn’t know anything, and I was really excited about that. So then I became a regular. I was working full time, but I was also at the Zen Center at 5:00 a.m. if I could out of bed.”

“And if someone from your Lutheran past had asked you, ‘What is this Zen thing all about? What does it do?’ How would you have answered them?”

“What does it do for you? You know, ‘what does it do for you’ is really easy. Of all the religions in the world, Zen is the one that actually helps you with your daily life. Well, Buddhism is. Christians pray. I haven’t noticed that helps a lot. They think somebody’s gonna help them. But Zen actually gives you tools to make your life work. Now, what’s it about?”

“Sure. They’re just curious. They remember – as you said – that you were one of those super-religious kids. Now you’re into Zen. So, what it’s about?”

“Okay, it helps me to be alive. It helps me to be here with the life that I have, and it helps me to be happy. For me, Christianity was always intellectual. I know it wasn’t supposed to be, but my sense of religion was out in the fields and trees. The things that were supposed to be meaningful in the church, they didn’t click, although I kept trying and trying. And let me say this: Buddhism has this teaching about the three poisons, and Christianity has this teaching about sin. And the definition of sin that I always liked since I discovered it in fifth grade is that sin is separation from God. What my Buddhist practice helps me to do is to not be separate. Separation has been an issue forever. And somehow what the church offered did not help with that. But the practice of sitting meditation and being with people who actually are interested in spiritual life . . .” She smiles. “Here I know that I am welcome as I am. I know that as a woman I can do whatever role I want to, which I didn’t have in the church. This practice and this teaching works for me.”

After a brief pause, she continues: “They say that God is everywhere, God is in everything. Well, that’s not just words; that’s for real. You know? God is a word – to me – that describes the incredible power of the universe. And we use that word to talk about something that can’t be talked about.” She mentions the Judaic Tetragrammaton. “It’s something that you can’t name, something you can’t say. Shouldn’t even speak it. That’s for real! That’s not just an idea, that’s for real. And so practicing Buddhism, I get to actually live the life that I just heard about and read about in the church.”

Other Links:

Mountains and Waters Alliance

Centered Practice

Enso House

After visiting Chozen Bays at Great Vow Monastery in Oregon, I proceeded to Tahoma Sogenji on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Sogenji is associated with the Japanese teacher Shodo Harada, although he is only there for occasional retreats. What prompted my visit was Enso House, a hospice program for the island community where Harada’s center is located.

I had developed a wax build up in my right ear during my tour of the west coast and was having trouble hearing. Chozen – who is a physician – had said she would willingly look at it, but circumstances prevented her from doing so. She emailed Dr. Ann Cutcher, the director of Enso House, to ask if she would examine me. So before we begin the interview, Ann takes me into a dispensary and flushes out both of my ears.

The grounds of Enso House are adjacent to the Tahoma monastery. Ann explains that they were “bought by a senior student of Harada Roshi and offered to him to use for whatever he wanted to use it for, and he wanted it to be a home for people who didn’t have a home to die in. So it’s a gift, essentially, to Harada Roshi, and it’s his vision that this should be an end-of-life-care home as a way to give back to this community which has supported Tahoma and helped it grow and as a way for his meditation students to take their practice off the cushion and apply it in life. “

She tells me the story of the hospice’s first “guest,” a man who had lived in isolation on the island. When people realized he was dying, a few tried to look after him but were unable to meet his needs. None of them were Buddhist, but they heard that Shodo Harada had determined to build a hospice and they came to Enso House. The hospice wasn’t ready to receive guests, but the board agreed to accept the old man. He was mute – possibly, Ann tells me, because he had fallen out of the habit of speaking. “However,” she says, “he had these bright, alive blue eyes, but he kept them shut for two full days when he arrived. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s angry about being torn from the only home he has ever known and being brought here.’ I felt terrible.”

Then Ann’s friend, Priscilla Storandt, visited and sat for a while with the guest. When she came out of his room, she told Ann, “He’s so grateful.” And, of course, Ann realized, he probably was. She understood that she hadn’t been seeing him at all but rather had been preoccupied by her projection of what she thought he was and what he was thinking. “So that’s one thing I find really helpful for me personally, to be reminded of that, that I am creating my own interpretation, and trying to make sure I see that all the time so that I can stay open to what’s really happening.”

We are having lunch together with two volunteers and a few supporters from the area.

“There was another guy,” Ann continues, “a fairly young man, who was really adamantly opposed to his dying. It was just not gonna happen. And it was happening. And he was angry and aggressive and sure of himself. Sure of himself in that this was not going to happen to him. And he was too physically weak and on too many incredibly powerful analgesics to safely move around the house. But he was still determined to do that. And I was concerned all the time that this man was gonna fall. He was wheeled in a wheel chair across this room, and he suddenly stood up and was gonna walk into the dining room. And as he stood up, the wheel chair went out from behind him sort of, and I pushed it under him, and I said, ‘You can’t do that!’ And he got really mad at me. And I pushed him into the dining room, and I said, ‘You just can’t do that. You’re going to fall. It’s too scary.’ He said, ‘No! You are the one who needs to calm down and cool off.’” The people around the table all chuckle. “He said, ‘You need to cool off!’” She pauses, then says, “True.”

The man had cancer. “He had an obstruction of his bowel. He was here for five weeks, not able to eat without incredible pain that required doubling the amount of intravenous narcotic that he was getting continuously. And in spite of that, he was determined to eat. That was another really difficult thing, to watch him roll himself into the kitchen and open the refrigerator knowing that once he swallowed something, we would have to dial up his narcotic and deal with excruciating discomfort.

“He was a rock-n-roll bassist who had played with a lot of people on the island over his life as a musician. And he wanted to gather all the musicians he’d played with together. And they all showed up, some of them on motorcycles, and they brought a cooler of beer, and they set up a whole trap drum set and two mikes for singers, and, you know, mikes for the guitars and amplifiers, and we moved everything around, and there was like Led Zeppelin music coming from this dining room. He was too weak to play, himself – he couldn’t hold his instrument – but he had a chair pulled up, and he sat in the chair, and someone gave him his bass, and the room got totally quiet, and he plucked off this song, and sang, ‘Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’” The group laughs gently. “And everybody just like melted. That was pretty amazing.”

As I am leaving, Ann is scraping leftover pasta sauce into a Tupperware container. She calls my name as I head to the door and tells me in parting, “Rick, you know what the primary lesson of Enso House is? Flush out your ears!”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 124-132.

Other links:

https://rickmdaniel.blogspot.com/2013/03/327-tahoma-san-sogen-ji-and-enso-house.html

Enso House

Kevin Hunt

Kevin Hunt – he introduces himself as Kevin – is a Trappist monk, and he wears the robes well. They suit him; he has the right build. He looks the part; he looks at ease in it. So he should. “I’ve known since I was 13 what I wanted to do,” he tells me. His parents – New York City Irish Catholics – weren’t thrilled with his choice. In Ireland, the Trappists had been the order to which boys who were thought unlikely to be able to make it through the seminary were sent. Kevin’s father died still suspecting that his son was selling himself short. His mother, on the other hand, attended a mission preached by a Franciscan and afterwards went to talk to the friar, lamenting that her son would soon be taking his final vows as a Trappist. The Franciscan embraced her and said, “Madam, your salvation is assured!” She came around.

If it wasn’t bad enough that he was a Trappist, he is also a Zen practitioner and teacher. “I have a twin brother, and he’s a golfer. One day he goes looking for a threesome that wants to fill out to a foursome. One of the men there is a retired Methodist minister, and my brother mentions that he has a brother who’s a priest. And the guy says to him, ‘There’s another man here in who’s got a brother . . .’ Gives my brother his name. My brother calls him. They meet and have a game of golf; they’re talking. This other guy says, ‘Well, you know, my brother’s not only a priest, but he’s a funny kind of priest. He’s a Jesuit.’ My brother says, ‘Well, if you think that’s bad, I’ve got a brother who’s a Trappist.’ ‘Well, my brother the Jesuit is even weirder because he’s all involved in Zen Buddhism!’ And my brother says to him, ‘Well, my brother’s as weird as that because he’s also involved . . .’” The other man was the brother of Robert Kennedy from whom Kevin received Dharma transmission.

Kevin’s monastery is Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, but I met him at the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey for Trappistines in Wrentham where he was serving as chaplain. At the time of my visit, this convent has about 45 women ranging in age from 25 to 93. There are still young people applying for admission both at Saint Joseph’s and St. Mary’s. The numbers aren’t large, but, then, the monastic calling has always been a minority one.

Kevin first encountered Zen while helping to establish a Trappist abbey in Argentina. He was given a Spanish translation of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. He suggests that it wasn’t a very good translation, but it talked about seated meditation. “At that time,” he says, “we didn’t sit in chapel. When we were in chapel, we either stood or knelt.” The idea of seated meditation, however, called to him, and, for the next seven years in addition to the regular periods of prayer, he took time every day to sit cross-legged on a folded blanket. The superior didn’t want him sitting like that in the main chapel, but, at the time, Kevin was in charge of the infirmary and was able to set up its tiny chapel as he pleased.

Herrigel included a koan in his book: “What is your face before your parents’ birth?” The question stuck with Kevin for those seven years, but eventually he had to admit he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. So one day, as he was seated on the blanket, he decided to give it up, and he stood up. “In that act of standing up,” he says, “I suddenly knew what my face before my parents’ birth was.”

The order was not wholly opposed to Kevin’s Zen practice, but he was considered “singular” which—he points out—is not a good thing in a monastic community. “However great liberty of spirit is given for us to follow our own natural mode of prayer.”

When Kevin returned to St. Joseph’s from South America, the abbot was Thomas Keating, who helped develop the idea of Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice for Christian lay people. Keating was open to the idea of the Japanese teacher, Joshu Sasaki, leading Zen sesshin at the abbey, something Sasaki did for several years in the ’70s. Kevin also participated in several three-month work periods at Mount Baldy in California with Sasaki. But with the installation of a new abbot, the sesshins at St. Joseph’s came to an end.

Finally, Kevin met Robert Kennedy, from whom he received transmission in 2004. I first heard of Kevin from a short article in the National Catholic Reporter which reported the event. He was asked in the article what a Trappist Zen Master did, and he said, “I’m not sure, but I guess I’ll find out.”

“Have you?” I asked. “Found out?”

 “I’m finding out,” he laughs. “It’s a work in progress.”

He remains singular in the order; there are no other Trappists practicing with him. But he leads two small groups, one in Connecticut—The Transfiguration Zendo—and another which meets at St. Mary’s retreat house in Wrentham. This is the Daystar Zendo largely made up of Catholics from Worcester who are also drawn to Zen.

When I ask what Zen has to offer Catholicism, he tells me a story about St. Teresa of Avila. When she was a little girl, someone asked her what she wanted in life. She told them, “I want to see God.” “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Kevin tells me, “and Zen has provided the best way for me to do it.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 303, 308, 310-320

Catholicism and Zen: 15-16, 168-80

The Story of Zen: 288

Other Links:

Day Star Sangha

St. Joseph’s Abbey

John Negru

John Negru [Karma Yönten Gyatso] is the founder of Sumeru Books, the publishing company which has released four of my books. He has an interesting  background story which includes a fifty year Dharma practice with a variety of teachers in different traditions, extensive community service, pilgrimages, and even three days in 1980 at Bodhgaya with the Dalai Lama. But he doubts that there is much value in retelling it.

“People ask me, ‘What’s your story?’ And I tell them that my story is irrelevant. Nobody else is going to be able to replicate the lived experience that I had, the meetings with teachers that I had when I had them in the cultural milieu that I found myself. So if I’m telling you that story, Rick, I’m just telling you an interesting bedtime story.”

The point is that it is interesting, and one significant element is the way in which he became involved with and later disaffiliated from two Buddhist communities in Canada he now describes as “flawed.” There were many such groups during the Buddhist boom of the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80, and many participants – several of whom had dedicated years to their practice – fell away in discouragement. John, however, concentrates on what was positive about the experience: “We had the marvelous opportunity to meet many authentic, accomplished Buddhist teachers who allowed us to glimpse real practice and a real life devoted to the Dharma. And so in that sense I’m very grateful, but there’s a lot of sadness and dukkha associated with that time.”

Over the course of his career, he practiced with both Zen and Tibetan communities and came to feel that “there was value in every lineage. I was happy to support every lineage but not commit to any one lineage.” One of the ways in which he provided support was by becoming a publisher.

“My goal is to support the Dharma in any way that I can. I’m not going to be a highly enlightened teacher. I’m not going to run a profoundly transformative Dharma center. But I can help people do those things, and I’m happy to serve in that way. In order to make it a realistic thing, I’ve chosen to make Sumeru a company. I’m proud to say that the company has been in the black since its beginnings in 2009 (although nobody is getting rich doing this), and I have been able to donate thousands of dollars to various Buddhist organizations from royalties from the sales of the books I’ve published. And so I think that’s kind of like a trifecta. You know? You get the Dharma out there, you validate the work of all these different traditions and help them financially, and you give an opportunity to people such as yourself to engage in a deeper form of practice.”

He is particularly focused on “Engaged Buddhism,” the way in which Buddhist practice leads to social action and environmental concern.

“Buddhism is about recognizing reality and acting skillfully within it. It’s about recognizing interdependence, karma, non-self. All of these different concepts and the practices of training that enhance those concepts – that state of mind – are based on understanding reality as opposed to our delusions about what reality is, which is driven by our desires and our hatreds and our preferences and so on. Like it says in the Hsin Hsin Ming, ‘The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. But make the smallest distinction, and Heaven and Earth are set instantly apart.’ So here we are – 2021 – in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a global climate crisis, mass extinctions. You look at the nine planetary boundaries that we have crossed or that we are on the threshold of, and the only one that we have been able to pull back from has been the ozone hole. So this is our reality. So any looking away from our reality – focusing on our personal psychological development – really isn’t showing awareness.

“Ron Purser is an ordained Korean Buddhist monk who is also a Systems Management professor at San Francisco State University. He wrote a book called McMindfulness, and he was on CBC Tapestry a day or two ago saying that the original version – the Buddhist version – of mindfulness also contained a discernment component which has been jettisoned along the way. So when you have discernment, when you look at the current situation in the world, you say, ‘Well, okay, this is what’s happening.’ As the Dalai Lama says, ‘I am a servant of seven billion people.’ So if you’re going to take that position of being a Bodhisattva, and you look at this situation with discernment, how could you not act? How can you say, ‘Well, I am going to rarefy my samatha practice’ or ‘I’m going to dig deeper in the four jhanas’ without being in the world that we live in? Right? It just doesn’t make sense to me that you could separate those things. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Which brings us back to his work as a publisher.

“I’ve been involved in environmental activities since the early 1970s. It isn’t just a vague, ‘Hey, let’s get on the climate crisis wagon.’ Publishing books from an Engaged Buddhist perspective and doing environmental community development projects with different sanghas is something much more evolved and specific that I can do. Same with chaplaincy and social justice activism.

“We need to re-conceptualize the performative aspects of what it means to be a Buddhist community leader within the larger context of the modern world. The Buddhism of the Future cannot stay bound to old ways of practice and remain relevant to our children and the generations to follow.”

Other links:

Sumeru Books

Plot to Save the Earth

Melissa Myozen Blacker

Even if there were not signage identifying the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, one could hardly miss the place because of the massive Buddha out front.

“The statue! Oh! It’s so cool!” Melissa Blacker tells me, breathlessly. One is struck by her verve and her energy, her apparent enthusiasm for just about everything. She’s an engaging and fun conversationalist. “So, we bought this building, but we had to do all these improvements including install a sprinkler system for fire. So the guy who was cutting through the pavement to divert water from the city into the temple came up to David [David Rynick, her husband and co-teacher at the temple] one day and said, ‘You guys need a Buddha statue?’  And ‘We have a lot of Buddha statues, thank you very much.’ And, ‘No, this is an outdoor one.’ Well, we have an outdoor one about a foot and a half tall. ‘No, no. This is a really big one.’ A friend of his had ordered it for a customer who wanted it for his garden. A Buddha to sit out in his garden. And when it arrived it was that huge statue which was—like—way bigger than he needed for his garden. I think it was a hairdresser, a Vietnamese hairdresser in town, wanted it. And there are two other temples in town; they’re ethnically Vietnamese. We’re the only convert temple. And the guy had offered it to both the Vietnamese temples. One was hosting this giant jade Buddha that was traveling all over the country, and so they couldn’t do it. The other one had just paved their driveway. They couldn’t do it. So we were number three. And David went down to the yard where it was being stored, this rejected  Buddha statue nobody wanted, and it was surrounded—I have a photo on my computer somewhere—by other statues imported by the same company of Mickey Mouse and naked Venuses on couches, and it was just sitting there. And so he took a photograph of it and showed it to James Ford [the founder of the Boundless Way Order] and me, and we said, ‘We should buy it!’ And he said, ‘No, no. It’s really big.’ And James said, ‘It’s going to get smaller with the years.’ So now it seems like a normal size to me.”

Melissa has teaching authorization – through James – in both the Aitken-Tarrant Harada-Yasutani lineage and the Jiyu Kennett Soto tradition. David has authorization through the Seung Sahn’s Korean Rinzai lineage. “We’ve incorporated elements from all three, the John Tarrant-Robert Aitken-Harada-Yasutani line, Jiyu Kennett’s line, and Seung Sahn’s line. Our liturgy is mixed together, all three.

“All of these are different ways of pointing. We teach our students shikan taza—just the standard Soto practice—and koan practice. If you plot it on a bell curve, I think we have a couple of students who just do koan practice, and a couple that just do shikan taza, but the majority do some combination of both. They rest in shikan taza and mostly work with koans in dokusan. But sometimes they’ll sit with them, if we give them instructions to. And people will also see us in dokusan. We have our private individual students, but we encourage our students to do dokusan with the other teachers. And we have senior students, some of whom have permission to give interviews. So a student in Boundless Way Zen could see twelve different people for interviews in a month. And the onus—the responsibility—of practice is on the part of the student rather than teachers. So it’s very student-oriented. And, of course, people do what we call shoken; they take individual vows with one teacher.

“For me,” she goes on, “Zen is really a path to joy. My whole life is about meeting suffering. Like my father died when I was fifteen, and I had a lot of terrible things happen to me off and on throughout the years. Not that terrible, but—still—difficult stuff. So I could have gone down that route. I was depressed. I was anxious. But this little core, kernel of delight has always been the guiding light I keep orienting towards. Like, I know there’s something beyond all this.”

“Wonder, awe, gratitude, reverence,” I say, offering her a personal formula I had come to through my own practice.

“Yes! Yeah! Wonder, awe, gratitude and reverence. I love it! When everything drops away, that’s what’s revealed!”

Which is by no means a denial of the reality of suffering.

“We’ve been talking about this recently. You know, since the first noble truth is the truth of suffering, there’s sometimes the feeling that it’s sequential; you have to suffer; then you have to see the truth of suffering, and then blah, blah, blah. But another way of looking at it is that suffering exists, and suffering itself—the truth of it—is ennobling. It is a noble truth of suffering. And suffering never goes away. But there is a way to live with it in a more spacious manner. And so we don’t turn away from suffering. I think suffering and joy are like two sides of the same coin.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 200, 201, 207-215, 216, 217, 218, 220, 221, 222, 228, 229, 418

The Story of Zen: 302, 389

Other links:

Boundless Way Temple

https://rickmdaniel.blogspot.com/2013/05/boundless-way-temple-worcester-ma.html