Brother Contemplation

One of the matters I discussed with the monks I met at Blue Cliff Monastery in 2014 – such as Brother Fulfillment – was whether their residence was a lifelong calling. It isn’t always, of course. In fact in traditionally Buddhist cultures, it is not unusual for young males (it tends to be a gender-specific thing) to spend a period of time in a monastic environment before beginning secular life. It is considered a good grounding for a fulfilling and meaningful existence. The youngest member I interviewed was a 25-year-old novice introduced as Brother Contemplation, who, I have since learned, has left monastic life.

Brother Contemplation grew up in central Florida. “In a Christian family that just went to church on holidays. I tried to believe, and I did go to some youth groups when I was in middle school, but I still had doubts, and Christianity didn’t resonate too much with me. And I saw a lot of people going to church and saying that they were Christian but living quite a worldly life, and they didn’t seem too happy. So at a young age I was already a self-proclaimed atheist, and then I said, ‘Well, actually, I don’t know, so I’ll say I’m an agnostic.’”

Then he had assignment to interview a Laotian Buddhist monk for his high school newspaper.

“And he seemed so genuinely happy. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, and, a lot of kids who went to my school, their parents were well off. So I saw a lot of wealth, and money was never really an issue, but I saw a lot of suffering coupled with that. And I didn’t meet too many people who were deeply happy in the way that this monk was. In fact, I think, at that point, he was the happiest person I’d ever met.”

Brother Contemplation’s life was complicated at the time, and he tells me he was heavily involved in drugs. Then a friend loaned him a book. “The Thich Nhat Hanh Collection, and it’s a collection of three books. Peace Is Every Step is the first book of the collection, then Teachings on Love, and then Stone Boy and Other Stories. And at that point I never thought I’d become a monk. But then all of a sudden, after I started practicing, and I was reading more, these thoughts started coming up in my head. And they were aspirations to become a monk, and I thought about monastics and what kind of life they led, and I thought it was so noble. It was such a wise way to live, and such a worthwhile path to take. But at the same time, I knew it was very difficult to do that. You’re kind of going against the stream in many ways. So that happened when I was 21.

“So I started practicing. I started going to sanghas. I started going to monasteries. It was a slow process. It wasn’t just like I came home one day and was like, ‘I want to become a monk.’ I slowly started expressing this aspiration, and then I think when it was finally clear that I was actually doing it—you know—I was buying the plane ticket to come here, my family was quite surprised. The good thing was that they saw that the practice worked. I was happier. The practice had helped transform my life.”

That had been a year and a half before I interviewed him. One is required to be a novice for at least three years. Brother Phap Vu had told me that fully ordained monks had to abide by 250 rules. Novices only need to abide by ten.

“They’re the foundation,” Brother Contemplation tells me. “A lot of the precepts are actually fine manners or mindful manners. So we have the ten precepts, but then we also have a number of mindful manners which we have to follow. But they’re not precepts. They’re just guidelines.”

I ask what the hardest thing about living in the monastery is.

He thinks a while before answering. “I think living in a community. Because you have to let go of a lot of your personal space, your personal items. Your own ideas. And you have to learn to live with others in a way in which I know I and most of the brothers were not used to. We all share rooms. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a monk. And we live in a small space together. We spend all our time together basically, at least the scheduled time. We do have free time, personal time. But I think that would be the most challenging thing. But it’s not that it’s challenging, but it’s also one of the most nourishing things; it’s just that it gives rise to many challenges.”

“And the most rewarding thing?”

He laughs. “Happiness. Yeah. Peace. Transformation.”

“And if someone asked how it promotes that?” I ask. Just then one of the “mindfulness bells” rings, and Brother Contemplation pauses to acknowledge it.

“I’d probably share with them about meditation, and the happiness that comes from meditation and mindfulness practice.”

“There is actually less formal sitting than in other Zen traditions,” I mention.


“But as I understand it, you take that meditation practice beyond the actual zazen time to doing other things. Like the bell that just rang.”

He nods his head. “Being aware of the present moment—in the present moment, however you want to put it—bringing awareness to right here, right now, is the essence of meditation, whether it’s sitting, walking, whether it’s more focused, whether it’s more open. That’s the essence. And so that’s not just confined to sitting on a cushion, and that’s what we try to practice here.”

Other links:

Blue Cliff Monastery

Dené Granger Redding

Dené Granger Redding is the Head Cook at the Rochester Zen Center. I ask if people refer to her as the “tenzo.”

“Occasionally,” she tells me.

“When they’re being very formal?”

She laughs lightly. “I feel that it gets used in an endearing way.”

She is also in the Sangha Programs Coordinator, which, she explains, is a new position.

“One of the things that happened with the pandemic and all of the race-riots [following the police killing of George Floyd] is that Zen Center started reflecting on our place in this, our responsibility in this. What can we contribute in a good way to racial justice at large. So we ended up developing a group that organizes different programming around racial justice issues. When there was a lot of anti-Asian violence happening this past spring, we had a conversation on that with a woman who is an Asian-American Buddhist practitioner, just trying to understand her experience with being Asian and practicing in a mostly white sangha.

“So my position, what happens is somebody comes and says, ‘I want to host this program, how do I make it happen?’ So it’s taking sangha members’ idea and trying to bring them to life. We have more ideas than we can put on the ground and run with right now, so we really have to prioritize what projects we have space for.”

“The community takes the initiative in identifying the issues that they want to find some way of incorporating into their practice?” I ask.

“I think just being able to deal with collectively. It’s so easy for people to come to the zendo and sit and then go home. But we want to be able to get to know each other. So there’s a kind of community development sort of aspect to this too, and these collaborative kinds of social engagement projects give us something to come together on. Also social justice is generally an interest in our sangha. People want to learn more about their own personal biases, be able to figure out how to come together collectively on some of these issues.”

The first concern she focussed on in her new position was anti-trans bias. I ask how she determined to deal with that issue.

“We have a sangha member who identifies as non-binary, and they came out as being non-binary while a member of the Zen Center. And they were struggling with the fact that people were having a hard time using ‘they/them’ pronouns and identifying them correctly. And they are also somebody who’s a fantastic organizer; they had experience doing event coordination. And I wanted to get their help in doing some other programming that we were doing, but I also wanted to support them in living in a community that could appropriately support them. And so I threw out the idea why don’t we do some programming around trans-bias so that they can find support in an organization that knows how to support them.”

“So it’s like the Ten Bulls,” I suggest – referring to the traditional series of illustrations on the stages of Zen practice. “The final picture, you return to the marketplace with ‘gift bestowing hands.’ So, is that you’re doing? Looking for ways to bring your practice out of the Zen Center and . . .”

“Oh, absolutely,” she says before I can finish my sentence. “So when we did this ‘Anti-Trans Bias in the Media,’ we didn’t really know what skills we had to bring to the table. We didn’t really know if we knew how to make it go. And so we kept programming mostly in-house, but some of the trans-people at the Zen Center ended up inviting their friends over. So their first exposure to the Zen Center was through this anti-trans-bias conversation. And since then we’ve realized that every time we host a program like this, we have to find out who in the community would have some interest in this topic. So we are very intentionally reaching out to different members of the Rochester community. And then we’re starting to think about how can we bridge these gaps for people in a bigger way?

“I think this is something that Buddhist groups are struggling with in general right now. If you think about it, I think there’s no point in our history where we’ve been as diverse as we are now. Monasteries were usually all men of the same nationality and race. And we don’t have that anymore. We have a whole range of genders, we have a whole range of sexuality, we have a whole range of races that are trying to figure how to come together and make this thing work for all of us. And at the same time, there is this immense wealth of knowledge that a trans-person – say – can bring to the Dharma on gender that hadn’t really had a place so prominently before when it was more a monolithic group that was coming together. So I think as we become more diverse, we learn more about what resources we each bring to the table depending on where we’re coming from that adds to the Dharma in general. It can be the stuff that divides us, but it can also be the stuff that brings us together.”

Other links:

Gerardo Gally

Gerardo Gally is a lay teacher in the Kapleau lineage and the director of Casa Zen in Mexico City.

He explains that he first encountered Zen through his wife. “About six months into marriage, I felt curious about why did she get up at six in the morning to sit facing a wall. And it was a small group then – still small – and a nice, collegial environment. She went to sesshin one day, and I decided to try.”

So while she was away, Gerardo sat by himself, but it was difficult.

“And she said, ‘Oh, maybe you want to go to the next retreat.’ The next sesshin, which was a four-day sesshin with Roshi Kapleau.”

The marriage didn’t last, but Gerardo remained with the practice and became the de facto leader of the Mexico City community. Then he attended a sesshin with Kapleau in Costa Rica. “And he asked me, ‘Well, you are in charge of the group in Mexico.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you must know how to time.’ I said, ‘Well, I can do that. Twelve rounds. I can do that. But all the rest, I don’t have a clue.’ And he says, ‘Oh, okay. Here’s the bell. You go down there to the garden and practice.’ And I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ But I learned that being the timer really nails you to time. And you cannot go to sleep. You cannot just doze off. You just gotta be there. And that turned around my practice. It was a gift.”

He started attending sesshin in Rochester. “I just got into it. And no matter what, I kept going and I kept going, going. I don’t know where the persevering, the willingness, the being engaged in the practice came from. I don’t have a clue. But what I do know is that it started to help me. My life got better. I married. I have two children. And jobs and the whole thing. And I just kept practising. And got through the system of koans and all that. And practised. Did this. Did that. And I kept going for sesshin, and in 2002 Bodhin Kjolhede became my teacher. He’s one year older than I am. He asked me if I wanted to be a teacher. He didn’t want to travel so much. He wanted to let his students who were in charge of other groups just take over. And I said yes, and I started teaching. So I’m still teaching. So I’m a firm believer – because of my own experience – I believe there’s a way for lay people, outside the monasteries or outside a formal setting such as Rochester, we can go through the hoops and the loops and practice. That’s where I am.”

 The group he works with in Mexico City, he tells me, has a great sense of community.

“Let me describe how we start sesshin because it’s kind of different. The first night – we start on a Friday – and we start sitting informally and then we have a bonfire so that everybody can relax and talk and catch up on each other and what you’ve been doing and being able to talk, especially people from outside Mexico City. And then the next day we start with sitting and breakfast and it’s informal, and we keep going and going until we have the opening ceremony. And then we keep silence. But we start very slowly so that people can really create a sense of community. Not only because of the practice itself, the intensity of the practice, because of the silence of the practice and the deep connection you develop there.”

I ask what it is he hopes for for those who practice with him.

“To awaken to their Buddha Nature. That’s what I say every day in different ways and step by step and by example – giving examples – and trying to be a living example of what it means. And trying to get them to see that all their struggles are part of the path. By the way, because we are a small sangha, I can give longer dokusans. I’m not in a rush with dokusan. I don’t give them more than what they need, but they’re longer dokusans, and I can put much more about daily life. And so that’s where I really try to inspire. It’s a lay practice, what I’m doing here, and so it has to be significant for a lay person.”

He speaks emotionally about the way in which he has personally benefited from practice. “It just gets deeper and deeper in the practice; despite being practising for 38 years, there’s still much more to discover; it’s endless in that sense. It has the power to change how we are, who we are, and gives us this tremendous personal freedom to be free of our own attachments that will take us to the next century and beyond that. And that’s what we really need to teach is not only the forms but how to use those forms to transform. It can’t just be the shell. It can’t just be the structure. We have to teach how to use the structure. How to use the sitting. How to use our inner resources to become Zen people.”

Other links:

Casa Zen

Affiliate Groups – Rochester Zen Center

Patrick Gallagher

I first met Patrick Gallagher in 2013 when I had arranged to interview Sister Elaine MacInnes, the first Canadian to receive Dharma transmission. She was living in a home on the east side of Toronto for members of Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns associated with the Scarboro Fathers. She had asked Patrick to join us, and, just as I pulled up in front of the house, he arrived by bike. Later I asked him how much courage it took to ride a bike in an urban environment. He laughed the question off, but I had been serious. I hadn’t found Toronto motorists to be particularly considerate.

Since that first meeting, Patrick has moved up through the teaching ranks of the Sanbo Zen lineage, even though he – like Sister Elaine – does not consider himself a Buddhist as such. He remains a practicing Roman Catholic. And yet his promotions as a teacher have come fairly rapidly. “Embarrassingly fast,” he tells me. He is currently the principal teacher at three communities, Oak Tree in the Garden in Toronto, as well as groups in Hamilton and Ottawa.

His first opening experience occurred about three years after he started study with Sister Elaine. I ask him about the time he spent in the zendo before that opening, whether he had found practice immediately rewarding or if it had just been drudgery.

“I wouldn’t say it was drudgery, but it was a definite act of commitment on my part, to persist. I will tell you a story though about how things work when you’re unaware of it. I hadn’t been doing it all that long – less than a year, I think – and there was some kind of event, I don’t remember what it was, and for some reason my wife was there, and I introduced her to Sister Elaine. And Sister Elaine asked her, ‘Have you noticed any change in Patrick?’ And I thought until then that I’d been unsuccessfully trying this Zen stuff, and it was hard work, and I wasn’t sure I was doing it right, and all that kind of thing. And to my astonishment, Nikki said, ‘Well, if I didn’t know he was the same man, I’d think he was a different man from the one I’d married.’ And you could’ve picked me up off the floor. I felt I was exactly the same. But apparently I was changing.”

When I ask him to describe the opening experience, he finds it difficult to express in words. After some hesitation, he tells me, “In its simplest terms, I had an experience where I was no longer there, and yet I was there.” He doesn’t put a lot of weight on that initial experience, however, pointing out that, “When people have some kind of experience or insight that’s just the beginning of the work; that isn’t the end of the work. You really have to nourish that and feed it and work on it. You’re not transformed instantly into St. Francis. You’re still the same miserable cuss you were before. You need to work on it.”

Awakening, he explains, isn’t an event. It’s a process, and a process which, to be meaningful, needs to be expressed in one’s life in some manner. “I tell people this often: if this has no implications, if this has no consequences in your life off the cushion, then it’s just an eccentric habit. It’s like a weird form of stamp collecting. It must be alive in your life. I have no doubt about that. And to the extent that it is alive in your non-cushion life, it’s alive in you.”

In his orientation talks to new students, Patrick describes what he calls the Three Fruits of Zen: Joriki [or concentration], kensho [awakening], “and then making it active in your life. Making it part of your life.”

I’m curious about how he sees students “making it part of their lives.” He admits he doesn’t have a lot of contact with many of the students outside the zendo, but he does observe them interacting when they are at the center, and his impression is that continued practice brings about change. “People seem kinder, more patient. The longer they practice, the more open they are to one another. And I’ve also noticed that when people are not that way, they seem often to be stuck in their practice too. The two go together. It’s not first this happens, and then this other thing happens as a result. The two work together. They’re two sides of one coin in a way.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 140-45

Catholicism and Zen: 95-96, 182-92

Zen Conversations: 132.

Other Links:

Oak Tree in the Garden

Sally Metcalf

This week – the week following Remembrance Day – is recognized as YMCA Peace Week in Canada

In 1987 – when I had been with the Y for only two years – the International Committee of the Fredericton YM-YWCA was given responsibility for developing the resources for that year’s national Peace Week activities. I and a handful of volunteers (Carole Cronkhite, May Whalen, and Lucie El Khoury) met with Bob Vokey of YMCA Canada to discuss the matter. Before the meeting formally began, Bob gave us an overview of the growing lack of interest in international development matters not only within the Y but among volunteers in other NGOs as well. One of the factors causing this was that celebrities and political figures who allowed their names to be associated with certain causes were lauded for their endorsements while often the volunteers who did most of the on-the-ground work labored anonymously and with little recognition of their efforts.

I suggested that the Y should institute an award to recognize individuals like these, people who – without any special resources – could be held up as exemplars of the types of things all of us could do if we chose. Celebrities and political figures, specifically, would not be eligible. While their activities were valuable, because they had access to special resources they could not be effective models of the contributions ordinary people were capable of making.

The YMCA Peace Medal continues to be awarded by associations across Canada and occasionally in other countries as well. It was, doubtless, the most significant contribution I made in my 27-year career with the Y.

When Genjo Marinello Roshi of Chobo-ji in Seattle learned that I was working on a book about the impact of Zen on practitioners, he advised me to interview Sally Metcalf of his sangha. Sally is a sensei, but she is quick to point out that the title is largely honorific. She tells me that Osho – as she calls Genjo – awards the title as a way of “acknowledging certain people in this sangha who are not ordained but who have done forty sesshin and are active helping the community. It’s his way of acknowledging people who’ve been doing the forms for a while so that other people can rely on them. As you know, there’s a lot of form in Rinzai; so that’s quite helpful.”

“Do you have specific responsibilities in the community?” I ask.

“No. Basically we just wear brown rakusus, and we’re just somebody people can watch who know what they’re doing – ’cause usually we do things correctly – and somebody people can talk to. So that’s what Osho does, if you’re not on ordination track – which has different hoops you have to jump through – it’s his way of acknowledging senior people.”

When I ask her what contributions she makes to the community, her response is modest.

“I’ve got kind of a small life,” she tells me. “I don’t mean that in a deprecatory way. But I’m not like the Dalai Lama who can reach millions of people. Which is pretty incredible. I live this small life. I don’t get around much. I have a job with a small non-profit. I shop at my grocery stores, and I have my much-loved sangha. I wash the laundry, and I wipe the dishes, and I clean the toilets, and I greet people at the door, and so this is my life. And I don’t touch millions of people. I don’t even touch thousands of people. But, that being said, way, way, way, way back, when I first took a Course in Miracles in the Unity Church, there was a prayer that began, ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ And that really struck me. ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ That just went out to every cell in my body.”

When she began Zen practice, she encountered the same concept in the Bodhisattva Vows. “In the shorthand form we use, it’s to ‘care for all people, everywhere, always.’” She adds that she told Genjo Osho that when Zen practice no longer helped her realize that goal, she would quit it and look elsewhere. “And Osho said, ‘Good. That’s the way it should be.’

“It sounds kind of funny, but I used to row this boat out on Puget Sound. And when you’re rowing slowly, you leave a wake. So I and my dog were out in Eagle Harbor, and we’re going along, and there’s our wake. But what kind of wake am I leaving? When I’m in a coffee shop, I don’t want to just say, ‘Give me my latte’ and get out.” Instead, she wants the encounter with the barista to become personal. So that they treat one another with respect. “We appreciate each other. And I’m trying to do that in my sangha. You know, when a member comes in, I ask them how they are. ‘How are the difficulties you were telling me about your job?’ So, this is my practice. Everywhere. Always. With everyone. This is my practice. Am I helping people on the scale of the Dalai Lama? No, I don’t think so. But am I leaving a good wake? I think so.”

Sally is precisely the kind of person I had in mind when I came up with the concept of the YMCA Peace Medallion.

Other Links:


Tetsugan Zummach

I met Tetsugan Zummach when she and her husband, Dosho Port, were teaching at Great Tides Zen in Portland, Maine. She later explained that she began her study of Buddhism when she was still in her 20s, prompted by what she termed “an overall feeling of discontent”

“Discontent in what way?”

“Wondering, looking around and seeing my family and friends and the trajectories that they were on and just this feeling of dissatisfaction and ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ The idea of a successful life seemed to be going to college and getting a job, getting married, having kids, having a nice house, having a vacation house. The people that were around me at that time of my life, that seemed to be the level of success that they aspired to. But they didn’t seem all that happy, so I thought, ‘Really? This is all we have to look forward to?’ So I wanted something more, wondered if there was something more.”

One of the most striking changes that has occurred in Zen since it first arrived in the West is what draws people to it. If I ask teachers who are twenty years older than Tetsugan, they were largely drawn by the allure of awakening, kensho, enlightenment. When I ask Tetsugan what brings people to practice today, she explains that when they have introductory workshops, “We always start off the intros by going around asking people what is bringing them, what are they interested in, what do they want to get out of the session? And most people are dealing with some level of suffering. More and more people are struggling with anxiety, depression, stress. They want to learn how to deal with stress. They want to learn how to regulate their emotions. They want to learn how to be more calm and present. They want to know how to be more mindful. The secular mindfulness movement has really taken off, so they might’ve heard a little bit about mindfulness. They want to be more present in their lives. So that’s generally what we find.”

“Do big awakening experiences still occur?” I ask.

“I think they do. But it takes some time for people to shift from what I just described. They often come looking for well-being – and I think that’s an important doorway – but the heart of the practice is about the ground of being. So I think there’s a shift that needs to take place for people to go more deeply into the practice. Maybe they do clean up some parts of their lives. Have some stability. Gain some stability in order to go deeper. For some people that is needed. But it takes time. One of the things we emphasize is that you can’t expect to just dip a toe in once a week or every couple of weeks and have some grounding, let alone some kind of awakening. You need to have consistency and diligence in your practice. Dosho gave a talk recently, and he said, ‘It’s like the idea of you think you’re going to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But you rub for two seconds and then you stop.’ There’s no heat. There’s no spark. So consistency is really important.”

“So people come for ‘well-being,’” I say, “and then through immersion in the practice – though that’s not a term you used – but with engagement in the practice, they evolve to what? They start by seeking well-being and then discover what?”

“Well, I think in the beginning, and this was certainly true of me, I didn’t know anything about enlightenment or awakening. I read some books and heard a few stories, but I kind of dismissed that as ‘Oh, yes, that was for some Indian sages or whatever.’ So I think oftentimes when people come looking for that well-being, they don’t even know about the full potential of what Buddhism or Zen practice has to offer. And so I think there’s a learning curve that happens, and through consistently engaging with the practice, establishing a relationship with a teacher, I think those things help open up fields of opportunities and what’s possible.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 468-69, 476

Zen Conversations: 64-65

Other Links:

Robert Waldinger

Like Mike Fieleke, Bob Waldinger is the resident teacher of a zendo in Newton, the Henry David Thoreau Sangha (“affectionately known as ‘Hank’”).

He came to Zen relatively late in life. He was in his 50s. “I had been interested in meditation since I was in my 30s because someone I did my psychological training with casually said one day that she and her partner had spent a weekend doing a silent retreat. And I said, ‘You mean, you didn’t say anything?’ I couldn’t imagine spending time with my girl friend being quiet. So I think she recommended Wherever You Go, There You Are, the Jon Kabat-Zinn book, and I read it and was really drawn to basic Buddhist philosophy. The idea of impermanence resonated so much because since I was a teenager at least, reading some of the poets like Yeats, I realized that I was worried about all this stuff that didn’t matter, and that all these ideas about what we were supposed to achieve and what people were supposed to accomplish had this kind of absurdity about it because it was all going to pass away. And that really struck me deeply as an adolescent, but I didn’t have any way to talk about it, and nobody else was seeming to think that way. So I did all these very achievement-oriented things, but all the while kept thinking, ‘There’s a part of this that’s completely made up and absurd.’ Traditional religion hadn’t worked for me. I was raised Jewish, and – like – I would be in services with my family and wanted to stop the action and go up front and say, ‘Okay, raise your hands. How many of you really believe this stuff?’ Of course I could never do that. So there were these ways in which I was hungry for a spiritual practice and a way to make sense of the world.”

He dabbled in various meditation traditions for a while before meeting James Ford. “My son’s friend in middle school had a coming-of-age ceremony at the Unitarian Church where James was the minister. And I sat next to the friend’s mom, and she knew I’d been interested in meditation; she pointed to James and said, ‘You know, he’s a Zen master.’ So I emailed him and asked if I could come see him, and he said, ‘Sure.’ So one weekday morning I went to his office, and it was just a total mess, and he came in with his shirt-buttons wrong and – you know – was just James. And was very down to Earth. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could probably learn from this guy.’ One of the first things James said to me was, ‘We do scruffy Zen.’”

Bob accepted an invitation to try sitting with the group that James was running at his church. “And I went up to him afterwards, and I said, ‘You know, I was really uncomfortable with all the bowing and the chanting.’ And, of course, being James, he said, ‘Good!’ And that was sort of a dare to come back, so I came back, and . . .” He shrugs. “I drank the Kool-Aid.”

“As long as you recognized it’s Kool-Aid,” I say.

“Well, that was actually one of the most helpful things. The Zen I know doesn’t present itself as anything but Kool-Aid that eventually you’ll put down.”

“If someone had asked you – perhaps one of your colleagues who was wondering if you were going off the deep end . . .” He nods his head, grinning broadly. “Oh!” I say. That’s already happened has it?”

“Yeah, so I worked at Harvard Medical School, which is one of the most conservative institutions on the planet, and some of my friends were quite interested. Actually some of my psychoanalyst friends were really interested, because psychoanalysis is about watching the mind as well in a different way, with different frames. So they were interested. Other people were kind of polite. You know there’s that, ‘Oh?’ And my wife was worried that it was a cult perhaps. And I said to her, ‘If I never went back to this Monday night sitting group, no one would even call, no one would know. That’s not what it is.’”

His university office is now decorated with Buddha figures, photos of his teachers, and a picture of Guanyin. “So now I’m really out.” And when he returns after taking time off work to attend sesshin, his colleagues will inquire how it went. “They’ll ask, ‘Was it really relaxing?’ And I say, ‘No, it was intense. Good. But not relaxing.’ I tell them it’s not about relaxation. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about a radical understanding of the self in the world and what it means to be alive. That’s the elevator speech.

“The structure of Zen works for me, these frequent interviews with teachers are important because I tend to get discouraged. Doubt is a big part of my experience. So I would sit there and think, ‘What the hell am I doing? I might just as well be phoning this meditation in.’ And so it’s really helpful to have another human being working to remind me what this is. So I found that structure helpful. And when Zen talks about ‘already Buddha’ – you know? – what the hell is that? And that seemed to me to be really important and much more . . . um . . . both surprising and real than what I understand from some of my friends in other traditions. Well, they eventually deconstruct all these levels. But most of us never get to that point. Most people don’t get far enough along the path to deconstruct the various levels. What I like about Zen is it keeps knocking you back down and saying, ‘We’re going to deconstruct it moment to moment.’”

The Story of Zen: 389-95, 425

Zen Conversations: 9; 21; 43-44; 58; 87

Other links:

Henry David Thoreau Sangha

Boundless Way Zen

Henry Shukman

Santa Fe architecture, even for private homes, largely adheres to a handful of local styles—Pueblo, Mission, and what they refer to as “Territorial.” The Mountain Cloud Zen Center on the Old Santa Fe Trail is in Pueblo style: thick adobe walls, flat roof, softly rounded corners, and projecting viga rafters. It was built by Philip Kapleau and a handful of volunteers – including Mitra Bishop – in the mid-1980s. Kapleau had not enjoyed the winters in Rochester and hoped the New Mexico climate would be more congenial. The building is small but appealing with a zendo, just inside the front door, which seats twenty-two on a raised tan.  

As it happened, conditions in Rochester required Kapleau to return there, and he didn’t get back to Santa Fe. A small group of practitioners, however, remained and maintained the zendo and their practice without a teacher for next twenty-eight years. The membership diminished over time, until there were only three people left. One was a man named Will Brennan who learned of a student of Albuquerque Zen teacher, Joan Rieck, who had been recently authorized to teach in the Sanbo Zen tradition.

Henry Shukman was born and raised in Oxford, England. He is lean and flexible with an easy and good-humored manner. When I show him the first photo I take of him, he declares it much too serious, and we do another. When I look at the Mountain Cloud website sometime later, I see that second photo alongside his bio.

When he was eighteen years old, his father thought a period of manual labor would be good for his son and arranged for him and a friend to work on a ranch in Argentina. After a year on the farm, “when we’d got enough money, and we’d done our time, we put on our backpacks and hitchhiked from the end of the drive—literally, the end of the farm drive—and went north into Bolivia and traveled right across the Altiplano.” The trip became the basis of his first book, Sons of the Moon.

One day he was watching the sunlight on the ocean off the coast of Ecuador when he had what he called a “run of the mill experience of oneness” which left him feeling “flooded with love, and that love seemed to be everywhere.” There is still some excitement in his voice as he describes the event. His narrative reminds me of a story Melissa Blacker had told me in Worcester, and my own experience in 1971 sitting on a metal bench outside a cottage called Birkenbrae in Fredericton.

But while he was certain this experience was the answer to everything, he did not know what to do with it. He uses the word “suffering” to describe the next ten years, during which he alternately tried to forget about the experience or sought to address it without knowing how to.

He came to New Mexico for the first time in order to research a book on D. H. Lawrence. “Which is the only place he ever owned a home. And while I was here, I very quickly met some very nice people, one of whom was a Zen student, actually a student of Katagiri’s. And one evening we were sitting on our porch downtown, and she was reading to me a passage of Dogen, who I’d never heard of ’til that day. And it was totally bewildering, and I couldn’t forget it.” Although the passage didn’t immediately make sense to him, Shukman realized it was based in the same kind of understanding he had come to on the seaside in Ecuador, and he felt compelled to investigate Zen.

For the next eight years or so, he sat with a variety of teachers both in America and England but wasn’t drawn to accept any of them as his personal teacher until he met John Gaynor. As he tells the story, he muses for a moment on what it is that draws one to a particular teacher. In his case, he says, it was that Gaynor’s Zen was free of the Japanese trappings common elsewhere. Henry knew from his original experience that whatever this was, it was not something limited to a particular culture or people.

Gaynor introduced him to Joan Rieck, with whom he worked after he returned to New Mexico in order to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He later studied with the abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan school, Ryoun Yamada Roshi – the son of Yamada Koun – in Japan. When he was finally authorized to take his own students, he was recruited by Brennan to come to the Mountain Cloud Center.

When I visited in 2013, Mountain Cloud was only a year old, but was already showing signs of vigor. Five years later, I had an opportunity to chat with Henry again and asked about the Center’s growth.

“Well, of course, one never knows how stable and durable it might be, and the assumption might be ‘neither.’ But if you look at numbers, our sangha – our membership – has been growing quite significantly or quite undeniably over the last five/six years. When I first arrived at Mountain Cloud, we were two, three, four, five people. You know, seven people was a big night. And that was sitting once a week, and now we have a sit every weekday, and we have several other events each week as well. And on a major weekday night, it can be well over forty people. That’s not at all uncommon.”

That was, of course, prior to the pandemic.

Under other circumstances, Mountain Cloud is a center I believe I would feel at home in. The stripped-down characteristics of Sanbo Zen – which derives from the Harada-Yasutani lineage – makes sense to me. It is the style of Zen to which I’d been introduced by Albert Low, who was also in that lineage. The focus is on lay practice; most teachers are lay; the paraphernalia of priestcraft is downplayed. As Henry put it in a recent correspondence, “Sanbo Zen is rather narrow in its focus, which is basically on the awakening process through koan training.”

What more does there need to be?

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 145-154, 173, 174, 213, 377, 473

Zen Conversations: 40-41; 60-63; 85-86; 108-09

Other Links:

Mountain Cloud Zen Center

Wikipedia entry

Grover Genro Gauntt

Genro Gauntt is one of the co-founders of the Zen Peacemakers movement which grew out of Bernie Glassman’s street retreats where, instead of sitting on cushions in a zendo, participants lived for a week on the streets with the homeless.

I ask Genro how that is Zen practice.

“Zen isn’t about learning a Japanese form. It isn’t about striving for enlightenment or gaining anything or knowing anything. So the street retreat was a beautiful way to have people throw off all of their identities as fast as they could, as much as they could, to be in old clothes, look unpresentable, have no money, no ID, and dive into the streets in whatever city we are and have no idea of how it’s going to work out. And it works really fast. To be in a street retreat or a Zen Peacemaker Bearing Witness retreat is like doing years of practice in a couple of days. Because it’s not familiar with the context you find yourself in, your mind can’t process it. It can’t identify with it. That makes us be awake and aware and mindful, because there’s a lot to be mindful of when you’re living on the streets. Eventually what happens is the mind’s not really processing it as data and information; it’s something that needs to be understood. What happens is a deep sort of freeing and happiness arise for the great majority – the great, great majority – and these are people who have never done anything like this, never dreamed of doing anything like this, but for some reason were drawn to do it. And they’re terrified coming in; there’s so much to worry about. How am I gonna find a bathroom? What are we gonna eat? You know? What if I need this or that? We beg for everything, and they’ve never begged before of course. And after maybe the second day of a four-day retreat, they go, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve never been happier in my life, and I really wish this retreat would last a few more days.’ Because they have a freedom they’ve never known before, from themselves, from their own routines, and in their minds about who they are, about what life is. It’s beautiful. So what’s the relation to Zen? Buddha is not-knowing; it’s coming from this space of openness and non-judgement and non-criticism and just wide-open experience. That’s what happens.”

Shortly after starting the street retreats, Glassman was invited to an interfaith peace conference held at Auschwitz. “And one day he walked into the camp and was just overwhelmed by the presence of what he described as souls and spiritual energy. He said, ‘This is an incredible place for people to experience.’ He didn’t know what would happen, but he wanted to bring people there to experience it. And he knew the souls there wanted prayers and presence. That particular concept was confirmed later by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, who told him, ‘Go! It wants you. It needs you.’ That was ’94. The first Auschwitz retreat was ’96.

“It was very powerful. I was recently divorced and was in between the transition of my regular daily life and working fulltime with Bernie. And I was depressed. I was in bad shape. Who knows for what reasons. Right? So I went there with 150 others. And I knew what Bernie was talking about when he said the spiritual atmosphere was dense. It was palpable. There are places on Earth where you walk and you go, ‘My God! Something happened here!’ And it for sure happened there. You could feel it. Days on end we’re doing meditation on the tracks between the two main crematoriums and listening to testimonials from people at night, from survivors and from Polish people whose families were directly involved one way or another, from children of Nazis from Germany, from Israeli Jews who found the courage to go there somehow and were children of survivors. It was huge.” As an unanticipated consequence of taking part in the retreat, Genro overcame his depression.

The retreats became an annual event. “For the next several years, it was heavily attended and over-subscribed. We had to turn people away.

“Then in ’98, it became obvious that we had world religions involved in these retreats – Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims – but no indigenous spiritualities. So I said, ‘Let’s invite somebody.’ I called an elder at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Birgil Kills Straight, and he said ‘I would love to do that, but I can’t. I’ve got other obligations. But I’m gonna send somebody.’ So he sent a Lakota from Pine Ridge named Tuffy Sierra. Never been out of the country. Didn’t have a passport. Got his passport the day before he left. So Tuffy asked Birgil Kills Straight, ‘What am I supposed to do there?’ Birgil Kills Straight said, ‘Pray.’ So that’s what he did.

“And a couple of months later I thought, ‘For somebody to be with us and to do something with us, that’s a huge offering that they made. I’ve got to do something with them. So I called up Birgil Kills Straight, he said, ‘Great. Come do the ride.’ He meant the Big Foot Ride, which is an annual two-week horseback ride, several hundred miles from the Standing Rock reservation – where Sitting Bull was – along the path travelled by Big Foot and his band who were seeking refuge with Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge reservation, and, of course, it ended up with the Wounded Knee massacre. So I went and joined the end of it. Tuffy Sierra was there, and I spent a few days with him. Spent a few days with Birgil and his family. Met medicine people. Incredible stories.”

Out of that encounter Genro came to work with the Lakota in organizing an annual retreat in the sacred Black Hills to bear witness to the genocide of Native Americans.

Zen Conversations: Pp. 29-31; 115-16; 140-42.

Other Links:

Zen Peacemakers