There is a bumper sticker on Bodhin Kjolhede’s car that reads: “Ask me about my vow of silence.” We are driving to the Rochester Zen Center’s retreat house, located at Chapin Mill, forty minutes from the city. Bodhin’s hair is short, but not shaved off, and he is dressed in a navy blue short-sleeve shirt with a banded color and matching slacks. The Vietnamese woman in the back seat is similarly dressed. “As part of the process of adapting Zen to the west, my teacher—Roshi Kapleau—and I didn’t feel inclined to maintain the Japanese samugi,” he explains. “We chose something more western, but we also wanted a way to distinguish those who were ordained. So we came up with this.” Unlike a samugi, it is something one could wear on the street without appearing too foreign or exotic.
The conversation during the drive is largely casual, but I leave the recorder on. “There has been a recent increase in interest in our introductory workshops, our training programs, and our sesshin—all three,” he mentions.
“Interest in workshops has gone up?
“Yeah. We have to turn people away. We cut it off at fifty.”
“What age groups show up?”
“It’s all over the place, but there are definitely more people in their 20s and 30s than there were five years ago. The baby-boomers are still coming, but now there are fewer of them. And there are a lot more younger people.”
“Any idea why this current increase in interest?”
“I have hypotheses. There are those who say it’s so hard for young people to get jobs that they don’t lose much by coming. But I think it’s something more intangible, some greater interest in the spiritual.”
“Probably different factors than in the 60s, though, when drugs were a big reason people got involved.”
“They were for me.”
“Yeah,” I admit. “When people ask how I got interested in Zen, my short answer is often, ‘Mescaline.’”
He looks over at me with a grin and says, “Me too! Mescaline was my drug of choice. I was a beer-drinking fraternity guy until my first mescaline trip, and then I just saw the world in a whole different way.”
By this time, I knew I was going to like this guy.
The Rochester Zen Center is located in a fairly ritzy neighborhood. The grounds and structures are impressive and maybe a little daunting. When I arrived early for my 9:00 appointment with Bodhin in June 2013, I was told I could wait on a sofa in the foyer. Young people dressed in dark navy short-sleeve shirts and matching loose pants hurry about their business—men and women barefoot and with close-cropped, but not shaved, heads. I’m reminded of what someone had said about the San Francisco Zen Center in the days before Blanche Hartman became abbess: “Well, they’re not unfriendly.”
But if there were a certain stiffness among the students (or perhaps they are just focused on carrying out their duties), Bodhin is relaxed, humorous, and very capable of putting others at ease.
“The atmosphere here seems less formal than some of the monastic centers I’ve visited,” I say.
“One of the distinctions that Roshi Kapleau—as compared to his peers from Japan—was very adamant about, that we have to Americanize Zen. And Americans are much more informal than the Japanese. So we try to keep things taut, in terms of the training, but not with those elegant, elaborate, Japanese rituals. So, for example, I’ve heard that there are other Zen Centers where the teacher, to start off the morning zazen, will go through the zendo and people will all do this deep bow. That strikes me as inappropriate. Not to go off on this, but what I’m constantly aware of—maybe even a little more than Roshi Kapleau was—is how much of Zen from Asia is conditioned by the Confucian ethos of hierarchy and all. And I’m trying to find a balance between not throwing that out completely, because there’s a place for it, for hierarchy—I’m not going to apologize for hierarchy—but not over-doing it.”
“We have a program where our members go into soup kitchens. And there’s a whole kind of blossoming of different ways of engaging with the wider world. For example, I’m trying to give some leadership in the whole specter of global warming. In fact, recently we had a meeting where we talked about how we might have a public demonstration of the spirit of Zen the way that we did about thirty years ago when the Minnesota Zen Center organized a three day Zazen Vigil in New York City. This was on the occasion of public protests in New York regarding the proposed deployment of Cruise Missiles in Europe. And so the idea came up of inviting Zen Centers to convene across from the United Nations in a place called the Peace Park and just sit for three days. That had quite a strong effect on me. I thought it was powerful, something I could get behind more than waving protest signs and marching. So I’m trying to get something like that going regarding climate change.
“We’re really just getting into this area of social engagement. And—as you know probably—the danger of it is if you become too one-sidedly engaged—socially or politically—then you run the risk of losing the real root of Zen practice.”
I would eventually have an opportunity to spend time at Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji in Seattle, meeting its abbot – Genjo Marinello – and joining the regular morning sitting group not only for zazen but also for coffee at a local cafe which has a table waiting for them. No one blinks an eye at their robes when they come in. But my first contact with Genjo (the name attached to his email is “Joe Marinello”) was by Skype.
One does not get the same feel for a person via Skype (or Zoom) as one does in person, but Genjo struck me during our first conversation as having that settled self-confidence and ease which is often a characteristic of long-term Zen practitioners. His scalp is shaved, and he wears a head-set during the interview. As I get to know him, he proves to be something of a Renaissance man – pilot, amateur astronomer, software developer, mental health counselor, Zen priest. He has a killer smile.
During in a freshman English class in the ’70s, the teacher introduced the class to the idea that there “was a way to experience, or penetrate, reality beyond the scientific method; that you could have something called insight, inspiration, or intuition. You could tap into some fundamental truths heuristically by investigating your own internal condition.” The question for Genjo was “how” one did that, which ultimately led him to the practice of Zen. He was living in southern California at the time.
Later, while serving as a VISTA volunteer in Seattle, he practiced with a group established there by Glenn Webb, a professor at the University of Washington. In 1978, Dr. Webb invited a Japanese Rinzai teacher to Seattle. This was Genki Takabayahsi Roshi, who then founded Dai Bai Zen Cho Bo Zen Ji, or “The Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple on Great Plum Mountain.”
Genjo was sitting with this group when he happened to attend a lecture given by the Dalai Lama. The talk was interrupted by a group of Maoist-students who heckled the Dalai Lama for failing to support the Chinese Communist regime in Tibet. Genjo was so impressed by the way the Dalai Lama handled the situation that he announced to Genki Roshi that he was ready to commit himself to Buddhist practice.
He spent a short time in Japan, at Ryutakuji, where he met Soen Nakagawa Roshi. He was surprised to learn there that often the Japanese students were only there because “it was their lot in life. They couldn’t at all understand that I came there voluntarily to train, because no one would do that. And that was incomprehensible, truly incomprehensible. So when I settled on saying that I had been sent there, they could understand that. But if I tried to say I wanted to train in Zen, they would just shake their head. ‘No. That can’t be the reason.’”
His time at Ryutakuji was hard. His own training methods now are considered traditional and a little strict by American standards, but he makes it clear they are nothing like what he went through in Japan. “It was a very martial style. I remember one time sweeping a gravel path outdoors with a bamboo broom and whistling a little, just a little bit, and being told, ‘No! No, you can’t whistle! This is a Zen temple!’ And you couldn’t do anything right. There was a rule that for six months it didn’t matter who told you what to do, when you did it, it was wrong. And if you did it to someone’s satisfaction, someone else would come by and un-do it and say, ‘No. That was wrong. It has to be done this way.’ And whoever was closest to you—because everyone was more senior to you—was correct. So you just had to learn—through sort of an ego-annihilation—that you could not do anything right.”
For Genjo, Zen “points at our deep, true nature.” We don’t often tap into the deepest part of our nature, he explains, as a result of which we tend to have a fairly narrow and individualistic sense of ourselves “and who we are and our place in the universe.” Zen, then, provides a training that helps us to transcend “our ego identity and discover our deeper, seamless nature” with all other beings.
Genjo places as much emphasis on the attainment of karuna (compassion) as he does on the attainment of prajna (wisdom). “My initial training was dominated by—say—the wisdom component, with the idea that without deep wisdom you could never get to deep compassion, and that wisdom had to come first, and that compassion was the natural outcome of deeply penetrating the wisdom. And I still agree with that, but I also think that you can start with compassion and get to wisdom. And that you don’t have to start with wisdom to get to compassion. And that they’re different sides of the same coin. So we’re trying to strike a balance at Chobo-ji between these two legs, and both legs are important.”
[The American Zen Teachers’ Association invited me to give the keynote address opening their Annual Conference on July 8, 2021. This is the text of that speech.]
I started writing because my leg broke.
I’d been taking a medication for osteoporosis called Fosamax. You used to see a lot of ads for Fosamax on television. A well-known actress of a certain age with a look of determination on her face told the viewer that she was going to start taking charge of own health now and that she was going to look after her bones.
You don’t see those ads anymore because it turned out that Fosamax had this side-effect. It could cause your femur – the strongest bone in the human body – to shatter.
It’s not that it was more likely your femur would break if you had a fall – although that could happen. It was quite literally that you might be walking across the room and suddenly your leg would snap in two. Then you’d fall.
That’s what happened to me in August of 2010. In my case, it took 26 months and three surgeries before the bone began to mend. It is under circumstances like these that one really appreciates Canadian socialized medicine
During those two years of convalescence, when I was no longer able to take part in the kind of activities I generally thought of as being the stuff I do – hiking, biking, kayaking, cross-country-skiing – I filled the time, instead, by writing.
My first two books were examinations of the development of Zen in China and Japan. Then to complete what I still think of as a trilogy, I wrote about the pioneers who first brought the practice to this side of the Pacific.
By the time the idea for Cypress Trees in the Garden – my fourth book – came about, I had retired from a career in International Development and was able to get around haltingly with the use of a cane. The premise for that book is the same as the premise of my most recent book, Zen Conversations. I assumed that contemporary North American Zen teachers – you – had things to say that were at are at least as worth preserving as Tang dynasty comments about mounds of flax, turtle-nosed snakes, or excrement sticks.
So in March of 2013, starting in San Francisco, I began a tour of Zen centers throughout North America. In total, I interviewed 124 American, Canadian, and Mexican teachers before the COVID outbreak put an end to travel. They represented the Soto, Rinzai, Sanbo and Kapleau schools, as well as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean lineages.
Those seven years were, coincidentally, a transition period in the history of North American Zen. The generation of teachers who immediately followed the pioneers – the second generation of Zen teachers in America – was starting to pass. Walter Nowick died just a month prior to my trip to San Francisco. All three of the abbots I spoke with there – Steve Stucky, Blanche Hartman, and Mel Weitsman – have since died. As have Albert Low, Bernie Glassman, and others I was fortunate to be able to meet and record before they left us.
I treated that tour much like a pilgrimage. I undertook it without expectations. I had no agenda in mind. I wasn’t seeking to defend a particular theory or to argue to a particular end. I tried not to take sides in any of the several differences of opinion I encountered. My goal was simply to record a phenomenon I found interesting and personally meaningful.
What I’d like to do now is share with you some of things I observed over the course of that process. Some of the things that you told and showed me.
I first became interested in Zen fifty years ago, at a time when it was still a pretty marginal activity. I grew up in Northern Indiana, and, when I was in high school in the 1960s, at a time when the beginnings of what would become a Zen boom were starting to take place in other parts of the country, I only remember coming across one reference to meditation. It was in one of those display cases they sometimes have in front of Protestant churches where the topic of the following Sunday’s sermon is posted – like a preview of coming attractions: “Don’t miss Pastor Pete’s breathtaking review of the seven deadly sins next week!” What this display said was: “Meditation empties the mind so that the Devil can come in and take over.” Actually, on reflection, I’m not sure why that didn’t intrigue more than it did.
Today Zen is not only socially acceptable, it’s practically mainstream. It has even become a word in the English language – although its dictionary definition refers to neither Buddhism nor meditation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines zen as “the quality of being relaxed and not worrying about things one can’t change.” That’s the way you hear it used in sit-coms: “Don’t go all zen on me!”
It has become a marketing term. When I visited Bodhin Kjolhede at the Rochester Zen Center one of the things he shared with me was his collection of products that included the word Zen in their names. There’s Zen tea, Zen breakfast cereal, Zen perfume, Zen laundry detergent. There’s the “Zen of Zin,” a California Zinfandel. There was an early electric car produced by Ford in Canada, called the Zenn (with a double N – “zero emissions, no noise”). You can purchase Zen chocolate chip cookies, Zen bath products, and even a Zen underwire bra.
I mention this because it reflects something of the current popular misunderstanding of what Zen is.
Back in the bad old days, when the citizens of LaPorte, Indiana, were being warned about the dangers of demonic possession, a handful of people elsewhere in the country were starting to make their way to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rochester, Honolulu, and even the backwoods of Maine, seeking spiritual enlightenment. That’s the language they used; that’s the language that many of you used.
Few of them – few of you – knew at the time that there was actually more than one “type” of Zen, and they were surprised when some of the centers they went to discounted the idea of enlightenment. And while many of them – many of you – learned to accommodate that, it was still often the search for enlightenment that had brought them to the door in the first place. Even those of you for whom the enlightenment-model no longer holds up admitted to me that it was often the idea of a path to enlightenment which prompted your early investigations into Zen.
In the era of Zen respectability, however – the era of Zen wine and cookies – you tell me that the people who come to your door for the first time seldom use that language. More likely, they tell you that what they’re looking for is to reduce stress in their lives; they want to overcome anxiety or lower their blood pressure. One teacher did theorize that this could be because of a contemporary shyness about talking about spiritual aspirations, a fear of being thought pretentious if one did so.
You have also pointed out that when people first come to your centers, it isn’t usually with the intention of “joining” anything. If you become a Christian, for example, part of the deal is to start showing up on Sundays and gathering in prayer with others. But it appears that people often look at Zen less as a spiritual path than as a psychological technique. Several of you tell me that you hold regular introductory workshops – one place charges a $50 attendance fee – and that at times you even having waiting lists of people seeking to take part. But you also tell me that you don’t expect to see most of those people more than once. After all they get what they want in the workshop, which is instruction in a technique. No doubt some of them will go back to their families and back to work and tell people that they’ve taken up Zen and how much good it’s doing them. (“Really! It’s dropped my blood pressure by 9 points.”) Some of them might buy a book – more and more likely an audio-book. It’s frequently been remarked that far more people have read (or listened to) a book on Zen than have ever spent any time at all at a practice center, a phenomenon that I suppose I’ve contributed to in a small way.
The few who do stick around, even if they originally came in order to find a way of coping with stress, do, of course, acquire a more mature perspective about practice. And, of course, there were always those few people who come with more existential concerns about the purpose of existence or who are looking for a way of life that seems meaningful. Still, although these individuals can become staunch supporters of a particular sangha, they often retain a fairly narrow understanding of the scope of North American Zen. They assume that other Zen centers run pretty much the same as the one with which they’re familiar. And that’s just not the case.
It is, of course, a natural assumption. After all, as I write in Zen Conversations, a Roman Catholic attending mass in Venice, Oaxaca, or Ottawa would find the experience essentially the same. For that matter, a Rotarian attending a luncheon meeting in Italy, Mexico, or Canada would expect the format to be similar save for, perhaps, a few cultural differences.
But a Zen practitioner visiting two centers in their own community might well find them so different that they scarcely appear to have anything in common.
First, there is the wide range of visible differences – whether the guiding teacher at a center is lay or ordained, whether they have hair or not, whether they adapt a specific style of dress; the use or absence of liturgy, the regulations governing how people sit – facing walls, facing forward, facing one another. There are still a few places where the kyosaku is used, although these are becoming rarer and in most instances its use is only on request. One center gives you the option of a shoulder massage. There are centers which make use of what amounts to a talking circle. There are centers in which participants are encouraged to engage with one another socially before and after sits; there are other centers where there is almost no social interaction at all. There are degrees to which center leaders – if they are priests – understand their role as religious ministers to a community, with responsibility for visiting the sick, providing hospice care, officiating at weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies.
Much of this is, frankly, superficial, but it also indicates that there is no standard approach to practice in North America, there’s no central authority, no Vatican. Some members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association have suggested they would like to be recognized as a denomination, which would necessitate some form of standardization, but I didn’t see much interest in that elsewhere. You’re generally a pretty independent – if oddly conservative – lot.
Some of you have told me – especially those of you who studied with one of the pioneers – that you felt an obligation to retain the tradition as you received it at least until your teacher’s death, only after which you then felt free to begin making adaptations that you hadn’t previously. Some of these adaptations seem pretty minor from the outside, like Kapleau’s famous fight with Yasutani over whether the “Heart Sutra” could be chanted in English or not.
The matter of what I’ve heard referred to as the “container” is something most of you consider important. There is general agreement that there needs to be some kind of container for the practice, and that the one you inherited from Asia is a strong one. The tension is always with how “foreign” or “exotic” that container appears to be. The container consists of the ambiance of the space you use – the formal decorations – the forms used (bowing, prostrating, sitting cross-legged), the language used, the nature of – or the lack of – liturgy, the type of name one uses. The title – if any – you prefer to be addressed by.
One of the biggest surprises to me during my conversations with you was how often you didn’t know what your colleagues were doing. It wasn’t unusual for me to describe something I’d seen elsewhere and for you to express surprise and then quiz me for details.
Much of this could simply be considered a matter of style. But then we get into more substantive matters, such as just how Buddhist does this all need to be?
The abbot of one of the monastic communities I visited told me that he thought of himself first and foremost as “someone who is studying and practicing Buddhadharma.” In other words, for him Buddhism is primary and Zen just happens to be the particular tradition – or perhaps upaya – that he employs in his practice. On the other hand, there were centers where, when I asked authorized teachers with impeccable teaching credentials if they considered themselves Buddhists, I was bluntly told, “No.” Just recently a teacher who saw the profile of her I had posted on my website wrote to ask me to correct it. She considered herself, she told me, a Zen Practitioner not a Buddhist.
There is even a small, but significant group of teachers – whom I find fascinating enough to have written a book about – who continue to self-identify as Roman Catholic. The first Canadian – and, in fact, one of the very first Westerners – to be authorized to teach Zen is a Roman Catholic nun from the province of New Brunswick, where I live. She is now in her 90’s and no longer actively teaching, but she still forcefully makes a distinction between Zen and “Zen Buddhism.”
The most significant difference of opinion amongst you, however, is one which cuts to the very function or purpose of Zen practice.
When I conducted the interviews for Cypress Trees, I had only two prepared questions. “How did you become involved in Zen practice?” and “What is the function of Zen?” The range of responses to that second question was impressive. It was naturally something that you had given thought to – although the teacher with whom I studied for the longest time pointedly told me that Zen has no function at all. In one location, I was told that “the function of Zen is to see beyond the constructions of the mind that blind us to reality.”
Another teacher phrased it this way, “Zen is a practice through which people dissolve the mind that separates us from everything else in this world.”
Neither of these sounded spontaneous – they are both the products of careful reflection – but they’re essentially saying something others of you put more directly and in more traditional language: the function of Zen is awakening/satori/enlightenment, whatever vocabulary you choose to use.
And when I asked what you meant by awakening, I was often told that it is a process rather than a single event, although many of you held that an initial event – let’s call that kensho – is essential to begin the process. Again, your range of expectations regarding kensho is broad. One teacher told me, “we allow for different intensities of that experience. We aren’t looking for ‘great kensho,’ per se. It might, for some, be just a subtle release, maybe a tear in the eye, maybe some laughter, but not necessarily great awakening.”
Other teachers had higher expectations. One told me it was the necessary initial taste of non-duality which then needs to be cultivated for full spiritual awakening. And yet a third referred to it as the “shock of discovering that all the multiplicity of phenomena are somehow one single phenomenon.” Frequently you insisted that the experience itself can be transient and of little value unless nurtured by further practice.
The transient nature of that initial insight made others of you question its value altogether. One of you good-humoredly remarked that as far as she could see kensho seemed to have had little impact on helping the people she knew be happier or overcome their sense of personal inadequacy or insecurity. She told me that she preferred to think of Zen in terms, not of achieving a particular spiritual experience, but as a means of liberating individuals from the grief and neurosis of suffering and, by doing so, helping those people turn outward and become more aware of and attentive to others. Again, not a spontaneous reflection.
The most articulate proponent of this point of view told me straight out that he had no interest in “enlightenment” whatsoever – that the people that he’d met who claimed to have had any kind enlightenment experience were no more mature – by any measure – than anyone else he knew. For him, what Zen offers is “a vehicle by which people can grow up in a profound way.” Maturity – learning how to hold oneself in the world – he argues is more important than “what it looks like inside your head.”
If I pushed you, you would usually – although at times reluctantly – agree that the various forms of Zen despite these differences share common goals; they are all about transformation in one way or another, whether that’s described as spiritual awakening or personal maturation. There are debates about things such as how effective shikan-taza can be compared to koan study, especially when working with lay people outside of monastic training situations. Or whether koan training doesn’t just create a “gaining mind” which has to eventually be shed. I suspect those debates are healthy.
All of which is to say that as a North American style of Zen continues to evolve, it will not be monolithic. Well, that was the case in China as well – with its Five Houses and Seven Schools. And there’s value in that. When you were describing your personal stories to me, you frequently talked about trying more than one form of Zen before finding the one with which you resonated.
There does seem to be general agreement that transformation should impact the way people relate to others and to the social and physical environments – that prajna in itself is of little value without karuna, without compassionate action. That seems pretty self-evident today, but that emphasis wasn’t always there in the early days of the transference of Zen to the West.
This is the one area where I found that the member of your sanghas sometimes held stronger attitudes towards a subject than you did. Occasionally – especially during the Trump debacle – I’d hear sangha members muse about whether their centers should be more politically or socially active. But as near as I can tell, most of you don’t consider that your job. Your role is more like that of a physician, and it’s not a physician’s position to tell their patient what they should do with their lives once their health has been mended. It’s possible that my surgeons held some opinions about what I should have done after they kinda-sorta fixed my leg, but they wisely kept those opinions to themselves.
You seem to recognize that you remain a work in progress. It is worth remembering that the first Soto missions established on the west coast are not yet 100 years old. That won’t happen until next year. The Los Angeles mission was established in 1922. Coincidentally, 2022 will also be the hundredth anniversary of the first public talk on Zen that Nyogen Senzaki gave in California. Although he didn’t do so in that talk, Senzaki would become the first person to give zazen instruction in North America.
And, as we approach those anniversaries, it’s salutary to keep in mind that the house still isn’t entirely in order.
When I set out to begin these interviews in 2013, the Zen community at large was reeling from two scandals that had achieved national prominence even on cable news networks. Given that, it’s disheartening that since then, two of the teachers I spoke with – both articulate men with what I believe is a sincere commitment to the Dharma – have had to resign their posts because they fell afoul of the ethical boundaries increasingly recognized as essential to all professional – let alone spiritual – relationships.
You have also admitted to me that you are aware you are still no where near as diverse as you need to be. This is a matter of practical concern to me because while my wife and I are both white heterosexuals, our children and grandchildren represent a range of cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. Zen Conversations is dedicated to my great granddaughter who is a status member of the Wolastoqiyik First Nation. It would be an enormous disappointment to me if at some time in the future any of them felt disinclined to take up Zen practice because they failed to see themselves reflected in your numbers.
Having said all this, let me end by saying that you are a thoroughly enjoyable group of people to interact with. I wrote in Cypress Trees and then repeated in Zen Conversations that as I look back over the seven years during which I was engaged in these conversations what most strikes me is how much fun they were. I was welcomed graciously and had the good fortune to meet warm and generous individuals who responded to my (at times wholly impertinent) questions frankly and with good humor. I have described you as the type of people one would enjoy spending an afternoon with drinking beer – or tea, if that’s your thing – and discussing just about anything other than Zen.
I also look back on these visits with a genuine astonishment at the trust you placed in me, at the way in which you were willing to share the most intimate details of your lives with me. I remember a conversation in which one of you spoke about your struggles with mental health issues. The emotion in that exchange became so charged that I tried to back out, saying that we didn’t need to go any further. And what I was told was, “No. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I’d be talking about this. But now that it’s on the table, let’s look at it.” I’m still impressed by the courage that took.
Mind you, a couple of you later reconsidered what you’d revealed to me and got back in touch to say, “You know that thing we were talking about? Maybe that shouldn’t be put into print.” But even then you trusted me to honor that request.
So it has been a genuine privilege to have been able engage in these conversations with you and to have the opportunity to help ensure that your collective wisdom will be preserved – along with those weird Tang dynasty quips – for future generations. For that, for the trust you placed in me, for your hospitality and kindness, and for your attention this afternoon, I thank you.
In addition to the Japanese teachers who came to North America in the ’60s and ’70s, there were also Zen teachers from China, Vietnam, and Korea. The focus of my early books had been on the tradition as it came from Japan, but people frequently mentioned the importance in America of the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn. John Tarrant, for example, told me that his first breakthrough had occurred during a retreat with Seung Sahn.
Zen Master Soeng Hyang is one of Seung Sahn’s heirs and currently the School Zen Master of the international Kwan Um School of Zen. She was residing in Berkeley, California, when I spoke with her. She had previously been in Providence, Rhode Island, where I had originally hoped to be able to visit her.
When I learned that she had relocated, I arranged a Skype interview. We were a few minutes late getting started, and she contacted me, introducing herself as “Bobbie.” The title “Zen Master” is a rank within the Kwan Um School of Zen, and the name “Soeng Hyang” means “Nature’s fragrance.” “Like incense, kind of,” she tells me. She carries her lap top into the bedroom as we begin, and she continues the conversation while lying back in bed.
Her father had been in the Navy, and the family relocated several times. She had been born in Providence, but then the family moved to California. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, and, as a young woman, Bobbie was struck by the words of the Creed. It became so difficult to claim to believe these statements that she would become physically ill and have to leave the church. “Jesus rose again on the third day, ascended to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God. Where is the right hand of God?” she wondered.
She volunteered to supervise some of the younger Sunday School participants – “I watched them color” – and on a particular Sunday one of them asked her, “Where’s Jesus?” Where, indeed, she wondered. “He was here last week,” the child insisted. She was referring to the bearded father of one of the other students who had been telling stories to them. But the question stung Bobbie. “‘Where was Jesus?’ It was my first koan.”
In 1963, she had a nurse’s license and was working with Mexican-American farm workers in California. A doctor at the clinic introduced her to marijuana and LSD. She would take the drug and wander about in nature. It was an important opening for her. Eventually, however, it didn’t lead anywhere else, and she decided to look for a Zen teacher. She wanted to do koan study. “I went to Tassajarra [the San Francisco Zen Center’s training center in the Ventana Wilderness area] and I couldn’t get in because they were having a sesshin. But I talked to a couple of the monks there, and they told me that they didn’t do koan practice. So I decided, right away, ‘Well, okay.’ They were so sweet, but I just wasn’t interested. So . . .” She shrugs and laughs gently.
Then on another acid trip, she got the feeling that she should go back to Providence and “make amends” with her parents to whom she hadn’t spoken for two years. So she crossed the continent, found work in Providence, and looked for an apartment. One of the apartments she looked at happened to be over Seung Sahn’s temple. “It was just his apartment, really.” She didn’t take the apartment, but she did meet Seung Sahn and, shortly after, moved into the temple with two other students. She stayed at the temple as it moved to larger accommodations until her daughter was born and they needed their own house.
The focus of the Kwan Um School is mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness is somewhat easier to do in Seated Meditation (the Kwan Um school avoids using Japanese terms like zazen), but it is supposed to continue throughout all of one’s activity. It was a natural aid to her work as a nurse, to be able to encounter people and situations clearly and directly. She tells me, “My teacher never encouraged samadhi [concentration meditation]. He discouraged samadhi.” Zen was not to be something separate from daily activity; it was to be part of all one did. Constantly to ask, “What is this?” What is this specific situation I am in? Who is this specific person I am encountering?
When I ask about the membership of the Kwan Um School, she says that most of the members are older and admits that she had expected Zen to “bloom like crazy” because it had made so much sense to her. To her disappointment, it hasn’t. “I don’t know. Maybe people have stopped taking LSD as much,” she jokes. Then more seriously, “I don’t know what happened. I do think there’s a real addiction to electronics now.” And that certainly may be a part of it. Zen is about encountering reality, and “virtual reality” – by definition – is not reality.
David Rynick is the husband of Melissa Blacker and, with her, co-teacher at the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester. He is also a potter, and some of his pieces are displayed on the temple grounds.
When I first visited the temple in 2013, David told me a story which I have frequently repeated since. His initial efforts at meditation were difficult. “I hated sitting still. You know, some people talk about, ‘Oh, the first time I sat it was great.’ I was like, ‘Oh fuck! I’m gonna die!’ My mind was going crazy! But I knew it was the path, and so I started sitting two minutes a day. ’Cause that’s all I could tolerate. And I figured if I tried half an hour a day, I’d last a week. So two minutes a day. I’d set my little timer, and I’d be just about jumping out of my skin.”
Six years later, I remind him, “When we first spoke, you told me you ‘chased enlightenment’ for the first ten years of your practice. Do people still do that? When newcomers arrive at the door in Worcester are they looking for enlightenment?”
“You know, people don’t often use that language. People often use the language, ‘I want to be peaceful. I don’t want to be anxious anymore. I want to have a clear mind.’ It’s interesting that ‘enlightenment’ isn’t often in the vocabulary of the people. I think we’re a much more secular culture than we were forty years ago, fifty years ago.”
“What’s your job then?” I ask. “When someone knocks at the door for the first time, what is it you do?”
“I would say my job is to see the Buddha in each person.” My expression is probably a little skeptical, but he doesn’t back down. “That is, I think, probably the most important thing I do. In that meeting of hearts when I’m with you, and you are with me, if I can see and appreciate that, that shifts what’s possible for you.”
“So I knock at the door. I’m not looking for enlightenment, but I want to be a little less anxious. What are you going to do for me?”
“I’m going to appreciate that you walked in the door. What an incredible thing. That you really want something, don’t you? So I will inquire, ‘What are you here for? What do you really want?’ And once we clarify what you want – ‘I want to be free from anxiety’ – I might say, ‘So, let me tell you that when we practice here, we’re actually not trying to control our mind. The truth is that sometimes human beings feel anxious. So what we are doing is increasing our capacity to be with what is here.”
The way to do that is through meditation. And generally newcomers are introduced to breath practice, which, David explains, is a four step process.
“The first step is being present with the breath. The second step is wandering away. This is an essential ingredient in breath practice. Most people are pretty good at it. But it must happen. The third step is something miraculous, that at some point you become aware that you have wandered away, and that is a moment of awakening. And the fourth is then that we can choose to return to this moment, to this breath. And every time we return, we’re strengthening our capacity to be here. So the more times you wander away,” he says, chuckling softly, “the better your practice is, the more you increase this capacity.”
“And if I were a new person,” I say, “I suspect my next question would be, ‘So how’s that going to help me feel less anxious?’”
“Anxiety is unavoidable, but part of the problem we human beings have is that not only do we feel anxious but that we suffer because we don’t want to feel anxious. So there are mind states that we resist. I don’t want to feel anxious. I don’t want to feel angry. I don’t want to feel sad. But what we resist persists. Whatever we try to push away gets more energy and gets bigger. So as we learn that human beings feel anxious, sad, happy, clear, cloudy, all of those, as we open up to what is here, then feelings come and go on their own accord. Then anxiety is not a problem to be fixed but is how I feel sometimes.”
Fr. Gregory Mayers, C.Ss.R. is identified as the Emeritus Teacher of the East-West Meditation program at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. He is a Redemptorist priest and a fully authorized Zen teacher within the Sanbo Zen tradition.
“I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” he tells me. “I was raised in Baton Rouge. Southern Louisiana is very Catholic country. So I just grew up in this marinated Catholic environment.”
“When did you know you wanted to be a priest?” I ask.
“Probably six months before ordination.”
“And how did you find out about Zen?”
“Completely by accident.” He had been on retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon. “And the abbot there was Bernard McVeigh. Abbot Bernard. And he would come and see me every day in my retreat. And somewhere along the line, he invited me to a talk about Zen with a handful of the monks there were practicing Zen twice a day. And Bernard invited me to come and sit in Zen with them, which I had no interest in whatsoever. It was fine with me if they wanted to do it, but I’m just trying to love Jesus. Well, eventually I accepted his invitation, and I asked him what to do. And he said, ‘Well, you sit like this, and you just count your breath.’ That was it. So I went and sat, and, as anybody who jumps into zazen knows, the only reward is that you get through it.” We both laugh. “About the only thing you can say is, ‘Wow! I made that! I did that.’”
After his first attempt, he didn’t think it was something he would go back to. But a little later, he did a six week retreat with the Trappists – “Bernard wanted me to be a Trappist” – and during the course of it, he joined the monks who regularly sat zazen. There were six of them, out of a community of forty. In the end, Greg remained a Redemptorist, but one with a new spiritual practice. “I thought the Trappist life was really sane. It was wonderful. I really liked it. But that wasn’t my vocation. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to it. And while I was there, of course, there was much more regular sitting, a regular experience of sitting in zazen. And somewhere along the line, Robert Aitken came to the monastery to give a talk. And I remember being in a small group with him, and I have no idea what he was talking about. I don’t remember. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But I do remember very clearly looking at him and saying, ‘I don’t know what that man has, but I want it.’ And that’s really when I think jumped into Zen.”
“I’m curious how you made sense of it,” I say. “You’d been trained in that carefully crafted Ignatian type of spirituality and their discernment process. And now somebody tells you to sit still and count your breaths. How did you make sense of that as a spiritual exercise?”
“That’s a very good question. And it plagued me for a long time. Here I was, sitting in zazen, counting my breath, and I was plagued with this question that came somewhere down the line, ‘How can it be that sitting here doing nothing is any kind of spiritual practice? How can I, a good Catholic priest, sit here and just do nothing and call that a spiritual practice?’ It really did plague me. And I might have asked Bernard. I don’t remember if I asked or not. I never got an answer to the question. And over the course of about a year, it just faded away. It just was a non-issue.”
“So if someone you were working with today put that question to you, how would you respond? ‘How is this a spiritual activity? How is this making me a better person? A better Catholic?’”
He pauses, purses his lips, then says, smiling, “I don’t know.” Again, we’re both laughing. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
“I guess that’s what it comes down to,” I say.
“It really does. I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s all a mystery to me.”
In October 2013, I visited Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, in order to interview Gerry Shishin Wick. I was working on a book which profiled some of the direct successors of the pioneer teachers who established Zen in North America, and I was interviewing Shishin because he was an heir of Taizan Maezumi. But I had a sense, while at Great Mountain, that there was a broader story there than the one I was getting.
Statues, banners, and paintings of Kwan Yin prevail. There is a large Kwan Yin 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.
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.”
On the Great Mountain website, Shishin and Shinko are identified as “Co-Spiritual Directors.” He is also identified as the center President, and she as the “Abbess.” Six years after my visit to Berthoud, I finally had an opportunity to interview Shinko and learn the other half of the story.
She begins by telling me of an experience of what she calls the “Sacred Feminine” that she had while still a child in Puerto Rico. The impact of that experience stayed with her during a long period of study in the Zen tradition which began at Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center. She studied with Kapleau until Parkinson’s Disease prevented him from further teaching. By that time Shinko was living in Florida, where Kapleau had retired. “We had a sangha of only five people, and we were really his family. We were like a family. But when he got sick with Parkinson’s, they called people from Rochester to be like his attendants in the house.”
She sought out one of Kapleau’s heirs, Danan Henry, in Colorado. But throughout this time, she had a sense that there was a difference between masculine and feminine approaches to practice that the men with whom she worked didn’t fully appreciate.
She practiced with Pat Hawk Roshi – a Catholic Priest and Dharma successor of Robert Aitken – whom she describes as the kindest person she had met until then in her Zen practice. They worked well together for a long while; she even was given to believe she might become his heir. Then she had another powerful experience of the Sacred Feminine during a sesshin with him. When she described it to Hawk during her next dokusan, however, he told her to forget about the experience – which he interpreted as a form of makyo, illusions Zen students may have during prolonged periods of meditation. Shinko was certain the experience was not makyo and chose to leave the retreat.
“It was very painful,” she tells me. “Very painful losing my teacher, and having nobody to talk about this. At the same time, I was so grounded in my experience that it was unshakable.”
Then she heard about another Zen teacher who had recently moved to Boulder. “I went to meet him. I told him about my experience. This is Shishin, and Shishin told me, ‘I don’t understand your experience, but I encourage you to find out.’”
After that, she visited Tsultrim Allione at the Tara Mandala Center in Southern Colorado. Tsultrim is a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and she was able to tell Shinko that what she had had was an experience of the Dakini, the Sacred Feminine presence identified in Vajrayana Buddhism.
“I had never heard the word before, but it fulfilled me. I didn’t care what the dictionary said; I knew empathically what she meant. I knew my experience had a name. I was just so happy somebody knew what it was. I went back home; I went to see Shishin, and I just said, ‘It’s called a Dakini experience.’”
There are two approaches to Zen, Shinko tells me – the way of the Samurai and the way of the Heart. She and Shishin chose the way of the Heart. “That’s why we created the Great Heart Work, to teach the students how to hold the emotional body as part of practice.”
Julie Nelson is the Interim Spiritual Director of 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.”
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.”