Zen Mountain Monastery
[This is an abridgement of my chapter on ZMM in Cypress Trees in the Garden.]
John Daido Loori, the founder of Zen Mountain Monastery, had been dead for four years when I visited ZMM in 2013 to conduct a series of interviews. On my second day, I was introduced to the monastery’s Tea Instructor, Joan Yushin Derrick, who offered to prepare me a cup of tea. When I admitted that I was not fond of tea – which is practically a sacramental beverage in Zen – she made me an excellent cup of coffee.
It was only after we began chatting that I realized that she had also been Daido’s second wife (of four). We talked about him almost casually.
“He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 16 using his brother’s birth certificate, who passed away when he was still a little boy,” she tells me. The brother had been born two years prior to John. “So, John’s whole life he had two social security numbers. It made me crazy. He’d say, ‘My real birthday is June 14, but my other birthday is February 22nd.’ And I was like, ’No. You were only born on one day.’ It was a regular argument.”
“Do you know what rank he rose to?”
“Oh, gosh! I don’t know. That was the first wife, Nancy. When he got out, Nancy encouraged him to get a college education, get a job in big corporate businesses. He became a chemist for International Flavors and Fragrances. Head of a big department. Research. He invented the lime flavor for Jell-O! I know! It was so funny! And he hated the job. He’d been there for too, too long. So divorcing the first wife, meeting me, almost the same week. That’s another story.”
He gave up the corporate world to study photography with Minor White, an internationally respected photographer who offered retreats in which photography was presented as a spiritual art. Students meditated in the morning before beginning their day. Although White was not a Zen teacher, he gave koan assignments to his students, instructing them to find visual rather than verbal responses. Loori was assigned the koan, “What is your face before your parents were born?”
While engaged on this assignment, Loori set up a shot by a tree. Light filtered down through the leaves and branches. There were indistinct sounds in the distance, perhaps flowing water. He had a deep experience of silence. Eventually he noticed that the sun had set and several hours had gone by. The experience passed, but, afterwards, he sought ways to recapture it. In 1974, he saw a poster for a lecture series organized by Chogyam Trungpa at Harvard University. He and Joan attended it, and he was particularly impressed by one of the conference participants, Eido Shimano.
“John was extremely enamored with him and his talk and everything about it. The whole umbrella. The next day off, he went to the bookstore and the library, ravenous to find out more about Zen. I thought, ‘Okay.’ I’d lived at Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York and had been around a lot of different gurus. So meeting a Zen Buddhist monk wasn’t a big thrill for me. It was the content of his lecture that Daido was impressed with. We found out where the monastery was, and we went there together a couple of times. We’d had a baby in 1972, so it was a little difficult, and two teenage boys from his first marriage were living with us.” The baby was named Asian. “I was pretty home-bound for a good part of that time, but John would go once a week. Then we heard there was a Buddhist festival that Eido Roshi was going to appear at with other Zen teachers. We got a baby-sitter and went for the weekend, and we heard about Maezumi Roshi and this Los Angeles place.”
In 1976, the Looris learned that Maezumi would be giving a summer course at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Colorado. John got a position at the institute teaching mindful photography. “Which then put us right in the same arena with Maezumi Roshi, Tetsugen Glassman Roshi, and Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi. The three of them were staying in an apartment house for the teachers. And we had the apartment next door. I mean, it was written in the stars. The universe gave him what he needed, and off we went. We brought our child with us, and I did a little day-care program. I was a kindergarten teacher so it was easy for me to be with children.
“So, at that point, getting to know Maezumi and following him around when he wasn’t teaching photography or doing all the political nonsense that was going on with Trungpa Rinpoche—oh, boy!—it was a wild and crazy summer. 1976. By the end of that period of time, he and Maezumi were totally connected, and Maezumi asked him if we could come to Los Angeles to live. He was enlarging the community. At the time, there were only about twenty people living in a couple of different houses on Normandy and Wilshire. John was given that opportunity in August or September, and Christmas Eve we packed and drove to Los Angeles. Which was another insane thing. In the middle of a blizzard, moving out of a house way up the mountain. But we got to Los Angeles, and we were given one room in a house with the Glassmans and their two children. We were given one room on the third floor. Supposedly very temporary because they were completing an apartment for us to live in. Well, that took nine months.
“Daido was busy with starting the publication center for the Center and associating intimately with Maezumi Roshi. I was busy trying to survive on the third floor in this one little room with a four-year-old child and getting a pre-school set up and all that stuff.”
There were twenty-seven people in the residential program at ZCLA when the Looris arrived. By the time they left, there were 200.
“And they all lived within one square city block. All of the homes, all of the high-rise apartments, garden apartments, they were all eventually purchased by ZCLA. And we eventually moved out of that house and had our own apartment, but it was almost a year later. I was completely crazy. Completely crazy! I thought Maezumi Roshi was completely crazy. I thought the teachers, everybody there were completely crazy. It was so hot! In Los Angeles, after moving from a mountain top in December to Los Angeles! It was so hot and the energy there was hot. And our son was not well. He was ill all the time. With allergies, with colds, sore throats, with temperatures, and it wasn’t too long after we moved there that he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. So that was my priority. And also Daido—I don’t want to slight that—we were hand in hand with everything that needed to be done for Asian. He’s now forty and lives right downstairs in a house that I own, and he’s completely well. We had a rough time with the tumor, the surgery, the radiation, and the therapy and the recovery was rough for a couple of years. But he’s a strong survivor. He has been living, basically, in the Zen community ever since he was two.
“Daido threw himself full force into monkdom and was moving along quickly in koan study and the procedures that were needed to become a monk and then a teacher. He was just driven. It was meant to be. You know? Meanwhile, behind the zendo doors were other stories. He was doing really wonderfully well with Maezumi Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi was an incredibly unusual man once I got to know him. And I don’t want to defend all the terrible things that went on there at the time. There was alcoholism. There was womanizing. There was so much craziness around the brilliance. And some of Maezumi Roshi’s talks were brilliant! And inspiring. So I became one of his students in 1977 because I wanted to know what he knew. I don’t know if I ever found out, and I’m still wanting to know,” she laughs.
“So there was a lot of craziness going on at that place. There was an amazing amount of drinking. It was always started by the roshi, and all of us just jumped right in. We figured, you’re sitting hard in sesshin, and it’s a tortuous week, let’s party when it’s over. Which was crazy. And when Daido realized that it was crazy, he stopped and told Maezumi Roshi, ‘I’m not going to be doing this drinking.’ He said, ‘I think there has to be another way. I feel I’ve got joriki during sesshin and all of the energy from the retreat, and then I throw it away six hours later. That’s crazy.’
“That’s when he started to elevate in my eyes. He started to look like one of our fine teachers out of that place. And our marriage changed at that point. He became my teacher. He became my son’s healer. We walked hand-in-hand with that. But as far as the marriage, it was a totally different energy. You know, when I married him, I thought we were going to have a little white house with a picket fence. We were going to grow a little garden. We were going to go to the movies. Boy, was I shocked and surprised when none of that was going to happen. And my son’s health and well-being was more of a priority to me than anything else. So being a student was part time. Being the wife was part time. Being the healer and mother—and I learned a lot about healing during that time—was the priority.
“When we were asked to come back to New York, I didn’t want to leave California. I was really annoyed. I wanted a separation. I wanted to stay there. My son had a wonderful group of healers there. I loved California. I loved being on the beach. I did not want to come back to New York. But Maezumi convinced me. I resisted, and I cried, and I begged, and I threatened, and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Maezumi sat there like stone. He just listened to me till I spent myself out with the handkerchiefs, and he goes, ‘It will be wonderful, Yushin. You will do good job, Yushin. Will you help him?’ He always had a habit of, ‘Will you help him? Will you really help him?’ And like an idiot, I’m sitting there”—in an exasperated voice—“‘Okay.’ And off we went. I flew back with my son, and they drove—again—late December, in a blizzard, not in Los Angeles, but it was as they got closer to New York.
“There were people in Riverdale who wanted to start a Zen community. And Bernie Tetsugen Glassman was the teacher who was sent to do that with Daido at his side, as a partnership. And Maezumi Roshi really thought that that would happen. It lasted about ten minutes. They were two totally different people. Totally different teachers.”
Although Daido and Yushin were still married, they lived separately, and Yushin wasn’t comfortable in Riverdale.
“It was a huge undertaking, and the people who gave the money for this place—Greystone Mansion—to get started, the donors in Riverdale, were very, very wealthy. And the house that they gave us to live in was in a very exclusive neighborhood. I mean, I was embarrassed to go outside in jeans. It was beautiful and wonderful, but we were uncomfortable there. And my son started first grade at PS 132 with fifty kids in the Bronx, and that was another crazy situation. I was fearing for my life just walking him to the school.”
The residents of Riverdale sent their children to private schools. Yushin had to walk her son to the nearest public school which was a good distance away.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that Daido and Glassman had very different views about Zen practice, and they went their separate ways before the year was up.
“By Spring, John realized he couldn’t stay in Riverdale and that he needed to find his own place. He didn’t exactly have it as an agenda, but we have a friend who lives here in Mount Tremper who was one of the students in the photography class many years ago. And his name is Neil, and he invited us up for a weekend because he wanted to show John this place. ‘Oh, you’re just going to flip out. It’s perfect!’ They’d been communicating every once in a while. We drove up. John, Neil, Asian, and myself came here. It was a crisp Spring day; the sun was shining. The gate was closed, and we parked outside the gate and walked in. And I saw John go pale. I saw him actually unable to breathe, he was so impressed and excited. He just kind of held onto the wall there, and he said, ‘What is this place?’
“The story is it was built around the turn of the century out of wood and then burned down and then they rebuilt it with stone, quarried here on the mountain, and the oak trees that they lumber. It was Norwegian priests. The property was inherited by this Norwegian priest, and he came here to build himself a church. And he built a big church. And he had Norwegian carpenters and helpers and other priests do this, as well as the neighborhood community and the mountain tradesmen and craftsmen. So when they rebuilt it in—I think the sign says it was completed in 1926—this is what it looked like. But when we saw it, it had gone through many, many different owners. After the Norwegian priest had passed on, everything kind of fell apart. For a while it was run by a bunch of nuns, who thought it would make a nice nunnery. After the nuns fell apart, somebody told us that there were Russians who came in and wanted to take it over and yadda yadda yadda. And eventually it was just boarded up and left to die.
“However Harold Harr and his wife and their twelve children and the Lutheran community from Long Island were looking for someplace to have a children’s camp in the summer. And that was—I guess—the late ‘60s maybe? And all of them would come up from Long Island and run a children’s camp for under-privileged children out of New York City. So each summer, they would have a couple of hundred kids here. There was a swimming pool right underneath this building. We tore it up and built this building over it. And all the windows were broken. There was bubblegum stuck on everything.
“So the day that we came, Harold was sitting here on the grass, on the hill, looking at the building. He had come by himself, and it’s early March, and he’s looking at the building, and he’s thinking, ‘I just can’t do this another year.’ He was worn out. His kids were older. He and his wife had been chief cook, camp directors, yadda yadda. You know? And it’s 200 acres! So he was just sitting here, starting to figure out what he had to do. Lots of developers wanted to buy it. The Lutheran Church that he’d been associated with thought it would be a huge benefit if they sold it and got rid of it and didn’t have to deal with it anymore. And Daido comes walking up the drive, very slowly, with Neil and our son, Asian, behind him, and he sees this man, and he just walks straight towards him. And Harold stands up, and they shake hands. They both sit down on the grass; they start talking. And Neil had to go someplace. Asian and I went down to the river, and we fiddled around. It was freezing cold, but we walked all around. Kept checking to see if they were still there. A few hours later, when Neil came back, John was standing here, shaking hands with Harold Harr. So Harold goes back down, gets in his car, and John comes back to Neil and says, ‘I think I just bought this place.’ He was sparkling! He was thrilled. He had twenty-five cents in his pocket.
“So on the drive home, I go, ‘What are you thinking? Who do you think is gonna clean that big old house?’ I was again, like, crazed! I could not believe that he wanted to move into that place! Well, when we got back, the first thing he had to do was discuss it with Bernie Roshi and Maezumi Roshi. They got in a three-way phone conversation, Maezumi in California, Bernie and John in Riverdale. And Maezumi said, ‘If that’s what you really want to do. You know, Bernie needs you.’ He tried to keep them together. But they both knew that it was the best thing to do. So we proceeded to beg for funds from people who might be interested in forming a Zen/Arts community.”
Daido was able to borrow $10,000 from friends for a down payment on the property. The immensity of the project he had undertaken was daunting, and there were times he questioned himself. But one morning he was in a coffee shop in Woodstock browsing through a copy of the local newspaper and came upon a review of a book called Mountain Spirit. The headline included a passage from Dogen which Daido had copied into his own journal just before leaving Los Angeles: “These mountains and rivers of the present are the manifestation of the way of the ancient Buddhas.” As Yushin said, it seemed to be written in the stars.
“So that was the idea from the start?” I ask. “To focus on both Zen and the arts?”
“Absolutely. And that was a challenge in itself. I remember Bernie Glassman introduced us to Lex Hixon, who had a radio show, WBAI, in Greenwich Village. Lex has passed on, of course, but I think the show is still on the air. It was very New Age, and Lex was this elegant tall, blonde man who wore white robes from studying with a teacher—Sufi, maybe—in India or somewhere, and Lex was so happy that we had contacted him to see if we could get on the radio to put an appeal out—just to put feelers out—to see how many people would be interested. Lex agreed to a Sunday morning at 9:00, and I was sitting by the one telephone in the house with the number that they had given out. I was to answer the phone and take names and phone numbers and addresses to send people information. It was just to get some idea how many people might be listening and how many people might be interested. All I said was, ‘Hello?’ I did that 125 times. That’s how many people called during that one-hour show. And by that time I was writing on every scrap of paper and upside down and all around. And I’d thought I was going to get maybe two phone-calls.
“125 people were very interested, and Daido being who he was—brilliant in that way—immediately decided the name was going to be the Zen Arts Center. He had a logo. He had information printed up, and we mailed it all out. And we decided that sometime early summer we would have a meeting here for the weekend. About a hundred people showed up.”
Yushin was concerned about the practicalities of housing that many participants. “There were beds, but they had bedbugs. Everything was a mess. Basically it was, ‘Bring your own bedding and provide your own space. You can have a tent or you can sleep on the floor. Whatever.’”
She and Daido arrived a couple of days before the retreat was to begin and found a motorcycle club camping on the hill. “Daido walked up, and the leader sort of surfaced and came to him, and they talked, and he told them what we were about to do in two days. And he said, ‘You know, this property is also part of the campgrounds across the road.’ Which is right on the river. He asked them if they would like to camp there. It meant that they had to move everything, and some of them didn’t want to move. So the ones with the children stayed and everybody else moved across the road.
“We proceeded with these people finding their way here, parking everywhere. God knows where they came from. They were hippies. They were military. They were in robes. They were anything and everything. All interested in the Zen Arts Center. In the meantime, a photography group had contacted Daido and wanted to associate here. It was out of Millerton and was called Aperion. They were accredited with some other photography school, and Peter Schlesinger was the head of that. He was a photographer that Daido had met through Minor White, and he wanted to be able to come and live here with us and become students of Zen and have photography a big part of the center. At first Daido thought that was a good idea. It lasted about twenty minutes. Peter and his students also came that weekend. Maybe ten of them.
“And Peter and Daido sat up at the head—where the altar is—they sat up at the head of the room, sitting cross-legged. We brought blankets and things. There were wooden pews along the wall that the Lutherans used when they did church services. So my son and I sat in the wooden pew at the top corner. And all these other people were coming in, and we thought they were going to sit in zazen, like we did in Los Angeles, like we did in Riverdale whenever there was a meeting. But these people weren’t trained. They weren’t interested. They could care less, or they didn’t know how to do it. We have a photograph, and it’s hysterical. They are lying down, sitting up, sitting together, wrapped in blankets, spread out, a hundred of them in every different way. It looked so chaotic and crazy. And I’m sitting on the bench, and I’m going, ‘Oh, my God! These people are crazy. This is another crazy scheme.’ I had no idea how he was going to do it. But he was driven, and—as you see—it happened.
“But Peter and Daido were sort of like a two-headed dragon. They were both Geminis to start with, and they were both very creative, and they both had definite ideas of what they wanted to do here. Peter wanted it to be photography classes, workshops, programs, free-thinking. He wanted to encourage musicians and artists to come, which, in the end, is what we do here anyway. Peter wanted programs to happen very late at night and wasn’t interested in the early morning meditation.”
Daido had a different vision. “He was a very organized person from the Navy and Zen training and from probably before that. He wrote out a schedule. Dawn: you wake up, then zazen. Breakfast. Work practice. Lunch. Nap or rest period. Work practice. Dinner. Meditation. That was the schedule, and that’s how it’s been for 34 years. And he was not giving in on that. Peter, on the other hand, had concerts out here on the grass. People drinking, smoking, doing all the things that people did at that time, going home at 2:00 in the morning. And those of us who were going to be sitting . . . well, there would be like three of us in the zendo in the morning.
“The break, when it came, was not a good one. The break in Riverdale with Bernie was easy. They had a party for us. They gave us gifts. We said goodbye. We had big to-dos, dinner parties. Maezumi came from Los Angeles. Bernie came from Riverdale. And it was a very amicable split. The split with Peter Schlesinger and the Aperion Photograph School was not. Some of the students that came with him wanted to stay here. They wanted to study with Daido; they wanted to study Zen. Not too many, a handful. But that wasn’t good for Peter. He was very embarrassed. He was angry. He had put a lot of time, effort, money, and energy into it, and he didn’t like the way this was coming down.”
After the photography group left, Daido set about establishing a more formal training center. “We got a new sign: Zen Mountain Monastery. Then the serious students started to come. People like Shugen—Geoffrey Arnold—who’s head of the order now and Ryushin—Konrad Marchaj—and Bonnie Myotai Treace.” These three would become Daido’s only heirs.
Despite marital difficulties, Yushin and Daido retained a good working relationship. “I was teaching the tea ceremony, raising our son, and doing whatever needed to be done. I was the cook, the ino—the one who starts the chanting—I was the monitor; I was in the front office; I was on the phones. It was very busy. We lived in that little white house over there. It’s called the Jizo House and is presently the monastery store. We had one phone in the front office and an extension in the house. For the whole first year, that’s all we could afford, one telephone with an extension. So I was in the office. Whoever called, if they wanted to talk to John, I would run over to the house and say, ‘You’ve got a phone call.’ He’d pick up over there; I’d run back to the office. This was during the day when my son was at school. I was always in the office or the kitchen. I lost 50 pounds because I was constantly running! After a while we developed a flag system. He was very organized. I would put the flag up. If he was looking out the window, he’d see he had a phone call. It was a hoot.
“I don’t know how. . . . The universe gave us everything we needed. It was amazing. Time went on, and people came. Wonderful people who were very devoted and very interested and very committed to the practice. And things started to happen. We had two Japanese monks who Maezumi Roshi sent from Japan—Dosho Sawakawa and Seido Suzuki—and they did all of the instruments that you see. They got them from Japan, and they made the bases out of trees that they would find in the woods. They helped with everything—the kitchen—and they organized everything. It was beautiful. I loved them. It was only one year, and I really cried when they left because they were a tremendous help. They are both now heads of temples in Japan.
“Eventually we had people who wanted to live as residents. So they had to really renovate the rooms to make them liveable because they were all in disarray. They were a mess. Eventually we ran out of space and started to work on the cabins and A-frames. So people would have really pleasant places to live. And it just grew and grew and grew.
“Daido was married four times. I was number two. I’m still around though. I don’t know. Can’t get rid of me too easily. Number three was Bonnie Myotai Treace. She had been a writer, a teacher of writing at a college in Florida and was very serious. It was about the time I decided I wanted to move into the French Inn next door. I needed to get off the campus a little bit,” she chuckles. “We separated. I moved in next door. Bonnie entered, and they became teacher-student-friend and from there to teacher-student-Dharma successor. Then she needed a place to teach that was not here, and he decided that something in the city might be good. ‘Why don’t you look around?’ And she did and found this magnificent building. And she got loans from the bank, and she got a community together and started teaching there.
“Wife number four, Rachel, came onto the scene about seven years before Daido died. She was not a Zen student. She met him at a gallery opening. They had photography in common. She’s a cinematographer, a very fine photographer, and an artist as well—a lot of different medias, watercolor, oils. But photography was the connection for them. She wanted to know more about his work. He wanted to know more about her work, and they started to meet for coffee. She didn’t come into the monastery as a student. She was not at all interested in Zen Buddhism or meditation. But they had a keen connection and fell in love—I suppose—through the eyes of their cameras. So she moved into the abbacy and lived there for a number of years, maybe three or four—not too many—three or four.
“I was always around. We had the child, and the child grew up, got married. Now we have a grandchild, he’s eleven. So all of us were friendly, very connected, always seeing each other. And I was still a student here at the monastery. When the transformation happened from husband to teacher and I moved off campus, that’s when I seriously started to study with him as a teacher and went into dokusan more than ever before. More than with Maezumi. But anyway, Rachael moved in. They became a couple. She wasn’t around too much. She had her own life.
“Then one day he calls me up, and he goes, ‘Yushin, do you remember where our divorce papers are?’ And this was like twenty years before. I said, ‘Oh, my God. No. Maybe I can get a copy for you.’ He needed it to marry Rachael. He wanted to marry Rachael.
“After he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the monks did everything they could, running this place when he was not well or going to treatment. I brought Italian food over there all the time; whatever Italian dish I was making, I would bring it over to him. And our son was always coming and going. And we saw the changes happening; he started to get frail and fragile. And he wanted to marry Rachael, and we needed to get all the paperwork in order before he could do that, so that she would have authorization for him at the hospital. The monks couldn’t always do it. I couldn’t do it. Our son wasn’t always available to go to the hospital if he had an episode or a seizure or something. So they got married real quick, and it was a beautiful thing. Ryushin married them, and the photograph is beautiful, and the community was happy about it.
John Daido Loori died on October 9, 2009, at the age of 78.
“Rachael comes around at Thanksgiving and at Christmas time, and I know where she lives. I call her and email occasionally. But she didn’t have anything to do with Zen. So she’s living in Woodstock, and she’s the widow, at this point. So . . . I . . . I still miss him. Daily.” She doesn’t need to say so; I can hear it in her voice. “He was the biggest part of my life. I followed the man around for over forty years. First he was my friend, then he was my lover, then he was my husband, then he was the father of my child, then he was my teacher. And once that happened, you don’t let go of that. I didn’t divorce him as my teacher.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 65, 224-25, 228, 232, 239, 251-269, 274, 280, 418-19, 47
The Story of Zen: 271, 272, 307-08, 336, 353, 355, 356, 357, 358, 378, 379