Rinsen Weik – jazz guitarist, Aikido instructor, and abbot of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo – is in what he calls his library. There is a stick of incense burning on the altar to the left of his desk. There is a figure of Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Prajna/Wisdom) and another of Guanyin or Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Karuna/Compassion).
“No seated Buddha figure,” I note.
“No. I take care of that part,” he says, laughing. He is fun to talk with. He laughs frequently and has an irreverent sense of humor. “Words are great. I love them. I’m surrounded by them,” gesturing at the shelves, “but they won’t ever scratch the itch. So what has to happen is people have to first be able to see into the true nature of themselves – which means letting go of the linguistic processing of that and actually just experience it – and then we have to be able to communicate that to each other. It’s learning a language, like jazz; it’s learning how to speak and express this ineffable, unspeakable, what-the-fuck-it-is thing.”
I ask him what qualities of character long term Zen practitioners develop.
“Gumption, grit, determination to take their lives seriously and to take their suffering seriously. That’s a quality that starts to increase. And it can look differently for different people, but there’s a kind of steel in the spine that absolutely has to show up to be able to engage. So I notice a lot of that. People start to become much more self-aware. They’re much more aware of what their mind is doing and how they’re thinking, and they notice what they’re noticing. And they notice the effects of what they’re doing with their awareness and start to catch things that used to be on autopilot pretty much all the time.”
Later in the conversation, it becomes apparent that he see these as useful qualities in the current social-political climate. He tells me, for example, that he is concerned about “the abhorrent nature of our politics today. I find the lack of ability to have reasoned conversation really disconcerting. It’s not about an exchange of ideas and working something out, but it’s just pure demonization of the other. Now, interestingly, not everybody in the sangha here is of the same political view. I’m not in California or Boston where I would assume everyone in the room is a pretty liberal leaning person. Most are. Not all. And so that is something that’s interesting for us to navigate. How do we make our community a place that feels welcoming to everybody, like, for real. ’Cause, you know, I’m in Ohio. It’s a swing-state.” And, as it happens, a state that voted for Trump.
We’ve both been conversations where people have wondered whether one can hold conservative social values and still be a Buddhist.
“My response,” Rinsen says, “is that there’s a healthy and an unhealthy version of the baseline intelligence of both poles of our political system. So there’s a healthy version of liberal, and there’s actually an unhealthy version of liberal. That’s possible. That can be. In the same way, there’s definitely an unhealthy version of the conservative. There is also a healthy version of it. I think that’s possible too. How those might interface with each other is a complicated conversation. But if I made it really, really simple – which is always kind of a mistake – basically the liberal tends to look at systems, and the conservative tends to look at individual responsibility. The conservative folk that I serve, they’re very attuned to people taking responsibility for themselves. The unhealthy version of that, of course, is, ‘I’ve got mine. Screw you.’ The healthy version of it, though, is true. You have to sit your own period of zazen. No one can do that for you. That’s technically a conservative point of view. Now the healthy version of the liberal view is that, look, the system has to be set up in a way that everybody gets a fair chance. If the system is designed to suppress people, we need to fix the system. And that’s completely the case. Redlining – you know – is a thing. In fact, where the temple now is is on the other side of what used to be the redline where black people couldn’t get a mortgage over there but over here they could. So systems being unhealthy can definitely be the case. But you can get so enmeshed in the idea that it’s always the system and it’s never the person’s responsibility. That can get a little pathological too. So what I do when I’m in those kinds of situations or conversations, I always try to say what’s the healthy and unhealthy version of both poles, because what everybody will do is take the healthy version of theirs against the unhealthy version of the opposite. And they make it even worse and make themselves even better. And then, even if you have a healthy side, what’s the shadow side of your healthy version? ’Cause there always is one. If somebody can’t acknowledge that, they’re gonna demonize the other. So I think Zen is very good at getting the mind unhooked from those locked places.”
Albert Low, the Director of the Montreal Zen Center, died in 2016 at the age of 87. In 2013, I had arranged to interview him and four of his students for Cypress Trees in the Garden; however, three of the chapters, including the one on Albert, were omitted to keep the book under 500 pages. It was a decision I regret. Albert’s life was worth commemorating, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. Although I was introduced to sitting practice by a Jesuit with whom I worked in the Dominican Republic, Albert was my first formal Zen teacher. He wrote the foreword to my first book, Zen Masters of China.
In 1975, Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center established a practice center in Montreal. Half a duplex was rented in the anglophone neighborhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace on the city’s north side. It was a turbulent time in Quebec politics. The separatist Parti Quebecois had a majority government and were preparing a referendum on independence from Canada. The head of practice at the Zen Center was anxious about the looming vote and moved out of the province. So it was perhaps counter-intuitive that Kapleau sent an English immigrant with a very British accent to Montreal to replace him.
When I arranged the interviews in 2013, one of Albert’s senior students, Monique, wrote to make sure I realized just how remarkable his achievements at the predominantly francophone center had been:
“He has to deal in French and/or English in his daily encounters with people and in his dokusans. I would think it is certainly a feat in itself that he has been able to establish an harmonious bilingual sangha and succeeded in maintaining it without conflict throughout the years, given the strong nationalist tendency in Québec. I do think it is a proof of the power of his dedication and compassion. It acts as a magnet on people. It also demonstrates his capacity to meet challenges, for it certainly must not have been always easy for him.”
My interview with Albert took place in the ground floor parlor of the Center. Over the fire place, there was a reproduction of The Solitary Angler by the 13th century Chinese painter, Ma Yuan. Albert had a warm, welcoming manner and an elfin twinkle in his eye when he smiled. He did not claim the title “roshi.” Most of his students referred to him by his given name; those who wanted something more formal called him Mr. Low.
He had been born to a working class family and grew up in a low-income London neighborhood. “I was ten years of age when the war broke out. I was sixteen and a half when it ended. And I went through the blitz and the doodle-bugs and V-2.”
I was unfamiliar with the term “doodle-bug.”
“They were the pilotless planes, or pilotless flying bombs. They sounded something like a two-stroke motorbike as they went over, and, when they cut out, you made a dive for it. I was in the dockland area of London, and that took a particularly heavy hit. There was very little of it left by the time the war came to an end. And I remember asking, ‘Why do they want to kill me?’ It gets very personal when you’re that young and that intense. And that’s what stuck with me. There was this question, ‘What’s going on here? What’s it about?’
“Then after the war, I think it was Churchill decided we must know why we engaged in the war. And the films of the concentration camps, when the allies liberated the concentration camps, were shown at local cinemas. You can imagine. You’d just seen some Hollywood razzmatazz, and then, without any warning, these things are projected on the screen. It was absolutely horrific. I can’t tell you how I felt when I left the cinema. I was absolutely stunned.”
“How old were you?”
“I was about 18; it was just before I joined up. And it took me years, really, to even be able to ask the question. But I think that started me off on questioning. In any case, after the war—I’d been in the navy—I started becoming very, very anxious about everything.”
He had also had a number of experiences which suggested there was another dimension to life. While lying on the grass in a park as a 17 year old, for example, he had the passing sense that he was more than just his physical body. Elsewhere he described that it felt as though “I were the space and that everything were made of space. The trees, the grass, the sky were all of one substance, and that substance was, in some way, me.”
“After the war, I was fortunate enough to have a GP, Dr. Nothman—he was a Polish fellow—and he was quite a philosopher,” he said chuckling. “And he ran a small group of young people. And we used to get together quite regularly, and he introduced us to all kinds of philosophy. I didn’t even know the word ‘philosophy’ existed then; ‘psychology’ was a new word. And gradually he introduced various things. And then his wife got hold of a book by Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, and she recommended it very highly. And by luck—I don’t know how it was ever possible—I found it in the local library. And that transformed my life. That was a real eye-opener, that there were such possibilities in the world. Ouspensky was a student of Gurdjieff, and Gurdjieff was a man, I think, who opened me up more than anybody else.
“Gurdjieff’s main theme was ‘intentional suffering and conscious labor.’ He also pointed out that we’re asleep; that we have potentials that we don’t realize. And it was really the duty of a true human being to open ourselves to these possibilities. He was a very remarkable man, and he traveled a great deal, India and Egypt and so on. And he was looking for various ways that we can open ourselves to our true potential. And he managed to condense that into a very intense kind of understanding. And, of course, practice as well; he had various practices, although I couldn’t do these. But he also emphasized the necessity of what he called ‘remembering yourself.’ And it is interesting because Dogen says we must forget ourselves, and both are saying the same thing. And that became something like, you might say, an aim in my life—to be present, to remember myself. And it all developed from there.”
The group examined another system of thought popular at the time which led to what Albert calls a “rather a dismal part of my life. But anyway, what the group was about, really, wasn’t simply philosophy—Dr. Nothman was looking for some way by which he could help people at a psychological level. He wasn’t satisfied with Freudian theory. And he did take up hypnosis, and we were engaged in hypnosis for a while.” Then they came upon a book about human development popular at the time. “And I must say it was very plausible. It was plausible for him as well. There was a number of people that were interested in it. And we started doing something, really, similar to Carl Rogers’ non-directive therapy.”
Albert was recently married, and he and his bride, Jean, forsook their honeymoon to take part in a nine month evening course on the program. “And then after the nine months, I thought, ‘Right. This seems to be something I should get interested in.’ So I gave up my job and became one of its teachers and went to South Africa on that basis. I built up a center in South Africa.”
But as he became more familiar with the program, he found many of its claims questionable which put him in an ethical dilemma. Although the teaching was lucrative, he could not continue to present it to people who sought and needed real solutions for the problems they faced in life.
So Albert, Jean, and a couple of friends began a new quest for an effective spiritual path. They experimented with forms of yoga, dervish whirling, and automatic writing. He returned to his study of Gurdjieff and what that teacher called “The Work”—the effort needed to see reality as it is, independent of the distortions of one’s subjective perspective.
Another writer Albert came upon during this period was the French psychotherapist, Hubert Benoit, whose The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought dealt with themes similar to those found in Gurdjieff. Benoit’s book introduced the Lows to Zen, and echoes of both Benoit and Gurdjieff are found in Albert’s later writing and teaching.
They remained in South Africa, although he needed to find other employment.
“I had a difficult time to start with. I started to sell tiles and roofing, and that’s the last job I should ever have had. I made an absolute balls-up of it. Then I went to the country; I went to a ranch, and stayed there for a year. And then I came back. I had a degree by then—because I was studying for a Bachelor’s Degree extramurally—and I got a job as a personnel officer in a very large company, the biggest book, paper distributing company in South Africa and rose fairly rapidly.”
The political situation in South Africa at the time, however, was deteriorating. “In 1961 there was the Sharpeville Incident in which authorities shot about 70 black people—they were demonstrating perfectly peacefully—and wounded hundreds of others. That was when Jean and I started thinking, ‘Can we stay here?’ We were always uncomfortable with the way it was there. And then there were the treason trials with Nelson Mandela.
“Anyway, by that time I was the senior personnel manager in this company, and they were going to send me either to Harvard or to the Glacier Institute of Management for extra training. And I realized if I took that, I couldn’t very well leave. I mean, I was fixed. So Jean and I sweated that one out. And I said, ‘I know. We’ll go to Canada.’ And that was it.”
They chose Canada because a friend had moved there before them. “Hilda was very close, sort of a grandmother to the children. She was a bit older than us, and we related well.”
He found work with the Union Gas Company in Chatham, a town a little less than 200 miles southwest of Toronto where Hilda operated a shop. He and Jean had continued their reading, and they came upon Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. “And then, I don’t know whether you call them accidents, coincidences, whatever occurred. Hilda came to see us one day and said, ‘You know, there’s a fellow came into the shop the other day, and he was talking about a guy called Yasutani, apparently he’s from Japan . . .’ You know, yackety-yak. And Jean said, ‘Well, look, we just read a book about that man.’ So I said to Hildo—because I was in a job already, and I couldn’t leave it very well—I said to her, ‘Why don’t you go to New York and see if you can get on one of these courses that he’s giving?’ Sesshins, really. So she phoned and tried to get on, but they told her it was full. Then later they said, ‘We’ve got a cancellation.’ So she phoned me and said, ‘Look, I’m going there.’ So I said, ‘Okay, when you meet him, ask him if he’ll come up to Canada, and I’ll set up a group for him.’ I didn’t know who the hell it was going to be, but there it was. So anyway, she did, and Yasutani agreed. So between us we managed to conjure up eleven people, and we hired a hunting-shooting lodge about fifty miles north of Toronto, and that’s where we met Yasutani.”
Albert found Yasutani dynamic and felt an immediate connection with what he recognized as an authentic spiritual tradition. The gathering in Ontario was essentially an extended workshop, but, when it was over, Yasutani announced “that he was going to give a course, a sesshin, a five day sesshin, at a place called Painted Post. It was a country club, actually, in Rochester, New York. So we tried to get on. I phoned Kapleau, and he said, ‘It’s full. We can’t provide a bed and food for you.’ Well, we said, ‘Don’t mind about the bed and food. We’ll provide the food and sleep on the floor. He said, ‘Well, with enthusiasm like that, I can’t very well refuse, can I?’ So we did the five-day sesshin.”
This began Albert’s twenty-year relationship with Philip Kapleau and the Rochester Zen Center. He was driven in his practice by personal distress and an anxiety about death which had remained with him since his youth. He describes his condition in an article first published in the Rochester newsletter and then reprinted (pseudonymously attributed to “Roger”) among the enlightenment accounts included in Kapleau’s second book, Zen: Merging of East and West.
“I was saturated by terrible anxiety and psychological numbness. I was terrified of being alone. On one occasion I was so sure that I was going to die that I stopped the car and got out so that I would not die unattended. As it happened, the shock of the cold air when getting out of the car braced me and brought me back to my senses.”
Kapleau encouraged Albert to view these anxieties for what they were, illusions, and to use the energy they generated to bolster his practice. Simultaneously, the exigencies of work prodded his effort as well. “The very mundaneness, the inconsequential problems, the battles and disagreements were spurs to continue my practice. The constant humiliations that were suffered through my trying to introduce new ideas were very powerful ego abrasives.”
His struggles were rewarded during the 1974 Rohatsu sesshin when he achieved a kensho experience that redirected his life. “After this, I was really gung-ho. And again Jean and I sat down, and I said, ‘I think I really ought to get more involved in this. I’d like to get other people—help other people along the line.’ So we decided to move to Rochester.”
In 1976, he resigned his position at Union Gas, and for the next three years he and Jean took part in the residential program at Rochester. It was not an easy transition. To begin with, they were generally fifteen to twenty years older than the other residents. “It was difficult, you know. We didn’t fit in. We were neither fish nor fowl.”
Perhaps because they were more mature, the Lows were uncomfortable with the competitiveness that many students brought to practice. They also recognized that some of the structures established at Rochester—which younger members accepted without question—were unnecessary, and they were suspect of the severity of the forms Kapleau retained from his training in Japan. By 1979, Rochester had lost some of its appeal. Albert spoke to Kapleau about his feelings, and that was when Kapleau asked if he’d like to go to Montreal. “I had been to Montreal on business several times, and I’d also been here, with him, when he ran a workshop. And I really liked it—I was a bit of a Francophile—and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to go there.’ So, anyway, that’s how I came.”
He was originally posted there not as a teacher but as head of practice, although there was not much of a practice save for evening zazen. If the members were not particularly active, they were slavishly loyal to the models established in Rochester. Even the color of the walls was the same. Albert made changes slowly and—because he was still under supervision—had to seek approval from Kapleau for each suggestion he brought forth. It wasn’t until Kapleau authorized him to teach in 1986 that he had a free hand in organizing things as he saw fit.
He scheduled monthly sesshin and held introductory workshops not only in Montreal but elsewhere in Quebec and Eastern Ontario as well. Membership grew, and it became clear that that the duplex in NDG was too small to meet the needs of the expanding community.
Albert and Jean spent days walking about the city looking for prospective sites to relocate the center. One day, they went for a picnic lunch in a long, narrow park running alongside the Rivière des Prairies in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville neighborhood. Across the street from the park, there was a large three-storey turreted house with extensive grounds for sale. It seemed unrealistic to believe they could afford it, but they made inquiries and, on the off-chance that the vendor might be eager to sell, made a low offer. Eventually they negotiated a sale price of $155,000, which was still more than the sangha could afford. But $55,000 was raised from various sources—the Lows themselves contributed $15,000—and they assumed a mortgage of $100,000 at 12% interest.
Extensive remodelling was required; Albert described the interior of the main house as more suitable to a brothel than a Zen Center. Further renovations were needed to transform a separate structure on the property—a small building which had previously been a schoolhouse and then an auto mechanic’s garage—into a meditation hall. The zendo proper was established on the second floor with raised tans and seating for twenty-eight.
The rooms of the main house were rented to center members. “We had to do that because there was no way we could pay the mortgage,” Albert explained.
The Lows lived on the third floor and eight residents rented spaces on the first two floors. Although it was a residence, rather than a monastery, there were a few stipulations prospective tenants had to agree to before being accepted.
“If they were residents here, they had to practice in the morning, they had to practice in the evening, they had to attend as many sesshins as I could let them on. That was the condition. And we had to eat together, because that was the only way it would work. We couldn’t have everyone cooking separately, so we had communal cooking. That sort of thing. So there was a degree of community.”
One of the senior students I interviewed, Roch, had been one of those early residents. Like Monique and the other two students I spoke to, his mother tongue is French, and, from time to time, he had to discuss with others the best way to express something in English. The five of us met in what is called the Lower Zendo, a large open room on the ground floor of the former school and garage. There was an altar to Kannon at one end with a bowl of three Granny Smith apples as an offering and a vase of freshly cut flowers. In the stairwell leading up to the zendo proper, there was a large circular sawmill blade suspended by a rope. It served as the zendo’s gong and had a surprisingly sonorous tone.
“I was living in the bush, on my own, because I was in really deep pain. So, I locked myself in an old farm house, and I couldn’t tolerate people anymore, so I just isolated myself.” He was 23 years old at the time. “My brother was traveling on the west coast, on his bike, and when he came back, at Christmas time, he had a book, The Three Pillars of Zen, and he handed it to me. He said, ‘That’s for you. You need that.’ And I had never read something so sharp. Straight to the point!”
When, after ten months, Roch came back to the city, he saw a poster at a bookstore.
“It said: ‘Zen workshop in Montreal. Albert Low.’ And I called, and I came to that workshop, September ’81. And I felt, ‘Well, I’m gonna come back here.’ And then I left, went back home in Gatineau, and, a few days after, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to write to him.’ But I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted a contact. I was writing poetry at that time, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to send him a few poems. Just to have contact.’ And he wrote to me, ‘Dear Roch. Don’t try to fill up the hole that can’t be filled.’ And I cried. That’s it. Like I say, I was in deep pain. Deep pain. But you don’t know why. It’s just . . . You stop breathing.”
The other three nodded their heads in assent.
“So I left Gatineau, and I spent two months in a small apartment in Montreal, and I was taking my bike every morning to come to the morning sitting at the Zen Center. And Albert told me one day, ‘Why don’t you live here? You won’t have to make that ride every day.’ He said, ‘There’s a room free. Would you like to come in?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And I think it was like that for most of the people who came.”
He lived in residence for 1982 and ’83. “ We shared evening meals and breakfast. There was sitting every morning, weekdays. Sunday mornings, we had a longer period. There were no official rules, just being quiet and behave properly. If I had to try to sit on my own at home, I don’t think I would have done it. But when the bell rang in the morning, well you just put your robe on and get in the zendo. And, of course, living here you meet other people. And what was interesting was meeting people that you lived with at a Zen Center and going to a restaurant with them, going for a bike ride. I used to go to the pool with Albert. That was important, too. I knew Albert as a man before a teacher, and that was really important. Albert, for me, is an ordinary man. Then he became a teacher when we would go to dokusan. But I met him drinking tea, swimming in the pool, mowing the lawn. That was very important for my practice.”
The residential program eventually came to an end, allowing the Lows to move into more spacious quarters on the second floor.
Monique first heard Albert on the radio. “One afternoon I turned on the radio, and I heard him in the middle of a sentence. I did not know who was speaking but I heard him say: ‘You cannot have what you are.’ And I realised that he was speaking about happiness. That struck me. ‘You cannot have happiness; you are happiness.’ I was instantly attracted. Not only by what he said but also by the quality of his voice. This was not the kind of voice we hear in the media in general. It was the voice of someone who does not try to sell something to you. The voice of someone who does not force anything.
“So listening more, I learned there was a Zen Center in Montreal, and that he was the master of that Center. At that time, I knew about Zen having read a few books, but somehow it had stayed at an intellectual level.” She paused, then corrected herself. “No. It was more than that. I had been deeply interested by the way of Zen for years, but until that afternoon, I had never been able to muster my determination to actually start the practice. I was waiting for something to happen that would push me, make me plunge into the water so to speak. So hearing Albert on the radio that afternoon was decisive for me. I phoned the Zen Center, and it was Jean who answered, and I didn’t even know what kind of question to ask. I said, ‘Well, so you’re practicing Zen there?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ‘So, I would like to come.’ So she said, ‘Okay, there’s a workshop.’ And I went. And that’s it. At the very moment I entered into the zendo for the workshop I knew in my guts that I had found the place. And when Albert came into the room and started to speak, it was clear for me, without any doubt, that he was someone I could trust. This trust has gone deeper and deeper over the years. I feel very grateful for that.”
Since the four of them are francophone, I raised the issue of language.
“We have a bi-lingual community here,” Monique told me. “But some people come from Ontario or other parts of Canada or from USA and don’t speak French. A few, from Montreal or Quebec don’t speak English. So the remarkable thing is that it does not prevent us to work together. But that does not mean that it is not a challenge. It is. For some, given the history of Quebec and the nationalist movement here, it can become a problem. Albert is very aware. He has a keen understanding of the situation here. So if someone begins to resent the fact of ‘too much English speaking,’ he can help this person to work with this problem, to see that this particular problem is also part of his practice. It is not something outside of the practice. Everything is ‘grist for the mill’ as he says often.”
The board president, Roger, adds: “You’re not a definition of a Quebecois or an Ontario person or whatever. This is what makes you suffer. This is what makes you say, ‘I’m this instead of that. And, unfortunately, everybody is looking at that, and I’m this. How come I don’t get that?’ This is the source, very fundamental, of how human beings massacre each other. It is the same with language and religion. Because religion is how we define ourself. Language is also how we define ourself. But that’s not who we truly are.”
The language difference between us, however, did give me the sense, at times, that they struggled to feel confident I understood what they are trying to express about Albert:
“There’s something to say about the teaching of Albert,” Monique insisted. She has a forceful way of putting things. “He is teaching an authentic Zen. I would say he is teaching a radical Zen. I mean the Zen of the ancient Chinese Zen masters. And Zen is not a psychotherapy. The Zen he teaches is not a psychology and, also, is not a morality. Which, of course, does not mean that he shrugs off morality, far from it. But when I say he teaches an authentic and radical Zen, I mean he teaches the Zen of Rinzai and Hakuin. ‘You have to penetrate completely the Great Affair,’ like Hakuin said. ‘It is a matter of life and death.’ Many people come to a Zen center thinking or wishing that meditation will enhance their personality, make it better, more lovable; they want to be a good person and be loved as a good person. Albert repeatedly tells us: ‘There is nothing here for the personality.’ And he says also, ‘Don’t come here to practice Zen.’ It means, among many meanings, don’t come here to make or to gain some personal benefit from your practice. You are not here to gain a medal because you have, you know, passed your first koan. You’re here because you suffer and you want to go to the root of suffering. And that’s the Zen that he teaches here. We have to go to the root of our suffering. In that way, our whole life is our practice.”
“Well, yeah,” Roger added, “From the beginning you’re a Buddha. So, what more do you want?”
“So this is a demanding Zen,” Monique continued. “It does not give comfort. It’s not a Zen that makes you feel that you . . . you’re . . .” She returned to French and looked to the others for assistance.
“That you’re succeeding,” Louis, the most soft-spoken of the four, said. The other agreed, laughing gently.
“Some people look for something that’s entertaining,” Roger said. “The way things are done, using Japanese and Chinese and so on and all the big words and all the big chants and so on, and you wear beautiful clothing and so on. A lot of people are looking in that direction. They’re totally lost as to who they really are, but that’s what they’re looking for. The exotic.”
“Yes,” Louis agreed. “At the Center here, it is really focused and oriented on the practice. It exists for practice.”
In the parlor with the reproduction of the solitary fisherman floating in an empty sea, I asked, “What is the function of Zen?”
Albert replied without hesitation. “Oh, there’s no function of Zen.”
“So why do people come here?”
“Because they think there is a function of Zen.”
“And they discover?”
“There is no function of Zen. If they work long enough.”
The last movie my wife and I went to see before the corona-virus outbreak was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie which is less about Mr. Rogers than it is about the reporter who wrote a cover story about him for Esquire magazine. In the film, the reporter is portrayed as a fairly stock character, a cynical and embittered writer who approaches his assignment to do a 400 word profile of Rogers with understandable skepticism. As his relationship with Rogers grows, however, and his understanding of the man deepens, the profile expands into a 10,000 word feature article which – to the author’s surprise – takes it subject far more seriously than he had imagined it would.
One point the movie makes is that Roger’s goodness was a “practice.” It was something he worked at in a number of concrete ways such as consciously developing non-destructive ways to deal with emotions like anger and nightly praying for individuals – by name – who had requested his prayers or who he felt were in need of them. The idea that someone would make a choice, an effort, to work daily at virtue as a practice can seem naïve, but it was also what made Mr. Rogers significant. The magazine article was entitled, “Can You Say . . . ‘Hero’?”
The film reminded me of a visit I made in 2014 to the Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, New York. It’s part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, the form of Zen (Thien in Vietnamese) which probably has the largest number of adherents in North America. It derives – like Japanese Rinzai – from the Chinese Linji tradition but bears little resemblance to the forms that lineage has taken in Japan or the west. Its popularity it based on the fact that its forms are simple and accessible. Instead of struggling to make sense of the koan Mu, practitioners in the Order of Being are advised to simply repeat, inwardly, a four line poem during their periods of meditation:
Breathing in, I calm my body;
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
I approached my visit to Blue Cliff with the same reservation the reporter had to Mr. Rogers, suspicious that this was all too naïve to be taken seriously. What I discovered was a community of people who genuinely chose to practice a way of virtue with integrity.
The monk who’d organized my visit was Brother Phap Vu who I contacted again as I began work on my most recent project. He is no longer in residence at Blue Cliff although he remains a monk in the Order of Interbeing. He travels about the country giving retreats and providing support to other monastics through an on-line program called Dharma Pathways.
The goal of Zen practice, then, is to bring about a shift in perception. “Either it’s realizing the interconnectedness of all things, or realizing how one could respond to the difficulties in life. And the difficulties in life can be anything from a relationship with another person, or the difficulties in life could be economic. Or it could be something like a global catastrophe. Global crisis. How do we approach this? How do we respond?”
The “global crisis” he talks about isn’t something theoretical. Thich Nhat Hanh has been blunt in warning his disciples to face the ecological impact human activity has had on the interconnectedness of all things and the possible consequences of that activity. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”
How does one begin to come to terms with a concept such as that?
“What is it that you hope for for the people you work with?” I ask Brother Phap Vu.
His answer – like that of Mr. Rogers when asked about what he hoped for the children who watched his program – is one of those deeply profound statements that inevitably sound overly simple: “To love themselves. To have compassion for themselves.”
“You sense that’s something lacking in people?”
“Well, I had a lack of that capacity to see myself in another way. To see that you are much more than you think you are. You know, we live our lives, we do our work and school or whatever we do, with family or whatnot. And sometimes we’re stuck in this mode. And we put ourselves in boxes, give ourselves labels. And society puts labels on us and puts us in boxes. And we’re not aware of that larger aspect of ourselves.”
The larger aspect is what Buddhism calls our “Buddha Nature.” Phap Vu tells me that Nhat Hanh uses another term: “He refers to ‘home,’ our true home. Every spiritual tradition has this. In Christianity it would be like the Divine nature. It’s the interconnectedness that we’re a part of the divine basically.”
“And that’s what the shift in perspective . . .” I start to say.
He nods his head. “Yes, and we can only touch that when we have enough compassion for ourselves, when we have care for ourselves. Then it radiates out.”
Zen communities – sanghas – come in many forms. There are residential monastic communities such as Shugen Arnold’s Zen Mountain Monastery. There are groups who work with resident teachers in cities and towns, like Paul Cooper’s community in Holmesdale, or in isolated areas like Mitra Bishop’s Mountain Gate. And then there are groups of individuals who come together regularly without a resident teacher as such, usually hosted by a long-term practitioner who functions more as a facilitator than a instructor. I host such a group in my town, and Zenshin Michael Haederle hosts a similar group in Albuquerque. We both struggle with what our role is. In Zenshin’s case there’s also the fact that he’s a “lay monk.”
“Yeah, it’s weird terminology,” he admits. “Some people have pointed out that none of the Zen clergy in Japan really qualify as Buddhist monks, because they can be married, and they don’t take most of the monastic precepts that are embedded in classical Buddhism. A better term in English might be ‘priests’ or ‘ministers.’”
I don’t consider myself a minister, but I ask he does.
“Maybe. In the sense that, yes, I’m leading a Zen sitting group and provide some guidance there, although I certainly don’t consider myself a teacher. To me it’s just a commitment to make the Dharma available for people.”
“How is ‘making the Dharma available for people’ not teaching?”
“I suppose it’s the personal connotation I attach to it, but a ‘teacher‘ implies sort of a hierarchical relationship. I relate to the Sanskrit term kalyanamitra, which means ‘spiritual friend.’ I like the image. It’s more horizontal.”
The current social environment in the United States – the pandemic, increased racial tensions, the looming election – is challenging. I ask if he sees evidence that Zen practitioners are in any way better equipped to deal with these circumstances than non-practitioners.
“One of the things that I really appreciate about Zen practice is it’s all-encompassing. It’s kind of a tool, if you want to think about it that way, that’s applicable to anything we encounter in life: aging, sickness, death – all the traditional things. It also applies to what’s going on in our society. It’s obviously not about nihilism or zoning out or shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Whatever,’ but it is about meeting whatever’s going on with clarity and equanimity so that your response is going to be appropriate to the circumstances. So not leading with an opinion or a mental freaking-out session, but having a fuller appreciation of the context of the situation you’re actually in – this moment and not all the other moments in your imagination. Obviously that’s a challenge, but that’s the aspiration. It’s not that anybody can do that freely all the time or anything, but it’s a great place to start, because it’s so easy for our emotions to take front and center, our emotional response to bullying and injustice, the crazy disregard for objective truth and facts and things like that. I mean, it’s all really disheartening. But then just working with that, working with our own anger or despair or all the other related emotions. Those are real, in their way. It’s a matter of meeting these circumstances in a way where we don’t go out to the gun stores and get our own arsenal to match the arsenal on the other side or something like that. We want to get outside of that mindset, that paranoic conflict, I think that’s really important.”
One of the benefits of long term practice is that one can become “more alert to our mood states — to whatever is coming up in the moment. You realize you can do something about that. You can take a look at this whole personality complex that seems to be having this problem — this whole neurotic story-telling thing — and more or less see through that pretty quickly. Not wanting to sound boastful or anything, but where years ago I might have been hung-up for days, weeks or months on some kind of conflict or afflictive emotion – because I was pretty neurotic – now it’s hours or its minutes. Literally, the drama really loses its attraction.” He chuckles. “I can see that going through the ruminative or obsessional thought thing is just a waste of time. ”
One ceases to identify with the feelings as they arise, I suggest.
“Absolutely. Because fundamentally there’s no one there to identify. Identity becomes a highly suspect concept. Yeah, the emotions come up; it’s not like suppressing or repressing anything. It’s just allowing it all to be there and allowing it to go away and not fighting with it.”
The practice helps people “get into this place of openness that is waiting for us, that is always here.”
“What prevents people from sensing it if it’s ‘always here’?” I ask.
“Conditioning. Socialization. The way that we’re all conditioned to think about the world. I think evolution obviously equipped us with this ability to construct an imaginary self that seems to function in the future that has enabled us to do very complicated things. There’s an adaptive side to that, obviously. We wouldn’t be this way if there wasn’t a good reason for it — that’s what evolution more or less says. But it comes with a price. Because it’s an illusion. It’s a construct. It’s like an avatar on your computer screen. There’s not really a little version of you on the computer screen, although you can use it that way for useful purposes. There’s no separate self that actually time travels to the past or future. Coming back to this primary experience in this moment, it’s always right here. It’s only ever now when you’re thinking about the past or the future. That’s happening now. The brain is now. Of course ‘now’ is an idea too. It’s ineffable when you really let go of all the ideas of these things, but the experience remains. Right? But is there an experiencer?” he adds with a laugh.
David Loy is a Dharma heir of Yamada Koun in the Sanbo Zen tradition. “According to Zen,” he tells me, “we are not fully awake. There is something we need to realize about ourselves and about the world, and the path is to help us wake up.”
I ask what that “something” is.
“There’s a lot of ways to answer that, but for me what stands out is non-duality or non-separation: overcoming the delusion that there’s a me inside that is somehow separate from you and the rest of the world outside, and that therefore my well-being is separate from yours and others’ well-being. The delusion of self. Kensho – ‘opening’ as some people prefer now – is a letting go of that and realizing or experiencing the world at least momentarily in a non-dual way. So that is what I’d say we need to wake up to. And then to integrate the implications of that into how we live.”
David is a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center where he and Johann Robbins – of the Insight Meditation tradition – offer ten day “ecodharma retreats.”
“Which is mostly meditation – we’re usually outside, somewhere on our 185 acres, or nearby – but it’s partly workshop as well. To some degree we model ourselves upon Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects,’ helping people get in touch with their gratitude but also their grief about the global ecological situation, since many of us are closed down emotionally because we can’t cope with our grief. We’re afraid of it, because we don’t know what we can do personally to make a difference. Our approach is we’ve got to get in touch with our grief, to start to face it and work it through together, in which case it can empower us to respond more directly to what’s going on.”
It’s not, he stresses, a Zen retreat as such. “There’s a different kind of meditation we encourage that is more sensory-based, in the sense of not going into your head and reciting Mu or working on a koan, but opening up to the natural world. That’s number one. Number two we encourage gratitude practice. Feeling gratitude, with the realization that gratitude isn’t just something we feel or don’t feel, it’s a practice we cultivate. As Brother Steindl-Rast said, we’re not grateful because we’re happy; we’re happy because we’re grateful.”
For part of the retreat, participants go off by themselves. “Everyone goes off on a solo, with their tent and sleeping bag. People pick their location, and they’re there by themselves for two days and two nights. During that time, we encourage them not to have an agenda but to continue to be open to what’s happening. To notice, what does the land, what do the trees and the meadows and the large and small animals have to offer?”
It reminds me of Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness retreats, in which he had said it was not he but the street or Auschwitz which was the teacher.
“That’s our sense too, that the beautiful, unspoiled land where we practice is the real teacher. The whole point of our schedule and program is to enable and maximize that process. But let me make a couple of distinctions here. Bernie was wonderful in the ways he focused on social justice. And that’s a huge question, all the more so today. What’s the relation between ecodharma – which focuses on the ecological crisis – and social oppression such as racism? But whereas Bernie focused on how humans relate with and often oppress other humans, our focus has been on how humans relate to and exploit the rest of the natural world. I’m very concerned to integrate social justice issues into ecological issues, but not to the extent that we ignore the problem of what might be called species-ism. Trees don’t vote, don’t march or protest. Right? The whole point of ecodharma, as I understand it, is realizing that we need to expand the moral sphere of responsibility beyond human beings to the rest of the natural world, not only animals but forests and lakes and ecosystems. That’s a little different from what Bernie was focusing on although I think it fits in quite well.”
I ask about similar work in Asia, and he mentions a group called the “International Network of Engaged Buddhists” based in Bangkok. “It is a pan-Asian organization that works with a lot of different engaged Buddhists, but it’s a minority development, not part of the main institutions.”
“Engaged Buddhism,” I note, “is a phrase that Thich Nhat Hanh coined, and one of the things that he advises his followers to contemplate is that the human species isn’t immune to extinction. We aren’t, as a species, going to last forever.”
“Today I think a growing number of us have that sense. There is an interesting parallel with awareness of own individual mortality. Buddhist practice helps us get in touch with our own impermanence, our own insubstantiality. That’s an important part of it. And part of the challenge of ecodharma, I believe, is that it raises similar questions about the fate of the human species and certainly modern civilization as we know it today.”
I ask what he hopes for people participating in the retreats.
“First, to come to feel a deeper connection with the natural world. And gratitude will normally follow naturally from that. I would also hope that they are able to get in touch with their own grief about what’s happening to the natural world. It’s not that we work through that grief once and for all, but it’s something that shouldn’t be denied when it arises. Painful though it is, opening to our grief is necessary for the transformation – the kind of enlightenment – that we need today. But my most important hope would be that those who undertake this process be empowered and motivated to become ecologically and socially engaged.”
Shortly before I was scheduled to interview her in December 2019, Domyo Burk – the Guiding Teacher of the Bright Way Zen Center in Portland, Oregon – was arrested and spent the night in jail.
“I heard through my network of climate activist groups that something was going to go on and that if people were interested in civil disobedience to sign up, and that it was going to be run by experienced people. So I signed up, and we went down to the state capital and occupied Governor Brown’s office insisting that she come out against the giant liquified natural gas pipeline and liquification plant that’s a big project in Southern Oregon. A Canadian company wants to pipe fracked gas through the pipeline and then, in Coos Bay, liquify it, load it onto ships, then ship it overseas to be sold in Asia. It’s just wrong at so many levels. The pipeline goes through tribal lands, public lands, private land through the right of eminent domain, which should only be used when it’s in the public good. So that all hinges on that argument that it’s in the public good, besides the fact that this is just – in terms of climate change – the exact opposite of the direction we should be going. So there was a big rally out in front of the capital. Then everyone went inside, singing, and filled the atrium with song. And then a bunch of us went up the stairs into Governor Brown’s ceremonial office and just hung out there for eight hours.” She chuckles at the memory. “And after the building closed, and Governor Brown even came to talk to us, but she wasn’t willing to come out against the pipeline, so we stayed, and twenty-one of us stayed until past the point where the state troopers warned us that we would be charged with trespassing and arrested if we didn’t leave.”
Domyo’s academic training had been in wildlife biology, although, instead of working in the field, she became a Zen monk.
She was drawn to practice by a feeling she had had of the basic “dissatisfactoriness” of life. “Who knows when it first arose for me. Age 12? I don’t know. At some point I really started to ask, ‘What is the meaning of life? What is this all about? What’s the point?’ And I remember probably at age 14 I had my first summer job, and I remember this sense of foreboding. I felt like I was getting on a conveyor belt to death; I was signing up for this program that led nowhere and had no meaning.”
Her first encounter with Buddhism came years later when she was preparing to travel to India with her first husband’s family. A guide book she was looking at mentioned Buddhism. “It explained there’s not a lot of Buddhism in India now, but it was part of its history. And it talked about the Four Noble Truths, and ‘Life is inherently marked by dissatisfactoriness.’ I mean, I’m like, ‘Yay, man! They just say it right up front!’ And then the fact it wasn’t that the Buddha went on his spiritual search because his circumstances were so awful; it was because of the nature of dissatisfactoriness. So in a way I felt I was similar to him in the fact that I had very fortunate circumstances. I had no reason to be unhappy, and yet I was. I really resonated with that. And then, the fact that you didn’t have to believe in anything. It didn’t involve a god. And then it said, ‘All right. You can do something about that dissatisfactoriness, and here’s what you can do.’ So I was right there. I immediately looked up Buddhism in the phonebook.”
When she returned from India, she briefly joined a Pure Land Buddhist group. At one of their meetings, a member said, “‘I’m on the Pure Land path because I don’t have the wherewithal to do the self-development like they do in Zen.’ And immediately in my mind, I’m like, ‘Gotta look up Zen.’”
She discovered the Dharma Rain community, and very quickly became a monastic. She spent seven years in monastic training. And while she had originally told her teacher – Gyokuko Carlson – that she had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, when the time arose, she did begin working with a group of people on the westside of Portland, which eventually became the Bright Way Center.
“I did the turning inward, resolving of my koan and angst and gradually coming out of that darkness, looking around and thinking, ‘How can I serve?’ Figuring, ‘Well, I’ll do this Dharma teacher thing. You know, start a Zen center.’ And there was a number of years of doing that; of learning how to do that and devoting my energy to it. Then over the last five years at least, ‘What about that concern that led me to be a wildlife biologist?’ Right? I have to find a way for social and environmental justice to be a part of my life. Zen without it seems two dimensional and meaningless.”
Which led her not only to a night in jail but also a regular podcast entitled “Facing Extinction.” “I mean we are facing extinction literally, and I mean to be facing that fact.”
Portland has been in the news a lot, because of the protests over police killings of unarmed black men. I wrote to her recently to ask what conditions are like. She tells me that much of it seems to be media exaggeration. “I would guess that 99.999% of us don’t even notice (even if we should). Very small groups, contained area of mayhem. What’s crazy now is the fires. I’ve lived here 30 years, and only been impacted by wildfire smoke the last 3 out of 4 years. Right now it looks like Mars out there, all red and gloomy.” And that, too, is partially due to climate change.
My hosts at Zen Mountain Monastery had told me that Dai Bosatsu was just on “the other side of the mountain.” But when I arrive, I feel like I’ve travelled much further.
All things, of course, are relative. I had thought that the Morgan Bay Zendo in the Maine woods had been isolated, but to get to Dai Bosatsu one travels along a rough secondary road and then up a partially eroded gravel path. I had thought that Zen Mountain Monastery was large. But the front gate for Dai Bosatsu is two miles from the main monastery building.
The property is on Beecher Lake. The guest house had been the hunting cottage of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother and is pretty much what one would expect a wealthy 19th century family to build as their mountain getaway. But then one comes to the monastery itself – constructed in traditional Japanese style – and one could believe one had taken a wrong turn somehow and wound up in Kyoto.
The formalities are Japanese. Lunch is eaten jihatsu, with three nesting bowls and chants in Japanese. Western monks with Japanese Dharma names, wearing Japanese robes, respond with a sharp “Hai!” when addressed. The walls are decorated with calligraphy. There has been a Japanese flavor at other centers I’ve visited, but nothing as pervasive as this.
It’s also fair to say that this is the first place I’ve visited where I did not immediately feel at ease. It’s beautiful. It’s entrancing. But that’s part of my problem. I find it exotic, and I wonder if Zen benefits from being exotic.
If I am not entirely at ease with the structure and forms, it is not at all difficult to feel at ease with the abbot—Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat. She comes to our interview with her dog, Nikita. Throughout the conversation she’s relaxed and informal. She pauses reflectively before answering my questions, and her responses are cogent and articulate. She interviews well. One of her students tells me that he sees in her someone who genuinely embodies the Four Vows.
Her family situation, when she was a child, had been difficult. Her step-father was physically abusive, once taping her mouth shut because he felt she was making too much noise. But she early learned that if she went off on her own and just sat still, with hands clasped, she could gain a sense of peace otherwise unattainable. In her eighth grade World Studies class, there was a unit on Zen Buddhism, and she recognized that what she had been doing was Zen. She had intuitively discovered zazen.
Shinge refers to Dai Bosatsu as the “gem of North American Zen.” It is the first Rinzai monastery to be established outside of Japan; officially inaugurated in the US bi-centennial year, 1976. Aesthetically—regardless of my reservations about the Japanese accoutrements—it is a marvel. And one is conscious of the spiritual power of the temple. This is a place for serious practice.
However at the time of my visit in 2013, the numbers were down. The revelations of the sexual misconduct of the previous abbot, Eido Shimano, was part of the problem. But also there is the fact that this is not an easy place to get to; Zen Mountain Monastery, by comparison, is just down the road from Woodstock (the Woodstock), where there are a plethora of yoga studios and like-minded people.
Five years later, I have another opportunity to speak with Shinge, and she tells me that the community has begun to recover. Membership is growing again, and they are attracting people in their 20s.
“Really? What are they like?” I ask.
“There seems to be a lot more what I would call desperation among the generation under 30 these days. They feel abandoned by those to whom they would have looked for leadership and guidance in their lives. There are no assurances that jobs will be available once they get out of college. They’re not sure it’s worth going to college. There’s a lot of very deep soul-searching going on, and – from what I understand – they’re looking for something that will bring them meaning, that will bring their lives a sense of purpose. So volunteer work is important – I mean, social justice work is important – and we’ve been doing outreach work at all these places because we feel that too. And so I think that’s, in part, responsible for bringing in new people. In other words, trying to meet them where their concerns are. Not assuming that the old ways will work.”
“When I began, in 1971,” I say, “there was very much a concern with achieving the kind of awakening experience people like D. T. Suzuki described or the enlightenment stories in The Three Pillars of Zen. Do people still come seeking that?”
“Absolutely. One of the things I’ve noticed is that people who have tried other forms of meditation, what we might call . . .” she hesitates “. . . Zen-lite?”
“It’s a term I’ve used,” I admit with a laugh.
“People try it, and if they’re really looking for something that will be life-transformative, they come to Zen – Rinzai Zen in our case – they come to a place where they can really be assured of a strong and dynamic program of practice. Something very different from, ‘Try this. It might help you feel better about your life.’ We’re not interested in that. We’re not giving out band-aids. We’re saying, ‘If you go through a rigorous training, you may be able to break through a lot of the old habits, a lot of the conditioning that you’ve been defeated by in your spiritual quest, and come to awakening which will bring you true happiness, not a slightly better feeling about yourself.’”
Sister Elaine MacInnes – who was born in Moncton, New Brunswick – begins her autobiography on the beach at Shediac, a place significant to my family. My wife spent her summers there as a child, and it was one of the places she was most eager to introduce me to after we’d met. When our children were young, we returned there annually during the school break. A film on Sister Elaine, produced by Vision TV, begins with her on that beach, telling the story of the salt doll who discovers her true nature by allowing herself to dissolve in the ocean. It’s as apt an analogy of kensho as I know.
“I suspect,” I tell her, “you are the first transmitted Zen teacher to come from Canada.”
“For a while, I would have been the only one.” She isn’t bragging. One can tell from her tone of voice that she remains amazed by the events of her life.
My only meeting with her took place in 2013 at the Mother House of Our Lady’s Missionaries, the order of Roman Catholic nuns to which Sister Elaine belongs. One of her Dharma heirs, Patrick Gallagher, arranged the meeting and joins us. He tells me that when Sister Elaine returned to Canada after years abroad, a friend of his told him—“This is what I thought he said!”—that he was going to attend a “talk on Zen.” That sounded interesting, so Patrick expressed an interest in attending as well. “I’ll check to see if it’s okay,” the friend said. Patrick wondered, half seriously, “She must be worried about the Vatican if she was interviewing all those wanting to attend a public talk she was giving on Zen!” Eventually he was called in for an interview, and it became clear that a discernment was being made about whether he was a suitable candidate to take up Zen practice. “The first time we sat was on chairs facing the wall. We were told to keep physically and mentally still for eleven minutes. I thought, ‘That’s impossible!’” The friend didn’t come back; Patrick did.
Sister Elaine became a nun after her fiancé was killed during the Second World War. After her training, the order sent her to Japan. There she met the Jesuit, Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, who was studying and practicing Zen. Sister Elaine had some curiosity about Zen and decided if Father Lassalle was practicing, “It had to be okay.”
She decided she wanted the person who introduced her to Zen to be a woman, so she was put in contact with a Japanese Abbess, who at their first meeting said, “If you believe God is in Heaven, then you have no place in Buddhism.”
“And I said, ‘Whoa!’ I thought she had made quite a jump. So I said, ‘There are some things you’re going to have to trust me for.’ And I don’t know whether she liked that or not.”
Later, Father Lassalle introduced her to Yamada Koun Roshi—“Who must surely be one of the great Zen teachers of the 20th century.” He was more welcoming. Although he did not understand the concept of a God external and responsible for creation, he respected the Christian practitioners he had met and was happy to work with them. Sister Elaine achieved kensho during her second sesshin with him, and went on to complete the koan curriculum of the Sanbo Kyodan School of Zen. “Philip Kapleau didn’t, you know,” she reminds me.
After twenty years in Japan, her order reassigned her to the Philippines and supported her when she set up a zendo there.
It was during the Marcos regime. One of Marcos’s staunchest critics was Horatio “Boy” Morales, who was arrested in 1982 and confined for four years during which time he was subjected to torture and other indignities. He decided that he wanted to use his time in prison to learn Zen; after all, there is not a great deal of difference between a monk’s and a prisoner’s cell. He requested that Sister Elaine visit him to provide instruction. There were only fifteen prisoners in the facility, and fourteen of them practiced with her.
“They had a lot of charismatic people going in—you know—for charismatic prayer. But Boy was only interested in Zen. So between his and my pull, we got a room. Some of the guards were nasty. I was told more than once, ‘We know what you’re coming in here for. You’ve got full access to Boy Morales, and time alone with him, too.’ They said, ‘You’re not fooling any of us.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. But,’ I said, ‘I’m not here to talk you into that.’ It came to be a very successful time. And then, towards the end of Marcos’s time, the others were released, one by one. And in the end, there was only Boy left. He was there all alone. The night of the big revolution, he was all alone.”
When Morales was released from prison by Corazon Aquino, he talked openly about Sister Elaine and his Zen practice. Suddenly she became an international celebrity.
“I got phone calls from all over the world. I mean, the revolution itself was worldwide news. And he gave me full credit for going in. ‘It was a risk for her to come in, given the conditions at the time. Because we were the “bad guys” in prison.’”
She was invited to Britain by the Phoenix Trust, an agency that worked for prisoners’ rights, and she was soon teaching meditation in English prisons.
Things were a little tougher when she came home to Canada; the prison system was suspicious and couldn’t categorize the work she was doing so it took a while for her to gain access. But eventually she made inroads and was eventually awarded the Order of Canada for her work.
Myo On Susan Linnell is a Zen priest in the Rinzai-ji order living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is also a studio artist. “I think of myself as a monk/artist,” she tells me. Her hair is cropped, and she is wearing meditation robes as we speak.
“Studio artists are an isolated group of people. I don’t think I realized that until late in life. Actually I found Zen through the art world. Zen practice and meditation practice is not totally different from painting practice or art practice. So for me the two are now completely fused.”
We are both in the age group most severely impacted by the covid virus and talk about the difference between the way the pandemic has been handled in Canada – where I live – and in US. At the time of our conversation – the end of July 2020 – there had been less than 9000 covid-related deaths in Canada whereas the US death-toll already exceeded 150,000 persons. When I posted this profile, on September 6th, the totals had risen respectively to 9071 (245 deaths per million) and 177,013 (532 per million).
“I had an experience with a friend of mine just the other night,” Myo On tells me. “We were in a Zoom meeting together and afterwards we spoke for just a very few minutes. She’s working in the health industry with patients, and she’s clearly very stressed. I could see visibly just how suffering she is. ‘I’m very tired. I’m very upset. I’m not patient. I’m not kind to my patients.’ She was very disturbed by this. And this is a person who’s been practicing for about five years, and when I practice with her she appears to be a really great student. And she said, ‘The patients ask too many questions. I don’t have time. I have so many things I have to do, and so I lose patience.’ She was just so distraught. So I thought I needed to offer her something to work with, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m focussed on the breath.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, very good. But can I offer you something else?’ And what came to mind was Kosho Uchiyama’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought. And I just gave her that as a practice image. I thought it might be a way for her to focus.”
It is a technique, based on the Buddhist concept of mindful awareness, that she had taught before, even to people in jail.
“‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only’ is how I think the Buddha expressed it. Uchiyama’s instruction is to recognize that the mind has the habit of making a fist around its fear, a fist around its suffering, a fist around its worry, and so forth. I use it myself all the time, because I can wake up worrying about my family or worrying in a most general way about everything that’s going on, and I literally use it to drop the hand and open the hand of thought.”
“So if I were to come to you,” I say, “and told you that I was anxious about the current situation – I turn on CNN every morning and see those numbers on the side of the screen and can’t stop thinking about them – how would this help me?”
“People always say, ‘Live in the present moment,’ and I say, ‘Yes. Okay. Perfect. But how?‘ The question is not whether or not you should live in the present! No serious person disputes this. But how do you do this? And the answer is ‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only. This is the path and this is the destination.’ That is the Buddha’s teaching in his words.
“So, what does he means by that? I’m going to give you the physical example, but it’s the same with covid-fear or covid-anxiety. Let’s say I’m sitting, reading a novel, and I have knee trouble, and the pain in my knee kicks in. And our habitual untrained response to this can be that first you put your hand on the pain, but then you think, ‘Oh, no! Not again!’ And then the mind goes to, ‘Why did I lift those boxes yesterday, and I put on the wrong shoes, and why did I eat that, on and on.’ Whatever your mind habitually does around that particular issue, and you’re off to the races. So the way to live without being hounded in this way by your anxiety or fear is when the pain arises in the knee or the anxiety arises in the chest or if you perceive it in your head or your heart, then you must learn to practice going to the body, staying in the body, experience it as it is in the body. So the question is, you said, you see the numbers and ‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’ So the thinking mind will continue unless you wake up in your body. So you need to leave wherever it is that you are doing that is keeping you from paying attention to your body. If you have a garden, go to your garden and work. If you have dirty dishes in the sink, go wash those dishes. And experience the washing of the dishes. So when the mind wants to go back to covid while you’re washing the dishes, you have to come back to the soap on your hands. If you’re digging in the garden and the mind goes to the covid, you have to come to the temperature of the soil, to how your hands feel in the dirt. To what the sun is like on the back of your neck.
“It is always very simple, but not easy until you break the habit of leaving the body. Or develop the habit of returning to and remaining awake in the body as the body only.”