EcoSattvas Downeast

[Bill Humphreys, Wes Burnett, Diane Fitzgerald, Karen Burnett]

When Leslie Gajdukow was ten years old, her parents moved from Massachusetts and bought a mountain outside Farmington, Maine. “The plan was to live off the land but then, within a month of moving in, my dad found a job at a local paper mill.” Living off the land is never as easy as it sounds.

Leslie

Leslie became involved in Zen through a yoga course. “I had been injured as a triathlete and I was trying to make a comeback, and they said, go to yoga class. It will make you better. Which it didn’t, of course. And there’s this woman next to me, and as we’re trying, desperately, to do the positions – because she’s a runner too – we’re laughing most of the time. And then maybe two or three weeks into the class, it was announced that Diane – and I didn’t know it was the person sitting next to me – was going to start a meditation class. I had been looking for a meditation practice. But in Maine there was nothing. Then all of a sudden, they announce that this woman who I’d been kind of hanging-out with was going to start a meditation class.” The woman was Diane Fitzgerald.

Wesley Burnett also “came from away” as they say. His family were originally summer visitors. “We started coming up, doing a little bit of boat riding and that kind of stuff. Liked it well enough that we bought a cabin, which we expected to only be a summer place. But we spent two winters here now, and we survived. We’re off the grid – way off the grid – but we seem to get by. Got lots of firewood and a generator to run the solar batteries during the winter months. We have a thing to keep the wellhead from freezing. And other than that, we’re just watching snow all winter.”

He tells me that he’d long had an interest in Buddhism but hadn’t become active until coming to Maine. “There was a group meeting, and I went once, and I’ve been going ever since.”

Both Leslie and Wes are involved in the Zen Downeast’s EcoSattva program.

Leslie explains that she and Diane had been discussing ways in which the sangha could become more engaged in addressing environmental issues. “And then I saw the movie Plastic Oceans, and I’m like, ‘Let’s do something with this.’”

The sangha showed the movie to groups and led discussions about the need to avoid single-use plastics.

“We did most of our stuff on Campobello, in Canada. We spent a summer doing that. There was a big marathon in Lubec which used to draw thousands of people. We made sure we had booths, and we went to the blueberry festival in Machias.”

They were planning a series of workshops prior to the pandemic, which had to be redesigned for Zoom after restrictions were placed on public gatherings. It proved to be more successful than anticipated.

Wesley, however, felt they should also be engaged in something physical.

Wes

“I told Diane we needed a project where we actually got our hands dirty. I said, ‘We’re doing a lot of political stuff. It’s better to go out and get your hands dirty than to go out and get your soul dirty dealing with politicians.’”

So the EcoSattva group adopted a beach. “Mowry Beach is just a public beach. It’s part of the conservancy program. And it had a reputation of being dirtiest beach in Maine. So, we started going down and picking up the garbage.”

I ask Leslie what concern about ocean plastics has to do with Zen.

“Well, ‘ecosattva’ means compassionate care of the Earth. It’s a combination of ‘ecological’ and  ‘bodhisattva.’ right? So compassionate care for the Earth. As long as you love anything about your life and who you are, you love the Earth just as much as if it is you.”

“One of the things Zen Buddhism teaches is that we should be involved in the world,” Wes tells me. “Because I was a geographer and dealt with a lot of physical stuff and wildlife, it didn’t come to me as any great news that we have a serious environmental problem in front of us, and that we’re having to contend with it. What the EcoSattva program’s done is get us to focus on things that we can do something about here in Maine. I lived in Africa for a long time, and I know what’s going on in the Sahel. But there’s nothing in the world I can do about it right now. I can help my neighborhood up here deal with problems of plastic, sea level rise. These are things right in front of me. These are things I have to live with day to day. And having a clear understanding of the environmental dilemmas in front of us and a clearer understanding of the community that I live in, I can bring help and assistance to that and maybe help the whole world get through this mess or not. If it can’t get through this mess, then I still did the best I could.

“Meditation makes me see the world clearer. It makes me examine the world, to examine reality and see it clearer for what it is and what it’s worth. I’m not saying that everybody that has the clarity is going to focus on the environment. There’s plenty of other problems worth focusing on, but it’s the one I happen to have a background in and I enjoy working with so it’s the one that I focus on.”

“And the connection between the two?” I ask.

“Most desirably I’d be in a state of meditation all the time. I would haul my firewood and chop my firewood and stack my firewood and haul my water, which I have to do, with an entirely different attitude now simply because what I’m doing at the moment is a portion of my practice, it’s a portion of my meditation. I can’t see the two as separate. I have chosen to work in the environment because I have a background in it, and I see that as part of my practice. My task is to save all sentient beings. Right?”

It’s Zen 101. When Master Shitou in 8th century China asked Layman Pang how he filled his time, Layman Pang replied with a poem still remembered today.

Nothing to choose, nothing to discard.
I exercise occult and subtle power.
How miraculous! How wondrous!
Hauling water and carrying wood!

I ask Wes how he would sell involvement in the EcoSattva program to others.

“Well, why don’t you come out to the beach and pick up junk with us. You’ll find it very satisfying. You’ll see a lot of birds and changes in the weather. It’s very exciting. It’s very satisfying. The wind blows. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re comfortable. Sometimes you’re uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s too hot. Sometimes it’s too cold. That’s part of living in nature. It’s just a great experience to come out and do something to make a beach look better just for the beach’s sake. And to let the community that that beach serves to get more joy out of it because it’s cleaner and nicer.”

Other Links: 

https://www.zendowneast.org/

https://www.zendowneast.org/ecosattvas.html






	

Winifred (Shokai) Martin

Winifred (Shokai) Martin was raised in Dublin, Ireland, in an environment she tells me was “ingrained by Catholicism.” Now she is an ordained priest with the Buddhist Temple of Toledo.

Students at the Toledo Temple commit to the Precepts – the ethical guidelines of Buddhism – before they begin the wisdom teachings and koan study. I am curious about the approach in part because one of the things which drew early North American Zen inquirers to the practice was a desire to find a spiritual alternative to the intrusive moralism associated with Christianity and its imposed ethical mores.

“I can understand that,” Shokai says. “But you used the word ‘imposed.’ And I think that’s the difference. In Catholicism it was imposed; it was separate; it was a list of rules revealed to the hierarchy by God, and you just obeyed them. In Zen – to me – morality is realized. This is awakening too. The precepts are not different from awakening. This is the realization of wisdom and compassion, and ethics is how it operates in the world.”

I mention that in some Zen lineages, formal study of the precepts occurs after one completes the koan curriculum. “You’ve reversed that,” I remark.

“Very intentionally,” she tells me. “And I do see the value of it. Rinsen and Do’on [the founders of the temple] came from Zen Mountain Monastery where you did wisdom training first, and then you did precepts. So they very intentionally made that shift. And a very related shift, I’ve noticed, is the emphasis on compassion teachings. I think a lot of the Zen traditions were wisdom heavy, and they paid a price. They had big crises that were ethically related. There is a danger in the wisdom traditions. There are teachers who were actually realized and yet have done terrible things. So we have a responsibility to expose people to the moral aspects of realization. Personally, and maybe because of the training that I got at the temple, I find it inconceivable that you could be deeply realized in the wisdom teachings and not see that the compassion teachings are no different. But there are teachers who are like birds with one wing tied. I think if you emphasize one over the other, you’re really handicapping people.”

There have been difficulties with personal behaviour at many of the founding centres in North America. Shokai attributes it to the fact that not as much emphasis had been placed on the compassion teachings as on the wisdom teachings. “I’m a big fan of wisdom,” she says. “But you can’t separate them out because they’re interrelated. They’re more than interrelated.”

We discuss the Four Bodhisattva Vows which is the most frequently used chant at Zen Centers worldwide. The first vow explicitly states that one undertakes the practice not on one’s own behalf but to benefit others. In the iteration used in Toledo, the First Vow declares: “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.”

“From what?” I ask.

“From suffering. From samsara.”

“You’re going to free all beings from suffering?”

“Yes.”

We are speaking playfully here, but there is also a sincerity in her tone that makes it clear she takes this seriously. Seriously enough, I point out, that she has chosen to be ordained, for which she had to formally re-take all of her vows.

“To free all beings from suffering,” I continue. “Realistically, how would one even begin to approach that?”

“It’s an impossible vow. And that’s what makes it possible. Rick, I was talking about operating within the system. It’s not an operation within the system. I can go out there and do great work and alleviate a lot of suffering while still working within the samsaric mind. I’m never going to free all beings. It’s not possible there. This is transcending that system. I’m going to free all beings. Totally impossible. But it’s that impossibility – making it so big and vast and maha – that actually makes this not a crazy thing.

“The vow is there and the prajna part – the wisdom part – of it was emphasized. And absolutely if the prajna part of it isn’t there, it is an impossible vow. But the prajna part of it is not separate from the compassion part of it. And, really, it can be dangerous, I think, even to make that vow without the compassion piece of it there. Because it could speak to power in an egoic mind. Whereas the compassion piece, that ‘no-separation’ which underlies all those vows, which underlines the precepts, which underlies all the vows we take in Zen, if you can’t see the compassion side of it, you’re not seeing it. You’re not seeing the prajna – the wisdom – part of it either, I don’t think.”

“So now you’re a priest,” I remark, “and as a priest you’ve made a commitment to continue this practice into the future. Part of your priestly responsibility is to carry it forward. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, what do you hope for this lineage that you now officially represent and the sangha it serves?”

“Well, my profound hope is that First Vow, that we will free all beings and bring ourselves and all beings to complete and full enlightenment in this lifetime.”

“Piece of cake,” I suggest.

“I want us to set a foundation that will go on for generations and generations. And that can bring happiness to our community, that can have an impact in Toledo. And that anyone who is seeking, who is suffering, who is truly seeking ‘What is this?’ can actually come into those doors and be met.”

August 8, 2021

Other links:

https://www.buddhisttempleoftoledo.org/

David Petterson

David Petterson is a participant in Dosho Port and  Tetsugan Zummach’s  “Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.”

For the last nine years, well before the pandemic, Dosho and Tetsugan have been experimenting with online training. In the Afterward to my book, The Story of Zen, Dosho wrote: “The number of people interested in pursuing Zen deeply is small and widely dispersed. The internet is a tool that can connect practitioners who might be living in far-flung places, like Fredericton, New Brunswick, with teachers in equally far-flung places like [Duluth, Minnesota]. I sense that we are just beginning to tap the potential of the internet to support people doing dharma practice.”

He describes the Vine of Obstacles “as an experiment, applying the principles of dharma work from our hybrid background – Soto emphasis on the dynamic synergy of zazen, study, and engagement with the Yasutani-Harada koan curriculum – to support householders in their practice. Cyber Zen, like in-person Zen, is a relational activity. Where a student happens to live is less important than their affinity with a teacher. So every student meets with a teacher every week for a fifteen-minute practice meeting. Students are also required to share in the online forums designed and facilitated in order to keep it personal and focused.”  

David was raised in a devout Christian Science household, but, while he was a college student, his aunt died. “Christian Scientists don’t often talk about illness when they’re sick because the idea is that if you talk about it a lot you make it more real in your thought. And in Christian Science the belief is that ultimately all disease originates in thought. So she died very suddenly and unexpectedly, and she was not getting medical care so far as I knew. So for me that was just a crisis of faith. I didn’t know if I could rely on Christian Science for any kind of medical issue that might come up. And I certainly couldn’t imagine praying for somebody else. But that didn’t mean that the deep spiritual questions or yearnings that I had went away. It’s just that I realized that Christian Science was not going to take me through the rest of my life.”

Eventually, while spending a year studying in France, he came upon a book which helped him find a path that he believed could take him through the rest of his life. “One of my favorite activities in Paris was to just spend hours in the bookstores, and I was browsing through this one section and came across the French translation of Meditation for Dummies.

He tried to follow the instructions in the book during the remainder of his stay in Paris. “I kept at it often enough that by the time I came back to the US, that’s the time that I found my first big Buddhist book, which was Ezra Bayda’s At Home in the Muddy Water. And what I appreciated about that book was there was a lot of frank discussions about things like anger, sexuality, issues which just weren’t talked about in the tradition of Christian Science. So I felt, ‘There’s something here that could be useful.’ And that was the point where I realized I needed a teacher, ’cause I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

He worked with teachers in Oakland, California, and in North Carolina, before finding employment in Pittsburgh, where he studied with Kyoki Roberts. It was through Kyoki that he met Dosho who visited to lead a sesshin. “I immediately felt a heart-connection. And also that was the first time I encountered koans. He offered to let senior people work with Mu during the weekend.”

Dosho and Tetsugan live near Duluth, more than 900 miles from Pittsburgh. But one of Kyoki’s senior students – Jisen Coughlan – encouraged David to work with Dosho online.

David tells me that in Dosho he found someone who he felt embodied Zen. “I felt there was a model that was actually more relatable to me. Most of the other teachers I studied with, I just couldn’t figure out how to bring Zen alive in my own life, but there was something about Dosho. And then getting to do koan work. That’s when I finally felt my Zen practice coming to life.”

He has been in the Vine Obstacles program for about six years. I ask him to describe it.

“So daily practice, study, and engagement. We sit together four days a week in the morning. That’s something myself and another student started in the early pandemic, and now it’s become pretty formalized. There’s weekly Dharma talks or student talks. So it’s a pretty robust online practice platform.”

When I ask what makes it worthwhile to get up and turn on Zoom for morning sitting, he tells me it is the sense of community.

“What is miraculous is, even though you’re not in the same physical space, there still is a co-presence. There still is a feeling of doing something together. It’s not the same as being together, but there still is a co-presence. And it does create a sense of community, especially when you take a few minutes to talk or have tea afterwards. Yeah. It’s more than just text, and that’s what’s nice. Although the primary mode of interaction on the Vine is text. It’s a forum-based platform.

“It’s like an asynchronous online chat. So people can start threads, and then you can add or respond to peoples’ posts throughout the week. And you can get a digest everyday of what the activity on the board is.”

I ask him for a sample of the type of topic that might be discussed.

“So the previous two study focuses were on the Diamond Sutra. And most recently we worked through the complete Record of Empty Hall, which Dosho just put out in translation. That took us six months. And in between those intensive periods, weekly questions can vary. Like ‘What roles do dreams play in Zen practice?’ ‘How do you bring the spirit of Zen into your home environment?’ ‘How would you explain Zen to a total newcomer?’ Actually a great question, considering my own meandering path. And then sometimes people will just post things that they are struggling with or that they need help with. So somebody this week posted, ‘How do I talk to my family about this Zen thing that I do?’ It’s a great source of community. You really get to know other people. I would say that I feel like I know the people that practice on the Vine better than I ever knew anybody in any of the in-person practice groups that I was part of.”

Other Links:

https://www.vineobstacleszen.com/

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildfoxzen/

John Pulleyn

The work of Anthony de Mello – a Jesuit from India who sought links between Eastern and Western spiritualities – is generally not well known to Zen practitioners, but I have always admired him. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Sensei John Pulleyn of the Rochester Zen Center tell me that Anthony DeMello was “his favorite guy.”

“I’m notorious for dragging him into teishos,” he tells me.

I mention that deMello’s Awareness is the book I’m most likely to recommend to people asking about spiritual matters.

“That was his best book,” John agrees. “There are a number of favorite passages I keep coming back to. One is: ‘I’m going to write a book: I’m an Ass, You’re an Ass.’ That’s just wonderful. I was trying to look it up on the web, and lo and behold, up came this Zen teacher giving a talk on that particular DeMello thing and saying exactly what I feel about it. That it just disarms people. I mean, it’s something hopefully you come to understand, which is you have the Shadow side, this limited side. It’s just the habit patterns and the karma, and you can’t walk away from that.”

John is now a second teacher – along with Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede – at the Rochester Center founded by Philip Kapleau. I ask him what exactly a Zen teacher teaches.

“You know, Bodhin Roshi and I have talked about this a fair amount. The teacher’s job, really, is just to keep the student going. There’s nothing the teacher can give the student, as you know. So, really it’s just pointing out when they’re going off the charts, encouraging them when they’re discouraged, deflating them when they’re too full of themselves. Yeah, I really like the model – as I understand it – of the Chinese, where it’s more like an older brother, and not like the Japanese where – as I understand it – it’s more like the daimyo, the Great Lord. You know, the teacher really has a lot of power there. That’s one method. I think it probably depends on the nature of the student which one’s gonna be better. For me, I always thought of Bodhin Roshi as kind of like an elder brother, even though I’m a year or two older than him. I didn’t feel like there was a massive authority looming over me. And then, what can the teacher tell the student? I get students coming in who wanna know, ‘How do I do this? How do I do that?’ And sometimes you can give them a little bit of help, but, in the end, they really need to work it out themselves. Even something as simple as, ‘How do I look into a koan? How do I picture it?’ Well, bang your head against the wall and see what happens. I think Roshi Kapleau maybe said the mark of a good teacher is not helping the student too much. And I know that when Roshi Kapleau died, and he was laying in a coffin in the zendo, and we went up to say our goodbyes, I said, ‘Thank you for not helping me.’ And I meant it.”

“You’re located in a residential neighborhood,” I tell him, “so let’s say that one day a kid from the neighborhood – say 18 or 19 years old – comes by. He’s walked by the building hundreds of times, but one day he comes to the door and asks, ‘What is it you guys do here?’”

“It would really depend, but I might say, ‘We look into ourselves. We try to see who we are. We try to experience our lives directly. Try to get out of our heads.’ Yeah, basically we try to see who we are.”

“And then he might ask, ‘Why? What good is that? What’s it good for?’”

“‘What’s it good for?’” John says reflectively. “It’s good for living a whole-hearted life. It’s good for finding joy even in difficult situations. You have to try it, see if you have some affinity for it, and the only way you find if you have affinity is if you just keep at it. You know, some people begin practice and it’s hard, hard, hard, but they do it anyway for whatever reason. When you look at people and you think, ‘This one’s got it; this one doesn’t have it,’ you’re usually wrong. Because someone who’s a total blockhead will just keep knocking on the door, and then things happen. The magic is doing whole-hearted zazen, and, to get there, you do half-hearted zazen. You just keep going. People just have to trust the process.”

Other links:

Michael (Hoshi) Leizerman

Michael Leizerman  is a shoken student at the Buddhist Temple of Toledo, studying with Rinsen Weik, with whom he co-wrote The Zen Lawyer [published by Trial Guides, 2018]. When he tells me that the law is his Zen practice, I suspect at first it is one of those hyperboles Zen practitioners can fall prey to, but, in his case, it turns out to be a simple statement of fact.

At one point in our conversation we discussed the concept of “practice,” what it means to say that one “practices law” or “practices Zen.”

“Practice means ‘to put into action,’” he suggests. “To practice law is to put law into action. To practice Zen is to put Zen into action—to put reality into action.  I’ve thought a lot about that word. Let me start with the ‘practice of law.’ There’s a little bit of humility in it maybe, right? That you can’t get it perfect, that you’re always practicing. On the other hand, I don’t like it if it’s seen as a means to an end, and that at some point the practice will result in the performance. The same thing with Zen practice. It’s a word we fall into, and I wish I had a better word. Sitting on the cushion is just living. Practicing law is just ‘lawing.’ But I don’t have better words, so, yeah, I think it’s a problematic word – ‘practice’ – and I don’t know what to do with that.”

2020 – Hoshi and Rinsen honoring the space where the altar in the soon to be constructed Toledo Temple will be located.

I suspect his Dharma name – Hoshi or “Truth Warrior” – was chosen with care.

“There’s another word we use,” I say. “You identified Rinsen as your ‘teacher.’ You don’t call him your priest or your rabbi or your facilitator. He’s your ‘teacher.’ What does a Zen teacher teach?”

He spends a moment reflecting before answering, and then does so speaking slowly and carefully.

“For me, Zen Buddhist practice . . .” We both catch his use of the word and laugh. After shaking his head, he tries again. “Zen Buddhist ideas –  I mean, language is problematic – is about a few things. One is combusting my life right now with intention, with compassion, with wisdom. To live my life right now in a meaningful way. Can I do that on my own? Sure. Maybe. There are ways in which it would be very arrogant of me to say, ‘I can just do this on my own and ignore thousands of years of tradition and what that might have to teach me.’ There’s a famous Jewish story of, ‘Oh, you go to listen to the rabbi’s talk.’ The other guy says, ‘No. I go to watch him tie his shoes.’ Right? There’s that kind of thing where there’s someone who I respect and can check in with.”

Combusting your life? What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t where that word comes from, if it’s from the liturgy. I know I’ve heard Rinsen use it, and I use it regularly. I lead a Zen Lawyers Sitting every morning for the last couple of years, and on my altar there’s, of course, a candle, and I like the idea that the candle is burning, the incense is burning. So it’s a metaphor. How do I combust my life? Because our life is finite, like a candle melting away.”

He talks unselfconsciously about the importance of ethics. He has formally taken the “Precepts” – the ethical guidelines which Buddhists pledge to abide by – twice, first with the teacher with whom he worked before his met Rinsen and then again with Rinsen.

“What is the importance, to you personally, of those guidelines?”

“They have, for me, an increasingly concrete meaning. In undergraduate school, I studied philosophy. My wife studied philosophy. We both have taught jurisprudence at law school. We can get into conversations about Heidegger and Husserl and existentialism and whatever. You know, you can debate moral philosophy and probably find a way to justify about anything. So that’s the rational mind. Right? What do I use to guide me in everyday decision making? One of my chief complaints about the monotheistic religions is there’s no answer to that. The Bible doesn’t really tell me, ‘Should I take this case? How should I treat this person?’ If other people get that from it, fine. I don’t. So, for me, the moral component that ties into the vows I took is ‘to do no harm.’  If you want to get into the rational mind, it’s impossible to do no harm – do you want me to avoid stepping on the ants? – so, of course, it means to minimize suffering in the world. And I particularly like Zen Buddhism with its focus on being a bodhisattva, being in the world to help reduce my own suffering and to help others reduce their suffering, and to go in the world and actualize good for others. So every morning I meet this group of lawyers, and we say, ‘Today let’s go into the world as people and as lawyers and attempt to reduce suffering in our lives and reduce suffering in the lives of others. Do justice. Do good.’ For me it’s as simple as, ‘Is this reducing suffering? Is this doing good?’ Now you can say, ‘Ah, there might be short-term suffering . . .’ You can get into a whole utilitarian analysis. Set all that aside, and for me that’s the starting place. Am I reducing suffering? Am I doing good? Am I helping others?”

March 8, 2022

Other Links:

https://www.buddhisttempleoftoledo.org/

https://thezenlawyer.com/

Sunyana Graef

The Vermont Zen Center is located in Shelburne, a small, artistically inclined community outside Burlington. Perhaps because there had been one outside my office for several years, I notice the Peace Pole at the foot of the Center’s drive before I see the official sign set in a small flower bed. The sign bears the calligraphy signature—or kao—of the 17th century Japanese Zen Master, Butcho Kokushi—three vertical strokes rising from a single horizontal stroke. This glyph was on the cover and title page of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen when it was first released and has been associated with the Kapleau lineage since. 

I am struck by the care with which the Vermont Center has been designed and maintained. The grounds cover some 72 acres and are lovingly tended. It happens that my visit takes place in May when the magnolia trees are in full bloom, their bases littered with large white petals. The rhododendron is in flower, along with many colorful bedding plants. The center’s teacher, Sunyana Graef, informs me that when the house was purchased it was in the middle of an alfalfa field and there had been only a single tree, a pine which now towers over the property. The sangha celebrated its 25th anniversary the year of my visit, 2013, and a spruce they planted when they first took over the property is now almost as high as the pine. The cedars and all the other trees, plants, bushes, and flower beds have all been added since.

Inside the building, careful craftsmanship is equally apparent. The original house has had several extensions and is now able to comfortably house sixty people during sesshin. The woodwork and the lighting have been designed and constructed thoughtfully. Polished hardwood floors run throughout the building. The first room one enters is a living room with stuffed furniture and a big fireplace. “When I was looking for a place for a Zen Center,” Sunyana tells me, “one of my chief requirements was not a zendo but a living room. What I was looking for was a place where people would have to walk through the living room to get to the zendo. The reason for that is simply that I wanted a sangha to form. And this is where sangha is formed. Not when you’re sitting in silence but when you come together in a social environment. So that’s why I loved this place. You come in, and you have to walk through the living room. And people would sit here and chat and get to know each other.”

Although she tells me that—even after all these years—she finds it difficult to speak in front of groups, she is an accomplished and often dramatic speaker. She stresses her points in various ways, sometimes with a sharp tone, sometimes whispering, sometimes slowing down and pronouncing each word distinctly and separately.

“I would say the function of Zen is to help people be alive. Truly alive. It helps people see who and what they are. Of course, you can practice Zen on many different levels. Right? But if you’re practicing Zen on the deepest level, it enables you to see through all of your habit patterns, your ego delusions, your greed, your anger, your ignorance, and get to that point where you truly see. And once you see who and what you are, your life changes and so does everyone else’s life, because you touch the world. You’re not separate from the world.”

There is a figure of Jizo – the protector of children and travelers – under the magnolias out front, and a small Jizo grove in back. But the dominant devotional figure in the building is Kannon—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There are several statues of her, including one that greets people who come in the front door. Sunyana trained at Rochester, where the style of teaching at the time was frequently described as “boot camp Zen” or “Samurai Zen.”  The emphasis, she tells me, had been on the attainment of wisdom (awakening), but there may not have been as much emphasis on the attainment of compassion as there should have been.

During the Zen Boom of the late ’70s and ’80s, Rochester had been one of the more disciplined centers. “From day one, the Precepts were emphasized. We took the ceremony of jukai, taking the Precepts, twice a year. We knew that they existed, and Roshi Kapleau didn’t change the wording to make it sound like, ‘Well, well, it’s okay if you drink, but just don’t get drunk too often.’ No. Nothin’ like that. And I’ll tell you one other thing, and I think this is really important. He did not emphasize emptiness. And what I’ve seen, teachers who talk a lot about how empty they are—the importance of emptiness, being truly empty—are people who are . . . not compassionate. Because they’re stuck in this realm of ‘absolute freedom,’ and they’re ‘one’ with everything. But they’ve lost the whole side of the Precepts. And this is critical. You can’t really be enlightened if you’re sitting there on top of that pole feeling just empty. You have to get down into the world and live a true life, and this means engaging with people. And that is just as much part of enlightenment as emptiness. Form and emptiness. Not two. So, anyway, my teacher did not emphasize that, and he did talk about compassion. It’s just that we chose not to hear it, I think.”

The emphasis on compassion in Vermont is clear. “I began teaching Loving Kindness to my students. At every sesshin there would be half an hour where we would do the Loving Kindness, from sending it to yourself, to a friend, so on and so forth.” That focus is obvious throughout the center.

 Cypress Trees in the Garden: 204, 329, 337-51, 361, 374, 388-89, 468.

The Story of Zen: 300, 302, 359-60.

Zen Conversations: 145-46.

Other links:

Vermont Zen Center

http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ADM/graef.htm

Eshu Martin

There are those – whether ordained or not – for whom teaching Zen is a career. Other teachers – again, lay or ordained – need to have a job on the side to pay the bills. Still others pursue an entirely different professional life while teaching on the side. And there are those who teach for a while then quietly pull away.

I visited the Victoria Zen Center in Sooke, British Columbia, on April 1st, 2013. It was Joshu Sasaki’s 106th birthday; he would live another year, dying at the age of 107. Sasaki was the Zen teacher who made national headlines the previous year – 2012 – when it was confirmed that he had long been engaged in sexual interference with several of his female students. The man who revealed the extent of the problem was Eshu Martin, the teacher I’d come to Sooke in order to interview.

The center was in his home, a small wooden house on a lot with a second building used for rentals. The path to the front door is lined with a statue of Kannon and a couple of garden gnomes. I knock on the door of the rental house and a young boy, approximately eleven years old, comes out of the other house and asks if he can help me. He introduces himself as Eshu’s son and directs me to the correct building. He, his mother, and his younger sister, leave as I arrive. “I hope it goes well, Dad,” he calls as they get into their car.

Eshu is 6’4”, with a shaved head, but a well-developed auburn beard. He has a deep belly laugh. The house is both his family’s living space and the zendo. We sit at a moveable table in the dining area, next to the kitchen. It is very much family space. There are colored eggs on the table and Easter decorations on the wall. A central fireplace separates this space from a small zendo that sits 12; if the dining table and chairs are removed on this side of the fireplace, there is room for another ten. His bedroom, downstairs, has a double mattress on the floor which he takes out into the hall so the room can be used for sanzen.

Eshu was raised in Pickering, Ontario. When he was nine, his mother went into a coma, and he prayed for her recovery. When she died, he became very angry and began acting out. He became a vandal and started using drugs early. He was 15 when his father remarried, and he would wake every morning and think about how he was going to make his stepmother miserable that day. Eventually he became involved in martial arts, discovering that it was a better way to work off his anger than destruction of property.

The martial arts instructor gave him a book which provided the philosophical background to their discipline. In it he found the story of the two monks – Tanzan and Ekido – who come upon a young woman unable to cross a stream because the bridge had been washed out. The elder monk, Tanzan, picked the girl up and carried her across; the younger monk, Ekido, fretted about this all day until at last he asked, “How could you do that?” Tanzan said, “I put the girl down back at the stream. You’ve been carrying her all this distance.” Eshu becomes a little emotional retelling the story. “It made me realize that it was me who had been carrying all that anger for so many years.” It was his introduction to Zen. He bought a copy of Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen and began following its instructions on how to sit.

By that time he had a girl friend, later to be his wife, and they decided they needed to leave Pickering. She had some contacts in British Columbia, so that was where they went. And in Victoria he found a notice for the Victoria Zen Center. He went there and found the membership was made up of a number of elderly women who sat for a short period on their meeting evenings and then had tea. “Each evening the session ended with a discussion about who would be responsible for bringing the tea next time and who would bring the cookies. It drove me nuts.”

Eventually he began working with Eshin Godfrey, Abbot of the Vancouver Zen Center. Godfrey was a student of Joshu Sasaki and arranged for Martin to go down to Sasaki’s residential community at Mount Baldy. The training there was severe, but Martin took to it easily. The regime worked for him, and he decided that he wanted to stay and become a monk. He phoned his girl friend, who was then working at a L’Arche community and told her his decision. Then he met with Sasaki and asked to be ordained. Sasaki told him, “No. You go back to Victoria. Get married. Then we think about monk.” Eshu called his girl friend and proposed.

Eshu eventually disaffiliated from Sasaki’s order. After a period of training with Genjo Marinello in Seattle, Eshu was appointed abbot and teacher of the Zenwest Buddhist Society, a position he resigned from five years later. He is now a consulting hypnotherapist with Monarch Trancework in Sooke and Victoria.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 15, 43-44, 46, 47, 50, 52, 84, 98-115, 203, 468

The Story of Zen:  326

Other links:

Zen West

Monarch Trancework

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

Chimyo Atkinson

Great Tree Zen Temple in North Carolina is specifically intended to be a women’s residential center. The teacher is Teijo Munnich, a former Roman Catholic nun and Dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri. In 2018 there were several guests at the temple but only two permanent residents, Teijo and Chimyo Atkinson. Chimyo tells me that her official position is Head of Practice. When I ask what that means, she says, “I’m basically the . . . well . . . everything. Ino [manager], chiden [caretaker], tenzo [cook], tanto [assistant to the teacher], everything, because there’s only two of us living here.

“Our mission at Great Tree Zen Women’s Temple states that it’s a way of allowing the feminine to manifest itself in a way some may not have been allowed to in the past – ancient and recent – simply because, as in anything in society, it’s kind of dominated by men. And so the feminine aspect of what Zen could look like hasn’t – maybe – been nurtured as much as it needed to be or celebrated as much as it needed to be. So here’s a place where, because it is centered on women and women’s practice, you see what comes up, what it looks like, and how is it different – if at all – from the way men’s practice manifests itself. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be different, but we’re trying to give it a chance to develop and be what it can be.”

“What are the women who come there looking for?” I ask.

“I think they’re looking for compassion and empathy. They’re looking for a place where they feel comfortable and safe in doing their spiritual practice, whatever that is. They have a sort of a sense of community with us in a non-intellectual way. We do our study groups, and we can get heady in those, but I think – mostly because of Teijo – they feel a warmth and a nurturing here that is maybe unusual at some American Zen centers. 

“People have this incomplete idea of what Zen is, and I think they come sometimes looking for that.  The sort of peace, bliss, kind of thing. I think the people that stick around are looking for community and looking for a place to be that is open, where they don’t feel judged, and can just have a conversation about anything, really, with people who care. Our main practice is shikan taza, but it’s also being able to be with each other and comfort each other when we need to.”

“Is there a connection between shikan taza and the capacity to develop compassion and empathy?” I ask.

“Well, the whole point of doing this practice is to develop compassion, to develop that sense of interconnectedness and empathy for each other. That’s where the clarity comes from, so that you can act from that compassion, so that you can act from that understanding of connectedness.”

“If someone shows up for the first time and asks, ‘What’s this going to do? How is this going to make me more compassionate?’ How do you respond?” Chimyo doesn’t immediately answer. “Maybe she just needs some kind of assurance, needs her anxieties assuaged a little bit before she can commit to trying this.”

“I can’t give you that assurance. Because it is your experience that will bring that about. Maybe this is or is not the practice for you; maybe this is or is not the practice for you at this time. Everybody has a door. We are here to help you find that door. There is no guarantee. There is no goal here and no instruction that we can give you other than sit down and experience the world. You know, how do you tell someone how to ‘go in and go through’ in Zen practice?” She laughs. “That’s all I can say. You sit down, and you sit with your fears and you sit with your discomfort and you sit with your dukkha and all that and you work with it.  All I can say to a person who comes to Great Tree is to sit down and try it.”

I ask if the Temple has anything to offer that can’t be found elsewhere.

“Not a thing. What do we offer? We offer you a cushion and a room to sit in. That’s it. I mean, what else can we say? We offer you a cushion in a room and our support in doing this, our support and empathy in doing this practice. We offer the guidance that comes from our experience, which is just our experience. Nothing that is magical or scientific or any of those things. Just our experience. And a little faith in the Buddha’s word that there is a way beyond suffering.”

“And what is your hope for the women who come here?”

“I hope that they are able to find their way to a lifelong practice in this tradition or any other. I’m hoping that they find a refuge with us. I’m hoping that they find a way to share their own wisdom in the world, because that’s part of it. A lot of times in a de facto male-dominated situation, women are reluctant or not encouraged or outright prevented from sharing the wisdom that they have. And I hope that I myself can learn from whoever walks in that door, because everybody brings something. Whether they practice forever or whether they’re just discovering it.”

“A lifelong practice to what end?”

“To what end? To relieving their suffering and the suffering in the world.”

“Not awakening or kensho or whatever you want to call it?”

“You can find those things, but compassion and benefit to the world, what else is there? What else is there?”

The Story of Zen: 413-19

Zen Conversations: Pp. 69-70.

Other Links:

Great Tree Zen Temple

https://www.lionsroar.com/author/chimyo-atkinson/

Brother Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the most rewarding thing?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

Other links:

https://rickmdaniel.blogspot.com/2014/05/523-blue-cliff-monastery.html

Blue Cliff Monastery