John Daido Loori

Zen Mountain Monastery

[This is an abridgement of my chapter on ZMM in Cypress Trees in the Garden.]

John Daido Loori, the founder of Zen Mountain Monastery, had been dead for four years when I visited ZMM in 2013 to conduct a series of interviews. On my second day, I was introduced to the monastery’s Tea Instructor, Joan Yushin Derrick, who offered to prepare me a cup of tea. When I admitted that I was not fond of tea – which is practically a sacramental beverage in Zen – she made me an excellent cup of coffee.

It was only after we began chatting that I realized that she had also been Daido’s second wife (of four). We talked about him almost casually.

“He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 16 using his brother’s birth certificate, who passed away when he was still a little boy,” she tells me. The brother had been born two years prior to John. “So, John’s whole life he had two social security numbers. It made me crazy. He’d say, ‘My real birthday is June 14, but my other birthday is February 22nd.’ And I was like, ’No. You were only born on one day.’ It was a regular argument.”

“Do you know what rank he rose to?”

“Oh, gosh! I don’t know. That was the first wife, Nancy. When he got out, Nancy encouraged him to get a college education, get a job in big corporate businesses. He became a chemist for International Flavors and Fragrances. Head of a big department. Research. He invented the lime flavor for Jell-O! I know! It was so funny! And he hated the job. He’d been there for too, too long. So divorcing the first wife, meeting me, almost the same week. That’s another story.”

He gave up the corporate world to study photography with Minor White, an internationally respected photographer who offered retreats in which photography was presented as a spiritual art. Students meditated in the morning before beginning their day. Although White was not a Zen teacher, he gave koan assignments to his students, instructing them to find visual rather than verbal responses. Loori was assigned the koan, “What is your face before your parents were born?”

While engaged on this assignment, Loori set up a shot by a tree. Light filtered down through the leaves and branches. There were indistinct sounds in the distance, perhaps flowing water. He had a deep experience of silence. Eventually he noticed that the sun had set and several hours had gone by. The experience passed, but, afterwards, he sought ways to recapture it. In 1974, he saw a poster for a lecture series organized by Chogyam Trungpa at Harvard University. He and Joan attended it, and he was particularly impressed by one of the conference participants, Eido Shimano.

“John was extremely enamored with him and his talk and everything about it. The whole umbrella. The next day off, he went to the bookstore and the library, ravenous to find out more about Zen. I thought, ‘Okay.’ I’d lived at Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York and had been around a lot of different gurus. So meeting a Zen Buddhist monk wasn’t a big thrill for me. It was the content of his lecture that Daido was impressed with. We found out where the monastery was, and we went there together a couple of times. We’d had a baby in 1972, so it was a little difficult, and two teenage boys from his first marriage were living with us.” The baby was named Asian. “I was pretty home-bound for a good part of that time, but John would go once a week. Then we heard there was a Buddhist festival that Eido Roshi was going to appear at with other Zen teachers. We got a baby-sitter and went for the weekend, and we heard about Maezumi Roshi and this Los Angeles place.”

In 1976, the Looris learned that Maezumi would be giving a summer course at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Colorado. John got a position at the institute teaching mindful photography. “Which then put us right in the same arena with Maezumi Roshi, Tetsugen Glassman Roshi, and Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi. The three of them were staying in an apartment house for the teachers. And we had the apartment next door. I mean, it was written in the stars. The universe gave him what he needed, and off we went. We brought our child with us, and I did a little day-care program. I was a kindergarten teacher so it was easy for me to be with children.

“So, at that point, getting to know Maezumi and following him around when he wasn’t teaching photography or doing all the political nonsense that was going on with Trungpa Rinpoche—oh, boy!—it was a wild and crazy summer. 1976. By the end of that period of time, he and Maezumi were totally connected, and Maezumi asked him if we could come to Los Angeles to live. He was enlarging the community. At the time, there were only about twenty people living in a couple of different houses on Normandy and Wilshire. John was given that opportunity in August or September, and Christmas Eve we packed and drove to Los Angeles. Which was another insane thing. In the middle of a blizzard, moving out of a house way up the mountain. But we got to Los Angeles, and we were given one room in a house with the Glassmans and their two children. We were given one room on the third floor. Supposedly very temporary because they were completing an apartment for us to live in. Well, that took nine months.

“Daido was busy with starting the publication center for the Center and associating intimately with Maezumi Roshi. I was busy trying to survive on the third floor in this one little room with a four-year-old child and getting a pre-school set up and all that stuff.”


There were twenty-seven people in the residential program at ZCLA when the Looris arrived. By the time they left, there were 200.

“And they all lived within one square city block. All of the homes, all of the high-rise apartments, garden apartments, they were all eventually purchased by ZCLA. And we eventually moved out of that house and had our own apartment, but it was almost a year later. I was completely crazy. Completely crazy! I thought Maezumi Roshi was completely crazy. I thought the teachers, everybody there were completely crazy. It was so hot! In Los Angeles, after moving from a mountain top in December to Los Angeles! It was so hot and the energy there was hot. And our son was not well. He was ill all the time. With allergies, with colds, sore throats, with temperatures, and it wasn’t too long after we moved there that he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. So that was my priority. And also Daido—I don’t want to slight that—we were hand in hand with everything that needed to be done for Asian. He’s now forty and lives right downstairs in a house that I own, and he’s completely well. We had a rough time with the tumor, the surgery, the radiation, and the therapy and the recovery was rough for a couple of years. But he’s a strong survivor. He has been living, basically, in the Zen community ever since he was two.

“Daido threw himself full force into monkdom and was moving along quickly in koan study and the procedures that were needed to become a monk and then a teacher. He was just driven. It was meant to be. You know? Meanwhile, behind the zendo doors were other stories. He was doing really wonderfully well with Maezumi Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi was an incredibly unusual man once I got to know him. And I don’t want to defend all the terrible things that went on there at the time. There was alcoholism. There was womanizing. There was so much craziness around the brilliance. And some of Maezumi Roshi’s talks were brilliant! And inspiring. So I became one of his students in 1977 because I wanted to know what he knew. I don’t know if I ever found out, and I’m still wanting to know,” she laughs.

“So there was a lot of craziness going on at that place. There was an amazing amount of drinking. It was always started by the roshi, and all of us just jumped right in. We figured, you’re sitting hard in sesshin, and it’s a tortuous week, let’s party when it’s over. Which was crazy. And when Daido realized that it was crazy, he stopped and told Maezumi Roshi, ‘I’m not going to be doing this drinking.’ He said, ‘I think there has to be another way. I feel I’ve got joriki during sesshin and all of the energy from the retreat, and then I throw it away six hours later. That’s crazy.’

“That’s when he started to elevate in my eyes. He started to look like one of our fine teachers out of that place. And our marriage changed at that point. He became my teacher. He became my son’s healer. We walked hand-in-hand with that. But as far as the marriage, it was a totally different energy. You know, when I married him, I thought we were going to have a little white house with a picket fence. We were going to grow a little garden. We were going to go to the movies. Boy, was I shocked and surprised when none of that was going to happen. And my son’s health and well-being was more of a priority to me than anything else. So being a student was part time. Being the wife was part time. Being the healer and mother—and I learned a lot about healing during that time—was the priority.

“When we were asked to come back to New York, I didn’t want to leave California. I was really annoyed. I wanted a separation. I wanted to stay there. My son had a wonderful group of healers there. I loved California. I loved being on the beach. I did not want to come back to New York. But Maezumi convinced me. I resisted, and I cried, and I begged, and I threatened, and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Maezumi sat there like stone. He just listened to me till I spent myself out with the handkerchiefs, and he goes, ‘It will be wonderful, Yushin. You will do good job, Yushin. Will you help him?’ He always had a habit of, ‘Will you help him? Will you really help him?’ And like an idiot, I’m sitting there”—in an exasperated voice—“‘Okay.’ And off we went. I flew back with my son, and they drove—again—late December, in a blizzard, not in Los Angeles, but it was as they got closer to New York.

“There were people in Riverdale who wanted to start a Zen community. And Bernie Tetsugen Glassman was the teacher who was sent to do that with Daido at his side, as a partnership. And Maezumi Roshi really thought that that would happen. It lasted about ten minutes. They were two totally different people. Totally different teachers.”

Although Daido and Yushin were still married, they lived separately, and Yushin wasn’t comfortable in Riverdale.

 “It was a huge undertaking, and the people who gave the money for this place—Greystone Mansion—to get started, the donors in Riverdale, were very, very wealthy. And the house that they gave us to live in was in a very exclusive neighborhood. I mean, I was embarrassed to go outside in jeans. It was beautiful and wonderful, but we were uncomfortable there. And my son started first grade at PS 132 with fifty kids in the Bronx, and that was another crazy situation. I was fearing for my life just walking him to the school.”

Daido, Bernie Glassman, and Yushin

The residents of Riverdale sent their children to private schools. Yushin had to walk her son to the nearest public school which was a good distance away.

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that Daido and Glassman had very different views about Zen practice, and they went their separate ways before the year was up.

“By Spring, John realized he couldn’t stay in Riverdale and that he needed to find his own place. He didn’t exactly have it as an agenda, but we have a friend who lives here in Mount Tremper who was one of the students in the photography class many years ago. And his name is Neil, and he invited us up for a weekend because he wanted to show John this place. ‘Oh, you’re just going to flip out. It’s perfect!’ They’d been communicating every once in a while. We drove up. John, Neil, Asian, and myself came here. It was a crisp Spring day; the sun was shining. The gate was closed, and we parked outside the gate and walked in. And I saw John go pale. I saw him actually unable to breathe, he was so impressed and excited. He just kind of held onto the wall there, and he said, ‘What is this place?’

“The story is it was built around the turn of the century out of wood and then burned down and then they rebuilt it with stone, quarried here on the mountain, and the oak trees that they lumber. It was Norwegian priests. The property was inherited by this Norwegian priest, and he came here to build himself a church. And he built a big church. And he had Norwegian carpenters and helpers and other priests do this, as well as the neighborhood community and the mountain tradesmen and craftsmen. So when they rebuilt it in—I think the sign says it was completed in 1926—this is what it looked like. But when we saw it, it had gone through many, many different owners. After the Norwegian priest had passed on, everything kind of fell apart. For a while it was run by a bunch of nuns, who thought it would make a nice nunnery. After the nuns fell apart, somebody told us that there were Russians who came in and wanted to take it over and yadda yadda yadda. And eventually it was just boarded up and left to die.

“However Harold Harr and his wife and their twelve children and the Lutheran community from Long Island were looking for someplace to have a children’s camp in the summer. And that was—I guess—the late ‘60s maybe? And all of them would come up from Long Island and run a children’s camp for under-privileged children out of New York City. So each summer, they would have a couple of hundred kids here. There was a swimming pool right underneath this building. We tore it up and built this building over it. And all the windows were broken. There was bubblegum stuck on everything.

“So the day that we came, Harold was sitting here on the grass, on the hill, looking at the building. He had come by himself, and it’s early March, and he’s looking at the building, and he’s thinking, ‘I just can’t do this another year.’ He was worn out. His kids were older. He and his wife had been chief cook, camp directors, yadda yadda. You know? And it’s 200 acres! So he was just sitting here, starting to figure out what he had to do. Lots of developers wanted to buy it. The Lutheran Church that he’d been associated with thought it would be a huge benefit if they sold it and got rid of it and didn’t have to deal with it anymore. And Daido comes walking up the drive, very slowly, with Neil and our son, Asian, behind him, and he sees this man, and he just walks straight towards him. And Harold stands up, and they shake hands. They both sit down on the grass; they start talking. And Neil had to go someplace. Asian and I went down to the river, and we fiddled around. It was freezing cold, but we walked all around. Kept checking to see if they were still there. A few hours later, when Neil came back, John was standing here, shaking hands with Harold Harr. So Harold goes back down, gets in his car, and John comes back to Neil and says, ‘I think I just bought this place.’ He was sparkling! He was thrilled. He had twenty-five cents in his pocket.

“So on the drive home, I go, ‘What are you thinking? Who do you think is gonna clean that big old house?’ I was again, like, crazed! I could not believe that he wanted to move into that place! Well, when we got back, the first thing he had to do was discuss it with Bernie Roshi and Maezumi Roshi. They got in a three-way phone conversation, Maezumi in California, Bernie and John in Riverdale. And Maezumi said, ‘If that’s what you really want to do. You know, Bernie needs you.’ He tried to keep them together. But they both knew that it was the best thing to do. So we proceeded to beg for funds from people who might be interested in forming a Zen/Arts community.”

Daido was able to borrow $10,000 from friends for a down payment on the property. The immensity of the project he had undertaken was daunting, and there were times he questioned himself. But one morning he was in a coffee shop in Woodstock browsing through a copy of the local newspaper and came upon a review of a book called Mountain Spirit. The headline included a passage from Dogen which Daido had copied into his own journal just before leaving Los Angeles: “These mountains and rivers of the present are the manifestation of the way of the ancient Buddhas.” As Yushin said, it seemed to be written in the stars.

“So that was the idea from the start?” I ask. “To focus on both Zen and the arts?”

“Absolutely. And that was a challenge in itself. I remember Bernie Glassman introduced us to Lex Hixon, who had a radio show, WBAI, in Greenwich Village. Lex has passed on, of course, but I think the show is still on the air. It was very New Age, and Lex was this elegant tall, blonde man who wore white robes from studying with a teacher—Sufi, maybe—in India or somewhere, and Lex was so happy that we had contacted him to see if we could get on the radio to put an appeal out—just to put feelers out—to see how many people would be interested. Lex agreed to a Sunday morning at 9:00, and I was sitting by the one telephone in the house with the number that they had given out. I was to answer the phone and take names and phone numbers and addresses to send people information. It was just to get some idea how many people might be listening and how many people might be interested. All I said was, ‘Hello?’ I did that 125 times. That’s how many people called during that one-hour show. And by that time I was writing on every scrap of paper and upside down and all around. And I’d thought I was going to get maybe two phone-calls.

“125 people were very interested, and Daido being who he was—brilliant in that way—immediately decided the name was going to be the Zen Arts Center. He had a logo. He had information printed up, and we mailed it all out. And we decided that sometime early summer we would have a meeting here for the weekend. About a hundred people showed up.”

Yushin was concerned about the practicalities of housing that many participants. “There were beds, but they had bedbugs. Everything was a mess. Basically it was, ‘Bring your own bedding and provide your own space. You can have a tent or you can sleep on the floor. Whatever.’”

She and Daido arrived a couple of days before the retreat was to begin and found a motorcycle club camping on the hill. “Daido walked up, and the leader sort of surfaced and came to him, and they talked, and he told them what we were about to do in two days. And he said, ‘You know, this property is also part of the campgrounds across the road.’ Which is right on the river. He asked them if they would like to camp there. It meant that they had to move everything, and some of them didn’t want to move. So the ones with the children stayed and everybody else moved across the road.

“We proceeded with these people finding their way here, parking everywhere. God knows where they came from. They were hippies. They were military. They were in robes. They were anything and everything. All interested in the Zen Arts Center. In the meantime, a photography group had contacted Daido and wanted to associate here. It was out of Millerton and was called Aperion. They were accredited with some other photography school, and Peter Schlesinger was the head of that. He was a photographer that Daido had met through Minor White, and he wanted to be able to come and live here with us and become students of Zen and have photography a big part of the center. At first Daido thought that was a good idea. It lasted about twenty minutes. Peter and his students also came that weekend. Maybe ten of them.

“And Peter and Daido sat up at the head—where the altar is—they sat up at the head of the room, sitting cross-legged. We brought blankets and things. There were wooden pews along the wall that the Lutherans used when they did church services. So my son and I sat in the wooden pew at the top corner. And all these other people were coming in, and we thought they were going to sit in zazen, like we did in Los Angeles, like we did in Riverdale whenever there was a meeting. But these people weren’t trained. They weren’t interested. They could care less, or they didn’t know how to do it. We have a photograph, and it’s hysterical. They are lying down, sitting up, sitting together, wrapped in blankets, spread out, a hundred of them in every different way. It looked so chaotic and crazy. And I’m sitting on the bench, and I’m going, ‘Oh, my God! These people are crazy. This is another crazy scheme.’ I had no idea how he was going to do it. But he was driven, and—as you see—it happened.

“But Peter and Daido were sort of like a two-headed dragon. They were both Geminis to start with, and they were both very creative, and they both had definite ideas of what they wanted to do here. Peter wanted it to be photography classes, workshops, programs, free-thinking. He wanted to encourage musicians and artists to come, which, in the end, is what we do here anyway. Peter wanted programs to happen very late at night and wasn’t interested in the early morning meditation.”

Daido had a different vision. “He was a very organized person from the Navy and Zen training and from probably before that. He wrote out a schedule. Dawn: you wake up, then zazen. Breakfast. Work practice. Lunch. Nap or rest period. Work practice. Dinner. Meditation. That was the schedule, and that’s how it’s been for 34 years. And he was not giving in on that. Peter, on the other hand, had concerts out here on the grass. People drinking, smoking, doing all the things that people did at that time, going home at 2:00 in the morning. And those of us who were going to be sitting . . . well, there would be like three of us in the zendo in the morning.

“The break, when it came, was not a good one. The break in Riverdale with Bernie was easy. They had a party for us. They gave us gifts. We said goodbye. We had big to-dos, dinner parties. Maezumi came from Los Angeles. Bernie came from Riverdale. And it was a very amicable split. The split with Peter Schlesinger and the Aperion Photograph School was not. Some of the students that came with him wanted to stay here. They wanted to study with Daido; they wanted to study Zen. Not too many, a handful. But that wasn’t good for Peter. He was very embarrassed. He was angry. He had put a lot of time, effort, money, and energy into it, and he didn’t like the way this was coming down.”

After the photography group left, Daido set about establishing a more formal training center. “We got a new sign: Zen Mountain Monastery. Then the serious students started to come. People like Shugen—Geoffrey Arnold—who’s head of the order now and Ryushin—Konrad Marchaj—and Bonnie Myotai Treace.” These three would become Daido’s only heirs.

Despite marital difficulties, Yushin and Daido retained a good working relationship. “I was teaching the tea ceremony, raising our son, and doing whatever needed to be done. I was the cook, the ino—the one who starts the chanting—I was the monitor; I was in the front office; I was on the phones. It was very busy. We lived in that little white house over there. It’s called the Jizo House and is presently the monastery store. We had one phone in the front office and an extension in the house. For the whole first year, that’s all we could afford, one telephone with an extension. So I was in the office. Whoever called, if they wanted to talk to John, I would run over to the house and say, ‘You’ve got a phone call.’ He’d pick up over there; I’d run back to the office. This was during the day when my son was at school. I was always in the office or the kitchen. I lost 50 pounds because I was constantly running! After a while we developed a flag system. He was very organized. I would put the flag up. If he was looking out the window, he’d see he had a phone call. It was a hoot.

“I don’t know how. . . . The universe gave us everything we needed. It was amazing. Time went on, and people came. Wonderful people who were very devoted and very interested and very committed to the practice. And things started to happen. We had two Japanese monks who Maezumi Roshi sent from Japan—Dosho Sawakawa and Seido Suzuki—and they did all of the instruments that you see. They got them from Japan, and they made the bases out of trees that they would find in the woods. They helped with everything—the kitchen—and they organized everything. It was beautiful. I loved them. It was only one year, and I really cried when they left because they were a tremendous help. They are both now heads of temples in Japan.

“Eventually we had people who wanted to live as residents. So they had to really renovate the rooms to make them liveable because they were all in disarray. They were a mess. Eventually we ran out of space and started to work on the cabins and A-frames. So people would have really pleasant places to live. And it just grew and grew and grew.

“Daido was married four times. I was number two. I’m still around though. I don’t know. Can’t get rid of me too easily. Number three was Bonnie Myotai Treace. She had been a writer, a teacher of writing at a college in Florida and was very serious. It was about the time I decided I wanted to move into the French Inn next door. I needed to get off the campus a little bit,” she chuckles. “We separated. I moved in next door. Bonnie entered, and they became teacher-student-friend and from there to teacher-student-Dharma successor. Then she needed a place to teach that was not here, and he decided that something in the city might be good. ‘Why don’t you look around?’ And she did and found this magnificent building. And she got loans from the bank, and she got a community together and started teaching there.

“Wife number four, Rachel, came onto the scene about seven years before Daido died. She was not a Zen student. She met him at a gallery opening. They had photography in common. She’s a cinematographer, a very fine photographer, and an artist as well—a lot of different medias, watercolor, oils. But photography was the connection for them. She wanted to know more about his work. He wanted to know more about her work, and they started to meet for coffee. She didn’t come into the monastery as a student. She was not at all interested in Zen Buddhism or meditation. But they had a keen connection and fell in love—I suppose—through the eyes of their cameras. So she moved into the abbacy and lived there for a number of years, maybe three or four—not too many—three or four.

“I was always around. We had the child, and the child grew up, got married. Now we have a grandchild, he’s eleven. So all of us were friendly, very connected, always seeing each other. And I was still a student here at the monastery. When the transformation happened from husband to teacher and I moved off campus, that’s when I seriously started to study with him as a teacher and went into dokusan more than ever before. More than with Maezumi. But anyway, Rachael moved in. They became a couple. She wasn’t around too much. She had her own life.

“Then one day he calls me up, and he goes, ‘Yushin, do you remember where our divorce papers are?’ And this was like twenty years before. I said, ‘Oh, my God. No. Maybe I can get a copy for you.’ He needed it to marry Rachael. He wanted to marry Rachael.

“After he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the monks did everything they could, running this place when he was not well or going to treatment. I brought Italian food over there all the time; whatever Italian dish I was making, I would bring it over to him. And our son was always coming and going. And we saw the changes happening; he started to get frail and fragile. And he wanted to marry Rachael, and we needed to get all the paperwork in order before he could do that, so that she would have authorization for him at the hospital. The monks couldn’t always do it. I couldn’t do it. Our son wasn’t always available to go to the hospital if he had an episode or a seizure or something. So they got married real quick, and it was a beautiful thing. Ryushin married them, and the photograph is beautiful, and the community was happy about it.

John Daido Loori died on October 9, 2009, at the age of 78.

“Rachael comes around at Thanksgiving and at Christmas time, and I know where she lives. I call her and email occasionally. But she didn’t have anything to do with Zen. So she’s living in Woodstock, and she’s the widow, at this point. So . . . I . . . I still miss him. Daily.” She doesn’t need to say so; I can hear it in her voice. “He was the biggest part of my life. I followed the man around for over forty years. First he was my friend, then he was my lover, then he was my husband, then he was the father of my child, then he was my teacher. And once that happened, you don’t let go of that. I didn’t divorce him as my teacher.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 65, 224-25, 228, 232, 239, 251-269, 274, 280, 418-19, 47

The Story of Zen: 271, 272, 307-08, 336, 353, 355, 356, 357, 358, 378, 379

Katherine Senshin Griffith

Zen Center of Los Angeles

Katherine Senshin Griffith is an actress, a writer, and a stand-up comedian. She is also the current head teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. She was raised in Texas and, on occasion, slips back into the regional accent.

Her father had been a professor at Our Lady of the Lake, a Catholic university in San Antonio. “He taught English,” Senshin tells me. “But also sometimes he would do the Great Ideas or Theatre and Film and all that sort of stuff. He was a great guy.”

“Were you a Catholic family?” I ask.

“My Dad was very liberal, and my parents left the church when I was in about fifth grade, and I was never confirmed. But my father was – to paraphrase Joyce – ‘super saturated in the religion in which he said he disbelieved.’ He was just totally Catholic, but he left the raft behind, I would say.

“I went to a Catholic school that was connected to teachers learning how to teach at the college. It was a private school that we got free because my father worked there. Although my mother said, ‘Wasn’t free. Your father earned that.’ But all the professors started having home masses, like very guitar and ‘Kumbaya,’ and you passed around the host and all that kind of stuff. And my littlest brother had his first communion ’cause he just took the wafer and he ate it, and my parents were like, ‘Aww!’ When my parents stopped going to church, we weren’t allowed to stop going to mass unless we gave a week’s notice. But what was cool was that when I was going into high school – I was the oldest – my father gave me a choice. ‘You can either continue to take catechism or you can go on walks with me, and we can talk about the big issues.’ So we would take these long walks in the country, and he would type up these questions like, ‘What is God? What is Man? What is one’s purpose? What is the purpose of the state? What is one’s duty to others? What is pantheism? What is . . .’ He just brought these alive questions, and it was so cool.”

“Alive questions” is a term Senshin returns to several times during our conversation, questions that demand our focus and attention but which often don’t have clear answers

Senshin left Texas to go to New York where she studied at Julliard and began a career in the performance arts.

“I first heard the word ‘zazen’ when I was doing a performance art piece on the lower Eastside with Tim Miller, and he came into one rehearsal in the morning, and he said, ‘I just did zazen.’ And I thought, like, ‘Hmm? That sounds like something I should do.’ At Julliard, we did a lot of Alexander work which has a Zen quality, and we would lie on the floor forever just breathing. Just breathing. And then we all realized, ‘Oh, wow! This breathing stuff makes us more focused before we have performances.’”

“And did you immediately seek out a zendo?” I ask.

“No. I think that was, like, in the summer of 1984, and it wasn’t until February of 1987 that I actually got into a zendo, which I looked up in in the white pages.” She laughs. “That was the only thing there was. The Zen Studies Society. This was in Manhattan.”

ZSS was led by the controversial Eido Shimano, although – as Senshin explains – he was seldom actually in Manhattan, preferring to remain at the elegant Dai Bosatsu Monastery he had built in the Catskill Mountains.

Senshin attended regular sittings at the Society from 1987 to 1990. She was limited in how often she could participate because she was also performing a lot at the time.

“You could only go on Thursday nights until you became a member, and you couldn’t be a member until you’d gone to six Friday classes, so I didn’t do that. I wasn’t a member until 1990, and then I thought, ‘Whatever. I’ll be a member.’ And then they said, ‘Oh, we’ve changed the rules. You can just pay and you’re a member.’ And then from 1990 I did as many of the weekend sesshins as I could, and I went to almost every Thursday night and Saturday morning. If I was out of town performing or something, there were times I missed. But I really took to it. It was just delicious.”

“Did you identify Eido Roshi as your personal teacher?”

“I didn’t even know you did that.”

The conversation inevitably veers towards Shimano’s reputation for inappropriate behaviour with his female students which resulted in the board pressuring him to resign in 2010.

“I had read a little bit,” Senshin tells me, “so I knew he had had a past problem, and I thought it was just like a lonely guy, and I didn’t see it. But I have to say when the Aitken stuff came out that changed everything for me.”

When Robert Aitken released his private papers to the University of Hawaii, it became known that Shimano’s sexual interference with female students went back as far as 1963, when Aitken and Shimano had been invited by the director of a Medical Center to volunteer with patients suffering from mental illness. Coincidentally, two women associated with the Aitken’s Zendo had recently been hospitalized there because of “breakdowns.” A social worker reviewing their case files discovered that each reported having been involved in an affair with Shimano.

“I will say this, I always saw him as flawed. And I think I was too yang for him ever to put any . . . I was never in danger of any moves or anything like that because I was always coming in expressing the Dharma to him. And I didn’t give power to him. And he expressed the Dharma really well. I never realized the nature of the non-consent and the power dynamics. I mean, I was kind of young so I didn’t know that. It was a different era.”

“You’re a teacher now. You’re in an environment where you work with students. How do reconcile the fact that there were a lot of people who saw him, as you did, as a strong teacher, how do you reconcile that with the Bodhisattva Vows, ‘Endless passions, I vow to uproot’?”

“It’s like artists can create great art, but then there’s what they’re like in their personal life. I think that’s a great cautionary. You need to see the whole. Be aware yourself. Call it out no matter who they are. The Zen Center of Los Angeles has an ethics document that’s like a book practically. It’s called a Sangha Sutra. And we take boundaries classes and all this. But I think it’s a good cautionary. I think it’s better to see flaws than to ‘guru’ someone and just say, ‘This is problematic.’

“I would say,” she continues a moment later, “you can’t escape your conditioning, but you can work on it. And I don’t know if he ever faced that properly. I read that he said he was sorry, but he never really admitted it in a deeper way. He came from a samurai family. He was of a particular generation. I can just look to myself, and I have a lot of flaws. So you can be insightful and flawed. That’s a biggie. But if he wasn’t called for his behaviour, I feel like we’re all part of it. I think you have to call these things out. And I know from my own experience getting out of your own conditioning in one lifetime is not that easy. But what I would tell someone is, ‘Don’t swallow everything, even if you’re maybe not as insightful about the universe, you can still call that out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.’ And so holding that contradiction keeps you alert. And use that to keep you alert and don’t pedestal anyone. Except maybe Thich Nhat Hanh.” She chuckles. “Speak out and use these as cautionaries.”

She left New York and moved to Los Angeles in order to work in television. There she became involved with another center whose founder had been engaged in inappropriate relationships with students. Taizan Maezumi, however, publicly admitted his failings, including alcoholism, apologized, took full responsibility, and went into treatment.

Maezumi died in 1995, while on a visit to Japan. When Senshin, and her partner – Darla Myoho Fjeld – first came to ZCLA in January 2001, the abbot was Wendy Egyoku Nakao, an heir of Bernie Glassman and a founding member of the Zen Peacemakers Order.

“I would say Egyoku Roshi was really my teacher,” Senshin tells me.

“If your father, who used to take you for Sunday walks and discuss the big issues with you, if the two of you were walking and he asked, ‘Kathy, tell me what this is all about. What is Zen about?’ How would you have responded?”

“How I would’ve talked to him about it is, I would say, ‘Dad, you are a bodhisattva. You live your life as a bodhisattva. And Catholicism was your raft that let it go. This is a raft that governs me, that gets me in the moment, that makes me think of others, that lets me see life from the largest viewpoint. And it is just a raft.’ And I think I could have, in dialogue with him, come around to it. My mother is alive, and I do talk to her about it and share some things. I would also say it’s the great – like, Great! – common sense.”

“It makes you think of others?”

“As Bernie Glassman said, it makes you a mensch. It channels you into it.”

“Which brings us back to Eido Roshi. Brings us back to Taizan Maezumi’s problems with booze. There are lots of other examples. So why doesn’t it always work?”

“I would say, who knows? In the past, Eido Roshi could have even been worse. And you’re still responsible for your behavior, but that is a great question. I would say his starting point – and he might have some culpability – but the surrounding society at that time, all those things men have gotten away with in every field, got away with because it hasn’t been called upon because of a power thing. People wanted the Dharma so bad they let him get by with that.”

“Okay, that maybe helps explain how he got away with it, but that’s not what I was asking. If this is a practice that’s supposed to develop both wisdom and compassion, how is it that people can spend their lives not just practicing but, in fact, conveying, promoting, teaching, and yet seem to fall short in the compassion department?”

She considers the question a moment before responding.

“I would call that an ‘alive question.’ A valid alive question. And I would say that itself is a koan, and I wouldn’t let that drop or have an easy answer on my part. I would say to myself, ‘Keep coming back to that question. Why is that?’ And all I can do, I can’t really explain all the casual things with him. I can say, ‘Boy! That exists.’ That existed. That contradiction existed. What can I do with my students, with my practice knowing that I’m full of flaws – they’re not maybe as damaging – that I stay alive to that and not rest and not let that go. I would just say it’s a cautionary, and it’s a non-answered question. And I would say, don’t let it drop, and don’t just answer it easy for Rick. You know what I mean? It’s a ‘keep that to the forefront’ question.”

We circle back to the issue of the Bodhisattva Vows a little later.

“They’re very important. I tell students we want, ‘If I do this, then I get this.’ But why I love the Bodhisattva Vows is it’s no matter how many times! No matter how flawed! Let’s do Eido Roshi. No matter how flawed I see Dharma teachers, I vow to stay alive. I vow to not succumb. No matter how contradictory things seem, I vow to zero in on the truth The endless dimension of it. The boundless dimension with this concrete action, this concrete manifestation of giving my life to this endless quest.

“One of the best things about Eido Roshi was he loved ‘The Impossible Dream.’ ‘This is my quest; this is my passion!’ I understood that as an artist. Zen and arts are very connected. You go into the center of trouble, see the beauty in the simplest things. And you look at problematic aspects of life. One great thing about Shakyamuni, he didn’t say, ‘It’s all cozy.’ He said, ‘Life is suffering.’ That’s the playing field. There’s ways to approach this suffering. But impermanence and attachment are what we’re working with. Even when you look at someone like Cornel West and he says, ‘I’m not surprised that there’s going to be more trouble.’ You know? They say, ‘We’ve solved the race thing,’ or ‘We’ve gotten better with women’s . . .’ No we haven’t! And it might be endless. And there may be backlash. So how do you approach that as a bodhisattva? That’s why the Endless Vows are so fabulous. No matter how much, you have a job to do. I say to people, ‘Both as an artist and a bodhisattva, you don’t need life to be good or pleasant for you to have a job to do. Your job is in negotiation with the world and others. How best can you serve given each moment’s circumstance?’”

I ask, “What does a Zen teacher teach?” When she doesn’t immediately reply, I prod a little bit. “It’s an interesting term – isn’t it? – teacher? We don’t say minister or facilitator, rabbi, priest. We say teacher. You’re the ‘head teacher’ at ZCLA. So what do you teach?”

“I think there’s a koan that says there’s no Zen teachers,” she says, referring to the eleventh case in the Blue Cliff Record.

“Yeah, you’re all a bunch of dreg slurpers.”

“Exactly,” she laughs. “So I would say we hold the training facilities.”

“That’s it? You set out the cushions and mats?”

“Well, we help facilitate the on-going training of Zen. And really trying to bring it out of the students. But I think that’s another alive question that I wouldn’t reduce to an answer. But how do you approach it in practice? Where you don’t feed the students – they say – like a grandmother. ‘Okay, open your mouth. I’ve chewed it for you, now shallow.’ Everyone is so different. Some students, you just witness them. Some are just so caught in their conditioning. Some have been practicing, and they’re gradually letting go, but they’re not even asking the big questions. Some are stuck in the idea of a big question. So you might say, which is the rug that you’re gonna pull out? It’s a dance with meeting people where they are, and everyone’s so different.

“And your students? What do they expect from you? Or of you. What do they come looking for?”

There is a long pause before she speaks in a softer tone.

“I think it’s really weird because I just became a transmitted teacher in December of 2019.[1] But I don’t think . . . Each one comes differently. I would say people are mostly working on themselves. And I don’t know if it’s a witness they want or guidance. In some ways they just check in about their practice.”

“Well, Los Angeles. So there are lots of options. Why you? What did they come to you for?”

“That’s a great question. And I’m not sure there’s one answer. I think what I said, I think some people do want to check in. They want accountability to stay on course. And then, why they choose me? I don’t know.”

“I didn’t mean you specifically so much, but why did they choose Zen? After all, they could have taken a weekend mindfulness course, and they could even get an instructor’s certificate after about 48 hours.”

“That also is a great point. I do think Zen students have . . . It’s not for everyone. And it does have a bit of rigor to it. I love Zen students. There is something . . . You’re willing to sit and be uncomfortable and be told what to do and yet not fall into a trap of guruness. And face yourself and sit still and work with others. There’s something in you that goes, ‘This is helpful.’ I think a shadow-side of the people who come to Zen is they’re very dedicated. They’re very serious. They’re willing to sit through it all. And they have a little bit of perfectionism. I’m against fundamentalism. They can be hard on themselves. They’re very serious and, I tell them, ‘Stop taking yourself seriously. Put yourself in a bigger context. You’re not the center of the universe.’ You know what I mean? And we’re all full of flaws.

“Of course, there’s a beauty to Zen, too. And a beauty to life even in its suffering. There’s a kind of peace and joy going into the center of what is problematic. And going back to the Eido Roshi thing, if you can go into the center of it and just say, ‘This is!’ I’m not saying it’s not. Beautiful little babies can get cancer. And things happen in life. This is the nature of things. And let’s not be purists. Everything’s got kind of an ingredient, and how do we work with all those ingredients for benefit? And facing those harsh things in life, and with a bit of . . . I used to do an act where I played a Texas channeler Miss Pretty Hand. She would go under, and then she would channel all these spirits. And it was right when I was doing my first Zen stuff, but I parodied a lot of religions. I had an apocalyptic weather team. I had a blind preacher and a parrot saying, ‘This is good. This is bad.’ It was kind of a vaudeville thing. But dissolving that kind of thinking is what Zen is. Like in the Diamond Sutra. ‘There is no such thing as Tathagata. Tathagata is just a name, and therefore we call it Tathagata. And that’s the Tathagata!’ There’s such beauty in that. I always say to people, ‘Do you really want to be able to say it?’ Do you want to resolve it and put it in a box? Or is that open-endedness, that aliveness what is really the nature of existence and your alignment with it?”

[1] Our conversation took place November 11, 2022.

Kate Hartland

Bright Sea Zen Sangha, Weymouth, MA

When Kate Hartland was growing up, her parents were atheists, but Kate wondered if she was missing something. “My neighbors were all involved in churches, and I felt the lack of something.” So at the age of ten, she walked to a local church, “maybe a mile away,” went inside and wondered “could I be part of this? Is this for me? And I absolutely realized it was not right for me.” She was still, however, “casting about for something meaningful to fill that hole.” She didn’t find it until she was in high school and came upon some books about comparative religions. “And the Buddhist part really appealed to me.”

“In what way?” I ask.

 “The questioning. Like, ‘What is this about? How can this be happening? What is this reality?’ Questions about what it all was.”

For her 16th birthday, she gave her parents “a list of books from the Vedanta society. I said, ‘Get me these. Here’s where you can send for them.’”

Then in college, one of her professors invited Philip Kapleau to give “a one-day seminar. The first half explained how to practice, and in the second half we got to do it. So here it was. I was given a way to begin. And this professor created a sitting group, which I attended.”

After graduation, she used vacation time from work to go to retreats at Kapleau’s Rochester Center. She was still traveling back and forth between her home in Maryland and Rochester, when Toni Packer – who had been left in charge of the Zen Center when Kapleau briefly moved to Santa Fe – announced that she could no longer practice as a Buddhist. Packer started her own community which eventually became the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry.

Kate followed Toni. Her retreats, Kate says, “were refreshing. One of the mind-blowing things was that all the sittings were optional. I always had difficulty around 2:00 or so, that mid-afternoon time when I’m just as sleepy as can be. So I decided I would give myself a chance to take a nap. And I always like to get up and sit in the middle of the night. So I could nap at that low part in the day and then I could have my very quiet time in the middle of the night to come down and sit in the zendo. I loved being able to order things that way, that I was trusted with that.”

For fourteen years, she regularly attended retreats at both Rochester and Springwater. Then – as she puts it – her life exploded. She and her husband divorced while their children were still young. “I was basically a half-time single mom working full-time; I was also in graduate school and overwhelmed by all of it. So practice went to nothing. I wasn’t practicing any more, and that was the case for the next twelve years. And I found out firsthand how completely I could run my life into the ground by focusing on what I wanted and driving relentlessly towards that and how much suffering that created for me and everyone around me. I recognized that I needed to start over. I had a friend in Boston. I went up to visit. I liked it. And I applied for one job. I thought, ‘If I get the job, I’ll make the move, and if I don’t, I’ll stay in Maryland.’ I got the job. So that changed everything, and, in a way, it didn’t change anything, because, of course, I brought my mindset with me – right? – that had caused me so much trouble.

“About a year and a half or two years into my time here in Boston, I woke up one morning and felt so miserable, so forlorn, and so lost. And I looked over into the corner of my bedroom, and there was my old zafu that I had carried with me all those years. And I thought, ‘It’s time for me to get down to it. I can’t keep going in this direction.’”

She started sitting on her own, “Then I thought, ‘You know, I really need a teacher. I need somebody to help guide me here and maybe some support of other people.’ So I started looking into what was in the Boston area. And lo and behold, a short bus ride was a smorgasbord of different types of Buddhist groups.”

She went to the one nearest her, which was an Insight Meditation Center. “I went a few times, but I’d pretty much imprinted on Zen and that wasn’t this. I went to the next one, which was the Korean Cambridge Zen Center. That felt a little bit more like what I recognized as practice but was very formal, and after sitting with Toni for a while I’d lost my taste for that.” The third center she visited was in James Ford’s Boundless Way collective. The teacher – Josh Bartok – was younger than she, but she immediately felt at home and trusted him. “In speaking to him in dokusan and listening to his talks, I recognized something that felt true to me. I felt like we were on the same path and speaking the same language, so this was someone I could work with. And he had just enough lack of confidence in himself to make me feel comfortable with him,” she says, laughing. “He wasn’t a towering figure.”

Kate eventually became Josh’s heir.

She had already received transmission when the Boundless Way collective fell apart after James moved to California. Then Josh was dismissed by the board of directors at the Greater Boston Zen Center, and he returned his robes to James.

Kate and the Bright Sea Zen group are no longer affiliated with GBZC, and she admits that several of the communities no longer affiliated with the former Boundless Way collective “are struggling to find some other model than what we have experienced that supports teachers so that we can teach and be useful and relevant. That was not emphasized at either Boundless Way or Greater Boston. Somehow teachers were supposed to be a finished product. That is not my experience. We have to reinvent what works for us because there’s nothing to fall back on. That’s been the difficulty at least since leaving Greater Boston. Finding out what works for lay people teaching lay people independently. I don’t really want to be independent. I want to have a like-group of teachers. So we’ve created this Dharma Wheel Asanga which is a consortium of teachers and not of their separate groups. We teach independently, but we respond to one another and support one another and have group functions such as retreats or jukai. But I really feel like we’re inventing it almost from the ground up. That’s what I see as the challenge for us right now.”

She also recognizes that it is not Zen per se that is essential. “Awakening happens regardless of Zen. Right? It’s not dependent upon that. So, should the entire practice of Zen die away, someone will reinvent it according to their culture. So there’s nothing that can get lost – right? – reality is this way, and if we just look, we will find this out.”

Further Zen Conversations: 46; 146-47; 157.

Cynthia Kear

Russian River Zendo

Cynthia Kear is a Soto priest in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage attached to the Russian River Zendo north of San Francisco. She is also one of the most articulate spokespeople for that form of Zen I have interviewed.

She was raised on the East coast, but after college she moved across the country to the west coast. “I was looking for a big change, mostly to get away from my suffering family.”

“Suffering in what way?” I ask.

“I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with lots of -isms – alcoholism, undiagnosed, untreated mental health – the usual kind of chaos. My father was an alcoholic. We have a lineage going back as far as I can see back to all my ancestors having some sort of an -ism. Alcoholism. Co-dependency. My mom was also a heavy drinker. I don’t know if she was an alcoholic, but she did her best to keep up with my dad. And she certainly was a co-dependent. Right? So, yes. And sadly my father suffered greatly with this all the way through to the end of his life and wound up being estranged pretty much from his family and being a very isolated person who never found a paradigm for resolving his suffering. A solution. And all of my siblings had some form of addiction. So, I thought, of course, as most people who grow up in dysfunctional families think, ‘Oh, I will never be like them.’” She laughs wryly. “My drinking was wine out of very nice crystal; theirs was Budweiser out of Styrofoam coolers.”

“Did your family belong to a faith tradition?

“Yep. Catholicism. We had priests, and we had nuns, and we had very devout practitioners of Catholicism. And by my own choice, half of my education was in Catholic schools including high school. So yes, but in my sophomore year I was introduced to the existentialists and the nihilists, and I thought, ‘Oh, finally! Here’s a paradigm that makes sense! Life is suffering and meaningless. Okay.’ I did eventually grow out of that, but . . . So, yes, after college I wanted to get away and kind of establish a different life. So I came to San Francisco.”

Then when she was 32 she was involved in “a car accident that was definitely due to being under the influence, and I knew I needed to wake up and to do something different.” The something different was to enter recovery.

“My youngest sister was a cocaine addict who was shipped out to me because I was the ‘more stable one’ – relatively speaking – and together we discovered recovery. And it was kind of like finding Buddhist practice. It was eye-opening. It was like, ‘Oh, wait a second! This is not insanity. This is something very specifically that we can call a certain type of suffering. And here is the solution. Here is the medicine to wake up and transform that suffering.’”

She has now been in recovery for 37 years.

There is a spiritual component to most recovery programs; Cynthia, however, tells me that she knew “a Judaeo-Christian paradigm was not going to work for me. Having, by my own efforts, spent a lot of time in Catholicism, patriarchy, theism, too much emphasis on an afterlife as opposed to here and now. So when I found Buddhist practice, it was like, ‘Wow! Here’s a solution to any other type of suffering that I have in my life.’”

I ask how she discovered the practice.

“A friend of mine was going to the San Francisco Zen Center, and we were having dinner, and I said, ‘I’m looking for something else.’ And she said, ‘Well, why don’t you join me?’ And so I did, and I entered the doors at 300 Page Street and that started my journey about 35 years ago. And I really haven’t left. I mean, I kind of stayed on the periphery because at first I thought they were all a little intimidating, and I wondered, ‘Was this a cult?’”

She admits that she didn’t find the people particularly friendly at first.

“But I loved the Dharma talks. They really fed my heart and my mind. So I kind of stayed around the corner – around the periphery, if you will – and a lot of friends said, ‘You should get more involved.’ And I knew that I wanted to get more deeply involved. But I think that from a personal perspective, what kind of deepened my practice and both drove me deeper as well as invited me more deeply into the Dharma of the transformation of suffering was when my younger sister was dying of breast cancer. She was just my favourite person in the world; ten years younger and with little kids, and it was just so traumatizing. I was about 50 at the time. I hadn’t experienced a close or a young death at that point in time. And so I clung to the Dharma. I dove into the Dharma and clung to the Dharma in terms of understanding – you know, trying to understand – with just great fervour. And I did find a lot of wisdom and, again, solace and a way of contextualizing impermanence. Right?  Then Blanche Hartman was giving a Dharma talk one day. And, you know, everybody has kind of their Dharma talk that they give – the essence of it – and this was one of her jukai Dharma talks. And she was talking about the etymology of ‘jukai,’ and that we plunge, we plunge into this life, into these vows knowing that they’re impossible to take. And, you know, I’d been hanging around for three or four years, and I just thought – it was just an epiphany; it was just in that moment – ‘Oh! Like swan diving from up above off of a cliff into the ocean! That’s what I want to do! I want to just plunge! And I want to keep plunging! And I never want to stop!’”

Further Zen Conversations: 17-20; 50; 100-01; 134-40.

Peggy Sheehan

Zen Center of Denver

Peggy Sheehan is one of the Spiritual Directors – along with Karin Kempe  – of the Zen Center of Denver founded by Danan Henry, an heir of Philip Kapleau. Both Peggy and Karin have medical degrees, although Karin is now retired. I ask Peggy if she is jealous.

She laughs and admits, “I didn’t use to be, but I’m getting’ there.”

She encountered Buddhism just prior to entering medical school. She was visiting a friend, Lola Lee, in San Diego. Lee had moved to San Diego to work with the early Zen Pioneer, Henry Platov. While she was visiting, Peggy attended the practice sessions facilitated by Lee and Platov, and, at one them, Lee spoke about the differences between the Christian and Buddhist perspectives. Although she can’t remember the exact words Lee used, the impact of what she said struck Peggy deeply.

“I think the difference was that one is based in ‘original goodness’ and the other emphasized ‘original sin.’ And that had a strong resonance for me, the sense that, ‘Oh, yes, you possess this original goodness that just needs to be touched and uncovered and experienced’ in contrast to being brought up with a strong emphasis that we are originally bad and need healing.”

I was unfamiliar with Lola Lee and Henry Platov, who – it turned out – were responsible for establishing the Hidden Valley Zen Center near San Diego, whose current guiding teacher is Mitra Bishop. In later correspondence after our conversation, Peggy tells me that Platov was briefly referenced in James Ford’s book, “Zen Master Who?” and that she appreciated Ford noting: “without clear documentary evidence, these early pioneers will continue to be footnotes in the history of Zen Dharma in the West. Nevertheless, they and many others devoted years to sharing the Dharma in the West. Although their influence is gradually vanishing, many contemporary teachers owe a great deal to these increasingly forgotten ancestors.”

“I am one of those who owe a great deal,” Peggy says.

Listening to Lola speak, Peggy says she felt as if “for the first time I heard some authentic teaching. I thought, ‘This I have not heard, and this I have wanted to hear my whole life.’ And that planted a seed that would not go away, would grow and grow over time. I did have to go to medical school and do residency. But I got myself a little meditation cushion and a mat. Lola had given me a koan to work on that I never did work on. But at every transition in my life, I would get out my mat and cushion and would sit there. I would have a place for it. Some weeks or months would go by, and I’d roll it up and put it back in the closet. That happened for ten years. So we call this ‘awakening your bodhicitta’ – the mind that seeks the way. We all possess it. You never know when it will get touched or awakened, but that’s what happened. Lola awakened my bodhicitta, something that I wouldn’t have said I knew was there.”

Peggy didn’t take up what she calls “serious practice” until she had finished her residency and was working. “That kernel stayed with me all that time, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘When are you going to go back to that?’ So, I had been in a relationship that was about ten years strong, and it just fell apart. And that proved to be the right time to go back. That’s when my questions arose again, in those times that are sort of distressful to us. I would wake up very early in the morning, and I would walk to the park. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, you know, what is this thing called “unconditional love”? Because if I truly understand it and embody it, then, of course, it would be completely fine for my lover to leave me like that because I would want them to be happy and to do what they need to do. So that was my question. ‘What is this thing that we call “unconditional love”?’ And I think everybody has some question that drives them to take up a serious spiritual practice. They may not always be able to articulate it. But the question stayed with me, and as you continue to practice there are more things that you inquire into, that open for you. But I’m always happy to remember, to reconnect with that original question.”

She looked “Zen” up in the white pages of the phone directory – webpages were still a thing of the future – and she found the Denver Zen Center listed there.

“I knew when I made that phone call, I was making a commitment. I didn’t care what it was like, honestly. It felt like genuine practice. It felt like a place that was dedicated to helping us see into the nature of our selves and the world. So, it wasn’t a warm and cuddly place. For a long time, I would go to zazen, and – you know – you put a robe on, and there was a changing room where you might say ‘Hello’ to someone, then you go sit, then you take your robe off, and you leave. And you didn’t really get to know people. You just knew something was compelling you to be there. In my gut and heart, I knew that this practice had this potential. But the container was strong, although it wasn’t – as I said – warm and friendly.”

She pauses a moment then smiles and says, “Oh, here’s one thing that happened: it was only a couple of months in, there was a big snowstorm, and I was at zazen, and they decided to close early. But we were invited to have tea with Danan Roshi. So we went and had tea. And there was – I don’t know – about half a dozen of us sitting there. And Danan Roshi proceeded to tell us about the attrition rates from people taking the introductory seminars. ‘One of you will come back after a seminar. And after five years, only one of you will still be here.’ And as I’m listening to that I knew. I said, ‘Well, I’ll be that one who’s here.’ I just knew it.”

Now that she and Karin are the spiritual directors of the Center, she tells me that they “try to have a little more warmth and friendliness and social time.” But she remains grateful for the training she received and for that initial seed planted by Lola Lee.

Further Zen Conversations: 44; 70-72.

Photo of Peggy Sheehan by Geoff Keeton


Joshin Byrnes

Bread Loaf Mountain, Vermont

Joshin Byrnes is the founder and Guiding Teacher of the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community in Vermont. He is also active in Bernie Glassman’s “Zen Peacemakers” and continues the tradition of Street Retreats that Bernie had conducted, bringing Zen practitioners to live among the homeless in urban centers

Joshin’s life story is compelling. He attended a Catholic seminary for a while, although he stopped short of ordination. Instead of becoming a priest, he earned a degree in Medieval Musicology and took up Zen practice, studying with Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.

He describes his family as working-class poor. “My dad did blue collar work. Sometimes a truck driver, sometimes a floor manager when he worked. He was often unemployed because of his alcoholism or because he had lost a license for driving while under the influence. And then in ’82, my mother died and soon after that, my father became homeless, which influenced my spiritual life pretty deeply.”

For a long while after his mother’s death, Joshin and his father were alienated from one another. “Then later in life he came out of homelessness, and I was already a Zen practitioner. One of the connections I had to Bernie Glassman’s Zen was the street practice which appealed to me. I did a lot of other things; I’d worked in a lot of social services by then. But by the time my father reappeared, I realized I had compassion for all these anonymous people, these strangers who were suffering, but – boy! – when I dealt with my father there wasn’t much compassion there. And I started trying to work on that a little bit.

“Then he got in touch with me and wanted to see me. At first, I didn’t want to go. At this point, I was already at Upaya; I was already practicing. So, this kind of inner confusion or conflict was interesting to me. So I decided to go, and he was living in a tiny little efficiency apartment. There was cigarette smoke and beer cans and open cans of pork and beans and Fox News blaring in the background. To me it seemed like a Hell realm; to him, I think, it was a little bit of paradise. And he told me then that he had esophageal cancer and was dying. And so I sat with him there for a number of days, and over the course of those days – I didn’t realize it at the beginning, but I realized as the conversations went on – he was going to confession to me. He was talking about his regrets in life and was looking for some kind of forgiveness, I think. And the conversations were slow. He wouldn’t look me in the face. We’d sit side by side watching Fox News, and he’d say things like how terrible he was to my mother or things he did and witnessed when he was in the Korean War. The opportunities that he squandered during his life.

“And it went on and on and on, and it struck me, ‘Oh! He sees me as a priest.’ And something about that kind of melted me and softened me. And by the end of three or four days, I decided I would cook him a meal that I knew would please him very much. It was a meal my mother used to cook a lot. And I saw that as – you know, without saying the words – it was a kind of absolution, and it was very touching to have that meal with him. It was very emotional. And that experience really changed me. Yeah.”

Joshin tells me there is a residential training program for novice priests at Bread Loaf Mountain. I ask what the priests do once ordained.

“That’s a very good question. It’s a question we grapple with all the time. We don’t know exactly. These are the questions on the table. What is priesthood? Why do it? What does it contribute to anything? In our tradition, the terms ‘priest’ and ‘monastic’ have been exchanged with one another at different times. We wonder if we are more New Monastics than we are priests. We’re not in the culture that provided the philosophical and cultural context within which Buddhism emerged, and I think that’s part of the experiment of Buddhism in the West.”

The “New Monasticism” he refers to is a concept developed by lay Christians in Britain during the 1970s and ’80s. “I think the distinction between lay and monastic gets blurred in New Monasticism and quite intentionally,” he explains. “In some ways it’s a funny remnant – isn’t it? – that we think only those that have separated themselves from society are capable of reaching high levels of spiritual insight. That is an odd thing, and I think it’s a cultural remnant. I would say we should question that assumption. Anyone is capable of spiritual insight – profound spiritual insight – and spiritual experience. So what are the structures and systems that allow people to practice rigorously even though they are not living on the outskirts of town or up on top of a mountain or in a cave? I think this is a Zen gift. Can our ordinary daily lives, can washing your bowl be a path to awakening? And if we practice whole-heartedly with whatever we’ve got, wherever we are, no matter what conditions we place ourselves in, isn’t the opportunity of awakening always there? Because Buddha’s always there. Your own Buddha Nature is always there.

He tells me about a street retreat in which he had recently participated. “We were incognito, but every day we had some meditation time, and we’d do some chanting and stuff. And one guy in a park noticed us doing this. A very large rotund guy with a big smile. And he called me over one day, and he said, ‘Are you guys Buddhists?’ And I said, ‘Ah! It’s interesting that you ask. Yes. We’re doing this as a Zen Buddhist practice.’ And he said, ‘I’m Buddha.’ And then, before I could respond, he said, ‘So are you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, wow. How’d you get there?’ And he said, ‘Years ago I was in prison, and a Zen Buddhist came in and taught. And he sat down with us, and he didn’t tell us his name. He introduced himself as Buddha. And then he made all of us go around and introduce ourselves as Buddha. And I really understood, right there, that everybody’s a Buddha.’ He said, ‘This made total sense to me, ’cause when I was a kid I was always fat and I was always smiling and everybody called me Buddha. But,’ he said, ‘I get it. Everybody’s a Buddha.’” Joshin smiles. “And I thought, ‘That’s the wisdom of the streets. It’s so beautiful.’”

Further Zen Conversations: 68-69; 137-39.

Joshin with Bernie Glassman, 2015

Rafe Martin

Endless Path Zendo, Rochester, NY

Rafe Martin’s Endless Path Zendo is located three blocks from the famous Rochester Zen Center established by Philip Kapleau.

“You went toe-to-toe with the Kapleau people?” I ask, in surprise.

“No,” he assures me. “My wife and Roshi Kapleau and I were very, very close. His daughter says we were like his family.”

Like many of the people who made their way to Rochester in the early 1970s, Rafe learned about Zen from Kapleau’s book, The Three Pillars of Zen. He was attending graduate school in Toronto at the time and had the opportunity to meet Kapleau during one of the latter’s visits to that city. Kapleau invited the Martins to consider relocating to Rochester, but they didn’t take the suggestion seriously.

Rafe did, however, practice on his own, following the instructions provided in the book. For a while things went well, then he ran into problems. “Serious ones,” he tells me. “In the end I really messed up my nervous system from an unhealthy combination of mis-placed confidence while practicing Zen without a teacher – not recommended! – doing drugs, and being deep in the throes of a combined Masters/Ph. D. program.”

He dropped out of graduate school (one paper and one course shy of completing his Master’s degree) and moved back to the US.

“Rose and I were married already, and we wound up in backwoods Pennsylvania near where we had gone to college – Harpur College which is now Binghamton University – and became part of an extended dropout community. And then we ran into a guy on campus at Harpur who had a sitting group and was going up to Rochester for sesshin. We started sitting with him. And we had lunch with Roshi Kapleau again, this time in Binghamton. And something began jelling. I was still in bad shape. And Roshi kept saying, ‘You should move to Rochester. Then when our son was born, we realized we had to grow up as human beings. Now. It was not a joke. It was up to us to take care of this child and do something about it. So we basically gave up whatever last things we still had and moved to Rochester and started going to sesshin.”

When Rafe and Rose arrived in Rochester, they were the same age as many of the other people making their way to the Zen Center, but their situation was different. “We came already married, with an eight-week-old child. So we were in a totally different realm from most of the people our age who planned on being monks or nuns ’cause that’s the only thing they knew about Zen. We had to actually invent our own path.”

The process was slow. “It took me about fifteen years of very painful practice, a lot of sesshin, while our son and then, later, our daughter were both growing up before I finally settled back down and could move on from there. And all along Roshi Kapleau kept telling me, ‘Just keep at it.’ And I did that for about fifteen years, and then things opened up pretty quickly and I moved along.

“But it became clearer and clearer to me that even though Roshi Kapleau and I were extremely close, the style of training going on there would not be mine. In fact, Roshi Kapleau encouraged me to find my own way. He saw early on that the kind of institutional, semi-monastic residential training was not what I was going to be about. And I think less and less it’s what most people who are interested in an actual practice of realization are about these days. I think family, friendships, affinities, vows that bring us to a certain kind of personally meaningful work, all of these are important parts of the Vow of the Bodhisattva, helping us make our way in this world and do some good. Essentially we mature as the people we are, not by turning away from ourselves, to become something or someone else. This is our foundation, our ground.”

After Kapleau retired, Rafe was invited to Hawaii as a storyteller and writer, and there he connected with Robert Aitken. “I had old friends who were working with him. And I found significant value in re-doing some of my koan practice with Aitken Roshi, which we did for about four years both in-person and by mail.”

After that, he continued koan work with Danaan Henry, who had transmission from both Kapleau and Aitken. “He had both my backgrounds and so could see places where I might be – and usually was – stuck and helped me work through it. Which was transformative. Eventually, working with him, I was able to find a synthesis of the two lineages that had been so deeply important to me.” Danan became Rafe’s transmission teacher.

“As a lay person, for me the Zen Center was not an optimal kind of training, and I don’t present that kind of training here at Endless Path Zendo, even though I’m three blocks away and we have cordial relations. I respect what they do, but I’m very non-institutional. We’re small, intimate, non-hierarchical. I see breath and koan practices – carried on in your own life just as it is – as the foundation of what we offer.  We have, at this point, twenty or so members most living in Rochester, with some in other far-flung parts of the country and one in Europe. Many of my students have worked in other traditions as well as other Zen lineages, some for some time, though we also have a few total newcomers. All in all, I think we’re a good mix with lots of years of solid sitting as our communal foundation.”

The purpose of lay practice, Rafe tells me, is personal maturation. “You mature as a human being. That’s the whole point of the Bodhisattva in Zen, which really means ‘wisdom-being,’ which means someone who is wisely choosing to mature beyond their own unconscious, habitual self-centeredness. So a ‘wisdom-being’ is simply a ‘growing-up human being,’ and lay life is the perfect ground for that. It isn’t a lesser form than residential training or monastic practice. It has its own form. It’s not only valid but totally so, because you can’t hide out in it. You can’t think you’re getting something and then not function in your actual life. You’ve gotta function in life or people couldn’t care less what your training is or that you’re a Zen Buddhist. It’s how you treat them right then. How you interact.”

“What is there about Zen that makes it worth preserving?” I ask.

He takes twelve seconds to consider the question before answering it.

“It’s a path of practice-realization. Let me clarify what I mean. I don’t have much feeling for Japanese style, for wearing certain kinds of clothing, maintaining a certain kind of protocol or certain formulaic behaviors. But I do have a very deep feeling that maturing as a human being is why we’re here. And I also feel very deeply that Zen is one of the most accessible paths to growing up as a human being that there is. And by ‘growing up’ I simply mean becoming aware of that habitual unconscious self-centeredness and not continuing to build our comfy nest there, not continuing to cling to that, not keeping it in the driver’s seat but gradually – and suddenly – to see through it and let it go, so that more and more of whatever we already selflessly actually are can function in and as this life. To me a Bodhisattva is one who is maturing beyond their own anciently habitual self-centeredness. Who knows what’s possible in such a life? But I feel it’s the happiest form of life we can aspire to as human beings. And when you get through all the cultural clutter surrounding Zen, that’s what it’s about. Zen can help us — to one degree or another — actually do this.”

Further Zen Conversations: 7-8; 59-61; 111-12; 134-37; 147.

Gyokuko Carlson

Dharma Rain, Portland, Oregon

Gyokuko Carlson is the retired abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, which she co-founded with her husband Kyogen Carlson, who died in 2014. The two met at Shasta Abbey, the primary teaching center of the Soto teacher, Jiyu Kennett.

Although Gyokuko served as Kennett’s attendant for a while, she tells me that it was less Kennett herself than the abbey and its schedule which became her teacher.

Her first contact with the abbey had been through a meditation course offered at Reed College by an ordained married couple, Shuyu and Gyozan Singer. One evening Shuyu gave a talk on the ethical Precepts of Buddhism.

“And I started to cry while he was going through this because coming back to that kind of groundwork was like coming home, bringing me back to my Christianity without the Christianity. And one of the things that was important in the way that Zen was presented to me was that it’s method, it’s practice, and it’s a way to discover what is true and not have something dictated and imposed.

“One of the things that had bothered me in my teenage years was that I was supposed to ‘love Jesus,’ but I don’t know how to manufacture love. And to love Jesus and to love God as a commandment felt like an unsurmountable hurdle. It’s like from here to there and no intermediate steps, just go from here to there.  And I felt what Zen was offering me was, ‘Don’t worry about there. Just work the steps right here. Just take the next step and see where that leads, and then take the next step.’ And that sense that there is method and there is transformation possible one step at a time was such a relief to me.”

“When you said that you saw the abbey and the schedule as your teacher,” I ask, “what do you mean by that?”

“Well, as I said about the method and the step-by-step, I felt that I was being immersed and disciplined into a way of life that was structuring my mind. We sometimes say about the meditation posture that you’re using your body to direct the mind. And I felt that everything in the schedule and the method of being, the deportment, it was all there to direct the mind.”

“To what end?”

“Clarity in general. I think in my case coming to a realistic and holistic sense of self. A sense of this person being integrated into a larger whole. So I suppose being in community is actually a model for that last piece. You were given a place, a rank, a seat at the table, a seat in the zendo, and you have the integrity of that place, but you also have a responsibility to the whole of the zendo, the whole of the lecture hall, the whole of the community. It’s the model or the microcosm for a larger sense of being a piece, an integral piece, of the whole of the universe. I think one of the gifts in Zen practice is a sense of  what Roshi Kennett used to call ‘natural pride,’ a sense of self worth that is not larger than anybody else’s – does not supersede anybody else’s – but is the basis of respect for all things, that puts you in relationship to all things. I had this sense once walking down the cloister and just being centered in my own breathing and having the sense that my in-breath and my out-breath was the same in-breath and out-breath as the whole of the Earth beneath my feet. And it was not powered by me, and it was not not powered by me.”

“What is about the Precepts that make them so meaningful to you?”

“They are a way of sharpening understanding of self, understanding of karma, understanding where things get screwed up, and how to unscrew them.”

“You’d also said one of the things that caused you to fall away from Christianity was it made demands such as ‘You must love Jesus.’ So how are the Precepts different from the rules and regulations of Christianity?”

“Well, you can teach the Precepts that way. But the way I was taught the Precepts and certainly the way that I try to teach the Precepts, each one of these is a mirror, a koan, it’s something that you cannot keep literally, and because you cannot keep it literally, you need to dig deeper. One of the Precepts that caught me fairly early on is there’s one that says, ‘Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others.’ And, coming out of depression and this feeling that I was worthless, I thought, ‘No problem. I don’t devalue others. I devalue myself. So no problem.’ But then studying the Precepts and reading them over – gliding over that one because it doesn’t have to worry me – there was a day when I realized, ‘Oh! If I turn that upside down, it’s the same Precept. If I’m devaluating myself and elevating others, I’m violating that Precept. So get over yourself, girl.’ Just that if you are making that separation that some are high and some are low, you’re violating that Precept. So where’s the respect in that? Where’s the compassion? So I see the Precepts as a path to joy, not as a path to despair and self-loathing.”

Further Zen Conversations: 102-03.

James Córdova

Benevolent Zen Sangha, Providence

James Córdova was a member of the Boundless Way community in New England, which – as he puts it – “sort of split apart, and then I was affiliated with Greater Boston Zen Center for a while, and then we sort of split apart from them, and now we’re doing another thing.”

“So you were part of the group that separated from Boundless Way?” I ask. I didn’t mean the question to imply a criticism – Zen communities are as susceptible to internal conflicts as any other human endeavor – but I did want to be clear.

“Yeah, that split away from Boundless Way and then split away from Boston. We’re malcontents,” he adds with a laugh.

The “another thing” he’s now doing is the Benevolent Zen Sangha in Providence, Rhode Island.

Zen appeals to a fairly narrow segment of the general population. Zen practitioners, for example, tend to be college educated. A surprising number of Zen teachers are academics or psychologists. James is both. He is the chair of the Psychology Department at Clark University and a licensed clinical psychologist. He encountered Zen while a student at the University of Washington.

“There was a professor, Alan Marlatt, an addictions researcher. The University of Washington was full of a bunch of bigshots, so mostly they didn’t teach; they did their research. But if they ever fell into one of these gaps where they were between grants, then the university made them teach. This is what happened to Alan. He was in a gap between grants and so he agreed to teach a graduate course on the Psychology of Mindfulness, which entailed meeting at his house at 7:00 in the morning and drinking overly strong coffee and browsing through his collection of Buddhist books and then sitting on his couches. He would try to teach us how to meditate, and then we would leave borrowing some of his books and hyper-caffeinated.”

“And that got you interested?”

“It did. It really clicked for me. There were aspects of other things that had been compelling to me up to that point, including,” he says chuckling, “existential psychotherapy and radical behaviourism. And there was a long interest in and exploration of – what? – a  sort of spiritual quest, I suppose, that I fell into as I fell out of Catholicism and started to engage that journey of filling that space and meaning-making in that particular way. So of all the things I’d encountered, the stuff I was making contact with at that point about Buddhism and about Zen just consolidated it.”

He was working on a Ph. D. and didn’t have time to join a practice group, but he did a lot of reading. “All the big ones, like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

The Three Pillars of Zen?” I suggest.

“Everybody had to read The Three Pillars of Zen! Right?” he says with a laugh. “The ones that you could find at the university bookstore. So whatever I could find, I gobbled up. There was a sitting group just down the street from me when I was living in Illinois, and I played with the idea of going to sit with them, but I never did. I actually didn’t start sitting with a group formally until I moved to Worcester in 2002.”

“Why were you reluctant to join the group in Illinois?”

“I was an assistant professor and there was the mad scramble for tenure. And I think there’s just enough of the barrier of weirdness.”

Then he got a job at Clarke University.

“When I moved here, one of the promises I made to myself was to try to find a community and to start to get serious about Zen and about practice. I knew this was where Kabat-Zinn had started MBSR[1] stuff, and so I wondered about maybe starting there as part of my research work. So I went to talk to the head of their research arm here at U Mass in Worcester.” He laughs at the memory. “They weren’t so much interested in cooperating on research. They had their research arm pretty well locked down. But as I talked to the guy and we played with some ideas and he was politely ushering me out the door, I said, ‘I’m interested in finding a sitting group here. Do you know of any in the area?’ And he just walked me down the hall and introduced me to Melissa Blacker who was working for them at the time. It was like a warm handoff. He introduced me to her, and we clicked right away.”

He joined the group Melissa and her husband, David Rynick, were hosting at a local Unitarian Church. Eventually he would become Melissa’s Dharma heir, which was one of the reasons I wanted to clarify that he was part of the group which later “split apart” from Boundless Way.

I ask, “What do people get from Zen practice?”

James chuckles and says, “I hope they come away with more of a sense of humor.”

“A sense of humor wasn’t always associated with the early Zen pioneers,” I point out.

“Right? That picture of Bodhidharma just scowling! But I think there’s a lightness, a presence, a playfulness that is, for me, one of the hallmarks of intimacy, one of the hallmarks of a thorough-going coming-to-terms-with, ‘Oh! This is what it’s like to be a human being.’ And there’s a sense of community and a sense of common humanity that comes with that, and the letting-go-of, the putting-down-of of the struggle. Like, it’s a little bit like being let in on the joke.”

“I have a basic notion that the default nature of people is to be happy,” I tell him, “even though I don’t know a lot of people who share that opinion.”

“Yeah, I think there is something to that. There is a joy that bubbles up that has nothing to do with anything.”

“What about koans?” I ask. “Do they play a role in helping people encounter what you called intimacy? Help them become good humored?”

“Wow!” as if surprised by the question. “I think, honestly – this is oversimplifying it – but there is something in koan practice that is exhausting, and I think that’s their function. I think they are that part of our human experience that wants to figure something out. That wants to conquer something. That wants to climb to the top of something. It’s like something I once read about encountering a poem. This poet was saying that people basically want to throttle meaning out of a poem. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but it was sort of like, ‘I want them to drift through it.’ So there is something in the koan tradition that I think ultimately allows us to encounter the koan and meet it as art, as the moment, as something the expression of which is lively and fluid and temporary. And the, ‘What does it mean?’ or the ‘Did I pass?’ – right? – doesn’t matter.”

Further Zen Conversations: 67-68; 75; 80-81; 99; 122-23; 143.

[1] Mindfulness Based Stress Relief