From My Correspondence with Albert Low

I recently came upon a file of email exchanges I had with Albert Low when I first began formal Zen practice, during an era prior to the advent of Skype or Zoom. These are some extracts from that correspondence:

“Our practice is to follow the breath. While thoughts may present a great obstacle to doing this, nevertheless the practice is not to empty the mind so that it is possible. We follow in the midst of the distractions. In any case, the real difficulty is not the thoughts but our inability to let be, to let go of the illusion of being the controller, the doer. The great difficulty is that we cannot decide to let go.”


As one sits, one will become aware of an “underlying tension, and this tension if allowed to be will become a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, a concern, anxiety, and so on. One must sit in the middle of this confusion.”

Likewise, as one makes an effort to be “present” during the day, one will again be aware of this tension, which is the effort of one’s thoughts to preserve the sense of “I.”


“It is following the breath that is the true spiritual exercise, not following the breath. Generally speaking we cannot follow because we are so anxious to be in control. I might have said at the same time that ‘Thy will be done’ is the basis of all spiritual work.”


“Let me remind you that the difficulty with counting and following the breath is that we have great difficulty letting go. We want to control the situation, do something, do it for a reason, and so on. This keeps the practice in the ‘conscious’ surface mind and under the illusory control of it.”


“Easy or hard, it makes no difference and please do not judge your practice. While you judge your practice you look upon it as something that ‘I’ should do ‘well.’ It is doing the practice that matters, not the result of the practice. I know that this may seem difficult to understand. We are so results oriented. By doing the practice, the deeper parts of the mind are awakened. That you cannot know this is happening makes no difference. It is like a lake. The surface of the lake is always changing but the depths as a rule remain the same. With practice, however, the lake is made progressively deeper. Yet still the surface of the lake is now ruffled, now more calm, now raging, now quiet. The surface is what we are aware of. The depths determine your character; the surface your personality.”


Much of our activity is dedicated to nurturing, developing, protecting and enhancing one’s personality, which is made up of the “memories, judgments, prejudices, ideas, thoughts, and reactions that converge upon a core or center and make up what I call ‘me.’”

Elsewhere, Albert noted that the term used by the Buddha in the First Noble Truth – dukkha – is  the word used to describe an axle which is off-center. That results in there being two centers – the center of the wheel and the center of the axel; the result, of course, is a vehicle which wobbles.

That, he suggests, is how it is with our inner life. “It is as though we are trying to establish, in addition to the natural center of gravity in a situation, a personal pivot or an axle around which the world must revolve. All our struggle and effort, all our relationships with others, are dedicated, at one level or another, to establishing, maintaining, perpetuating this pivot, this center of gravity around which the world must revolve. This means, in turn, that our relationships with others are always in the form of cajoling, pushing, persuading, seducing, forcing, manipulating or whatever, to encourage them to revolve around our center.”

That center is our personality, and, as Albert frequently asserted, “Zen has nothing of value for the personality.”

So: “Make no demands on the practice. As long as we expect something from the practice, we are expecting it from the point of view of that central false pole.”


“A koan isn’t something you’ve been given to solve. It has to be your own question. And the question becomes the answer. I’m sorry that sounds so zenny, but there you are.”

Koun Franz

The first time I met Koun Franz, a friend and I had arranged to visit his center in Halifax. We arrived early and found the door locked. Then we saw a young man with a shaved head, wearing Japanese samugi, approaching with a wide smile. “Wouldn’t it be great if I wasn’t the guy?” he asked us.

I’ve come to know Koun slightly over the years since; he has been a guest in my house a couple of times. I like him; I admire him. I have no doubt that he’s the genuine article, and yet his concept of Zen is so different from mine that at times is seems they have little in common except the word.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of vocabulary.

Kensho – awakening – has been fundamental to my understanding of Zen, my personal experience in Zen, and to the teaching of Albert Low, with whom I practised from 2003 until his death in 2016. Albert was blunt: “ . . . the word Buddha means awakened. To be awakened is to be awakened in, and therefore to, true nature. Zen teachers who teach anything less than this are cheating their students.” Just to be clear, what Albert meant when he said “awakening to true nature” is the attainment of “enlightenment.”

“At this point in my life,” Koun tells me without apology, “I really don’t have any interest in enlightenment. That was such a driving force for so long, but to me, now, it doesn’t hold up. The people I’ve met, by and large, who claim to have had some sort of enlightenment experience are no more mature – by any measure – than anyone else that I know.”

That’s something I recognize from personal experience as well. Over the years, I have met several people whose “enlightenment experiences” have been acknowledged as genuine and yet who remain miserably unhappy – and frequently not very nice – people. The fact is that kensho is not necessarily transformative.

So if Zen practice isn’t about kensho – awakening – what is it about?

“What I’m really interested in,” Koun tells me, “is maturity. I think Zen offers a vehicle by which people can grow up in a profound way. I tell this story a lot: When I was in my senior year in high school, I was about to graduate, I went to a Hallmark store in my town, and they had the graduation gifts – you know they always had the shelf for the season – and one was this little framed thing, and it said something to the effect of, ‘Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions.’ And for me – I was 17 or something – that was a tiny ‘falling away of body and mind.’ I looked at it, and it was absolutely true. And I knew it, and I didn’t want to hear it. I wished I hadn’t seen the sign. But I knew that it was right. And I think what the Zen path does is it offers – through the model of the Bodhisattva – a way to take responsibility for your actions that goes beyond what we usually think that is into a much, much broader vision of adulthood. That’s inspiring to me.”

“What, then,” I ask, “is kensho?”

“It’s an experience. It’s like . . . The first thing I wanted to say is that it’s like a burp of the mind. I mean, it’s a good experience. No one would say it’s not. I think it’s positive when people have those experiences. It’s not a negative. It’s not like, ‘Go put it back.’ But it is as temporary as anything. It doesn’t mean anything. It means you had a good experience. It’s like a drug experience. If someone takes mushrooms, and it inspires them to look more deeply into their mind, to think in a more universal way about something, great. If they take mushrooms and the first thing they do is want to go back and take more mushrooms, they blew it as far as I’m concerned. They missed the opportunity. For me, Zen practice is about a kind of honesty and about a kind of maturity. And that doesn’t require some kind of mind-blowing episode.”

I agree that “mind-blowing episodes” aren’t necessary. In fact, I often find myself agreeing with Koun.

“There’s an important model in my mind of some person who lives in the woods and has no exposure to any of this and discovers all of it. It has to be possible for that person to do that in order for Buddhism to be true, as far as I’m concerned. And if there’s any element of it that that person couldn’t discover, then that is not central to Buddhism. That’s an invention of Buddhism that somehow holds Buddhism up in some way, becomes scaffolding for certain teachings. Right? But to me, that’s a critical part of getting to what’s at the center.”

“Which is?” I ask.

“The basics. Can that person in the woods arrive at impermanence, not-self, and dukkha as kind of unassailable fundamental principles of experience? If they can, that’s a verification, to me, of those things and a verification – to me – of what Buddhism is.”

And that, too, is my personal experience, that one can come to a recognition of these principles without having been led to them by someone else or by the tradition we call Buddhism. But then, I might also have called the attainment of that recognition “kensho.”

The Story of Zen: 382-89, 394, 405, 424, 425, 428, 435.

Zen Conversations: Pp. 44-45; 52-54; 87-88; 103-05; 134; 168-69.

Other Links:

Thousand Harbours Zen

Mike Fieleke

Mike Fieleke is the resident teacher at the Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton, Massachusetts.

“I was raised Protestant,” he tells me, “and that actually planted the seeds of practice, because I felt as a child – I bet many children do – a kind of sacred presence that was a mystery to me that I gave the name ‘God.’ I felt a sense of connectedness and vastness at a very young age. And when I was an adolescent, my parents were divorced, and I became very lonely and lost in my own religious practice. I think in rejecting my parents – out of anger – I also rejected their religious teachings and traditions and felt quite lost. So that’s part of how Zen made its way into my life. I was looking for something different.”

“And your students at Morning Star, what brings them to your door? What are they looking for?”

“I would say often what they’re looking for is stress reduction. That’s probably one of the most common things that brings people through the door. They just want to feel better, because they’re suffering, and, often, they feel quite alone.”

The question then is, why Zen rather than – for example – yoga or a course in mindfulness?

“I guess it’s what do we do different,” Mike suggests. “The best way for me to put it is the lack of agenda. The idea that we aren’t there primarily as a self-improvement project, and the goal is not to be different from what we are, but to see what we are. And there is a faith that that – in and of itself – is liberating. I took a Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction course many years ago, and I think there’s good in these practices. You can really bring people into the moment through a kind of connectedness to their body and their breath and an awareness of what’s unfolding. And I think the notion that it makes you feel better in some way, that it will relieve your stress, is sometimes true and great marketing, and it gets a lot of people in the door. In Zen, while there is a grain of truth that stress can fall away, still I worry that there’s a little bit of a disservice in that goal too. I think that for me what has been most liberating about Zen and what I think it offers is that, of course, we can make changes in our lives and in our thoughts and behaviors, but that we don’t necessarily have to. We can simply see, and everything unfolds, everything goes its own way, and we have the capacity to have faith in this unfolding. And that whatever is alive in the given moment is the Dharma, is exactly what we’re seeking. So I guess it’s that quality of being met in the instant that I love so much about Zen.”

“Do people still seek awakening?”

“In our tradition we do acknowledge the importance of these moments but don’t necessarily set them up as a goal. We’re very careful about acknowledging it in any personal way. Like, ‘Oh! That’s kensho!’ We’re very careful about that because it can set somebody up for years of problems, where they’re trying to aim for the same thing again and get attached to some previous experience and trapped in it. And that, obviously, becomes a problem to them. A hindrance. Or it’s no longer liberating.”

“The early teachers in America often gave the impression that kensho was essential to Zen practice,” I point out. “It was argued that the only suitable response to Mu, for example, was kensho. Anything short of kensho failed to respond to it adequately.”

“I think we have a certain level of expectation around, particularly, the source of Mu. I would say we are looking for a kensho experience in that. But I guess I would say that we allow for a different intensity of that experience, that we aren’t looking for ‘great kensho,’ per se. It might, for some, be like just a subtle release, maybe a tear in the eye, maybe some laughter. But not necessarily like” – deepening his voice – “great awakening.  And I think that – to go back to what people are looking for when they come in – I think you’re right, fewer people come into practice thinking, ‘I’m going to get enlightenment.’ More people are coming in, like I said, saying, ‘I just want to feel less stressed.’ And so the way that we meet people maybe has shifted based on peoples’ hopes.

“I wonder if part of our de-emphasizing awakening – although it is the heart of the matter – aligns a bit with the Soto tradition. And I think that’s really woven into the fabric of who we are, to acknowledge that it’s already true, that there’s nothing to attain, and we just need to realize that. But I think another aspect of it might be that we are meeting people where they are when they come through the door. And if we suddenly say, ‘I know you want less stress, but what you really need is . . .’” He laughs. “Then they’ll just turn and run.

“You know, it’s interesting; teachers can have different views of kensho. I’ve known some who really de-emphasize it and talk about it as makyo [delusion]. There are others who think, ‘No, this is actually compass-setting. This actually matters. This is an important part of our practice.’ For me, it depends. Kensho can become makyo when conceptualized, but the experience in and of itself is not. It’s true waking up to the way things are.”

The Story of Zen: 389-95, 425-26

Zen Conversations: 58-60.

Other Links:

Morning Star Zen Sangha

Dang Nghiem [Huynh Thi Ngoc Huong]

At Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, NY, Sister Dang Nghiem tells me people call her Sister D. She is Vietnamese by birth The Vietnamese language is tonal, and there is an element of that tonality in the way in which she speaks English.

“My mother passed away by the time I was twelve, and my grandmother raised me. Grandma told me, ‘When you grow up, first, you should raise your brother. Have him raised well and educated. Then you get a high education yourself. Then you should become a nun, and that will be the best way you can serve society.’ My grandmother planted these seeds in me since I was seven or eight years old. I came to the US; I finished high school; I went to college in Tucson, Arizona; then I went to medical school. I finished medical school; I went to residency. I was able to realize my Grandmother’s first two requests, raising my brother into a wonderful young man and obtaining an education for myself, but becoming a nun was still a strange and haunting thought to me. I went to Thay’s retreat when I was a resident.” “Thay” is the term his disciples use to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh. “Even though I was raised as a Buddhist, I never really practiced it. My grandmother was a very deep practitioner, but I just went along with her. In the US, as a teenager, I never went to the temple because I lived with foster parents who were Christian. In college and in medical school, I had no time for a spiritual life.

“While I was doing residency, one of the doctors said to me, ‘You know, doctor, there is a Zen Master who’s Vietnamese, and he’s giving retreats all over the US. Maybe you’d like to attend one of his retreats.’”

Meditation Hall at Blue Cliff

She attended a retreat in Santa Barbara, and at it, she tells me, “I realized what we call the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha’s essential teaching—about this deep suffering in myself and in my family. I mean, I always knew I suffered, but to have suffering as a noble teaching was something enlightening to me. What also moved me was that all these years, growing up, I thought of myself as a victim, but, in the retreat, I realized that I was the one perpetuating the suffering. I had become a perpetrator. I was no longer a victim but a perpetrator. Then I also learned that there’s a way out. I saw that I could participate actively in the making of the suffering but also in the transformation of the suffering. This realization moved me so deeply. It also changed my views about religion, about Buddhism, because I had thought of religion as something like a superstition. However, in that retreat, I saw it was really a deep practice.”

Back at her residency program, she saw “even more clearly how my suffering continued because of the daily pressure and stress as well as because of my ingrained habit energies. I had so little time to care for myself. Therefore, when difficulties of the past arose, I couldn’t really take care of them. This awareness made me even more depressed than before. Then it happened that my partner died in an accident.”

He had gone swimming in the ocean and didn’t return. His body was never recovered. “His death woke me up. He lived a spiritual life, and, when he passed away, I didn’t regret it for him, because he had lived a deeply joyful and meaningful life. His death woke me up because even though I had all the conditions of happiness, I was unhappy and even desperate at times. If not by the stress and pressure of the present moment, I would be suffering from nightmares about the past. I realized that if I were to die suddenly like him, I would not have peace in my heart. I could not have said that I had lived my life peacefully. I could not have said that I had truly lived my life so that I could just die then like my partner. This realization made me want to change the direction of my life. I wanted to live in such a way that if I were to die anytime in the midst of the day, it would be okay. That was why I left medicine and went to Plum Village.” Plum Village is the community in France where Thich Nhat Hanh resides.

 I ask if it met her expectations.

“To tell you the truth, I thought of Plum Village as only our teacher. I did not realize there was a whole community.” She pauses a moment before continuing. “I had so much suffering, that I didn’t have so many expectations about what it would be like. I just accepted it as it was, more or less, easily. What I needed was a teacher and a practice to help me take care of myself. It turned out that the sangha was there, and the sangha was crucial. My sisters were there, my brothers were there, our teacher was there, and they gave me that embracing environment like a cradle for me to care for my pain and suffering. So I discovered the sangha when I went to Plum Village.”

The Plum Village Tradition has more lay than monastic members, which—to Sister D’s mind—is the way it should be. The laity, she stresses, is essential. “We have to have lay people. In the past and even now in some countries, lay peoples’ main responsibility is to support the monastics. In our tradition, it is the opposite. Lay people’s main responsibility is to practice. We transmit the teaching to lay people, and we only ask that they practice in their daily life. We don’t even encourage them to convert to being Buddhists. Our teacher often says, ‘If you practice mindfulness, you will find the jewel in your own tradition, and you will be able to help revive your own tradition.’”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63

Zen Conversations: 92-95

Other Links:         

Blue Cliff Monastery

Sandra González

Driving along a county road in an agricultural region of New York State, I miss the side road to the Springwater Center on my first pass, come to a dead end, turn around, and watch more closely on the way back. Even when I pull onto the gravel road indicated, I’m not entirely sure I’m in the right place until I see a bench set up by a stream. In the reception area at the main building there is a notice that a black bear has been seen in the vicinity of the parking lot. Visitors are warned not to stare at it but to turn and go the other way.

The Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry had been established by Toni Packer in 1981 after she left the Rochester Zen Center. Philip Kapleau had identified her as his successor, but, after a period of overseeing the Center during one of his absences, she decided she could no longer practice as a Buddhist. The question she found herself facing was whether or not the type of work that took place within the Zen tradition could be done without all the trappings—without identifying it as Buddhist or even calling it meditation.

There is a very informal atmosphere here. There is no religious imagery of any type, although the “sitting room” looks pretty much like a zendo without an altar. The rules are all optional—save for two: Everyone takes on a one hour work period each day, and when silence in called for, people are silent. Other than that, even during retreats, one may choose to sit or not as one wishes.  “You can go for a walk if you want,” Sandra González tells me. Then adds, “But they don’t. They follow the schedule.”

Sandra is from Nicaragua and had studied with Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki before learning about Toni Packer in a book and coming here in 1988.

Lunch is prepared by long-time Zen practitioner, Andy Anderson (and is probably the best vegetarian lasagna I’ve ever had). Afterwards, Sandra leads a discussion circle which reminds me of a cross between a Quaker meeting and a group therapy session. People sit in silence for a while and then someone brings up a topic which people are free to respond to in any way they wish. The topic that comes up is “authority”—the authority that teachers have or are given.

Sandra is a “retreat leader” here—she is identified as such in the print material at the Center—but she is hesitant to claim to be an authority or even a teacher. When I push her, she reluctantly agrees to the term “facilitator.”

She had gone to her first face-to-face meeting with Toni Packer with some anxiety. The format was much what she was used to in Zen, seated on a cushion before the “teacher,” and she began by explaining that her work until then had been largely with koans. Toni asked her why she had come to Springwater, and Sandra said, “I don’t know.” “Then that,” Toni told her, “is your koan.” To sit and to wonder—no other practice. That is meditative inquiry.

I try to get a sense of what exactly the term means and how it differs from traditional Zen practice. “Okay,” I say, “let’s pretend I’m someone who’s heard about this place, and I come knocking on the door. I’ve never done any kind of spiritual practice before, but I think I’d like to give it a try. So I come to the door. Who would be the first person who’d speak to me?”


“Okay,” I say, laughing. “So I come to reception and say, ‘Hi! I wanna try this out. Your sign says “meditative inquiry.” I want to learn how to inquire meditatively.’ What’s the receptionist going to say?”

“‘So you’re interested in this work?’” Then in a deeper voice, gently making fun of me, “‘Yes.’ So there are some people here if you want to meet, if you are interested.’”

“And who are those people? Who would I be directed to?”

“Me or whoever is here.”

“So the receptionist directs me to you, and I tell you that I’ve read a little bit about meditation, maybe even tried it out. But basically I feel there’s something missing in my life, and I’d like to see if there’s something more I can get by coming here.”

“Okay. So, let’s look at this desire that you can get something from here. So we begin to explore. Let’s look at the intention, motivation that brought you here. And that, factually, is meditative inquiry. Let’s explore right now all these motivations that brought you here. What ideas are there? And let’s put it all open. Let’s air the whole thing out. So it’s an inviting.”

“So it comes back to what Toni Packer said to you, ‘This is your koan.’”

“That’s it,” she says, almost in a whisper. “And can be through questioning if we have motives within. You know? Kind of, ‘I came sometime with a confused mind and there is this . . .’ You felt it here during the discussion. You or anybody can ask a question that can bring some person to see that the mind is going zzzzoom! So—you know—this is a space for everything. There can be some wisdom that’s not coming from you but coming from just the seeing what is going on.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 385-408

Other links:

Springwater Center

Dosho Port

When I first met Dosho Port, he was still living and working outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, in a place called White Bear. It was not somewhere I was going to get to when I was doing my tour of centers in 2013, but, as chance has it, he was giving a workshop at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester on the same weekend I traveled to Montague to interview Bernie Glassman.

My wife, Joan, and I pulled up to the Temple on the morning after the workshop to find Melissa Blacker, David Rynick, and Dosho drinking coffee on the veranda. The clematis on the trellis behind the large Buddha in front of the Temple was in luxuriant bloom, and Melissa proudly showed us a Kannon statue that she’d recently rescued from a second-hand store.

The agreement I had made with Dosho was that we’d conduct the interview over breakfast and then Joan and I would drive him to Logan Airport.

After a long practice with Dainin Katagiri in the Soto tradition, Dosho went to Japan where he became involved in koan practice. He has continuing the practice with Melissa and David at Boundless Way. I remark that it’s a fair distance between Massachusetts and Minnesota, and he explains that he had done some of the work via Skype. Electronic dokusan. At the time it was a new concept, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

Dosho grew up in a devout Catholic family, and, when he ordained as a Buddhist priest, his grandmother blamed his mother, “She was completely fine with me, but she was mad with my mother for about a decade. She figured it wasn’t my fault that my mother had let me go astray.”

We continue the conversation in the car. Joan is driving. It is her first time in Boston, but, with one eye on the GPS and the other on the highway signs, she manages. Meanwhile, Dosho and I are discussing the way in which the koan curriculum operates. “Shikan taza is difficult,” he points out. referring to the objectless form of meditation preferred in the Soto school.

Years later, he will elaborate on this: “I think the purpose of koan introspection and just-sitting [shikan taza] combined with dignified behavior, the way it’s taught in Soto monasticism, are the same. But if the goal is to realize the same mind as Buddha and live accordingly – or ‘to practice awakening’ as Dogen put it – koan work is more effective for most householders than just-sitting.” “Householders” is the term used for lay Zen practitioners.

“What Harada Daiun Roshi and Yasutani Roshi did in the 20th century was simplify the Rinzai koan curriculum so that it was portable, so that practicing awakening as a householder was within reach of anyone who approached the work with persistence and skilled guidance. I don’t know that making it available to householders was their intention. It could be that they were just trimming the hedge that had grown up since Hakuin’s time, but that simplification, or refocusing, made it possible for English-speaking Westerners to do post-kensho koan training without being Chinese classics scholars.

“At about the same time, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and others were here trying to figure out how to teach people how to practice in householder life in the West, and so they simplified dignified-behavior training from the Soto monastic system in a way that was similar to what Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi had done with the koan curriculum. But, in my experience, without the monastic container, the impact of dignified-behavior training is rarely as effective as the koan curriculum. It just isn’t as obviously portable.”

On the way to Logan Airport, we discuss the difficulties some centers were having now that the first and second generation of teachers were no longer with them. A lot of the attraction of Zen in the early days had been based on those strong personalities. “I heard Leonard Cohen say that he felt such a connection with Joshu Sasaki that he would have learned shoe-making from him if he’d been a shoe-maker rather than a Zen Master. I like to think my relationship with Katagiri Roshi was like that,” Dosho tells me.

It strikes me, however, that it’s not just a matter of personality. In the same way that the youth drawn to Zen in the ’60s and ’70s were challenging the values of the previous generation, young inquirers into Zen today question some of the structures associated with it, including the Japanese cultural characteristics. “In the old days,” Dosho remembers, “when we’d meet people from other centers, we’d all compare how tough our training was. Now it’s almost the reverse. Now centers are vying with one another about how accommodating they can be. There was this young man at a talk I gave who raised his hand and asked, ‘Please, sir, what is the minimum amount of asceticism needed to practice Zen?’”

It is also, as Bobby Rhodes had pointed out, a more electronically engaged generation. And if dokusan can be done by Skype, why not experiment with other ways of using the internet to promote Zen?

We left Dosho at the airport in time to meet his plane, and time passed. We kept in contact, and Dosho briefly moved to Maine before settling in Omaha, where he is now the principle teacher at the Nebraska Zen Center. During his stint in Maine, I was able to visit him a couple of times, and even arranged to have him give a workshop in New Brunswick, where I live.

Then the teacher I had been working with, Albert Low, died in 2016, and after giving some thought to how I was going to proceed in my practice, I decided to continue my own koan work with Dosho by Zoom.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 118, 207, 409-21, 468-69, 476-77

The Story of Zen: 275, 439-443

Zen Conversations: 71; 90-91

Other Links:

The Nebraska Zen Center    

Wild Fox Zen

Taigen Henderson

The Toronto Zen Centre is on High Park Gardens in a well-to-do neighborhood on the west side of the city. I follow a stone path around the house to the back entrance passing carefully cultivated and maintained flower beds adorned with elegant Bodhisattva statues. Downstairs there is a Zendo (with about twenty-six places) and a Buddha Hall opposite. A student takes me up to a sun-room on the second floor where I meet Taigen Henderson. “It looks like the property taxes might be a bit steep here,” I say. He nods his head.

Taigen is a Dharma heir of Sunyana Graef, who had expressed surprise that I had not included him on the original list of teachers I had intended to visit. She had been right. It was a major oversight on my part.

The Toronto Zen Centre, the first affiliate center of the Rochester Zen Center, is also the first official Zen practice center to be established in Canada, and Taigen is the first Canadian teacher to be trained in Canada. “He wouldn’t tell you that,” one of his students informs me, “because he’s so humble.” I was aware of that humility while I talked with him, but I was also aware of his self-confidence. He’s a man with a lot of life experience who is very much at ease with where he is at this moment.

When I ask the two students I met afterwards to describe him, the first thing they both noted was that he was inspiring. “You think, wow, if I could be like that.” They tell me that he embodies the teaching.

I’ve heard other students describe their teachers in similar terms. Zen training does—if one persists in it—forms people of strong character. I suspect that, at least in part, it’s because these are people who know themselves deeply and have nothing to prove to anyone else. They are the “true man of no rank.”

I remark on his sense of humor. “He has a great sense of humor,” the students tell me, and has the ability to use that humor to lighten tension when things become challenging or difficult.

He has a very expressive face and is a wonderful story-teller. And he has some pretty amazing stories to tell: The story of spending several years in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when a young boy, at which time he got his first taste of Buddhism. “Somebody showed me a high school year book in which I said I wanted to be a Buddha when I grew up. I was just being a smart-alec at the time.” A story of spending months deep in the British Columbia interior, 200 miles from the nearest road, with two other young men. “We didn’t see one other human being in that time.” A story of working in an asbestos mine. “They were just realizing how dangerous this stuff was. In Toronto they were worried about brake-linings, and here I was sweeping asbestos dust half an inch thick up off the floor.” A story of waking up and seeing smoke pouring through a vent and realizing that the house next door was on fire. “The firemen came and broke the windows, and the house went up just like that. It made me aware just how impermanent life is, and I thought if I didn’t start doing something now, then when?” A similar sentiment is inscribed on the han outside the zendo.

He went to Rochester to do a workshop with Philip Kapleau and told Kapleau that he would like to train there for a while. Kapleau told him to stay in Canada. So he returned to Toronto and joined the affiliate branch here. He found work in the construction trades, doing house renovations. Eventually, he worked on providing low-income housing as well as training to homeless people. He also helped build some women’s shelters.

Sunyana Graef by this time had become the teacher in Toronto, while also maintaining centers in  Vermont and Costa Rica. Taigen expressed an interest in living a life more fully committed to practice, and she told him that it wasn’t time yet. His work with the homeless and women’s shelters was, after all, an example of Right Livelihood—the fifth step in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Eventually difficulties with a sub-contractor resulted in him leaving the trade, and then the time was right for ordination.

The Centre had been at another location, in a neighborhood where prices were low because of fears that an expressway was going to be built alongside. When the expressway plans were withdrawn, house prices jumped. The Centre was able to sell its place for $400,000, and purchase its current property for $350,000. At the time, it was also considered a less desirable neighborhood because of the occasional stench drifting in from nearby stock yards. When the stock yards were closed, house values went up. “The property is now probably worth $2,000,000,” Taigen admits.

It is axiomatic that when one enters the path, opportunities arise. At times, events occur which appear to support that axiom.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 346, 353-67, 369, 387, 389

Zen Conversations: 57; 149-50

Other links:

Bodhin Kjolhede

There is a bumper sticker on Bodhin Kjolhede’s car that reads: “Ask me about my vow of silence.” We are driving to the Rochester Zen Center’s retreat house, located at Chapin Mill, forty minutes from the city. Bodhin’s hair is short, but not shaved off, and he is dressed in a navy blue short-sleeve shirt with a banded color and matching slacks. The Vietnamese woman in the back seat is similarly dressed. “As part of the process of adapting Zen to the west, my teacher—Roshi Kapleau—and I didn’t feel inclined to maintain the Japanese samugi,” he explains. “We chose something more western, but we also wanted a way to distinguish those who were ordained. So we came up with this.” Unlike a samugi, it is something one could wear on the street without appearing too foreign or exotic.

The conversation during the drive is largely casual, but I leave the recorder on. “There has been a recent increase in interest in our introductory workshops, our training programs, and our sesshin—all three,” he mentions.

“Interest in workshops has gone up?

“Yeah. We have to turn people away. We cut it off at fifty.”

“What age groups show up?”

“It’s all over the place, but there are definitely more people in their 20s and 30s than there were five years ago. The baby-boomers are still coming, but now there are fewer of them. And there are a lot more younger people.”

“Any idea why this current increase in interest?”

“I have hypotheses. There are those who say it’s so hard for young people to get jobs that they don’t lose much by coming. But I think it’s something more intangible, some greater interest in the spiritual.”

“Probably different factors than in the 60s, though, when drugs were a big reason people got involved.”

“They were for me.”

“Yeah,” I admit. “When people ask how I got interested in Zen, my short answer is often, ‘Mescaline.’”

He looks over at me with a grin and says, “Me too! Mescaline was my drug of choice. I was a beer-drinking fraternity guy until my first mescaline trip, and then I just saw the world in a whole different way.”

By this time, I knew I was going to like this guy.

The Rochester Zen Center is located in a fairly ritzy neighborhood. The grounds and structures are impressive and maybe a little daunting. When I arrived early for my 9:00 appointment with Bodhin in June 2013, I was told I could wait on a sofa in the foyer. Young people dressed in dark navy short-sleeve shirts and matching loose pants hurry about their business—men and women barefoot and with close-cropped, but not shaved, heads. I’m reminded of what someone had said about the San Francisco Zen Center in the days before Blanche Hartman became abbess: “Well, they’re not unfriendly.”

But if there were a certain stiffness among the students (or perhaps they are just focused on carrying out their duties), Bodhin is relaxed, humorous, and very capable of putting others at ease.

“The atmosphere here seems less formal than some of the monastic centers I’ve visited,” I say.

Philip Kaapleau’s grave at Chapin Mill

“One of the distinctions that Roshi Kapleau—as  compared to his peers from Japan—was very adamant about, that we have to Americanize Zen. And Americans are much more informal than the Japanese. So we try to keep things taut, in terms of the training, but not with those elegant, elaborate, Japanese rituals. So, for example, I’ve heard that there are other Zen Centers where the teacher, to start off the morning zazen, will go through the zendo and people will all do this deep bow. That strikes me as inappropriate. Not to go off on this, but what I’m constantly aware of—maybe even a little more than Roshi Kapleau was—is how much of Zen from Asia is conditioned by the Confucian ethos of hierarchy and all. And I’m trying to find a balance between not throwing that out completely, because there’s a place for it, for hierarchy—I’m not going to apologize for hierarchy—but not over-doing it.”

It is because of his commitment to conserve the practice as he had received it that he is cautious about the degree to which he involves his students in social action.

“We have a program where our members go into soup kitchens. And there’s a whole kind of blossoming of different ways of engaging with the wider world. For example, I’m trying to give some leadership in the whole specter of global warming. In fact, recently we had a meeting where we talked about how we might have a public demonstration of the spirit of Zen the way that we did about thirty years ago when the Minnesota Zen Center organized a three day Zazen Vigil in New York City. This was on the occasion of public protests in New York regarding the proposed deployment of Cruise Missiles in Europe. And so the idea came up of inviting Zen Centers to convene across from the United Nations in a place called the Peace Park and just sit for three days. That had quite a strong effect on me. I thought it was powerful, something I could get behind more than waving protest signs and marching. So I’m trying to get something like that going regarding climate change.

“We’re really just getting into this area of social engagement. And—as you know probably—the danger of it is if you become too one-sidedly engaged—socially or politically—then you run the risk of losing the real root of Zen practice.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 146, 204, 321-336, 340, 342, 344, 345, 346, 374, 375, 388, 402, 420, 468

Catholicism and Zen: 100-07, 168

The Story of Zen: 427

Zen Conversations: 117-18; 146-47

Other links:

Rochester Zen Center

Genjo Marinello

I would eventually have an opportunity to spend time at Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji in Seattle, meeting its abbot – Genjo Marinello – and joining the regular morning sitting group not only for zazen but also for coffee at a local cafe which has a table waiting for them. No one blinks an eye at their robes when they come in. But my first contact with Genjo (the name attached to his email is “Joe Marinello”) was by Skype.

One does not get the same feel for a person via Skype (or Zoom) as one does in person, but Genjo struck me during our first conversation as having that settled self-confidence and ease which is often a characteristic of long-term Zen practitioners. His scalp is shaved, and he wears a head-set during the interview. As I get to know him, he proves to be something of a Renaissance man – pilot, amateur astronomer, software developer, mental health counselor, Zen priest. He has a killer smile.

During in a freshman English class in the ’70s, the teacher introduced the class to the idea that there “was a way to experience, or penetrate, reality beyond the scientific method; that you could have something called insight, inspiration, or intuition. You could tap into some fundamental truths heuristically by investigating your own internal condition.” The question for Genjo was “how” one did that, which ultimately led him to the practice of Zen. He was living in southern California at the time.

Later, while serving as a VISTA volunteer in Seattle, he practiced with a group established there by Glenn Webb, a professor at the University of Washington. In 1978, Dr. Webb invited a Japanese Rinzai teacher to Seattle. This was Genki Takabayahsi Roshi, who then founded Dai Bai Zen Cho Bo Zen Ji, or “The Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple on Great Plum Mountain.”

Genjo was sitting with this group when he happened to attend a lecture given by the Dalai Lama. The talk was interrupted by a group of Maoist-students who heckled the Dalai Lama for failing to support the Chinese Communist regime in Tibet. Genjo was so impressed by the way the Dalai Lama handled the situation that he announced to Genki Roshi that he was ready to commit himself to Buddhist practice.

He spent a short time in Japan, at Ryutakuji, where he met Soen Nakagawa Roshi. He was surprised to learn there that often the Japanese students were only there because “it was their lot in life. They couldn’t at all understand that I came there voluntarily to train, because no one would do that. And that was incomprehensible, truly incomprehensible. So when I settled on saying that I had been sent there, they could understand that. But if I tried to say I wanted to train in Zen, they would just shake their head. ‘No. That can’t be the reason.’”

His time at Ryutakuji was hard. His own training methods now are considered traditional and a little strict by American standards, but he makes it clear they are nothing like what he went through in Japan. “It was a very martial style. I remember one time sweeping a gravel path outdoors with a bamboo broom and whistling a little, just a little bit, and being told, ‘No! No, you can’t whistle! This is a Zen temple!’ And you couldn’t do anything right. There was a rule that for six months it didn’t matter who told you what to do, when you did it, it was wrong. And if you did it to someone’s satisfaction, someone else would come by and un-do it and say, ‘No. That was wrong. It has to be done this way.’ And whoever was closest to you—because everyone was more senior to you—was correct. So you just had to learn—through sort of an ego-annihilation—that you could not do anything right.”

For Genjo, Zen “points at our deep, true nature.” We don’t often tap into the deepest part of our nature, he explains, as a result of which we tend to have a fairly narrow and individualistic sense of ourselves “and who we are and our place in the universe.” Zen, then, provides a training that helps us to transcend “our ego identity and discover our deeper, seamless nature” with all other beings.

Genjo places as much emphasis on the attainment of karuna (compassion) as he does on the attainment of prajna (wisdom). “My initial training was dominated by—say—the wisdom component, with the idea that without deep wisdom you could never get to deep compassion, and that wisdom had to come first, and that compassion was the natural outcome of deeply penetrating the wisdom. And I still agree with that, but I also think that you can start with compassion and get to wisdom. And that you don’t have to start with wisdom to get to compassion. And that they’re different sides of the same coin. So we’re trying to strike a balance at Chobo-ji between these two legs, and both legs are important.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 83-97, 111-12, 113, 115, 247-49

The Story of Zen: 5-9, 337, 407-08

Zen Conversations: 102-03; 143

Other Links: