Roger Brennan

Roger Brennan is a priest in the Scarboro Mission Society who – until COVID restrictions were imposed – sat regularly with Patrick Gallagher’s Oak Tree in the Garden Sangha.

“I grew up in a typical Catholic ambiance. Went to Catholic schools; had nuns for teachers. So we got a lot of stories of the saints and even as a very young person, I was intrigued by these. And although I wouldn’t have known to describe it in this way at that time, I would say the mystics particularly intrigued me, that people could have these experiences. Growing up, I can remember that there was this curiosity, but when I went to Jesuit high school, I never really took to Jesuit spirituality, the Ignatian exercises. We certainly got them,” he says with a chuckle. “But it never clicked with me. It was just not my spirituality. Then in the novitiate we studied this book by a priest named Adolphe Tanqueray. It was quite a thick book; it was considered a classic in mystical theology at that time. It gave a very, very detailed analysis of the road to perfection, and I kind of realized I was not on that road and figured I was never going to get on that road. It was not a very appealing road. It seemed to be something for people who were somehow extraordinary. It wasn’t me at any rate. And that kind of allowed me to let go of that type of spirituality. It was something I couldn’t do and didn’t particularly want to do. So I just said my prayers and received the sacraments, and that was sort of it.”

His first posting was to the Philippines, then in the mid-’70s, his superiors called him back to Canada to do a course of study on scripture. He enrolled at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. One spring day he was in the library. “Ottawa can be beautiful in the spring, and it was one of those days when you would really like to be anywhere but in a library, and I would have given anything to be anywhere else but in that stack room. And I was just flipping through the books looking for the one I wanted and came across this thing a little bigger than a pamphlet on Eastern religions. And because it had nothing to do with scripture, I picked it up and just started flipping through it, looking at the index, looking to see what was in there. I can’t even remember if it was about Buddhism in general or Zen. I suspect it might have been on Zen. And I started reading it. Well, then I forgot about the book I was looking for. I took the book and sat down and read through it. And it reawakened in me all the interest I had had years before with the saints and the mystics and that sort of thing. It looked at that reality or that possibility from a completely different perspective. It was no longer something for extraordinary people in certain circumstances. This was saying, ‘You can experience the transcendent. Anybody can. You don’t have to be a special kind of person.’

“So that really tweaked me; however, I still had to get my paper finished. So I put it back. Got the scripture book, finished my paper, decided not to continue, and got permission to go back to the Philippines. In the meantime, I was talking with some of Our Lady’s Missionary sisters that I worked with, and I was telling them I was going back to the Philippines. And they said, ‘Oh, isn’t that great. One of our sisters who’s been in Japan for years and has been studying Zen has been assigned not just to the Philippines but to Hinunangan,’ which is the town that I was working in.”

The sister was Elaine MacInnes, and, in Hinunangan, she introduced Roger to formal Zen practice. Shortly after this, she moved to Manila, where he occasionally went to attend sesshin. After this initial training, however, he did not have direct access to a Zen teacher for long periods of time and had to practice on his own – although he made use of sabbaticals to do brief stays with Koun Yamada in Japan and Willigis Jäger in Germany – until he retired to Toronto in 2009 and resumed practice with Sister Elaine.

I spent an evening with the Oak Tree in the Garden sangha and was intrigued by the ease with which the participants used the word “God.” It is not a concept associated with Buddhism and I wondered how they reconciled a belief in God with Zen practice. It’s a difficult issue to deal with, but Roger took it on.

“We just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and how do you explain that? The Trinity. We have all these words, and all these explanations, and all this theology, but we have to finally come to the fact that we don’t know what we’re talking about.” There is gentle laughter and murmurs of agreement from the others. “We don’t. I often like to say in groups when I’m talking to them – sometimes from a Zen perspective or whatever – but I say to them, ‘God is nothing.’ And then I’ll write it on the board. ‘God is no thing.’ Things are creations. Things come from God. But Zen is trying to get rid of all the concepts so that when you have the experience it’s pure. Things are creations. God is not a creation. God is beyond creation. So God is nothing. I have no problem with that nothing. The problem is with the concepts. We carry around in our little heads all these concepts. The more theology you study, the more of them you’ve got. I think the important thing to remember is that God is not a thing.”

Catholicism and Zen: 187-90

Other links:

Oak Tree in the Garden

Hadrian Abbott

Hadrian Abbott is an occasional participant in the sitting group I host in Fredericton. He spent 7 months – December 2009 to June 2010 – at Shodo Harada’s temple, Sogenji, in Japan. He’s a nurse, and a year after he returned to Canada, he spent another six months at Enso House, the hospice associated with Harada’s center on Whidbey Island in Washington State.

In 2013, after my visit to Enso House, I asked Hadrian about his first impressions of the temple in Japan.

“I got there by at about 10:30 at night. To get there you drive through Okayama and up into the mountains, through settlements, villages, towns. Then the taxi driver turned off the road, and it became pitch black. And we went on and on until his headlights illuminated this really ornate Japanese gate.”  

As soon as he arrived, he was taken to the men’s zendo. “They gave me my futon to sleep on and some blankets and said, ‘We’re chanting in five minutes.’ So I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, but ten minutes later I’m chanting and then thirty minutes later I was in bed. The next morning, I was up at 3:30, getting ready to chant again and sit.

“By Japanese standards, Sogenji is not that old, only about four hundred, five hundred years. And it’s set in sort of a V between two steep hills. There’s two zendos. One for the women; one for the men. And in the middle there’s the hondo where the formal chanting took place.”

“Like a Buddha Hall?” I ask.

“A Buddha Hall, yes. All the meditation was done in the zendo that I lived in. So the men lived and slept where we meditated. It’s long and thin with a concrete floor and raised tans [platforms] to sit on. And it’s furnished with tatami and then each person is given a zafu [cushion] and a zabuton [mat on which to place the zafu]. And around the walls there’s shelves with curtaining, so each person is given an area where you keep your rolled-up futon and blankets, and there’s a little shelf to put personal things on.

“I’m still not quite sure of the system of Japanese temples, but Sogenji is a royal temple, which means it receives a little bit of money each year from the royal family. The grounds are fairly extensive. There’s a very old graveyard there that the monastery was built around. The hondo burnt down, I think, a hundred or two hundred years ago and was rebuilt exactly as it was. When I was there, construction was just finishing on a building where the monastery was going to teach traditional flower arranging. So it’s a mixture of new and old.”

I ask him what Shodo Harada is like. Hadrian frowns and considers a moment.

“I remember some of what he said, but mostly it’s just being in the presence of somebody who has reached quite an advanced level of awareness. I suppose by Japanese standards, he’s small. Five foot one or two. He’s thin. It’s hard to guess his age. He’s got quite an incredible charisma when he goes into a room. He’s got a real presence.”

There were 16 residents, a few Japanese, but the others came from Canada, the US, the Netherlands, Southern India, Hungary, Poland, Australia, Belgium, and Switzerland. The working language was English.

I ask what language is used during retreats, and he explains that an interpreter usually translated Harada’s talks. Then he adds, “There was one month when she was away, and I actually liked that retreat. He speaks English very well. He has a thick accent, but you can understand him. Mostly it was done in Japanese and English. Teishos [formal lectures] were like the movie Lost in Translation, where he would speak for twenty minutes and people who spoke Japanese found it funny as hell and would laugh and nod and listen. The interpreter would translate for two to five minutes and then go on.”

The residential schedule was highly disciplined.

“You’d get up anywhere between 3:30 and 4:00, at 4:00 you’d be in the hondo for chanting in Japanese and English. There was a little bit of English, not much. Mostly in Japanese. Then we’d go back to the zendo and sit for an hour or an hour and a half and during the sitting people would go off to do sanzen [personal interviews]. Then we’d have breakfast. Then we’d have a twenty minute, half hour period to clean up our living quarters before meeting for samu, the work period. That would take us to lunch.”

“What kind of work?” I ask.

“Anything to make the monastery run. So you’d be cleaning, you would work in the kitchen. Somebody always had the job of getting the fire going. People would be assigned to clean the administrative building, to clean the hondo. Any kind of gardening, cleaning.”

“And after lunch?”

“We had time off. You could have a bath. Then around 4:30 the tenzo would leave some leftovers in the kitchen if people wanted. You could do whatever you wanted as long as it was in the monastery grounds.”

“You had to stay on the grounds.”

“There was a shop that we called ‘Happy Town’ where, if you asked, you go to get supplies.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, candy, apples, tea. Then it’s time to get ready for the evening sit which could be anywhere from two to four hours. That would take you to about nine. And then there’s chanting at the end. Which is incredibly quick—fifteen minutes. Then bedtime.”

“You said that when you first arrived, it was just as they were getting ready for that chanting.”

“Yeah. It was the fastest chant you ever heard. They gave me my book. I was still on the first page while they were on the fourth. Incredibly quick chanting.”

Hadrian is light-hearted as he describes the temple discipline, but he recognizes it is something that could be misused. “I remember raking one day with a young American monk, and we were laughing because we could see how very easily this could be a way of training soldiers, as it was in the Second World War.”

Hadrian now works in a methadone clinic where he offers meditation instruction to clients.

“We work with the harm reduction model which is to work with each patient as they are. We don’t start with the premise that you’re going to quit all of your drugs immediately. We can provide medical care, opioid substitutes or opioids. But after that it’s to work with people to foster a way for them to improve, for them to develop, or for them to explore other choices. ‘Harm reduction’ is hard to define in the sense that it’s a lot of different things. At the center is human dignity – and this is the hard bit – working with each person to foster a sense of dignity and value. If you have a chance to sit in meditation,  working on breathing and relaxing, that could seep through into how you interact with other things. You can develop a way of being with other people that’s different than anything you’ve experienced.”

“What has the practice done for you?” I ask.

“I think it’s made me more aware of myself, of others. Of being open. It’s developed a spiritual practice that I never thought I’d have. I’d also say it’s knocked some of the bullshit out of me,” he adds with a laugh.

Other links:

Hugh Curran

The original Zen (Chan) masters in China were, at times, difficult to access. Their temples were often hidden away in the mountains, intentionally located far from larger population centers. Nor were they necessarily welcoming. Prospective students who found their way to the temple gates could be refused entry for days on end in order to test their sincerity. In the early 1970s, something similar was happening in a remote coastal village in Maine.

Walter Nowick was a Julliard-trained musician who may also have been the first American authorized to teach in the Rinzai School (there are people who question how “official” Nowick’s teaching authority was). After he had completed his training under Zuigan Goto Roshi at Daitokuji in Kyoto, he returned to a farm his family had purchased for him on the Morgan Bay Road outside of Surry, Maine. It wasn’t his original intention to teach, but gradually people learned about him and made their way to the farm.

“The standard practice was to come to the tree in the front yard and stand there for a little while,” Hugh Curran tells me. “I came here in 1975 and stood in front of the tree, and he would send someone out and you would say, ‘I’d like to be a student,’ and he would respond. ‘No. No, I’ve got too many.’ So I came back another time.” Hugh did three vigils by the tree before being accepted.

Hugh was my host during my first visit to what is now called the Morgan Bay Zendo. He was born in Ireland and still has the accent. Before coming to Maine, he had studied with Hakuin Yasutani and, later, served for a while as Philip Kapleau’s attendant. Since then, he has also worked with Master Sheng Yen – the Chinese Chan teacher with whom Rebecca Li practiced – and Ruben Habito of Yasutani’s Sanbo Zen lineage.

Hugh’s house is half a mile from the Zendo. The couple who organized that first visit for me – Susan and Charles Guilford – live half a mile on the other side. In the mile between their homes, there are several houses on lots notched out of the thick Maine woods most of which were built by people who, decades ago, had made their way here to study Zen.

In 1984, when the Cold War was still waging, Walter became concerned about the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he stopped teaching Zen in order to focus on trying to promote understanding between the two nations through a shared appreciation of music.

Hugh and Susan and few others formed a board of directors to maintain the Zendo.

“Walter donated the farm to the Moonspring Hermitage, Inc.,” Hugh explains. “We became a religious non-profit. This was facilitated by a member’s husband who was a lawyer in Maryland, so it was incorporated in Maryland. Ten acres had been included which was transferred to the corporation.”

“Walter didn’t have a Dharma successor,” I say. “So you did this with no resident teacher.”

That’s not “quite accurate,” Hugh tells me. “We have myself and Nancy Hathaway [of the Korean Kwan Um tradition]. I would say Senior Dharma Leaders, you could call us.” Later he tells me, that Ruben Habito had “designated me as a facilitator, so I like that term, that I facilitate. Which is pretty much what I do on seminars and everything else.”

He has taught courses on “Ecology & Spirituality,” “Buddhism & Contemplative Traditions,” and “Early Celtic Spirituality” in the Peace Studies Program at the University of Maine, and he has offered retreats at the Zendo, including one on “Zen and Deep Ecology.” Nancy offers training in the Kwan Um tradition. Teachers from other traditions have offered retreats here as well.

Zen tends to be hierarchical, and I find the idea of a community of practitioners coming together to maintain a center without a specific teacher intriguing. For Hugh, it’s a practical matter.

“We ended up being fairly eclectic and tried to suit different people coming here. I mean, in a relatively remote area, far from large urban areas, you have to suit the people that come. And if they say, ‘Oh, well, you guys are into a particular form of Japanese Zen. We’ll go someplace else.’ Or, ‘You’re just a Chinese group; we won’t get involved.’ Or just a Burmese group or this or that. So we try to cover the whole gamut.”

He admits his own approach is still based on the training he had received in the Sanbo Zen tradition. When he is introducing people to the practice, he explains, “I might say, ‘this is a little like the Suzuki method of playing the violin, just learn to play and when questions come up, we’ll work on that.’ Basically, we encourage getting out of the thinking process. Get your mind on the body-mind. Work on moving the attention into the hara.[1] When you’re walking, put your whole focus on each step. Feel your feet sink into the floor, whatever way helps you to get out of the thinking process and into the experience of just walking.”

“To what end?” I ask.

He doesn’t talk about enlightenment or deep spiritual awareness. His answer is quite simple: “To achieve some degree of tranquility, some peace of mind, learn to focus without stress and without nervousness.”

Other links:

Morgan Bay Zendo

[1] A point just below the navel which is considered an energy center in several Asian traditions.

Seiju Bob Mammoser

Seiju Mammoser is the abbot of the Albuquerque Zen Center, as he was when I visited it in 2013. “My interest in starting the center here in the city was basically working man’s Zen. You had a job. You had a family. You had responsibilities. You wanted to do practice. I wanted something you could do every morning. I wanted something you could do in the evening. So, you could work around your responsibilities and your life, and you could do practice.”

Seiju denies being a teacher. “I wouldn’t teach you how to sit. I would sit. I would say a few things, and what you understood hopefully you’d do. You know, it’s like, am I gonna teach you how to breathe?”

Seiju’s involvement with Zen began in the early ’70s when he came upon a book left on a coffee table. “An eminently forgettable book. But it made me realize that I was hungry for something, and it got me started.”

He visited the San Francisco Zen Center briefly. “Stayed for a chanting service in the afternoon and left immediately. Made my way to LA. Stopped at a place called Cimarron Zen Center at the time. It’s called Rinzai-ji now. It was interesting. But it was in Los Angeles, and I grew up in Chicago. I didn’t need another big city. They said they had this place up in the mountains. Mount Baldy. So I went there for a week. Liked it.”

Rinzai-ji and Mount Baldy were established by the controversial Japanese teacher, Joshu Sasaki, who at the time of my visit to Albuquerque – when he was 106 years old – had been revealed to have been making unwanted sexual advances to many of his female students for decades. Regardless, many of Sasaki’s students – including Seiju (and Leonard Cohen) – remained loyal to him.

“You meet somebody who inspires you. Motivates you and moves you and demonstrates—in front of you, in his manifestation—exactly what he’s talking about. He was the first living teacher I’d met. He was sufficient. I didn’t have to go see somebody else. I knew what I was dealing with.”

Seiju doesn’t deny that Sasaki interfered with some of his female students, but he cautions that the tendency of people “to get to a mind of judgement impedes understanding. Once I make a decision—‘That’s right; that’s wrong; this or that’—then I line up behind my judgement and act. I haven’t found a mind of judgement to be particularly helpful for a mind of practice.

“In the human scope of things, everything becomes a thing. Things are entities. So Sasaki Roshi is a person. That’s a dog,” pointing the dog, Jemez, who has been accompanying all morning. “That kind of thinking. Very common. Very understandable. Very human. That’s not what Buddhism teaches us. Everything is activity. Sometimes I manifest skillful activities. Sometimes I manifest foolish activity. And sometimes I manifest selfish activity. I can be a loving parent, and I can be a terrible co-worker. And I can be both of those and all of those in the same day. And anything else. And in my experience around Sasaki Roshi, he’s been a remarkable, deeply committed teacher.

“People presume that if you’re quote ‘enlightened’ end quote—whatever that means—or ‘awake’ or anything else, you can’t possibly do this other stuff. I don’t know the answer to that. But it’s pretty obvious to me that the one person I’ve spent time with who seems to come closest to what a lot of people would think of as an ‘awake’ person has also done these other things. And that, to me, is just skillful activity and unskillful activity. Which, again, we all do in our lives.”

Seiju is not insensitive about these matters, and in 2018 the Albuquerque Center issued an Ethics policy which explicitly states:

We are clear that any sexual relationship between a teacher, or any other person in a position of power, and his or her student is inappropriate and unacceptable.

We are committed to identifying and understanding sexual misconduct and to empower our Sangha members and teachers to respond compassionately and appropriately should an issue of this nature be brought to their attention.

We also recognize the great harm created by gossip, innuendo, rumors, retaliation, intimidation, mistreatment of others, and other forms of unethical behavior generated by anyone and directed towards any member. We recognize that a breach of ethics is at the root of misconduct and that everyone is accountable for his or her behavior.

All AZC teachers and members are fully aware of the ethical standards expected of them and have wholeheartedly and without reservation agreed to live by these standards.

It was, in some ways, an awkward interview. Given the media attention being paid at the time to the issue of Sasaki’s behavior, Seiju had cause to be wary of me. I, on the other hand, came away with a sense of admiration, in particular, for his uncompromising attitude about the nature of Zen practice.

As we are touring the facility, he calls my attention to a sheet of paper on a bulletin board by the door. It’s a quotation from a talk Sasaki gave at Bodhi Manda in 1982:

The standpoint of this Zen Center is our own practice of Dharma Activity. Therefore we accept those who want to study Dharma Activity. Those who are not interested in Dharma Activity should leave immediately.

Seiju states it bluntly: “Teaching is doing. Words are words, but teaching is doing.” It all comes back to sitting down, being still, and breathing. If you’re not up to that, “have a nice drive home.”

Joshu Sasaki died nine months after my visit to the Albuquerque Center on July 27, 2014.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 45-55, 56-57, 66, 99, 121

The Story of Zen: 288-90, 325, 329

Other Links:

Albuquerque Zen Center

Dharman Rice

When I visited Sunyana Graef’s Vermont Zen Center in May 2013, she introduced me to Dharman Rice who, at that time, taught the “Metta” course at the center.

“There are many practices in Zen,” he tells me. “Zazen is the main one. There is chanting practice. The Metta practice is a practice of Loving Kindness, which is the six stages of sending metta to yourself, to a benefactor, to a dear friend. It’s the Buddhist practice in which I think beginners can make the most progress. It’s essentially learning how to be friends with ourselves and others. And this practice of learning how to be happy and extend our feelings of loving kindness to others goes hand-in-glove with the concentration meditation. It’s just a fact that the more we pay attention, the friendlier we feel. Paying attention is an act of love. Something every teacher, every character, every parent—we all know that. And it just is a fact, too, that the friendlier we are, the easier it is to pay attention. So in a way, our paying attention and our being friendly and happy and extending loving-kindness to others—opening our compassionate heart—are practices that go hand-in-glove.

“One of the things that happens, there are a number of people who come to the Center, take an introductory workshop, but for them sitting – endless hours sort of sitting, looking at walls – becomes kind of daunting. And the metta practice is easier in the sense that it’s more something we can get in touch with in an everyday kind of way. So I do a continuing metta group, and once you’ve taken the course you can come back once a month. We meet on the second Monday of every month for an hour in the evening. I bill it as a Lifetime Warranty for the Metta Class. If you’re having problems with the practice, come back and we’ll do it again. The idea was to keep people in the orbit of the Center until they felt able to do or were willing to do or felt desirous of doing the more intense kind of zazen practice. Some of them don’t get to that place for all I can tell. And that’s fine. That’s just fine. To me, it’s been a real eye-opener and something I love teaching over and over again, ’cause I love taking the course over and over again,” he says, chuckling

“The standard way of getting started in metta is with certain things that we say to ourselves in an attempt to rouse this loving-kindness energy and then radiating it to ourselves and others. This practice was given to monks by the Buddha originally—so the story goes—because he had sent some of them to a forest to do some practice, and there were some spirits in that forest that didn’t like them being there, and they began making weird noises and giving off weird smells. And the monks came running back to the Buddha and said, ‘Can you send us someplace else?’ And the Buddha said, ‘No, no, no. You need to go back, and here’s what I want you to do.’ And he prescribed this course of metta practice, which was said invoking these sayings: ‘May I be happy. May I be well. May I be free from suffering. May I be at ease.’ The point is to arouse the kinds of feelings that we have when we look at a baby or look at a puppy or look at a kitten or look at a calf and to direct those to ourselves, then to our benefactor, then to a teacher—to somebody who’s had a positive formative effect on us – to a dear friend or a family member, to what’s called a ‘neutral person,’ and finally the difficult person, what used to be called the ‘enemy’ and is now called the ‘difficult person.’ All of these stages are aspects of ourselves as well, and we practice with them in that way as well. The first phase is one that gives Westerners, in particular—and I think North Americans especially—a lot of difficulty. Sending metta to ourselves is not something many people feel comfortable with. It was very natural for the Buddha; it was very natural for Aristotle; it’s very natural for archaic peoples to love themselves. The Buddha asked how we can love anyone else if we can’t love ourselves. So we start with that, and Westerners—North Americans – for a variety of reasons apparently feel that that’s somehow selfish or self-indulgent and can be uncomfortable with it. I don’t normally mention this to start with because I don’t want to present the problem, but – after we get started – some will come back, and I’ll say, ‘How did it go? What kind of experience did you have?’ And some of this starts to come out. And after we deal with that, we proceed by these phases to finally we get to the point where we’re sending metta to the whole universe, which makes more sense to Buddhists, perhaps, than to other people. I mean, how can we send metta—loving-kindness—to all creatures throughout the whole planet and throughout the whole Milky Way and so on? But what astonishes me, teaching this course over and over again, is the extent to which people can get the idea—not only get the idea as an idea—but actually start doing it, and have inexplicable, wonderful experiences.”

Other Links:

Vermont Zen Center

Debra Seido Martin

Debra Seido Martin and her husband, Bill Booth, operate Hortan Road Organics in Oregon, a working farm and apprenticeship program for people seeking to learn organic techniques. Seido is also a Dharma heir of the late Kyogen Carlson in Jiyu Kennett’s lineage, and the farm is the location of her Zen West Empty Field zendo.

“Which came first?” I ask. “The farming or the Zen?”

“Farming,” she says.

She had grown up in Massachusetts under difficult circumstances and fled to the west coast where she eventually found work on a farm in the Santa Cruz area. “I just felt found. I fell in love with it. Just bending over picking tomatoes, being out in the natural world, getting out of my head. I began to experience a whole other way of being, a full-bodied way of being. My anxiety fell away. Sometimes I joke that my first Zen teacher was really a tomato. A ripe, juicy tomato completely expressing the moment.”

She met Bill – who had an agriculture background – and moved with him to Oregon to establish their own farm.

She describes this period as a time of healing. “Without understanding it at the time, I was trying to heal my body, heal the past. I had a yearning to reconnect with something fundamental. You know, I grew up in a typical family, very meat and potatoes, but also having its unspoken trauma including alcoholism and violence. I developed an inner life at a very early age in that environment. The organic farms were magical places full of welcome, of the mystery of the natural world, and good wholesome food. My body and mind completely changed immersed in that environment. Later, after many years into the farm, I once again felt pulled towards something new. That was my entry into Zen.

“For the first six or seven years, farming was all absorbing. You eat, sleep, breathe it. If you’re trying to build a farm, it’s your whole life. It’s a bit of an addiction in a way. Perhaps a healthy one; but sometimes unhealthy. After some time though, that earlier sense of dukkha – if you will – reasserted itself. That sense of nameless unease. ‘Is this it?’ The seeking emerged to resolve that anxiety, an existential anxiety that one can’t outrun. And so after working so hard to establish a good life through farming, I saw that was still there. Having been a bit of a seeker prone to self-help books and other types of alternative spiritual traditions, I bought a book one day that trumped all others. It was Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen. The first statement that grabbed me was, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ And that’s the line I needed. That was the koan, and I didn’t know how that could be. It was so outside everything I believed, and the way I’d been living. Joko Beck said you should sit, and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ So I was reading in my kitchen, and I just closed the book and sat on the dirty kitchen floor. I just sat down there. And nothing happened!”

“How perfect,” I say, and we both laugh.

“I know! I know! Now I know that, but at the time, I thought, ‘I think I might need some direction here.’ I decided rather than head on down to San Diego, I’d seek out a group in Eugene. And I was very wary of joining a spiritual group. I was a well-guarded person and didn’t want to become part of some strange cult.  I remember down in the Bay Area, when I was working in a produce room in San Francisco, we’d get these produce deliveries from Zen students from Green Gulch farm.[1] They always seemed so inordinately happy. I was really suspicious of that. I’m like, ‘What are you guys on?’ being a rather cynical politically-minded person. But they were just so full of life and sincerely generous. That was just my east-coast cynicism in the lead. So I sought out a local group in Eugene. I remember driving by the front door of this house for a couple months before I actually parked and knocked on the door to go in. And my rule of thumb was, ‘If they’re at all solicitous of me . . .’ If they’re like, ‘So good to see you! Are you coming back?’ I was not coming back. And they ignored me! They ignored me. It was great. I sat. It was like, ‘Okay. I can do this.’”

For Seido, farming and Zen are the same practice.

“To be a farmer is to be constantly shown a world ‘beyond self.’ In the fields, there is nothing but constant change – death and dying, birth and living, and letting go. If one surrenders to the condition completely, there is the same spirit of practice in the field as in the zendo. You eventually let go into a life of service. If you talk to long-time farmers, you see they have a practice. Attachment to gain and loss takes a backseat to being. Close to the earth, a life force comes through you. Day to day farming is very much like sesshin. You must show up, whether you like it or not. Whether you like that period of zazen or not; it doesn’t matter. You keep showing up. Keep showing up. When you realize farming as this kind of practice, the roles become reversed. You stop doing something to the land and allow the land to farm you. You are being gardened. The soil literally becomes you. You are basically composted by your farm over time. Like my hands, I’m thoroughly saturated with the waters and life of this landscape. It offers a kind of mystical experience if you give yourself to it. And resistance, too, is part of it. To show up and care for one place on this earth – to actually touch one corner of the land in the ecological crisis that we are in – is a profound practice. There is an intelligence within which we are embedded, and if we are listening through the body, that is a deep communion. That’s Zen.”

Other links:


[1] Operated by the San Francisco Zen Center.

Wayne Coger

When I first wrote to the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, I said that I was aware it was not directly affiliated with Zen. Wayne Coger wrote back to me: “While we are not a Buddhist Center we are incorporated as a Zen Center. The late Roshi Kapleau once wrote that the ‘spirit of Zen is all pervading.’ So legally, and perhaps in spirit, we are in the Zen tradition.”

After my first visit to interview him and Sandra Gonzalez, I came back to do a week-long retreat in order to get a clearer impression of what goes on here and how it differs from more traditional centers. When I was looking for a way to bring my book, The Story of Zen, to conclusion, I returned to Springwater and Wayne Coger.

Although there is no iconography, there are elements familiar from more traditional zendos. Zafus and zabutons are available, but people may also spend the scheduled sitting period sitting in lounge chairs looking through the windows at the grounds. Wayne believes the freedom the center provides for people “not to have to subscribe to any particular doctrine or creed to be very refreshing and very freeing.” The traditional formalities, Wayne suggests, aren’t necessary. “That’s not to be critical of someone who finds them necessary. What we are doing here has been an on-going experiment. Can this be done? Can it unfold without the formal trappings of a religious organization?”        

“When someone first comes here and seeks instruction, what do you tell them?”

“Do nothing.”

I laugh. “And, of courses, that just pisses them off.”

“Yeah,” Wayne says.

“What do you mean, ‘Do nothing’?”

“To see that all the manipulations, all the efforting, all the self-deception, doesn’t bring us any closer to the presence of this moment; to see that when we are busy doing things, we’re not really listening, we’re not really here. So, we’re looking at the possibility that this doing is a kind of a trap. That it lets us feel that we’re going somewhere, that we’re creating an illusion of kind of a goal, but, in reality, we’re here. And what is calling for attention is here. I wouldn’t say that we’re free of that tendency ‘to do.’ But we’re looking at looking; we’re looking at seeing; we’re looking at looking at the doing, at this incredibly agitated and nervous tendency to always want to have something on the fire, always to have a goal, to always have some way of measuring what kind of progress we’re making. And part of this experiment is to see if it’s possible to be without that.”

“So, if you drop the trappings, then the energy has to come from oneself.”

“Yes. Where else can it come from? The teacher can’t see for you. The teacher can talk about what they’re seeing, what’s present for them. But the seeing has to be here. It’s difficult. And it can be very frustrating. If one’s looking for someone to take one by the hand, and say, ‘Just do this, and everything will be okay’ . . . I don’t know if that’s self-deception, but it involves both of us – if we’re making that kind of contract – in a very precarious situation. I think there’s much more danger for the person doing the leading, but it’s dangerous for both people. We can really get a sense of inflated worth. A lot of mischief can come out of that if we’re the one who’s going to show people the truth, so to speak. That’s quite a heavy responsibility. So the approach here is to see if we can work together, look together. In this kind of together-working, can there be a clarifying, a clarity that emerges?”

“Would you equate these moments of clarity with awakening?”

“Yes. People are infinitely capable of waking up. The coming to is not dependent on the tradition. It manifests in human beings when there isn’t the kind of entanglement with our beliefs, with our sense of oneself or one’s separation or one’s fantasies about one’s self, one’s idea. If there is a break in the continuity of that story, there can be an opening, a freshness, a seeing.”

“The time I did a retreat here, that was an issue which came up at least twice during the discussion periods, participants questioning whether or not awakening was actually possible. And, as I remember the discussion, there seemed to be doubt about that. My feeling was – and I remember saying this – that I think people often have an inflated idea of what awakening is which can get in the way of actually experiencing awakening.”

Wayne nods his head. “That the feeling or idea of what awakening consists of gets in the way of a spontaneous or a free opening? Yes, I would agree with that. I’ll put it the way it happens here. We read about something – enlightenment stories or awakening stories – or we hear somebody talking about this awakening, and not surprisingly, with a lot of ideas flowing, a lot of images, and hopes and dreams. And I think within or without traditions, within the Zen tradition or other meditative traditions, when there is a genuine coming to, waking up, it’s discovered it’s not what we imagined or wanted or thought it was. It’s none of that. It’s not thought. It’s not imagination. And maybe that’s part of the discovery, that we’re living our lives in the imagination, in the realm of thought, in the realm of ideas. Not that there’s anything wrong with thought, we just think that our thought is reality, that it’s all there is in some ways. And we also think that because I’ve thought something it’s invariably true. Again, this work is beginning to look at thought in a more open, unbiased way. To see thought as thought.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 385-408

The Story of Zen : 430-36

Zen Conversations: Pp. 95-98.

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Meido Moore

In spite of the stern – one could say ascetic – facial expression on almost all the photographs I have seen of him, Meido Moore smiles easily and laughs frequently. In fact, he’s fun to talk to. Part of that fun comes from the fact that he has clear opinions about current controversies in Western Zen which he articulates with great facility.

I began our conversation by asking what distinguishes Zen practice from other forms of Buddhism

“Buddhism is Buddhism. And Zen is a Mahayana tradition. It is also what we call an expression of the Ekayana, the One Vehicle. So it has a particular orientation, an approach to and an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. But if I had to say what distinguishes it, I would return always to the four lines that Bodhidharma – the great patriarch who transmitted Zen to China – used to describe Zen: A separate transmission outside the scriptures; not dependent upon – or setting up – words or letters; and, crucially, the last two lines, directly pointing to the human mind; seeing one’s nature, becoming Buddha. Those four lines sketch out the approach and the method of Zen. That it is a path in which the direct pointing activity from the teacher, rapidly, at the entrance or the gate to the path is intended to cause us to have this recognition of our nature that we call kensho. That is the gateway to the path. And then taking that as the basis of all subsequent practice is the maturation, the path of progressive transcendence, post-awakening, which we call becoming Buddha. So, to see one’s true nature and become Buddha through directly pointing at the human mind. If I have to sum it up, in the most pithy way, that’s the Zen approach. It’s not the only Buddhist path that has that kind of direct approach or that is dependent upon the activity of the teacher in that way, but I have to say that is the Zen way. That is what distinguishes it.”

There, are, I point out, contemporary North American teachers who discount the significance of kensho or awakening.

“If you deny the centrality of what we call ‘awakening’— which, of course, is not a culmination or a fruition, a fulfillment at all; it’s just the entrance gate of Zen, the moment when we can say we’re no longer just doing Buddhist practice, now we’re doing Zen Buddhist practice – if you deny that, then you have to deny the words of Bodhidharma and every great master down through the ages. So I cannot understand the kind of people who take that position. I could understand using rhetoric like that to disabuse people of attachment to it, because – again – it is not a culmination. The post-awakening training is the meat of the Zen path, and to deny the centrality of it denies Zen practice totally. Because the rational behind Zen practice is predicated upon taking the content of awakening – if you will – as its basis. The practice itself is based on that. So we cannot have a Zen practice without awakening.”

“Does one have to be Buddhist to practice Zen?” I ask.

“No. Anyone’s welcome. Anyone’s welcome to practice and get whatever benefit they can out of it. But if someone asks me directly, ‘Do I have to be Buddhist to really grasp what Zen training is pointing at?’ I’ll say, ‘Yes. Absolutely.’”


“Because if you remove the core Buddhist teachings and the whole intent behind the training – what the training is pointing to – then it becomes something different entirely. It becomes more of a therapeutic activity. It becomes . . . Well, you can see what it becomes because we have a so-called secular Buddhist movement everywhere. All of the great masters, everything they’ve taught, and even the rationale behind the training – even something like the koan system – it’s all pointing at the core Buddhist teachings and to have experiential understanding of what those are.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with the classifications that come from Guifeng Zongmi, the so-called Five Types of Zen.[1] We have those five types; they’re all valid inasmuch as they give someone some benefit. But if we want to say what Zen ultimately is, it’s so-called Saijojo Zen, it’s the highest realization and ultimately the attainment of liberation in the way that is conceived of in Buddhism. It does not mean that someone cannot do Gedo Zen or Bompu Zen for common benefit. There’s no problem. Those people are welcome. But if they ask me if what they are doing is really Zen, I will tell them honestly, ‘No. It’s not.’ But they’re still welcome. And I don’t care what you call yourself. I don’t need you to become any kind of -ist. I don’t need you to change into some kind of -ism unless you have the interest. But if you ask me, ‘What is the intent of the training?’ I will tell you from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings. What is kensho, actually, from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings? What is the fulfillment of the post-kensho path of liberation? I will tell you from that perspective. Do you need to believe in karma and rebirth? No. You can remain agnostic about those issues, but the whole training is predicated upon it, so if you take it out, you remove a linchpin. It’s fine to do that for yourself if you want. But then there is no need to call it Zen or Buddhism anymore: just call it ‘my own personal spirituality inspired by Buddhism.’ I have no problem with people getting benefit as they see fit and engaging with the tradition as they wish. What I will criticize is people who remove crucial aspects of its framework, like the Four Noble Truths, for example. You know, if you remove the teachings of karma and rebirth – someone said this; I don’t remember who – the Third Noble Truth becomes, ‘You will die.’ The Fourth Noble, instead of revealing the Eightfold Path, becomes, ‘Wait.’ Because suffering will end then.”

He gets me laughing frequently as well.

“So Buddhism is what it is. Of course, there are different expressions of it. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there is a lot of debate and creativity within it. If someone wants to remove those things – as a person or an organization – that’s fine. Just don’t call it Buddhism. Just call it something else. Just say, ‘This is my personal spirituality inspired or influenced by Buddhism. I get great benefit from it. This is what I’m doing.’ That’s an honest way to approach that kind of thing. So I try to present it to people this way if they come in asking me, ‘Do I have to be Buddhist?’ ‘No, you don’t. But I’m teaching Buddhism. Please get whatever you can get from it. And I leave your own mess  to you,’” he adds with a chuckle.

Other Links:

[1] 1) Bompu Zen – meditation practices undertaken for health benefit; 2) Gedo Zen – meditation practices associated with non-Buddhist traditions; 3) Shojo Zen – meditation practices undertaken to acquire psychological equanimity; 4) Daijo Zen – meditation practices associated with Mahayana Schools of Buddhism; 5) Saijojo Zen – practice undertaken to achieve awakening and integrate it into one’s life.

EcoSattvas Downeast

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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