Sunyana Graef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zen Conversations: 145-46.

Other links:

Vermont Zen Center

Eshu Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Zen:  326

Other links:

Zen West

Monarch Trancework

Chimyo Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lifelong practice to what end?”

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

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

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

The Story of Zen: 413-19

Zen Conversations: Pp. 69-70.

Other Links:

Great Tree Zen Temple

Brother Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the most rewarding thing?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

Other links:

Blue Cliff Monastery

Dené Granger Redding

Dené Granger Redding is the Head Cook at the Rochester Zen Center. I ask if people refer to her as the “tenzo.”

“Occasionally,” she tells me.

“When they’re being very formal?”

She laughs lightly. “I feel that it gets used in an endearing way.”

She is also in the Sangha Programs Coordinator, which, she explains, is a new position.

“One of the things that happened with the pandemic and all of the race-riots [following the police killing of George Floyd] is that Zen Center started reflecting on our place in this, our responsibility in this. What can we contribute in a good way to racial justice at large. So we ended up developing a group that organizes different programming around racial justice issues. When there was a lot of anti-Asian violence happening this past spring, we had a conversation on that with a woman who is an Asian-American Buddhist practitioner, just trying to understand her experience with being Asian and practicing in a mostly white sangha.

“So my position, what happens is somebody comes and says, ‘I want to host this program, how do I make it happen?’ So it’s taking sangha members’ idea and trying to bring them to life. We have more ideas than we can put on the ground and run with right now, so we really have to prioritize what projects we have space for.”

“The community takes the initiative in identifying the issues that they want to find some way of incorporating into their practice?” I ask.

“I think just being able to deal with collectively. It’s so easy for people to come to the zendo and sit and then go home. But we want to be able to get to know each other. So there’s a kind of community development sort of aspect to this too, and these collaborative kinds of social engagement projects give us something to come together on. Also social justice is generally an interest in our sangha. People want to learn more about their own personal biases, be able to figure out how to come together collectively on some of these issues.”

The first concern she focussed on in her new position was anti-trans bias. I ask how she determined to deal with that issue.

“We have a sangha member who identifies as non-binary, and they came out as being non-binary while a member of the Zen Center. And they were struggling with the fact that people were having a hard time using ‘they/them’ pronouns and identifying them correctly. And they are also somebody who’s a fantastic organizer; they had experience doing event coordination. And I wanted to get their help in doing some other programming that we were doing, but I also wanted to support them in living in a community that could appropriately support them. And so I threw out the idea why don’t we do some programming around trans-bias so that they can find support in an organization that knows how to support them.”

“So it’s like the Ten Bulls,” I suggest – referring to the traditional series of illustrations on the stages of Zen practice. “The final picture, you return to the marketplace with ‘gift bestowing hands.’ So, is that you’re doing? Looking for ways to bring your practice out of the Zen Center and . . .”

“Oh, absolutely,” she says before I can finish my sentence. “So when we did this ‘Anti-Trans Bias in the Media,’ we didn’t really know what skills we had to bring to the table. We didn’t really know if we knew how to make it go. And so we kept programming mostly in-house, but some of the trans-people at the Zen Center ended up inviting their friends over. So their first exposure to the Zen Center was through this anti-trans-bias conversation. And since then we’ve realized that every time we host a program like this, we have to find out who in the community would have some interest in this topic. So we are very intentionally reaching out to different members of the Rochester community. And then we’re starting to think about how can we bridge these gaps for people in a bigger way?

“I think this is something that Buddhist groups are struggling with in general right now. If you think about it, I think there’s no point in our history where we’ve been as diverse as we are now. Monasteries were usually all men of the same nationality and race. And we don’t have that anymore. We have a whole range of genders, we have a whole range of sexuality, we have a whole range of races that are trying to figure how to come together and make this thing work for all of us. And at the same time, there is this immense wealth of knowledge that a trans-person – say – can bring to the Dharma on gender that hadn’t really had a place so prominently before when it was more a monolithic group that was coming together. So I think as we become more diverse, we learn more about what resources we each bring to the table depending on where we’re coming from that adds to the Dharma in general. It can be the stuff that divides us, but it can also be the stuff that brings us together.”

Other links:

Gerardo Gally

Gerardo Gally is a lay teacher in the Kapleau lineage and the director of Casa Zen in Mexico City.

He explains that he first encountered Zen through his wife. “About six months into marriage, I felt curious about why did she get up at six in the morning to sit facing a wall. And it was a small group then – still small – and a nice, collegial environment. She went to sesshin one day, and I decided to try.”

So while she was away, Gerardo sat by himself, but it was difficult.

“And she said, ‘Oh, maybe you want to go to the next retreat.’ The next sesshin, which was a four-day sesshin with Roshi Kapleau.”

The marriage didn’t last, but Gerardo remained with the practice and became the de facto leader of the Mexico City community. Then he attended a sesshin with Kapleau in Costa Rica. “And he asked me, ‘Well, you are in charge of the group in Mexico.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you must know how to time.’ I said, ‘Well, I can do that. Twelve rounds. I can do that. But all the rest, I don’t have a clue.’ And he says, ‘Oh, okay. Here’s the bell. You go down there to the garden and practice.’ And I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ But I learned that being the timer really nails you to time. And you cannot go to sleep. You cannot just doze off. You just gotta be there. And that turned around my practice. It was a gift.”

He started attending sesshin in Rochester. “I just got into it. And no matter what, I kept going and I kept going, going. I don’t know where the persevering, the willingness, the being engaged in the practice came from. I don’t have a clue. But what I do know is that it started to help me. My life got better. I married. I have two children. And jobs and the whole thing. And I just kept practising. And got through the system of koans and all that. And practised. Did this. Did that. And I kept going for sesshin, and in 2002 Bodhin Kjolhede became my teacher. He’s one year older than I am. He asked me if I wanted to be a teacher. He didn’t want to travel so much. He wanted to let his students who were in charge of other groups just take over. And I said yes, and I started teaching. So I’m still teaching. So I’m a firm believer – because of my own experience – I believe there’s a way for lay people, outside the monasteries or outside a formal setting such as Rochester, we can go through the hoops and the loops and practice. That’s where I am.”

 The group he works with in Mexico City, he tells me, has a great sense of community.

“Let me describe how we start sesshin because it’s kind of different. The first night – we start on a Friday – and we start sitting informally and then we have a bonfire so that everybody can relax and talk and catch up on each other and what you’ve been doing and being able to talk, especially people from outside Mexico City. And then the next day we start with sitting and breakfast and it’s informal, and we keep going and going until we have the opening ceremony. And then we keep silence. But we start very slowly so that people can really create a sense of community. Not only because of the practice itself, the intensity of the practice, because of the silence of the practice and the deep connection you develop there.”

I ask what it is he hopes for for those who practice with him.

“To awaken to their Buddha Nature. That’s what I say every day in different ways and step by step and by example – giving examples – and trying to be a living example of what it means. And trying to get them to see that all their struggles are part of the path. By the way, because we are a small sangha, I can give longer dokusans. I’m not in a rush with dokusan. I don’t give them more than what they need, but they’re longer dokusans, and I can put much more about daily life. And so that’s where I really try to inspire. It’s a lay practice, what I’m doing here, and so it has to be significant for a lay person.”

He speaks emotionally about the way in which he has personally benefited from practice. “It just gets deeper and deeper in the practice; despite being practising for 38 years, there’s still much more to discover; it’s endless in that sense. It has the power to change how we are, who we are, and gives us this tremendous personal freedom to be free of our own attachments that will take us to the next century and beyond that. And that’s what we really need to teach is not only the forms but how to use those forms to transform. It can’t just be the shell. It can’t just be the structure. We have to teach how to use the structure. How to use the sitting. How to use our inner resources to become Zen people.”

Other links:

Casa Zen

Affiliate Groups – Rochester Zen Center

Patrick Gallagher

I first met Patrick Gallagher in 2013 when I had arranged to interview Sister Elaine MacInnes, the first Canadian to receive Dharma transmission. She was living in a home on the east side of Toronto for members of Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns associated with the Scarboro Fathers. She had asked Patrick to join us, and, just as I pulled up in front of the house, he arrived by bike. Later I asked him how much courage it took to ride a bike in an urban environment. He laughed the question off, but I had been serious. I hadn’t found Toronto motorists to be particularly considerate.

Since that first meeting, Patrick has moved up through the teaching ranks of the Sanbo Zen lineage, even though he – like Sister Elaine – does not consider himself a Buddhist as such. He remains a practicing Roman Catholic. And yet his promotions as a teacher have come fairly rapidly. “Embarrassingly fast,” he tells me. He is currently the principal teacher at three communities, Oak Tree in the Garden in Toronto, as well as groups in Hamilton and Ottawa.

His first opening experience occurred about three years after he started study with Sister Elaine. I ask him about the time he spent in the zendo before that opening, whether he had found practice immediately rewarding or if it had just been drudgery.

“I wouldn’t say it was drudgery, but it was a definite act of commitment on my part, to persist. I will tell you a story though about how things work when you’re unaware of it. I hadn’t been doing it all that long – less than a year, I think – and there was some kind of event, I don’t remember what it was, and for some reason my wife was there, and I introduced her to Sister Elaine. And Sister Elaine asked her, ‘Have you noticed any change in Patrick?’ And I thought until then that I’d been unsuccessfully trying this Zen stuff, and it was hard work, and I wasn’t sure I was doing it right, and all that kind of thing. And to my astonishment, Nikki said, ‘Well, if I didn’t know he was the same man, I’d think he was a different man from the one I’d married.’ And you could’ve picked me up off the floor. I felt I was exactly the same. But apparently I was changing.”

When I ask him to describe the opening experience, he finds it difficult to express in words. After some hesitation, he tells me, “In its simplest terms, I had an experience where I was no longer there, and yet I was there.” He doesn’t put a lot of weight on that initial experience, however, pointing out that, “When people have some kind of experience or insight that’s just the beginning of the work; that isn’t the end of the work. You really have to nourish that and feed it and work on it. You’re not transformed instantly into St. Francis. You’re still the same miserable cuss you were before. You need to work on it.”

Awakening, he explains, isn’t an event. It’s a process, and a process which, to be meaningful, needs to be expressed in one’s life in some manner. “I tell people this often: if this has no implications, if this has no consequences in your life off the cushion, then it’s just an eccentric habit. It’s like a weird form of stamp collecting. It must be alive in your life. I have no doubt about that. And to the extent that it is alive in your non-cushion life, it’s alive in you.”

In his orientation talks to new students, Patrick describes what he calls the Three Fruits of Zen: Joriki [or concentration], kensho [awakening], “and then making it active in your life. Making it part of your life.”

I’m curious about how he sees students “making it part of their lives.” He admits he doesn’t have a lot of contact with many of the students outside the zendo, but he does observe them interacting when they are at the center, and his impression is that continued practice brings about change. “People seem kinder, more patient. The longer they practice, the more open they are to one another. And I’ve also noticed that when people are not that way, they seem often to be stuck in their practice too. The two go together. It’s not first this happens, and then this other thing happens as a result. The two work together. They’re two sides of one coin in a way.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 140-45

Catholicism and Zen: 95-96, 182-92

Zen Conversations: 132.

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Oak Tree in the Garden

Sally Metcalf

This week – the week following Remembrance Day – is recognized as YMCA Peace Week in Canada

In 1987 – when I had been with the Y for only two years – the International Committee of the Fredericton YM-YWCA was given responsibility for developing the resources for that year’s national Peace Week activities. I and a handful of volunteers (Carole Cronkhite, May Whalen, and Lucie El Khoury) met with Bob Vokey of YMCA Canada to discuss the matter. Before the meeting formally began, Bob gave us an overview of the growing lack of interest in international development matters not only within the Y but among volunteers in other NGOs as well. One of the factors causing this was that celebrities and political figures who allowed their names to be associated with certain causes were lauded for their endorsements while often the volunteers who did most of the on-the-ground work labored anonymously and with little recognition of their efforts.

I suggested that the Y should institute an award to recognize individuals like these, people who – without any special resources – could be held up as exemplars of the types of things all of us could do if we chose. Celebrities and political figures, specifically, would not be eligible. While their activities were valuable, because they had access to special resources they could not be effective models of the contributions ordinary people were capable of making.

The YMCA Peace Medal continues to be awarded by associations across Canada and occasionally in other countries as well. It was, doubtless, the most significant contribution I made in my 27-year career with the Y.

When Genjo Marinello Roshi of Chobo-ji in Seattle learned that I was working on a book about the impact of Zen on practitioners, he advised me to interview Sally Metcalf of his sangha. Sally is a sensei, but she is quick to point out that the title is largely honorific. She tells me that Osho – as she calls Genjo – awards the title as a way of “acknowledging certain people in this sangha who are not ordained but who have done forty sesshin and are active helping the community. It’s his way of acknowledging people who’ve been doing the forms for a while so that other people can rely on them. As you know, there’s a lot of form in Rinzai; so that’s quite helpful.”

“Do you have specific responsibilities in the community?” I ask.

“No. Basically we just wear brown rakusus, and we’re just somebody people can watch who know what they’re doing – ’cause usually we do things correctly – and somebody people can talk to. So that’s what Osho does, if you’re not on ordination track – which has different hoops you have to jump through – it’s his way of acknowledging senior people.”

When I ask her what contributions she makes to the community, her response is modest.

“I’ve got kind of a small life,” she tells me. “I don’t mean that in a deprecatory way. But I’m not like the Dalai Lama who can reach millions of people. Which is pretty incredible. I live this small life. I don’t get around much. I have a job with a small non-profit. I shop at my grocery stores, and I have my much-loved sangha. I wash the laundry, and I wipe the dishes, and I clean the toilets, and I greet people at the door, and so this is my life. And I don’t touch millions of people. I don’t even touch thousands of people. But, that being said, way, way, way, way back, when I first took a Course in Miracles in the Unity Church, there was a prayer that began, ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ And that really struck me. ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ That just went out to every cell in my body.”

When she began Zen practice, she encountered the same concept in the Bodhisattva Vows. “In the shorthand form we use, it’s to ‘care for all people, everywhere, always.’” She adds that she told Genjo Osho that when Zen practice no longer helped her realize that goal, she would quit it and look elsewhere. “And Osho said, ‘Good. That’s the way it should be.’

“It sounds kind of funny, but I used to row this boat out on Puget Sound. And when you’re rowing slowly, you leave a wake. So I and my dog were out in Eagle Harbor, and we’re going along, and there’s our wake. But what kind of wake am I leaving? When I’m in a coffee shop, I don’t want to just say, ‘Give me my latte’ and get out.” Instead, she wants the encounter with the barista to become personal. So that they treat one another with respect. “We appreciate each other. And I’m trying to do that in my sangha. You know, when a member comes in, I ask them how they are. ‘How are the difficulties you were telling me about your job?’ So, this is my practice. Everywhere. Always. With everyone. This is my practice. Am I helping people on the scale of the Dalai Lama? No, I don’t think so. But am I leaving a good wake? I think so.”

Sally is precisely the kind of person I had in mind when I came up with the concept of the YMCA Peace Medallion.

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Tetsugan Zummach

I met Tetsugan Zummach when she and her husband, Dosho Port, were teaching at Great Tides Zen in Portland, Maine. She later explained that she began her study of Buddhism when she was still in her 20s, prompted by what she termed “an overall feeling of discontent”

“Discontent in what way?”

“Wondering, looking around and seeing my family and friends and the trajectories that they were on and just this feeling of dissatisfaction and ‘Is this it? Is this it?’ The idea of a successful life seemed to be going to college and getting a job, getting married, having kids, having a nice house, having a vacation house. The people that were around me at that time of my life, that seemed to be the level of success that they aspired to. But they didn’t seem all that happy, so I thought, ‘Really? This is all we have to look forward to?’ So I wanted something more, wondered if there was something more.”

One of the most striking changes that has occurred in Zen since it first arrived in the West is what draws people to it. If I ask teachers who are twenty years older than Tetsugan, they were largely drawn by the allure of awakening, kensho, enlightenment. When I ask Tetsugan what brings people to practice today, she explains that when they have introductory workshops, “We always start off the intros by going around asking people what is bringing them, what are they interested in, what do they want to get out of the session? And most people are dealing with some level of suffering. More and more people are struggling with anxiety, depression, stress. They want to learn how to deal with stress. They want to learn how to regulate their emotions. They want to learn how to be more calm and present. They want to know how to be more mindful. The secular mindfulness movement has really taken off, so they might’ve heard a little bit about mindfulness. They want to be more present in their lives. So that’s generally what we find.”

“Do big awakening experiences still occur?” I ask.

“I think they do. But it takes some time for people to shift from what I just described. They often come looking for well-being – and I think that’s an important doorway – but the heart of the practice is about the ground of being. So I think there’s a shift that needs to take place for people to go more deeply into the practice. Maybe they do clean up some parts of their lives. Have some stability. Gain some stability in order to go deeper. For some people that is needed. But it takes time. One of the things we emphasize is that you can’t expect to just dip a toe in once a week or every couple of weeks and have some grounding, let alone some kind of awakening. You need to have consistency and diligence in your practice. Dosho gave a talk recently, and he said, ‘It’s like the idea of you think you’re going to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But you rub for two seconds and then you stop.’ There’s no heat. There’s no spark. So consistency is really important.”

“So people come for ‘well-being,’” I say, “and then through immersion in the practice – though that’s not a term you used – but with engagement in the practice, they evolve to what? They start by seeking well-being and then discover what?”

“Well, I think in the beginning, and this was certainly true of me, I didn’t know anything about enlightenment or awakening. I read some books and heard a few stories, but I kind of dismissed that as ‘Oh, yes, that was for some Indian sages or whatever.’ So I think oftentimes when people come looking for that well-being, they don’t even know about the full potential of what Buddhism or Zen practice has to offer. And so I think there’s a learning curve that happens, and through consistently engaging with the practice, establishing a relationship with a teacher, I think those things help open up fields of opportunities and what’s possible.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 468-69, 476

Zen Conversations: 64-65

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