Ed Oberholtzer

Ed (Sanshin) Oberholtzer is a Soto priest teaching in the Joseph Priestley Zen Community in Northumberland, PA., the Greater Boston Zen Center, and the Empty Moon Zen Sangha. He is a Dharma heir of James Ford, and – as James was when I first met him some nine years ago – Ed is wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we speak. I ask if it’s a lineage thing. He doesn’t deny it.

“You know, old farts wear these,” he tells me. “We’re actually trying to reclaim them from the Boogaloo Boys.”

When I contacted him, I was aware that he held an affiliate position with the Unitarian Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley and was under the mistaken impression that – like James – he was combining a Unitarian ministry with Zen practice. It took me a while during the course of the interview to recognize my error. He has had a number of careers. He practiced law for ten years, worked in bookstores and libraries, but he has never been ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, although he’d probably be pretty good at.

He left law after recognizing that it was a career path he wasn’t suited for. “I realized that I wanted a profession that was not harmful, and it hit me that I could become a librarian. What could be less harmful than that? And, of course, it turns out that you can be incredibly harmful if you want to be.”

His quest for a spiritual practice came about after his father’s death. “It was one of those lingering affairs. He had COPD. I was by his bedside when he died, and I can remember thinking, ‘This is going to be me.’ You know? ‘What am I going to do about that?’” He was 40 at the time.

He tried a couple of meditation centers which didn’t seem a good fit. Then “I stumbled into the Cambridge Buddhist Association. There was a guy there at that time named Dharman Stortz.”

I don’t immediately recognize the name of the Cambridge group and ask about them.

“They’re Harvard,” Ed tells me. “That’s the best way to put it. The story that I was told was that in the ’50s a group of Harvard professors who had huge book collections wanted a place to keep them, and they created the Cambridge Buddhist Association, and they got D. T. Suzuki to be president.”

In the 1950s there had been a number of wealthy New Englanders – including John and Elsie Mitchell – who developed a semi-academic interest in Zen. The Cambridge group, I remembered, was established by the Mitchells.

“Anyway, I started sitting with Dharman. Dharman made it clear that he wasn’t a teacher and that you really needed a teacher, and I was desperately looking around for a Zen teacher. I started driving out to Zen Mountain Monastery, which was a four-hour drive to get there for a 9:00 service on Sundays.”

It wasn’t a very practical arrangement. Then he learned “they had a sitting group in Framingham that was easier to get to with a bunch of lay people. I went and sat with them, and, at one point, one of them said, ‘You know, there’s this guy who’s just shown up in the Boston area who does koan practice.” The guy was James Ford.

“He had a group that he was meeting at the church he had in West Newton, and there was kind of a satellite group with another teacher in a really, really appalling dark basement room in Sommerville. It was so small you couldn’t do kinhin.[1] When the bell rang, you stood and that was it because there was no place to actually walk. And once a month, James would come, and he would do dokusan.”

After a period of working with James, going through the koan curriculum, Ed decided upon another career path and sought ordination. I ask him what he imagined his role as a Soto priest would be.

“It was primarily pastoral. That’s what was really clear about what James had to offer and what he expected from the people he ordained. He sees us as ministers, as someone taking care of a congregation, of a sangha.”

Although his ordination is through the Soto lineage, Ed is also in the Harada/Yasutani lineage through James’ work with John Tarrant. Koan work is central to the latter but not necessarily. the former, and Ed has completed the Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum.

“Koan practice is fun,” he tells me. “It is an enormously amusing form of something that is deadly serious. And that if you can’t laugh . . . well . . .”

I ask what he sees the purpose of Zen practice to be, and he answers personally.  

“It’s about me wanting to know who I am.”

“And how does it help you do that?”

“I sit quietly, and I look. And I ask myself, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ My grandmother’s best friend was the registrar at the Harvard Business School for a long time, and I remember her sitting there and shaking her head and saying, ‘You know these people, they don’t have time to greet their own souls.’”

It’s a lovely phrase which stays with me for a long while after our conversation.

[1] Walking meditation.

Richard Shrobe

It was at the suggestion of Bobby Rhodes that I made contact with Richard Shrobe. I found him listed in Wikipedia as Wu Kwang Soen Sa Nim. Members of the Kwan Um school had also referred to Seung Sahn as “Soen Sa Nim”. So when our conversation began, I asked Richard if he were now the head of the order. He admitted that he probably was for North America, but that, in fact, Bobby Rhodes was the Head of the Order. Well, I had missed that entirely during my conversation with her.

Soen Sa Nim, it turns out, is a title meaning Zen Master. Soen is the same as Zen; Sa means master; and nim is an honorific. So when members of the school used it to refer to Seung Sahn—or to Richard or to Bobby—it was much like members of Japanese Schools referring to their teacher as “Roshi.” Both Richard and Bobby wear the title lightly. At the time I spoke to them, they also both had “day jobs” by which they support themselves. Kwan Um teachers don’t make a career of it. Bobby Rhodes was a hospice nurse. Richard was a psychotherapist. One gets the sense that the Korean school, on the whole, is a little less stiff, a little less formal, than Japanese schools can be at times.

Richard is a former jazz musician and hard-drug user. “The two kind of went together.” When he realized he needed to do something about his life, he, his wife, and young daughter moved into a Hindu Community run by Satchidananda. It was the ’60s. Satchidananda was the opening speaker at the 1969 “Woodstock Music and Arts Festival”—the one with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplan, and the Jefferson Airplane.

Five years later, Richard decided that the Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga program wasn’t doing all that he’d hoped it would, so the family moved out. Later, he learned about Master Seung Sahn and found his teacher.

He had been raised in a Jewish household. I ask how his family responded to his interest in Eastern religions.

“Well, I think,” he says with a laugh, “the fact I wasn’t using drugs anymore meant something. But also I remember periodically my father would ask me—both when I was practicing with Swami Satchidananda and later when I was practicing with Seung Sahn—he would ask me things like, ‘Is Zen a religion or a way of life?’”

“It’s a good question,” I admit.

“Right. And I remember one day asking him, well, exactly how did he see the difference in those two? You know? And first I would initially answer him it was more a way of life than an organized religion as such. But that’s not totally true either. But—you know—it’s true to a large degree, I think. But he never had an answer when I put it back on him.”

Richard wasn’t, he admits, one of the students who went out of his way to attend every retreat or rush off to Korea. He made it clear early on that he was intent on balancing family, career, and his Zen practice. But he was committed to the practice, and eventually Seung Sahn gave him inka—the first of two stages of authorization. The second—transmission—came some time later.

When I ask Richard what the function of Zen is, he tells me: “Zen is a practice of becoming clear, returning to your original mind before concept, opinion, and idea.” It is the same answer I’ve received from teachers in Japanese-based lineages. I ask Richard if he believes there’s any difference in the way the Japanese Schools and the Korean School approach this function. “Not fundamentally. The flavor might be a little different in terms of the cultural underpinnings.”

An interesting aspect of Kwan Um training is that, before a student is given inka, he or she is sent to visit a number of Japanese Zen sites in North America to undertake Dharma Combat with the teachers in those centers. Richard sat sesshin with Taizan Maezumi, Eido Shimano, and others.

The Kwan Um School makes use of the same koan (kong-an in Korean) collections as the Japanese Rinzai—the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff Record. But their approach is a little different. Early in their training, students are assigned an initial kong-an such as “What is it?” which if dwelled upon with sufficient sincerity and perseverance will help the student arrive at what they call “Don’t Know Mind.”

“It’s like the story of Bodhidharma,” Richard tells me, referring to the opening case in the Blue Cliff Record. “When he’s before the Emperor Wu, and the Emperor asks him, ‘Who are you?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘Don’t know.’”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 423-438

Other Links:

Chogye International Zen Center of New York



Ruben Habito

Ruben Habito, a former Jesuit priest, is the founder and teacher in residence at the Maria-Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. He was born in the Philippines in 1947. His father was a university professor, and, as a young man, Ruben was aware of his family’s privilege. “I did not suffer the hunger or the deprivation or the discrimination or illness or the things that many of the people in my country had to – and still have to – undergo.”

He questioned how God could allow the suffering of so many innocent hardworking people and spare others. “There is so much injustice in the world, so much unfairness and so much suffering. And how can this be allowed if God is all-powerful and all-loving and so on. And so the basic question of whether God did exist or not became very acute for me.”

“Did you ever resolve those questions?” I ask.

“Uh . . . I’d say the jury’s still out on that one,” he tells me with a smile.

The questioning eventually led him to enter the Jesuit novitiate. And while studying there, he had a chance encounter with an American missionary returning from Japan to the United States in order to complete his final year of formation. The young priest was Robert Kennedy, who – by his own admission – had had no interest in Zen during his posting to Japan, although years later he would later become a student of Koun Yamada Roshi and eventually a Dharma Heir of Bernie Glassman.

“He gave a talk to the novices about how Japan was a very challenging place for Christians because they were less than 1% of the population – half of them Catholic, half spread among different Protestant denominations – and that it was a country that was gradually becoming secularized and losing it spiritual heritage.”

The talk inspired Ruben to apply to be assigned to Japan.

His first task was to learn the language. “I was in the language school in Kamakura and our spiritual director happened to be Father Thomas Hand[1] who had already started practicing Zen for some years before I arrived. And he advised me, ‘To deepen your spiritual life and also to really deepen your knowledge of Japanese culture, why don’t you come with me and join me in sitting in Zen with this group.’” The group was Yamada’s Zendo. “There were several Jesuits who were practicing Zen and integrating it with Jesuit spirituality.

“So when I came to Zen practice in my early 20s, we were just given simple instructions on the basic principles of taking a proper seated posture conducive to stillness and then of being aware of the breath, then allowing the mind to be calm and focused in the here and now. And so I found that very nourishing and direct. And I discovered it was a way of really arriving at the very place that St. Ignatius leads an exercitant who goes through his Spiritual Exercises.  Spelled out briefly, in the Jesuit exercises we go through the first week meditating, using the discursive intellect to consider human sinfulness with a view to experientially realize the problematic nature of the human condition and be able to see clearly all of those things that need to be straightened out in our human way of living. This is the stage of purification.

“Then, in the next phase, the second week, we begin to set aside the discursive mind and are led to a more simple contemplative practice. We are now instructed to just ‘behold’ the words and actions of Jesus, to contemplate this looming figure of Jesus with a view to ‘putting on the mind of Christ’ in one’s own life and way of being. The point of this second week – a state of Illumination – is to become one with Jesus through listening to his words, watching his actions, and absorbing all of that into one’s own being. In going through the contemplative exercises of this second week, one comes to understand that to follow Jesus does not simply mean ‘imitating Jesus’ in a way that one looks at a model of behavior from a distance. Rather, all this leads one to embody the mind and heart of Jesus in one’s own life, to become an ‘alter Christus’ in all the dimensions of one’s own human life, infused with divine grace of course.

“The third week is a stage that involves a death to one’s own egoistic self, to die with Jesus on the cross as it were. This – and the fourth week – is the stage wherein one experiences the newness of life in the Risen Christ. To be one with Jesus in the risen life is to behold the divine glory permeating the entire universe. The third and fourth weeks are referred to as the stage of union, wherein one’s life is seen in the full light of divine grace and is lived in union with the divine will. So that final stage – the summit of the exercises, called the Contemplation on Divine Love – consists in simply resting in divine love, beholding everything in the light of this love.

“Now that is exactly what I found most directly and intimately in this practice of Zen. It is simply a practice of just sitting there, breathing in and breathing out, without any need for any kind of discursive or mental efforts, but a practice of just allowing that unconditional love to permeate through one’s entire being. It is allowing oneself to be immersed in that unconditional love, sitting there opening one’s entire being to allow that to happen. That’s where I found the point of convergence between Zen and the Spiritual Exercises.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 150, 474

Catholicism and Zen: 14, 63-73, 75, 101, 107, 130, 134, 143, 148, 195

The Story of Zen: 258, 410-13

Zen Conversations: 83-84; 127

Other links:

Maria Kannon Zen Center


[1] https://rickmcdaniel.blogspot.com/2022/05/thomas-hand.html

Erin Joen Dempsey

Joen Dempsey is a practitioner with Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax. She grew up in the community of Herring Cove, just south of the city, which is the current location of the Theravadan Atlantic Buddhist Meditation Center, whose facilities Thousand Harbours used for day retreats prior to the pandemic. I interviewed her, however, during the period when restrictions were in place and groups like Thousand Harbours were only able to meet through Zoom.

She tells me that when she reflects on her childhood, “I actually remember looking forward to being an adult. I remember explicitly thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I’m an adult.’ And I remember in my late 20s feeling like I’d come out the other side of a dark tunnel. It sounds so bleak. Who knows why?”

She uses terms like anxiety, depression, and even trauma. Which may be a factor in why at the time I interviewed her she was training to be a clinical psychologist.

One of the ways in which Zen has been viewed by people in the west is as a form of Eastern Psychology. The Zen popularizer, Alan Watts, wrote a book on the subject, entitled Psychotherapy East & West. I find myself wondering how closely related psychology and Zen actually are. Joen believes the goals are different.

“When I think about Zen, if you have a goal when you sit down to do zazen, then there’s something wrong with that picture already. That’s how I’ve been trained and how I practice. That ‘simply sitting’ is the point of Zen. Being present. Maybe it is like making friends with oneself. People talk about that in Zen, and it kind of resonates with me, the idea of getting to know oneself not in a discursive way where you’re asking probing questions and responding internally or anything like that. But where you sit and notice and see and being okay with that. That’s what I understand Zen to be about.”

“If one sits without a goal,” I suggest, “doesn’t that imply it’s purposeless? Why would you do it if it were without purpose?”

“Because it’s honest. It feels honest.”

“Honest in the sense that one doesn’t have an intention?”

“For me the reason to do it, despite no goal, is that it feels like an honest thing to do. I’m being truthful with myself; I’m being authentic in the moment. I’m not avoiding; I’m not trying to escape. So, I guess, to be more in touch with the moment, to be more in touch with reality. I think these are important reasons to sit. Just with the caveat that if one sits down with the idea, ‘Okay, now I’m really going to get in touch with reality,’ then you’re projecting yourself onto reality and you’re not doing it anymore.”

“And what are the goals of psychology?”

“Well, the goals of psychology are the goals of the person you’re with. So, in my training the goal is understand a person’s suffering and then help them to make changes.”

“Are the issues which lead people to Zen similar to those that lead them to therapy?”

“Well, I’m told that there are people who are drawn to Zen because they have spiritual curiosity, or they’re interested in enlightenment. So, that, obviously, is quite different from the folks that I work with. But do you mean, ‘I have mental problems, so I want to try Zen’?”

“Is that what people say when they go to a psychologist? ‘I have mental problems, I need help’?”

“Sometimes. But usually there’s a problem. They come to you because they have a problem. And I started sitting in Zen because I had a problem. But in psychology, the problem has to be inside you. I can’t help you with your husband; I can help you with how you respond to your husband – that might help your relationship – but I can’t change anybody else. So, yeah, you come to psychology with an internal problem. Now, a lot of people actually don’t. A lot of people come to psychology with an external problem. Then the job of the psychologist is to help them see whether there is or there isn’t an internal problem that can help them with their external problem.” She pauses a moment. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of this kind of dual interest in my life or occupation or what have you. So I wonder if in a way Zen sort of opens a door to introspect, to seeing oneself in context, seeing the patterns in one’s mind, and seeing how one responds habitually. So, it can be informative in a psychological way, particularly on retreat or something, if you’re interacting with a lot of people, and you’re starting to anticipate responses from them that they have given you reason to anticipate, then you begin to see the way that your past experiences inform your anticipations of others. Basically, your psychology – how you understand others now – is based on how you understood others in the past. And Zen can help you see those things and identify them and understand them through meditation and through community. I think when people have a clinically significant problem that they’re seeing a psychologist for, I’m not sure Zen would help them see these patterns. And I know that for some populations, some forms of meditation can be counter-indicated depending on the type of mental issue the person is working with. But the ability to introspect and to understand oneself in context, I think, can be compromised by one’s life history to the degree that psychological intervention – that’s just not about ‘look inside and see what’s there,’ but that’s more structured – can be helpful in ways that I don’t think Zen could be helpful.”

Further Zen Conversations: 85-87; 119.

Other links:



Nancy Hathaway

Nancy Hathaway was a resident student of Seung Sahn in Providence at the same time as Bobby Rhodes. “We raised our babies together.” When I met her – several years before the pandemic – she was living in Maine and hosting a weekly meditation session at the Morgan Bay Zendo.

I ask her how her sits differed from other opportunities offered at the zendo at that time.

“That’s a good question. The Kwan Um School of Zen has its own traditions. And there’s an etiquette here, in this zendo, that’s used on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, so I’m incorporating the Kwan Um Zen School traditions into this setting but trying not to make it too disruptive to people who sit both. So, for example, we chant the Evening Bell Chant. It’s a special Kwan Um School bell chant. If someone were to ask for instruction, I would give them Kwan Um School of Zen, Dae Soen Sa Nim, Zen instruction. Which all goes to the same place, but . . .”

Susan Guilford – a board member at Morgan Bay and the person who organized my first visit there – is with us, and both she and Nancy stress that, while the Morgan Bay Zendo has hosted teachers from various lineages, it has avoided establishing a resident teacher since Walter Nowick resigned in 1985.

“I think there is, in fact, a little resistance to having a teacher,” Nancy tells me. “In the past, there’s been resistance to the word ‘teacher’ and having a teacher. My guess is that people here have just sort of had it with teachers.”

The issue of what the term “teacher” implies in a Zen context is frequently challenging. I know, for example, that Nancy leads retreats at the zendo, and I ask if the people who attend those don’t look upon her as a teacher. She admits they probably do but points out that she is only one teacher among others. Hugh Curran, she points out, also teaches at the zendo.

Susan senses the difficulty I’m having with this. “Nancy and I are very good friends, but I don’t think of her or her role here as ‘teacher’ with a capital T. Or Hugh. I think of it as lower-case t. I think of Nancy’s role in this context as a person who has tremendous wisdom and in other parts of her life teaches, does workshops, is part of the Kwam Um Zen School.”

“So you are officially a teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School?” I ask Nancy.

“I’m trained in the Kwan Um Zen School to be a teacher. I think that’s an important fact. I don’t talk about it much, because people think of me as a peer, and that word ‘teacher’ has held so much . . . Walter was the teacher. So that relationship to ‘teacher’ is very powerful.”

Susan explains that at that time the zendo still occasionally received requests from people seeking to do personal retreats at the location. It’s a service that they hoped to explore further, recognizing that if it did so, it would require someone to be resident on the site.

“A caretaker?” I ask.

“We’d call him a resident manager or something,” Nancy says.

“But not a teacher. You’re not looking for someone guests can go to and ask for spiritual guidance.”

“I think that’s the last thing that Morgan Bay Zendo wants.”

While there are people here to whom those guests could turn to if they wished, the goal remains to maintain the zendo without a central authority figure. It’s a model I find appealing.

I ask Nancy what, in her view, the purpose of Zen is. “What’s its function? What’s it do?”

“So, it’s sitting here talking to you.”

The three of us laugh.

“Let’s say I’m someone from the area who just drops by to find out what’s going out here,” I suggest, “I’ve known you were here for a while, and I’m just curious. So I come out and ask, ‘What’s this all about?’”

“Yeah, I would probably give that answer, and then he would want more, would ask for more, and I would explain that Zen is a practice, and we’re a practice center, and it’s to encourage, to cultivate the mind that’s before thinking and to open to what we call in this school ‘not knowing.’ Master Seung Sahn was really big on ‘Only go straight don’t know.’”

“And what good does that do?”

“It allows me to sit here and talk to you without going into my thinking and thinking about, ‘I wonder what I’m going to have for dinner tonight?’ I just start thinking, like, ‘Who is this guy I’m talking to?’ So it allows me to be here, talking, talking with you.”

Other links:

Morgan Bay Zendo

Kwan Um Zen

Sarah Bender

Like Tenney Nathanson, Sarah Bender is a Dharma heir of Joan Sutherland  and teaches within her Open Source network. Sarah is the resident teacher of the Springs Mountain Sangha in Colorado Springs.

“I started out in 1979 with Robert Aitken Roshi in Honolulu. I practiced in that sangha for four years, but then we moved to Colorado.” Her time in Hawaii overlapped with John Tarrant’s tenure as senior student.

“Later on, when I attended retreats at St. Dorothy’s where John was teaching, I have a strong memory of a talk where someone was asking a question about, ‘How to make this safe. How to make this practice safe.’ And John sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, if you’re looking for something that’s safe, maybe you’re in the wrong place.’ That kind of stuck with me, because I think on the one hand, we want to feel safe in the community in which we practice, but the practice itself . . . to practice this way, if you’re looking for safety, may be not the best way.”  

The approach that Sarah takes to her own koan teaching derives from the time she spent studying with Joan.

“It was actually Father Pat Hawk who connected my sangha with Joan through John. Pat was going to lead our first retreat in Colorado Springs and then got diagnosed with prostate cancer and couldn’t come. And he suggested that I call John, and John said, ‘I can’t come, but I have this brand-new teacher, Joan Sutherland. Give her a call.’”

Joan agreed to facilitate the retreat, assisted by David Weinstein who acted as Head of Practice.

“Was your experience with her different than with your earlier teachers?”

“I can’t say that Aitken Roshi or Father Pat ever asked me to exclude my life, but when I started to work with Joan, there was a way in which any kind of separation between a formal response to a koan or sort of an expected response to a koan and my life was unnecessary. And it was not at all that she was being psychological—you know—taking a psychological approach. I wouldn’t call it that at all. I would just say that there was no longer any barrier there at all. And the creativity of response to koans was given its full play. So not very long after starting to work with Joan, I had a dream in which I was with a woman in a room, and we each had a knitting needle, and we were tossing a ball of yarn, back and forth, catching it on our knitting needles. And there was that quality to my work with Joan. We were playing with yarns.”

“And was that first retreat a satisfying experience?”

“Thrilling. It was so nourishing. On the last morning of that retreat, I remember speaking up in our closing circle. And that morning at breakfast, I’d had an experience I’d never had before of actually taking a bite of oatmeal or something and literally feeling that nourishment spreading through my body. And when it came time for the closing circle, the image that was just right there for me was just as I had felt the nourishment of the breakfast spreading through every cell of my body, I felt the nourishment of Joan’s—and David’s—teaching spreading through every cell of my body.”

Traditional koan work can be very formal. Some teachers expect the student to come up an orthodox response. I ask Sarah if there was much difference in how she responded to this less formal way of working with koans.

“I guess in a way. I was still aware that the koan was looking for something to happen to me, and I didn’t want to go on until I was pretty sure that what the koan was looking for had in some sense happened. And Joan would sometimes have to boot me out of a koan and onto the next. ‘No! No! It’ll stay with you. Don’t worry. We’re going on!’  You know? But I’m not sure how different that was because it was not only how she did koans, it was how I did koans. And I think I had been doing koans that way already and meeting them with what was most real for me. And I already didn’t have that wall between the koan and my actual experience. Because I think that’s what koans are about, your actual experience. So it was not a hard transition at all, and it never, never occurred to me to say that ‘This is Buddhism-lite’ or something like that. Never. There was no diminishing of the power of the koan in this way of doing things.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 175, 183-84, 189

Further Zen Conversations: 51-52; 59; 113-14; 144; 151.

Other links:

Springs Mountain Sangha

Joan Sutherland Dharma Works

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

Further Zen Conversations: 39-42; 94-95; 145.

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.

Further Zen Conversations, Pp. 124-25.

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.