Bobby Rhodes/Zen Master Soeng Hyang

In addition to the Japanese teachers who came to North America in the ’60s and ’70s, there were also Zen teachers from China, Vietnam, and Korea. The focus of my early books had been on the tradition as it came from Japan, but people frequently mentioned the importance in America of the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn. John Tarrant, for example, told me that his first breakthrough had occurred during a retreat with Seung Sahn.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang is one of Seung Sahn’s heirs and currently the School Zen Master of the international Kwan Um School of Zen. She was residing in Berkeley, California, when I spoke with her. She had previously been in Providence, Rhode Island, where I had originally hoped to be able to visit her.      

When I learned that she had relocated, I arranged a Skype interview. We were a few minutes late getting started, and she contacted me, introducing herself as “Bobbie.” The title “Zen Master” is a rank within the Kwan Um School of Zen, and the name “Soeng Hyang” means “Nature’s fragrance.” “Like incense, kind of,” she tells me. She carries her lap top into the bedroom as we begin, and she continues the conversation while lying back in bed.

Her father had been in the Navy, and the family relocated several times. She had been born in Providence, but then the family moved to California. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, and, as a young woman, Bobbie was struck by the words of the Creed. It became so difficult to claim to believe these statements that she would become physically ill and have to leave the church. “Jesus rose again on the third day, ascended to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God. Where is the right hand of God?” she wondered.

She volunteered to supervise some of the younger Sunday School participants – “I watched them color” – and on a particular Sunday one of them asked her, “Where’s Jesus?” Where, indeed, she wondered. “He was here last week,” the child insisted. She was referring to the bearded father of one of the other students who had been telling stories to them. But the question stung Bobbie. “‘Where was Jesus?’ It was my first koan.”

In 1963, she had a nurse’s license and was working with Mexican-American farm workers in California. A doctor at the clinic introduced her to marijuana and LSD. She would take the drug and wander about in nature. It was an important opening for her. Eventually, however, it didn’t lead anywhere else, and she decided to look for a Zen teacher. She wanted to do koan study. “I went to Tassajarra [the San Francisco Zen Center’s training center in the Ventana Wilderness area] and I couldn’t get in because they were having a sesshin. But I talked to a couple of the monks there, and they told me that they didn’t do koan practice. So I decided, right away, ‘Well, okay.’ They were so sweet, but I just wasn’t interested. So . . .” She shrugs and laughs gently.

Seung Sahn

Then on another acid trip, she got the feeling that she should go back to Providence and “make amends” with her parents to whom she hadn’t spoken for two years. So she crossed the continent, found work in Providence, and looked for an apartment. One of the apartments she looked at happened to be over Seung Sahn’s temple. “It was just his apartment, really.” She didn’t take the apartment, but she did meet Seung Sahn and, shortly after, moved into the temple with two other students. She stayed at the temple as it moved to larger accommodations until her daughter was born and they needed their own house.

The focus of the Kwan Um School is mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness is somewhat easier to do in Seated Meditation (the Kwan Um school avoids using Japanese terms like zazen), but it is supposed to continue throughout all of one’s activity. It was a natural aid to her work as a nurse, to be able to encounter people and situations clearly and directly. She tells me, “My teacher never encouraged samadhi [concentration meditation]. He discouraged samadhi.” Zen was not to be something separate from daily activity; it was to be part of all one did. Constantly to ask, “What is this?” What is this specific situation I am in? Who is this specific person I am encountering?

When I ask about the membership of the Kwan Um School, she says that most of the members are older and admits that she had expected Zen to “bloom like crazy” because it had made so much sense to her. To her disappointment, it hasn’t. “I don’t know. Maybe people have stopped taking LSD as much,” she jokes. Then more seriously, “I don’t know what happened. I do think there’s a real addiction to electronics now.” And that certainly may be a part of it. Zen is about encountering reality, and “virtual reality” – by definition – is not reality.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 423-437

Zen Conversations: 36-38; 91-92

Other Links:

Kwan Un Zen

Wikipedia Page

David Dae An Rynick

David Rynick is the husband of Melissa Blacker and, with her, co-teacher at the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester. He is also a potter, and some of his pieces are displayed on the temple grounds.

When I first visited the temple in 2013, David told me a story which I have frequently repeated since. His initial efforts at meditation were difficult. “I hated sitting still. You know, some people talk about, ‘Oh, the first time I sat it was great.’ I was like, ‘Oh fuck! I’m gonna die!’ My mind was going crazy! But I knew it was the path, and so I started sitting two minutes a day. ’Cause that’s all I could tolerate. And I figured if I tried half an hour a day, I’d last a week. So two minutes a day. I’d set my little timer, and I’d be just about jumping out of my skin.”

Six years later, I remind him, “When we first spoke, you told me you ‘chased enlightenment’ for the first ten years of your practice. Do people still do that? When newcomers arrive at the door in Worcester are they looking for enlightenment?”

“You know, people don’t often use that language. People often use the language, ‘I want to be peaceful. I don’t want to be anxious anymore. I want to have a clear mind.’ It’s interesting that ‘enlightenment’ isn’t often in the vocabulary of the people. I think we’re a much more secular culture than we were forty years ago, fifty years ago.”

“What’s your job then?” I ask. “When someone knocks at the door for the first time, what is it you do?”

“I would say my job is to see the Buddha in each person.” My expression is probably a little skeptical, but he doesn’t back down. “That is, I think, probably the most important thing I do. In that meeting of hearts when I’m with you, and you are with me, if I can see and appreciate that, that shifts what’s possible for you.”

“So I knock at the door. I’m not looking for enlightenment, but I want to be a little less anxious. What are you going to do for me?”

“I’m going to appreciate that you walked in the door. What an incredible thing. That you really want something, don’t you? So I will inquire, ‘What are you here for? What do you really want?’ And once we clarify what you want – ‘I want to be free from anxiety’ – I might say, ‘So, let me tell you that when we practice here, we’re actually not trying to control our mind. The truth is that sometimes human beings feel anxious. So what we are doing is increasing our capacity to be with what is here.”

The way to do that is through meditation. And generally newcomers are introduced to breath practice, which, David explains, is a four step process.

“The first step is being present with the breath. The second step is wandering away. This is an essential ingredient in breath practice. Most people are pretty good at it. But it must happen. The third step is something miraculous, that at some point you become aware that you have wandered away, and that is a moment of awakening. And the fourth is then that we can choose to return to this moment, to this breath. And every time we return, we’re strengthening our capacity to be here. So the more times you wander away,” he says, chuckling softly, “the better your practice is, the more you increase this capacity.”

“And if I were a new person,” I say, “I suspect my next question would be, ‘So how’s that going to help me feel less anxious?’”

“Anxiety is unavoidable, but part of the problem we human beings have is that not only do we feel anxious but that we suffer because we don’t want to feel anxious. So there are mind states that we resist. I don’t want to feel anxious. I don’t want to feel angry. I don’t want to feel sad. But what we resist persists. Whatever we try to push away gets more energy and gets bigger. So as we learn that human beings feel anxious, sad, happy, clear, cloudy, all of those, as we open up to what is here, then feelings come and go on their own accord. Then anxiety is not a problem to be fixed but is how I feel sometimes.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 200-01, 207-08, 209, 210, 211, 212, 214, 215-222, 228, 418

The Story of Zen: 386

Zen Conversations: 75-79

Other links:

Boundless Way Temple

Greg Mayers

Fr. Gregory Mayers, C.Ss.R. is identified as the Emeritus Teacher of the East-West Meditation program at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. He is a Redemptorist priest and a fully authorized Zen teacher within the Sanbo Zen tradition.

“I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” he tells me. “I was raised in Baton Rouge. Southern Louisiana is very Catholic country. So I just grew up in this marinated Catholic environment.”

“When did you know you wanted to be a priest?” I ask.

“Probably six months before ordination.”

“And how did you find out about Zen?”

“Completely by accident.” He had been on retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon. “And the abbot there was Bernard McVeigh. Abbot Bernard. And he would come and see me every day in my retreat. And somewhere along the line, he invited me to a talk about Zen with a handful of the monks there were practicing Zen twice a day. And Bernard invited me to come and sit in Zen with them, which I had no interest in whatsoever. It was fine with me if they wanted to do it, but I’m just trying to love Jesus. Well, eventually I accepted his invitation, and I asked him what to do. And he said, ‘Well, you sit like this, and you just count your breath.’ That was it. So I went and sat, and, as anybody who jumps into zazen knows, the only reward is that you get through it.” We both laugh. “About the only thing you can say is, ‘Wow! I made that! I did that.’”

After his first attempt, he didn’t think it was something he would go back to. But a little later, he did a six week retreat with the Trappists – “Bernard wanted me to be a Trappist” – and during the course of it, he joined the monks who regularly sat zazen. There were six of them, out of a community of forty. In the end, Greg remained a Redemptorist, but one with a new spiritual practice. “I thought the Trappist life was really sane. It was wonderful. I really liked it. But that wasn’t my vocation. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to it. And while I was there, of course, there was much more regular sitting, a regular experience of sitting in zazen. And somewhere along the line, Robert Aitken came to the monastery to give a talk. And I remember being in a small group with him, and I have no idea what he was talking about. I don’t remember. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But I do remember very clearly looking at him and saying, ‘I don’t know what that man has, but I want it.’ And that’s really when I think jumped into Zen.”

“I’m curious how you made sense of it,” I say. “You’d been trained in that carefully crafted Ignatian type of spirituality and their discernment process. And now somebody tells you to sit still and count your breaths. How did you make sense of that as a spiritual exercise?”

“That’s a very good question. And it plagued me for a long time. Here I was, sitting in zazen, counting my breath, and I was plagued with this question that came somewhere down the line, ‘How can it be that sitting here doing nothing is any kind of spiritual practice? How can I, a good Catholic priest, sit here and just do nothing and call that a spiritual practice?’ It really did plague me. And I might have asked Bernard. I don’t remember if I asked or not. I never got an answer to the question. And over the course of about a year, it just faded away. It just was a non-issue.”

“So if someone you were working with today put that question to you, how would you respond? ‘How is this a spiritual activity? How is this making me a better person? A better Catholic?’”

He pauses, purses his lips, then says, smiling, “I don’t know.” Again, we’re both laughing. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”

“I guess that’s what it comes down to,” I say.

“It really does. I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s all a mystery to me.”

Catholicism and Zen: 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 131, 134, 135-46

Other Links:

The Mercy Center

Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey

Sanbo Zen

Ilia Shinko Perez

In October 2013, I visited Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, in order to interview Gerry Shishin Wick. I was working on a book which profiled some of the direct successors of the pioneer teachers who established Zen in North America, and I was interviewing Shishin because he was an heir of Taizan Maezumi. But I had a sense, while at Great Mountain, that there was a broader story there than the one I was getting.

In the on-line journal I kept while researching “Cypress Trees in the Garden”, I commented on the feminine ambiance at the Center.

Statues, banners, and paintings of Kwan Yin prevail. There is a large Kwan Yin on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means “Body of Light.” Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn’t join us.

The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. “Are you the abbot?” I ask. “Is that the title you use?” No. Shinko is the abbess. “And you are?”

“The consort,” he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the “Spiritual Director.”

On the Great Mountain website, Shishin and Shinko are identified as “Co-Spiritual Directors.” He is also identified as the center President, and she as the “Abbess.” Six years after my visit to Berthoud, I finally had an opportunity to interview Shinko and learn the other half of the story.

She begins by telling me of an experience of what she calls the “Sacred Feminine” that she had while still a child in Puerto Rico. The impact of that experience stayed with her during a long period of study in the Zen tradition which began at Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center. She studied with Kapleau until Parkinson’s Disease prevented him from further teaching. By that time Shinko was living in Florida, where Kapleau had retired. “We had a sangha of only five people, and we were really his family. We were like a family. But when he got sick with Parkinson’s, they called people from Rochester to be like his attendants in the house.”

She sought out one of Kapleau’s heirs, Danan Henry, in Colorado. But throughout this time, she had a sense that there was a difference between masculine and feminine approaches to practice that the men with whom she worked didn’t fully appreciate.

She practiced with Pat Hawk Roshi – a Catholic Priest and Dharma successor of Robert Aitken – whom  she describes as the kindest person she had met until then in her Zen practice. They worked well together for a long while; she even was given to believe she might become his heir. Then she had another powerful experience of the Sacred Feminine during a sesshin with him. When she described it to Hawk during her next dokusan, however, he told her to forget about the experience – which he interpreted as a form of makyo, illusions Zen students may have during prolonged periods of meditation. Shinko was certain the experience was not makyo and chose to leave the retreat.

“It was very painful,” she tells me. “Very painful losing my teacher, and having nobody to talk about this. At the same time, I was so grounded in my experience that it was unshakable.”

Then she heard about another Zen teacher who had recently moved to Boulder. “I went to meet him. I told him about my experience. This is Shishin, and Shishin told me, ‘I don’t understand your experience, but I encourage you to find out.’”

After that, she visited Tsultrim Allione at the Tara Mandala Center in Southern Colorado. Tsultrim is a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and she was able to tell Shinko that what she had had was an experience of the Dakini, the Sacred Feminine presence identified in Vajrayana Buddhism.

“I had never heard the word before, but it fulfilled me. I didn’t care what the dictionary said; I knew empathically what she meant. I knew my experience had a name. I was just so happy somebody knew what it was. I went back home; I went to see Shishin, and I just said, ‘It’s called a Dakini experience.’”

There are two approaches to Zen, Shinko tells me – the way of the Samurai and the way of the Heart. She and Shishin chose the way of the Heart. “That’s why we created the Great Heart Work, to teach the students how to hold the emotional body as part of practice.”

Other Links:

Great Mountain Zen Center

Julie Nelson

Julie Nelson is the Interim Spiritual Director of the Greater Boston Zen Center, although – she tells me – “I don’t consider myself so much a Buddhist as a Zen student.” I first became aware of her through her blog, in which she wrote about the events which led up to the separation of GBZC from the Boundless Way collective. Zen is just one of the topics the blog deals with. It also includes essays on economics, which she had taught at universities both in California and Massachusetts. “I do feminist and ecological economics. I’m a fringe economist from the point of the mainstream.”    

Her introduction to meditation came at a time when – as she describes it – her life was “falling apart.” Her marriage was dissolving, and she was engaged in a dispute with the university over tenure. She felt a general panic about things. “How was I going to support my kids! Where was I going to get a job! I couldn’t just move anywhere in the country; my kids were in joint custody. I had to find a job in my field in this area. Find a place to live. You know, deal with all the emotional repercussions of that, dealing with the law suit, the charge against my employer.”

She was also scheduled to have surgery at the time and took part in an adult education workshop intended to help people prepare for surgery and to heal more quickly afterward. The workshop included some guided meditation. “The interesting thing was that I found as I sat quietly listening to the guided meditations or just without them, I could also watch my panic rise up and fall away. And that was very powerful, because I would have thought I was my panic, was living from my panic, was panic all the time, but sitting quietly I could see it as something that arose and left.”

After the surgery, she decided to investigate meditation more thoroughly. “I got some books, and for the next few years I did some meditation at home just on a kind of as-needed basis. Ten minutes here; five minutes there.” One of the books was by Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center which is in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. “I went to a few retreats there. I was a member there for a couple of years. Didn’t get there regularly. I found the teachers relatively inaccessible. That is they would only teach group things. You had to be a very senior student to get a one-on-one meeting with them.” When she applied for a personal interview, she was given an appointment six months off.

Then she learned about James Ford, the Zen teacher at the Henry David Thoreau (“we call it ‘Hank’”) Zen Community in Newton. Once a month, James offered dokusan to anyone who wished to attend, whether they belonged to the center or not. That was one appeal. Something else also struck her during her first visit to Hank – the chanting of the Five Reminders.

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

“That grabbed me. You know? Here’s a group of people that face facts. I found that very appealing.”

Slowly she began a regular practitioner at Hank. I asked if it gave her a clarity about things, and she said, “More like a visceral sense of direction, that this was something I wanted to do.”

Other links:

Greater Boston Zen Center

Larry Johanson

Larry Johanson is a Zen student working with Sunyana Graef Roshi in the Philip Kapleau lineage. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, he had previously been the Director of Public Relations for the Jamaican Economic Development Agency. Now living in Canada, he is a Corporate Trainer. “I create on-line courses and programs geared to helping people to be the best that they can be.” The strategies he outlines in his book, From Carp to Dragon,  are based on his personal experience coming from “the gritty streets of Kingston, Jamaica, to places that I had never thought I would ever end up.”

His life as a boy in Kingston had been difficult. There had been a great deal of violence on the streets, in the home, and even in the school system. He was deeply unhappy and leery of the form of Christianity common in the country. So while still very young he began what he calls a Vision Quest, seeking an alternative spiritual tradition. “I read a lot of books and came upon the Bhagavad Gita. I was fascinated by the notion of God as something you could discover within yourself through meditation.” However, the Gita didn’t include instructions on how to meditate, and he didn’t know how to proceed.

In 1971, after his father’s death, Larry went to live with an older cousin. “And her son – who is a doctor – he studied abroad, and he brought home a whole bunch of books. And when I got there, one of my little jobs was to kind of curate the medical books that he brought home for his library. And I came upon one barrel, and it was just full of books on Eastern philosophy and meditation.” At the bottom of the barrel was a copy of Philip Kapleau’s, The Three Pillars of Zen.

 “This was what I had been looking for all my life. This wasn’t an abstract philosophical thing. There’s this guy who went to Japan, who studied and worked with the roshis and came to awakening. And this book is a manual. You want to meditate? You want to see God? You want enlightenment? This is what you do.” He began following the instructions in the book and immediately felt the benefits.

“Because I could meditate, I could study better! I could sit longer. I could read a book and could be so focussed that I retained more. And because I could retain more, I did better in school. And because of all of that, my attitudes, my disposition changed a little bit. And I realized, ‘Something fantastic is going on here.’”

In 1974, after some initial hesitation, Larry wrote to Kapleau to tell him how inspired he had been by the book, and he received a reply. Kapleau and his daughter were coming to Jamaica on vacation, and they arranged for Larry to meet them at their hotel in Montego Bay.

“His presence stunned me. There was a stillness, a quiet, and a silence to him, an authenticity, an assurity to him, and a serenity. And, of course, as a young person, whose whole life was in turmoil – my mind, my emotions, everything – it showed up in sharp relief when meeting him how I felt and what the possibilities were. I was just in awe.”

He committed himself to attain whatever it was he sensed in Kapleau and eventually found his way to Rochester where he began a lifelong study and practice of Zen.

Living in Toronto, he joined the Kapleau center there and met Sunyana Graef. “She was the person I jokingly say ‘gave birth to me’ in terms of my practice. She was the Bodhisattva of Compassion that my practice needed.” Until he’d met her, his practice had been very stern, but he still hadn’t experienced awakening. During his first sesshin with her, she asked him how long he had been practicing. He admitted it had been twenty years.  “Then she said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for? Why not this sesshin?’” That was the challenge he met.

“The difference between then and now,” he tells me, “was that I was burdened by a self. It is the difference between . . .” – holding up a sheet of paper covered with print – “and bam!” He turns the blank side of the page towards me. “On the side where the writing was on was growing up in Jamaica. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re male, you’re this, you’re that. That is the conditioned mind, the whole karmic experience that you’re having, and you’re wondering, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ And you’re angry at God and everything, and you’re lashing out at the world. It’s ego and conditioning. So the difference between then and now, as I’ve gone much further down the road after the initial kensho, is that the more you train, the more you realize exactly what is meant by” – he quotes the Heart Sutra – “‘the Bodhisattva of Compassion, from the depths of prajna wisdom saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds of suffering.’ Over time what happens is that your ego becomes more diaphanous, and you can see more clearly through. Then you begin to understand the truth of what the Bodhisattva was saying. There is nothing that one attains. ‘Not even wisdom to attain. Attainment too is emptiness.’ Before that, there was this thing that Roshi Kapleau had that I had to have. But, in truth and in fact, what it really is is just letting go of the conditioned mind.”

Other Links:

Vermont Zen Center

Gerry Shishin Wick

Maitreya Abbey is located in Berthoud, Colorado, north of Denver. This is an area of farmland and horse ranches. Shishin (Lion Heart) Wick has a couple of horses, as well as goats, and chickens (“Fresh eggs every day”). The abbey is his home, to which he has added a zendo and sleeping quarters for retreat participants. Hand painted signs, statuary, a koi pond, and Tibetan prayer flags identify the site. The colors of the house are more Tibetan than Japanese, bright primary colors—green, yellow, red. There is an invocation by the entrance to the Zendo: “Enlightened ones of the universe, Bodhisattvas, Protectors of the Dharma, together with planets, stars, and all sentient ones. We open our hearts to transform the five poisons of ignorance, attachment, pride, envy and anger. May healing love and peace prevail throughout the whole Earth and entire universe. Maha prajna paramita.”

There is a feminine ambiance here. Statues, banners, and paintings of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, prevail. There is a large Kannon on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means “Body of Light.” Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn’t join us. It would be six years later before I meet her.

The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. “Are you the abbot?” I ask. “Is that the title you use?” No. Shinko is the abbess. “And you are?”

“The consort,” he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the “Spiritual Director.” He punctuates his speech with brief, bright smiles.

Shishin was trained as an atomic physicist and is an oceanographer. He is one of Taizan (Great Mountain) Maezumi’s Dharma heirs, although he received inka—the final authorization as a teacher—from Bernie Glassman. He first came to Colorado when a group of students in Boulder asked him to do so. From there he moved to Lafayette and finally to Berthoud. He admits that the community with which he works has gotten smaller with each move.

He and Shinko have held both art retreats and retreats in what they call “Great Heart Practice.” Their web site describes this as “a program that combines traditional Zen meditation with intensive workshops aimed at uncovering how personal conditioning obstructs our experience of oneness.” Their first traditional sesshin had been held only a month before my 2013 visit; it had eleven participants. Berthoud is out of the way. There is no local community; the participants all came from elsewhere.

It is a lay sangha. “Maezumi was basically interested in the people who were going to be his heirs”—in other words, people who were going to become Zen clergy and teachers. Shishin’s focus is lay practitioners. For him, the purpose of Zen is to “disseminate the essential teachings of the Buddha in a way that can be digested by a non-Buddhist public, in order to build a strong enough base of interest in meditation.” Meditation is valuable in itself. Not everyone who comes to Zen will become “awakened,” but they can still benefit from the practice. Hopefully, as well, there will be people who “go deep enough into it that they have realizations which will preserve the original intent of the teachings, to carry it forward.” But those individuals will always remain a minority.

Maitreya Abbey demonstrates some of the changes which have occurred throughout North American Zen. There is as much emphasis on compassion as there is on wisdom. There is a stronger focus on the feminine, in contrast to the Samurai Zen of the ’60s and ’70s. The discipline is still strict, but the kyosaku is only used when requested, and one can ask for a shoulder massage instead.

Shishin Wick does not seem to fear that Zen is dangling by a thread, as some of the other teachers I’ve interviewed have suggested, but he admits he doesn’t know what Zen will be like in the future. It will be very different from what it was when the pioneers brought it here. It will be more accommodating. But it will always need those who go deep enough to “preserve the original intent of the teachings.”

Awakened or not, we all have enough to do dealing with the five poisons.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 19, 19-20, 125, 289-302, 472

The Story of Zen: 271-72

Other Links:

Great Mountain Zen Center

Rinzan Pechovnik

Rinzan Pechovnik of No-Rank Zendo in Portland was the last teacher I interviewed for The Story of Zen. I gave him the final word in that book. He has received full Dharma transmission since I first spoke to him, which means that he can now identify his own heirs, an important element in ensuring the continuation of the tradition, although he admits he currently only has one postulant and is, therefore, a long way from identifying a successor.

In the course of our conversation, we touch on the issue of whether or not there is a particular way in which Buddhists should respond to the environmental challenges of our time. 

“I hear it on the internet, when they’re talking about Buddhist action, that the only Buddhist response is a loving response. In my view, the only Buddhist response is a non-attached response. And the skill that our Zen practice teaches us is how to not be attached. That doesn’t mean not to be engaged, because I think it does call for us to be engaged, but it does say, ‘Don’t be attached.’ If I say, ‘The only response is a loving response,’ then I’m attached to a loving response. And that’s going to close out the possibility that I might have a harsh or an aggressive response that may be what is called for in that moment. I have to be open to that possibility. At times it may be a hug; at others it might be a shout. But we have to be non-attached to whatever response comes out of us in order to be truly responsive. We have to be non-attached to the sense that I know what is right and what is wrong. But it would be a mistake to say since ‘I don’t know’ – fundamentally, Zen is the religion of not-knowing – that I’m denying my own interaction with the world. I don’t know, but this is what’s coming forth from me now, and I’m going to put it into the field of play to see what happens. This touches what Bernie Glassman was doing with not-knowing and bearing witness, to see what comes next. So I’m non-attached to being right, but I’m willing to let come forth what comes forth. Koan study is key in this because of the call-and-response in koan study between teacher and student that says do something. Give me something here. Don’t just talk about it. You have to do something. You gotta let yourself out there into the world somehow.

“And then, I think we have to be non-attached to attaining or getting any outcome. Zazen teaches over and over again that in this practice there’s nowhere to get. So if I go out to save the world it may be my own narcissism, my own inflatedness, when I say, ‘We have to stop global warming!’ Now I personally believe we should do everything we can to put the brakes on that. But I recognize that that’s what’s rising up from me in this particular moment. I also have to be open to the possibility that the Earth is in hospice right now, and that our civilization is in hospice, and that we may be saying goodbye to it. Now if all I want to do is save the Earth, I’m not going to be able to be of service to an Earth’s that dying. Similarly if I have a beloved one who is dying of cancer and I have the idea, ‘We have to save this person’ or ‘we have to make it be a certain way,’ then I’m going to miss the point, which is, ‘We’ve tried everything, and now how do I show up to be with you? How can I be with you now?’ It’s not, ‘Well, it’s pointless. You’re gonna die. Sorry. I’m gonna go on to try to save the next person.’ We’re all going to die, and at some point we say, ‘Okay, my outcome is gone. So I just need to be with you right now. And I’m curious how I’m going to be with you in these closing days in a way that is intimate, tender, non-attached to how I am, non-attached to how you are.’ And so this is the dynamic that I think comes out of a life of Zen that interacts with the world which is completely in flux. Some Zen practitioners get caught in, ‘It’s all mind, and it just comes and goes.’ That’s true, everything comes and goes. But how can I be so deeply engaged that I allow my heart to break, I allow myself to weep, I allow myself to touch, and I allow my self to be part of this dance at the same time?”

The Story of Zen: 405-10, 436-37

Zen Conversations: 63-64; 77-80; 158-61

Other Links:

No-Rank Zendo

Northwest Dharma Association

Shodo Spring

Shodo Spring – a Dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura in the Soto tradition – gained acclaim in 2013 for her Compassionate Earth Walk, a  three month spiritual hike along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route in the Great Plains. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, she led retreats at her farm in Fairbault, Minnesota, which put an emphasis on human interdependence with the natural world.

She grew up in a Lutheran family in Ohio and admits she was “one of those obnoxious super-religious people until I was in my late twenties.” Eventually, she left the church and her marriage and came to live in Minneapolis where, one day, she saw a notice on a bulletin board for an introductory Zen class at Dainin Katagiri’s Minnesota Zen Center.

“I went to it. And they had stuff that wasn’t interesting, but they gave us zazen instruction, and I had to sit for fifteen minutes, and I liked that. So I started sitting at home. I had no idea why people sat together or any of that. But I was sitting by myself, at home. I made a cushion which had lots of bright colors in it and was stuffed with rags and was made with scraps.”

“You said they had stuff that was un-interesting?” I asked, to ensure I’d heard her correctly.

“It was not interesting. I knew everything, you see?” she says with a laugh. She was 35.

Over time she began visiting the center on occasion and chatted with some of the members, asking questions about sesshin. “What people said was that the first two days were the hardest.” So she decided not to do a short one and waited until there was a week long sesshin she could apply to attend, which turned out to be the rigorous Rohatsu Sesshin in December. “And for some reason, most of the time I did not have knee pain, and I did have energy rushes, and, on about the third day, Katagiri Roshi’s talks started making some sense. I no longer remember much about what happened during it, but I remember that I came out realizing that I didn’t know anything, and I was really excited about that. So then I became a regular. I was working full time, but I was also at the Zen Center at 5:00 a.m. if I could out of bed.”

“And if someone from your Lutheran past had asked you, ‘What is this Zen thing all about? What does it do?’ How would you have answered them?”

“What does it do for you? You know, ‘what does it do for you’ is really easy. Of all the religions in the world, Zen is the one that actually helps you with your daily life. Well, Buddhism is. Christians pray. I haven’t noticed that helps a lot. They think somebody’s gonna help them. But Zen actually gives you tools to make your life work. Now, what’s it about?”

“Sure. They’re just curious. They remember – as you said – that you were one of those super-religious kids. Now you’re into Zen. So, what it’s about?”

“Okay, it helps me to be alive. It helps me to be here with the life that I have, and it helps me to be happy. For me, Christianity was always intellectual. I know it wasn’t supposed to be, but my sense of religion was out in the fields and trees. The things that were supposed to be meaningful in the church, they didn’t click, although I kept trying and trying. And let me say this: Buddhism has this teaching about the three poisons, and Christianity has this teaching about sin. And the definition of sin that I always liked since I discovered it in fifth grade is that sin is separation from God. What my Buddhist practice helps me to do is to not be separate. Separation has been an issue forever. And somehow what the church offered did not help with that. But the practice of sitting meditation and being with people who actually are interested in spiritual life . . .” She smiles. “Here I know that I am welcome as I am. I know that as a woman I can do whatever role I want to, which I didn’t have in the church. This practice and this teaching works for me.”

After a brief pause, she continues: “They say that God is everywhere, God is in everything. Well, that’s not just words; that’s for real. You know? God is a word – to me – that describes the incredible power of the universe. And we use that word to talk about something that can’t be talked about.” She mentions the Judaic Tetragrammaton. “It’s something that you can’t name, something you can’t say. Shouldn’t even speak it. That’s for real! That’s not just an idea, that’s for real. And so practicing Buddhism, I get to actually live the life that I just heard about and read about in the church.”

Zen Conversations: 151-55

Other Links:

Mountains and Waters Alliance

Centered Practice