Enso House

After visiting Chozen Bays at Great Vow Monastery in Oregon, I proceeded to Tahoma Sogenji on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Sogenji is associated with the Japanese teacher Shodo Harada, although he is only there for occasional retreats. What prompted my visit was Enso House, a hospice program for the island community where Harada’s center is located.

I had developed a wax build up in my right ear during my tour of the west coast and was having trouble hearing. Chozen – who is a physician – had said she would willingly look at it, but circumstances prevented her from doing so. She emailed Dr. Ann Cutcher, the director of Enso House, to ask if she would examine me. So before we begin the interview, Ann takes me into a dispensary and flushes out both of my ears.

The grounds of Enso House are adjacent to the Tahoma monastery. Ann explains that they were “bought by a senior student of Harada Roshi and offered to him to use for whatever he wanted to use it for, and he wanted it to be a home for people who didn’t have a home to die in. So it’s a gift, essentially, to Harada Roshi, and it’s his vision that this should be an end-of-life-care home as a way to give back to this community which has supported Tahoma and helped it grow and as a way for his meditation students to take their practice off the cushion and apply it in life. “

She tells me the story of the hospice’s first “guest,” a man who had lived in isolation on the island. When people realized he was dying, a few tried to look after him but were unable to meet his needs. None of them were Buddhist, but they heard that Shodo Harada had determined to build a hospice and they came to Enso House. The hospice wasn’t ready to receive guests, but the board agreed to accept the old man. He was mute – possibly, Ann tells me, because he had fallen out of the habit of speaking. “However,” she says, “he had these bright, alive blue eyes, but he kept them shut for two full days when he arrived. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s angry about being torn from the only home he has ever known and being brought here.’ I felt terrible.”

Then Ann’s friend, Priscilla Storandt, visited and sat for a while with the guest. When she came out of his room, she told Ann, “He’s so grateful.” And, of course, Ann realized, he probably was. She understood that she hadn’t been seeing him at all but rather had been preoccupied by her projection of what she thought he was and what he was thinking. “So that’s one thing I find really helpful for me personally, to be reminded of that, that I am creating my own interpretation, and trying to make sure I see that all the time so that I can stay open to what’s really happening.”

We are having lunch together with two volunteers and a few supporters from the area.

“There was another guy,” Ann continues, “a fairly young man, who was really adamantly opposed to his dying. It was just not gonna happen. And it was happening. And he was angry and aggressive and sure of himself. Sure of himself in that this was not going to happen to him. And he was too physically weak and on too many incredibly powerful analgesics to safely move around the house. But he was still determined to do that. And I was concerned all the time that this man was gonna fall. He was wheeled in a wheel chair across this room, and he suddenly stood up and was gonna walk into the dining room. And as he stood up, the wheel chair went out from behind him sort of, and I pushed it under him, and I said, ‘You can’t do that!’ And he got really mad at me. And I pushed him into the dining room, and I said, ‘You just can’t do that. You’re going to fall. It’s too scary.’ He said, ‘No! You are the one who needs to calm down and cool off.’” The people around the table all chuckle. “He said, ‘You need to cool off!’” She pauses, then says, “True.”

The man had cancer. “He had an obstruction of his bowel. He was here for five weeks, not able to eat without incredible pain that required doubling the amount of intravenous narcotic that he was getting continuously. And in spite of that, he was determined to eat. That was another really difficult thing, to watch him roll himself into the kitchen and open the refrigerator knowing that once he swallowed something, we would have to dial up his narcotic and deal with excruciating discomfort.

“He was a rock-n-roll bassist who had played with a lot of people on the island over his life as a musician. And he wanted to gather all the musicians he’d played with together. And they all showed up, some of them on motorcycles, and they brought a cooler of beer, and they set up a whole trap drum set and two mikes for singers, and, you know, mikes for the guitars and amplifiers, and we moved everything around, and there was like Led Zeppelin music coming from this dining room. He was too weak to play, himself – he couldn’t hold his instrument – but he had a chair pulled up, and he sat in the chair, and someone gave him his bass, and the room got totally quiet, and he plucked off this song, and sang, ‘Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’” The group laughs gently. “And everybody just like melted. That was pretty amazing.”

As I am leaving, Ann is scraping leftover pasta sauce into a Tupperware container. She calls my name as I head to the door and tells me in parting, “Rick, you know what the primary lesson of Enso House is? Flush out your ears!”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 124-132.

Other links:


Enso House

Kevin Hunt

Kevin Hunt – he introduces himself as Kevin – is a Trappist monk, and he wears the robes well. They suit him; he has the right build. He looks the part; he looks at ease in it. So he should. “I’ve known since I was 13 what I wanted to do,” he tells me. His parents – New York City Irish Catholics – weren’t thrilled with his choice. In Ireland, the Trappists had been the order to which boys who were thought unlikely to be able to make it through the seminary were sent. Kevin’s father died still suspecting that his son was selling himself short. His mother, on the other hand, attended a mission preached by a Franciscan and afterwards went to talk to the friar, lamenting that her son would soon be taking his final vows as a Trappist. The Franciscan embraced her and said, “Madam, your salvation is assured!” She came around.

If it wasn’t bad enough that he was a Trappist, he is also a Zen practitioner and teacher. “I have a twin brother, and he’s a golfer. One day he goes looking for a threesome that wants to fill out to a foursome. One of the men there is a retired Methodist minister, and my brother mentions that he has a brother who’s a priest. And the guy says to him, ‘There’s another man here in who’s got a brother . . .’ Gives my brother his name. My brother calls him. They meet and have a game of golf; they’re talking. This other guy says, ‘Well, you know, my brother’s not only a priest, but he’s a funny kind of priest. He’s a Jesuit.’ My brother says, ‘Well, if you think that’s bad, I’ve got a brother who’s a Trappist.’ ‘Well, my brother the Jesuit is even weirder because he’s all involved in Zen Buddhism!’ And my brother says to him, ‘Well, my brother’s as weird as that because he’s also involved . . .’” The other man was the brother of Robert Kennedy from whom Kevin received Dharma transmission.

Kevin’s monastery is Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, but I met him at the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey for Trappistines in Wrentham where he was serving as chaplain. At the time of my visit, this convent has about 45 women ranging in age from 25 to 93. There are still young people applying for admission both at Saint Joseph’s and St. Mary’s. The numbers aren’t large, but, then, the monastic calling has always been a minority one.

Kevin first encountered Zen while helping to establish a Trappist abbey in Argentina. He was given a Spanish translation of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. He suggests that it wasn’t a very good translation, but it talked about seated meditation. “At that time,” he says, “we didn’t sit in chapel. When we were in chapel, we either stood or knelt.” The idea of seated meditation, however, called to him, and, for the next seven years in addition to the regular periods of prayer, he took time every day to sit cross-legged on a folded blanket. The superior didn’t want him sitting like that in the main chapel, but, at the time, Kevin was in charge of the infirmary and was able to set up its tiny chapel as he pleased.

Herrigel included a koan in his book: “What is your face before your parents’ birth?” The question stuck with Kevin for those seven years, but eventually he had to admit he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. So one day, as he was seated on the blanket, he decided to give it up, and he stood up. “In that act of standing up,” he says, “I suddenly knew what my face before my parents’ birth was.”

The order was not wholly opposed to Kevin’s Zen practice, but he was considered “singular” which—he points out—is not a good thing in a monastic community. “However great liberty of spirit is given for us to follow our own natural mode of prayer.”

When Kevin returned to St. Joseph’s from South America, the abbot was Thomas Keating, who helped develop the idea of Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice for Christian lay people. Keating was open to the idea of the Japanese teacher, Joshu Sasaki, leading Zen sesshin at the abbey, something Sasaki did for several years in the ’70s. Kevin also participated in several three-month work periods at Mount Baldy in California with Sasaki. But with the installation of a new abbot, the sesshins at St. Joseph’s came to an end.

Finally, Kevin met Robert Kennedy, from whom he received transmission in 2004. I first heard of Kevin from a short article in the National Catholic Reporter which reported the event. He was asked in the article what a Trappist Zen Master did, and he said, “I’m not sure, but I guess I’ll find out.”

“Have you?” I asked. “Found out?”

 “I’m finding out,” he laughs. “It’s a work in progress.”

He remains singular in the order; there are no other Trappists practicing with him. But he leads two small groups, one in Connecticut—The Transfiguration Zendo—and another which meets at St. Mary’s retreat house in Wrentham. This is the Daystar Zendo largely made up of Catholics from Worcester who are also drawn to Zen.

When I ask what Zen has to offer Catholicism, he tells me a story about St. Teresa of Avila. When she was a little girl, someone asked her what she wanted in life. She told them, “I want to see God.” “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Kevin tells me, “and Zen has provided the best way for me to do it.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 303, 308, 310-320

Catholicism and Zen: 15-16, 168-80

The Story of Zen: 288

Other Links:

Day Star Sangha

St. Joseph’s Abbey

John Negru

John Negru [Karma Yönten Gyatso] is the founder of Sumeru Books, the publishing company which has released four of my books. He has an interesting  background story which includes a fifty year Dharma practice with a variety of teachers in different traditions, extensive community service, pilgrimages, and even three days in 1980 at Bodhgaya with the Dalai Lama. But he doubts that there is much value in retelling it.

“People ask me, ‘What’s your story?’ And I tell them that my story is irrelevant. Nobody else is going to be able to replicate the lived experience that I had, the meetings with teachers that I had when I had them in the cultural milieu that I found myself. So if I’m telling you that story, Rick, I’m just telling you an interesting bedtime story.”

The point is that it is interesting, and one significant element is the way in which he became involved with and later disaffiliated from two Buddhist communities in Canada he now describes as “flawed.” There were many such groups during the Buddhist boom of the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80, and many participants – several of whom had dedicated years to their practice – fell away in discouragement. John, however, concentrates on what was positive about the experience: “We had the marvelous opportunity to meet many authentic, accomplished Buddhist teachers who allowed us to glimpse real practice and a real life devoted to the Dharma. And so in that sense I’m very grateful, but there’s a lot of sadness and dukkha associated with that time.”

Over the course of his career, he practiced with both Zen and Tibetan communities and came to feel that “there was value in every lineage. I was happy to support every lineage but not commit to any one lineage.” One of the ways in which he provided support was by becoming a publisher.

“My goal is to support the Dharma in any way that I can. I’m not going to be a highly enlightened teacher. I’m not going to run a profoundly transformative Dharma center. But I can help people do those things, and I’m happy to serve in that way. In order to make it a realistic thing, I’ve chosen to make Sumeru a company. I’m proud to say that the company has been in the black since its beginnings in 2009 (although nobody is getting rich doing this), and I have been able to donate thousands of dollars to various Buddhist organizations from royalties from the sales of the books I’ve published. And so I think that’s kind of like a trifecta. You know? You get the Dharma out there, you validate the work of all these different traditions and help them financially, and you give an opportunity to people such as yourself to engage in a deeper form of practice.”

He is particularly focused on “Engaged Buddhism,” the way in which Buddhist practice leads to social action and environmental concern.

“Buddhism is about recognizing reality and acting skillfully within it. It’s about recognizing interdependence, karma, non-self. All of these different concepts and the practices of training that enhance those concepts – that state of mind – are based on understanding reality as opposed to our delusions about what reality is, which is driven by our desires and our hatreds and our preferences and so on. Like it says in the Hsin Hsin Ming, ‘The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. But make the smallest distinction, and Heaven and Earth are set instantly apart.’ So here we are – 2021 – in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a global climate crisis, mass extinctions. You look at the nine planetary boundaries that we have crossed or that we are on the threshold of, and the only one that we have been able to pull back from has been the ozone hole. So this is our reality. So any looking away from our reality – focusing on our personal psychological development – really isn’t showing awareness.

“Ron Purser is an ordained Korean Buddhist monk who is also a Systems Management professor at San Francisco State University. He wrote a book called McMindfulness, and he was on CBC Tapestry a day or two ago saying that the original version – the Buddhist version – of mindfulness also contained a discernment component which has been jettisoned along the way. So when you have discernment, when you look at the current situation in the world, you say, ‘Well, okay, this is what’s happening.’ As the Dalai Lama says, ‘I am a servant of seven billion people.’ So if you’re going to take that position of being a Bodhisattva, and you look at this situation with discernment, how could you not act? How can you say, ‘Well, I am going to rarefy my samatha practice’ or ‘I’m going to dig deeper in the four jhanas’ without being in the world that we live in? Right? It just doesn’t make sense to me that you could separate those things. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Which brings us back to his work as a publisher.

“I’ve been involved in environmental activities since the early 1970s. It isn’t just a vague, ‘Hey, let’s get on the climate crisis wagon.’ Publishing books from an Engaged Buddhist perspective and doing environmental community development projects with different sanghas is something much more evolved and specific that I can do. Same with chaplaincy and social justice activism.

“We need to re-conceptualize the performative aspects of what it means to be a Buddhist community leader within the larger context of the modern world. The Buddhism of the Future cannot stay bound to old ways of practice and remain relevant to our children and the generations to follow.”

Zen Conversations: 162-64

Other links:

Sumeru Books

Plot to Save the Earth

Melissa Myozen Blacker

Even if there were not signage identifying the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, one could hardly miss the place because of the massive Buddha out front.

“The statue! Oh! It’s so cool!” Melissa Blacker tells me, breathlessly. One is struck by her verve and her energy, her apparent enthusiasm for just about everything. She’s an engaging and fun conversationalist. “So, we bought this building, but we had to do all these improvements including install a sprinkler system for fire. So the guy who was cutting through the pavement to divert water from the city into the temple came up to David [David Rynick, her husband and co-teacher at the temple] one day and said, ‘You guys need a Buddha statue?’  And ‘We have a lot of Buddha statues, thank you very much.’ And, ‘No, this is an outdoor one.’ Well, we have an outdoor one about a foot and a half tall. ‘No, no. This is a really big one.’ A friend of his had ordered it for a customer who wanted it for his garden. A Buddha to sit out in his garden. And when it arrived it was that huge statue which was—like—way bigger than he needed for his garden. I think it was a hairdresser, a Vietnamese hairdresser in town, wanted it. And there are two other temples in town; they’re ethnically Vietnamese. We’re the only convert temple. And the guy had offered it to both the Vietnamese temples. One was hosting this giant jade Buddha that was traveling all over the country, and so they couldn’t do it. The other one had just paved their driveway. They couldn’t do it. So we were number three. And David went down to the yard where it was being stored, this rejected  Buddha statue nobody wanted, and it was surrounded—I have a photo on my computer somewhere—by other statues imported by the same company of Mickey Mouse and naked Venuses on couches, and it was just sitting there. And so he took a photograph of it and showed it to James Ford [the founder of the Boundless Way Order] and me, and we said, ‘We should buy it!’ And he said, ‘No, no. It’s really big.’ And James said, ‘It’s going to get smaller with the years.’ So now it seems like a normal size to me.”

Melissa has teaching authorization – through James – in both the Aitken-Tarrant Harada-Yasutani lineage and the Jiyu Kennett Soto tradition. David has authorization through the Seung Sahn’s Korean Rinzai lineage. “We’ve incorporated elements from all three, the John Tarrant-Robert Aitken-Harada-Yasutani line, Jiyu Kennett’s line, and Seung Sahn’s line. Our liturgy is mixed together, all three.

“All of these are different ways of pointing. We teach our students shikan taza—just the standard Soto practice—and koan practice. If you plot it on a bell curve, I think we have a couple of students who just do koan practice, and a couple that just do shikan taza, but the majority do some combination of both. They rest in shikan taza and mostly work with koans in dokusan. But sometimes they’ll sit with them, if we give them instructions to. And people will also see us in dokusan. We have our private individual students, but we encourage our students to do dokusan with the other teachers. And we have senior students, some of whom have permission to give interviews. So a student in Boundless Way Zen could see twelve different people for interviews in a month. And the onus—the responsibility—of practice is on the part of the student rather than teachers. So it’s very student-oriented. And, of course, people do what we call shoken; they take individual vows with one teacher.

“For me,” she goes on, “Zen is really a path to joy. My whole life is about meeting suffering. Like my father died when I was fifteen, and I had a lot of terrible things happen to me off and on throughout the years. Not that terrible, but—still—difficult stuff. So I could have gone down that route. I was depressed. I was anxious. But this little core, kernel of delight has always been the guiding light I keep orienting towards. Like, I know there’s something beyond all this.”

“Wonder, awe, gratitude, reverence,” I say, offering her a personal formula I had come to through my own practice.

“Yes! Yeah! Wonder, awe, gratitude and reverence. I love it! When everything drops away, that’s what’s revealed!”

Which is by no means a denial of the reality of suffering.

“We’ve been talking about this recently. You know, since the first noble truth is the truth of suffering, there’s sometimes the feeling that it’s sequential; you have to suffer; then you have to see the truth of suffering, and then blah, blah, blah. But another way of looking at it is that suffering exists, and suffering itself—the truth of it—is ennobling. It is a noble truth of suffering. And suffering never goes away. But there is a way to live with it in a more spacious manner. And so we don’t turn away from suffering. I think suffering and joy are like two sides of the same coin.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 200, 201, 207-215, 216, 217, 218, 220, 221, 222, 228, 229, 418

The Story of Zen: 302, 389

Zen Conversations: Pp. 38-39; 47.

Other links:

Boundless Way Temple


Brother Fulfillment

The work coordinator at Blue Cliff monastery at the time of my visit in 2014 was introduced to me both as Brother Phap Man and as Brother Fulfillment, the English translation of his name.I ask how he is normally addressed, and he tells me he is trying to retrain people to call him Brother Fulfillment. His birth name is Aaron Solomon. His father was Jewish, and his mother was Methodist, which was the primary religious influence in the household. “My Mom’s father was a preacher.”

When I ask what led him to the monastery, he says, “That question is always a question of looking back in time to see what the elements were. You know? But it’s nice. It’s good. I like looking back.” He has a tendency to speak in brief, staccato phrases. “One thing was I went to a pre-school run by Catholic nuns. So that might have had something to do with it.” He also laughs easily and often. “You never know. In fact, I was seriously considering becoming a Catholic monk until I found out how hard it was to enter the Catholic order.”

He had been a monastic for seven years when I met him. I asked if he still felt it was what he should be doing. He doesn’t answer immediately.

“It’s still very much what I want to do in my heart, but I gotta temper that with the fact that it’s quite difficult at times. Which is probably why I like it. I really want to continue. That’s my aspiration. I love so many things about this life. But it’s very challenging. It’s not that I’m questioning my aspiration. It’s still very strong. What’s different between now and when I was first in the monastery is that I’m not as naïve about what it means. I know that it’s not like you become a monk and then everything’s roses. That’s not how it works. It’s a path of transformation and practice. And, to be honest, you can do that as a monk or as a lay person. It’s about taking the time in your life to do that. What it takes is the self commitment to do that. So, I’m very much still there. And I’d love to say, ‘They’re going bury me in this tradition.’ That’s really what I want.”

He tells me that Blue Cliff is a happy place to be.

“But it’s a happy place not in a totally naïve sense. Which means it also has its suffering. But we recognize that. We try to practice in such a way that we can see there’s no happiness without suffering. And we have the tools transmitted to us to know what to do with suffering so that we can create peace. That sounds like advertising, but that’s our aspiration. That’s what we’re working with. For me, it’s embodying that in my daily life so it’s transmittable. If it’s not embodied, if it’s not alive in me, if it’s just a bunch of ideas, it’s useless. What really counts is that people come here, and they get in touch with it as I did when I showed up and said, ‘Wow! This is it. Okay. There’s something alive here.’

“But I have a more worldly view now because you gotta run a practice center. You’ve gotta deal with differences of opinion, conflict. You become an adult. You gotta grow up. You have responsibilities and stuff. So for me, the edge now is balancing the responsibility with the freedom of monastic life and the vows and the Zen tradition of nowhere to go, nothing to do. So, yeah, running this practice center, there’s challenges and difficulties. But I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding. And having the time and the people to learn about things with, things that are not every day things. I think that’s what I was always looking for in my life. Didn’t want to learn about math, although I love the idea of how things are put together. I wanted to know the ‘whys?’ So where do you go to school to learn about how to just live? How to deal with your emotions or relationships with people? Then I discovered, ‘Oh! There’s a career for that!’ And in the big sense too, like really waking up. Really getting to the bottom of it all. It’s a long path, and that’s plenty for a lifetime. Many lifetimes.

“So I think that my conviction was very strong when I entered the order. And I hold onto that as a vow. So it doesn’t really matter what happens between here and someday I have to pass away. There’s a thread here, or a rope, that I hold onto, and it can guide me through. This is just a journey. I don’t really consider changing course, but I made a commitment to myself that if I have clear insight and peace and calm, then I can make a decision. I learned that partly from our teacher [Thich Nhat Hanh], because he said at one point he had to leave the monastery because of the war. He had to do something to help. He couldn’t just stay hiding in the monastery, meditating. He had to go out and reach out and that brought him here, to the United States. But he said he didn’t think about it. It wasn’t an analytical decision. It was insight. And it was so clear. No question. So I’m not limiting myself. I just promised to do the decision making from clarity and insight. So I don’t know what will happen in the future.”

When I speak with Brother Phap Vu six years later, he tells me that Brother Fulfillment is still a monastic. Not all the people I met during that visit, however, remained there.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63                                                                                          

Other Links:


Blue Cliff Monastery

Robert Kennedy

When I was working in International Development with the YMCA, I used to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter, in part because it had a leftist slant on the Catholic Church—my birth heritage—with which I was comfortable, but largely because it was one of the best sources I could find for hard news coverage of events in Latin America. It covered other stories of general interest to Catholics as well, of course.

I first learned of Father Robert Kennedy—a Dharma heir of Bernie Glassman—in an NCR article in which it was announced that Kennedy, a Jesuit priest as well as an authorized Zen teacher, had recently given transmission to a Trappist monk, Kevin Hunt [see photo]. If I remember the article correctly, Father Hunt, when asked what a Trappist Zen Master did, replied that he wasn’t sure but suspected he was going to find out.

Robert Kennedy maintains the Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. At the time that I spoke with him, the Zendo was actually a one bedroom apartment in which a room had been set up as a meditation hall.

Kennedy had spent several years in Japan in the ’60s – was ordained a Catholic priest there – without having any interest in Zen at all. After he returned to complete his graduate studies in America in the early ’70s; however, while driving one day, he heard Alan Watts on the radio pointing out that “nothing in nature is symmetrical.” “I don’t know why that statement hit me with the strength that it did, but I had to stop the car and think. It was an extraordinary moment.”

He went back to his rooms, took a blanket off the bed, folded it to make a cushion, and began sitting. His Zen practice had begun. “Something in my spirit said I had to stop doing theology and turn to experience. Turn away from theory and learn from my own doing.”

Eventually he realized he needed to work with a formal teacher. He had a sabbatical in 1976 and went back to Japan—“not as a teacher this time, but as a pilgrim.” The Jesuit order, which was committed to understanding other cultures and faith systems, supported his desire to undertake Zen training and arranged for him to meet Yamada Koun Roshi, the teacher with whom Sister Elaine MacInnes had studied.

Father Kennedy remembers the first time he saw Yamada Roshi walk into the zendo. “I was sitting in the back, up against the back wall, and I remember he walked in to light the incense and to begin the day of sitting. I remember it vividly. Again, I cannot explain it. The very sight of him walking into the zendo was life changing.”

When the sabbatical year was up, Kennedy continued training in the United States – at Yamada Roshi’s suggestion – with Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Glassman, and when Glassman received inka from Maezumi and returned to New York, Kennedy became his student. Glassman’s approach to Zen training was very different from that of Kennedy’s first two teachers. He had a strong sense of social responsibility. Kennedy described participating in Glassman’s street retreats among the homeless. “Glassman Roshi said that a lot of people like Zen because they like to sit in a zendo and be quiet and there’s a certain artistic flavor. The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, he said to me, ‘Some people like Zen clubs were they can sit together with like-minded people.’ But he brought us out onto the street.”

After Glassman acknowledged Kennedy as a Dharma heir, Kennedy’s first inclination “was just to sit quietly by myself—you know—which is a good idea after you become a teacher if you sit quietly for about ten years.” He smiles. “Ripen a bit.” But Glassman immediately assigned him a student, a Catholic nun – Janet Richardson – whose training he was put in charge of. Then other students began to appear. At first they were Catholics, but eventually people from other—or no—traditions came as well.

He has now acknowledged several Dharma heirs of his own, including the Trappist Father Hunt. In the course of our correspondence I refer to the two of them as “Catholic Zen teachers,” and Kennedy corrects me. Rather, he says, he is a Zen Teacher who happens to be Catholic. “The phrase ‘Catholic Zen’ can imply we are mixing Zen and Catholicism into something new. Kevin and I strive to practice Zen as it is taught by our Zen teachers, but Catholics can pay attention too.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 303-10, 318-19, 468, 469

Catholicism and Zen: 66, 148-55, 158, 162-64,172, 195

Zen Conversations: 12; 31-33; 107-08

Other links:

Morning Star Zendo


Kokyo Henkel

When I spoke with Kokyo Henkel in early April 2020, he was just retiring as the resident priest of the Santa Cruz Zen Center and preparing to undertake what was intended to be a three month retreat in the Crestone Mountains. With the covid crisis, it became longer.

Early Buddhism was less a faith tradition for the general population than it was a specialized way of life for people who chose to separate themselves from the world. Similar to the monastic tradition within Christianity, it was a life dedicated to meditation and study. Monasticism has never been a common way of life – and is, if anything, less so now – but it is a form of Buddhism in which Kokyo feels at home. 

He first encountered Buddhism while a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where representatives from Seung Sahn’s Korean Zen temple led weekly meditation sessions on campus.

“College was kind of a busy and sometimes stressful life. And I remember the first times of sitting in meditation and feeling that access to that vast sense of peace and presence and simplicity. And walking home after the meditation and seeing the grounds of the campus so fresh and clear. I came onto it quite quickly.”

After graduation, he headed to California

“I’d heard of the San Francisco Zen Center. I didn’t know anybody who practiced there, but I had their magazine, The Wind Bell, which was floating around my dorm in college. And it was winter when I graduated, so that was a good excuse to go to California. I took the bus across, and when I got out to California, I started looking for practice places. I didn’t have any savings. I just had a backpack. So I was looking for places which would take me and I could work some for my stay.” He discovered that such places were rare.

“But one that said, ‘Yes. You can come right now’ was the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the Chinese Chan Temple in Ukiah. I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s a very traditional Chinese Buddhist monastery with maybe a couple hundred monks and nuns living there. And they were in the middle of their annual retreat, which is basically a Zen sesshin but for three weeks. They sat from 3:00 in the morning until midnight. I had never done any retreats or anything longer than a couple of periods, but they said I could come and do some work around the place and join the retreat. It was mid-way through, and I did the last ten days of this retreat with this wonderful kind of beginner’s mind. If I had known what it involved, I might not have gone. But it was wonderful.”

He tells me it “hooked” him “at a level deeper. But at the end of the retreat, they stopped all silent meditation. They went into their daily schedule, mostly ritual chanting, and, at that time, that was all a little bit foreign to me. I wanted to find a place to do a lot of silent sitting. So by the spring I found my way to Tassajara.”

Tassajara is the monastic training area in the Los Padres National Forest associated with the San Francisco Zen Center. “When I got there, that’s really where I felt like I had come home, and basically I just stayed there. And then there’s Green Gulch Farm, which is kind of a semi-monastic farm community up in the mountains. And so between those two temples, I basically spent the next twenty years.”

He had become head of practice at Tassajara by the time he was asked to move to Santa Cruz and work with the community there. “In some ways, I think, I never really fully stepped into that transition in a way that everybody could relate to. I have such a love for sesshins and retreats and deep Dharma study and so on. I definitely played that role, and that worked for many people. But others, I think, wanted someone more like the village priest and counsellor. Someone to hang out with like that. I could play that role a little bit, but it didn’t come quite as naturally to me.”

We talk a little about Zen practice during situations like the current pandemic.

“Being present I think is really key these days,” he tells me, “because we spin out about, ‘How long is this going on for?’ So to be present, and, of course, zazen is such a gift many people feel these days to keep that practice going. And I would even encourage people to use the opportunity of sheltering in place to do more retreat. Maybe people have more time than they usually do. They’re working less hours. I suppose some have a hard time finding a quiet place to sit if they’re home, if there’s others around working at home. But that’s part of my own thinking of going onto Crestone and to retreat at this time is like, ‘Well, nothing else is really happening.’ And it’s beneficial to others to not go out and interact, so it’s a natural retreat time. And of course all the teachings that apply to suffering in daily life are the same teachings that apply now in these days.”

Other links:

San Francisco Zen Center

Santa Cruz Zen Center

Diane Fitzgerald

Fifty years ago, Diane Fitzgerald marched in the “very first Earth Day parade in New York City. It was kind of a random occurrence that I happened to be there and joined in as a fourteen year old. That was the start.”

Diane is the founder and resident teacher of Zen DownEast in Pembroke, Maine. That makes it less than two hours from where I live in Island View, New Brunswick, but currently the border between Canada and the US is closed, and, while I would have liked to have been able to visit her, we had to make do with Skype instead. It had been suggested that I should speak to her about the EcoSattva program associated with community.

“The term is the combination of the words ‘ecology’ and ‘bodhisattva,’” she explains, “and it refers to a person who takes compassionate care of the Earth. Part of the practice is an acknowledgement of the importance of environmental ethics. Just like the Buddhist precepts guide our lives because we’re not perfectly realized human beings, so we also have a set of environmental ethics to guide our lives in this particular practice.”

Our conversation naturally turns to the significance of core Buddhist teachings in the current pandemic. It was a topic she had recently discussed with her community.

“The standard teachings in Eco-Dharma is first our practice is to meet reality as it is arising, not turning away. Another is studying the self so that we can learn what our engrained habit patterns are – our blind spots – and seeing the ways we construct the self, which helps us identify the many cognitive biases that we have and the psychological defences we develop individually and communally when we’re faced with a crisis of this magnitude. Another is the teaching of interdependence and non-separation. So at this time we’re very much aware of our bodies and how this tiny virus can invade and rearrange us to produce more of itself. So this teaching on interdependence and non-separation is very apparent from our experience of the virus. And the truth of impermanence. So our whole world seems upside down. We have this great sense of groundlessness, and we keep grasping and trying to find something of the old routines and the old normality. But there is a possibility that this provides an opportunity to recognize that the true reality of our existence is groundless. After all, at some point we will die. We often lead our lives without need to confront that, and this situation brings it front and center to us. So how can we find some freedom in that groundlessness that allow us to be more compassionate, more open, less afraid of uncertainty, less afraid of paradox.

“Something else I think is particular to Eco-Dharma is the practice of what Joanna Macy calls ‘Active Hope,’ where we don’t need to be optimists, but we do envision a goal or values that we adhere to. And our work is to commit ourselves to what we believe to be right and not be attached to what the outcomes may be. So it is in the practicing of what we believe to be right and true that we find our commitment flowering. In times like this, when everything is so unknown and unpredictable, how can we continue to practice Active Hope which is not Pollyannaish? It does not require optimism, it just requires a commitment to these values that we hold dear because of our practice. And it does reference the refuge that we take in sangha [community]. That is one of our vows, right? And how community, even though we’re practicing social distancing – as some people have said, it doesn’t have to be social-isolation – that we really do need each other, and we do need to be aware of the most vulnerable members of our community and the world. How does that taking refuge in sangha allow us to bring forward our natural compassion and empathy for the community that’s ours, the whole of Earth as our community?

“So we meet the reality of what is arising. We see how the conditions of the environment can contribute to viruses, to respiratory problems, to the transfer of disease from animals to human beings. How the work on forests is creating all kinds of ecological complications for us as our world continually expands and expands endlessly. And for us to be able to see the reality of that as well as being able to see the reality – without turning away – of what we, as humans, are doing in response.”

She adds that it is not only meditation centers whose programs have been on hold recently. Ecology conferences and seminars have also been suspended, and she wonders about the impact that will have.

“Right now none of the conferences are going on, none of the research is going on. And is that all going to come to a halt? It’s clearly going to impact the immediate future. So how do we turn what is a response to an immediate problem into how we respond to this longer term problem of the eco-crisis. So that’s what I mean about meeting reality as it is without turning away. The practice of doing that can be so beneficial to individuals and communities. And making clear the truth of interdependence. When we start to see that we are not in control, not totally independent, maybe that’s something too that we can encourage a greater reflection on in our Buddhist  communities. Not that we don’t already – but in this kind of ecological sense – and perhaps we can develop new ways of being in the economy, being in the market, that are more communal and less the case where I feel free to take what I want and exclude you whether you are here or somewhere else around the world.”

Zen Conversations: Pp. 123; 164-68.

Other Links:

Zen Downeast

Greater Boston Zen Center

Ken Tetsuzan Morgareidge

Ken Morgareidge is one of three teachers at the Zen Center of Denver. “There’s myself. There’s Karin Kempe and Peggy Sheean. We were all sanctioned on the same day by our teacher, Danan Henry Roshi, in 2010, as the co-directors of the Zen Center of Denver. So there’s no primary person. The three of us are sort of the Unholy Three.”

Our conversation took place during the social turmoil of the rancorous 2020 US election campaign, when Americans were dealing with both the corona virus and the exposure of blatant systemic racism in the country. Ken reflected on the value of Zen training in such circumstances.

“One of the paramitas” – virtues cultivated in Buddhism – “is Ksanti Paramita. The perfection of patience and forbearance. That’s one of the things that I think we can all work on in a very deep way. Nothing is ever going to happen as we would like it to happen. So one of the aspects of our practice is to deal with all the craziness that comes up, whether it’s something like this corona virus or political outcomes we’re not happy with or changes in the economy. All those kinds of things. So it’s not like this is a totally unique situation. It’s unique in that it’s happening to everybody all at once. That we all have stuff coming up in our lives that is sad, tragic, or irritating or infuriating. And our practice helps us to look at these things in a way where we’re not dragged around by them, where we don’t have to respond in a wildly emotional way. We can look at it and say, ‘Okay. That’s what it is. This is my karma in this moment. What do I do now?’ without going into recriminations or ‘If only this had happened; if only I’d done that’ – which is useless.”

Like everything else in Zen, however, the development of patience and forbearance is not something anyone else can do for one. The role of the teacher, Ken tells me, is that of a guide. “I tell my students, ‘You’re hiring a guide – that’s me – but the guide’s not going to carry you. You have to walk the trail yourself.’”

He also compares himself to a coach.

“I was in competitive fencing for many years, and I trained like a fiend for quite a period of time. And so when I went to my first sesshin in Rochester with Kapleau Roshi, it was very familiar – the type of intensity you have to put in in sesshin practice – and Kapleau was the coach. So I think of myself as a coach. When people come to me, they’re coming for coaching, for me to warn them about the pitfalls, help them out if they fall into one, to keep them on track, to encourage them as much as I can, and to admonish them when I need to. Just as a coach with his players, I can’t get out onto the field and play the game with them. And that’s tough. So many times you want to help them in ways you know you can’t. But I provide as much guidance as I can. And if they’re struggling with a koan, I’ll encourage them, but, of course, they have to solve the koan on their own. There’s only so much I can say. And that’s tough. But I tell them, ‘You have to do this yourself.’”

“What are you guiding them to?” I ask. “Where is the trail taking them? To what end”

“It’s taking them deeper into their practice. That’s all I can say.”

“Well, again – to what end is the practice?”

“To what end is the practice? The end of the practice is practice. If you look for an end – like enlightenment or some state of mind – you’re not going to get there. Because you’re already there. Your job as a practitioner is to be here in this moment. But you’re already here. The Buddha said all beings are enlightened from the very beginning. We just have to strip away the stuff – the accretions of many lifetimes – and see the truth of that and trust in it and then live out of it. That’s our job as a Bodhisattva practice. We’re not practicing for ourselves. At least not exclusively. We’re practicing for the world, and that’s one of the great challenges we’re faced with right now. How do we help each other and how do we help the world in a time of crisis. And everyone has to come up with their own answer. So if there’s any kind of a goal, it’s just to go deeper. Go deeper into myself. As a teacher, help the student go deeper into their own true nature – their own Buddha-nature – and find out what that is and then live from that.”

Tetsuzan left the Denver Center of Denver in 2020 and retired to the Iron Mountain Hermitage in Florence, Colorado, where he still meets with students.

Other Links:

Zen Center of Denver