Brother Phap Vu

The last movie my wife and I went to see before the corona-virus outbreak was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie which is less about Mr. Rogers than it is about the reporter who wrote a cover story about him for Esquire magazine. In the film, the reporter is portrayed as a fairly stock character, a cynical and embittered writer who approaches his assignment to do a 400 word profile of Rogers with understandable skepticism. As his relationship with Rogers grows, however, and his understanding of the man deepens, the profile expands into a 10,000 word feature article which – to the author’s surprise – takes it subject far more seriously than he had imagined it would.

One point the movie makes is that Roger’s goodness was a “practice.” It was something he worked at in a number of concrete ways such as consciously developing non-destructive ways to deal with emotions like anger and nightly praying for individuals – by name – who had requested his prayers or who he felt were in need of them. The idea that someone would make a choice, an effort, to work daily at virtue as a practice can seem naïve, but it was also what made Mr. Rogers significant. The magazine article was entitled, “Can You Say . . . ‘Hero’?”

The film reminded me of a visit I made in 2014 to the Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, New York. It’s part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, the form of Zen (Thien in Vietnamese) which probably has the largest number of adherents in North America. It derives – like Japanese Rinzai – from the Chinese Linji tradition but bears little resemblance to the forms that lineage has taken in Japan or the west. Its popularity it based on the fact that its forms are simple and accessible. Instead of struggling to make sense of the koan Mu, practitioners in the Order of Being are advised to simply repeat, inwardly, a four line poem during their periods of meditation:

Breathing in, I calm my body;
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

I approached my visit to Blue Cliff with the same reservation the reporter had to Mr. Rogers, suspicious that this was all too naïve to be taken seriously. What I discovered was a community of people who genuinely chose to practice a way of virtue with integrity.

The monk who’d organized my visit was Brother Phap Vu who I contacted again as I began work on my most recent project. He is no longer in residence at Blue Cliff although he remains a monk in the Order of Interbeing. He travels about the country giving retreats and providing support to other monastics through an on-line program called Dharma Pathways.

There is a modesty to the practices promoted by the Order of Interbeing, but they are grounded in basic Buddhist theory. The understanding of “interbeing,” Phap Vu explains to me, “is based on two concepts in the Mahayana tradition. The first is dependent co-arising. All things are dependent on other things for their manifestations, for their being. The other comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, interpenetration. That I’m in that, and that is in me. And what these two things are looking at, what these two things are describing in the human experience, is that there’s a larger version of us. There’s a larger interconnectedness of us, of all things. Nothing exists within itself. Everything is connected with everything else.”

The goal of Zen practice, then, is to bring about a shift in perception. “Either it’s realizing the interconnectedness of all things, or realizing how one could respond to the difficulties in life. And the difficulties in life can be anything from a relationship with another person, or the difficulties in life could be economic. Or it could be something like a global catastrophe. Global crisis. How do we approach this? How do we respond?”

The “global crisis” he talks about isn’t something theoretical. Thich Nhat Hanh has been blunt in warning his disciples to face the ecological impact human activity has had on the interconnectedness of all things and the possible consequences of that activity. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”

How does one begin to come to terms with a concept such as that?

“What is it that you hope for for the people you work with?” I ask Brother Phap Vu.

His answer – like that of Mr. Rogers when asked about what he hoped for the children who watched his program – is one of those deeply profound statements that inevitably sound overly simple: “To love themselves. To have compassion for themselves.”

“You sense that’s something lacking in people?”

“Well, I had a lack of that capacity to see myself in another way. To see that you are much more than you think you are. You know, we live our lives, we do our work and school or whatever we do, with family or whatnot. And sometimes we’re stuck in this mode. And we put ourselves in boxes, give ourselves labels. And society puts labels on us and puts us in boxes. And we’re not aware of that larger aspect of ourselves.”

The larger aspect is what Buddhism calls our “Buddha Nature.” Phap Vu tells me that Nhat Hanh uses another term: “He refers to ‘home,’ our true home. Every spiritual tradition has this. In Christianity it would be like the Divine nature. It’s the interconnectedness that we’re a part of the divine basically.”

“And that’s what the shift in perspective . . .” I start to say.

He nods his head. “Yes, and we can only touch that when we have enough compassion for ourselves, when we have care for ourselves. Then it radiates out.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63

Zen Conversations: 67-69; 144-45

Other Links:

Dharma Pathways

Zenshin Michael Haederle

Zen communities – sanghas – come in many forms. There are residential monastic communities such as Shugen Arnold’s Zen Mountain Monastery. There are groups who work with resident teachers in cities and towns, like Paul Cooper’s community in Honesdale, or in isolated areas like Mitra Bishop’s Mountain Gate. And then there are groups of individuals who come together regularly without a resident teacher as such, usually hosted by a long-term practitioner who functions more as a facilitator than a instructor. I host such a group in my town, and Zenshin Michael Haederle hosts a similar group in Albuquerque. We both struggle with what our role is. In Zenshin’s case there’s also the fact that he’s a “lay monk.”

“Yeah, it’s weird terminology,” he admits. “Some people have pointed out that none of the Zen clergy in Japan really qualify as Buddhist monks, because they can be married, and they don’t take most of the monastic precepts that are embedded in classical Buddhism. A better term in English might be ‘priests’ or ‘ministers.’”

I don’t consider myself a minister, but I ask he does.

“Maybe. In the sense that, yes, I’m leading a Zen sitting group and provide some guidance there, although I certainly don’t consider myself a teacher. To me it’s just a commitment to make the Dharma available for people.”

“How is ‘making the Dharma available for people’ not teaching?”

“I suppose it’s the personal connotation I attach to it, but a ‘teacher‘ implies sort of a hierarchical relationship. I relate to the Sanskrit term kalyanamitra, which means ‘spiritual friend.’ I like the image. It’s more horizontal.”

The current social environment in the United States – the pandemic, increased racial tensions, the looming election – is challenging. I ask if he sees evidence that Zen practitioners are in any way better equipped to deal with these circumstances than non-practitioners.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about Zen practice is it’s all-encompassing.  It’s kind of a tool, if you want to think about it that way, that’s applicable to anything we encounter in life: aging, sickness, death – all the traditional things. It also applies to what’s going on in our society. It’s obviously not about nihilism or zoning out or shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Whatever,’ but it is about meeting whatever’s going on with clarity and equanimity so that your response is going to be appropriate to the circumstances. So not leading with an opinion or a mental freaking-out session, but having a fuller appreciation of the context of the situation you’re actually in – this moment and not all the other moments in your imagination. Obviously that’s a challenge, but that’s the aspiration. It’s not that anybody can do that freely all the time or anything, but it’s a great place to start, because it’s so easy for our emotions to take front and center, our emotional response to bullying and injustice, the crazy disregard for objective truth and facts and things like that. I mean, it’s all really disheartening. But then just working with that, working with our own anger or despair or all the other related emotions. Those are real, in their way. It’s a matter of meeting these circumstances in a way where we don’t go out to the gun stores and get our own arsenal to match the arsenal on the other side or something like that. We want to get outside of that mindset, that paranoic conflict, I think that’s really important.”

One of the benefits of long term practice is that one can become “more alert to our mood states — to whatever is coming up in the moment. You realize you can do something about that. You can take a look at this whole personality complex that seems to be having this problem — this whole neurotic story-telling thing — and more or less see through that pretty quickly. Not wanting to sound boastful or anything, but where years ago I might have been hung-up for days, weeks or months on some kind of conflict or afflictive emotion – because I was pretty neurotic – now it’s hours or its minutes. Literally, the drama really loses its attraction.” He chuckles. “I can see that going through the ruminative or obsessional thought thing is just a waste of time. ”

One ceases to identify with the feelings as they arise, I suggest.

“Absolutely. Because fundamentally there’s no one there to identify. Identity becomes a highly suspect concept. Yeah, the emotions come up; it’s not like suppressing or repressing anything. It’s just allowing it all to be there and allowing it to go away and not fighting with it.”

The practice helps people “get into this place of openness that is waiting for us, that is always here.”

“What prevents people from sensing it if it’s ‘always here’?” I ask.

“Conditioning. Socialization. The way that we’re all conditioned to think about the world. I think evolution obviously equipped us with this ability to construct an imaginary self that seems to function in the future that has enabled us to do very complicated things. There’s an adaptive side to that, obviously. We wouldn’t be this way if there wasn’t a good reason for it — that’s what evolution more or less says. But it comes with a price. Because it’s an illusion. It’s a construct. It’s like an avatar on your computer screen. There’s not really a little version of you on the computer screen, although you can use it that way for useful purposes. There’s no separate self that actually time travels to the past or future. Coming back to this primary experience in this moment, it’s always right here. It’s only ever now when you’re thinking about the past or the future. That’s happening now. The brain is now. Of course ‘now’ is an idea too. It’s ineffable when you really let go of all the ideas of these things, but the experience remains. Right? But is there an experiencer?” he adds with a laugh.

Other links:

Michael Haederle

David Loy

David Loy is a Dharma heir of Yamada Koun in the Sanbo Zen tradition. “According to Zen,” he tells me, “we are not fully awake. There is something we need to realize about ourselves and about the world, and the path is to help us wake up.”

I ask what that “something” is.

“There’s a lot of ways to answer that, but for me what stands out is non-duality or non-separation: overcoming the delusion that there’s a me inside that is somehow separate from you and the rest of the world outside, and that therefore my well-being is separate from yours and others’ well-being. The delusion of self. Kensho – ‘opening’ as some people prefer now – is a letting go of that and realizing or experiencing the world at least momentarily in a non-dual way. So that is what I’d say we need to wake up to. And then to integrate the implications of that into how we live.”

David is a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center where he and Johann Robbins – of the Insight Meditation tradition – offer ten day “ecodharma retreats.”

“Which is mostly meditation – we’re usually outside, somewhere on our 185 acres, or nearby – but it’s partly workshop as well. To some degree we model ourselves upon Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects,’ helping people get in touch with their gratitude but also their grief about the global ecological situation, since many of us are closed down emotionally because we can’t cope with our grief. We’re afraid of it, because we don’t know what we can do personally to make a difference. Our approach is we’ve got to get in touch with our grief, to start to face it and work it through together, in which case it can empower us to respond more directly to what’s going on.”

It’s not, he stresses, a Zen retreat as such. “There’s a different kind of meditation we encourage that is more sensory-based, in the sense of not going into your head and reciting Mu or working on a koan, but opening up to the natural world. That’s number one. Number two we encourage gratitude practice. Feeling gratitude, with the realization that gratitude isn’t just something we feel or don’t feel, it’s a practice we cultivate. As Brother Steindl-Rast said, we’re not grateful because we’re happy; we’re happy because we’re grateful.”

For part of the retreat, participants go off by themselves. “Everyone goes off on a solo, with their tent and sleeping bag. People pick their location, and they’re there by themselves for two days and two nights. During that time, we encourage them not to have an agenda but to continue to be open to what’s happening. To notice, what does the land, what do the trees and the meadows and the large and small animals have to offer?”

It reminds me of Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness retreats, in which he had said it was not he but the street or Auschwitz which was the teacher.

“That’s our sense too, that the beautiful, unspoiled land where we practice is the real teacher. The whole point of our schedule and program is to enable and maximize that process. But let me make a couple of distinctions here. Bernie was wonderful in the ways he focused on social justice. And that’s a huge question, all the more so today. What’s the relation between ecodharma – which focuses on the ecological crisis – and social oppression such as racism? But whereas Bernie focused on how humans relate with and often oppress other humans, our focus has been on how humans relate to and exploit the rest of the natural world. I’m very concerned to integrate social justice issues into ecological issues, but not to the extent that we ignore the problem of what might be called species-ism. Trees don’t vote, don’t march or protest. Right? The whole point of ecodharma, as I understand it, is realizing that we need to expand the moral sphere of responsibility beyond human beings to the rest of the natural world, not only animals but forests and lakes and ecosystems. That’s a little different from what Bernie was focusing on although I think it fits in quite well.”

I ask about similar work in Asia, and he mentions a group called the “International Network of Engaged Buddhists” based in Bangkok. “It is a pan-Asian organization that works with a lot of different engaged Buddhists, but it’s a minority development, not part of the main institutions.”

“Engaged Buddhism,” I note, “is a phrase that Thich Nhat Hanh coined, and one of the things that he advises his followers to contemplate is that the human species isn’t immune to extinction. We aren’t, as a species, going to last forever.”

“Today I think a growing number of us have that sense. There is an interesting parallel with awareness of own individual mortality. Buddhist practice helps us get in touch with our own impermanence, our own insubstantiality. That’s an important part of it. And part of the challenge of ecodharma, I believe, is that it raises similar questions about the fate of the human species and certainly modern civilization as we know it today.”

I ask what he hopes for people participating in the retreats.

“First, to come to feel a deeper connection with the natural world. And gratitude will normally follow naturally from that. I would also hope that they are able to get in touch with their own grief about what’s happening to the natural world.  It’s not that we work through that grief once and for all, but it’s something that shouldn’t be denied when it arises. Painful though it is, opening to our grief is necessary for the transformation – the kind of enlightenment – that we need today. But my most important hope would be that those who undertake this process be empowered and motivated to become ecologically and socially engaged.”

Zen Conversations: 34-36; 50-51; 118-19; 124-26; 155-58

Other links:

Domyo Burk

Shortly before I was scheduled to interview her in December 2019, Domyo Burk – the Guiding Teacher of the Bright Way Zen Center in Portland, Oregon – was arrested and spent the night in jail.

“I heard through my network of climate activist groups that something was going to go on and that if people were interested in civil disobedience to sign up, and that it was going to be run by experienced people. So I signed up, and we went down to the state capital and occupied Governor Brown’s office insisting that she come out against the giant liquified natural gas pipeline and liquification plant that’s a big project in Southern Oregon. A Canadian company wants to pipe fracked gas through the pipeline and then, in Coos Bay, liquify it, load it onto ships, then ship it overseas to be sold in Asia. It’s just wrong at so many levels. The pipeline goes through tribal lands, public lands, private land through the right of eminent domain, which should only be used when it’s in the public good. So that all hinges on that argument that it’s in the public good, besides the fact that this is just – in terms of climate change – the exact opposite of the direction we should be going. So there was a big rally out in front of the capital. Then everyone went inside, singing, and filled the atrium with song. And then a bunch of us went up the stairs into Governor Brown’s ceremonial office and just hung out there for eight hours.” She chuckles at the memory. “And after the building closed, and Governor Brown even came to talk to us, but she wasn’t willing to come out against the pipeline, so we stayed, and twenty-one of us stayed until past the point where the state troopers warned us that we would be charged with trespassing and arrested if we didn’t leave.”

Domyo’s academic training had been in wildlife biology, although, instead of working in the field, she became a Zen monk.

She was drawn to practice by a feeling she had had of the basic “dissatisfactoriness” of life. “Who knows when it first arose for me. Age 12? I don’t know. At some point I really started to ask, ‘What is the meaning of life? What is this all about? What’s the point?’ And I remember probably at age 14 I had my first summer job, and I remember this sense of foreboding. I felt like I was getting on a conveyor belt to death; I was signing up for this program that led nowhere and had no meaning.”

Her first encounter with Buddhism came years later when she was preparing to travel to India with her first husband’s family. A guide book she was looking at mentioned Buddhism. “It explained there’s not a lot of Buddhism in India now, but it was part of its history. And it talked about the Four Noble Truths, and ‘Life is inherently marked by dissatisfactoriness.’ I mean, I’m like, ‘Yay, man! They just say it right up front!’ And then the fact it wasn’t that the Buddha went on his spiritual search because his circumstances were so awful; it was because of the nature of dissatisfactoriness. So in a way I felt I was similar to him in the fact that I had very fortunate circumstances. I had no reason to be unhappy, and yet I was. I really resonated with that. And then, the fact that you didn’t have to believe in anything. It didn’t involve a god. And then it said, ‘All right. You can do something about that dissatisfactoriness, and here’s what you can do.’ So I was right there. I immediately looked up Buddhism in the phonebook.”

When she returned from India, she briefly joined a Pure Land Buddhist group. At one of their meetings, a member said, “‘I’m on the Pure Land path because I don’t have the wherewithal to do the self-development like they do in Zen.’ And immediately in my mind, I’m like, ‘Gotta look up Zen.’”

She discovered the Dharma Rain community, and very quickly became a monastic. She spent seven years in monastic training. And while she had originally told her teacher – Gyokuko Carlson – that she had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, when the time arose, she did begin working with a group of people on the westside of Portland, which eventually became the Bright Way Center.

“I did the turning inward, resolving of my koan and angst and gradually coming out of that darkness, looking around and thinking, ‘How can I serve?’ Figuring, ‘Well, I’ll do this Dharma teacher thing. You know, start a Zen center.’ And there was a number of years of doing that; of learning how to do that and devoting my energy to it. Then over the last five years at least, ‘What about that concern that led me to be a wildlife biologist?’ Right? I have to find a way for social and environmental justice to be a part of my life. Zen without it seems two dimensional and meaningless.”

Which led her not only to a night in jail but also a regular podcast entitled “Facing Extinction.” “I mean we are facing extinction literally, and I mean to be facing that fact.”

Portland has been in the news a lot, because of the protests over police killings of unarmed black men. I wrote to her recently to ask what conditions are like. She tells me that much of it seems to be media exaggeration. “I would guess that 99.999% of us don’t even notice (even if we should). Very small groups, contained area of mayhem. What’s crazy now is the fires. I’ve lived here 30 years, and only been impacted by wildfire smoke the last 3 out of 4 years. Right now it looks like Mars out there, all red and gloomy.” And that, too, is partially due to climate change.

Zen Conversations: Pp. 54; 88-89; 150-51.

Other Links:

Bright Way Zen

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat

My hosts at Zen Mountain Monastery had told me that Dai Bosatsu was just on “the other side of the mountain.” But when I arrive, I feel like I’ve travelled much further.

All things, of course, are relative. I had thought that the Morgan Bay Zendo in the Maine woods had been isolated, but to get to Dai Bosatsu one travels along a rough secondary road and then up a partially eroded gravel path. I had thought that Zen Mountain Monastery was large. But the front gate for Dai Bosatsu is two miles from the main monastery building.

The property is on Beecher Lake. The guest house had been the hunting cottage of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother and is pretty much what one would expect a wealthy 19th century family to build as their mountain getaway. But then one comes to the monastery itself – constructed in traditional Japanese style – and one could believe one had taken a wrong turn somehow and wound up in Kyoto.

The formalities are Japanese. Lunch is eaten jihatsu, with three nesting bowls and chants in Japanese. Western monks with Japanese Dharma names, wearing Japanese robes, respond with a sharp “Hai!” when addressed. The walls are decorated with calligraphy. There has been a Japanese flavor at other centers I’ve visited, but nothing as pervasive as this.

It’s also fair to say that this is the first place I’ve visited where I did not immediately feel at ease.  It’s beautiful. It’s entrancing. But that’s  part of my problem. I find it exotic, and I wonder if Zen benefits from being exotic.

If I am not entirely at ease with the structure and forms, it is not at all difficult to feel at ease with the abbot—Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat. She comes to our interview with her dog, Nikita. Throughout the conversation she’s relaxed and informal. She pauses reflectively before answering my questions, and her responses are cogent and articulate. She interviews well. One of her students tells me that he sees in her someone who genuinely embodies the Four Vows.

Her family situation, when she was a child, had been difficult. Her step-father was physically abusive, once taping her mouth shut because he felt she was making too much noise. But she early learned that if she went off on her own and just sat still, with  hands clasped, she could gain a sense of peace otherwise unattainable. In her eighth grade World Studies class, there was a unit on Zen Buddhism, and she recognized that what she had been doing was Zen. She had intuitively discovered zazen.

Shinge refers to Dai Bosatsu as the “gem of North American Zen.” It is the first Rinzai monastery to be established outside of Japan; officially inaugurated in the US bi-centennial year, 1976. Aesthetically—regardless of my reservations about the Japanese accoutrements—it is a marvel. And one is conscious of the spiritual power of the temple. This is a place for serious practice.

However at the time of my visit in 2013, the numbers were down.  The revelations of the sexual misconduct of the previous abbot, Eido Shimano, was part of the problem. But also there is the fact that this is not an easy place to get to; Zen Mountain Monastery, by comparison, is just down the road from Woodstock (the Woodstock), where there are a plethora of yoga studios and like-minded people.

Five years later, I have another opportunity to speak with Shinge, and she tells me that the community has begun to recover. Membership is growing again, and they are attracting people in their 20s.

“Really? What are they like?” I ask.

“There seems to be a lot more what I would call desperation among the generation under 30 these days. They feel abandoned by those to whom they would have looked for leadership and guidance in their lives. There are no assurances that jobs will be available once they get out of college. They’re not sure it’s worth going to college. There’s a lot of very deep soul-searching going on, and – from what I understand – they’re looking for something that will bring them meaning, that will bring their lives a sense of purpose. So volunteer work is important – I mean, social justice work is important – and we’ve been doing outreach work at all these places because we feel that too. And so I think that’s, in part, responsible for bringing in new people. In other words, trying to meet them where their concerns are. Not assuming that the old ways will work.”

“When I began, in 1971,” I say, “there was very much a concern with achieving the kind of awakening experience people like D. T. Suzuki described or the enlightenment stories in The Three Pillars of Zen. Do people still come seeking that?”

“Absolutely. One of the things I’ve noticed is that people who have tried other forms of meditation, what we might call . . .” she hesitates “. . . Zen-lite?”

“It’s a term I’ve used,” I admit with a laugh.

“People try it, and if they’re really looking for something that will be life-transformative, they come to Zen – Rinzai Zen in our case – they come to a place where they can really be assured of a strong and dynamic program of practice. Something very different from, ‘Try this. It might help you feel better about your life.’ We’re not interested in that. We’re not giving out band-aids. We’re saying, ‘If you go through a rigorous training, you may be able to break through a lot of the old habits, a lot of the conditioning that you’ve been defeated by in your spiritual quest, and come to awakening which will bring you true happiness, not a slightly better feeling about yourself.’”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 69-82, 125, 213, 295

The Story of Zen: 335, 338, 367-71

Zen Conversations: Pp. 39-40; 100-01; 119-21.

Other links:

Elaine MacInnes

Sister Elaine MacInnes – who was born in  Moncton, New Brunswick – begins her autobiography on the beach at Shediac, a place significant to my family. My wife spent her summers there as a child, and it was one of the places she was most eager to introduce me to after we’d met. When our children were young, we returned there annually during the school break. A film on Sister Elaine, produced by Vision TV, begins with her on that beach, telling the story of the salt doll who discovers her true nature by allowing herself to dissolve in the ocean. It’s as apt an analogy of kensho as I know.

“I suspect,” I tell her, “you are the first transmitted Zen teacher to come from Canada.”

“For a while, I would have been the only one.” She isn’t bragging. One can tell from her tone of voice that she remains amazed by the events of her life.

My only meeting with her took place in 2013 at the Mother House of Our Lady’s Missionaries, the order of Roman Catholic nuns to which Sister Elaine belongs. One of her Dharma heirs, Patrick Gallagher, arranged the meeting and joins us. He tells me that when Sister Elaine returned to Canada after years abroad, a friend of his told him—“This is what I thought he said!”—that he was going to attend a “talk on Zen.” That sounded interesting, so Patrick expressed an interest in attending as well. “I’ll check to see if it’s okay,” the friend said. Patrick wondered, half seriously, “She must be worried about the Vatican if she was interviewing all those wanting to attend a public talk she was giving on Zen!” Eventually he was called in for an interview, and it became clear that a discernment was being made about whether he was a suitable candidate to take up Zen practice. “The first time we sat was on chairs facing the wall. We were told to keep physically and mentally still for eleven minutes. I thought, ‘That’s impossible!’” The friend didn’t come back; Patrick did.

Sister Elaine became a nun after her fiancé was killed during the Second World War. After her training, the order sent her to Japan. There she met the Jesuit, Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, who was studying and practicing Zen. Sister Elaine had some curiosity about Zen and decided if Father Lassalle was practicing, “It had to be okay.”

She decided she wanted the person who introduced her to Zen to be a woman, so she was put in contact with a Japanese Abbess, who at their first meeting said, “If you believe God is in Heaven, then you have no place in Buddhism.”

“And I said, ‘Whoa!’ I thought she had made quite a jump. So I said, ‘There are some things you’re going to have to trust me for.’ And I don’t know whether she liked that or not.”

Later, Father Lassalle introduced her to Yamada Koun Roshi—“Who must surely be one of the great Zen teachers of the 20th century.” He was more welcoming. Although he did not understand the concept of a God external and responsible for creation, he respected the Christian practitioners he had met and was happy to work with them. Sister Elaine achieved kensho during her second sesshin with him, and went on to complete the koan curriculum of the Sanbo Kyodan School of Zen. “Philip Kapleau didn’t, you know,” she reminds me.

After twenty years in Japan, her order reassigned her to the Philippines and supported her when she set up a zendo there.

It was during the Marcos regime. One of Marcos’s staunchest critics was Horatio “Boy” Morales, who was arrested in 1982 and confined for four years during which time he was subjected to torture and other indignities. He decided that he wanted to use his time in prison to learn Zen; after all, there is not a great deal of difference between a monk’s and a prisoner’s cell. He requested that Sister Elaine visit him to provide instruction. There were only fifteen prisoners in the facility, and fourteen of them practiced with her.

“They had a lot of charismatic people going in—you know—for charismatic prayer. But Boy was only interested in Zen. So between his and my pull, we got a room. Some of the guards were nasty. I was told more than once, ‘We know what you’re coming in here for. You’ve got full access to Boy Morales, and time alone with him, too.’ They said, ‘You’re not fooling any of us.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. But,’ I said, ‘I’m not here to talk you into that.’ It came to be a very successful time. And then, towards the end of Marcos’s time, the others were released, one by one. And in the end, there was only Boy left. He was there all alone. The night of the big revolution, he was all alone.”

When Morales was released from prison by Corazon Aquino, he talked openly about Sister Elaine and his Zen practice. Suddenly she became an international celebrity.

“I got phone calls from all over the world. I mean, the revolution itself was worldwide news. And he gave me full credit for going in. ‘It was a risk for her to come in, given the conditions at the time. Because we were the “bad guys” in prison.’”

She was invited to Britain by the Phoenix Trust, an agency that worked for prisoners’ rights, and she was soon teaching meditation in English prisons.

Things were a little tougher when she came home to Canada; the prison system was suspicious and couldn’t categorize the work she was doing so it took a while for her to gain access. But eventually she made inroads and was eventually awarded the Order of Canada for her work.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 133-40, 141-42, 174, 304, 309

Catholicism and Zen: 14, 38, 87-97, 145, 168, 182, 187

Zen Conversations: 73

Other Links:

Myo On Susan Linnell

Myo On Susan Linnell is a Zen priest in the Rinzai-ji order living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is also a studio artist. “I think of myself as a monk/artist,” she tells me. Her hair is cropped, and she is wearing meditation robes as we speak.

“Studio artists are an isolated group of people. I don’t think I realized that until late in life. Actually I found Zen through the art world. Zen practice and meditation practice is not totally different from painting practice or art practice. So for me the two are now completely fused.”

We are both in the age group most severely impacted by the covid virus and talk about the difference between the way the pandemic has been handled in Canada – where I live – and in US. At the time of our conversation – the end of July 2020 – there had been less than 9000 covid-related deaths in Canada whereas the US death-toll already exceeded 150,000 persons. When I posted this profile, on September 6th, the totals had risen respectively to 9071 (245 deaths per million) and 177,013 (532 per million).

“I had an experience with a friend of mine just the other night,” Myo On tells me. “We were in a Zoom meeting together and afterwards  we spoke for just a very few minutes. She’s working in the health industry with patients, and she’s clearly very stressed. I could see visibly just how suffering she is. ‘I’m very tired. I’m very upset. I’m not patient. I’m not kind to my patients.’ She was very disturbed by this. And this is a person who’s been practicing for about five years, and when I practice with her she appears to be a really great student. And she said, ‘The patients ask too many questions. I don’t have time. I have so many things I have to do, and so I lose patience.’ She was just so distraught. So I thought I needed to offer her something to work with, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m focussed on the breath.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, very good. But can I offer you something else?’ And what came to mind was Kosho Uchiyama’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought. And I just gave her that as a practice image. I thought it might be a way for her to focus.”

It is a technique, based on the Buddhist concept of mindful awareness, that she had taught before, even to people in jail.

“‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only’ is how I think the Buddha expressed it. Uchiyama’s instruction is to recognize that the mind has the habit of making a fist around its fear, a fist around its suffering, a fist around its worry, and so forth. I use it myself all the time, because I can wake up worrying about my family or worrying in a most general way about everything that’s going on, and I literally use it to drop the hand and open the hand of thought.”

“So if I were to come to you,” I say, “and told you that I was anxious about the current situation – I turn on CNN every morning and see those numbers on the side of the screen and can’t stop thinking about them – how would this help me?”

“People always say, ‘Live in the present moment,’ and I say, ‘Yes. Okay. Perfect. But how?‘ The question is not whether or not you should live in the present! No serious person disputes this. But how do you do this? And the answer is ‘Present moment awareness in the body as the body only. This is the path and this is the destination.’ That is the Buddha’s teaching in his words.

“So, what does he means by that? I’m going to give you the physical example, but it’s the same with covid-fear or covid-anxiety. Let’s say I’m sitting, reading a novel, and I have knee trouble, and the pain in my knee kicks in. And our habitual untrained response to this can be that first you put your hand on the pain, but then you think, ‘Oh, no! Not again!’ And then the mind goes to, ‘Why did I lift those boxes yesterday, and I put on the wrong shoes, and why did I eat that, on and on.’ Whatever your mind habitually does around that particular issue, and you’re off to the races. So the way to live without being hounded in this way by your anxiety or fear is when the pain arises in the knee or the anxiety arises in the chest or if you perceive it in your head or your heart, then you must learn to practice going to the body, staying in the body, experience it as it is in the body. So the question is, you said, you see the numbers and ‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’ So the thinking mind will continue unless you wake up in your body. So you need to leave wherever it is that you are doing that is keeping you from paying attention to your body.  If you have a garden, go to your garden and work.  If you have dirty dishes in the sink, go wash those dishes. And experience the washing of the dishes. So when the mind wants to go back to covid while you’re washing the dishes, you have to come back to the soap on your hands. If you’re digging in the garden and the mind goes to the covid, you have to come to the temperature of the soil, to how your hands feel in the dirt. To what the sun is like on the back of your neck. 

“It is always very simple, but not easy until you break the habit of leaving the body. Or develop the habit of returning to and remaining awake in the body as the body only.”

The Story of Zen: 326

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Susan Linnell

Bernie Glassman

If one gets off the Interstate and the Turnpike, rural Massachusetts is very picturesque. Small towns, lovely rivers, and trestle bridges. This is Johnny Appleseed country. There are either striking big green hills or small green mountains – perhaps part of the Berkshires – on the horizon. Montague is a village surrounded by farms, some of which profess to be organic.

I drove there in July 2013 to visit Bernie Glassman. I found his house down a narrow county road where the trees came together overhead. His wife, Eve, was just going out for a swim in a nearby lake; my wife, Joan, joined her while I conducted the interview.

We sat in an area in front of a glassed-in fireplace. On the coffee table was a copy of Cigar Aficionado magazine with Jeff Bridges’ photo on the cover. He and Glassman had recently released a book entitled The Dude and the Zen Master. There was a large calligraphy scroll on the wall behind Glassman’s chair; an eight-foot Jizo in the further part of the room, as well as a small table or altar with statues of both Kannon and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Bernie was wearing a blue patterned shirt and loose white slacks with suspenders that he occasionally adjusted as we spoke. He was bearded, and his gray hair receded from his forehead; he wore it long, tied in a pony tail. Looking at him then, it was difficult to picture him in formal Zen robes and rakusu, but at one time he had been very proper in his appearance and his teaching. His days of formal teaching, however, were over by the time I met him.

“I have twenty Dharma successors, which is insane.” Many of them carry on traditional Zen instruction, but if he thought they might be getting a bit stuffy “or too arrogant,” he would show up at their centers unannounced, dressed as a clown and “disrupt things.”  He earned his clown nose legitimately, having studied with a couple of teachers named Wavy-Gravy and Mr. Yoo-hoo. He told me he carried the nose all the time and, indeed, it was in his pocket as we spoke.

There’s nothing clownish, however, about what he had dedicated himself to.

When he was studying at the Los Angeles Zen Center with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, he had a deep experience of the interconnectedness of all things. The purpose of Zen, he told me, is to elicit such awareness, and it makes use of a number of upayas—skillful means—to bring it forth. Meditation is certainly one, but not the only. Out of that experience he moved gradually into social engagement. After all, basic to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things is an awareness of the interconnectedness of people – even people, perhaps especially people, whom we have marginalized or whom in some way we have defined as “other” than us.

When he left Los Angeles, he went back to New York—where he had been raised—and established the Zen Community of New York. In addition to standard meditation training, he began to do street meditations with his students. They would join him in immersing themselves in the life of homeless. As one participant told me, if he wanted a cup of coffee, he needed to beg for the money. The only preparation was to not bathe or shave for two days before going on the street. The only rules were not to lie and to stay together in small groups of three. Every morning there would be a shared reflection; and in the evening they found a place to sleep together. They tended to avoid shelters because of the dangers of violence and tuberculosis. “You could sleep in bus stations, but you’d be kicked out by the police.” The only “practice” was to be present.

Bernie identified three “tenet koans” which he later carried over to his work with Zen Peacemakers. 1) Not knowing; 2) Bearing witness; 3) Loving action. If one wanted to, one could analyze how these tenets evolved from the classical Hakuin koan curriculum, beginning with Mu (not-knowing) and proceeding through the precepts. But it isn’t a pattern unique to Buddhism, or even Zen. A friend of Bernie’s had shown how they also relate to a contemporary understanding of the Torah.

He and his previous wife (Sandra Jishu Holmes who died in 1998) founded Zen Peacemakers in 1996. Every year they held a Witnessing Retreat at Auschwitz. “There’s no teacher,” he told me. “Auschwitz is the teacher.” The Nazi program at Auschwitz was the supreme example of defining people who don’t represent a specific norm as “other”—whether Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, or whatever.

The retreats had had as many as 160 participants, although by the time I spoke with him it was capped at 120. The majority of those participating would never have done any formal Zen training. It isn’t only Zen practitioners who can realize interconnectedness.

When I ask to take his photo, he suggests we do it in the yard behind his house. There is a tall wooden Kannon statue with distinctly non-Asian features. “It was carved by a guy who didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but he carved it for a woman who was a Buddhist.” Again, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is not unique to Buddhism, as the Virgin of Guadalupe in the house attests.

Our wives returned from swimming. As Joan and I drove away, I heard Bernie and Eve discussing who would prepare dinner that night and whether the proper ingredients were available.

Bernie Glassman died on November 4, 2018, a few months shy of his 80th birthday.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 76, 134, 173, 235-50, 255, 258, 260, 274, 276, 280, 287, 296-97, 305-07, 309-10, 468

Catholicism and Zen: 148, 152-54, 156, 158, 164, 165

The Story of Zen: 7, 270-73, 320-21, 353, 362-67, 371, 427

Zen Conversations: 28-29; 105-06; 137-40.

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Morgan Bay Zendo

One of my favorite zendos in the US is located 140 miles northeast of Portland, Maine, in the small coastal community of Surry. The Morgan Bay Zendo is well-hidden. There is a small parking area on the road, but one has to be alert to locate it. I find something pleasing about the idea of small zendos hidden in out of the way places such as this—Yoshin Radin’s place on the Lieb Road south of Ithaca, Mitra Bishop’s in Ojo Sarco—delighting in the thought of something vaguely subversive taking place in these isolated locations. A rough path leads from the parking area through the woods. At its end is a statue of a head with a finger raised to its lips inviting you to silence. There is a moss garden to the left of the path and a little further on, to the right, a statue of Kannon – the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The sculpture is the work of Lenore Straus, who attained kensho during a sesshin with Hakuun Yasutani at Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania. Her enlightenment story is one of those included in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. The Kannon statue marks the path to what is called the Roshi stone, a large glacial boulder bearing a plaque proclaiming: “Here lie some of the ashes of the Japanese Zen Master Goto Zuigan, my teacher. They were placed here in October 1968, with hope that his teaching will continue.”

Walter Nowick

The ashes were placed there by Walter Nowick, who died in February 2013, a month before I began my tour of North American Zen centers. The following November, a portion of Walter’s ashes were buried there as well.

The zendo is a rustic but elegant wood structure situated by a small pond. Inside, two rows of tatami-covered tans face one another. Once the bell is rung in the zendo, there is almost perfect silence. There are no electric hums. There is no sound of traffic. All one hears is the chirping of birds and the peeps of the frogs in the pond.

Nowick was a Julliard trained musician who studied Zen with Goto Zuigan in Japan for sixteen years and became the first American authorized to teach in the Rinzai tradition. When Goto died in 1965, Nowick returned to America and to this farm on the Morgan Bay Road. He had no intention of teaching Zen right away, but people found out about him and started arriving.

It was a working farm and sawmill, and students spent as much time working at these as they did in the Zendo. Walter also performed piano recitals. “He used to have Sunday evening concerts in the summer time, pretty much every Sunday night,” Susan Guilford tells me. She is a current board member at Morgan Bay. “Kind of informal. He’d play the piano. I mean, having used his hands running a saw mill and all of the farm chores, somehow he would manage to sit down and play just beautifully. Very informal. We sat on kind of a conglomeration of chairs that were in the barn. There’d be hay stacked in the corner and occasionally a chicken walking in and out.”

In the mid-1980s, while the Cold War was still simmering, Walter sought a way to promote greater understanding and tolerance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Because his expertise was in music, he launched the Surry Opera Company which did choral performances. Several of his students became members of the chorus, others felt he was spending too much time with music and not enough time teaching. When they expressed their concerns, Walter replied by resigning his role as a Zen teacher.

A handful of former students set up a board in order to maintain the zendo and reincorporated as a center for meditation practice unaffiliated with any particular school of Buddhism. The mission statement of the Morgan Bay Zendo declares that its purpose is “to establish, maintain, and support a religious and philosophical community center or centers dedicated to the study, precepts, and practice of Buddhism.” “It does not say Zen Buddhism,” Susan point outs.

The zendo operates nine months year – when there’s no pandemic interferring with its schedule – offering zazen on Sunday mornings. In the summer, there is also a Wednesday night sitting. During the covid crisis, the center was able to maintain meditation sessions by Zoom.

It is a beautiful place but underutilized. Susan tells me that she loves “the idea of there being places for people to be able to come for short or even longer periods of time to work on themselves. And so to provide a place for them to do that and a structure for them to do that. Encouraging retreats from different traditions so that people can find what speaks to them. And having a lot of younger people involved so that it’s evolving. Because I feel it has a future that is not knowable at this point. I see it evolving, and we—the people who are on the board right now—are caretakers of it. Whatever its future is is not clear, because we’re not part of a tradition. If you’re part of the Catholic Church, you know where that Church is going to be, potentially, a hundred years from now. We don’t know that.

“Walter didn’t intend to start this, but he allowed it to flower at that particular moment in time in his own way. And here it is. People have picked it up, not because he asked them to pick it up, but because it’s here. And I think it has a purpose in our culture that we don’t even know yet. And so right now, we need to keep it going and take small steps so that it can survive and so that we can encourage that growth.”

The Third Step East: 183-97

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 469-476

The Story of Zen: 290-95

Other links:

Morgan Bay Zendo