Seiso Paul Cooper

Seiso Paul Cooper took jukai – the ceremony in which one formally accepts the precepts and declares oneself a Buddhist – for the first time with Eido Shimano in the Rinzai tradition in the 1980s. He was unable, however, to form a personal relationship with Shimano as a teacher. “I’d just see him on retreats for those little interviews that Rinzai folks do. He’d tell me, ‘Show me your Mu,’ and then hit me with a stick and kick me out of the room.”

Eventually, Paul left Shimano’s sangha and found a home in the Soto tradition with Diane Martin in Illinois. “And I did my jukai again in the Soto tradition when I went through my priest ordination. It wasn’t required, but I felt a need to do it. It was more of an internal need.”

Now he is a practicing psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher in Narrowsburg, New York.

He tells me that he has not found the restrictions imposed on social interaction during the covid-19 pandemic particularly onerous. I admit that I hadn’t found the situation difficult either and wonder if people who had some experience with Zen were perhaps better prepared to deal with this situation than others might be.

“Well, I think of the three marks of existence,” he says. “Emptiness, no self – no permanently existing self – and impermanence. If we really have an experiential understanding of those factors it takes the edge off of things. I think what the current situation’s done to people is it’s created an enormous amount of uncertainty. But uncertainty has always been a fact of life, and the illusion of certainty just got stripped away. So in that regard, a Zen practitioner – or a Zen student who takes practice seriously – is gonna be better equipped to deal with the reality of uncertainty because we knew about it already. I think that much of the panic that we’re seeing is related to people who were not prepared in that way.”

Some centers have conducted zazen sessions online, which Paul admits he find a little silly.

“I think it’s useful for people to connect, and the way I’ve approached it is I say, ‘Hey, if you want to sit on your own before we meet, fine. And, in fact, I’ll ring a bell at the beginning of our meeting and we can absorb ourselves in the sound of the bell for – what does it take? – ten or fifteen seconds.’ And then I’ll give a talk. I’m preparing a series of talks on Dogen’s, Expounding a Dream Within a Dream, which I think will be very useful because people talk about how surreal everything seems now.”

I ask him how he explains Zen to people.

“Well, my sister asked me that question, and I said, ‘It’s about being yourself.’ The bottom line is we need to be clear about what our reality is so that we can operate with kindness towards others.”

Traditionally it is said that Zen helps develop both compassion and wisdom or prajna.

“I think prajna is natural. It’s our intuitive way of being in the world, but it gets pushed away through an over-reliance on the intellect. So practice helps bring that perception into the foreground and pull the intellectual discursive thinking into the background, or at least get them into an equal place. But my gripe with seeking prajna or kensho or anything like that – and you’ve probably heard this before from Soto people – but it’s about seeking a state of mind, and my understanding of Dogen’s teachings is that Zen’s about actions and relationships not about a static state of mind.

“I think we live in one huge Ginsbergian ‘Howl.’  And there’s no period at the end of the sentence, nowhere to catch your breath really. So I think my role as a Zen teacher is like I’m like the pitstop guy in the Indianapolis 500.”

He describes some of the activities members of his sangha are engaged with: working with seniors, the homeless, even with victims of sexual trafficking. “So, I don’t do any of these. I’m just there to support them.”

“Like the pit crew at the 500? In what way?”

“Well, I help them change their tires – you know – their psychic tires. Help them stay motivated when they’re feeling burnt out, disgusted, and frustrated. Get them to see how the teaching and practice could help them to face problems, turn the problems into challenges.”

“You said Zen is about getting to know yourself so you can be kinder to others. How does knowing oneself help one to be kinder to others?”

“Because you don’t have to operate out of the three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion – “if you’re onto them. If you can see through yourself, you see we have choices. Another way to say it is it gives us more emotional elbowroom to make healthier choices.”

Other links:

Two Rivers Zen Community

Hozan Alan Senauke

In the midst of the Vietnam War, students at Columbia protested the university’s involvement in the war effort by occupying the administration building. The police intervened with force. 132 students, four faculty members as well as twelve police officers were injured, and over 700 protesters were arrested. Alan Senauke – now Vice Abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center – was one of them.

It was, Senauke tells me, a traumatic experience, and he and a group of friends felt a need to get out of New York, so they went to San Francisco that summer. “Everything was happening in California.”

The situation in California, however, wasn’t much better. “We arrived in the middle of Peoples’ Park, and it was rather disturbing because we had moved into what very much seemed a police state. There were curfews. Cops in pairs and quartets were parading down the streets. It wasn’t exactly an escape. But that was the time when we also began to sit zazen.”

Their apartment wasn’t far from the Berkeley Center, and several of them began to sit there, although at the time Zen didn’t yet seem as important to him as social action. “It seemed like there was a tension between doing Zen practice and the kind of socio-political demands that I felt as a young person. They didn’t fit together to my understanding.”

Senauke and his friends returned New York and completed their degrees. He is a musician and played with several bands, moving back and forth between New York and the west coast for a while.  Finally, in 1980 he settled in Berkeley again. But it was a difficult personal time. “It became clear to me that there was a limit to where my music was going to go and that I was close to it, and that there was something I was supposed to do in life, and I didn’t know what it was. So I got involved in psychotherapy and in the course of one of the sessions, I asked my psychotherapist, ‘What am I doing on the planet? What is my life supposed to be?’ And she said, ‘That’s really a great question, but it’s not a psychotherapy question. It’s a spiritual question, and you should maybe think about looking for a spiritual response.’”

He try to return to the Berkeley Zen Center. “But it wasn’t where I had left it. It had moved, but I found the number in the phone book. I called them up, and somebody answered the phone, and I said I had had some experience in zazen instruction years ago, and I’m thinking about taking up the practice again, ‘What do you suggest I do?’ And the person on the other side of the phone said, ‘You should find a blank wall and sit down and stare at it.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. That’s really a peculiar response to somebody cold-calling on the phone. That’s the place for me!’”

It proved to be. Two years later – in 1985 – he took up permanent residence at the center, and thirteen years later he was named one of the Dharma heirs of Sojun Mel Weitsman who founded the center. Senauke also resolved the tensions he’d originally imagined existing between Zen and social action. He was the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for ten years and continues to be active in the fellowship and in a wide variety of other social justice causes.

“What I mean by ‘awakened,’” he tells me, “is ‘awakened activity,’ action that is premised on our common humanity. Thereby, some fundamental kindness. To respect that kindness doesn’t always mean that everything’s nice and gentle, but it means seeing the all-pervasive nature of Buddha Nature and really challenging yourself when you’re not seeing it, which certainly comes up a lot in our social world. Nonetheless, even if I’m not seeing it in relation to this person or this situation, how do I want to act? How do I want to act in the face of this? That – to me – is enlightened activity. I tend to look at people – or evaluate, if you will – on the basis of what they do. What they say and what they do. Because I really don’t have any way of evaluating what type of meditative experience they might have had. And I don’t think that those experiences are necessarily transformative. It’s not that they’re unimportant, but they have to be able to effect behavior, your relational capacities. That’s the standard I use.”

Shortly after we spoke, the global pandemic brought about significant changes in the way all of us related to both our environment and one another. Alan sent me a copy of a poem which expressed the situation in Buddhist terminology:

The Four Marks of Existence


I suffer because I want things

To be different from how they are.

I want to go to the gym

And I have to do sit-ups in my office.

I long for tacos and beans at Picante

And I settle for lukewarm takeout.


Impermanence is all I can count on.

The world we knew

Has turned around in a handful of days.

My god, will it always be like this?

Yes, and it always has been this way.

Blossoms fall and weeds grow.


The ache of social-distancing

Is the suffering of no-self—

I am pulled away from all of you, who are my self:

The woman behind me on the checkout line;

The prisoner I visit in a narrow steel cage;

The fiddler whose tune is naked without accompaniment.


Take a breath and enjoy it.

Things change and we change too

Universal truths flourish even in pandemic

Resisting truth is suffering

Accepting truth is nirvana,

Which does and does not make life any easier.


21 mARCH 2020

Zen Conversations: 23-28; 73-74; 143-44

Other Links:

Berkeley Zen Center

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li teaches within the North American Chan tradition. “Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character denoting “Chan” – . The practice first arose in China, and the classic koan collections are all Chinese. Rebecca is a second-generation Dharma heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen, whose Dharma Drum Foundation now has affiliate centers in fourteen countries.

Rebecca is a retreat leader. The goal, she tells me, is not only to teach people how to meditate but how to “use the method of meditation to work with themselves and to use the practice in their daily life in all kinds of activities. It’s not just a technique, but it is also an adjustment of attitude, mentality, and being aware of where they are.”

An important point for beginners is “unlearning some of the misconceptions they might have developed around what meditation is about. The most common one is they believe meditation involves eliminating everything from the mind. They believe they’re supposed to cultivate a blank mind.”

It is an error that comes about because people lack “adequate guidance. Because a lot of people now do it on apps and stuff, they bring their existing ideas about things to make sense of it. So that’s another layer of what I talk about, that we are bound to go about meditation the wrong way in the beginning because we take our usual habits, our usual mode of operation – which is all about causing suffering – into the meditation. We use meditation to cause more suffering in the beginning. So that’s where we start, and then we learn about how we are causing ourselves suffering by looking at how we approach our meditation.”

She tells me that the current Covid-19 crisis provides “a wonderful opportunity to practice Chan.”

“Right now there’s a lot of suffering. So people are basically taken out of their routine. They are unable to do what they usually get to do that makes them happy or less miserable. Everybody creates some kind of forms of comfort, really various forms of you can call them distractions, you can call them supports in different ways, like being able to visit their loved ones, spend time with them, or do things they enjoy, like go to movies, go to restaurants. With all these different things they fill their lives and know their world. So as a Chan practitioner, this is a good opportunity to see how our world and how we feel really is conditioned by being able to do these things. And we see that these things that we’ve been doing are not there permanently; they themselves are conditioned by many causes and conditions. This provides a good opportunity to get an understanding of the most important teaching in Buddhism: That every moment of our existence – of our world – is the coming together of many causes and conditions. And when people see that their world fell apart, then the truth of the matter is revealed that our world is constantly changing and evolving, and we just created this idea that there’s this world that’s mine, that I’ve created, and we work very, very hard to protect it and make it a certain way, and that’s our idea of what’s going on. We don’t see that it is constantly changing because it’s conditioned. But right now, when it’s disrupted in such a spectacular way, then we’re more able to see what’s been happening that’s less visible for us.

“Another thing is to use the practice of Chan meditation to be with suffering. So one of the talks I gave recently was on how to practice to suffer better. So usually all these distractions or the different things we do in our daily life that now many of us cannot do are put together to avoid suffering, to run away from suffering, but the practice of the Bodhisattva – the practice of cultivating compassion – is not to run away from suffering but to be with the suffering. And not to turn away from the great suffering of the world. So first we notice our entrenched habits of wanting to run away from it, to be numb, and notice how that creates more suffering. And to learn to use the practice of allowing that just to be the way it is and see that suffering, too, is conditioned. And the suffering is actually the result of our resisting what’s emerging in the present moment.

“A lot of people in the first couple of weeks of the lock-down said how much they hate it. My college students, that’s the thing they say; they hate it, it’s so boring, and they want their life back. And the people doing that are resisting the present situation, but maybe they are also feeling, ‘I should not feel like this’ when actually that’s the brain’s natural response to acute danger, to a situation you realize can present a lot of danger. So actually it means your brain is working. It’s pumping out stress hormones to make you more alert. So what we interpret as something being wrong is actually perfectly normal. So not resisting all these abrupt changes is the way to suffer better.

“Of course there will be grief also. You’re grieving some lost time with family and things that you were looking forward to. People could not have weddings or couldn’t spend last days with their loved ones in the hospital. There’s real genuine grief. And so to suffer better not to create more suffering. Because very often when we create more suffering for ourselves, we also create more suffering for other people. That is not compassionate. And so the cultivation of clear awareness of our experience of suffering is critically important for us to not generate more suffering.”

Zen Conversations: 55-57; 116-17; 126  

Other Links:


Dharma Drum Retreat Center

Zengetsu Myōkyō Judith McLean

Enpuku-ji is a small Rinzai temple on rue Saint-Dominique in Montreal. It is entered through a small side-garden. The only signage is a notice on the gate post bearing the single word “Zen,” an arrow pointing right, and the street address.

The abbess, Myokyo Judith McLean walks up the street just as I pull into the drive. She unlocks a rear door, and we enter into a single long, narrow, room. The back end is a small kitchen. A table with three wooden chairs is against the wall; this is where we chat. The rest of the room is taken up by the zendo, which currently has two rows of five zafus facing one another.

More than forty years ago, she accompanied a boyfriend to California to attend a sesshin directed by Joshu Sasaki. The boyfriend needed to return to Canada on family business. She stayed. In fact, she remained in the United States illegally for ten years, training under Sasaki Roshi. When he eventually asked her where she wanted her Zen Center to be located, she said Montreal—because it seemed the most interesting place in Canada.

People learn about the temple through word of mouth.  

“When I introduce people to the practice sometimes it’s a knock on the door, but most of the time it’s organized so that people are together in a group, and I begin by asking them why they’ve come. So that kind of flushes out all the possible reasons they might have or all the possible ways in which they think about Zen. And then I speak to each of those things. And I basically say that Zen is a practice; it’s not a lifestyle; it’s not a way of thinking. You don’t need to believe anything when you start Zen practice. It’s a practice. And everyone does the same practice. And through the practice of zazen, peoples’ minds become clearer, and we begin to dissolve the mind that separates us from everything else in this world.

“I think most people come to Zen because they want to make themselves better. So they have a goal in mind. And that goal is usually about becoming a different person, becoming a better person. So I’m pretty clear about slashing that idea to bits.”

The practice, as she describes it, is very simple. “So following the breath but eventually that kind of tightly following the breath disappears. So just very basic zazen, and that’s actually what I’ve done up to this point. Maybe it is shikan taza after a while. You know, just sort of sit.”

She does warn new people, “Anything you’ve read may or may not be something that’s going to happen to you. But mostly what’s going to happen to you is that you’re going to be very uncomfortable sitting in a cross-legged posture, and you’re going to really start thinking a lot about your notions of how life should be and what you should be like and how you are. And so you’ll begin to question all that in the context of quiet sitting in this upright posture that has the potential for making you very present and very ‘in the moment.’ So an experience you’re not having usually. We’re usually way, way far away in our minds.

“I talk about seed thoughts: notions, ideas, feelings, physical sensations, or emotions. As we become conscious of one of these, we decide, first of all, whether we like it or not, or maybe it’s neutral. If we don’t like it, we stuff it back, way down somewhere back and get rid of it. If we like it or it’s just neutral, we just add another thought and that carries on into a story. I reassure everyone that there’s no problem with that. Our minds are creative. The creative process is what our minds are for. The problem is we think that that story is our life. And so in zazen you begin to learn that that’s not correct, that our story is not our life. The effort is to observe what comes up and then to simply let it go away before you even begin to discriminate or make a judgement about that thought, to be so clearly present that you can actually observe what comes up in the mind and then let it go by.

“So people can visualize that or understand the words, but then when they go to do it, it’s absolutely, absolutely difficult. And then, immediately, they’re not present. Right? And so they know that, and I know that, and I say, ‘Then you need to keep going back to the present.’ You need to physically keep placing yourself here. Most of them probably won’t have the . . . the. . . What do you call it? . . . The verve, the desire . . . the tenacity to continue. But, you know, we need to be sparked by something to be tenacious. So I say, ‘Probably most of you won’t have it.’ That’s okay, too. You know?”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 39-45, 47, 48, 49, 51, 54, 56, 66, 67, 108, 286.

The Story of Zen: 289-90, 326

Zen Conversations: 48; 74-75

Other links:

Jan Chozen Bays

The Great Vow Monastery is located in Clatskanie, Oregon, a self-proclaimed Christian township of 1700 persons. It is the residential practice center for the Zen Community of Oregon and is under the leadership of Jan Chozen Bays and her husband, Hogen.

Great Vow is dedicated to Jizo Bodhisattva, the protector of children, which seems appropriate for a monastery headed by a woman who is a pediatrician as well as a Zen teacher. There must be hundreds of Jizo statues throughout the building and in an extensive Jizo Garden, where people have left statues in commemoration of lost, sick, or dead children. They are decorated with scarves and knitted hats; some even have booties.

The monks I met during my visit in 2013 ranged in age from “just turned 20” to a man in his late 50s. The majority are very young. The days start at 4:50 and end after 9:00. There are two two-hour sessions of zazen. The rest of the day is taken up with work assignments and study. But study can take unusual forms. One young woman described a formal orioki breakfast at which a dead bird had been passed around for students to examine. Chozen had found it on the property and later dissected it to determine what caused its death.

She explains that many of the young people who come to the monastery had dropped out of university and were still very ignorant about the nature of the world in which they lived. An introduction to basic biology is provided but also training in fundamental life-skills like sewing and cooking.

And then there is marimba playing and square dancing. This area of Oregon is one where marimbas are made, and, after Chozen learned how to play, she started going to the local schools to teach the children. It was one way to help to overcome the initial community suspicions about a Buddhist center. Square dancing was something Chozen (who was 67 when I met her) and her husband had taken up to help keep in shape. Now all Great Vow monks are required to go square dancing at least once. One shy young  monk admits that acquiring social skills is also a valuable part of what he is learning here.

It is a serious practice center, but the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Chozen smiles easily and is relaxed with her students. She admits she has a mother’s temperament, seeking to ensure that the family all gets along. The Oregon Community does not have an “Ethics Committee” as has been established at many centers, but it does have a “Harmony Committee.”

Besides her work as a teacher and abbot, Chozen still maintains a small medical practice (mostly teaching), consults in child abuse cases, and has become recognized widely as a proponent of mindful eating.

“Is mindful eating a spiritual practice?” I ask.

“Definitely. I mean, spiritual practice is about intimacy, if nothing else. We’re born into separation, and that’s the source of our suffering. This idea of self and other is the source of our suffering, and all of these things that we do—drinking, gambling, pornography—all of the addictive things in our life are based on wanting to get back to Oneness. So we can teach people to be one with what they’re eating. That’s the most intimate thing, where you take another being into your body literally, literally intermingle with your body. So we talk about sex as the ultimate in intimacy, but actually eating is the most intimate thing we do, three, four, five, six times a day. So to be conscious and present to it is a Dharma gate into the experience of Oneness.

“There’s an exercise called ‘Look Deeply into Your Food.’ So if you look into the life of a raisin and play it backwards. I ask people to look at how many peoples’ or beings’ life-energy flowed toward you in this raisin which is in your hand. And I say, ‘Invite those people to the table. Thank them by eating mindfully.’ So here you are at the interface. There’s all of that, and then, within us, there are more living organisms than there are our own cells. So there are others inside us, more DNA from other beings than there are our own cells. So, I help people understand, ‘You’re feeding a universe of beings—not an apartment building, not a city—a universe of beings, 10-to-the-16th beings are being fed by what you eat. So recognize that you’re nourishing them, that you’re giving them a gift.’ So it’s a spiritual practice to help people understand where they are in this continuum of life. Some of them get it, some of them don’t. But for most people, it’s like a big, ‘Ah ha!’”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 111, 117-18, 122, 227, 239, 271-88, 289, 293, 296, 297, 298, 299, 365, 437, 476

The Story of Zen: 271-72, 302, 309, 320, 327, 343-49, 351, 353, 356, 424

Other links:

Zen Community of Oregon

David Weinstein

Koan study is central to the work being carried out at John Tarrant’s Pacific Zen Institute, but when David Weinstein, a supervising teacher at the Institute, first encountered koans, he resisted them.

His Buddhist practice began in Nepal, where – while taking a break from teaching English abroad – he visited the Kopan Monastery outside of Kathmandu for a meditation “course.” “I was surprised that the course was actually a meditation retreat. Where I thought I was going to hear lectures about meditation in a kind of academic way, it was wake up at four in the morning and start meditating and continue meditating until late at night.”

The routine included full-length prostrations. “I didn’t want to do them, but no one said I had to. Just pay attention to what was going on in my experience sitting there not doing them. Eventually one of the Lamas said, ‘Try it out as an experiment. See what happens.’ And I found that it was yet another upaya, another skillful-means, that helped me to just be with my mind. Offering incense, lighting candles, having an altar, all of that arranging of the contingencies of reinforcement around me made lots of sense. I’d been educated as a Skinnerian Behaviorist, and meditation just seemed like, ‘Oh, this is how we take control of the contingencies around us that are impinging on our mind and basically creating unskillful mind habits. And we can change those habits just like we change the behavior of animals running through a maze.’ I asked one of the Lamas if he knew what brainwashing was. And he said, ‘Oh, yes. I read, you know.’ And I said, ‘Well, I feel like I’m brainwashing myself.’ And he said, ‘Very good. Carry on.’”

He stayed at the monastery for three months. “And I loved it. I felt I gained some tools that I could use in life in a very real way.”

Eventually his travels brought him to Hawaii.

“I had the address of Robert Aitken’s Koko An Zendo so I thought I’d check it out. It was a residence near the university, and I went to the front door, which seemed like the thing to do. Knocked on the front door. No one answered, but I looked in through the window, and I could see that the living room was set up like a meditation hall. So I figured you just went in. I opened the front door, which was unlocked, and smashed into John Tarrant, who was walking down the stairs at the time not expecting the door to open, because no one ever opened that door. You went in through the kitchen. That’s how I met John Tarrant.”

David spent three years at Koko An although he didn’t feel he connected very well with Aitken. Then he had an opportunity to go to Japan and study with Aitken’s teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi.

“I’d met him once in Hawaii when he came to give a talk. A group of us went to dinner together before his talk, went to a Chinese restaurant, and sat around a big round table so we could see each other and talk. The waitress came and took our order, and after she took our order there was a little pause, and she said, ‘To drink?’ And there was a kind of a deafening silence, because normally we would all have had a beer or something even though we were going to meditate. But nobody ordered a beer, and the roshi finally broke the silence and said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to have something to drink?’ One of the members of the group said, ‘Well, Roshi, we’re going to meditate after this; we probably shouldn’t drink, should we?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Our minds are always under the influence of one thing or another. Drink, if you want to.’ And everybody sighed and ordered beer, and the waitress came to him. And he looked up at her and said, ‘Tea.’”

At the time, David was uncomfortable with the idea of koan meditation. “But I loved seated meditation. So I’m in Kamakura with Yamada, and he listened to me tell him that I didn’t do koans that I only did shikan taza. I was prepared for him to tell me to leave because what I was basically saying was, ‘I don’t do the practice you do here.’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘Shikan taza is a very difficult practice. Not many people attain realization with shikan taza. Maybe the last person to attain realization with shikan taza was . . . mmm . . . Dogen [1200-53 CE]. But, I want you to attain realization with shikan taza. Please practice diligently.’ Then he asked me this silly question; he said, ‘I have this question to ask you. But I don’t want you to think about it. You know, just forget it.’ And he asked me how to stop the sound of the distant temple bell which I thought was weird. I didn’t know it was a koan.

“It’s hard for me to say I took up the koan. It feels more like I dropped it down or swallowed it or something. Because he gave me the question, then he told me not to think about it, and I wasn’t really tempted to think about it. It didn’t make sense to me. I thought it was weird, and I just said, ‘Okay.’ But my practice changed. It became less rigid. And maybe that was something to do with the koan. It certainly seemed to allow me to be open when he asked me about the question, as he did from time to time. I didn’t feel on the spot or anxious about responding. It was like, ‘No, I have nothing to respond.’ He’d say, ‘Oh? Okay.’”

In this gentle manner, David was introduced to koan work.

Other links:

Oakland Zen

Weinstein at Rockridge Meditation Center

John Tarrant

One of the Zen teachers I was most eager to meet when I undertook my pilgrimage was John Tarrant.

I had been taking a medication for osteoporosis – Fosamax – which had this peculiar side effect: it resulted in spontaneous femur breaks. One didn’t fall and break one’s leg; one’s leg broke and then one fell. In my case, it took 25 months and three surgeries—each to implant a stronger bar down the middle of the bone—before the leg was finally declared healed. The book I took with me to the hospital for the first surgery was one that had been sitting on my shelf for some time but I hadn’t got around to reading, Tarrant’s The Light Inside the Dark. When, at last, I did open it, I enjoyed it so much that I brought it with me for the next two surgeries as well.

It is a study of the interplay of Spirit and Soul in human life. Spirit, in Tarrant’s terminology, is what connects us to the Source from which all of Being comes—call it the Void, Dao, or God. Soul is what links us to and relishes the world of time and the particulars of both enjoyment and the inevitability of suffering. It is a distinction I first encountered many years earlier in Lin Yutang’s translation of the opening poem of what I still think of as the Tao Te Ching:

Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion

In order to see the Secret of Life;

Oftentimes, one regards with passion,

In order to see its manifest forms.

Zen is generally considered a spiritual activity, but Tarrant stresses the importance of both Spirit and Soul. Spirit without Soul can become cold, ascetic, and subject to that sudden upsurge of the denied elements which Jung called the Shadow. That, in turn, can result in “a fall into appetites swollen because so long suppressed—this is why we find scandals in the lives of so many religious figures.” [The Light Inside the Dark, p. 19] Conversely, Soul without Spirit may become base and prone to despair.

It was as much the book’s style as its content that made it a satisfying recovery room companion. The author was obviously intelligent and well-read and had a poet’s facility with language and imagery which made it enjoyable to read his work slowly. As I prepared for my trip to the west coast, I brought along my copy in the hope of having it autographed.

Some writers, when met, prove be very different from their literary personas. John Tarrant, however, turns out to be much as I had imagined he would be. He’s Australian—his ancestors “transported in chains to the desolation of Botany Bay”—and his accent would cause me occasional difficulty when I worked on the transcript of the interview although it was a pleasure at the time. There was the same irreverent sense of humor I found in the book. He grinned mischievously throughout the interview, and his frequent chuckles easily burst into a chest-heaving belly laugh.

He is the first of Robert Aitken’s heirs, which places him very early in the process of the transference of Zen to the West.

After he was authorized to teach, he established a zendo in California which, at first, he ran fairly traditionally. But over time he began to wonder how many of the Japanese elements were really central to the practice. Did it matter if people wore Buddhist robes? Did it matter if they had shaved heads? Slowly the forms began to fall away; what remained central, however, were the koans. These formed, he felt, a “designed learning system” which transcended the culture in which they had been developed.

He worked with students who wanted to go through traditional koan training, but he felt it was more interesting to work in less formal structures. A student who comes to his Pacific Zen Institute may not necessarily be taught formal meditation posture and sitting. They can sit in chairs and then, even at their first meeting, after a few minutes of becoming aware of what’s going on their mind, be given a koan to think about. It could be any koan—a monk asks the Zen master, what’s the meaning of Zen? The master answers, “The cypress tree in the garden.”  Tarrant asks the students to just reflect on the koan and then to share, in a group setting, what it means to them.

I remark that that is very different from other centers where students are specifically told not to discuss their koans with others. “Oh, they lie about it then do they?” he says with a grin. “We’re Americans; we discuss everything. Of course we’re going to discuss our koans.”

He did autograph the copy of The Light in the Dark I’d brought and, as a parting gift, gave me several cards with art work by students on one side and commentaries written by him on the back: “OK. Here is one koan method for happiness in all its simplicity. Just find a relationship with the koan. You don’t have to get ready or settle yourself down. You just start living inside your own life and let the koan keep you company like a good dog or a friend. The koan doesn’t go anywhere else or ever leave you . . . You can keep company with a koan without assessing, criticizing or judging yourself. The koan doesn’t find fault. And even if you do criticize yourself, don’t criticize that. Compassion finds an entry. This is important.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp: 146, 155-72, 173-74, 175, 178-79, 182, 184, 191, 196, 197, 198, 212, 213, 231, 390, 417-18, 423, 468, 487.

The Story of Zen: 196

Zen Conversations: 86-87

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Pacific Zen Institute


Sojun Mel Weitsman

During my meeting with the abbots at the San Francisco Zen Center, all three were wearing rakusus – the bib-like garment which represents the Buddha’s patch-work robe.  Steve Stücky wore his over the traditional brown robes of a monk, Blanche Hartman over black, and Mel Weitsman wore his under a worn jean jacket.

None of them were Suzuki Roshi’s direct heir. Suzuki had only one, Richard Baker. In 1971, Baker was ordained abbot in place of Suzuki, who was terminally ill and died two weeks later. It was a position everyone—including Suzuki—assumed Baker would hold for life. Everyone was wrong.

When Baker first came to Zen Center, it had had an annual budget of slightly more than $5000. Under his leadership, it grew to more than $4 million. Zen Center real estate holdings were valued at $20 million. They operated a number of businesses including an organic farm (Green Gulch) and what became the premier vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco (Greens). There was also a bakery, a stitchery—which made meditation cushions and mats—a bookstore, and an organic-produce market and corner convenience store.

Such growth is always the result of the combined efforts of many individuals, but Baker had a way of taking personal credit for each aspect of Zen Center’s success that left others feeling their contributions were undervalued. That would turn out to be as much a factor in his eventual downfall as the sexual affair with a donor’s wife which precipitated it.

Although Baker was married and had children, the affair was not his first. Several women at Zen Center had been the objects of his attention, and it was noted that he appeared to target the more vulnerable women in the community.

The affair, his management style, and the opulent lifestyle he affected as abbot all led the center’s board in 1983 to take a step unprecedented in the history of Zen. They dismissed the abbot and appointed Reb Anderson, Baker’s heir, as the new “abbot for life.” But then Anderson was arrested for waving a gun about in a low-income housing project. He had been mugged by a man with a knife just outside Zen Center, and his response was to fetch a gun and chase after the thief.

The board chose not to dismiss Anderson, but they did institute terms limits to the abbot’s position and brought in Mel Weitsman to act as co-abbot. It could be argued that Mel Weitsman saved Zen Center from falling apart.

“How did you become involved with the Center,” I ask him.

“I was an artist and working in San Francisco, so I had a lot of friends, and some of them said, ‘You know, there’s a Zen temple on Bush Street.’ One guy would go there to play Go, and someone else said, ‘I practice there, you know. There’s a little Zen priest there.’ I didn’t know what a Zen priest was, but this fellow told me, ‘There’s a little Zen priest, and I practice there. We sit zazen.’ So, little by little, you know, I got information. And one day, about 4:00 in the morning, we walked down McAllister Street to Bush Street and went to zazen. And that was my introduction.”

“What year was that?”

“1964. And then the little old man came behind me and straightened my posture, and I felt really great. So every once in a while I would go back, and one day I just decided, this is it. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for, because I was looking for something, but I didn’t know that it was Zen. But it was perfect. It was like here I was sitting all by myself in this position, and there’s something about it that was just . . . .” 

“But when you left,” Hartman reminds him, “you went and bowed to that little old man, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes. That was Suzuki Roshi. He was called Revered Suzuki then; he wasn’t called Suzuki Roshi. So he was just another priest. But I liked him. But I didn’t know who he was, what he was really about. So, as I kept going back, I decided that this was what I really wanted to do. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

“What was he like?” I ask.

Mel considers my question a moment, then tells me a story. “Every morning we’d do the robe chant, where you put your robe on top of your head after zazen; of course nobody had robes then,” he  chuckles, “and it was all in Japanese. So I asked, ‘What’s that chant we do in the morning after zazen?’ And another Japanese priest was there, and he was looking through the drawers for a translation and Suzuki Roshi” – Mel makes a patting motion with his hand – “‘Stop,’ he said. ‘It means love.’” Mel smiles. “‘It means love.’  That’s all.”

At Suzuki’s request, Mel established the Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. It is the largest of SFZC’s satellite centers and is the center at which Blanche Hartman began her practice in 1969.

Sojun Mel Weitsman died on January 7, 2021.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 24-28, 39, 468

The Story of Zen: 319, 352-53

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Zenkei Blanche Hartman

               This is the story Blanche Hartman told me about how she first became engaged in Zen practice: “One day in 1969 I was at the house of my best friend, and we were just having coffee. She had a headache, and it was so bad she asked me, ‘Could you see that?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That headache.’ I said, ‘I can’t see your headache.’ She said, ‘It was so bad, I thought you could see it.’ The next morning, she went to a doctor and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She went into a hospital for radiation treatment, went into a coma, and died. That was all within two or three weeks.

                I was 43, and she was about my age. We both had kids about the same age. And I thought, ‘I’m going to die! Me, personally. It’s not just later, when you get old. Oh, my God! How do you live if you know you’re going to die? Who knows that?’ So I started getting interested in a whole bunch of stuff I had never paid any attention to. Somebody told me about the Berkeley Zendo, and I went there for zazen instruction on July 3rd, 1969, and I started sitting every day after that. And I would sit there thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t know anybody else who does this. This is weird. What will my friends think?’ Finally I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. There’s somebody in there that wants to do it because she gets up at 5:00 every morning to go to the zendo to do it before she goes to work.’

                Then Suzuki Roshi used to come over to Berkeley to give a talk on Monday mornings, and when I met him, I thought, ‘He knows. He knows what I need to know.’

                Shunryu Suzuki was the Japanese monk who established SFZC. He had been an obscure village priest in Japan with no particular stature within the Soto hierarchy, but, in 1959, he was sent to San Francisco to be the resident minister at Sokoji, the Soto mission which provided for the spiritual and cultural needs of about sixty families of Japanese descent. His duties were much as they had been in Japan, to carry out ritual activities, weddings, funerals, and memorial services. He was expected to chant sutras on behalf of the community and to conduct a weekly Sunday service. Zen might be the meditation sect of Buddhism, but, as far as Suzuki’s congregations in Japan and California were concerned, meditation was an activity for monks.

                It was young people from the mainstream culture who—inspired by a combination of psychedelic drugs and their reading of Zen popularisers like Alan Watts—first sought out Suzuki as a Zen Master and meditation teacher. Traditional Zen training molds men of strong character, and so while Suzuki had been a relatively ordinary figure in Japan, he proved to be extraordinary figure in America. “‘He knows. He knows what I need to know,’” Blanche continues, her voice almost a whisper. “I don’t know why I felt that, but I definitely felt it. And that was a total gift for that question that had come up for me when Pat died.

                And I had had an experience at a student strike at San Francisco State College when my son was a student. I had an experience of a face-to-face encounter with a riot squad policeman, who I would have said—had anybody asked me—was the opposite of me, but I had an experience of identity. We were this close together, and we made eye contact, and I had this experience of identity with him. And it was sort of like, ‘What was that? Who understands that? What happened? And how can a riot squad policeman and me be identical?’ But it was clear, no question about this is the way it is. It was just, ‘How can I understand this? Who understands this?’ And I thought, Suzuki Roshi looked at me like that. He didn’t make a separation.

                The day I had lunch with Blanche and the other two abbots at SFZC, the atmosphere at the center seemed friendly and inviting. Several times people would come up to me and ask if I was enjoying my visit. This hadn’t always been the case however. Steve Stücky described hitch-hiking across the country to visit the center the first time. “I came to the door, knocked on it. Someone opened it a crack. ‘Whadda you want?’ And I said, I came here to practice Zen. And they said, ‘Well, did you make some arrangements?’ And I said, ‘No, I just came across the country here,’ and they said, ‘Wait a minute.’ And they closed the door!”

                Blanche, who eventually became the first woman to serve as abbot at SFZC, lowered her head between her hands and shook it. That’s what it was often like in the early days, she admits, “My entire focus when I was abbess was to get people to smile at whoever they opened the door to.”

                It was not a trivial thing. The first Zen centers in America were often austere and were all, without exception, male dominated. The rise of women to positions of authority within American Zen is one of the most significant factors in making it what it is today.

                Blanche Hartman died in 2016 at the age of 90.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 24-35, 323

The Story of Zen: 358, 371

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