Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

The head of the Mountains and Rivers Order – and the man who succeeded Ryushin Marchaj as abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery – is Geoffry Shugen Arnold. They are both Dharma heirs of the founder of the Order, John Daido Loori.

“I wasn’t raised in a religious home,” Shugen tells me, “but, when I was in high school, I began to read and to think about things and to wonder about my life and the world, and if anybody knew what was going on.”

“What prompted the wondering?” I ask.

“In retrospect, I can look back and there weren’t any decisive moments. It was just part of my evolution, growing up and being involved in a social scene that became more and more meaningless and not very satisfying. And I had always had an inclination toward solitude, and I did a lot of outdoors work – canoeing, camping, bicycle riding. And as a young man, I realized I was going to be making choices that would determine the course of my life, and I didn’t see a lot around me that was inspiring. I didn’t feel called to make money or have a particular career or have a family. It was easier for me to think about what I didn’t want to do than it was to think about what I wanted to do. So I started going to churches to see if there was anything going on there that I might be inspired by, and that didn’t really yield much.”

Eventually he came across the few books available at the time on Buddhism. “They weren’t based on a belief in God. They really weren’t based on any beliefs that stopped me, which was usually what happened when I explored other traditions; there would be something that didn’t make sense to me, that I didn’t resonate with, but I didn’t have that experience with Buddhism. It was allvery positive and compelling. I felt like I was encountering a way of seeing the world that I certainly didn’t understand but that on some deep level I trusted and believed was true.”

He taught himself to meditate by following the instructions in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen while he was in college, where he was studying music and mathematics.  Afterward graduation, he  gave some thought to pursuing a career as a classical performer. “But I decided that it wasn’t a very good way of spending a life. It wasn’t what my life needed to be.”

In 1984 he was living in New York state not too far from Zen Mountain Monastery. “I was about an hour away  and started coming every week to hear Daido Roshi give talks. And I became a student so I could begin training with him and then in early 1986 I moved into residency. At that point I felt pretty clear that I wanted to be a monk.” He chuckles. “But of course, what did I know?”

I ask if he remembered his first meeting with Daido.

“Yeah, well my meeting first with him was just him sitting in the zendo and giving teisho. You know, for ten years Buddhism was a very solitary – and, in a sense, a very small – experience. It was just me. I knew Buddhism was a major world religion, but I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t really interested in religion; I didn’t think that way. I didn’t really want to join a group; that wasn’t my kind of thing. Even talks about spirituality made my skin crawl a little bit. But I felt very connected to him right away. He was American; he spoke my language. He was very powerful; he seemed to know my mind. He talked about things I had been feeling for so long. I had almost never dreamt that I would be able to encounter something that would speak more directly to that and offer a path. So it was really an overwhelming experience, and I didn’t want to leave. Which started a sort of internal conflict because I thought, ‘What do you mean, you don’t want to leave? You’ve got a life to live. And you don’t join things. Remember?’  But I just felt called to him, to study, to the monastery.”

But he didn’t enter immediately. Instead he went back to school to work on a master’s degree in mathematics.

“And pretty much as soon as I began that, I knew that it wasn’t going to work. And so, externally, my life was – from the outside to an observer – would look like a normal progression for a person my age at that time. I was sort of moving into some kind of career. Internally, I was coming apart. I was in immense internal confusion and turmoil. But it wasn’t like I could point to anything. Nothing was wrong. But nothing was quite right either. So it was really out of that almost volcanic stirring that I . . .” He pauses. “I remember exactly where I was. I was coming back from classes, and I was walking down the street, and I was just stewing this. And I realized that I wanted to be a monk. That was what I wanted my life to be. So I came to speak to Daido Roshi about it, and he was very encouraging” He smiles, then adds with a laugh, “The head monk at that time was also there, and she didn’t take me very seriously.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 262, 266

The Story of Zen: 357-58

Zen Conversations: Pp. 71; 101-02.

Other links:

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj

When I visited Zen Mountain Monastery in June 2013, the abbot at the time – Konrad Ryushin Marchaj – was leading a wilderness retreat listed in the program calendar as “Born As the Earth: Wilderness Skills Training.” It was described as an opportunity to learn “basic outdoor skills and engage the teachings of the wild in the context of Zen training.” Wilderness camping and zazen. Torrential rains had been falling for several days before my arrival, and, when Ryushin came in for our interview, he was soaking wet. As he dried his face with a towel, I asked how the retreat was going. “They are learning about desire,” he tells me. “The desire to be dry; the desire for a nice hot cup of tea.”

He was born in Warsaw and came to the US with his parents at the age of 13. He still has a slight Polish accent which gives his words a sense of gravity. He was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, careers he gave up in order to become a monk. He admits that his mother had difficulty when his life changed directions. “I went from being ‘my son the doctor’ to being ‘my son the monk.’ It was not easy for her.”

I ask what drew him to the practice of Zen, and, without hesitation, he replies: “My own pain. Although my life was a success on the surface, I was not a happy human being. I was anxious, dissatisfied.” His girlfriend of the time introduced him to Vipassana meditation, and immediately he recognized that meditation provided something which addressed the issues he was struggling with more effectively than did therapy. As befits a person with psychiatric training, he is articulate and detailed in his description of his growing involvement with Zen and monastic life.

Not long after my visit, however, Ryushin will be asked to step down as abbot of ZMM. By his own admission, he had been engaged in “an intimate relationship with someone outside our sangha” thus betraying his partner, “breaking our spiritual union vows and ending our marriage.” He is not the only Zen teacher to have a messy personal life. The history of North American Zen is rife with stories of teachers who had to either resign or make reparations to their sanghas because of their sexual activity.

Ryushin also admitted that he had been exploring “shamanic traditions and religions” and that his inclusion of elements of these in his presentation of the Dharma “was irresponsible and might have caused some confusion.” I suspect that had at least as much to do with his resignation as the affair. Still, during my brief time with him, I found him insightful and witty.

“Zen, as such, has no function,” he tells me. “It is only to the degree to which a person engaging in the practice considers that question that it becomes an issue. To ask, ‘What is the function of Zen?’ it would be as if Zen had some sort of an intention within it. And that intention would then mean that there would be something intrinsically identifiable within Zen that could actually direct itself in some particular way. And that’s impossible. That’s impossible to even imagine especially in a tradition which states that there’s absolutely nothing intrinsic anywhere. So, I am not sure if there is a function of Zen. I think that to the degree that each human being—each person—engages Buddhist or Zen Buddhist practice that intention will then emerge to the degree to which they can clarify what it is that they, each individual as an individual, want to do with their life. So, I don’t think I could even take on that question on that level. I would need to reframe it in a very personal way; simply ask the question, ‘What is my intention in practicing Zen? And how my intention as a human being is affected by the teachings embedded in Zen Buddhism.’ And then something will start becoming clarified. Because if there is an intention in Zen, then we have already turned Buddhism into a dogmatic tradition. Which it can be.”

But – it is implied – should not.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 14, 258, 262. 268

The Story of Zen: 336

Other links:

Joan Sutherland

In the Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum as passed down through Robert Aitken and his heirs, when one resolves a particular koan, one may be given examples of responses given by one’s ancestors in the lineage. One of my ancestors – although she is actually younger than I – is Joan Sutherland.

Joan is Dharma teacher, but she doesn’t consider herself a Buddhist. When I ask her why, she tells me: “Well, first of all, it’s such a big word, covering so much territory, that it’s almost meaningless. There are so many expressions of Buddhism. So it’s a term that people bring their own preconceptions to that may or may not fit. But mostly I think it’s about not being an institutionalist and being more on the mystic end of things. So in the same way that Sufism kind of floats free of Islam, although it comes from Islam, I think in some ways Zen floats free from Buddhism although it comes from it and shares much with it.”

She has retired since I visited her in Santa Fe six years ago, but she continues to write and to work with her Dharma heirs. One subject she is currently exploring is “how to bring the richness of this tradition and the unique ways we think about things” to bear on the “the political situation and the cultural situation in United States and the climate emergency.”

She believes that Zen practice – in particular, koan work – has the capacity to help both Buddhists and non-Buddhists respond more effectively to contemporary circumstances.

“It’s about how you approach things, and we can put it under the over-arching title of something like ‘not-knowing mind’ or ‘beginner’s mind.’ The philosopher, Richard Rorty, made a wonderful distinction between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism. He said that fundamentalisms are religions or belief systems which base everything ‘according to.’ According to the book, according to the guide, according to the teachings. And non-fundamentalisms base everything on ‘searching for.’ So in an ‘according to’ system, you already know what’s true, and you’re trying to make the world conform to that. In the ‘searching for’ system you’re endlessly alive to what’s possible and how things change and how you can flow with that. Things are always changing. So we approach things not with the understanding that we’re certain about them going in, but we come with a question. What is this? The basic koan question: What is this? And if we are really alive to the answers that come when we ask, ‘What is this?’ you end up with a completely different relationship to the situation. First of all, you’re acknowledging that you’re a participant and that you are willing to have your mind changed, willing to learn things. Even the things you hold most preciously, you hold provisionally, and you’re open to new information coming in. Which is, of course, fundamental Mahayanaism and acknowledgement of the other. And in the koan tradition, it is a desire, a delight in the other, what the other might say, how the other might surprise you. So that’s a different kind of orientation. We used to talk about it my community in Santa Fe as having an attitude of warmth and curiosity. Curiosity towards things. Doing a lot of listening. Not trying to arrive at a predetermined outcome, but looking for what outcome arises out of the situation when you let it. After all, you can never know what the right thing is. In the dominant culture in America, there’s such an emphasis on certainty and getting it right and figuring out what the steps are. But you can never get anything ‘right,’ because you don’t know what ‘right’ means. We don’t know the karmic consequences of everything that happens. So it seems like a foolish pursuit to look for what’s ‘right.’ Instead, I encourage people to look for, ‘What is the most beautiful mistake you can make in this situation?’ If everything you’re going to do is going to be a mistake in some way – which it will, because we can’t possibly imagine out all the consequences – what is the most beautiful mistake you can make? What’s the mistake you care most about and would like to try? And this changes your whole orientation from trying to bend reality to your belief system to really trying to see which way the Dao is going, see what’s possible in this situation. Every situation is unprecedented, so what is this situation calling for?”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 146, 173-89, 191, 192, 213, 231

The Story of Zen: 302, 358

Zen Conversations: 41-42; 49-50; 84-85; 110-11; 128-32; 161-62

Other Links:

Joan Sutherland Dharma Works

My 2013 Profile of Joan Sutherland

Seiho Morris

Seiho Morris is an ordained Rinzai priest who was working in an addiction treatment center when I interviewed him in 2018. At the time, he was preparing to lead a retreat in Cincinnati for people engaged in 12 Step programs. I assume the retreat was related to his work at the treatment center, but he tells me it isn’t.

“No, this is Zen. Because the way I intersect with people in my day-to-day Zen practice as a monk is it’s always meeting people where they’re at. And so one of the things I’m experimenting with is not necessarily focusing on practice in a particular place, a temple.

“When I became ordained, I had this vision of what my practice would look like. Which is you marry, you bury, hospice, that kind of thing. Like monks, priests, yogis are like part of a mental health system – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual system – to help individuals who come to them. So that’s how I envisioned it. But what emerged – and it happened after the Trump election – was Zen Buddhism and people of color. And that surprised me. And actually that’s been quite challenging for me because when you get into person of color issues, racism, social justice, equity, that’s the stuff people don’t want to do. It’s not the pretty side of Zen or Buddhism as a whole. There’s not very many African American practitioners out there, much less ordained.

“So it was really strange being confronted with this. I haven’t really had to deal with these issues so directly. You know? But what happened was there’s this thing in Seattle called Festival Sundiata, which is an African American cultural festival, but everyone can attend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person of color, black, Hispanic, white, whatever. And I led two days of practice just around POC issues. And it was challenging because I hadn’t actively practiced with this issue in this way. ’Cause, honestly, I’m usually around people who are white or Asian. Because it’s Zen. So I don’t encounter a lot of African American people. I know that might sound strange, but it’s true. At any rate, I was sitting there and attempting to learn more about this deeply. And one of the things I recognized that had never occurred to me is that if you’re under a lot of pressure culturally, like the way American society is set up essentially it’s a white, western kind of culture, and you’re the minority of that culture, there’s a lot of pressure. And I was sitting in a group at one of these Person of Color events, and I listened to all these people, not just African Americans. There were indigenous tribal people, people who were Asian, and what I heard in their story is there’s a lot of mental health issues, anxieties, stress, depression – just profoundly so – that interferes with their inward stability, their inward harmony, and so I began practicing with people based on that. The first noble truth – which is dukkha – life, ego is the part of the wheel that’s out of balance. So working on concentration, presence, and mindfulness, and different Buddhist practices from the Eightfold Path, to help them to find an inward stability. When you’re like in a boat on the ocean how to essentially not capsize when the water’s choppy. And Zen is good for that. Buddhism is good for that. How to not run away from your outward circumstances, but how do you turn into it and meet the moment with equanimity, harmony, and a sense of presence?”

Those same qualities are what makes Zen practice valuable to people recovering from addiction. They were what brought Seiho to practice. He was 52 when I interviewed him, and he told me he’d been in recovery since he was 21.

“Does one ever come a point where one can say, ‘I’ve recovered’?” I ask.

“No, it’s very much like having diabetes. I’m not recovered. There’s always more healing, there’s always more integration to do.”

For Seiho, the 12-Steps are “the perfect Zen deal. Which is, we admit that we’re powerless over ego, self-rejecting thought, and, when we follow those thoughts, our life becomes unmanageable. Step two is – the way it’s actually worded is – ‘we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ I’ve reframed that for myself as, ‘It’s the power of love, which is greater than ego, which allows us to be restored to – as Trungpa Rinpoche says – “basic sanity” or “basic soundness of mind.”’ And then step three, is to make a decision to turn our will or life over to God – I say ‘the care of love’ – as I understand it in this moment. So, for me, that is Zen.”

The Story of Zen: 395-400, 425

Zen Conversations: 135-37

Other Links:

James Ford

James Ford founded the Boundless Way Zen centers in New England and later established the Blue Cliff Zen Sangha in California. He was also, until his retirement shortly after I met him, a Unitarian minister. We first met in his office at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island – located on the corner of Benefit and Benevolent Streets – and discussed the various scandals that were challenging Zen’s credibility at the time. In a wistful tone, he remarked, “I fear there’s a real good chance that we’ll simply attenuate into . . . and—you know—we’ll simply be a historical blip.”

It was a remark that stayed with me for a long while.

Five years after he expressed that concern, he was slightly more optimistic than he had been. “There will be – without a doubt – the great die-off,” he tells me. “The sheer number of boomers interested in and active in Zen – you know, actually giving our lives to it – is coming to an end. And there was a period where it looked like it just wasn’t going to continue. But now what I believe is going to happen – my prediction – is there will be a major shrinkage. I suspect Zen twenty years from now will probably be half to a third the size that it currently is. But the difference is that these will be much better trained people.”

James points out that what draws new students to Zen is often very different from what had drawn their predecessors. “I think they’re most commonly looking for relaxation. I think the mindfulness/relaxation thing has been a tsunami which has changed many things and who comes. There’s always a little bit of a thread because of the koan, because we emphasize the koans, and koans are aligned with awakening experiences. So there’s the occasional person looking for awakening, but mostly people are not coming for that.”

“Do people still achieve awakening?” I ask.          

“Well, koan people do. But it is a more mature approach. I think there are fewer people who are in the kensho-factory kind of mode. You see that with some of the Sanbo Zen people, but even there it’s shifted. It’s a life-practice; it’s not about a momentary experience so much – although the momentary experiences are important – but they are more healthily contextualized, I think.”

“So, if they’re coming for mindfulness or relaxation, why come to a Zen Center rather than doing a Vipassana retreat or taking up yoga or Tai Chi? What is it that draws them to Zen?”

“I think that for many of them, they don’t realize there’s a difference. So it’s a little bait-and-switch. ‘Sure! We’ll help you with mindfulness.’ And others – an interesting sub-set – are people who’ve done mindfulness training and think it’s too attenuated . . .”

“Too shallow?”

“Well, I think . . . well, yeah, I think it often is shallow. It often is. I want to hesitate because I think the mindfulness community can lead to depth, but it usually doesn’t. I mean, if you’re looking for relaxation, you’ll find relaxation. And some people intuit that there’s more to be had, and they drift over to the Zen community, and the next thing they know they’re being encouraged to do retreats.”

And, at retreats, they’re introduced to koan work.

“So koans are a thing that distinguish some Zen teachers from other spiritual traditions,” I say. “What about Soto? Koans aren’t so central to that tradition. Is there anything that distinguishes Soto Zen from the other meditation offerings out there?”

“I think there will be many Soto people for whom there is very little distinction, except their saving grace (in some ways) is also a deep problem with their structure – our structure – with the emphasis on monastic training and the expectation of extensive meditation retreats. The ango, the ninety day retreat. There’s a pretty hard requirement that there be some experience of that in the normative training of a North American Soto priest.

“I think our generation, the boomers, were ‘seekers’ in a sense that the Gen-X were not. Although I have this kind of fascination with the Millennials, because they appear to have a seeker element as well, although it’s somewhat different, and they have different access. When you and I were looking for Zen teachers, we had Three Pillars of Zen and – what? – five teachers on the continent? I mean, it was really hard. And Japan, you know, wasn’t anything. But I know at least five Millennials who they graduated college and they went to Japan. You know, they spend three, four, five years, and come back ordained Soto Zen priests. In fact, it’s kind of ironic; the Millennials tend to be more conservative around their spiritual stuff – not socially but religiously – than we were. Of course, we were mitigated by a lot of drugs and that kind of thing. They are really true believers, and that can be rather graceful and beautiful and totally authentic.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 27, 138, 191-205, 208, 210, 211-13, 220, 221, 222, 224, 228-29, 230, 251, 271, 322-23, 324, 417, 418, 468

The Story of Zen: 338-39, 371-73, 379, 382, 389-90, 391, 392

Other links:

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff is concerned that Zen in the west is too often presented from the perspective of white boomer males. Currently she is board president of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association – the youngest person to ever hold that office – and is engaged, she tells me, in leading the association through “a generational shift.”

I am a white boomer male.

She wears traditional Buddhist robes and shaves her head. I ask her how important these choices are. “I think it’s important for us to be recognized as monks. I know that a lot of Westerners choose not to keep their head shaved, choose not to wear identifiable clothing, but I made a decision when I was a novice to dress like my teacher and not to let my personal choice come into it. I thought I would see what would happen when I was no longer a novice. What I found is it makes me identifiable as a source of help. People recognize that on the street. I do get questions. People approach me. I don’t mind. In the airport I sit next to somebody who needs to tell their story or ask questions. When people need help, they know to come to me, and that’s what I’m here for. On the flip side of that, I can’t turn it off. I see that as my vow, that we are in this for a lifetime. I don’t want to be a part-time monk. I can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like being a monk today. I’m going to wear lay clothes and a baseball cap.’ That can feel really tempting, and it’s certainly a relief when it happens, like when I’m exercising. I don’t wear robes then, and people don’t recognize me, which can feel freeing. But I don’t think being a monk is something we should turn off, because the vows that we take . . . they’re very heavy, and they require a lot of responsibility. Being visible as a monk holds us to those vows and that level of responsibility. It asks something more of us.”

“The foreignness of it, the fact that it’s Japanese, is that ever a problem?”

“It could be, but I don’t allow it to be. I have an open question policy that acknowledges, ‘Hey, I look different.’ And anyone is welcome to ask me things. If the question is inappropriate, I just tell them, ‘That’s an inappropriate question.’ But 99.9% of the questions do not come from a mean place. People want to connect. At the hospital, as a chaplain, we come from different faith traditions, but we’re trained to be available to the patients according to their spiritual practice, not ours. I learned that I have one chance for that first connection with them, and that’s the moment I walk through their door. Maybe that won’t be the only chance, but that’s the most valuable one. I’ve learned not to waste my time worrying about how I look but to walk through the door and immediately meet the Buddha in front of me. I’ve had very few people reject my help because of the way I look. That’s the same attitude I take out in the world. It’s our job as priests to be available, to not accept people’s projections, and to just genuinely connect.”

At her zendo, she maintains the Soto forms as she had been taught them but notes, “I’m probably not as strict as my teacher, especially with beginners. I try to adapt to the situation. In my zendo, we keep the forms, but when I go out and teach somewhere else, I’m a little lighter on them. When people come to my zendo, they know what to do. I try not to get rigid about it, and I don’t scold laypeople for not keeping the forms properly. I don’t believe in that.”

The forms, after all, are only useful if they help the practice. In the end, what’s important is that the people who come “feel at home in the world, and that they feel connection and love for the people and the world around them in a way that is genuine and real.”

Another concern is that Zen be socially relevant. So it was that on June 4 (2020) – in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others – Tenku and other SZBA board members issued a Call to Action on Systemic Racism, challenging all Soto centers “to dig deeply into our own roles in institutionalized and systemic racism and engage in the following actions:”

  • Center voices of color and their needs in our Zen communities. Without conscious centering, these voices and needs can get lost in our predominantly white-dominant spaces.
  • Reach out to your members of color and offer emotional, spiritual, and practical support. 
  • Commit to 49 days of meditation, ritual, and mourning for George Floyd and for all who suffer from systemic racism and other forms of injustice.
  • For these 49 days begin your services with the SZBA’s “Statement of Recognition and Repentance.” Include the statement in your monthly Full Moon Ceremony. 
  • Commit to amplifying the voices of Buddhists of Color, especially Black Buddhists, and their teachings. 
  • Speak directly about anti-racism with your Zen communities, through Dharma talks, workshops, and community discussions. Ask for feedback to make sure your message and actions strike the right note for people of color.
  • Engage your community members to make actionable plans for stepping up and speaking out, honoring Right Action and Right Speech. Create community accountability for these plans.
  • Listen deeply. Allow space, voice, and permission for anger and rage without judgment, guilt, or pressure to bypass these emotions. 
  • Reach out to Black clergy and Black social justice organizations in your community and offer your support. 
  • Have your communities commit to a series of brave, fierce conversations on race, privilege, and bias.
  • Vow to hold ourselves, and our leaders, accountable.

The Story of Zen: 401-05, 435

Other Links:

Soto Zen Buddhist Association

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