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

David Yoshin Radin

As with  Mitra Bishop’s Mountain Gate in New Mexico, there is no signage identifying the Zen Center located on the Lieb Road in Spencer, New York, south of Ithaca. One has to know that mailbox 56 marks the drive. A gravel road leads to an area with a cluster of small cabins on one side and, on the other, a large pond with several small wooden bridges leading to islands just large enough for a chair or two. A smaller koi pond is in front of the dining room, and there is a third pond behind the site, with a dam which keeps the roped off swimming area from silting up. It is a quiet place; the calls of frogs and birds are clear in the air.

Still, people find their way here. In fact, the cabins were full the weekend of my visit because it happened to be graduation at Cornell University, and all local accommodations—including the Zen Center—were booked.

I had interviewed David Radin—Yoshin—by Skype in January 2014, but, when I happened to be in New York state a few months later, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the site and meet him in person. I also curious to meet his wife, Marcia—or Khadija—who is both a nun in the Rinzai-ji lineage and a Sufi Sheikha. “I see Zen and Sufism as the same thing,” she tells me.

At the back of the property is a small zendo set up with a tea area on one side of a set of shoji screens then three rows of tans with seating for 15. When the shoji screens come down, three more places can be added to each row.

The dormitories and cabins on the site, however, are not so much for the benefit of the Zen practitioners as they are for the summer Body Mind Restoration Retreats which Khadija developed. These are also the primary income generator; they, in effect support the Zen program. The retreats—raw vegan food only—may have sixty or more attendees. In addition to the participants, there is a staff of 17 to look after maintaining gardens, housekeeping, etc., who are also able to participate to an extent in the retreats. Tent platforms are scattered throughout the site to provide more space for people.

Khadija had been a teacher of Sufism before becoming involved with Zen. She attended her first sesshin with Joshu Sasaki because he was David’s teacher. “Roshi always acknowledged that I was a Sufi teacher, and trained me differently than he trained his other students. When roshi ordained me as a nun, I asked, ‘Roshi, what’s incumbent upon me becoming a nun?’ And he looked and me and said, ‘For you, absolutely nothing.’ And I said, ‘Oh! I’m a Nun of the Above!’ And then David said, ‘And I’m finally second to Nun.’”

Joshu Sasaki’s reputation was tainted during the last years of his life after it had been revealed that he had behaved inappropriately with female students during private interviews. Yoshin, however, remains loyal to his memory. He edited a book which celebrated Sasaki’s one hundredth year. He named his first child, a daughter, “Joshi” after him. “Roshi was able to transmit the highest wisdom,” Yoshin tells me. I ask how he did that. “First there was a sense that he was residing in a different residence than I was residing . . . I am an individual seeking the higher wisdom. He seemed to be radiating from the higher wisdom . . . He could, through koan training and just his own presence, he could evoke that experience within me.”

Yoshin’s personal story is interesting. He grew up in New York, the son of a rabbi, and attended Jewish Parochial School. “It kept me out of bars and brothels.” After graduating high school, he went on a trip around the world, and in places like Hawaii and India discovered hashish and LSD. A number of Zen practitioners from the late 60s and early 70s—including me—followed a similar path to Zen practice.

He did a sesshin with Richard Baker at the San Francisco Zen Center, but the experience was “unfruitful. A lot of pain and no intelligence.” He went back to New York state to live on a commune. I ask how he supported himself. “Chopping wood and hauling water. Literally.” It was a working farm but not self-sustaining.

A friend in Canada suggested he try a retreat at Mount Baldy with Joshu Sasaki, and during that retreat he had experiences so moving that—at one point—he couldn’t return to the zendo after an interview with the Roshi but, instead, hid behind the building and lay beneath a tree just relishing the insights he had acquired.

Sasaki Roshi did not give full transmission to any of his oshos. When I ask Yoshin what he thinks will happen to the Rinzai-ji lineage after Sasaki’s death (which occurred two months after our conversation), he tells me he doesn’t “have any concern about it. . . It doesn’t make a difference to me whether the line continues or not. It’s just the question of whether the wisdom continues.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 55-66, 469

Zen Conversations: 124

Other Links:

Ithaca Zen Center

Tenney Nathanson

Tenney Nathanson – a Dharma heir of Joan Sutherland – is the resident teacher at Desert Rain Zen. He is also a professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona.

He briefly worked with Eido Roshi at the Zen Studies Society New York Zendo in the late ’70s but tells me that he found it too arduous. “I was there about a year and a half, went through the great formal thing about being a provisional student, then becoming a regular student and buying my robes and all that. And I tried a weekend retreat, and I couldn’t quite do it. And I read something about Maureen Stuart once, where she talks about finally going to her first retreat and she just couldn’t do it. And she called her husband and said she wanted to come home. And he said, ‘Oh, you’ve been wanting to do this for years. Why don’t you keep doing it? Why don’t you put some more pillows under you and keep trying to stay?’ And I wish I’d done that. I think also that group was fairly forbidding at that time. Nobody offered me any practical suggestions. You know? ‘Why don’t you try to do X? Why don’t you try to do Y?’ And I really felt like I couldn’t do it. I’m sure there are a fair number of Zen stories like that.

“Then I came to Tucson to take a job at the university in the fall of ’85 and didn’t really resume practice until probably about ’95 when somebody told me there’s a good Zen Center here. That was Zen Desert Sangha, which is the Diamond Sangha place that was affiliated with Aitken Roshi and where Pat Hawk was the roshi. He was a Redemptorist Priest who also taught contemplative retreats, so when I started sitting, I didn’t do retreats with Zen Desert Sangha for a while, and then by ’97 I felt I was ready to do a retreat, and Pat was sick with prostate cancer, and John Tarrant  was coming down to cover his retreats, with Joan an advanced sensei working with him. So the first retreat I attended, Joan and John were the teachers. I was pretty sure that I’d met my teacher at that point. So Joan came down the following February— that’s seven months after I first met her—to do another retreat, and I asked her to be my teacher at that point, which was early February ’98.”

He was 52 years old at the time, which – I remark – is late to take up practice.

“Yeah. I always . . . When I stopped studying at the Zen Studies Society, I always felt a fair amount of regret about that. And I was busy writing poetry and being a scholar. But it was always something I hoped to get back to. For a while I didn’t think I would.”

“What was it about Joan that made you think, ‘Okay, this is the person I want to work with’?”

“A lot of people will say this, but she has an incredible kind of luminosity about her. There’s something that kind of shines from her. And I also remember her at that retreat saying to somebody—we were asking questions in one of the evening sessions—you know, how she would define awakening, and she just said, ‘Attentiveness and compassion.’ And the person was kind of scandalized and said, ‘That’s it?!’ She said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

One of the characteristics of sanghas associated with the Tarrant-Sutherland lineage is that they have relaxed some of the intensity which earlier centers considered an important facet of training.

“I remember John writing someplace that when he was supposed to be starting to take over in Hawaii when Aitken started stepping down, he went down there and gave a talk that really offended people ’cause what he noticed was this kind of barrack’s mentality, and he just thought that was really wrong-headed. And I think all of the centers around John—and maybe especially around Joan’s groups—have a really different atmosphere. There really isn’t that sense of first let’s be cold and rigorous, and then, after we’ve known you twenty years, we’ll smile at you.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 175, 187, 189.

Other Links:

Desert Rain Zen

Joan Sutherland Dharma Works

Mitra Bishop

The image on the cover of my book, The Story of Zen, is of the zendo at Mountain Gate Sanmonji in New Mexico. It is located in a township, Ojo Sarco, that we couldn’t find it on our road map when we drove there. Nor is there signage other than the post box number at the top of the drive to identify the center.

“It is an hour drive to Santa Fe and more or less an hour drive to Taos,” Mitra Bishop – the teacher who established the center – tells me. “Most of an hour’s drive to Española. They’re the three cities nearest us. So it’s kinda out in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of people don’t know of it.”

It is a peaceful and quiet place, suitable not only for Zen practice but also for the RegainingBalance Retreats for women with PTSD which the center offers. It is not, however, a place one comes to by accident; there are no street drop-ins. People have to want to come here. “That’s important to me,” Mitra Roshi says. “There are so many places where people can do a less intensive, less committed practice. America abounds with places like that.”

The first time we spoke, I had asked her what the function of Zen was. “For people willing to pick up that ball,” she told me, “it can lead to nothing short of total freedom, total liberation. And by total liberation, what I mean is liberation from your hang-ups, your conditioning, liberation from places where you’re stuck. In other words, if you take it far enough you’re able to freely move in concert with life in effective, positive ways. We have the precepts in Buddhism, and in Zen—Japanese Zen—we follow the sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts.  What ‘total liberation’ means is that your behavior naturally accords with those precepts. And there is an incredible sense of freedom and joy that runs akin to a quiet river within. That is your potential. But . . . it’s not anything instantaneous. It takes a lot of hard work.”

The most recent time we spoke, she reiterated that serious Zen practice “takes a lot of commitment. I mean, it’s there for people, but most people are so titillated by their toys – and their toys can be relationships, they can be possessions, they can be all kinds of things, including a self-image – that it’s not that easy. People have to be pretty determined to be willing to undergo what is essential, which is the releasing of your own hold on these things in order for it to really happen. And that takes a long, long time.”

Nor is it simply a matter of having an experience of kensho or awakening.

“It’s not enough to have had a kensho, or even two or three. There is what Torei Enji, Hakuin’s premier disciple and Dharma heir, called the Long Maturation.  Kensho allows us to see a bit more clearly, but then we have to work with what we become aware of in our own behavior and bring it into line with that clear seeing. That kensho isn’t anywhere near complete until we have integrated that into our daily life so that everything we do or say or think accords with what we’ve realized. That kensho has to manifest in our daily life to be of any value whatsoever.”

I ask her how she would describe kensho.

“Kensho is an opening . . .” she says, then pauses. “No . . . Let me back up a minute. Kensho is a temporary – and it can be more permanent depending how deep it is – clearing of the misunderstanding, the delusion, the misperception of reality so that we can see more clearly. And, of course, kensho varies significantly. It’s been said that kensho these days, in the west – and I would say ‘these days’ are this century and the past century – are pretty shallow because we have so many things to play with, to take us away from that search.”

Serious Zen training, in her opinion, isn’t satisfied with an initial awakening no matter how profound. There is “a continuing motivation to go deeper, either by being prodded or our own innate sense that there’s something that we do need, that we need to continue this. And people who have had a certain degree of transformation in their lives are often, but not always, motivated to go deeper in this way.”

And that is what motivates some of them to seek out Ojo Sarco and Mountain Gate.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 54-55, 117, 146, 369-83, 389, 470

Catholicism and Zen: 12

The Story of Zen: 302, 358

Zen Conversations: Pp. 54-55; 124-25.

Other Links:


Mountain Gate Sanmonji

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

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James Ford

James Ford founded the Boundless Way Zen centers in New England and later established the Empty Moon 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

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