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Saturday 27 June 2015

Cypress Trees in the Garden

            These entries were my on-line journal of a pilgrimage I undertook from March 2013
through September 2014, during which I visited Zen Centers throughout North America. The tour took me from San Francisco, on the west coast, to Portland, Maine, on the east; from Montreal in the north to New Mexico in the south.  I interviewed more than 75 teachers and otherwise significant individuals (the doctor operating a Zen-sponsored hospice, the former wife of a well-known teacher now dead), as well as senior and not-so-senior students. In almost all locations, I was welcomed warmly and had the good fortune to encounter impressive, friendly, and approachable individuals who responded to my (at times impertinent) questions with frankness and good humor. Meeting them was a joy and deepened my respect for both the tradition and the practice of Zen.
             The material gathered in these interviews form the basis of Cypress Trees in the Garden, published by the Sumeru Press.
            This blog was a journal of “first impressions.” The discipline I imposed on myself was to compose each entry within twelve hours of the interview and to do so extemporaneously, typing the first 800 words to come to mind à la Jack Kerouac (who was, like me, something of a Zen dilettante). I did go back to correct spelling, grammar, and errors of fact brought to my attention, usually by the subject of the piece; otherwise they remain largely unedited.
           The entries are, of course, in inverse order. They read better if one starts with the first—San Francisco—and moves forward in time to the visit to Great Tides in Portland, Maine. 

Wednesday 28 May 2014

5/28 – Father Kevin Hunt

                Father Kevin Hunt believes that perhaps the reason people of Catholic and Jewish heritage
are drawn to Zen practice in disproportionate numbers is that both of these have strong contemplative traditions associated with them. Catholicism, of course, also has a long monastic tradition as well.
                Kevin—as he introduces himself—is a Trappist, and he wears the robes well. They suit him; he has the right build. He looks the part, and he looks at ease in it. And so he should. “I’ve known since I was 13 what I wanted to do,” he tells me. His parents—New York City Irish Catholics—weren’t thrilled with his life choice. Their memories of Ireland were that Trappists were the order to which they sent the kids who couldn’t do anything else. Unfortunately, Kevin’s father died still suspecting that was the case. His mother, on the other hand, attended a mission preached by a Franciscan and afterwards went to talk to the friar, lamenting that her son would soon be taking his final vows as a Trappist. The Franciscan embraced her and said, “Madam, your salvation is assured!” She finally came around.
                And if it wasn’t bad enough that he was a Trappist, he is also a transmitted Zen teacher.
                Kevin’s home monastery is Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, but currently he is serving as chaplain at the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey for Trappistines in Wrentham. This convent has about 45 women whose ages range from 25 to 93. There are still young people applying for admission both at Saint Joseph’s and St. Mary’s. The numbers aren’t large, but, then, the monastic calling has always been a minority one. The Trappists are at least as vital as Blue Cliff.
                Kevin first encountered Zen while helping to establish a Trappist abbey in Argentina. He was given a Spanish translation of the German book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery. He suggests that it wasn’t a very good translation, but it talked about seated meditation. “At that time,” he says, “we didn’t sit in chapel. When we were in chapel, we either stood or knelt.” The idea of seated meditation, however, called to him, and, for the next seven years in addition to the regular periods of prayer, he took time every day to sit cross-legged on a folded up blanket. The superior didn’t want him sitting cross-legged in the main chapel, but Kevin was then in charge of the infirmary and was able to set up its tiny chapel as he pleased.
                Herrigel included a koan in his book: What is your face before your parents’ birth? The question stuck with Kevin for those seven years, but eventually he had to admit he did not seem to be getting anywhere. So one day, as he was seated in meditation, he decided to give it up, and he stood up. “In that act of standing up,” he says, “I suddenly knew what my face before my parents’ birth was.”
                The order was not wholly opposed to Kevin’s Zen practice, but he was considered “singular” which—he points out—is not a good thing in a monastic community. “However great liberty of spirit is given for us to follow our own natural mode of prayer.”
                When Kevin returned to St. Joseph’s, the abbot was Thomas Keating, who helped develop the idea of Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice for Christian. Keating was open to the idea of Joshu Sasaki Roshi leading Zen sesshin at the abbey, something Sasaki did for several years in the 70s. Kevin also participated in three three-month work periods at Mount Baldy in California with Sasaki. But with the installation of a new abbot, the sesshins at St. Joseph’s came to an end.
               Finally, Kevin met the Jesuit Zen teacher, Robert Kennedy. He began working with him in earnest and received transmission from Kennedy in 2004. I first heard of Kevin from a short article in the National Catholic Reporter which reported the event. He was asked in the article what a Trappist Zen Master did, and—as I remembered his answer—he said, “I’m not sure, but I guess I’ll find out.”
                “Have you?” I asked. “Found out?”
                “I’m finding out,” he laughs. “It’s a work in progress.”
                He remains singular in the order; there are no other Trappists practicing with him. But he leads two small groups, one in Connecticut—The Transfiguration Zendo—and another which meets at St. Mary’s retreat house in Wrentham. This is the Daystar Zendo largely made up of Catholics from Worcester who are also drawn to Zen.
                When I ask what Zen has to offer Catholicism, he tells me a story about St. Theresa of Avila. When she was a little girl, someone asked her what she wanted in life. She told them, “I want to see God.” “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Kevin tells me, “and Zen has provided the best way for me to do it.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Hunt, Father Kevin – 134, 303, 308, 310-320

Tuesday 27 May 2014

5/27 - Josh Bartok

                My wife and I had never previously been to Boston—other than dropping people like Dosho Port off at the airport—and this trip provides our first opportunity. Our hotel by the airport overlooks the harbor, and as I type this, a sailboat race is taking place below us. The view isimpressive; the short city tour we did was informative and fun. The driving . . . Well, the only way it makes sense to me is that driving has been deliberately made as unpleasant as possible in order to encourage the use of public transport. James Ford had a simpler explanation; he told me that the system behind the way streets are laid out in Boston is officially known as “Fuck you.” James [See 5/4 entry for 2013] is the teacher of Josh Bartok.                
                It is Josh I’ve come here to interview. He is the resident teacher of the Greater Boston Zen Center which is actually located in Cambridge. Google-maps makes the run from my hotel to the center look much simpler than it is. The GPS instructions (“Left turn, then left turn ahead”) come more rapidly than I can follow and usually when I’m two lanes from where I need to be. So I arrive a little flustered. 
                The first thing one notes about Josh is that he’s young—43 last Friday, he informs me. “I’m youngish for a Zen teacher,” he admits. After completing his undergraduate work, instead of going onto graduate studies at MIT as he’d intended, he spent a year and a half at Zen Mountain Monastery. Then he fell away from practice for a while, even had a stint as a professional Tarot reader. Finally, through his work as an editor with a Buddhist publisher, he met James and began his first intensive work with a teacher. By my calculation, it was less than twelve years later that he was authorized as a teacher himself—maybe not a record, but it leads me to think he probably has a natural affinity for the Dharma. He obviously has a great love for it. He speaks with both emotion and passion, making large gestures with his hands. His voice has power, and I suspect that his Dharma talks are dynamic.                
             And there’s something a bit boyish about his manner as well.  
             We sit in a small area he calls a foyer set off by a set of shoji screens from the main body of the zendo. Although we are on chairs, he sits cross-legged. This appears to be an old warehouse or commercial building. We are on the second floor, and I can hear the patter of feet on the floor above us. The zendo has 35 zabutons set out; more—he informs me—can be added. There are three calligraphies by Shodo Harada in the entry way, and a set of the 10 Bulls along one wall of the zendo—the Zen equivalent of the Stations of the Cross. Josh admits he admires the Japanese aesthetics of Zen.
                The second thing that strikes me about him is that he is a man of great personal courage. He speaks with touching frankness about his continuing struggles with mental health issues. There are times when he pauses, looks off, and I fear we’ve strayed into areas he would prefer not to pursue further, but then he finds the words he wants and continues. “When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I’d be talking about these things, but I’m willing to.”
                It is not a minor issue. Zen is not a means of escaping one’s difficulties, of hiding from them, or ignoring them, pretending they don’t exist. One thing Zen can do, however, is help one gain perspective about those difficulties. More importantly, those challenges in no way prevent one from coming to those intuitive insights which are the heart of the practice.
                Josh is one of the four teachers of Boundless Way Zen; he came up with the name. Melissa Blacker and David Rynick in Worcester [see 5/3 entry for 2013] along with James are the others. In some ways, they are a conservative school, although Josh is adamant that the elements of Japanese Zen they retain are done so wholly because of their efficacy. But the school is also innovative in one very significant way: students are encouraged to attend dokusan with all four teachers.
                “If you only go to dokusan with one teacher,” Josh says, “you can come to equate the Dharma with that particular teacher’s presentation of it. But when you go to four teachers, it is like Venn Diagrams; there is a very real and essential area where all four circles overlap. But there are also large parts of those circles that do not overlap.” He has a talent for coming up with analogies like that. Another is his description of the current dissemination of disparate Zen practices as being similar to the explosion of life forms during the Cambrian Age. Some experiments will prove successful; others won’t. 
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Bartok, Josh – 203, 213, 223-233, 467

Addendum - September 2022:
I owe Josh a debt of gratitude for the Venn Diagram analogy. The importance of being able to distinguish the Dharma from personal character should have been self-evident, but it hadn’t been until Josh pointed it out. That affected every other interview I have conducted since then. I recognized from that point on that the focus of my writing would be the areas of the diagram that did not overlap.
In 2020, Josh, of his own volition, gave up his status as a priest and a Zen teacher. He admitted having been in a relationship with a student and in a public apology to his community stated:

“I acknowledge that I inappropriately crossed boundaries in relationship that were my own sacred responsibility to hold and that I created circumstances of secrecy and deceit. Caught myself by the energies of suffering, I amplified suffering in others rather than diminishing it, and I disrupted this community. I betrayed all of your trust, and I betrayed the vows and values I myself hold most dear. I am so deeply, deeply sorry for these things. I make this apology to you all and in front of you all as embodiments of the Three Treasures. I assure you I take to heart the implications of this transgression, and I vow to continue my deepening work in understanding and addressing the causes and conditions that led to my failures and my harm-causing so I can prevent them in the future.”