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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. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

9/7 – Great Tides Zen

                I began this series of interviews in March of 2013 at the San Francisco Zen Center. Eighteen months later, I am bringing them to an end on the Atlantic coast of Maine. Portland, the
state’s largest city, is about five hours from my home in New Brunswick. The drive down the Interstate through the northern Maine woods—save for a brief glimpse of Mount Katahdin in the distance—is not very interesting and seems longer than it actually is.
                Portland and nearby Freeport, however, have become popular destinations for visitors from the Canadian Maritimes and elsewhere, in part because of the Outlet Stores. The L L Bean Outlet in Freeport is open twenty-four hours a day all year round. At the wharf in Portland, there is one of those cruise ships which, to me, looks too big to be real, and a bus tour is unloading at our hotel when we arrive.
                I am here to attend the opening workshop of the Great Tides Zen program newly established by Dosho Port and his partner, Tetsugan Zummach. I first interviewed Dosho in July of last year [see the July 14, 2013 entry] when he was still living in Minnesota. In addition to being the teacher of the Wild Fox Zen program in White Bear at that time and operating Vine of Obstacles, an on-line support for Zen practice, Dosho worked with troubled youth in the local school system. He has now retired from those duties and just recently moved to the East Coast.
                “We knew for years that after my kids were grown and I was able to retire from the schools that we wanted to do something different,” he wrote to me in response to a question about why he chose Maine. “After looking around we settled on Portland in part because there aren't a lot of other Zen teachers in the neighborhood and yet it's close to our friends in Boundless Way. Ocean and mountains are also a big plus after living in the Midwest most of our lives. James Ford originally suggested it because it's one of the few cities of this size and type (alternative-ish) that don't have an established Zen practice place.”
                There are a couple of certified TM instructors in the city; a Tibetan Buddhist community (Vajra Vidya); and at least twenty Yoga studios, one of which—Still Water—provides space for the new Zen program.
                There also happens to be an Enlightenment Expo taking place at our hotel. The poster in the lobby informs us that this is “Greater Portland’s largest gathering of spiritual and holistic practitioners, products, and services.” It promises psychic readings, animal communication, reiki, crystals, chair massage "and more." One of the listed participants is a sea shell reader. Although such things always strike me as a little sad and desperate, they are also evidence of a genuine hunger people have for some kind of spiritual dimension in their lives. There also seems to be, however, a sense that it should be easy; that it shouldn’t require effort.
                Of course, those attending this Expo could be just as suspect of Zen with its agnosticism and taut discipline. “Why,” they might ask, “does it have to be that hard?”
                Dosho and Tetsugan started 5:30 a. m. sittings in their new space last week; this is the first of their proposed Sunday workshops. They set out fourteen zabutans and had to improvise a fifteenth from blankets. The workshop space/yoga studio is an airy second floor room in one of the gentrified warehouses on one the of the harbor-front wharfs. Fifteen zabutans fit the space nicely.
                The workshop is two and a half hours long; most of the participants have done some type of meditation before, though in many cases it was by themselves. “We’ve been warned that people in Maine aren’t great joiners,” Tetsugan tells me. “They like to do things on their own.” One of the participants had been working with Dosho via the Vine of Obstacles program and had moved to Portland from Florida  three weeks ago when he learned Dosho was coming here.
                The workshop covers an overview of Zen based on the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, proper posture, meditation, kinhin (walking meditation), liturgy, zendo etiquette, and even a brief overview of the precepts. As it comes to an end, participants are asked to share something they either got from the workshop or appreciated about it, and most expressed gratitude to Dosho and Tetsugan for coming to Portland. The question, of course, is how many of the participants will come back.
                The fact is that Zen is challenging. As Dosho put it to me, as we sat in a park earlier: “Zen is inconvenient, uncomfortable, repetitive, and uncompromising.” That’s certainly true. It can also be immensely rewarding. One hopes the people of Portland discover that, discover the value of practicing within a sangha and of working with a teacher.

[Dosho and Tetsugan did not remain in Maine long. They moved to Omaha when he was invited to be the resident teacher at the Nebraska Zen Center. The Great Tides community dissolved.]

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Port, Dosho Mike – 118, 207, 409-21, 468-69, 476-77
Zummach, Lisa Tetsugan – 468-69, 476

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. My guess is that Boundless Way with survive into the Ordovician.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Bartok, Josh – 203, 213, 223-233, 467

[As of 2019, Josh and the Greater Boston Zen Center are no longer affiliated with Boundless Way.]