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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

3/26 - Great Vow Zen Monastery, Oregon

                Clatskanie [klat-scan-aye], Oregon, a self-proclaimed Christian township of 1700 persons, is an unlikely location for a Zen monastery. The Great Vow Zen Monastery, just outside the village, is the residential practice center for the Zen Community of Oregon. It, and a city temple in Portland for lay students, is under the leadership of Jan Chozen [clear Zen] Bays and her husband, Hogen. The monastery is a former elementary school which provides spacious and elegant accommodations for the community.
                Chozen is a pediatrician who gave up full-time medical practice to study with Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles in the 1970s, a time in which the Los Angeles Zen Center produced several significant figures in American Zen, including Bernie Glassman and Joko Beck. It was also the era of “flower children” who found their way to LA and San Francisco from throughout North America, seeking the Dharma but also freedom from the social constraints of the mainstream society.
                LAZC was shaken up in 1983, the same year as Richard Baker’s fall from grace in San Francisco, when Maezumi Roshi agreed to go into a rehab program for alcoholism and the extent of his sexual affairs became known. Chozen admits that she was one of the women with whom Maezumi had relations. Clear guidelines had not yet been defined in Zen centers or anywhere else. She has done a great deal of study about the issue since leaving Los Angeles and now volunteers to help women who feel they had been sexually exploited in other centers. I ask if what happened in LA could be considered an example of what we would now call clergy abuse. Certainly it was misconduct, if not abuse, she replies.
                Great Vow is dedicated to Jizo Bodhisattva, protector of children—which is appropriate for a monastery headed by a pediatrician. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of Jizo statues throughout the building and in an extensive Jizo Garden, where people have left statues in commemoration of lost, sick, or dead children. They are decorated with scarves and knitted hats, even some with booties.
                In addition to the Jizos, the monastery is a treasure trove of Buddhist art—shrine rooms, courtyard gardens, a founder’s room (where a portion of Maezumi Roshi’s ashes rest by his photo), the zendo are all graced with beautiful statuary. There is a store room for the pieces they don’t have appropriate places to display.
                The monks I meet range in age from “just turned 20” to a man in his late 50s. The days are long, starting at 4:50  ending after 9:00. They begin and end with two hours of zazen. The rest of the day is taken up with work assignments and study. But study here can take unusual forms. One young woman described a formal orioki breakfast at which a dead bird was passed around for students to examine. Chozen had found it on the property and later dissected it to determine what caused its death.
                She explains that many of the young people who come to the monastery had dropped out of university and still were very ignorant about the nature of the world in which they lived. An introduction to basic biology is provided, but also training in fundamental skills like learning how to sew and cook.
                And then there is marimba playing and square dancing. This area of Oregon is one where marimbas are made and after Chozen learned how to play she started going to the local schools to teach the children; in the school, she is known as Mrs. Bays. It was one way to help to overcome the initial community suspicions about a Buddhist center. But more importantly marimba playing demonstrates how quickly moods change. One might be feeling upset but as soon as one starts playing the marimba, one’s mood lifts. Square dancing was something Chozen (now 67) and her husband had taken up to help keep in shape. Now all Great Vow monks are required to go square dancing at least once. One shy young  monk admits that acquiring social skills is also a valuable part of what he is learning here.
                It is a serious practice center, but the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Chozen smiles easily and is relaxed with her students. She admits she has a mother’s temperament, seeking to ensure that the family all gets along. The Oregon Community does not have an “Ethics Committee” as has been established at many centers, but it does have a “Harmony Committee.”
                Besides her work as a teacher and abbot, Chozen still maintains a small medical practice (mostly teaching), consults in child abuse cases, and has become recognized widely as a proponent of mindful eating as a way of addressing obesity in children and older persons.
                The prime directive of a Zen teacher, she tells me, is to ensure that the teaching continues. The fact that Great Vow can thrive in rural Oregon suggests the teaching is secure.

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


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