Wednesday, 27 March 2013

3/27 - Tahoma-san Sogen-ji and Enso House, Whidbey Island


                Yesterday, Chozen Bays told me that all teachers require a teacher. “You’re never finished with this work. You need somebody you tremble before. Someone who can show you when ‘self’ is intruding, when you are deceiving yourself.” The teacher she has chosen to work with is Shodo Harada, a Japanese master who has established a program for western students in Japan, at Sogen Temple (Sogen-ji). He has also established programs in the US, Germany and India. The main US temple is on Whidbey Island in Washington State.
                When I ask Chozen what it is about Harada Roshi that drew her to him, she tells me: “I’ve never met anyone who lives so much in the present moment. I know he knows who I am, but I don’t think he has one thought about me unless I am right in front of him.” He has a sensitivity and alertness, she says, which makes him appear almost psychic. One can go to sanzen expecting to say something, and Harada Roshi will speak the words before the student gets them out.
                The Whidbey Island property is called a monastery, but, in effect, it is currently a hermitage. There is only a single monk (the Head Monk) living there. His name is Dairin—Great Neighbor [photo]. He listens to my recording of Chozen speaking about Harada Roshi and nods his head enthusiastically. “You can’t tell stories about roshi,” he insists. “Because it isn’t a matter of what he says or does—it’s his presence.”
                While Dairin is currently by himself, on the weekends students do come to practice, and there are plans for a residential program. Shodo Harada comes to Whidbey three times a year to lead sesshin, and people from all across North America—the US, Canada, Mexico—apply to attend. The temporary zendo (a prefab building on the site) can only accommodate 55 people, so there is a waiting list and some individuals have to wait more than a year to be accepted.
                Connected to Tahoma Sogenji is Enso House (an enso is the Japanese calligraphy circle which symbolizes the void or enlightenment in Zen). It is a hospice program. Dairin and I walk about a quarter of mile along a moss-laden path through the woods to get there. The hospice is run by Dr. Ann Cutcher. Students of Harada Roshi are sent there to assist for periods of varying lengths. The German nurse, Myoo, has been there ten years. A young man from Hungary, Peter Torma, has only been there a few weeks.
                I had developed a wax build up in my right ear early in this trip and was having trouble hearing. Chozen had said she would willingly look at it, but circumstances prevented her from doing so. She emailed Ann to ask if she would examine me, so before we begin the interview, Ann takes me into a dispensary and flushes out both ears, which were far more plugged than I had realized.
                I ask if Ann is a Zen practitioner. She pauses a long while before saying, “I don’t know.”
                As we eat lunch together, I ask the people around the table in what way Enso House is part of their Zen practice. Each has his or her take on this, but Ann’s is the most compelling. She describes the first “guest” at the hospice. They only have one guest at a time; the average stay is less than four weeks. The first was a man who lived in isolation from everyone else on the island. When people realized he was dying, a few tried to look after him but were unable to meet his needs. None of them were Buddhist, but they heard that Shodo Harada had determined to build a hospice and they came to Enso House where they met Ann. The hospice was not ready to receive guests; the requisite legal documents were not ready, but the board agreed to accept the old man. He was mute—possibly because he had fallen out of the habit of speaking. “However,” Ann says, “he had these bright, alive blue eyes, but he kept them shut for two full days when he arrived. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s angry about being torn from the only home he has ever known and being brought here,' and I felt terrible.”
                Then Ann’s friend, and Harada Roshi’s translator, Priscilla Storandt, visited and sat for a while with the guest. When she came out of his room, she told Ann, “He is so grateful.” And, of course, Ann realized, he was. She understood that she hadn’t been seeing him at all but rather her projection of what she thought he was. It was, for her, a transformative moment. She has been at Enso House now for twelve years.
                As I am leaving, Ann is scraping pasta sauce out of a pan into a Tupperware container and tells me in parting, “You know what the primary lesson of Enso House is? Flush out your ears!”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: Chapter 6, pp. 117-132.

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