Monday, 1 April 2013

4/1 – Eshu Martin, the Victoria Zen Center



                Today, April 1st, is Joshu Sasaki’s 106th birthday. He is the Zen master who made national headlines last November when there was finally confirmation of long suspected inappropriate behavior at his monastery on Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. Sasaki was accused of touching the breasts of female students during private interviews. One of the people who revealed the extent of the problem was Eshu Martin, now the leader of the Victoria Zen Center in Sooke, British Columbia.
                The center is in his home, a small wooden house on a lot with a second building used for rentals. The path to the front door is lined with a statue of Kannon and a couple of garden gnomes. We knock on the door of the rental house and a young boy, approximately eleven years old, comes out of the other house and asks if he can help us. He introduces himself as Eshu’s son, Kigen, and directs us to the correct building. He, his mother, and his younger sister, are leaving as we arrive. “I hope it goes well, Dad,” he calls as they get into their car.
                Eshu is 6’4”,and has a shaved head, but a well developed auburn beard. He has a deep belly laugh. The house is both his family’s living space and the zendo. We sit at a moveable table in the dining area, next to the kitchen. It is very much family space. There are colored eggs on the table and Easter decorations on the wall. A central fire place separates this space from a small zendo that sits 12; if the dining table and chairs are removed on this side of the fireplace, there is room for another ten. His bedroom, downstairs, has a double mattress on the floor which he takes out into the hall so the room can be used for sanzen.
                Eshu was raised in Pickering, Ontario. When he was nine, his mother went into a coma, and he prayed for her recovery. When she died, he became very angry and began acting out. He became a vandal and started using drugs early. He was 15 when his father remarried and would wake every morning and think how he was going to made his step-mother miserable that day. Eventually he became involved in martial arts, discovering that was a better way to work off his anger than destruction of public property.
                The martial arts instructor gave him a book which provided the philosophical background to their discipline. In it he found the story of the two monks who come upon a young woman unable to cross a stream because the bridge had been washed out. The elder monk picked the girl up and carried her across; the younger monk fretted about this inappropriate activity all day until at last he asked, “How could you do that?” The older monk said, “I put the girl down back at the stream. You’ve been carrying her all this distance.” Eshu becomes a little emotional retelling the story. “It made me realize that it was me who had been carrying all that anger for so many years.” It was his introduction to Zen. He bought a copy of Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen and began following its instructions on how to sit.
                By that time he had a girl friend, later to be his wife, and they decided they needed to leave Pickering. She had some contacts in British Columbia, so that was where they went. And in Victoria he found a notice for the Victoria Zen Center. He went there and found the membership was made up of a number of elderly women who sat for a short period on their meeting evenings and then had tea. “Each evening the session ended with a discussion about who would be responsible for bringing the tea next time and who would bring the cookies. It drove me nuts.”
                Eventually he began working with Eshin Godfrey, Abbot of the Vancouver Zen Center. Godfrey was a student of Joshu Sasaki and arranged for Martin to go down to Mount Baldy. The training there was severe, but Martin took to it easily. The regime worked for him, and he decided that he wanted to stay there and become a monk. He phoned his girl friend, who was then working at a L’Arche community and told him his decision. Then he met with Sasaki and asked to be ordained. Sasaki told him, “No. You go back to Victoria. Get married. Then we think about monk.” Eshu called his girl friend and proposed.
                He is no longer formally connected with Rinzai-ji, nor is the Victoria Zen Center, but they do work with other centers, such as Genjo Marinello’s in Seattle. One of Eshu Martin’s current concerns is that all persons, wherever they live, have access to Zen instruction and to that end he has started an on-line introductory program.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 
Martin, Eshu – 15, 43-44, 46, 47, 50, 52, 84, 98-115, 203, 468
               

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