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Sunday, 28 April 2013

4/28 - The Montreal Zen Center

It was Spring on the west coast when we were there to do the first five interviews. Ornamental fruit trees were in full flower—white through pink to burgundy. Although the tulips hadn’t yet opened, the commercial daffodil fields around Laconner were brilliant.  Five days after returning to New Brunswick, I drove to Quebec in order to take part in a sesshin at the Montreal Zen Center. On day two of the sesshin, it snowed—heavily.
                I don’t do sesshin well. To begin with, I have osteo-arthritis of the spine, which makes prolonged sitting without back support agonizing. I’ve had kidney-stones; this is worse. As well, I still haven’t fully recovered from a broken femur. I need to use a cane, which is a nuisance, but getting up from sitting on a cushion or from lying on a foam mattress on the floor requires forethought and leverage. On top of which, because I am not used to a grain-based diet, the vegetarian meals served at the Center give me bountiful flatulence. By my second visit here, I had learned to avoid the breakfast porridge and the evening casseroles, and make do with fresh fruit, raw vegetables, cheese, and surprisingly good bread. Friends notice when I’ve returned from sesshin; they’ll comment that I’ve lost weight—they can see it in the bones of my face.
                And yet twice a year I drive the 800 kilometers from Fredericton to Montreal to take part in sesshin or in a one-day sit. There are, however, times when I wonder why I put myself through it, and when people ask me about it, I find it hard to explain. As we drove here from Kingston, we listened to Leonard Cohen:
Ah I don't believe you'd like it,
You wouldn't like it here.
There ain't no entertainment
and the judgements are severe.
                The teacher is Albert Low. Most of his students simply call him “Albert.” Those of us who prefer something more formal address him as “Mr. Low.” Although he wears the rakusu—the only one in evidence at the Center—which he earned when he passed his first koan under the tutelage of Philip Kapleau, he eschews titles such as “roshi” or even “sensei.”
                The center is located in a large, three-storey house on an L-shaped lot in a well-to-do residential neighborhood. It is across the narrow green of Park Stanley from the Rivière‑des‑Prairies. The extensive lawns are graced with a traditional English Garden with lots of “edge.” Throughout it there are Buddha figures scattered.
                My first meeting is with four of Low’s senior students. One of these, Monique, wants me to understand what a remarkable thing Low has done in establishing a bi-lingual sangha in this city. She sent me an email before our meeting to stress it. It is remarkable. Low is from London, England, and still speaks with a British accent. Most of his teishos are given in English, although dokusan is available in either French or English. But he has been embraced by his francophone students.
                In some ways, Low is the most intellectual of Zen teachers. He is the author of about a dozen books. Some are on predictable topics—Zen and the Sutras or Hakuin on Kensho—others deal with topics such as business management or evolution. His teishos are peppered with quotations from T. S. Eliot and Saint John of the Cross. He is particularly fond of the Hindu teacher, Nisargadatta.  He has recently begun a new blog—Thoughts Along the Way.  But none of this is what makes him remarkable or generates the loyalty I see in these four.
                They struggle to define the quality they so admire. His teaching, they tell me is authentic, austere. Part of the difficulty is that, for all four, English is a second language, even though they all speak it well. Other teachers, they point out, become involved with extraneous issues—with psychology or social issues or morality. But none of that is what practice is about.
                Eventually I decide the term they are looking for is “uncompromising.” And Low’s teaching certainly is that.
                I have a short, forty minute, interview with him after I meet with the students. I begin with the question I have started with elsewhere: “What is the function of Zen?”
                “Oh, there’s no function of Zen.”
                “So why do people come here?”
                “Because they think there is a function of Zen.”
                “And what do they find out?”
                “There is no function of Zen. If they work long enough.”
                Perhaps “uncompromising” also implies “honesty.” There is an honesty and directness in his teaching which can be excruciating. In dokusan, even courteous prevarications are caught and pounced upon. So maybe those are the qualities—the lack of compromise, the honesty—which keep drawing me back here.
                After my interview with Low, I spend a little time taking photographs of the grounds. The crocuses are out. If you’re patient, Spring always arrives.

[Albert Low died on January 27, 2016. My memorial tribute to him can be found at:
Albert Low memorial]

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