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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

4/29 - Enpuki-ji, Montreal

                Enpuku-ji is a small Rinzai temple on rue Saint-Dominique in Montreal. I’m told that Leonard Cohen lives down the block and in fact, owns the building in which the resident priest of Enpuki-ji—Myokyo—lives. If that’s the case, he’s a very unassuming person. The houses are modest multi-plexes. Enpuku-ji is entered through a miniscule side-garden, which cannot be more than 12 feet square. A small sign on the gate post announces “Zen” and gives the street address.

                Myokyo walks up the street just as I pull into the drive. She is a slight woman with close-cropped hair and a charming smile. She looks younger than her sixty years. I was surprised to see any hair at all. In the photos on Enpuku-ji’s website, her head is shaved. She unlocks a back door, and we enter into a single long, narrow, room. The back end, where we’ve come in, is a small kitchen. A table with three wooden chairs is against the wall; this is where we chat. The rest of the room is taken up by the zendo, which currently has two rows of five zafus facing one another. Myokyo tells me they can accommodate  about fourteen. At the far end of the zendo—the front of the house—there is an altar with a graceful statue of Kwan-yin, the Chinese manifestation of Kannon, the feminized Bodhisattva of Compassion.

                The room is so narrow that the stairway leading to the second floor consumes a significant portion of the area. There is a photograph of Myokyo’s teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, on the wall above the banister.

                The website describes the neighborhood as “ethnic.” It is certainly active. As we talk, I’m aware of the sound of dogs barking and children playing.

                I ask how her students address her. “Myokyo.” Not “sensei”? She ducks her head and shakes it. She tells me she makes it clear to them that she isn’t a teacher. (So, presumably, I cannot call them students.) What, then, is her relationship to them? Guide, she suggests, exemplar. She has a gentle demeanor, but, she warns me, she has been told that her eyes flash when someone doesn’t follow the zendo procedures correctly. “They think I’m angry. I’m not really. I just want to make sure they are doing things properly.” But not a teacher.

                She is an ordained Rinzai monk and priest—“osho.” She is also the Buddhist chaplain at McGill.  She used the term “nun” when she first came to Montreal, but that led to confusion because it was assumed that a nun did not have the same authority as a priest.

                Thirty-five years ago, she accompanied a boy friend to California to attend a sesshin directed by Sasaki Roshi. The boy friend had to return to Canada on family business. She stayed. For a while, she stayed at the Zen Center all by herself. “Literally?” I asked. “Well, some of the time there was another person there.” But essentially, she was on her own. Why did she stay? “Well, the sitting experience was strong.” Strong enough that she remained in the United States, illegally, for ten years, training under Sasaki Roshi in Los Angeles and at the training center on Mount Baldy.

                When Sasaki Roshi eventually asked her where she wanted her Zen Center to be located, she said Montreal—because it seemed the most interesting place in Canada. Leonard Cohen had also trained at Mount Baldy and had a house, next to one in which he lived, that he said he would donate in order to establish a zendo. She flew back to Canada with only the few possessions she was able to bring in her bags and expected that Cohen might meet her at the airport. He didn’t, of course.

                It was difficult at first, she admits, because people thought of it as “Leonard Cohen’s Zen Center.” They would come hoping that he would show up. He didn’t. The donated house is now Myokyo’s residence. The new temple space has been rented from another landlord.

                People learn about the temple by word of mouth.  When new people arrive, she shows them how to sit; describes the meditative process—being aware of the “seed-thoughts” that arise—which can be feelings or emotions as well as ideas. The negative ones we try to bury inside us. The neutral ones and the pleasant ones we allow to stay in our minds and they become stories we tell ourselves. The problem, of course, is that we begin to believe that those stories are our actual lives. It’s not an easy practice. It reminds me of Katagiri Roshi’s statement that the Zen he taught offered “no sweet candy.”

                The matter of Joshu Sasaki comes up. She doesn’t deny the allegations—though she does suggest some of the claims are exaggerated. Still, she has no doubts about his abilities as a teacher; she certainly recognizes him as her teacher. He hasn’t identified an heir, and it appears he won’t. “The tradition says that the student can only become an heir if he surpasses his teacher’s understanding,” she points out. “There is no one who has done that.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Myokyo (Zengetsu) – 39-45, 47, 48, 49, 51, 54, 56, 66, 67, 108, 286

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