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Thursday, 13 June 2013

6/12 - Dai Bosatsu Zendo

                My hosts at Zen Mountain Monastery told me that Dai Bosatsu was on “the other side of the mountain.” Both monasteries are in the Catskills—the mountains where Rip van Winkle fell asleep and woke to find the world, as he had known it, changed. The scenery along the drive, up and over the mountains, is impressive—gently rolling hills in bright green, a high altitude reservoir, creeks and streams, a waterfall that has partially eaten away at the road. An eagle glides alongside the car for a while, almost at the height of my head.
                But when I arrive here, I feel like I’m in another world altogether.
                All things, of course, are relative. I had thought that the Morgan Bay Zendo in Maine was isolated, but to get to Dai Bosatsu on Beecher Lake, one travels along a rough secondary road and then up a gravel road—partially eroded by the persistent rains. I had thought that Zen Mountain Monastery was large—I described it as “huge.” But the front gate for Dai Bosatsu is two miles from the main monastery building. The grounds cover 1400 acres.
                The property is on Beecher Lake. The guest house had been the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother. It is pretty much what one would expect a wealthy 19th century family to build as their the mountain getaway. But then one comes up to the monastery itself, constructed in traditional Japanese style, and one could believe one had been transported to Kyoto.
                The formalities are Japanese. Lunch is eaten jihatsu, with three nesting bowls and chants in Japanese. Western monks with Japanese Dharma names, wearing Japanese robes, respond with “Hai!” when addressed. There is an altar with incense—and a lighter—in my room and, as far as I can tell, all the rooms. The walls are decorated with calligraphy. There has been a Japanese flavor at the other centers I’ve visited, but nowhere has it been as pervasive as here.
                It is also fair to say that this is the first place I’ve visited where I did not immediately feel at ease.  It is beautiful. It is entrancing. But that’s  part of my problem. It’s exotic. Does the practice, I wonder, benefit from being exotic?
                If I am not entirely at ease with the structure and forms, it is not at all difficult to feel at ease with the abbot—Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi. She comes to our interview with her dog, Nikita. Throughout the conversation she is relaxed and informal.  She pauses, reflectively, before answering my questions, and her responses are cogent and articulate. She interviews well. One of her students tells me that he sees in her someone who genuinely embodies the Four Vows. The term that comes to my mind is “charming.” She has an infectious grin.
                Her family situation, when she was a child, had been difficult. Her step-father was physically abusive, once taping her mouth shut because he felt she was making too much noise. But she early learned that if she went off on her own and just sat still, with  hands clasped, she could gain a sense of peace otherwise unattainable. In her eighth grade world studies class, there was a unit on Zen Buddhism, and she recognized that what she had been doing was Zen. She had intuitively discovered zazen.
                We go into the zendo at 6:00 for chanting (reciting the lineage back to before Bodhidharma), two forty-five minute periods of zazen, and kinhin—which winds its way down inner and outer corridors—followed by a series of prostrations. As in Morgan Bay, there are no sounds except those of the birds calling. The building is otherwise absolutely silent—so the han, the bells, and the slightly tinny gong have a presence that they might not otherwise. The atmosphere is taut, and it is easy to focus.
                Shinge Roshi refers to Dai Bosatsu as the “gem of North American Zen.” It is the first Rinzai monastery to be established outside of Japan; officially inaugurated in the bi-centennial year, 1976, it had actually been in operation for some five years prior. Aesthetically—regardless of my reservations about the Japanese accoutrements—it is a marvel. And one is conscious of the spiritual power of the place. The atmosphere is enveloping.
                It is a gem. But currently there are only seven people in residence, and one of them will soon be leaving. Sesshin can have as few as fifteen attendees.
                The numbers used to be greater.  Part of the problem is what Shinge refers to as “the troubles”—the revelations of Eido Shimano’s sexual misconduct. Part of it is the fact that this is not an easy place to get to; Zen Mountain Monastery, by comparison, is just down the road from Woodstock (the Woodstock), where there are a plethora of yoga studios and like-minded people. But I also wonder if the “foreignness” of the place isn’t a factor.     
                I find myself torn. The beauty, the atmosphere, the purity of the teaching, the intensity of the practice—none of these are things one would want to see compromised. And yet. . . .
                Shinge Roshi admits that she is still pondering how Japanese or how American the forms should be; she calls it “her koan”—how best to preserve and pass on the teaching she had received. And the truth is that there is something terribly moving in knowing that, morning and evening, people gather in this zendo to recite these chants, sit zazen, and carry out these formalities.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:

Chayat, Shinge Roko Sherry – 69-82, 125, 213, 295

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