Monday, 24 June 2013

6/24 - Father Robert Kennedy



                When I was working in International Development with the YMCA, I used to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter, in part because it had a leftist slant on the Catholic Church—my birth heritage—with which I was comfortable, but largely because it was one of the best sources I could find for hard news coverage of events in Latin America. It covered other stories of interest to Catholics as well, of course.
                I first learned of Father Robert Kennedy—a Dharma heir of Bernie Glassman—in an NCR article in which it was announced that Kennedy, a Jesuit priest as well as an authorized Zen teacher, had recently given transmission to a Trappist monk, Kevin Hunt [see photo]. If I remember the article correctly, Father Hunt, when asked what a Trappist Zen Master did, replied that he wasn’t sure but suspected he was going to find out.
                Robert Kennedy maintains the Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. I was unable to meet him face-to-face—he has a heavy travel schedule, trying to be available to people who invite him to lead retreats wherever in the world that invitation comes—so we had a conversation by Skype in which he explained that the Zendo is really a one bedroom apartment in which a room has been set up as a meditation hall.
                Kennedy had spent several years in Japan in the 60s, was ordained a Catholic priest in Japan, without having any interest in Zen at all. After he returned to complete his graduate studies in America in the early ‘70s, however, he was driving his car one day and heard Alan Watts on the radio pointing out that “nothing in nature is symmetrical.” “I don’t know why that statement hit me with the strength that it did, but I had to stop the car and think. It was an extraordinary moment.”
                He went back to his rooms, took a blanket off the bed, folded it to make a cushion, and began sitting. His Zen practice had begun. “Something in my spirit said I had to stop doing theology and turn to experience. Turn away from theory and learn from my own doing.”
                Eventually he realized he needed to work with a formal teacher. He had a sabbatical in 1976 and went back to Japan—“not as a teacher this time, but as a pilgrim.” The Jesuit order, which was committed to understanding other cultures and faith systems, supported his desire to undertake Zen training and arranged for him to meet Yamada Koun Roshi, the same teacher with whom Sister Elaine MacInnes had worked.
                Father Kennedy remembers the first time he saw Yamada Roshi walk into the zendo. “I was sitting in the back, up against the back wall, and I remember he walked in to light the incense and to begin the day of sitting. I remember it vividly. Again, I cannot explain it. The very sight of him walking into the zendo was life changing.”
                When the sabbatical year was up, Kennedy continued training in the United States, at Yamada Roshi’s suggestion, with Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles. I mention that in my interview with Jan Chozen Bays, she described the Los Angeles center as half hippie-commune, half Zen temple. Kennedy pointed out that he didn’t live at the center but had rooms in the Jesuit House so missed the hippie part of the experience.
                He met Bernie Glassman in Los Angeles, and when Glassman received inka from Maezumi and returned to New York, Kennedy became his student. Glassman’s approach to Zen training was very different from that of Kennedy’s first two teachers. He had a strong sense of social responsibility and, at one point, had his students living on the streets with the homeless, having to beg for money if they wanted to buy a cup of coffee. “Glassman Roshi said that a lot of people like Zen because they like to sit in a zendo and be quiet and there’s a certain artistic flavor. The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, he said to me, ‘Some people like Zen clubs were they can sit together with like-minded people.’ But he brought us out onto the street.”
                After Glassman acknowledged Kennedy as a Dharma heir, Kennedy’s first inclination was to continue to sit by himself for a while in order to allow his practice to mature, but Glassman immediately assigned him a student, a Catholic nun, whose training he was put in charge of. Then other students began to appear. At first they were Catholics, but then people from other—or no—traditions came.
                He has now acknowledged several Dharma heirs of his own, including the Trappist Father Hunt. Hunt remains cloistered but, Kennedy informs me, meets with lay students who come to him.
                From the first days that Zen began to be practiced in North America, there have been Catholics who remained faithful to the church but were also drawn to Zen. Another Trappist, Thomas Merton, was one well known contemplative who had an interest in Zen. Apparently that interest continues. We probably still don’t know what a Zen Catholicism would be like, but, with some luck, we might find out.

[Note: In May of 2014, I had an opportunity to visit and interview Kevin Hunt. See entry for 5/28.]

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Kennedy, Father Robert – 134, 303-10, 318-19, 468, 469

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