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Thursday, 6 June 2013

6/5 - The Morgan Bay Zendo

            The original Zen (Chan) teachers in China were difficult to access. Their temples were hidden away in the mountains, intentionally located far from larger population centers. Nor were they welcoming. Prospective students who found their way to the temple gates could be refused entry for days on end in order to test their sincerity. In the early 1970s, something similar was happening in a remote coastal village in Maine.

            Walter Nowick was a Julliard-trained musician who was also the first American authorized to teach in the Rinzai School. Before Robert Aitken finished his training under Yamada Roshi and before Philip Kapleau set up shop in Rochester, Nowick had completed the koan curriculum under Zuigan Goto at Daitokuji and returned to a farm his family had purchased for him on the Morgan Bay Road outside of Surry, Maine.

            Gradually people heard about him and made their way to the farm. “There was a tree by the old farm house,” Hugh Curran tells me. The routine was that students would stand by the tree and wait for Walter to acknowledge them. Generally he would come out and tell them that he didn’t want any more students. If the student was serious, he would not be dissuaded. Curran says that he was accepted after three vigils by the tree.

            Charles Guilford waited two and a half months. “There was no formula,” his wife, Susan,  tells me. The Guilfords remember that potential students were expected to establish themselves in the region and find a way to support themselves before they would be considered for acceptance.

            Curran lives half a mile from what is now known as the Morgan Bay Zendo. The Guilfords live half a mile on the other side of the Zendo. In the mile between their homes, there are several houses on lots notched out of the thick Maine woods most of which were built by students who, decades ago, had made their way here to study Zen.

            In 1984, when the Cold War was still waging, Nowick became concerned about the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he stopped teaching Zen in order to focus on trying to promote understanding between the two nations through a shared appreciation of music. He established the Surry Opera Company and continued to live in the old farm house, until it burned down, but withdrew from active participation with the Zen Community.

            A handful of students decided to maintain the zendo. A board of directors was formed, and they continued—without a resident teacher—to hold regular sits. Teachers from various traditions—Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese—were invited to hold retreats. For almost thirty years, the Morgan Bay Zendo has persisted in this manner.
            There is a parking area off the Morgan Bay Road where a small sign identifies the zendo. Practitioners leave their cars here and then make their way down a path through the woods to a clearing where the large, beautiful zendo is situated. The lumber for this—and the other buildings on the site—was harvested from Walter’s land and milled there as well. It is an elegant structure, designed by a student who had built movie sets. The sides of the sloped roof are in two sections, the upper section more sharply angled than the lower, suggesting the curved roofs of some Asian structures.

            Inside, two rows of tans face one another, with seating on each side for 12. The zendo is too far from the road—and the electric heating too costly—to keep it open during the winter months, but, for the other nine months of the year, practitioners still gather here on Sunday mornings to sit. During the summer, there is a shorter sit on Wednesday evenings as well. I am here for the first of these for this year. Five other sitters come for two zazen periods of 25 minutes with a short rest between.

            It is almost perfectly silent. There are no electric hums. There is no sound of traffic. There is only the chirping and peeps of the frogs in a nearby pond. The building—on a wood path, off a secondary road, in a sparsely populated region of Maine—is something of a miracle. One understands why Walter’s former students struggle to maintain it. But, as Hugh notes, they have had trouble recruiting younger members to ensure the survival of both the zendo and the community.

            There is a large boulder in the woods near the zendo beside which Walter had buried a portion of the ashes of his teacher, Zuigan Goto. Walter died this past February, and, later this year, his ashes will be deposited there as well. The boulder is massive and will persist whatever happens to this property. It would be a shame if the zendo did not persist as well.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 469-476


  1. Great Story, the zendo looks so peaceful.

  2. Behind the scrim of serenity is a very ugly history, which unfortunately seldom gets press (the scholarship of Stuart Lachs, a one-time student of Nowick's, is one exception) because by and large, the chroniclers of "American Zen" scene are so smitten with the idea of it all that the rigor-which would be a normal part of any other sociological research-is oddly-or not so oddly-missing.There were very good reasons that Mr. Nowick "withdrew from active participation". Namely that the community which comprised his students broke apart as people gradually woke up to his fraudulent (he was never given dharma transmission but allowed his students to call him "Roshi" anyway) and manipulative actions. He frequently would pit the body of students against particular individuals whom he had determined needed shunning. Nothing very "Zen" about his zendo except the bells, cushions and joss sticks. More than 30 years later, we now know more about the machinations of many other Zen leaders at centers all over the country; Nowick's behavior, in the broader context-appalling and deeply damaging as it was-is, was, hardly exceptional nor has it ceased; the exercising of raw power and ego continue and suckers are born every minute. People believe what they want to believe.