Friday, 7 June 2013

6/7 - Zen Mountain Monastery


                Zen Mountain Monastery is huge.
                First of all, there is the property. 230 acres in the Catskill Mountains. I counted five separate entrance signs along the Plank Road in Mount Tremper, New York.
               The first thing one notices upon driving up the main entrance is an impressive house now listed on the US Register of Historic Places. Originally a Roman Catholic retreat center, it is a gracious structure with vaulted inner stairways and elaborate ironwork on the doors and windows. One door hinge portrays a mother robin feeding a worm to her young. The inside handle to the door leading to the parking lot is in the shape of a grasshopper. For someone whose interest in Asian philosophy was at least partially twigged by David Carradine’s Kung Fu, it seems appropriate. This building now houses the dining hall, the dormitories, and the zendo (which can seat up to 104 participants). A more modern building beside it, only recently completed, is where the offices, lecture hall, and program rooms are found. Its walls are graced with John Daido Loori's photographs. There are cabins and A-frames for residents; there are three hermitages on site--and a graveyard (nothing says you are established in a location like a functioning graveyard).
                But even more significant is the scope of programming offered here. There is a traditional monastic residential program, of course. But there is also a series of programs which bring Zen out of the Zendo and into the wider world. Retreats are given on water-colors, archery, pottery, story-telling, and photography. Each includes morning and evening zazen. An art course is being registered when I arrive. In the parking lot, there are license plates from Virginia, Montana, Michigan, Ohio.
                Zen Mountain Monastery is part of the Mountain and Rivers Order founded by John Daido Loori, one of Taizan Maezumi’s heirs. The order also includes the Zen Center of New York, the Zen Environmental Studies Institute, Dharma Communications, and the National Buddhist Archives. Their promotional material states that the order is based on the “Eight Gates” of Zen developed by Loori:


  • zazen
  • the student-teacher relationship
  • liturgy
  • art practice
  • body practice
  • Buddhist studies
  • work practice
  • right action


                “Grounded within a rigorous monastic matrix, the Eight Gates training emphasizes practice, realization, and actualization of our true nature.”
                The abbot is Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei. He comes in for our interview soaking wet and muddy because he is currently facilitating another retreat topic: Wilderness Training. The catalog lists the program as “Born as the Earth: Wilderness Skills Training” and goes on to describe it thus: “Learn basic outdoor skills and engage the teachings of the wild in the context of Zen training.” Camping in the wilderness and zazen. Today the participants are learning to cope with unanticipated weather conditions. Did I mention that there is a deluge falling at the moment?—three inches of rain predicted before the storm passes. “They are learning about desire,” Ryushin tells me. “The desire to be dry; the desire for a nice hot cup of tea.”
                He was born in Warsaw and came to the US with his parents at the age of 13. He still has a slight Polish accent. He was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, careers he gave up in order to become a monk. He does pay his annual fees to keep his medical license but that is essentially to serve the community. “I can write prescriptions if they’re needed, or I can guide people through the labyrinth of medical procedures if they have to go to the hospital.” He admits that his mother had difficulty when his life changed directions. “I went from being ‘my son the doctor’ to being ‘my son the monk.’ It was not easy for her.”
                I ask what drew him to the practice of Zen, and, without hesitation, he replies: “My own pain. Although my life was a success on the surface, I was not a happy human being. I was anxious, dissatisfied.” His girl friend of the time introduced him to Vipassana meditation, and immediately he recognized that meditation provided something which addressed the issues he was struggling with more effectively than did therapy. As befits a person with psychiatric training, he is articulate and detailed in his description of his growing involvement with Zen and monastic life.
                I note the emphasis on Liturgy and Buddhist studies here. They are central, he tells me. “Some people react negatively to the liturgical elements, of course. But they are important to what we do.” This is a very much a Buddhist monastery. Zen is not presented as a practice separate from Buddhism as a faith tradition. People who aspire to be students—rather than participants—are expected to become familiar not only with classical Zen literature but with the Pali Sutras as well. The commitment which prospective students take on is a huge one. And they come—people of all ages, the young, the middle aged—in numbers large enough to support this place. The only source of income is program fees and sesshin fees. Pulling that off is pretty huge as well.

[Note: In January 2015, Ryushin was asked to step down as abbot of ZMM. By his own admission, he had been engaged in "an intimate relationship with someone outside our sangha" thus betraying his partner, "breaking our spiritual union vows and ending our marriage." He also admitted that he had been exploring "shamanic traditions and religions" and that his inclusion of elements of these in his presentation of the Dharma "was irresponsible and might have caused some confusion." Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, the head of the Mountain and Rivers Order, took over the duties of abbot at the monastery.]

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Arnold, Geoffrey Shugen – 262, 266
Loori, John Daido – 65, 224-25, 228, 232, 239, 251-269, 274, 280, 418-19, 476
Marchaj, Konrad Ryushin – 14, 258, 262, 268
Zen Mountain Monastery – 13-14, 20-22, 224-25, 251-69, 419

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