Thursday, 20 June 2013

6/20 - The Rochester Zen Center



                I have been told several times on this journey that the majority of Zen practitioners in North America today are still baby-boomers, people—like me—who became interested in the 1960s. There have been young people at many of the centers I’ve visited, but there are other centers—including my own sangha in Montreal—where a young member means someone in their 40s.
                A good number of baby-boomers came to Zen, of course, through drugs. I tell Bodhin Kjolhede that my short answer when people ask how I got involved is, “Mescaline.” “Me too!” he says. “Mescaline was my drug of choice as well!” Well, drugs may have been the first step, then came the books, of which there were two in particular. The people who read Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind made their way to San Francisco. Those who read Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen came here—to Rochester, New York. I read Kapleau and wrote a letter to the Zen Center in 1971, to inquire if there were any place to practice in Canada, because, at the time, I was unable to return to the US. Their reply didn’t show much sympathy for my situation, basically stating that if I were serious, I would figure out a way to get to Rochester. So I didn’t expect a particularly warm reception on this visit. Things have mellowed here, however, since the '70s.
                The Zen Center is on Arnold Park, another fairly ritzy neighborhood; two adjacent houses linked by a passageway. The grounds and structures are impressive and maybe a little daunting. I am early for my 9:00 appointment with Roshi Kjolhede and am told I can wait on a sofa in the foyer outside what appears to be the administrative offices. Young people dressed in dark navy short-sleeve shirts and matching loose pants hurry about their business—men and women barefoot and with close-cropped, but not shaved, heads. I’m reminded of what someone had said about the San Francisco Zen Center in the days before Blanche Hartman became abbess: “Well, they’re not unfriendly.”
                However, as in other centers I’ve visited, if there is a certain stiffness among the students (or perhaps they are just focused on carrying out their duties), the teachers have all been very easy to talk to. Even Kjolhede—the only teacher who, when asked how he was most comfortable being addressed, gave me a title (Roshi) instead of his name—is wholly relaxed, humorous, and very capable of putting others at ease. It’s that “man of no rank” with which I associated Taigen Henderson. Every single one of them has been someone you could imagine you’d enjoy having a beer with and discussing something other than Zen.
                Rochester—when Philip Kapleau was in charge—had a reputation for a very strict regime. It has been called “boot camp” or “samurai” Zen. “I thrived in that atmosphere,” Roshi Kjolhede tells me. Others did not, which was surely a factor in Toni Packer’s defection along with 200 members of the center.
                This is clearly a Buddhist center—the decorations make that obvious. But it is also American. Even the navy shirts and pants which identifies the individual as a priest (Roshi Kjolhede wears them as well) is something that could be worn on the street without attracting attention. “Kapleau Roshi was committed to developing an American style Zen,” the new roshi tells me.  And in his own tenure as “abbot” he has maintained and furthered that. Although he considers himself conservative, in retaining the teaching he received, he has also loosened some of the structures.
                There is a Zendo in the Center on Arnold Park where morning and evening sitting takes place, but for the past ten years all sesshin have taken place at their practice center—but not a monastery—at Chapin Mill, thirty-five minutes outside the city. We drive there because the Roshi is officiating at a wedding for two members.
                The Chapin Mill center is four lengthy corridors surrounding an inner courtyard, where the wedding ceremony will take place. The zendo is light and airy and seats up to sixty participants. One of the staff tells me that they can house up to seventy people here. The building is occasionally rented to other groups (“Of like mind,” the roshi points out), as is the Buddha Hall at the Arnold Park address. These rentals are a significant source of income.
                Chapin Mill is a lovely rural retreat with a bit more than 100 acres. Philip Kapleau’s grave is here, marked by the mill stone from the original mill. I lay a stone on it and am glad to have had the opportunity to do so.
                This is a strong community of between 400 and 500 members. While they might not be called monks, there a number of young, committed, ordained persons. One feels that this is all evidence that Zen is safely rooted in North America. But there is one thing I can’t help noticing. Rochester has a large African-American population; that’s evident from walking around downtown. But there are only a very few black practitioners here, at one of the oldest and most well-established centers in the country.
                Zen practice may be secure, but, in general, it still only draws people from a fairly narrow segment of the general population.
                 As I am walking to my car at Arnold Park after taking Roshi Kjolhede's photo, I see a line of Zen students come down the street, with bags for picking up litter. This is their form of Takahatsu. I ask the roshi: "Are these guys yours?" "Takahatsu," he tells me. "But don't try talking to them," he warns. They are focused on carrying out their duties.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Kjolhede, Bodhin – 146, 204, 321-336, 340, 342, 344, 345, 346, 374, 375, 388, 402, 420, 468

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