In addition to the Japanese teachers who came to North America in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were also Zen teacher from China, Vietnam, and Korea. The focus of my books has been the tradition as it came down from Japan, but over and over again I have had people mention the importance of Korean teacher, Seung Sahn, in America. John Tarrant, for example, told me that his first breakthrough had occurred during a retreat with Seung Sahn.
Zen Master Soeng Hyang is one of Seung Sahn’s heirs currently residing in Berkeley, California. She had previously been in Providence, Rhode Island, where I had hoped to be able to visit her. Seung Sahn’s temple had also been in Providence.
When I learned that she had relocated, I arranged a Skype interview with her. We are a few minutes late getting started, and she contacted me, introducing herself as “Bobbie.” The title “Zen Master” is a rank within the Kwan Um School of Zen, and the name “Soeng Hyang” means “Nature’s fragrance.” “Like incense, kind of,” she tells me. Her birth name is Bobbie Rhodes, and she is a practicing nurse working in hospice care, as well as a Zen teacher. She carries her lap top into the bedroom as we begin, and she continues the conversation while lying back in bed.
Her father had been in the Navy, and the family relocated several times. She had been born in Providence, but then the family moved to California. They belonged to the Episcopal Church, and, as a young woman, Bobbie was struck by the words of the Creed. She found it so difficult to claim to believe these statements that she would become physically ill and have to leave the church. “Jesus rose again on the third day, ascended to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God. Where is the right hand of God?” she wondered.
She volunteered to supervise some of the younger Sunday School participants—“I watched them color”—and one Sunday one of them, asked her, “Where’s Jesus?” Where, indeed, she wondered. “He was here last week,” the child insisted. She was referring to the bearded father of one of the other students who had been telling stories to them. But the question stung Bobbie. “Where was Jesus?” “It was my first koan.”
In 1963, she had a nurse’s license and was working with Mexican-American farm workers in California. A doctor at the clinic introduced her to marijuana and LSD. She would take the drug and wander about in nature. It was an important opening for her. Eventually, however, it didn’t lead anywhere else, and she decided to look for a Zen teacher. She had decided she wanted to do koan practice, and when she approached the monks at the San Francisco Zen Center, she was told that wasn’t part of their tradition.
Then on another acid trip, she got the feeling that she should go back to Providence and “make amends” with her parents, to whom she hadn’t spoken for two years. So she crossed the continent, found work in Providence, and then looked for an apartment. One of the apartments she looked at happened to be over Seung Sahn’s temple. “It was just his apartment, really.” She didn’t take the apartment, but she did meet Seung Sahn and, shortly after, moved into the temple with two other students. She stayed at the temple, as it moved to larger accommodations, until her daughter was born fourteen years later, and they looked for their own house.
The focus of the Kwan Um School is mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness is somewhat easier to do in Seated Meditation (they don’t use Japanese terms like zazen), but it is supposed to continue throughout all of one’s activity. It was a natural aid to her work as a nurse, to be able to encounter people and situations clearly and directly. She tells me, “My teacher never encouraged samadhi. He discouraged samadhi.” Zen was not to be something separate from daily activity, it was to be part of all one did. Constantly to ask, “What is this?” What is this specific situation I am in, this specific person whom I am encountering?
I ask about the size of the Kwan Um School, which is not very big, compared to the more common schools descended from Japanese teachers. She says that most of the members are older and admits that she had expected Zen to “bloom like crazy” because it had made so much sense to her. To her disappointment, it hasn’t. “I don’t know. Maybe people have stopped taking LSD as much,” she jokes. Then more seriously, “I don’t know what happened. I do think there’s a real addiction to electronics now.” And that certainly may be a part of it. Zen is about encountering reality. “Virtual reality,” by definition, is not reality.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 423-437
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 423-437