We leave Jaroso at dawn, just as the sun is hitting the peaks of the San Luis mountains. Some of these have become snow-covered since we arrived. The autumn colors are richer; yellows remain predominant, but there are russets and a tree which turns a deep burgundy.
It is a six hour drive to Berthoud, north of Denver. This is farmland and horse ranches. Shishin (Lion Heart) Wick has a couple of horses, as well as goats, and chickens (“Fresh eggs every day”). The “Abbey” is his home, where he has added a zendo and sleeping quarters for retreat participants. Hand painted signs, statuary, a coy pond, and Tibetan prayer flags identify the site. The colors of the house are more Tibetan than Japanese, bright primary colors—green, yellow, red. There is an invocation by the outside entrance to the Zendo: “Enlightened ones of the universe, Bodhisattvas, Protectors of the Dharma, together with planets, stars, and all sentient ones. We open our hearts to transform the five poisons of ignorance, attachment, pride, envy and anger. May healing love and peace prevail throughout the whole Earth and entire universe. Maha prajna paramita.”
There is a feminine ambiance here. Statues, banners, and paintings of Kwan Yin prevail. There is a large Kwan Yin on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means “Body of Light.” Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn't join us.
The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. “Are you the abbot?” I ask. “Is that the title you use?” No. Shinko is the abbess. “And you are?”
“The consort,” he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the “Spiritual Director.” He punctuates his speech with brief, bright smiles.
Shishin was trained as an atomic physicist and is an oceanographer. He is one of Taizan (Great Mountain) Maezumi’s Dharma heirs, although he received inka—the final authorization as a teacher—from Bernie Glassman, the only person to whom Maezumi had given inka. He first came to Colorado when a group of students in Boulder asked him to do so. From there he moved to Lafayette and finally—four years ago—to Berthoud. He admits that the community with which he works has gotten smaller with each move.He and Shinko have held both art retreats and retreats in what they call “Great Heart Practice.” Their web site describes this as “a program that combines traditional Zen meditation with intensive workshops aimed at uncovering how personal conditioning obstructs our experience of oneness.” Their first traditional sesshin was held only one month ago; it had eleven participants. Berthoud is out of the way. There is no local community; the participants all came from elsewhere.
It is a lay sangha. “Maezumi was basically interested in the people who were going to be his heirs”—in other words, people who were going to become Zen clergy and teachers. Shishin’s focus is lay practitioners. For him, the purpose of Zen is to “disseminate the essential teachings of the Buddha in a way that can be digested by a non-Buddhist public, in order to build a strong enough base of interest in meditation.” Meditation is valuable in itself. Not everyone who comes to Zen will become “awakened,” but they can still benefit from the practice. Hopefully, as well, there will be people who “go deep enough into it that they have realizations which will preserve the original intent of the teachings, to carry it forward.” But those individuals will always remain a minority.
This is my final interview. Tomorrow we fly back to Fredericton. Perhaps, in some ways, this an appropriate place to end. Maitreya Abbey demonstrates some of the changes which are occurring throughout North American Zen. There is as much emphasis on compassion as there is on wisdom. There is a stronger focus on the feminine, in contrast to the Samurai Zen of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The discipline is still strict, but the kyosaku is only used when requested, and one can ask for a shoulder massage instead.
There remain “traditional” centers, but perhaps the most significant discovery of these visits has been the number of alternate gates to practice. One can still undertake formal Zen training, much as it would have occurred at Rochester under Philip Kapleau or in San Francisco under Shunryu Suzuki, but there are other entry points as well.
Shishin Wick does not seem to fear that Zen is dangling by a thread, as Joan Sutherland has suggested (she being an example of those varied contemporary approaches to practice), but he admits he doesn’t know what Zen will be like in the future. It will be very different from what it was when the pioneers brought it here. It will be more accommodating. But it will always need those who go deep enough to “preserve the original intent of the teachings.”
Awakened or not, we all have enough to do dealing with the five poisons.
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Wick, Gerry Shishin – 19, 19-20, 125, 289-302, 472