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Friday, 18 October 2013

10/18 - Genjo Marinello

                Well . . . as it turns out, Shishin Wick was not my last interview.
                It had been suggested that my overview of Zen in North America needed more balance, needed to have at least one other example of a more formal and traditional Japanese practice. I’ve also been told that it should probably include the Vietnamese Zen tradition. So, I may try to visit one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s groups in the spring. In the meantime, I made contact with Genjo Marinello (the name attached to his email is  “Joe Marinello”) of Chobo-ji in Seattle.
                Genjo had just, within the last two weeks, ordained Eshu Martin as an Osho, putting to rest the questions that the Sasaki lineage had about Eshu’s credentials as a teacher. That alone would have been enough for me to be interested in him.
                One does not get the same feel for a person via skype as one does in person, but Genjo certainly struck me as having that settled self-confidence and ease which I’ve noted in previous posts about Taigen Henderson and Bodhin Kjolhede. In the image I receive via skype, he appears to be sitting at a desk in a study. There is an upright piano in the background, and western-style art on the walls (rather than the calligraphy and other Asian art works I’ve commonly seen elsewhere). Genjo’s head is shaved, and he wears a head-set during the interview.
         His entry to Zen began in a freshman English class in the ‘70s, when the teacher introduced him to the idea that there “was a way to experience, or penetrate, reality beyond the scientific method; that you could have something called insight, inspiration, or intuition. You could tap into some fundamental truths heuristically by investigating your own internal condition.” That led him to the practice of Zen. He was living in southern California at the time.
                Later, while serving as a Vista volunteer in Seattle, he practiced with a group established there by Glenn Webb, a professor at the University of Washington. In 1978, Dr. Webb invited a Rinzai teacher to Seattle from Japan. This was Genki Takabayahsi Roshi, who then founded Dai Bai Zen Cho Bo Zen Ji, or “The Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple on Great Plum Mountain.”
                Genjo was sitting with this group when he happened to attend a lecture given by the Dalai Lama. The talk was interrupted by a group of Maoist-students who heckled the Dalai Lama for failing to support the Chinese Communist regime in Tibet. Genjo was so impressed by the way the Dalai Lama handled the situation that he announced to Genki Roshi that he was ready to commit himself to Buddhist practice.
                He spent a short time in Japan, at Ryutakuji, where he met Soen Nakagawa Roshi among others. He was surprised to learn there that the Japanese students were only there because “it was their lot in life.” They were bewildered when he told them that he had chosen—that he wanted—to be there. “Who would want that?” they wondered. So eventually he just said he had been sent there.
                It was hard. And although his own training methods are considered traditional and a little strict in America, he makes it clear they are nothing like what he went through in Japan. “Nothing you ever did was right. And if you did do something to someone’s satisfaction, someone else would come along and undo it, telling you it was all wrong.” One day as he was sweeping a gravel path, he was reprimanded for whistling. Not something to be done while you work.
                For Genjo, Zen “points at our deep, true nature.” We don’t often tap into the deepest part of our nature, he explains, as a result of which we tend to have a fairly narrow and individualistic sense of ourselves “and who we are and our place in the universe.” Zen, then, provides a training that helps us to transcend “our ego identity and discover our deeper, seamless nature” with all other beings.
                He had his initial kensho experience on the third day of his first sesshin, and he had further openings while in Japan. I remark that it is significant that the training works well enough in Japan that even students who don’t want to undertake it—who are there only because it is their “lot”—still come to awakening. Conversely, students who want that type of training and awakening experience in America, sometimes never attain it. And I wonder if the strictness of the Japanese training isn’t a factor. Genjo agrees that it may be, and, for that  reason, maintains a stricter regime in Seattle than I’ve found at some other places I’ve been.
               He is careful, however, to put as much emphasis on the attainment of karuna (compassion) as of prajna (wisdom), and perhaps that has been the factor missing in the way Japanese Zen was transferred to the west.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Marinello, Genjo – 83-97, 111-12, 113, 115, 247-49


  1. Dear Richard, it was a pleasure talking with you the other day. I wish you well with your work. The above entry well demonstrates what a good observer and writer you are.