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Thursday, 3 October 2013

10/3 - Mountain Cloud Zen Center, Santa Fe

                My wife and I started these visits on the Pacific coast last March, accompanied by her
sister, just as spring flowers were beginning to bloom there. We are completing them now in the US Southwest, accompanied by my sister, just as the fall leaves are turning. There isn’t the variety of color one finds in the Northeast, but the cottonwoods and aspen are a particularly brilliant yellow. I have always liked the desert, and the drive south from Taos through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the name is somehow not so gruesome in Spanish) is one of the prettiest I know.
                Santa Fe architecture, even for private homes, largely adheres to a handful of local styles—Pueblo, Mission, or what they refer to as “Territorial.” The Mountain Cloud Zen Center on Old Santa Fe Trail is in the Pueblo style, thick adobe walls, flat roof, softly rounded corners, and projecting viga rafters. It was built by Philip Kapleau and a handful of volunteers in the mid-1980s. Kapleau had not enjoyed the winters in Rochester and hoped the New Mexico climate would be more congenial. The building is small but appealing, with a zendo, just inside the front door, which seats twenty-two on a raised tan.  
                Conditions in Rochester, unfortunately, required Kapleau to return there, and he did not came back to Santa Fe. A small group of practitioners remained, however, and—in a situation similar to what was occurring in Surry, Maine, at the same time after Walter Nowick stopped teaching—they maintained the zendo and their practice without a teacher for next twenty-eight years. The membership diminished over time, until there were only three members remaining, including a man named Will Brennan who learned of a student of Albuquerque Zen teacher, Joan Rieck, who had been recently authorized to teach in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition.
                Henry Shukman was born and raised in Oxford, England. He is lean and flexible, with an easy and good humored manner. When I show him the first photo I take of him, he declares it much too serious, and we do another.
                When he was eighteen years old, his father thought a period of hard, manual labor, would be good for his son and arranged for him to work on a ranch in Argentina. After a year on the farm, Shukman went off to explore other parts of South America and write a travel book. One day he was watching the sunlight on the ocean off the coast of Ecuador when he had what he called a “run of the mill experience of oneness” which left him feeling “flooded with love, and that love seemed to be everywhere.” There is still some excitement in his voice as he describes the event. His narrative reminds me of both the story Melissa Blacker had told me in Worcester, and my own experience in 1971 sitting on a metal bench outside a cottage called Birkenbrae in Fredericton.
                But while he was certain this experience was the answer to everything, he did not know what to do with it. He uses the word “suffering” to describe the next ten years, during which he alternately tried to forget about the experience or sought to address it without knowing how to.
                He came to New Mexico for the first time, in order to research a book on D. H. Lawrence. There he met another writer, Natalie Goldberg, who was a student of Katagiri Roshi. She happened to show him a passage by the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji. Although the passage did not immediately make sense to him, Shukman realized it was based in the same kind of understanding he had come to on the seaside in Ecuador, and he felt compelled to study Zen.
                For the next eight years or so, he sat with a variety of Zen teachers both in America and England but was not drawn to accept any of them as his personal teacher until he met John Gaynor. As he tells the story, he muses for a moment on what it is that draws one finally to a particular teacher. In part, he says, it was that Gaynor’s Zen was free of the Japanese trappings common elsewhere. He knew from his own original experience that whatever this was, it was not something limited to a particular culture or people.
                Gaynor introduced him to Joan Rieck, with whom he worked when he returned to New Mexico in order to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He later worked with, and continues to work with, the “abbot” of the Sanbo Kyodan school—Yamada Ryoun Roshi in Japan. When he was finally authorized to take his own students, he was recruited by Brennan to come to the Mountain Cloud Center.
                In its new incarnation, Mountain Cloud is still a young sangha--still only a year old. But it shows signs of vigor. As the interview draws to a close, people are gathering for an evening sit. Their ages runs from some in their twenties to others who look not much younger than me (66). The bell marking the first round of sitting tolls deeply as I make my way outside to admire the grounds and surrounding mountains. The sitters could not have hoped to have a more conducive environment.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:

Shukman, Henry – 145-154, 173, 174, 213, 377, 473

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