The first thing one notices about Joan Sutherland is her dimples when she smiles. One immediately has the sense that here is a teacher who would be able to put students at ease. This is a teacher with whom it would be a pleasure to work, a teacher with whom one would wish to work.
We meet in her home, a former barn transformed into a lovely living space. It is in Pueblo style (or Pueblo Revival), with smooth white walls and exposed rafters, but because of the space’s former use, the ceiling is much higher than usual. One can see the former hayloft window in the peak. The outside wall is field stone, which Joan had to mortar in order to keep the “critters” out.
In one corner of the room, there is an altar to Guanyin, with an unlit stick of incense in a bowl. A large calligraphy of the word “Buddha” graces a wall. There are several other Buddhist touches but also a large votive painting of Santo Miguel. And when I ask if she is a Buddhist, Joan responds immediately. “No.”
She is, however, a Chan (Zen) teacher and priest, authorized in the Sanbo Kyodan School, belonging to the lineage descending from Robert Aitken through John Tarrant. Like Tarrant, she has come to question the forms by which Zen has been brought to the west and has sought new ways to mine the richness of the koan tradition. She does not hesitate when I ask her, “What is the function of Chan?”—the term she prefers to Zen. She immediately replies, “Awakening. It has to be awakening.” And if awakening is the purpose, then it becomes important to distinguish between what is “Dharma” and what is Culture. Institutional structures are only valuable in so far as they assist in eliciting awakening. Otherwise, they can be—and perhaps should be—allowed to fall away. “Unless they’re beautiful,” she adds. Unless they are retained for their aesthetic value.
She found a copy of the Daodejing—no doubt then called the Tao Te Ching—as a young girl and was so deeply taken by it that she did graduate work in East Asian languages. There were not, however, many career opportunities for someone with that kind of training. The only job offer she received after graduating came from the CIA. “I turned it down.” She learned about koans and fell in love with them, knew intuitively that here was a deep wisdom—“like a dragon coiled at the bottom of the ocean”—that could be drawn upon. It was as if the dragon were dreaming the koans and murmuring in its sleep, “And some of us are listening for dragon murmurings.”
But she could not immediately find a teacher with whom to work. “I am a failed Soto Zen student,” she admits. Then she attended the funeral of a fellow Zen student, and the ceremony was officiated by John Tarrant Roshi, and she knew she had found her teacher.
She went through traditional koan training with him, received transmission, and began work with her own students. But both she and Tarrant understood that koans had a greater potential than the often very narrow, institutionalized way in which they were traditionally used. They sought new ways of presenting and working with koans. As far as possible, the language was modernized. Instead of “Mu” they used “No.” Instead of the traditional “correct answer” associated with traditional koan study, students were encouraged to discover how the koan could be something active in their personal lives.
She does hold fairly traditional meditation retreats, but she also holds “koan retreats,” in which there is more discussion. She also holds Koan Salons, where a group of students—all of whom already work with koans—discuss a single koan collectively, perhaps for multiple meetings.
She has a small “casita” near the house, where she meets with students and where her secretary has an office. But the retreats are held at the Cerro Gordo Temple operated by the Maha Bodhi Society, a kind of ecumenical Buddhist group which provides space to various Buddhist traditions. It is about a ten minute walk—fifteen for me with the cane—and we go over to it, only to find that the caretaker isn’t there and it’s locked. We can hear, however, the hollow knock of a han being struck. It is coming from the Upaya Zen Temple, only a few feet away, whose teacher is Joan Halifax.
“Do people ever get the two of you confused?”
“All the time.” In addition to which, there is Joan Reiki in Albuquerque with whom Henry Shukman studied.
Joan Sutherland tells me of her love and belief in Prajna and the Chan tradition, “And it will make me cry, because it always does.” But she also admits that she feels a sense of urgency, because it seems to her that the teaching is hanging by a thread.
It would be a great shame if the dragon fell asleep, and if there were no one left to listen to its murmurings.
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Sutherland, Joan – 146, 173-89, 191, 192, 213, 231