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Sunday, 6 October 2013

10/6 - Seiju Mammoser

                The sky is filled with hot air balloons, bright and colorful against the background of the Sandia (“Watermelon”) Mountains (another name which works better in Spanish than in English). Our visit to Albuquerque happens to coincide with the annual balloon festival. We’re told that as many as 800 will be launched today.
                There is nothing light or airy about Seiju Mammoser. I have some difficulty determining what his attitude to the interview is. Suspicious? Skeptical? At the very least, cautious and reserved. He is the abbot and founder of the Albuquerque Zen Center. The web site identifies him as the “resident osho”—or priest. He does not use the term “teacher.” As we’re walking the grounds, he pulls a few weeds from before the front wall. “Are you the groundskeeper as well?” I ask.
                “I’m everything: groundskeeper, office manager, janitor.” That’s as chatty as he gets. This is not a man with a lot of small talk, and one feels he does not suffer fools lightly.
                He’s casually dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt and a quilted vest, accompanied by his dog, Jemez. “Just like the mountains to the north. There’s a Zen Center there too—the Bodhi Manda Center.” He denies he’s being coy when it later comes out he failed to mention that his former wife was its “resident osho.”
                Jemez, he assures me, is the real teacher. Jemez, of course, is just busy being a dog.
                Both Bodhi Manda and the Albuquerque Zen Center are affiliates of Rinzai-Ji, Joshu Sasaki’s temple in Los Angeles, and Sasaki is the only “teacher” they recognize. The last couple of years have been tough on Rinzai-ji, and that may explain Seiju’s manner.
                I cautiously pose my opening question somewhat differently than usual. “If I were a young person from the neighborhood who came by one day, knocked at the door, and asked, ‘What’s this all about? What’s Zen do?’ What would you say to me?”
                “I would laugh.”
                I wait to see if anything more is coming, then prod a little: “Okay, so now I’m probably embarrassed, but I don’t run off. And I keep asking, ‘What’s the purpose of Zen?’”
                “Basically you have to sit down and be still. When you’re clear about where ‘here’ is, then we can talk about other things. If you’re not clear about what ‘here’ is, what are we talking about?”
                The interview does not get easier as we proceed.
                No doubt the emphasis here is on practice. Other things are extraneous. Though, oddly, there is a large library on two walls just behind me, and Seiju tells me it’s the best on Buddhism in the South West—better than the collection at UNM. I resist the temptation to see if my first book is on the shelf.
                Although he founded the Albuquerque Center, Seiju was working at Rinzai-Ji in Los Angeles when the stories about Sasaki’s inappropriate behaviour gained notoriety. The wife of the monk who was then heading things up in Albuquerque was a journalist, and two articles came out in the local paper highly critical of Sasaki. The monk decided he should disaffiliate the center from Rinzai-ji. Seiju came back to prevent that, and the monk set up shop elsewhere in the city taking some members with him. Seiju was faced with rebuilding the Center, a task made more difficult by the fact that the only source of income was from donations and membership fees. With membership down, those revenues were also down.
                When I ask how many people practice at the Center, his answer is vague. Maybe twenty people will show up on Saturday. During the week, sometimes no one shows. When I push him for a number, he tells me, “Somewhere between 20 and 50.”
                Membership may be down, but he’s not about to compromise his approach: “You want teaching? Show me where ‘here’ is.”
                He is, however, frank and forthcoming about Sasaki’s problems. It has been a challenge to all the centers associated with Rinzai-ji, and a lot of people have left. Still, like Myokyo in Montreal, Seiju has no doubt about Sasaki’s qualifications as a teacher. “He was always putting more effort on the table on your behalf than you were.”
                As we head towards the zendo, he calls my attention to a sheet of paper on the bulletin board by the door. It’s a quotation from a talk Sasaki gave at Bodhi Manda in 1982:
                “The standpoint of this Zen Center is our own practice of Dharma Activity. Therefore we accept those who want to study Dharma Activity. Those who are not interested in Dharma Activity should leave immediately.”
                Seiju states it bluntly: “Teaching is doing. Words are words, but teaching is doing.” It all comes back to sitting down, being still, and breathing. If you’re not up to that, have a nice drive home.
                The sky is empty as I head back to the friends’ house where we are staying. The balloons have landed, been located by their chase vehicles, and are packed up, ready for tomorrow’s flight.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Mammoer, Seiju Bob – 45-55, 56-57, 66, 99, 121

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