South from the High Road to Taos, we follow a winding road through the Sangre de Cristos, a section of the Kit Carson National Forest which appears to be largely pine. The sharply curving road is marked by frequent flower-decorated crosses memorializing fatal accidents; we keep our speed down.
Mountain Gate (just Mountain Gate, not Mountain Gate Zen Center) is in Ojo Sarco, a community so small it isn’t on our road map. “Sarco” is an archaic Spanish word that means something like turquoise—so Turquoise Spring. I don’t see much of a spring anywhere. There is no sign marking the long drive that brings you to the Center. This is not a place one comes to by accident; there are no street drop-ins. People have to want to come here. And they do—from New Jersey, from Canada, from Mexico—to study and work with a diminutive, energetic great-grandmother of two, Mitra Bishop Roshi. She is one of Philip Kapleau’s Dharma heirs, and she is also a continuing student of Shodo Harada.
The center is a small adobe building surrounded by desert. Just within the entrance is the zendo. A calligraphy by Shodo Harada on the door of the zendo reads: “Great effort without fail will produce great light.” The zendo is small, with seating for fourteen, although another five can be squeezed in for sesshin. The room has large windows at one end, and rich desert sunlight warms the room. Mitra tells me that on moonlit nights, they can sit without need for any indoor lighting.
She lives here between sesshin, although she also spends a week a month at the Hidden Valley Zen Center in southern California, where she is also the teacher. We meet in her study. There is a Kannon statue in a niche on one wall; another wall is filled with books and a few family photos. Like the zendo, the sun provides both light and warmth.
She originally came to New Mexico with Philip Kapleau when he hoped to set up a Zen Center in Santa Fe, to which he could retire. He had left Toni Packer in charge in Rochester, and when Packer decided she could no longer continue as a Buddhist, he had to return to New York. Mitra remained in Santa Fe with a small group—including Will Brennan who would eventually recruit Henry Shukman to be the teacher there. After she had completed her training—travelling back and forth between Santa Fe and Rochester—Kapleau told her he was going to authorize her as a teacher. She didn’t feel ready and, with his approval, she went to work with Shodo Harada at Sogenji in Japan. The Rochester Zen Center had been noted for its strictness. Sogenji was stricter still, but she immediately felt at home.
I had actually begun my interview with Mitra Roshi last June by Skype, but the transmission kept breaking up, so we decided to put it off until I could visit her here. And I’m happy that we did. It was a delight to meet her. She speaks freely, volubly, and frankly. Three hours pass quickly. I was unaware of the time until my wife, sister, and brother-in-law (who had been waiting in the parking area for an hour) called the cell phone they’d loaned me. They join us as Mitra shows me the Kannon-do, a separate building in which a shrine to Kannon is kept.
It turns out that the Kannon statue had been bought in Toronto and brought back here. As the five of us chat, we also discover Mitra went to grade school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (where she learned Canadian spelling), and to high school in Crown Point, Indiana—less than an hour away from LaPorte, Indiana, where my sister and I grew up. She then attended IU, as did my sister. I begin to wonder if there’s a karmic connection between us.
During our thwarted Skype interview, when I asked Mitra what the function of Zen was, she told me it was “total liberation.” “By which I mean liberation from your hang-ups, liberation from places where you’re stuck.” She then added: “Total liberation means that your behaviour naturally accords with the precepts.” This results in “an incredible sense of freedom and joy that runs like a quiet river within.”
If that is the case, I asked, why have there been so many cases where teachers failed to manifest the precepts in their lives? She tells me what Shodo Harada had told her—that they simply hadn’t spent enough time in the monastery; their training had not been sufficient. And maybe it was as simple as that.
Henry Shukman had expressed the opinion that teachers who considered themselves autonomous were leaving themselves open to difficulties. Chozen Bays had stressed the importance of teachers having a teacher.
Mitra Bishop is a woman of integrity: an authorized teacher who retains the humility to continue to work with a teacher herself. She tells me that no matter how far along the road one is, there is still room for growth.
Probably for most of us, that's something hard to keep in mind.
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Bishop, Mitra – 54-55, 117, 146, 369-83, 389, 470