Search This Blog

Monday, 27 January 2014

1/27 - The Kwan Um School and Richard Shrobe

As I’ve been working on the transcripts of these interviews, it’s become increasingly clear
how significant to the history of North American Zen are the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn and his Kwan Um School. The only representative of the school to whom I’d spoken, however, was Bobby Rhodes. I interviewed her back in July [see July 8, 2013, posting], but she seemed very approachable, so I contacted her again and asked her to recommend someone else in the school I could speak to. She suggested Richard Shrobe.
                I found him listed in Wikipedia as Wu Kwang Soen Sa Nim. Members of the school had also referred to Seung Sahn as “Soen Sa Nim”. So when our conversation began, I asked Richard if he were now the head of the order. He admitted that he probably was for North America, but that, in fact, Bobby Rhodes was the Head of the Order. Well, I had missed that entirely during my interview with her.
                Soen Sa Nim, it turns out, is a title meaning Zen Master. Soen is the same as Zen; Sa means master; and nim is an honorific. So when members of the school used it to refer to Seung Sahn—or to Richard or to Bobby—it was much like members of Japanese Schools referring to their teacher as “Roshi.” Both Richard and Bobby wear the title lightly. They also both have “day jobs” by which they support themselves. Kwan Um teachers don’t make a career of it. Bobby Rhodes is a hospice nurse. Richard is a psychotherapist. One gets the sense that the Korean school, on the whole, is a little less stiff, a little less formal, than Japanese schools can be at times.
                Richard is a former jazz musician and hard-drug user. “The two kind of went together.” When he realized he needed to do something about his life, he, his wife, and young daughter moved into a Hindu Community run by Satchidananda. It was the 60s. Satchidananda was the opening speaker at the 1969 “Woodstock Music and Arts Festival”—the one with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplan, and the Jefferson Airplane.
                Five years later, Richard decided that the Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga program wasn’t doing all that he’d hoped it would, so the family moved out. Later, he learned about Master Seung Sahn and found his teacher.
                He wasn’t, he admits, one of the students who went out of his way to attend every retreat or rush off to Korea. He made it clear early on that he was intent on balancing family, career, and his Zen practice. But he was committed to the practice, and eventually Seung Sahn gave him inka—the first of two stages of authorization. The second—transmission—came some time later.
                When I ask Richard what the function of Zen is, he tells me: “Zen is a practice of becoming clear, returning to your original mind before concept, opinion, and idea.” The answer isn’t substantially different from what Patrick Gallagher gave me a week ago.  I ask Richard if he believes there’s any difference in the way the Japanese Schools and the Korean School approach this function. “Not fundamentally. The flavor might be a little different in terms of the cultural underpinnings.” I’ve already sensed that.
                An interesting aspect of Kwan Um training is that, before a student is given inka, he or she is sent to visit a number of Japanese Zen sites in North America to undertake Dharma Combat with the teachers in those centers. The Japanese centers aren’t blind-sided in this arrangement; they know the Kwan Um students are coming, and they accommodate them. Richard sat sesshin with Maezumi Roshi, Eido Roshi, and others. Today, teachers like Chozen Bays in Oregon [March 26, 2013, posting] and Shinge Sherry Chayat [June 12] continue the tradition.
                The Kwan Um School makes use of the same koan (the say “kung-an”) collections as the Japanese Rinzai—the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff Record. But their approach is a little different. Early in their training, students are assigned an initial kung-an such as “What is it?” which if dwelled upon with sufficient sincerity and perseverance will help the student arrive at what they call “Don’t Know Mind.”
                “It’s like the story of Bodhidharma,” Richard tells me, referring to the opening koan (kung-an) in the Blue Cliff Record. “When he’s before the Emperor Wu, and the Emperor asks him, ‘Who are you?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘Don’t know.’”
                One of the most significant factors in the development of both Zen and Buddhism in general in North America has been the way various schools have encountered one another and begun interacting. I remember during my visit to Chozen Bays’ Great Vow Monastery that one of the monks was actually a practitioner in a Tibetan School. This “ecumenicism” certainly has been and will, doubtless, continue to be to the benefit of all parties.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 423-438

No comments:

Post a Comment