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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

1/15/2014 - Yoshin David Radin

                When I was at Zen Mountain Monastery, a young monk asked me what I hoped to
accomplish with my book. I started to give him a publisher’s spiel—“to demonstrate the scope of contemporary teaching, practice, and engagement”—then I stopped and said, “You know, basically I just want people to continue to see Zen as a viable spiritual practice.”
                There has been a shadow hanging over the interviews that I’ve been conducting: news items about Joshu Sasaki’s inappropriate behavior with female students, similar allegations about Eido Shimano, the autocratic and--at times--simply petty behavior of both men. Zen’s reputation has suffered a number of substantial body-blows in recent years.
                These aren’t issues I intend to gloss over, nor will I defend those who have kept these and other stories under wraps. But it remains that both men also seem to have been effective teachers. That does not excuse their personal behavior, but it does help to explain why they retain both male and female supporters. It is also true that they are both now elderly Japanese males, representatives of a cultural tradition very different from that of 21st Century North America. Again, not an excuse but a factor.
                Joshu Sasaki’s story has probably received greater coverage because of his age. He is now 106 years old. I had visited two of his “oshos”—priests he ordained who now run their own centers—Myokyo McLean in Montreal (April 29 posting) and Seiju Mammoser in Albuquerque (October 18 posting). But I wanted to speak to a third, so I arranged a distance interview with Yoshin David Radin in Ithaca, New York, who was kind enough to install Skype on his I-Pad specifically to permit the interview.
                Radin was the editor of a book which celebrated Sasaki’s one hundredth year. He clearly still admires Sasaki and named his first child, a daughter, “Joshi” after him. “He was able to transmit the highest wisdom,” he tells to me. How did he do that? “First there was a sense that he was residing in a different residence than I was residing. . . I am an individual seeking the higher wisdom. He seemed to be radiating from the higher wisdom. . . He could, through koan training and just his own presence, he could evoke that experience within me.”
                Radin’s own story is interesting. He grew up in New York, the son of a rabbi, and attended Jewish Parochial School. “It kept me out of bars and brothels.” After graduating high school, he went on a trip around the world, and in places like Hawaii and India discovered hashish and LSD. A number of Zen practitioners from the late 60s and early 70s—including me—followed a similar path to Zen practice.
                He did a sesshin with Richard Baker at the San Francisco Zen Center, but the experience was “unfruitful. A lot of pain and no intelligence.” He went back to New York state to live on a commune. I ask how he supported himself. “Chopping wood and hauling water. Literally.” It was a working farm but not self-sustaining.
                A friend in Canada suggested he try a retreat at Mount Baldy with Joshu Sasaki, and during that retreat he had experiences so moving that—at one point—he couldn’t return to the zendo after an interview with the Roshi but, instead, hid behind the building and lay beneath a tree just relishing the insights he had acquired.
                Radin established the Ithaca Zen Center and maintains a sitting group at nearby Cornell University. His wife is a sheikh in the Sufi tradition, and together they host popular body-mind retreats during the summer months. These bring in enough income to support the maintenance of a zendo for the smaller Zen sangha. Still, he offers five sesshin a year and maintains a weekly practice schedule. He has chosen, however, to remain removed from the formal structures associated with Rinzai-ji. But not because of any dissatisfaction with Sasaki.
                Sasaki Roshi has not given transmission—inka—to any of his oshos. When I ask Radin what he thinks will happen to the Rinzai-ji lineage after Sasaki dies, he tells me he doesn’t “have any concern about it. . . It doesn’t make a difference to me whether the line continues or not. It’s just the question of whether the wisdom continues.” One wonders, however, how the “wisdom” can continue without teachers authorized to transmit it. Oshos, for example, have been told not to use the koan system Sasaki had used in their teaching; so that part of the Rinzai-ji tradition will end with him.
                I suspect Yoshin Radin is the kind of guy it would be fun to spend a day trading stories with—we share that hippie-background—and I can respect his loyalty to Sasaki Roshi, but I still find myself wondering about which lineages are going to persist and which are going to wither. It is not just a matter of “authorization,” it is a matter of addressing a wide range of ethical and training issues. It is certainly clear from the interviews that I’ve conducted that whatever Zen in North America is becoming, it is going to very different—in many ways—from what was brought to these shores from Asia.

Note: The following May, I visited Yoshin at the Ithaca Zen Center and continued my conversation with him. I also interviewed his wife--Khadija--who is both a Buddhist nun and a Sufi Sheikh. See the posting for 5/25.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Radin, David Yoshin – 55-66, 469

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