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Sunday, 25 May 2014

5/25 - Ithaca Zen Center

                There is no signage identifying the Zen Center on the Lieb Road in Spencer, New York,
south of Ithaca. One has to know that mailbox 56 marks the drive. A gravel road leads to a cluster of small cabins on one side and, on the other, a large pond with several small wooden bridges leading to islands just large enough for a chair or two. A smaller koi pond is in front of the dining room, and there is a third pond behind the site, with a dam which keeps the roped off swimming area from silting up. It is a quiet place; the calls of frogs and birds clear in the air.
                Still, people find their way here. In fact, the cabins are all full this weekend because it happens to be graduation at Cornell University, and all local accommodations—including the Zen Center—are booked.
                I interviewed David Radin—Yoshin—by Skype last January [see January 15 entry], but since I am in New York state, I take advantage of the opportunity to visit the site and to meet him in person and continue that interview, as well as talk with his wife, Marcia—or Khadija—who is both a nun in the Rinzai-ji lineage and a Sufi Sheikha. “I see Zen and Sufism as the same thing,” she tells me.
                The site was originally developed as a Zen Center. At the back of the property is a small zendo, set up with a tea area on one side of a set of shoji screens, then three rows of tans with seating for 15. When the shoji screens come down, three more places can be added to each row. Next week a sesshin is scheduled which already has 23 individuals enrolled. I find something pleasing about the idea of small zendos hidden in out of the way places such as here, or Ojo Sarco, or Morgan Bay—delighting in the thought of something vaguely subversive going on in isolated locations.
            But the multiplicity of dormitories and cabins are not so much for the benefit of the Zen practitioners as they are for the benefit of the summer Body Mind Restoration Retreats which Khadija developed. These are also the primary income generator; they, in effect support the Zen program. The retreats—raw vegan food only—have as many as 60+ attendees. In addition to the participants, there is a staff of 17 to look after maintaining gardens, housekeeping, etc., who are also able to participate to an extent in the retreats. Tent platforms are scattered throughout the site to provide more space for people.
             Khadija had been a teacher of Sufism for a long while before becoming involved with Zen. She attended her first sesshin with Joshu Sasaki in order to learn about him because he was David’s teacher.“Roshi always acknowledged that I was a Sufi teacher, and trained me differently than he trained his other students. When roshi ordained me as a nun, I asked, ‘Roshi, what’s incumbent upon me becoming a nun?’ And he looked and me and said, ‘For you, absolutely nothing.’ And I said, ‘Oh! I’m a Nun of the Above!’ And then David said, ‘And I’m finally second to Nun.’”
                She was drawn to Sufism because she is a dancer; likewise, she intuitively understood hoto respond to koans—how to manifest a reply—because of that dancing background.
              We sit under a gazebo-like roof in the middle of the largest bridge, and she tells me a life-story which borders on the epic. A first marriage while still a teenager to a man who teaches at Cornell; a second marriage to a German Sufi she met on a train to Turkey; living on the streets of Bombay, sleeping with the homeless; discovering an isolated oasis of Sufis in Sudan; returning to the United States when she became a teacher of “turning” or “twirling.”
                She shows me her dance studio—a brighter more open space than the zendo. There are photos of her as a younger woman in Sufi dress doing the turn.
                 “The essential teachings of Sufism is ‘no-self.’” Allah—the only breath—is the only Self. “And No-Self is the core of Buddhism.”
                She and David were best friends for thirteen years before they formed a romantic relationship, and she even felt disappointed for a while that she was losing her best friend. “But we’re still best friends,” she assures me.
                “I was after David in the sanzen line once,” she says, “and when I went in; roshi said, ‘David is very good! He could be roshi.’ And I looked him in the eyes, and I said, ‘Roshi! Being roshi’s wife is not a good job!’”
                Sasaki has not given inka to anyone—David included—so she is not Roshi’s wife, and he remains “Second to Nun.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Radin, David Yoshin – 55-66, 469
Radin, Marcia Khadija – 55, 58, 59, 62, 65-66

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