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Sunday, 7 September 2014

9/7 – Great Tides Zen

                I began this series of interviews in March of 2013 at the San Francisco Zen Center. Eighteen months later, I am bringing them to an end on the Atlantic coast of Maine. Portland, the
state’s largest city, is about five hours from my home in New Brunswick. The drive down the Interstate through the northern Maine woods—save for a brief glimpse of Mount Katahdin in the distance—is not very interesting and seems longer than it actually is.
                Portland and nearby Freeport, however, have become popular destinations for visitors from the Canadian Maritimes and elsewhere, in part because of the Outlet Stores. The L L Bean Outlet in Freeport is open twenty-four hours a day all year round. At the wharf in Portland, there is one of those cruise ships which, to me, looks too big to be real, and a bus tour is unloading at our hotel when we arrive.
                I am here to attend the opening workshop of the Great Tides Zen program newly established by Dosho Port and his partner, Tetsugan Zummach. I first interviewed Dosho in July of last year [see the July 14, 2013 entry] when he was still living in Minnesota. In addition to being the teacher of the Wild Fox Zen program in White Bear at that time and operating Vine of Obstacles, an on-line support for Zen practice, Dosho worked with troubled youth in the local school system. He has now retired from those duties and just recently moved to the East Coast.
                “We knew for years that after my kids were grown and I was able to retire from the schools that we wanted to do something different,” he wrote to me in response to a question about why he chose Maine. “After looking around we settled on Portland in part because there aren't a lot of other Zen teachers in the neighborhood and yet it's close to our friends in Boundless Way. Ocean and mountains are also a big plus after living in the Midwest most of our lives. James Ford originally suggested it because it's one of the few cities of this size and type (alternative-ish) that don't have an established Zen practice place.”
                There are a couple of certified TM instructors in the city; a Tibetan Buddhist community (Vajra Vidya); and at least twenty Yoga studios, one of which—Still Water—provides space for the new Zen program.
                There also happens to be an Enlightenment Expo taking place at our hotel. The poster in the lobby informs us that this is “Greater Portland’s largest gathering of spiritual and holistic practitioners, products, and services.” It promises psychic readings, animal communication, reiki, crystals, chair massage "and more." One of the listed participants is a sea shell reader. Although such things always strike me as a little sad and desperate, they are also evidence of a genuine hunger people have for some kind of spiritual dimension in their lives. There also seems to be, however, a sense that it should be easy; that it shouldn’t require effort.
                Of course, those attending this Expo could be just as suspect of Zen with its agnosticism and taut discipline. “Why,” they might ask, “does it have to be that hard?”
                Dosho and Tetsugan started 5:30 a. m. sittings in their new space last week; this is the first of their proposed Sunday workshops. They set out fourteen zabutans and had to improvise a fifteenth from blankets. The workshop space/yoga studio is an airy second floor room in one of the gentrified warehouses on one the of the harbor-front wharfs. Fifteen zabutans fit the space nicely.
                The workshop is two and a half hours long; most of the participants have done some type of meditation before, though in many cases it was by themselves. “We’ve been warned that people in Maine aren’t great joiners,” Tetsugan tells me. “They like to do things on their own.” One of the participants had been working with Dosho via the Vine of Obstacles program and had moved to Portland from Florida  three weeks ago when he learned Dosho was coming here.
                The workshop covers an overview of Zen based on the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, proper posture, meditation, kinhin (walking meditation), liturgy, zendo etiquette, and even a brief overview of the precepts. As it comes to an end, participants are asked to share something they either got from the workshop or appreciated about it, and most expressed gratitude to Dosho and Tetsugan for coming to Portland. The question, of course, is how many of the participants will come back.
                The fact is that Zen is challenging. As Dosho put it to me, as we sat in a park earlier: “Zen is inconvenient, uncomfortable, repetitive, and uncompromising.” That’s certainly true. It can also be immensely rewarding. One hopes the people of Portland discover that, discover the value of practicing within a sangha and of working with a teacher.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Port, Dosho Mike – 118, 207, 409-21, 468-69, 476-77
Zummach, Lisa Tetsugan – 468-69, 476

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