Monday, 15 October 2018
Jeff Shore leads Zen retreats throughout North America and Europe, recently at the Montreal Zen Center where I practiced for a long time. He is also the sole non-Japanese full-time professor at Hanazono University in Kyoto, the only Rinzai University in the world. He tells me that he teaches what he calls “Blue-eyed Zen.” Formal Zen training in Japan is arduous, and many of the students at the university are bewildered by why Americans and Europeans have any interest in it.
“Westerners, when we’re looking at Zen,” he says, “we’re looking at it in a very peculiar way. Whereas for the average Japanese priest, who – for the last hundred years could be married and have a son, and then his son would enter the monastery whether he wanted to or not – it’s a very different system. And a lot of them have a chip on their shoulder. They don’t want to be a priest, but they have to be. And then here’s people like us coming half way around the world. We’re not even going to become priests; we’re not going to have a temple. And yet we’re putting ourselves through this. Why? So that’s how I try to interest the students, because the Japanese students are not interested.”
To make sure I understand what he’s saying, I paraphrase him: “So you’re teaching Japanese students how westerners see Zen?”
“More or less, yes. What do we see that they don’t? Otherwise they’d just fall asleep in class.”
Wednesday, 3 October 2018
Geraldo Gally is the teacher at Casa Zen in Mexico City, established by Philip Kapleau in the 1970s. It is a small group of about forty members. Those numbers, Gally tells me, have been fairly consistent over the decades. I mention that during one of my trips to Mexico I had found a copy of La Enseñaza de Buda [The Teachings of the Buddha] placed in my hotel by a Japanese missionary society. “I was surprised because there can’t be a lot of Buddhists in Mexico.”
“No,” he admits. “Optimistically we’re about 100,000. And that’s all the denominations, all the people who have gone to a little workshop. Anything. We’re very small groups.” And yet, he notes, “There’s an exhibit right now in Mexico City called ‘Following the Path of the Buddha.’ [Las Huella de Buda] It’s a temporary exhibit at the National Museum of Anthropology which is very surprising that they would have something about Buddhism. I’ve gone a couple of days, and it was mobbed by young people in their 20s. There were just a few middle-aged people and the rest all young people. And I asked security, ‘Has this been like this?’ And they said, ‘Yeah. It’s been a surprise for us as well. Every day during the school holidays it’s been surprisingly full of young people.’ So, there’s an interest there.”
Friday, 21 September 2018
Valerie Forstman is a Dharma heir of Ruben Habito and teaches with him in the Sanbo Zen tradition. When I ask her what distinguishes Zen from other spiritual paths, she begins by telling me that she has not practiced in those traditions so cannot compare them. Then she says, “I have such love and confidence in this inheritance of the Sanbo Zen tradition. It’s this rich well that goes back to Dogen, of course to Shakyamuni Buddha, and comes down to us. The richness of that boggles my mind over and over and over again. And even in my own sometimes very failing efforts – words fail – it still comes through. It comes through. For Sanbo Zen, in a way different from mindfulness, there is this invitation to stop and see. To have for yourself – although ‘have’ isn’t the right word – that moment that Dogen calls ‘body and mind dropping away.’ When I look at some of the other possibilities, it’s easier to think of self-help. That I’m here to improve myself. That I’m going to gain something through this practice. And Sanbo Zen – Zen itself, but particularly in this incarnation of it – is not self-help. There’s nothing to gain if you come to it. It’s just this. But ‘just this’ has not the slightest trace of separation. There is a coming home that is life-giving and liberating.”
Sunday, 16 September 2018
Chimyo Atkinson is the Head of Practice at the Great Tree Zen Women’s Temple in Alexander, North Carolina. I ask her what people coming to the temple tend to be looking for, and she tells me, “I think they’re looking for compassion and empathy. I think they’re looking for a place where they feel comfortable and safe in doing their spiritual practice, whatever that is. Because for many it’s not exactly the same practice that we’re doing here.”
When I ask what the temple offers these individuals, she laughs, then, after a moment, says, “What do we offer? We offer you a cushion and a room to sit in. That’s it. I mean, what else can we say? We offer you a cushion in a room and our support in doing this, our support and empathy in doing this practice. We offer the guidance that comes from our experience, which is just our experience. Nothing that is magical or scientific or any of those things. Just our experience. And a little faith in the Buddha’s word that there is a way beyond suffering.”
Sunday, 9 September 2018
Seiho Morris is a training monk at Chobo-ji in Seattle. Because of the nature of most Zen Centers in America, he seldom encountered other people of African-American heritage. “There’s not very many African-American practitioners out there, much less ordained. Reverend Kyodo Williams was the first ordained African-American I’d ever met in the Zen world.”
This was not something he gave a lot of thought to until the election of Donald Trump. Up to that time, he thought his role as a Zen priest was essentially “a part of a mental health system – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual system – to help individuals. That’s how I envisioned it.” After the election, he was more directly confronted with the issue of “Zen Buddhism and people of color. And that surprised me and has been quite challenging for me because it’s not what I expected. When you get into ‘person of color’ issues, and things like that – racism if you will, social justice, equity – that’s the stuff people don’t want to do. It’s not the pretty side of Zen or Buddhism as a whole.
“So, that said, what has happened is for the last two years there’s this thing in Seattle, it’s called Festival Sundiata, which is an African-American cultural festival, but everyone can attend, and I lead two days of practice just around POC kind of issues. So that’s challenging because I really hadn’t actively practiced with this issue in this way. But at any rate, I was sitting here and attempting to learn more about this deeply, and it had never occurred to me that if you’re under a lot of pressure culturally - like the way American society is set up, and you’re the minority of that culture – there’s a lot of pressure. And I was sitting in a group at one of these events with all persons of color, not just African Americans. There were indigenous tribal people, people who were Asian. And what I heard in their stories is there’s a lot of mental health issues, anxieties, stress, depression – profoundly so – that interferes with their inward stability, their inward harmony. And so I began practicing with people based on that. The first truth – which is dukkha – life, ego is the part of the wheel that’s out of balance. And working on concentration, presence, and mindfulness, and different Buddhist practices from the Eightfold Path, to help them to find an inward stability. Like you’re in a boat on the ocean, how to essentially not capsize when the water’s choppy. And Zen is good for that. Buddhism is good for that. How to not run away from your outward circumstances, but how do you turn into it and meet the moment with equanimity, harmony, a sense of presence."