Monday, 17 February 2020

Ilia Shinko Perez

               In October 2013, I visited Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, in order to interview Gerry Shishin Wick. I was working on a book (Cypress Trees in the Garden) which profiled some of the direct successors of the pioneer teachers who established Zen in North America. I was interviewing Shishin because he was one of Taizan Maezumi’s heirs. But I had a sense, while at Great Mountain, that there was a broader story there than the one I was getting.
                In the on-line journal I kept while researching Cypress Trees, I commented on the feminine ambiance at the Center.

“Statues, banners, and paintings of Kwan Yin prevail. There is a large Kwan Yin on the altar in the zendo. There is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Shishin informs me that this reflects his wife’s interest in rediscovering the feminine side of Buddhism. The art is hers as well. Her Dharma name, Shinko, means ‘Body of Light.’ Occasionally as Shishin and I speak, a woman passes by but doesn't join us.
                “The full name of the center is Great Mountain Zen Center at Maitreya Abbey. There are no residents, however. ‘Are you the abbot?’ I ask. ‘Is that the title you use?’ No. Shinko is the abbess. ‘And you are?’
                “‘The consort,’ he laughs. When I persist, he concedes that he is the ‘Spiritual Director.’”
             On the Great Mountain website, Shishin and Shinko are identified as “Co-Spiritual Directors.” He is also identified as the center President, and she as the “Abbess.” Last December, six years after my visit to Berthoud, I finally had an opportunity to interview Shinko and learn the other half of the story.
                She begins by telling me of an experience of the Sacred Feminine she’d had while still a child in Puerto Rico. The impact of that experience stayed with her during a long period of study in the Zen tradition which began at Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center. She studied with Kapleau and his successor, Bodhin Kjolhede, until Kapleau’s Parkinson’s prevented him from continuing to teach. By that time Shinko was living in Florida, where Kapleau had retired. “We had a sangha of only five people, and we were really his family. We were like a family. But when he got sick with Parkinson’s, they called people from Rochester to be like his attendants in the house.”
                She sought out another of Kapleau’s heirs, Danan Henry, in Colorado. But throughout all of this, she had a sense that there was a difference between masculine and feminine approaches to practice which she felt the men with whom she worked didn’t fully appreciate.
                After Danan Henry, she practiced with Pat Hawk Roshi, a Catholic Priest and Dharma successor of Robert Aitken Roshi, who she describes as the kindest person she had met until then in her Zen practice. They worked well together for a long while; she even was given to believe she might become his heir. Then she had another powerful experience of the Sacred Feminine during a sesshin with him. When she described it to Hawk during her next dokusan, however, he told her to forget about the experience – which he interpreted as a form a makyo, one of the illusions Zen students may have during prolonged periods of meditation. Shinko was certain the experience was not makyo and chose to leave the retreat.
                “It was very painful,” she tells me. “Very painful losing my teacher and having nobody to talk about this. At the same time, I was so grounded in my experience that it was unshakable.”
                Then she heard about another Zen teacher who had recently moved to Boulder. “I went to meet him. I told him about my experience. This is Shishin, and Shishin told me, ‘I don’t understand your experience, but I encourage you to find out.’”
                After that, she visited Tsultrim Allione at the Tara Mandala Center in Southern Colorado. Tsultrim is a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and she was able to tell Shinko that what she had had was an experience of the Dakini, the Sacred Feminine presence identified in Vajrayana Buddhism.
                “I had never heard the word before, but it fulfilled me. I didn’t care what the dictionary said; I knew empathically what she meant. I knew my experience had a name. I was just so happy somebody knew what it was. I went back home; I went to see Shishin, and I just said, ‘It’s called a Dakini experience.’”
                There are two approaches to Zen, Shinko tells me – the way of the Samurai and the way of the Heart. She and Shishin chose the way of the Heart. “That’s why we created the Great Heart Work, to teach the students how to hold the emotional body as part of practice.”

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Domyo Burk

                Shortly before I was scheduled to interview her, Domyo Burk – the Guiding Teacher of the Bright Way Zen Center in Portland, Oregon – was arrested and spent the night in jail.
“I heard through my network of climate activist groups that something was going to go on and that if people were interested in civil disobedience to sign up, and that it was going to be run by experienced people. So I signed up, and we went down to the state capital and occupied Governor Brown’s office insisting that she come out against the giant liquified natural gas pipeline and liquification plant that’s a big project in Southern Oregon. A Canadian company wants to pipe fracked gas through the pipeline and then, in Coos Bay, liquify it, load it onto ships, then ship it overseas to be sold in Asia. It’s just wrong at so many levels. The pipeline goes through tribal lands, public lands, private land through the right of eminent domain, which should only be used when it’s in the public good. So that all hinges on that argument that it’s in the public good, besides the fact that this is just – in terms of climate change – the exact opposite of the direction we should be going. So there was a big rally out in front of the capital. Then everyone went inside, singing, and filled the atrium with song. And then a bunch of us went up the stairs into Governor Brown’s ceremonial office and just hung out there for eight hours.” She chuckles at the memory. “And after the building closed, and Governor Brown even came to talk to us, but she wasn’t willing to come out against the pipeline, so we stayed, and twenty-one of us stayed until past the point where the state troopers warned us that we would be charged with trespassing and arrested if we didn’t leave.”
Domyo’s academic training had been in wildlife biology, although, instead of working in the field, she became a monastic Zen student.
She was drawn to practice by a feeling she had had of the basic “dissatisfactoriness” of life. “Who knows when it first arose for me. Age 12? I don’t know. At some point I really started to ask, like, ‘What is the meaning of life? What is this all about? What’s the point?’ And I remember probably at age 14 I had my first summer job, and I remember this sense of foreboding. I felt like I was getting on a conveyor belt to death; I was signing up for this program that led nowhere and had no meaning.”
Her first encounter with Buddhism came years later when she was preparing to travel to India with her first husband’s family. A guide book she was looking at talked about Buddhism. “It explained  there’s not a lot of Buddhism in India now, but it was part of its history. And it talked about the Four Noble Truths, and ‘Life is inherently marked by dissatisfactoriness.’ I mean, I’m like, ‘Yay, man! They just say it right up front!’ And then the fact it wasn’t that the Buddha went on his spiritual search because his circumstances were so awful; it was because of the nature of dissatisfactoriness. So in a way I felt I was similar to him in the fact that I had very fortunate circumstances. I had no reason to be unhappy, and yet I was. I really resonated with that. And then, the fact that you didn’t have to believe in anything. It didn’t involve a god. And then it said, ‘All right. You can do something about that dissatisfactoriness, and here’s what you can do.’ So I was right there. I immediately looked up Buddhism in the phonebook.”
When she returned from India, she joined a Pure Land Buddhist group briefly. At one of their meetings, one of the members said, “‘I’m on the Pure Land path because I don’t have the wherewithal to do the self-development like they do in Zen.’ And immediately in my mind, I’m like, ‘Gotta look up Zen.’”
She discovered the Dharma Rain community, and quickly became a monastic. She spent seven years in monastic training. And while she had originally told her teacher – Gyokuko Carlson – that she had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, when the time arose, she did begin working with a group of people on the westside of Portland. And that eventually became the Bright Way Center.
“I did the turning inward, resolving of my koan and angst and gradually coming out of that darkness, looking around and thinking, ‘How can I serve?’ Figuring, ‘Well, I’ll do this Dharma teacher thing. You know, start a Zen center.’ And there was a number of years of doing that; of learning how to do that and devoting my energy to it. Then over the last five years at least, ‘What about that concern that led me to be a wildlife biologist?’ Right? I have to find a way for social and environmental justice to be a part of my life. Zen without it seems two dimensional and meaningless.”
Which led her not only to a night in jail but also a regular pod-case entitled, Facing Extinction. “I mean we are facing extinction literally, and I mean to be facing that fact.”

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Brother Phap Vu

                On Christmas Eve, my wife and I went to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie which is less about Mr. Rogers than it is about the reporter who wrote a cover story on him for Esquire magazine. In the film, the reporter is portrayed as a fairly stock character, a cynical and embittered writer who approaches his assignment to do a 400 word profile of Rogers with understandable scepticism. As his relationship with Rogers grows, however, and his understanding of the man deepens, the profile expands into a 10,000 word feature article which – to the author’s surprise – takes it subject far more seriously than he had imagined it would.
                One point the movie makes is that Roger’s goodness was a “practice.” It was something he worked at in a number of concrete ways such as consciously developing non-destructive ways to deal with emotions like anger and by nightly praying for individuals – by name – who had requested his prayers or whom he felt were in need of them. The idea that someone would make a choice, an effort, to work daily at virtue as a practice can seem naïve, but it was also what made Mr. Rogers significant. The magazine article was entitled, “Can You Say . . . ‘Hero’?”
                The film reminded me of a visit I made in 2014 to the Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, New York. It is part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, the form of Zen (Thien in Vietnamese) which has the largest number of adherents. It is descendent – like Japanese Rinzai – from the Chinese Linji tradition but bears little resemblance to the forms that lineage has taken in Japan or the west. It’s popularity it based on the fact that its forms are simple and accessible. Instead of struggling to make sense of the koan Mu, practitioners in the Order of Being are advised to simply repeat, inwardly, a four line poem during their periods of meditation:

Breathing in, I calm my body;
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

                I approached my visit to Blue Cliff with the same reservation the reporter had to Mr. Rogers, suspicious that this was all too naïve to be taken seriously. What I discovered was a community of people who genuinely chose to practice a way of virtue with integrity.             
                The monk who’d organized my visit was Brother Phap Vu – formerly Clifford Brown – who I contacted again as I began work on this project. He is no longer in residence at Blue Cliff although he remains a monk in Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. He travels about the country now giving retreats and providing support to other monastics through an on-line program called Dharma Pathways.
                 There is a modesty to the practices promoted by the Order of Interbeing, but they are grounded in basic Buddhist theory. The understanding of “interbeing,” Phap Vu explains to me, “is based on two concepts in the Mahayana tradition. The first is dependent arising. All things are dependent on other things for their manifestations, for their being. The other comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, interpenetration. That I’m in that, and that is in me. And what these two things are looking at, what these two things are describing in the human experience, is that there’s a larger version of us. There’s a larger interconnectedness of us, of all things. Nothing exists within itself. Everything is connected with everything else.”
                The goal of Zen – Thien – practice, then, is to bring about a shift in perception which Brother Phap Vu sees it as his role as a monk to help people attain. “Either it’s realizing the interconnectedness of all things, or realizing how one could respond to the difficulties in life. And the difficulties in life can be anything from a relationship with another person, or the difficulties in life could be economic. Or it could be something like a global catastrophe. Global crisis. How do we approach this? How do we respond?”
                The “global crisis” he talks about isn’t something theoretical. Thich Nhat Hanh has been blunt in warning his disciples to face the ecological impact human activity has had on the interconnectedness of all things and the possible consequences of that activity. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”
                Where does one begin to come to terms with a concept as bleak as that?
                “What is it that you hope for for the people you work with?” I ask Brother Phap Vu.
                His answer – like that of Mr. Rogers when asked about what he hoped for the children who watched his program – is one of those deeply profound statements that inevitably sound naïve: “To love themselves. To have compassion for themselves.”
                “You sense that’s something lacking in people?”
                “Well, I had a lack of that capacity to see myself in another way. To see that you are much more than you think you are. You know, we live our lives, we do our work and school or whatever we do, with family or whatnot. And sometimes we’re stuck in this mode. And we put ourselves in boxes, give ourselves labels. And society puts labels on us and puts us in boxes. And we’re not aware of that larger aspect of ourselves.”
                The larger aspect is what Buddhism in general calls our “Buddha Nature.” Phap Vu tells me that Nhat Hanh uses another term: “He refers to as ‘home,’ our true home. Every spiritual tradition has this. In Christianity it would be like the Divine nature. It’s the interconnectedness that we’re a part of the divine basically.”
                “And that’s what the shift in perspective . . .” I start to say.
                He nods his head. “Yes, and we can only touch that when we have enough compassion for ourselves, when we have care for ourselves. Then it radiates out.”