The Zen Mountain Monastery
Updated: May 27
Dear Sangha, family, friends,
I am back with my friends Anne-Emmanuelle and Dinaw at Bard University (Annadale-on-Hudson) after 5 days at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills. The mountains are 100 miles north of New York City.
Yes, my brain is currently undergoing violent formatting in imperial units (inch, foot, yard, mile, meter square, teespoon, tablespoon, cup, barrel, pound, ounce, degree Farhenheit, etc.).
On the 30-mile drive to the monastery, the Hudson River bisects the valley, giving a bit of a stir to the quiet surroundings.
The houses here are spaced far apart, each with its own hill. They have a romantic charm with their well-kept lawns and tall trees. The typical house: pastel-colored wooden facade, colored shutters, porch with massive columns with rocking chair and multiple skylights on a beautiful pointed roof.
An authentic dream of a little girl in weightlessness on her swing.
On the lawns of many properties flourish political ideas of all kinds: election signs, rainbow or patriotic flags (rarely on the same building), support for the police, black signs with the white inscription "Black lives matter", protest movements against police brutality against blacks, which were born in 2021, and which took on a worldwide dimension after the death of George Floyd.
Before starting the ascent of the Catskills, hold on tight, I pass by the legendary city of Woodstock. There, one can meet babas cool, ice cream sellers, a group of hippies just out of a long period of cryogenics playing the tom-tom. Also, many stalls with Peace & Love and Power Flower everywhere.
When I arrive at the monastery, I hear a ceremony. It is the Daihi Shin Dharani Sutra. I already perceive some differences, notably in the pronunciation of certain syllables. "Fu" becomes "Hu", "Shi" becomes "Hi".
A man dressed in civilian clothes approaches me. He comes back from the doctor's office, he says to me. I tell him where I come from and he tells me that he shares my passion for cycling. The strength of his look makes me realize that he is in fact the abbot of the Shugen roshi monastery, whom I had seen in a photo on the website. Greetings, bows, respects.
When the practitioners leave the meditation room, I am welcomed by an apprentice nun who gives me the package containing all my practice stuff (Kolomo, kesa, rakusu, besu, etc.) sent by my father.
I ask to go to the Buddha hall. There, I burn incense, make three prostrations and put an envelope on the altar with a donation inside. This is the way to do when a monk from another community comes to a Zen monastery.
A bit of background to understand the context: (I'll try to be concise so as not to break your attention - but at the same time, this is a blog devoted to Zen practice and its history).
Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM) was founded in 1980 by Daido Loori roshi, a direct disciple of Taizan Maezumi roshi, one of the Japanese missionaries who "imported" Zen to the U.S. -- I too was founded in 1980, so we're the same age.
Roshi means "ancient master. And the current abbot, Shugen Roshi, is his disciple.
This place is an old cloister which was held by Jesuits. On the facade, there is a huge statue of Jesus whose big toe is hanging. Later, the senior monk Yukon confided to me: "We have to fix this toe... It took the arrival of Zen monks to fix Jesus".
Here, the lineage derives simultaneously from 2 traditions: Soto Zen (like our lineage) and Rinzai Zen. The main differences between these two schools lie in their approaches to realization and their methods of practice.
While Soto Zen uses the direct path of Shikantaza (sitting, zazen) to reach realization, Rinzai Zen adds the progressive approach of Koan. The koan is a paradoxical riddle posed by a Zen master, which shows the insufficiency of logical reasoning. The answer given by the student indicates his degree of spiritual realization.
Examples of famous koans: "Does the dog have the nature of the Buddha?", "What was your face before your parents were born?" or "Does the tree that falls in the forest make a noise if no one hears it?"
As part of a two-film shoot on Zen practice in Europe, I had the chance to film in a dozen monasteries from different lineages of masters, spread across Europe (Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, etc.). Each monastery has its own style, its own approach to the Japanese school, its own way of practicing the ceremony, zazen, etc. Sometimes, differences even apply to the way the monastery is run. Sometimes even differences apply within the same lineage.
The most striking differences between Zen Mountain Monastery and Ryumoni :
- The monastics: here, there is a long journey before receiving monastic ordination. Nuns and monks are required to live in the monastery, a lifelong commitment.
In our lineage, nuns and monks can live in the social world and have a family life. On the other hand, in the ZMM, senior laypeople can officiate the ceremonies.
- Zazen: They practice the first and last zazen of the day sitting toward the center of the zendo, the meditation hall. The position of the hands seems more relaxed. The thumbs are not parallel to the floor. They look less demanding on the lotus position.
Taisen Deshimaru roshi (from our lineage) really emphasized every detail of the zazen posture, which is still transmitted today.
- Kinhin (walking meditation): they practice a slow walk for 2 minutes, then a tap announces that they have to walk at normal pace, one behind the other. Here, it is a slow walk for 10 minutes and the position of the hands is different.
- Dokusan/Daisan (private meeting with the roshi or a teacher): all participants are required to meet individually with a teacher who will either give them a koan to solve or tell them to continue sitting (Shikantaza).
- Ceremonies: All chanting is done in English, except for the Dharanis.
In Europe, we sing in Japanese except for the dedications which are sung in our native languages.
Overview of the program during the time I was there:
If the Buddha's doctrine is the same for everyone (the substance), the forms can vary. And for a Zen monk, these differences - however subtle - are a real treasure of learning and discovery. By a simple gesture observed, we can suddenly understand something profound that had escaped us until then. The way of greeting, of standing, of officiating a ceremony, of receiving food, etc. For that is the whole point of Zen: in every detail, every gesture, even the most elementary.
As a monk received in another monastery, I become a representative of the Ryumonji. The gestures, the attitude, the involvement, the availability, the discretion and above all the adaptation are required. As a visitor, I am obliged to follow their rules and forms, and to leave my habits behind.
At Ryumonji Temple, I have often been in charge of newcomers. But this time, the visitor is me. So I can appreciate the importance of the welcome. I must say that at the ZMM, the availability and the devotion of the residents touch me. Not to mention the strength, involvement and seriousness of their practice. Nuns, monks, laity all together.
Very inspiring for a first step in this journey. And above all very beautiful encounters during these 5 days of practice: Shugen roshi, Hojin Sensei, Hogen Sensei with whom I had an interview (dokusan), Gokan who gave me precious advices on how to behave in front of a black bear, Yukon the gardener with an overflowing heart, Rakusan the carpenter who shared with me his beautiful know-how in the workshop, Yusen and Shoan with their wonderful smile, and all the laypeople with whom I did samu and with whom I exchanged.
I also met Esho, a nun who lived 8 years in Toshoji (in Okayama). We know many people in common. And we met again since then but it will be the subject of another post which I will reveal you the title: "Rokeby's farm".
It is quite rare that American Zen and European Zen meet. I see this as a great opportunity for exchange and sharing. We all belong to different lineages in many ways, but the experience of zazen connects us all. I like to think that in the morning, when we do sanpai (3 prostrations), in all the Zen practice places in the world, we point our head towards this point that unites us all, the center of the earth.