Sangha News

Senior Monastic Yukon Grody <> 5/15/49 – 2/28/24

· Sangha News

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of Senior Monastic Michael Choke Yukon Grody. Our dear brother and friend slipped away peacefully in the midst of a formidable wind storm Wednesday night here on Tremper Mountain. (The storm temporarily took out the local electrical grid, brought down a mess of trees, and knocked the main Monastery sign off its hinges.) Yukon’s sister Kathryn, nephew Gideon, and Mn. Hokyu were at his bedside. His other nephew Isaac and his family had just departed after a warm visit. 

The following morning, Yukon’s monastic and blood family gathered at dawn to perform the liturgy for the newly deceased, which included caring for his body and dressing him in his robes. Afterwards, everyone joined in the zendo for a morning service in his honor. On March 31st, Yukon’s ashes were interred in the Monastery’s cemetery, alongside his first teacher, Daido Roshi, and other monastics and sangha members that have gone before him.

Yukon’s six month journey with brain cancer was met with the same fierce grace he brought to his life. It was truly a gift to encounter him during this period, even through the struggles and disappointments. We are immensely grateful to the sangha for supporting Yukon and the whole community, sometimes with cards, sometimes with presence, and in many ways, through giving him the space he needed to make peace with it all.

You can watch a slideshow, below, with scenes from Yukon’s incredible life, and leave your own remembrances of Yukon on this TRIBUTE PAGE which also features a replay of the funeral service.

Yukon’s Story

Yukon came into this world as Michael David Grody on May 15, 1949, in Sherman Oaks, California.  His father, Irving Grody, having survived the Normandy invasion, believed every day afterwards was “gravy” and supported his family selling life insurance. Yukon’s mother, Harriet, known as “Hattie,” graduated with a degree in psychology from UCLA where she and Irv met, and raised three extraordinary and very different children.. Yukon was the middle child, sandwiched between his older sister, Kathryn, and younger brother, Steven.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971 and seeking worldly experience, an intrepid Michael traveled throughout Europe before following his sister in moving to New York City. Like so many moments in Yukon’s remarkable life, his road to the Monastery is marked by serendipity and a little bit of magic. 

By the mid-1980s, Mike was a vigorous, muscular gospel-singer with a drooping handlebar mustache.  He had also started volunteering for hospice amidst the AIDS crisis. It was his compassionate response to an epidemic that had been ravaging a community he knew he was part of but had not yet fully entered. The heartbreak of witnessing so many withered by disease and stigma was compounded by his own suffering. He lost both his parents within the year following his European travels. He’d also experienced random acts of violence, a progressively self-destructive relationship with drugs, and a lifelong wrestling with his own sexual identity.  

Then one day, sitting despondently in front of a Greenwich Village apartment building, a stranger saw his distress and stopped to ask what was wrong.  Open, raw, and instinctively trusting, Mike revealed his helplessness in the face of so much pain.  The stranger as it turned out was Bob Tesshu Gratz, a student of John Daido Loori, Roshi.  Tesshu suggested he visit the newly consecrated Zen Mountain Monastery. There it seemed possible that this troubled young man might come to understand the nature of his own suffering and that of the world—or as we say in Zen, “the great matter of living and dying.” 

Right then and there, Mike determined he would go.

At the time, the Monastery was renting cabins on the mountainside to generate revenue.  As Mike was settling into his, he became aware of a crew digging a ditch on the hill below his cabin.  With his customary generosity and curiosity, he went down to see if he could help.  This would be his first meeting with Daido.  Apparently one of the very first things Daidoshi said to him was, “Why don’t you become a monk? You’re already bald.”  Whatever actually transpired on that first visit to Mount Tremper, the details cannot obscure the certainty—which he always said he felt immediately—that this was where he belonged. Here was where he would begin to make sense of how to keep living and growing in this heartbreaking, beautiful world and, with the whole of his unique humanity, be accepted for who he was and what he had to offer.

In the years following that first encounter, Mike began attending retreats and sesshins.  He especially loved the wilderness retreats where he could explore and revel in the beauty of the wild Adirondacks while growing his friendships with the monastics and lay practitioners training at the Monastery.  At the same time, he was working as a carpenter in New York City and Pennsylvania, building sets for industrial shows in order to pay off his debts. During this period he also came out as a gay man, no small thing in the age of AIDS.  

Readying himself to move permanently into the Monastery, he found a home at a farm in Pennsylvania for his beloved cat, Max, a big green-eyed gray tabby. In 1992, Mike drove his baby-blue pick-up truck up to ZMM for the last time. He became a formal student of Daido’s in 1993 and received the Buddhist precepts in 1995, along with the dharma name Yukon, meaning “playful perseverance.”  While investigating the monastic path, he served as cook four times; the bookkeeper, which he described as “their biggest mistake.” At long last, he seemed to find his true calling as the Monastery gardener, a job he would keep for the rest of his life. For Yukon, the garden was not only a place to grow nourishing vegetables and sumptuous flowers, it also served as his ministry, in a sense. Hundreds of individuals—many with little or no experience getting their hands dirty—came to appreciate the healing value of cultivation under Yukon’s patient and caring direction.

Fully ordained as a Zen Buddhist clergy in 2002, Yukon received the monastic name Choke (cho-kei), which translates as “calm serenity” or “spirit of serenity”—something to aspire to, he would say; a wry allusion no doubt to his irrepressible mischievousness and crackling energy.  He served as Chief Disciple (Shuso) in November 2003. Though never a formal teacher, Yukon taught the sangha through his innate friendliness, humor and authenticity, as well as his profound ability to connect with others at the core of their suffering and an ever-deepening love of the Dharma. 

Despite the demands of monastic life, Yukon remained close with his family. Kathryn’s husband, Mandy Patinkin, became another brother to Yukon over their many years of friendship.  Yukon was also a devoted “muncle” to Kathryn’s two sons, Isaac and Gideon who were in grade school when Yukon entered residency, consistently showing up to be a loving and central presence in their lives. Yukon also loved being a great-uncle to Isaac and his wife Lennon’s son, Jude, born in 2022. 

Back on the feline front, Yukon met the love of his life in 2016, a handsome red tabby named Rudy. The two were inseparable until Rudy’s death in the spring of 2023.  

In June of 2021, Yukon was honored by his teacher, Shugen Arnold, Roshi, for his many years of service and dedicated practice. He was given a special gray rakusu that had belonged to Daido Roshi, his beloved first teacher. On the reverse, Shugen Roshi inscribed the following words:

“For Choke Yukon, Earnest Student of the Way.
On top of Heavenly Light Mountain 
there is an Old Buddha shining light 
that reaches directly 
Here!”

In early September of this year, when Yukon was diagnosed with glioblastoma cancer, he expressed that he was without regrets. Although aphasia had already greatly impacted his ability to use language, he was still able to communicate what he needed to say at that time, especially with the help of a good listener. As he was being prepared for surgery to remove the tumor, and while so much was still unknown about the illness, Yukon told his sister and brother-in-law, “I have a big sadness. I wanted more of this. [Our precious time together.] But if this is it, that’s okay. It’s all okay.”  

Yukon’s capacity to hold joy and sorrow in the same breath will forever be an invitation to us all. We miss him dearly. 

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An update on Senior Monastic Yukon Grody

· Articles & Essays, Diamond Net, Sangha News

Since early September, we’ve been keeping the sangha informed through email of our dear brother Mn. Yukon’s health condition. In the interest of sharing this news more widely, we’re adding Mountain Notes to the means of communication. The following post does not add much substantive information to the email sent out to formal students and Practicing Members in early December. All we can add at this point is that Yukon continues to teach us how to live in the present and practice the paramita of patience. We simply don’t know the timing or exactly how things will unfold from here, though we’re assured by his oncology team that it won’t be long. Instead of more concrete answers, what we have now is Yukon’s graced presence at the Jizo House, a remarkable turn of events considering that the new building was completed less than three years ago with the intention of providing dignified and comfortable accommodations for convalescence, especially with monastic end-of-life care in mind. Of course, the other great lesson from this experience is the undeniable fact of our mortality. Impermanence makes all things possible. No one loved repeating that line more than Yukon himself, and as both a gardener and a keen observer of life’s processes, he knew it to be true.

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Rudy Redford (2015 – 2023)

· Articles & Essays, Photos, Sangha News

Rudy, the Monastery’s beloved, orange tabby, left his body on Thursday, May 31st, following a brief illness. He had undergone a number of tests over the past several months to determine what might have caused an increasing drop in energy, focus and acuity. Following an MRI exam at the Brewster Veterinary Hospital, it was determined that a sizable brain tumor had been causing various neurological impairments that were increasingly diminishing Rudy’s quality of life. As surgery was deemed too risky, Rudy’s transition was aided by the caring staff at Brewster Veterinary, with Mn. Yukon and resident Robert Pile, a registered nurse, in attendance. He was 8. (48 in cat years.)

Waking up from a nap in 2017.

As a young kitten, Rudy was discovered by sangha members Seien and Sanjo Wilder on their nearby property in Mt. Tremper in 2015. The Monastery had recently lost its previous cat, Moss, to old age, and the timing seemed right to adopt another one. Hojin Sensei and Dharma holder Shoan gave Rudy his name on the 5 minute drive back from the Wilders to avoid a prolonged decision making process amongst monastics and residents. Rudy was an inspired choice and both the name and the cat were embraced immediately.

Cats have long played a useful role at monasteries in keeping mice and other creatures away from buildings and crops, and in providing comfort—if not an occasional distraction—to those in rigorous training. Rudy performed these functions handily and spent a majority of his days in the Monastery’s garden, especially when Yukon, his primary caregiver, was there at work. (You can catch Rudy towards the beginning of our Garden Tour video made in 2020.)

Rudy was a skilled hunter, though he was often discouraged from pursuing this pastime as all of his nutritional needs should have been taken care of by the abundant, high quality cat food that was provided for him twice a day, not to mention the treats that a number of residents indulged him with when they thought no one was looking.
(Ahem.)

On Friday, June 1st, residents gathered just before supper to lay Rudy to rest in a vacant corner of the garden he’d so long enjoyed. We chanted the Emmei Juku Kannon Gyo with Yukon offering incense to prepare the grave. Yukon then laid the first shovel full of dirt, calling after his beloved friend one more time through tear-soaked eyes with words we’d often hear when they were together, “Good boy, Rudy! Good boy.”

All in attendance then placed their own shovel full of dirt over the grave until it was complete, as we all chanted the Jizo Shingon Dharani and the late spring afternoon light filled the space with its radiance. Each person then stepped forward to place a flower on the grave, making their own offering in gratitude for the cat that gave so much over the course of his fortunate, yet all too brief, journey on this earth.

At the conclusion to this impromptu service, we shared some joyful recollections of Rudy and lingered a while longer amidst the garden’s blooming rows.

If you would like to make a donation in his honor, we suggest making an offering to your local ASPCA.

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Fall Ango 2022 into Winter 2023

· Articles & Essays, Sangha News

The rhythm of the Monastery’s training year brought the fullness of ango to a close with the Precepts Ceremony of Jukai for five students, followed by the Shuso Hossen for Joel Sansho Benton, and then opened up the quiet space of winter practice. Rohatsu sesshin was full of participants again this year, and with January came the Tokudo ordination for Jogo Kien Martin, and February the Novice ordination for Simon Sekku Harrison with Hojin Sensei at Fire Lotus Temple. This transition time also witnessed a renewed sangha discussion, within gender-affinity spaces, on the gender identities and histories we carry, and the deep healing that can come when our experiences can be met within community.

Below are some images from the fall and winter training periods, from the transitions of fall into the quiet of winter.

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Solar Power in Han Shan Meadow

· Articles & Essays, Earth Initiative, Sangha News

By Sandy Joshin Del Valle

Solar energy isn’t anything new anymore, yet the recent additions to the Monastery’s solar array at the Han Shan meadow still bring a spark of excitement: we are doing it!  We are continuing to lessen our attachments to non renewable energy sources. This vow is renewed every day whether it be through extensive composting, recycling, repurposing and reusing of just about everything, or growing food and flowers. We also know that whatever we do ripples outward and can have beneficial effects on others. The newest solar array is part of this. 

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Spring Ango 2022

· Articles & Essays, Sangha News

At the conclusion of Ango. traditionally the sangha members who are in attendance that day gather on the back stairs for a group photo. This one was no exception.

And while there was no Chief Disciple chosen for this training period, Shugen Roshi invited each of the fully transmitted Dharma teachers to lead one of the three sesshins. Ron Hogen Green led us in March, Jody Hojin Kimmel led in April, and Shugen Roshi led the closing sesshin in May. Each week of practice had a unique resonance brought about by each of these teachers, while keeping with the rigorous training which sesshin evokes. Each week of training also included a Fusatsu: Renewal of Vows ceremony during the sesshin, another first for the MRO. You can find these Dharma talks and more on our Teachings via Audio & Video webpage.

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Trash is Only A Perspective

· Articles & Essays, Earth Initiative, Sangha News

A Sangha-Wide Recycling Effort

Updates from Jusan Chen:

Just wanted to shine a light on our special recycling program at the Monastery through TerraCycle.  We collect used plastic toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, razors, used pens… and their packaging… (see below). New research shows that in the U.S. recycles only 7% of its recyclable waste. Not to mention that these items, like toothbrushes, are consumed by the billions and many get dumped in the oceans, rivers and elsewhere.

The recycling programs that we participating in now at the Monastery through TerraCycle are small but profound efforts we can make for change. I feel they move us toward the creation of less and less harm. So here’s a kindly reminder: please collect these items and bring them to the Monastery.

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Jizo in the Monastery Garden

· Essays, Reflections, Sangha News, Zen Training ·

by Linda Shinji Hoffman

Orchardist and Sculptor, Shinji shared on her blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, about creating a Jizo Bodhisattva for the Monastery garden.

Ancient people made stone piles to mark a site as sacred, while today we use stone cairns to indicate the direction on a wilderness trail. For over a year I had a small pile of stones on one of my work tables. It just sat there and didn’t draw attention from visitors to the studio. It didn’t point me in any direction.

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Taking the Bodhisattva Vows

· Sangha News · ,

As vaccinations for Covid-19 became more readily available last spring, the Monastery was able to resume offering on-site Jukai, the moral and ethical teachings represented in the Sixteen Precepts of the Buddha Way, welcoming six new Jukai students, six new MRO students, one new postulant monastic, and two fully ordained monastics. Just before Covid hit in 2020, Jukai was also given to three students at the Brooklyn Temple by Hojin Sensei.

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Shuso Hossen Fall 2021

· Family Dharma, Sangha News · ,

On 11/21/21, the Monastery held a Shuso Hossen ceremony that capped our fall ango training period. During the ango, Degna Chikei Levister held the position of chief disciple acting as a model of practice for the sangha.

What does ‘a model of practice’ look like? It looks like a true person bringing their whole self and dedicated commitment to every task set before them. The ceremony and Chikei’s exchanges with the sangha are a testament to that. 

Click here to watch the proceedings unfold all over again or here for an audio-only version.

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