by JL Aronson, MRO
“Happy 35th Anniversary Dragons and Elephants,” proclaimed a bright red and white painted banner hanging over the Monastery’s dining hall, a salute to the noblest creatures of the land, sea and air. October 9-11 brought nearly 150 sangha members (dragons and elephants alike) together for a weekend of reflection, celebration, dreaming and practice.
The number 35 in and of itself rarely inspires great fanfare. And as Shugen Sensei noted in his opening remarks, in the context of Asian Buddhist traditions, 35 years is just a blink. “A 35-year history, you don’t even talk about this in China or Japan,” he laughed. “I mean, you don’t even get a card.” But as he went on to enumerate in a thoughtful presentation Saturday morning, Western Buddhism has come a long way since Daido Roshi founded Zen Mountain Monastery in 1980. Furthermore, in light of all that has transpired since Daido Roshi’s passing in 2009 (both in terms of the changes as well as the steady continuation and further development of his vision) there is clearly much to celebrate.
Sensei asked us all to reflect on how our location, both on the mountain and in the city, is part of a larger whole, part of this great Earth, and how these specific locales inform the offerings and opportunities at both the Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City. With attendees seated in the Sangha House’s performance hall, he showed us a collection of photos detailing the formation of the Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order, and spoke of the mountain itself as a sangha member with its own unique needs and gifts. This set the stage for the core component of the daytime schedule: a Board of Governors meeting.
The Board of Governors meets every five years and is not an elected or elite committee. It is the sangha itself—both active students of the Order as well as those who participate regularly in retreats and the life of our practice centers and who feel invested in the perpetual unfolding of the Order’s activities. A large brainstorming session yielded about a dozen topics for further discussion. At lunchtime, those of us present signed up to join two of these discussion groups, which ran consecutively in the afternoon for 40 minutes each.
Topics included social action, website development, care for elder sangha members, co-housing possibilities (for those who wish to live in community with fellow practitioners beyond the borders of a practice center), cottage industries (shifting the Monastery Store’s inventory over time to include more home made or Monastery-made goods), and new directions for the Zen Center. The assignment for all these groups was to conjure and sow seeds for a collective vision of the Order’s evolution. When we all reconvened following these sessions, group facilitators shared what had been discussed and presented reports to the Board of Governors.
Coincidentally, 2015 also marks the 15th anniversary of the Zen Center’s location at 500 State Street in Brooklyn. As ZMM Board member Chikei Levister points out, “Fire Lotus Temple provides the people of Brooklyn and New York City an opportunity to practice Buddhism in a truly authentic way.” And as Sensei also noted, the Temple has continued to play a pivotal role in introducing people to the Monastery who might not otherwise have come across it.
At the conclusion of Saturday morning’s session, the weekend’s participants were treated to the premiere screening of a 30-minute film about the Temple, chronicling its roots in Manhattan and radiant blossoming in Brooklyn under the leadership of Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei. Lotus in the Fire, as the film is titled, also goes into the evolution of the Temple during Shugen Sensei’s time as resident teacher, and notes the ways in which Dharma holders and senior monastics are currently stepping into more active leadership roles in the city. (You can view a short version of the film here.)
The weekend also provided those of us in attendance ample opportunity to simply enjoy one another’s company, catch up with friends, spend some time in the zendo, or take in the splendor of the Catskills and the Monastery’s grounds at the height of autumn. Such a time fell just before supper, when some chose to engage in body practice through a round of ultimate frisbee and even a brief dance party!
When we finally gathered for the evening meal at 6pm, we found that a stunning transformation had occurred in the dining hall. About 20 bodhisattvas, including the Monastery’s short-term residents and the work supervisor, had rearranged the tables and dressed them with fine autumnal linens, immaculate place settings and lovely floral arrangements.
As we took our seats, the bodhisattvas went into action, serving each table a gourmet vegan feast designed by the Monastery’s cook and tenzo. And as much as those present marveled at the culinary creations set before us, it was worth remembering that like every meal served at the Monastery—though perhaps even more so—this elaborate gift to the sangha was also implemented by the sangha. (Including the three innovative desserts, the meal required nearly a week of preparation!)
As we savored the third course, several speakers stepped beneath the anniversary banner to offer some reflections. Chief among them was Myotai Sensei, Daido Roshi’s first Dharma heir, whose two decades in residency at the Monastery encompassed some of the earliest and most challenging years. With her characteristic humor and grace, Myotai Sensei regaled the assembly with several anecdotes illustrating just how tenuous the Monastery’s existence was early on. It was yet another reminder that none of our blessings as a thriving practice center should be taken for granted.
In one poignant story, she explained how the sale of the property from a Lutheran family who had managed the site as a Christian summer camp, at first seemed improbable. The Harr family had no previous exposure to Buddhism and were not convinced by Daido Roshi’s mystical, creative connection to the natural setting. They were impressed, however, by Daido’s commitment, both to his family and to his path, and by the willingness of other early sangha members (including Myotai herself) to be direct, honest and straightforward about what this experiment in religious, communal living meant to them.
The weekend marked a third anniversary, in fact—that of Daido Roshi’s passing. Following dinner, we all returned to the Sangha House for another movie premiere. A long anticipated documentary about Daido Roshi had been commissioned to help preserve his memory for those of us who knew him, those who have arrived more recently and for those yet to come. Echoing words Roshi used often with his students, the 40-minute film is entitled Trust Yourself. Roshi’s three Dharma heirs are interviewed in the film, along with a number of the monastic and lay students he ordained during his three decades of teaching at the base of Tremper Mountain. Interspersed with the stories and reflections are mesmerizing archival clips and photos, filling out this affectionate portrait.
Sunday morning completed the circle for this momentous, celebratory gathering. Amidst the splendor of Fall’s leafy display, the sangha processed from the Monastery’s front drive up to the cemetery where Shugen Sensei officiated a memorial service for Daido Roshi. Initiating the service, Sensei offered incense and this poem:
Sitting in an empty hall and all is sent out
And still today the answer can be heard.
Buddha mind seal
to soothe the baby’s cry
to sing the body electric.
One intention, one action.
This river has countless streams.
The hands and eyes weaving a tapestry in an empty sky.
How can I express my gratitude?
All the way to heaven—
Roshi, you please, give the last line.