Meet the Chief Disciple

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An interview with Ely Seiryu Rayek

by Diego Antoni

Seiryu knows his way from Mexico City to Mount Tremper inside out. He doesn’t even need to spend the night in New York City anymore, as when he was less familiar with the subway and the bus to Mount Tremper. He has now been coming to ZMM from his home in Mexico City several times a year since his first trip in 2007.

When I first met Seiryu during a sesshin last year, we were “bunk mates” and we only realized that we were both Mexicans after the silence was lifted and our accents revealed our shared background. Although New York City is now home for me, lately I have been intrigued by how Buddhism was greeted and evolved in a mostly Catholic country such as Mexico. Recently, I purchased a book called Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, co-authored by the social psychologist Erich Fromm—who lived for many years in Mexico—and the eminent Zen author D.T. Suzuki. The book is based on a weeklong workshop that was organized by Fromm and sponsored by the National University of Mexico in August 1957. Suzuki delivered a series of four lectures on Zen Buddhism for a group of 50 psychoanalysts who had gathered in the city of Cuernavaca to have a dialogue with him. Since then, not surprisingly, Zen practice in Mexico has drawn a number of psychoanalytic professionals, including Seiryu.

Seiryu’s own Zen journey is also a window into the influence of Taizan Maezumi Roshi’s lineage in Mexico. Starting in the late seventies, Maezumi Roshi would travel to Mexico City as often as twice a year. One of his Dharma successors, John Tesshin Sanderson of the White Plum Asanga, is still a teacher there and is the spiritual director of the Centro Zen de México in the southern part of the city.

This past March, I sat down with Seiryu over tea in ZMM’s Sangha House to get to know him better and to learn more about his Zen journey. Just before the interview, Seiryu had opened a dharma encounter with Shugen Roshi at the end of sesshin in his capacity as this ango’s shuso, or chief disciple of the training period. After almost a week of silence, the conversation with him was very lively and animated. I couldn’t help but laugh along with him as he shared anecdotes of his first sesshin at ZMM.

The conversation has been translated from Spanish and the content has been lightly edited for space.

Diego Antoni: Tell me about your experience and history with Buddhist practice. Did you grow up with religion? How did you find Zen?

Seiryu Rayek: I come from a Jewish family. My father was a person well versed in Judaism because he took his father daily to the synagogue when they lived in Syria. He was a practitioner of his Jewish faith, but he never imposed anything on his children. I did Bar Mitzvah when I turned 13 and, on that occasion, someone put the phylacteries on my hand and head.  The same happened when my younger brother did his Bar Mitzvah. I have never worn them again. The liturgy did not make any sense to me.

During the first 30 years of my life I mostly devoted myself to training as a psychologist. When I was around 33 years old I started to get interested in meditation and then a book by Dr. Herbert Benson, The Mind/Body Effect, fell into my hands. It provided meditation instructions. I followed them, but I ended up asleep! 10 years later, some friends that I was supposed to see for breakfast told me that they had to cancel because they were going to do a Zazenkai. So, I asked them: what is a Zazenkai? They told me that it was a full day of Zen meditation. I asked them where I could learn more about it and soon after I was taking my first introductory course with one of Maezumi´s successors, John Tesshin Sanderson.  The introductory course was not easy to follow mainly because Tesshin Sensei made great efforts to deliver it in Spanish (a language that was still somewhat new to him). Nevertheless, I was hooked with the practice and stuck to it on my own. Three years later, in 1989, I was informed that Maezumi Roshi was coming to Mexico, and I registered for my first sesshin with him. It wasn’t a pleasant experience as my whole body hurt.

DA: What was your interaction with Maezumi Roshi like?

SR: He was an interesting person. I remember that he seemed to levitate as he walked. In 1991, I started practicing koans with Maezumi Roshi and with a Mexican practitioner, Mariano Barragan. At that time, I had already been practicing consistently at home for 3 years. Two things come to my mind when I recall those days: Maezumi Roshi teaching me during dokusan how a koan could be presented and also Maezumi Roshi delivering dharma talks which I could not fully grasp and that was very frustrating to me.

Taizan Maezumi, Roshi.
Photo by Peter Cunnigham.

DA: What is the range of practice opportunities in Mexico City?

SR: The Zen Center of Mexico City was founded with the support of Maezumi Roshi. Two people from this center, Luli Madero and Mariano Barragan, regularly travelled to California to practice with him. Eventually, in 1995, I was appointed as the director of the Center. That happened shortly after the sangha had split in the aftermath of Maezumi’s death and before Nyogen Sensei—Maezumi’s last dharma heir—was invited to be our teacher. I studied with Nyogen Sensei for 12 years. At a certain point, the center changed its name to the Maezumi Kuroda Zen Center. In 2006, I left the center and began to practice by myself, sometimes visiting Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. There I met a young Jeffrey Onjin Plant who had been to Zen Mountain Monastery.  Encouraged by the conversations I had with him, I began to visit the Monastery in 2007.

Regarding the current Buddhist centers in Mexico City, there are just a few and I know very little about them.

DA: Talk about your work. How does Zen influence you as a psychotherapist? Consciously or unconsciously?

SR: The influence is very conscious. When I work with patients, I support them in creating new life histories in the present moment.  

DA: Tell us more about your psychotherapy practice with kids. I saw a YouTube video of you commenting on child development. How is childhood different today than previously?

SR: In the fifties, parents were the most important role models for children until they turned 5 or 6 years old. Nowadays, you have other kids and popular icons. Children have birthday parties every weekend and their social environment is much larger. Sadly, they may also experience bullying earlier on, both at school and in their wider social environment. Things that we saw in 12-year-olds back in the seventies we now see in children of 4 or 5 years of age. And 12-year-olds are now behaving like teenagers even though they have not even reached puberty. They are not interested in their studies because they don’t even find them useful. Schools are providing lots of information, but very little formation in values and life skills.

DA: When did you first come to ZMM? What was that transition like for you?

SR: What I needed when I first came here was to practice with a sangha. When I was at the Maezumi Kuroda Zen Center in Mexico City I did zazen every day. When I started to come here, I had doubts about coming back. But as soon as I landed in Mexico City I would check on the next retreat [at ZMM]. After a couple of years, I realized that this was the place where I wanted to practice and to support.

DA: So, you’re currently serving as shuso, chief disciple for this spring ango. What’s that like?

SR: I did not expect to be chosen for this training position. I also had my reservations because of my not being a native English speaker, my age, and my hypoacusis [partial loss of hearing]. The shuso is supposed to be a model of practice in addition to officiating services and giving a talk at the conclusion to the training period. So, obviously it can be a bit intimidating. But I’m feeling more and more comfortable with serving as shuso and the responsibilities it entails. After Shugen Roshi offered me the position, I recalled a movie in which all cardinals at the Vatican need to elect a new pope and all of them use different stratagems not to be chosen. Eventually, under duress, one of them accepts the position but later that night escapes from the Vatican. After a while he returns and abdicates the papacy. Being a shuso can be intimidating at first!

DA: How do you see the MRO sangha adapting and changing, both within the time you’ve been involved and going forward?

SR: I still feel myself as a newcomer, so I prefer not to give an opinion. Nevertheless, since my first sesshin, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of practitioners and their age range. In Mexico City, I was used to seeing mostly middle-aged people. Also, one can feel here the commitment to the practice and the precepts.

During our time together, Seiryu shared with me his feeling that being part of this sangha is a gift that one must give back multiplied. Indeed, traveling 2,000 miles back and forth this spring from Mexico to Mount Tremper is a most generous gift Seiryu is giving back multiplied many times over.

Diego Antoni is a new student of the Mountains and Rivers Order. He lives in New York City where he works at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

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