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 

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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