When Teresa and I first went to Tahoma One Drop and experienced Zen we were so shocked by how good it felt there. And how unmistakably cool the head monk was. Teresa was coming directly from college and I was drifting around aimlessly. I guess I kind of expected the head monk to be overly serious or hardened or sanctimonious or holy. But in fact, he was so fun and light. He was having the most fun of all of us. Making the most jokes. Shining. He was possibly the most caring person I had ever met. The most insightful about each of us. We felt so good and inspired being there. Meeting him shaped how we would spend the next decade of our lives.
There was freedom revealed through this weird physical practice and its people. Seeing them, I felt like there was a chance for me to actually be happy and light and not so heavy in my life. The head monk could kind of read our minds and tell us where we were at emotionally, mentally. It was so radical for me to experience this. Again, I had expected it to be so different. I did not expect him to be playful and rowdy. Joy, Charisma, irreverence, sexiness, beauty, and wildness! He and the other monk there were these couple of bald dudes, so beautiful, sitting in this damp place in the woods eating oatmeal and radish pickles, with shaved heads and weird clothes, excited about maple bars from the grocery store and good matcha. Chanting sutras like madmen. Grinning at me and enjoying me, seeing themselves in my awkwardness and intensity. They were grounded and somehow effused something ancient. There we were sitting in the warm kitchen smelling of sesame oil with the deer outside munching on everything in sight while we sipped matcha.
I remember when I first got there, the head monk took me to every coffee shop on south Whidbey. That’s like 6 coffee shops or something! We had coffee at each place. I was wigging out from caffeine, but he was just shining and grinning and joking with the server. I’d never expected this. I’d never expected someone enjoying things so much. Or with such an athletic ability for excess. A kind of immutable joy buzzing and floating around. How could someone who lives such a simple life, who’s given their entire life to service actually be the most intense happy maniac I’d ever met?
I found Zen to be endlessly multi-layered, like the people who deeply trained in it gradually became creative geniuses. Luckily it drove them to the vow to save all beings, as their talent of talents could have gone elsewhere or fizzled into crime or madness or Hollywood. Later I heard that Mumon Roshi said: “People of great virtue are slow to mature”
Through this first head monk I saw that Zen was him taking me under his wing. That was what zen really was. Zen was this guy who’d gotten free, deeply caring about a confused young guy like me. That’s stuck with me and shaped me. It’s maybe the best thing I got from zen.
I had high hopes for Tahoma, and Zen in America. I thought it could be better than Zen in Japan. I thought this Zen would be more healthy. A place for people to come and heal and be guided through this magical atmosphere. A place of wildness and rain boots and banana slugs. And irreverence and fun and infectious JOY.
It’s so too bad that the system didn’t allow that head monk to bring that feeling to fruition and help Zen in America be thriving in the way I saw possible then. I think the Japanese system was not ready for it yet.
If I have a vision for Zen in America, well, we have to do it better than Japan. We’ve got to make the place of practice welcoming. We’ve got to bring people under our wings. We’ve got to share the joy of our practice with them. It should be a place that a college student visits and thinks it is so cool that they decide not to go to graduate school, which is what my wife and I did. We need a place to inspire us. To show us that this practice brings ease and heart and fun and light. And in that freedom a great compassion blossoms.
We’ve got to love these new people who arrive, because we’ve let go of our shit enough to be big enough to carry them along. They’ve got to feel like this is a place with people who’ve got something they want. A place with people who shine in a way which never occurred to these newcomers. To awaken joy and wildness.
I am not saying that the training has to lack vigor or authenticity. And first encountering that kind of joy can be unnerving at first. It’s a shake up. It challenges us and pushes our buttons. It shows us who we want to be, often upsets us. But if a leader brings that joy and natural compassion and love for the training, it will bring with it real path power. It will be a joy not bound by outward circumstance, that does not go away. That’s my prayer for Zen in America. Not sad serious sanctimoniousness people frowning, or paper tiger poser zen, but something unbound. It’s so shocking and radical, to see something so simple be so extreme. To see the least adorned be the most abundant. It is the best kind of shock. A surprise you’ve always been hoping for. It can be life changing.