I started my Zen practice in 1975, got ordained in 1980, and trained in Japan briefly from the fall of 1981 to February of 1982, so I had one training season there. I continued my training thereafter for more than twenty years with my ordination teacher here in Seattle, and then I had a kind of finishing school with Eido Shimano Roshi. During the course of those years, I became a leader of the local Zen community but realized that I was ill-prepared to handle some of the questions that were coming to me as a priest about the spiritual journey, psychological issues, and family of origin issues.

In my role as a Zen priest and a leader, I didn’t feel that meditation alone prepared me adequately for those kinds of questions. Since I am also a Quaker, I got my Quaker Meeting to sponsor me to attend a two-year spiritual direction program here in Seattle that concluded in 1989. At that time, it was associated with the Vancouver School of Theology up in British Columbia. That program prepared me for the kinds of questions that I was getting about the spiritual journey in a broader context than I was getting just from Zen. For instance, we read a lot about the Christian Mystics, whom I had already been somewhat familiar with, which allowed me to interlace with Zen mysticism and spirituality. And that became part of the program of a section that I later began teaching.

Interview Transcript

Well, I grew up mainly unchurched, my parents were both fallen away Catholics, and by the time I was in high school, I really thought anything that had to do with any kind of religion was a bunch of bunk and that the only way to explore where we came from and why we were here or what the universe was about was science. And I thought I was going to end up as an astronomer because I wanted to understand the universe. So I had that in me. But then I had a wonderful freshman English teacher by the name of Jim Chambers in my first year of college. And he just really opened my mind to classical freshman English literature. But he taught something that he called the classical, humanistic tradition. And in that tradition, he posed the question. Where does the inspiration that for artists, scientists, sages come from? Well, now that was a fantastic question. Where does inspiration inside come from? And I wanted to be a scientist, so still I thought more important than maybe being a scientist was understand, where does inspiration and insight come from? That was very exciting. And was that same inspiration inside motivating and informing not only scientists, but but sages and and great artists of all ilk? Well, that was very exciting prospect. OK, I want some of that. And that’s what I began my essentially spiritual journey. What would cultivate new insight or inspiration or creative? Kind of. Enlightenment about music or science or philosophy, where does that come from and how do you get it? And so that’s what eventually brought me around to Buddhism because it had a practice that didn’t seem at all to conflict with science and yet offered a methodology or a skillful means for cultivating. A kind of groundedness, wisdom, compassion from sitting on a cushion. Well, that sounded interesting. I want to try that. So I did by the time I was a junior in college now at UCLA. I began to train with a Vinnie’s teacher and in what was then called the College of Oriental Studies, and I also had run into a sort of a Zen priest who had gone to. He was a Caucasian, but he had gone to Japan as a Christian missionary and came back a Zen priest. 

And on the third day of that retreat, I had a
breakthrough, and after that breakthrough,
now I was sold and I knew I would commit
my life to a Zen practice and training.

And he also had come back as a social activist and a Vietnam War protester. So I had this blend of social activism and spirituality, and there was a funny occasion where I met this guy I was taking a course at by this point in Buddhism. And here was someone walking around in zen robes on the campus. And it turned out that he was a graduate student in Asian studies, but he had already been kicked out of Japan and already spent a dozen years in a monastery in Japan in the sort of zen tradition. And we had on the UCLA campus, a fellow by the name you can even google him today by the name of Swami X, and he would stand up literally on a soap box in the middle of the Quad, one of the quads on campus and would espouse the wisdom of the East. He said he got it from the streets of New York and it went on from there. And he had a very foul mouth and just tore apart everybody. Anything that had to do with religion or administration or government and but was very, very funny and all of the students loved him. We made recordings of him and such. And you can still hear them on YouTube. Anyway, here was a guy who a student, fellow student, a graduate student. I was an undergrad student who was rolling around on the quad of the grass with the rest of us just finding this guy hilarious. I said, Well, maybe that’s the religion for me. And I recognized him as a Zen priest and zen from what I had been reading. Even though I was interested in learning meditation before I encountered Zen, I thought Zen is a little mysterious. You know, it seems kind of not anti-intellectual. But beyond like it, Zen seemed to tease one’s intellect. And with Cohen’s zen parables. And I thought, Well, that’s scary because I was very dependent. I was a student and thinking of going on to graduate school in medicine or public health or physics. And so something that toyed with the intellect and yet promised or teased about enlightenment or wisdom that was both scary and exciting. 

Even though I was interested in learning meditation
before I encountered Zen,
I thought Zen is a little mysterious.
You know, it seems kind of not anti-intellectual.

So I was attracted to Zen for that reason. Well, the graduate school student and Asian studies was his name was dizaine Victoria, and he was a Soto of Zen priest, and he had been living as a resident at the College of Oriental Studies at the time, which is not far from UCLA. And when I told him about my interest and my curiosity and that I was, I thought, maybe I should learn meditation. He said, Well, there’s a teacher here at the at the school that I live at and he’ll teach. He has regular meditation classes, and that’s the Vietnamese teacher that I first began meditation with and. You know, they had me sit on the floor and try to cross my legs, and that didn’t go over so well, but I tried. And you know, I could get my little toe up when I tried to cross my legs and it seemed painful, but I did enjoy the teaching. And I remember one early meditation when I was in my dorm room back at UCLA and I was trying to meditate on my own because I could only go to the school once a week for some instruction. And I wanted to have a daily practice, and I thought that was important, and I still think that’s important. In fact, since 1975, I’ve been sitting every day since. But one of my early meditation experiences is that I was sitting on the floor and I was just trying to calm my mind and breathe gently and listened gently and attentively. And it felt almost all of a sudden as though even though my eyes were mostly closed, that I could see all around me and it wasn’t like with my eyesight, but it felt as though I was connected to the whole room in a much more intimate way than I had ever experienced before. And I thought, Wow, wow, it feels almost like the room is alive and I’m alive in the room with it. And that was a new experience, and I thought, Well, I’m going to keep doing this. Whatever this is feels pretty good.

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