Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi is abbot of the Zen Studies Society’s mountain monastery, Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, and New York City temple, New York Zendo Shobo-ji, and is also abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse Hoen-ji in Syracuse, NY. She began formal Zen practice at the Zen Studies Society in 1967. She served as co-director of the first residential community at Dai Bosatsu Zendo from 1974 until 1976, when she moved to Syracuse and began leading the Zen Center there. She received lay ordination from Maurine Stuart Roshi in 1985, and full ordination from Eido Shimano Roshi in 1991. She was installed as abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse in 1996; received Dharma Transmission from Eido Roshi in 1998; and in 2008 was authorized as a roshi, or Zen Master, and given the name Shinge, meaning “heart-mind flowering.”
In addition to her work as a Zen teacher, Shinge Roshi is an award-winning writer and editor. She compiled and edited Eloquent Silence: Nyogen Senzaki’s Gateless Gate and Other Previously Unpublished Teachings and Letters (Wisdom Publications); Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa, with Eido Shimano Roshi and Kazuaki Tanahashi (Shambhala); and Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart (Shambhala). She is also the author of Circle: The Zen Brushwork of Kazuaki Tanahashi (Amsterdam: Samsara Uitgeverij) and Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin (Syracuse University Press), and her articles and reviews have appeared in Buddhadharma, Tricycle, Tikkun, ARTNews, Sculpture Magazine and American Ceramics, among others. Her weekly art column in Syracuse Newspapers’ Sunday Stars Magazine ran for twenty years. She is a graduate of Vassar College.
Buddhism in Modern Age
And you think about what the Buddha said. When I’m with a mother, I talk in terms of what it is to raise a child when I’m with a poet. I use poetry. This kind of adaptability, flexibility is one of the key characteristics of Buddhism. And it’s so it’s so wonderful to encounter this and live it. And I also wanted to say, based on a few of your questions earlier, that I am a traditionalist, that I do uphold Zen, that I think the formal the formal way that we’ve been trained is very helpful, very important. We can’t just make this up as we go on, even though we may start out that way as I did. I have a name that’s great. You know, just do it. But eventually, the practice itself requires a certain formal discipline. The mind, as everyone is very aware, it’s always jumping around monkey from branch to branch. Right. And so how do you really master the mind? How do you have that sense of all? The focus is a 360 degree even more, you know, without dimensions, no limit. How do you encounter that mind? Well, you have to start somewhere and just sitting down and having a strong posture and becoming aware of the breath. This is a fundamental teaching. Then we go into other traditional ways of sharpening our attention and cutting through the delusions of ego, mind, and really striving. Until we realize that there is no striving, making great prodigious efforts, until we realize that waking up, there is no effort. There is nothing to do. This is Reigns’s great teaching of boogie. Your whole done from the beginning. Fundamentally, you are just fine. But how do you really experience that? It takes effort, you know.
You know, my family background was Jewish, but my parents ran away from it. This was after the Holocaust. You know, a lot of Jews just said, I don’t believe in God. I don’t want any of this superstition. I don’t I’m just going to be a rational humanist. And that’s what they were secular humanists. So they were kind of embarrassed by me because I was always asking questions like, Do you believe in God? My mother once said, okay, look, she drew a circle. She said, everything that can be known is within this circle. For example, science, mathematics. Everything that the rational mind can avail itself of is in this circle. Immediately, I said, everything I care about is outside that circle. No limit. And that was. I was quite young then. One day I was walking behind my parents down a street and I was walking like this. And my stepfather turned around. What are you doing? He felt somehow this was wrong. And so you asked about another tradition. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually found that Judaism and Buddhism are so intertwined in my life that I have appreciated returning to what I wasn’t really taught about, but the great values of Judaism, particularly tikkun olam, which is to see this world and all of its suffering as a place for us to have a real engagement with through our compassionate acts. And that, of course, is the Body Shop for Vow. So now at this age, I find myself going back to services. I just came from the Day of Atonement and all Day Fast was yesterday, Wednesday. And sitting in temple and praying and feeling, this is the same. It’s everything is coming from this recognition of what it means to be human and not be defined by some small, limited idea, but to really open to what is our purpose here in this rare human lifetime. So you may you may have other questions about it, but I wanted to pick up on what you had said about an earlier tradition that’s now actually more relevant to my life than, say, 40 years ago. You know, I really can’t explain. It’s something that I’ve felt, a feeling that we we can’t live in a dualistic way if we’re going to really live our vow as Buddhists. We have to find all the aspects of daily life and see them as lived experience that can be called a Buddhist, can be called the manifestation of God. And in everything. And many of the Jewish teachings are very relevant to Buddhist practice for me, to know that there is this ancient tradition that I was born into. That’s not by happenstance that is part of the karma of my life. To ignore it would be to try to squelch some aspect that is very important. So as I’ve gotten older, I really wanted to look into it more. What are those teachings? How do they shape me? Even though my parents were not observant, my grandparents observed the traditions more tradition in a way, but still really didn’t ever talk about it. So for me, it was something maybe part of the silence of meditation. Let me go to the still small voice, as it’s called in Judaism, to hear God. You have to be in a meditative state, contemplative state, to really allow what we call that, which cannot be named, you know, in Judaism, it’s it’s really it’s so much more than the word God. It’s the mystery itself, the source, the fundamental source. To touch that and to know not only through Buddhist experience, but through this 5000 some years of that tradition, there’s something very powerful about that. And so I, I really feel that much of my adult life and most of my childhood, I was ignorant about that tradition, and it’s very rich. So now I’m appreciating the unification that comes through practice in both. Yeah. I mean.
I was I was attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because of the esoteric qualities, but then I found out that within Zen there’s also an esoteric school. And I actually felt just at home in the Zen tradition. So even though I have great respect for the Tibetan teachers, I think that they are more highly evolved than any masters in our time. There are certain people I have really benefited from so much, but the Zen, the simplicity, the the cleanliness of the Zen tradition, the clarity I think really drew me. So even so, we have Tibetan flags, prayer flags, and, you know, in the doorway and on the porch and there is an affinity that you feel for a particular tradition. Those who are shopping around may not have subjected themselves to the totality of any one path. And it requires that it requires surrender. So for me, meeting my teacher, walking into the little apartment where he first had the zendo before New York Center’s beautiful present place was found. It was just a feeling of, I’m home. And then the work began. But I was willing to put the work in. I wanted to deepen my my experiences and there was also a sense of having found someone I felt could be a good teacher. You know, there’s that resonance when you meet a teacher. If it’s not there, you walk on. I don’t know. Nowadays there are so many teachers. And so I think the problem lies is in the kind of society we have today where people are used to this kind of instant fix, you know, change. Press the button, change the channel. You don’t like it, go to another channel. There isn’t that feeling of investing yourself. Committing yourself of waiting patiently. Because, you know, one of the parameters and one of the most important of the six parameters is patience. And if you are quick to just turn the corner and go find someone else, because there are so many now, not all of the people teaching in Buddhism should be given the title teacher. But nonetheless, there are many, many possibilities. Too many. So to the burden I would say is on the seeker to follow your instincts. Does this feel right? Does this teacher feel right? Is there some concern? For some reason you can’t tell. Then of course, no need to stick around. But if you feel okay, this is someone with whom I can work. This is a place I can continue practicing. Then drop that judgmental mind, drop the preferential mind, and just prepare to be in for the long haul, no matter what. You’ll have horrible experiences. You’ll have all kinds of challenges. And that’s what it means to be a follower of the way. I think when I first started sitting, the most important thing was going to assessing the first three day retreat or five day, and then finally a seven day retreat where there’s just nothing but practice. Everything you do, whether it’s washing the toilet or sitting on the cushion or going to jokes on. And so the one on one meetings called Ducks on in our tradition d0k you as a in sometimes spoken of as some zen is perhaps the core of the teacher student relationship. It’s in the exam that you bring your koan and you bring what you have been wrestling with. Whatever you’ve come up with, as is usually the bell rings. So you go out and you try again and you try again. And then somehow you, you know, all you can do is just keep delving into it and becoming friends with the koan and first, you’re an enemy. It’s an enemy to you. You lose just as how? What? No way. Eventually something happens and the koan solves itself. And it’s such a it’s a great feeling, you know, there’s a breakthrough, however small, maybe very big. Each one has its own way of proceeding, but it challenges all of that logical mind dependance that we have. And so the more you go through that again and again, the more you try to do a sitting long hours, you’re transformed really fundamentally. And the teacher, if it’s a good teacher, will will see and will know how to guide. And we’ll know what questions to ask and how to be not only encouraging, but also denying, taking away. Because if it’s just they’re there, you’re doing a good job, you know, you don’t grow. So there’s a lot of struggle. There’s a lot of refusal in the relationship. It’s a very dynamic relationship if it’s a good one.
And then to answer your other question, of course, you know, people come to great heights and depths of understanding, but there are still plagued by their own karmic flaws. So we’ve seen that in a number of wonderful teachers in this country and in Asia. So I had to go through that with my teacher as well after many accusations of sexual misconduct. And I realized, you know, this is this is a serious matter and I had to leave for quite a while. I was fortunate that I could work with Maureen Stewart and having a female teacher was a very special gift because it was a different way of teaching. It was more, I would say, accepting, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that when I was with him. I was searching for that desperately and having had a stormy relationship with my stepfather. It was, of course, understandable that I was carrying that, needing a father, needing someone’s approval. And so that is very complex. The relationship is is extraordinary, really. And you learn so much if you’re willing to stick with it and accept all the difficulty as much as the benefit. So after Maureen died, I went back and I had our relationship was better than ever from that point forward because there was that awareness and honesty. That acceptance was based on knowing the flaws. And yet knowing how much he had to offer. And it was difficult. Once I was named the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society and more revelations came out, we had to ask him to stop coming. And that was so hard because although I firmly disagreed with what he was doing, I still could see what a wonderful teacher he was. What has happened of the Zen Studies Society? I had to be very severe. So the last years really were difficult. He passed away in 2018, and I can’t say that I ever made the right decision. I look back on all those difficult years and I think I wish I could have done it differently, but I don’t know how I would have even now. And so I might say my failure has has actually been a great Rich Cohen all its own, which I’ll never solve. But it certainly has taught me a lot, and it’s certainly made me especially careful with my own students. I think every teacher can fall in love with their students because it’s so beautiful to see people’s aspiration. And when they have breakthroughs and how extraordinary and fresh and clear they are. But there is personal thing that you have to be cautious about. And students want to idolize their teachers. They want to put them on, you know, some sort of high standard and and some are more devotional than others. So there are many areas where we have to be careful and, again, refuse to get entangled in that your way, even as we are feeling the great oneness of the practice. So if.
You know, I think I stress the fact of a regional nature more perhaps than when I first began teaching. You really are okay as you are. How do you find that out for yourself? That’s the question. And that’s where the rigor comes in. Are you willing to really have the experience for yourself or are you just going to take my word for it? And that’s been an issue throughout the history of Buddhism. No matter what culture that some people will say, I really am willing to undergo this training and others will say, Well, sounds nice, but I’m going to look for something a little easier. The trouble is, and even the way you rephrase the question, can you make it a little more accessible? Yes. Everyone is welcome to do this work. Can I have something without doing the work is the underlying question. No, you already have it. But to awaken to it is another story.
Sharing the Dharma
It’s interesting. You know, there are several aspects to that. One is that typically my lineage here has never been self-promoting. And that’s a very it goes against the grain for American culture, where everybody is trying to get onto whatever, you know, social media in the show and promote themselves. And my teacher taught demotion, self demotion. It’s part of how I was trained. So to get out there and gain a lot of adherents and have more and more followers, it just feels so antithetical to the spirit of my tradition. At the same time, I know it’s important that people find out about the teachings. So we’ve now gone on, you know, we have or all of our talks are videotaped and put on YouTube and through the Zen Studies Society. And people can find the talks. And we have some younger members who know how to work with social media. And I mean, I’m just so behind the times. I believe in words on paper, holding a book. I think that there’s a role for this. There is too much of the other. And people are getting overwhelmed by all of that media, all the things that that are coming at them fast and furiously and really what is meditation but saying I’m going to unplug. And so if you want to find us, we have the real deal. What if you’re looking here and there and comparing and okay, you probably aren’t going to be a student who will profit from this. Then if you want to use that consumer, the wording. You know, and and that’s what people are thinking. I want a profit. I want to get something. And what is the teaching? We’re saying there’s nothing to get. There’s no gain. You’re perfect as you are. And yes, you don’t know it. So you need to sit. You need to go through the grueling training. Change your mind. But that takes a large commitment of time, energy and the feeling of the Buddha, said. After all, this is everywhere, without differentiation or degree. This is from the Diamond Sutra. But you have to do it. And doing it is day in, day out. Sometimes it feels like drudgery. You just do it. It’s not a matter of whether it feels good or not or whether it’s comfortable or whether it feels like it’s a good fit or not. Just keep going. So the fourth of the four great vows, however endless the Buddha’s way is, I vow to follow it. You can join me or not.
Gender In Buddhism
The gendered aspect of teaching, of being seen. It took a long time, actually. You know, I’m just now really looking at changing the paradigm to some degree where the hierarchy is so powerful in men’s eyes and from the time I took over as Abbot, I started taking that apart and incorporating more of the democratic principles that we have in the West. And and the feminization of Buddhism in America has been very profound, really. So many excellent women teachers have come up, and we in the Americans and Teachers Association have had times when we’ve met just having gender specific meetings. That’s kind of an outmoded term now. You know, it’s very binary. But in any case, in the beginning, it seemed revolutionary that women teachers could be accorded that kind of power, that authority. It wasn’t that way in the beginning. And we would have meetings where women would get together. The teachers, women would get together in one group and men would get together in a different group. The first night was very powerful, really, and we discovered that there were many things that we all shared, which is, I think, a real sense of insecurity in our own abilities and a feeling that we were maybe an imposter and it had to be a man to be real. And I think there’s still some of that, although we have male students, there’s there’s still and I’ve noticed this now, I have two Dharma ears. They’re both men. And I think that there’s still, in the students minds, maybe an unexamined preference for the male statement that they hear that as more authoritative than the female statement, even though the statement may be the same. So we’ve really looked a lot at these things and examined the subtleties of the subtleties of gender and of the male voice and how it’s affected the way we teach and I think I work harder than men do in the same role. I think I’ve always felt that I needed to do more and have an impeccable presentation. So as a writer, I find that I, I really feel best when I can write what I want to say. Even if I’m ad libbing and doing this spontaneous talk, it will still come from a place of preparation that is probably much more cohesive and comprehensive than it needs to be. Makes me tired. So I’m retiring next year, the age of 80, and I won’t be the habit. I’ll be the retired abbot and I’ll still go to the monastery and still give talks, but less involved in the administrative aspects and it’s a big change when I’m here. I’m not retiring from this. This is really my home temple. You know, I, I love it very much. It’s my baby here. And it’s not a place that I came into after male domination. I’ll put that word in there so from the beginning, we have worked very beautifully together here. The students and I, the expectations were not of a male teacher, so it was easier for me to feel confident. But it’s really been something. Your questions have made me realize how I’ve been affected by the inner assumptions of what my role was and how what people expected. And I think that’s true for women teachers everywhere, whether it’s academia or spiritual life. There’s always this kind of little voice underneath us. Are you sure? Yeah. Do they really think that you have what it takes? Probably not.
So I don't have any desire Ito demystify Buddhism. I want to really invite people I into the mystery.
So. Yes, my name is Shinji. Raquel Sherry at the abbot of this place. Angie is the name of the temple, the Zen Center of Syracuse and in fact, you asked an interesting question about starting out, not knowing what this practice was called that I came to intuitively. It wasn’t so much to call myself. Rather it was an experience. I sat under a tree. I let myself go into the radiant nature of the present moment without knowing what I was doing. I was so miserable. And suddenly the bubble of misery burst. So it wasn’t an intention to calm myself or find a mindful way of dealing with issues as much as an original experience of something vast. Beyond my small awareness of suffering. And I think many people have experiences like that, but they don’t have a context for it. So when I read about Zen, it really struck me so deeply that here was the context, here were the teachings of the Buddha. And I resonated immediately. Yes, I know this. And just what about my business of whatever I was doing at the time? I was in art. I was a painter and I was an art critic. And doing a lot of writing. But yearning for practice. Something that I could say more formally I could engage in. And that’s when I found the Zen Studies Society in New York City. And my first teacher. So I think that formal connection with a teacher is very important. The formal connection with the Dharma, through readings, through your own insight, cannot. There is nothing more wondrous than that. Cannot be talked about. And the song got to realize there are others who are intently wishing to plumb the depths, plumb this mystery. We don’t know what this is. So I don’t have any desire to demystify Buddhism. I want to really invite people into the mystery.