Interview with Roshi Oâ€™Hara (Part 1 of 4)
I met Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara one recent chilly evening when she was leading a group meditation at Tibet House in Manhattan. A former professor of interactive media at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who holds a doctorate in media ecology, Roshi is the Abbott of the Village Zendo, a Zen sangha (i.e., community) in the heart of New York’s bustling SoHo neighborhood. A few weeks later, I had a chance to meet with her at Village Zendo over green tea. In the first part of our chat, Roshi explains what first attracted her to Zen Buddhism, her Zen training in two separate Zen traditions and the famous koan about washing one’s bowls.
How did you come to Zen Buddhism?
I was very drawn to the arts. And that’s what brought me to Zen. I think a lot of us are that way. It was the poetry, the brush paintings, the whole aesthetic, which is uncluttered and raw in a beautiful way. I wanted to know, “What kind of mind makes this kind of art?” So that was my introduction. And then I began to study the teachings as they were translated. I thought at the time—and this was around 30 years ago—”This just makes complete sense to me.” So it was like a philosophy for me initially. I found a Zen center and began to study and I saw a practice that could change my life and allow me to do more things. And I just took to it fabulously.
Was there a moment that you remember that it clicked?
No, for me it was gradual. I’ve had quite a few intense experiences, but I try to minimize those because they just last a minute. And I’ve seen so many people who have had those experiences and who have gone on to have disastrous situations. Those experiences do happen. You’re walking along and you notice your boot crunching into the snow and you realize you’re a part of everything and it’s all wonderful. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t do something really unskillful a few hours later.
Part of the Zen outlook is letting go of those moments and being in the current moment.
Yes, absolutely. Letting go. There is this great koan, or Buddhist teaching riddle, about washing your bowls. The student said to the teacher Joshu, “I’ve just entered the monastery. Please teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your breakfast?” The student replied, “Yes.” Then Joshu said, “Then you better wash your bowl.” And that’s sort of the instruction on how to practice Zen: Wash your bowls. Just continually get rid of it and be present in this moment as opposed to grasping for some experience that you had or some idealism that you have about some future experience that you might have. Just be present.
But Zen has such a rich history too and many Zen practitioners love that history, especially with Zen arts and poetry. So there is a connection to tradition and the past—but not necessarily when you’re living your own personal life.
Absolutely, that’s a good way to put it. It’s certainly in us, and if I read Zen poetry as something that I enjoy doing and give classes in teachings and so forth, then that’s going to part of me. That’s part of my mental and emotional composition. So I’m naturally going to respond in that way. But Zen tries to help us not get stuck in any of that, to help us be open and free-flowing and moving and to appreciate that it can be—for example, I’ve always been involved in new technologies. There are people who think you can’t do things electronically and so forth who are very fixed in sense of ritual and that you can’t do koan study on Skype or something like that but they’re not able to move and be free-floating in the world.
If you get stuck in tradition, it can be a weight.
Your own experience with Zen has actually been rather untraditional. You received priest ordination from Maezumi Taizan Roshi, whose teaching was uncommon in that it joined Soto priest training with the study of the Rinzai koan system. Can you describe these two systems and why it is unique to learn them together?
It’s always difficult to talk about this because the minute you talk about “difference,” people think there’s a big difference, and in a way, they’re not so different…but there are two main schools in Japan and also the other Asian countries: Soto and Rinzai. Soto is the Zen of the farmers. It’s a “people Zen.” Although they have a lot of ritual, it’s very open for anyone to come and practice. The main practice of Soto is to just sit.
So zazen is important?
Yes, zazen is very important in Soto teaching. On the other hand, in the Rinzai tradition, there’s more activity, a lot of shouting in the zendo to wake people up. Rinzai was the religion of the nobility and the samurais. The practice we do there is koan study, centered around a question, like, “What is your original face before your father and mother were born? Don’t tell me, show me.” It’s aggressive from the teaching standpoint. We do koan study because Maezumi Roshi studied it. It is said that there’s no difference between someone who has that clarity through the lightning strike of Rinzai or someone who walks through the dew all night long. He gets just as wet as the person who is in a thunderstorm.
That’s a great way of putting it. Maezumi Roshi taught both lines of thought?
His parents were Soto. His father was a judge in the Soto hierarchy. And he had six brothers, all of whom were Soto monks. So he grew up in the Soto tradition. Then when he went to college, he lived with a Rinzai master and studied that system. He came to the United States as a young man and he was so taken by the energy and curiosity of Americans that he decided to stay. He ended up founding the Zen Center of Los Angeles. He taught both Rinzai and Soto. So we dressed like Soto and have the rituals of Soto, but we also do koan study. That’s what makes it unique. We’re not the only group. There’s also another lineage known as Sanbo Kyodan, which is derived from both the Rinzai and Soto traditions. Aitken Roshi was a leading American practitioner of this form.
How did you start working with Maezumi Roshi?
I started studying in upstate New York, and after a few years of study, Maezumi Roshi came to town and I had one of those experiences where I just really connected. Where I had been studying was quite hierarchical; it was something like what I imagine the Marines must be like. I thought I could overlook that part. But when I met Maezumi Roshi, there was a softness yet a real power. He died before I finished studying with him, so that’s why I finished my studies with his first Dharma heir, Tetsugen Bernie Glassman, who has been very involved in social justice. And that was a perfect connection, because I’ve always been into that, long before I got into Zen.
You received “Dharma transmission” and “inka” from Bernie. Can you explain that?
When you receive Dharma transmission, you can be called a teacher. You’re a sensei. Your teacher basically says, “I believe in you and you can teach the Dharma.” And “inka” is the final seal of approval. I have five Dharma successors, five people I’ve made senseis since I became a sensei in 1995: two college professors, two therapists and a potter.
Five transmissions in 18 years isn’t a lot. It must be rigorous training.
Yes, it is. And then there are people who are equally gifted and equally give their time, but they are just not teachers. They are painters. They are poets. Being a teacher is a unique mindset.
Stay tuned for the second part of my chat with Roshi O’Hara, in which she explains the concept of mindfulness and her own introduction to meditation. – Reynard Loki
ABOUT ROSHI PAT ENKYO O’HARA
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara serves as Abbot of the Village Zendo. She received priest ordination from Maezumi Roshi and Dharma Transmission and Inka from Bernie Tetsugen Glassman. Roshi Enkyo’s lineage comes through Maezumi Roshi whose teaching was uncommon, bringing together Soto priest training and study of the Rinzai koan system. Moreover, Roshi Glassman’s focus on social engagement and peacemaking underlies much of her vision of Zen practice. Roshi is a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Family, a spiritual and social action association. Roshi’s focus is on the expression of Zen through caring, service, and creative response. Her Five Expressions of Zen form the matrix of study at the Village Zendo: Meditation, Study, Communication, Action, and Caring.
ABOUT VILLAGE ZENDO
The Village Zendo is a community of people who come together to practice in the Soto Zen tradition. The Village Zendo offers zazen (sitting meditation), one-on-one instruction with a teacher, dharma talks, chanting services, retreats, workshops and study groups. Co-founded in 1986 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, the Village Zendo is committed to authentically continuing the Zen tradition while keeping it contemporary and relevant to today’s world. The Village Zendo is located in lower Manhattan, offering a place of healing and sanctuary in the midst of one of the world’s busiest and most vital cities.