Interview with Roshi Oâ€™Hara (Part 2 of 4)
Sonja Jyakuen Nuttall, Donna Karan, Richard Gere, and Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara
(photo courtesy Urban Zen Initiative)
For some people, meditation is about relieving stress. For others, it’s about improving concentration or other brain function. For some, it’s about getting on a path to enlightenment. There seem to be a lot of different ways to get to a meditative lifestyle.
Some of my students come from AA. Some come from Sex Addicts Anonymous. And others come in and their life is fine, but something is missing.
Was something missing for you?
I found that I wasn’t fully expressing my life. I felt that I had gifts and I had a hunger to express them. I wanted to break through.
How long did it take for you to break through?
It took a long time, but I tend to overdo things. So when I decided to start, the first thing I did was to go on a 10-day silent retreat. People take years to work up to that, but that’s just kind of my style. It almost killed me, but if you’ve never done that, and then suddenly you just do it, it’s very, very powerful.
Sounds like a trial by fire. Would you recommend that approach?
Well, it depends on the person and how resilient they are.
What was the experience like?
It was wonderful. To finally let go, to sit in silence, to be intimate with myself. What was I afraid of? I was afraid of myself. But I didn’t know that going into it. I realized that my fears were these things I had built up.
Did you feel an immediate effect?
I did. And yet, it’s just like Rinzai and Soto. There was an immediate effect, and then over many years, a gradual clarifying.
So much of a meditative life involves the concept of mindfulness? What does this mean to you and how to do integrate it into your day-to-day existence?
It’s become a very popular term. It’s a huge concept. There are some neuroscientists who are doing great work describing the connection between mindfulness and changes in the fundamental character of the brain. One reason that these findings are so powerful is that for us, as a culture, science is God, our religion. So if science says it’s true, we can believe it. So the concept of mindfulness really emerged from the work of neuroscientists and educators, who found that we can use this technique—meditation—to better educate kids, to help soldiers who are traumatized, to help Google employees relax so they can do better work.
Do you need to be optimistic to be a good Buddhist?
[laughs] No. You can be a pessimist. I’ve got some people here who are real pessimists. They come in and say, “Oh Roshi, don’t say that!” But that’s just the way I look at the world. It’s not the right way. It’s just my way.
When the Buddha achieved enlightenment, it was just part of a bigger journey that included his own personal conflict.
After achieving enlightenment, he taught for 45 years. And he had to face all kinds of issues. But I would love to have a more contemporary myth about the Buddha, so we could hear some of his problems and so forth. They’ve all been so idealized, but he was confronted all the time with all these questions, and that’s what the teachings are, how he solved various problems.
The legend of the Buddha as a wealthy prince who was shielded from human suffering who then, upon seeing all the suffering, devotes his life to ending it, shows that it is possible to make a 180-degree change.
That’s right. That’s really true.
Once you achieve a certain level of mindfulness, does it ever go away?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a misconception about Zen teachers like me. We can all make lots of mistakes. It’s not a “fixed-and-done” thing. It is a life. It is a practice. It’s constantly working. And if you stop, you lose it.
Would you say that a synonym for mindfulness is awareness?
Do you think that the increased interest in meditation and mindfulness is part of a human evolutionary path?
I think so. I really do. But I’m an optimistic person.
Stay tuned for part 3 of my interview with Roshi O’Hara, in which she explains how Zen Buddhism is unique within the Buddhist practice, Zen art, walking meditation and her “Five Expressions of Zen.” — 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.