Quantcast

Tales from the San Diego Zen Center

What is the sound of two bald women brushing their hair?

The alcohol abuse, the inappropriate sexual behavior, the general tone of debauchery and dishonesty, the abuses of power helped send people from L.A. to San Diego.
  • The alcohol abuse, the inappropriate sexual behavior, the general tone of debauchery and dishonesty, the abuses of power helped send people from L.A. to San Diego.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

One of the early and sure signs of the Southern California transformation of Zen was that Joko and Yuin were no longer bald. Yuin was first to let her hair grow to the two-finger length considered to be acceptable for Zen monks. “People stared when I used to show up bald in public. They must've thought I had a horrendous scalp disease or I was some kind of theatrical lesbian,” she laughs, remembering the pariah days three years ago when she was on leave from the music department at UCSD.

Yuin: “My students would probably have concentrated on my head rather than on notes and sounds. So I grew my hair back.”

Yuin: “My students would probably have concentrated on my head rather than on notes and sounds. So I grew my hair back.”

At that time, after a week-long ceremony at the Los Angeles Zen Center, a senior monk had shaved her head — and then she was one of them. “A bald female music teacher would've been too distracting,” Yuin explains. “My students would probably have concentrated on my head rather than on notes and sounds. So I grew my hair back.” It was just last August that Joko started sprouting fuzz on her head, after five years spent clean-shaven. The new hair was part of her October move from the Los Angeles Zen Center to the San Diego Zen Center, where she now presides as spiritual leader.

Joko is the first American woman to become a successor to an authenticated Zen master.

Joko is the first American woman to become a successor to an authenticated Zen master.

Today the sixty-seven-year-old, bespectacled grandmother of three has about her a maternal countenance, despite her David Bowie hairstyle. ‘‘I’m not looking for a man. I don't care how I look," Joko deadpans on her return to the center from a workout at the Family Fitness Center. In a paper published last June in The Ten Directions. a Los Angeles Zen Center publication that is read in Zen communities throughout the world, Joko wrote that humility is the basis for shaving the head — a willingness to be ugly.

Yuin and Joko's house behind the Zen center

Yuin and Joko's house behind the Zen center

“There is a freedom that comes from not being perturbed about what people say,” she wrote. A pragmatist nevertheless, Joko admits that in San Diego a bald woman is too exotic. “It disturbs people,” she says as she mixes the contents of a can of tuna with raw vegetables and diet mayonnaise. “Joko is always on a diet,” announces Yuin, who is naturally lithe.

"I still don’t know the translation of all those Japanese words and chants we use in the services.”

"I still don’t know the translation of all those Japanese words and chants we use in the services.”

Another sign: the members of the San Diego Zen Center recently got rid of chopsticks during their communal meals. “Even though forks and spoons are noisier, we’ve begun to use them,” says Yuin, who admits that the Japanese traditions have become anachronistic in a San Diego setting. “Eating cornbread with chopsticks lacks a certain integration,” she adds with a laugh, “especially when cornbread gets stuck to the roof of your mouth during zazen."

List of duties

List of duties

But the seeds of Zen’s more formal reform were sown several weeks ago in the two-bedroom apartment in back of the local Zen center on Felspar Street in Pacific Beach. Joko and Yuin share the apartment. Yuin is the resident monk of the center; Joko, more advanced in her training, is the first American woman to become a successor to an authenticated Zen master.

Ed McFadd: “We import Toyotas, computers, and Zen.”

Ed McFadd: “We import Toyotas, computers, and Zen.”

Her fame as a Zen teacher has come mostly from her writings in The Ten Directions, from her taped talks, and from word of mouth. Since her trip to Australia last fall, where she led meditation retreats for the Brisbane and Sydney Zen centers, inquiries by mail and by phone have been coming to Felspar Street from that continent as well as from Europe.

Allan Kaprow: "Zen's growth in San Diego is parallel to San Diego’s growth."

Allan Kaprow: "Zen's growth in San Diego is parallel to San Diego’s growth."

Soon the center expects Zen students to fly into San Diego from all over the world to confer with Joko; recently they’ve been arriving from outside California — mostly from New York, Florida, and Arizona. In addition, students from Los Angeles and San Francisco have been spending weekends in San Diego to be with Joko. Yuin says there’s something about Joko’s smiling, “surgical” tone that gives them strength. “She’s Grandma Zen — eat-your-oatmeal-it’s-good-for-you Zen,” says Yuin.

Eleanor Antin says she’s not attracted to gurus but that "Joko’s a good point of reference for me because she shares the female experience."

Eleanor Antin says she’s not attracted to gurus but that "Joko’s a good point of reference for me because she shares the female experience."

“Joko’s not just a benign, smiling Buddha who’s never had any hard knocks; she’s not airy,” says environmental artist and UCSD visual arts professor Allan Kaprow. “She’s intellectually superior to many Zen teachers. I can communicate with her on a conceptual level. She’s a realist, she’s psychologically insightful — she’s one of us. She’s got a Western consciousness and she recognizes the tricks,” smiles Kaprow. “I don’t take to people who’re floating around.” Kaprow’s UCSD colleague, performance artist Eleanor Antin, says she’s not attracted to gurus but that ‘‘Joko’s a good point of reference for me because she shares the female experience. She makes Zen Western. And because Joko was an artist, she has an artist’s soul. There’s a real simpatico. To me, she feels like a teacher.”

At the meeting that recent Sunday afternoon, at which thirty Zen practitioners had gathered, the well-polished, black Baldwin baby grand dominated the living room, due to its size and majesty. But a bumper sticker on the refrigerator door vied for attention; it read: Sorry, My Karma Just Ran Over Your Dogma. A two-year-old baby crushed saJtines on the hallway carpet with his hands and feet, and Kiki, Joko’s twenty-year-old black cat, slithered silently in and out of sight. An infant squalled in his father’s arms in the adjacent standing-room-only kitchen during the twenty-minute debate and show-of-hands vote, which determined that a non-practitioner journalist would be allowed to take notes. Then the real business of the February 26 meeting began: a discussion of how Zen practice should look in America.

San Diego clinical psychologist and seventeen-year Zen practitioner Bill Hausman speculated that the moment was of historical importance. “Perhaps a hundred years from now this gathering will be referred to as the beginning of change — as the Reformation of Zen in America,” he said, and voices from the floor dramatically intoned the name Martin Luther.

Besides Yuin, two other monks were present who had been ordained at the Los Angeles Zen Center. They had lived there until recently, when they moved with their wives to Pacific Beach, within walking distance of the Felspar Street center. John Mudd was dressed in a T-shirt. His very pregnant wife Carol, whom he married at the Los Angeles Zen Center, sat erect on her meditation cushion. Also properly positioned on cushions were Karen and her husband Genmayo (his Zen monk name), who had both met and married at the Los Angeles center, where Genmayo had been an attendant to that center’s master, or roshi. Genmayo, who comes from an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn Jewish family, has two older brothers who are ordained, rabbis. Genmayo himself had studied for the rabbinate, too, but had severely disappointed his parents when he instead wound up teaching political science at City College of New York before moving to Los Angeles to become a monk and to marry a practicing Zen Buddhist. Today Genmayo works in San Diego as an accountant.

Also in attendance that day was Ed McFadd, a coordinator of special education programs for the San Diego Unified School District. McFadd mentioned the circuity of things, that Zen traveled to California along the trade routes established 2500 years ago in the Orient. “Today it’s still coming through the trade routes,” McFadd said. “We import Toyotas, computers, and Zen.”

“The real Zen is here," Joko interjected. Joko, the spiritual leader of the group, has never been to Japan. “It would be too much of a strain — going on business would just be a transmission formality,” she explained, “and it would be nerve-wracking being ‘abbot’ for a day when the service is all in Japanese.”

Nelson Jenkins agreed about the matter of “real” Zen being found here, not there. “There’s more Zen in California,” said the eighty-five-year-old retired construction engineer. “When I went to Japan, I found only a few places to sit, unless you were a monk. That’s why we moved to San Diego —just to sit.” Jenkins and his eighty-two-year-old wife Lucille, a retired psychiatric social worker who discovered Zen in a magazine article fifteen years ago, have spent a good deal of their retirement years moving to different parts of the country to be near Zen centers. Three years ago they settled in San Diego. “I’ve been sitting for fifteen years and I still don’t know the translation of all those Japanese words and chants we use in the services,” she complained good-naturedly while she sat, spine erect, on her cushion. “I wish we’d get rid of them so I'd know what was going on.” Some at the meeting insisted that formal structure in the Japanese tradition strengthens Zen practices. Other voices raised objections to structure, in particular to wearing the rakusu, an abbreviated robe given to a Zen student during a ceremony marking the student’s spiritual advancement and initiation as a “lay Buddhist.” To this remark came the answer that hierarchy is expressed through clothing. Someone countered with this: “Merit badges shouldn’t be visible. They encourage an ‘us-them’ situation. Trappings can be counterproductive.” Another voice added, “A totalitarian trip.” A defender of the rakusu-wearing tradition said the special garment is helpful because beginners will then know of whom to ask questions. “Yeah, like ‘Where's the bathroom?’ ” someone else wisecracked.

“Okay, so now the big female question arises,” announced Joko. “What’ll we wear?”

“|'m tired of black,” said Brenda Beck, Joko's twenty-nine-year-old daughter. “I don’t look good in black.”

“But a large array of colors is disconcerting. They can destroy concentration,” said a tall, lean, gray-bearded man.

“I'd be ecstatic to get rid of this medieval Japanese underwear and these monk’s robes,” said Yuin. “I always get my foot caught in my sleeve.”

Acculturation was clearly the issue, and clearly a sensitive issue. San Diego poet Steve Kowit, for instance, sees value in getting rid of all the Japanese trappings — the chants in Sanskrit, Japanese, and Chinese, and the Japanese robes — though he understands that these symbols are a way to pay homage to the Zen masters, to the heritage. Yet he realizes that romanticization is contrary to what Zen is all about.

David Preston, a sociology instructor at San Diego State who is writing a book about Zen in America, presented an opposing view based on his personal experience with the Catholic Church. “When the Mass was given in English, a lot of the magic disappeared for me,” he noted. “People are drawn to rituals. A certain amount of formality is essential.” From the crowd: Rituals create efficiency; they make words unnecessary. Things happen on cue when a bell rings. The smell of burning incense is expected.

“The essence of practice is to stay with monotony, with daily life, and still have it feel fresh,” Joko reminded them.

‘‘Form can quickly become dogma,” said a woman known as Myoshu, who was wearing a T-shirt that advertised M&M’s candy. “If it serves us, that’s fine, but when we begin serving it, it’s no longer useful.” Ironically, Myoshu is in charge of the formal Zen service that includes bell ringing, incense burning, chanting, and bowing with the head touching the floor.

Yuin quickly reduced the issue to ‘‘smells and bells and vows and bows. . . . There aren’t any misty landscapes in Zen,” she said simply. “Zen is ordinary. Zen is blowing your nose.”

“Zen is washing the dishes,” added Joko.

Joko grew up in New Jersey with the name Charlotte. She studied music at the Oberlin Conservatory, and then she taught piano at her own studio and gave public concerts. But when she married Lloyd Beck, a Yale psychology professor, she put her musical career aside to travel the academic circuit with her husband. When their marriage ended, Charlotte studied weather maps and in 1958 moved with her four children to San Diego, based solely on climate, she says. By then Charlotte was in her forties and was the only support for her two daughters, Brenda and Helen, and her two sons, Greg and Eric. She worked first as an elementary school teacher and then as an administrative assistant at Convair. The family lived in a house Charlotte owned on Armitage Street in Clairemont. Although Charlotte’s younger son, Greg, had been experimenting with drugs, followed by bouts with police and hospitals, Charlotte describes her life at that time as being under control. “I had a good job, we had a roof over our heads, and I was going out with a nice man,” she recalls. ‘‘Nothing was really wrong, but I knew there was something else; something was missing.” Then, one evening in 1965, she attended a lecture at the Unitarian Church on Front Street in Hillcrest, where she had been a member. The lecturer was a visiting Zen monk named Taizan Maezumi, who would later head the Los Angeles Zen Center as a master, a roshi. "The monk bowed to each of us individually as we walked into the room. It was so impressive that even my friend, who was a hard-boiled business type, said she felt something, and so did I, of course. The audience tried to stir him up, but the monk had an unperturbable quality — he looked as though he were thoroughly enjoying himself.” After that, Charlotte would often lie awake at night pondering meaninglessness. Figuring there must be more to life than her job and her kids and a relationship with a nice guy. “There were only two people in San Diego who were sitting at that time. I became the third,” she recalls.

Every day, for long periods, Charlotte would sit alone in her room, facing the wall, spine erect, eyes lowered in deep concentration, palms slightly extended, while she became aware of her physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. “It was weird,” recalls her daughter Brenda, who today is an active lay Buddhist. “There’d be a note on my mother’s door that read. Do Not Disturb. Am Doing Zazen. That meant we couldn’t come into her room, and we were pissed off because that’s where the mirror was and we wanted to try on make-up,” Brenda remembers.

Eventually, so they wouldn’t feel left out of the activity that was consuming so much of their mother’s time, the Beck children began sitting, too. There wasn’t any formal Zen center in San Diego then and there wasn’t any teacher, but a group had been sitting in people’s homes. “I must’ve been about fourteen years old when I started sitting,” Brenda recalls. “I was going to Madison High at the time and I remember missing lots of school to go to sesshin [long, intense meditation retreats]. Doing Zen was cool and I liked it. In those days I was a jock and a brain, but I was a mess. I was loaded with anxieties, always worried about what other people thought about me, and practicing Zen calmed me down.”

Her brother Greg’s drug problems started to abate when he began sitting. Today Greg is a thirty-three-year-old machinist who lives in New Zealand with his girlfriend; they both practice Zen. Eric, the oldest, now forty-one, is a pioneer mountain climber with a national reputation. He practices Zen. Helen, who is thirty-seven and lives in a Seattle suburb with her husband and three children, has given up Zen practice but has recently developed a serious interest in Catholicism.

After Charlotte Beck left Convair, she began working at UCSD as an administrative assistant to the head of the music department, where she became friendly with some of the faculty. “Charlotte was one of the sanest people I*d ever met. She was always interested in what people had to say, yet she didn’t take their ongoing melodramas seriously. She worked diligently, she kept the department running, and she never mentioned Zen,” says Yuin the monk, who earlier had been Elizabeth Hamilton the music instructor. Hamilton had been dividing her time between teaching at UCSD and UCLA, and was performing harpsichord in the company of such nationally known musicians as Igor Kipnis and Anthony Newman. “I first found out about Charlotte’s Zen involvement when I invited her to a harpsichord concert in Los Angeles. When she agreed to go with me, she asked if I’d mind spending the night in L.A. so she could have an interview with her Zen master in the morning. I could sleep in, she said, so there wasn’t any hard sell. Needless to say, my curiosity was aroused. So I rose early, received zazen instruction, and I sat. After forty minutes of leg pain and mental gymnastics, I concluded that this might be for some people but it was deFinitely not for me.”

After that initial experience, Elizabeth Hamilton didn’t go near a Zen center for a long time. “One day, three years later, after receiving a positive concert review in the Los Angeles Times, I realized that I might have made some dents in music, but I was in a muddle about the workings of the human mind, the meaning of reality — you know, the big questions.”

She was the granddaughter of a Methodist minister and the only child of an Air Force couple, born in Oklahoma forty-one years ago. Elizabeth’s musical ability was detected early, and by age six she had begun her stage career; she was performing at recitals and she was winning piano competitions. Educated at William and Mary College in Virginia and then at UCLA, divorced from a geneticist and then from a musician, she began shuffling through the trendy revolving doors of the Spiritual Seventies; she tried Rolfing, rebirthing, est training, and Jungian therapy. “I gained insight from each of those experiences,” she recalls, ‘‘but they weren’t enough. One day I simply called the L.A. Zen Center and I joined. This started seven years of going to Los Angeles [from San Diego] once a week for an interview with the Zen master and attending monthly sesshin, which were of week-long duration during school vacations,” she says. Entire summers were spent at the Los Angeles center.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Beck had left the music department at UCSD and in 1972 had begun working in the chemistry department in the same capacity. Her assistant, Martha Obermeier, says Charlotte was a major influence in her life, was one of three people who made a major impact on her. ‘‘There was one quality, especially,” Obermeier remembers. ‘‘She was unflappable. Being around her really made a difference. She was calm; she never allowed her emotional reactions to interfere with what had to be done. ‘Well, so you don’t like it, so what? What are you going to do about it?’ she’d say. And she never pushed Zen. She knew it wasn’t for everyone. For her it was just another way of looking at things.” Obermeier also remembers that Charlotte would drive up to Los Angeles every Saturday for an interview with the Zen master.

By 1976 a number of students and faculty members at UCSD were coming to see Charlotte to discuss Zen, but it was around that time that she retired from UCSD, sold the house on Armitage Street, and donated the proceeds from the sale ($45,000) to the Los Angeles Zen Center. In return she was guaranteed a place to live for the rest of her life, and thus she began a much more intensive phase of her Zen practice. In 1978 she became a monk and later a sensei, a teacher, and everyone called her by her new name — Joko.

Back in San Diego, Michael Soule, a professor in the UCSD biology department, and his pediatrician wife Jan, who had been meditating or sitting for years, had invited other Zen practitioners to sit with them in their home on Black Mountain Road just east of Del Mar. The pastoral setting was ideal: five acres overlooking rugged and peaceful chaparral terrain. In September of 1978, when the Soules and their three children moved into the Los Angeles Zen Center to become staff members and deepen their spiritual commitment, several San Diego practitioners — a virologist, a former Methodist minister, a psychologist, a waitress/painter, a musician, a stained-glass artist, and Elizabeth Hamilton — all moved into the Black Mountain Road place, turned it into a meditation hall, a zendo, and made the Soules’ mortgage payments. San Diego had a Zen center at last. Residents rose before dawn to sit, they sat together again in the evenings, and they all shared the workload. Joko visited them from time to time to deliver talks. Jazz guitarist and Del Mar resident Peter Sprague not only came to sit with them, he sometimes gave concerts there for members and their friends. Even the Zen master from Los Angeles visited, the roshi Taizan Maezumi.

As her meditation increased and her awareness of her own life sharpened, Elizabeth’s appetite for public recognition diminished. One evening, after walking on stage to play at the Los Angeles Music Center and observing that about 4000 people had come to hear three musicians — Elizabeth, Anthony Newman, and Suzanne Shapiro — perform the Bach Triple Harpsichord Concerto, Elizabeth said she got the giggles. “It looked like we were three battleships lined up on stage. It struck me that there was no qualitative difference between playing in front of 4000 people at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and playing for myself in the living room, minus orchestra. So I knew it was time for a break.” At the time, she didn’t know when, if ever, she’d return to the stage. The notion of public performance lost significance and the music itself became of greatest importance. Summers were a time of intense study in Los Angeles. The following year, 1981, she became a Zen monk and took a leave from teaching at UCSD. Elizabeth was the past. She had become Yuin.

“Zen was daily life. My concentration improved, my music improved, and my relationships improved. I actually got a mother out of all of this,” she laughs. “Yes, I learned to appreciate my mother.” Today Yuin’s tradition-oriented mother, a widow who lives in FaIIbrook, comes down to the Zen center in Pacific Beach from time to time to sit with her daughter. “Sometimes she even brings friends along,” says Yuin,

By this time the Los Angeles Zen Center was thriving as a resident center with a staff of seventy people. Located in the heart of Los Angeles’s inner city, on Normandie Avenue south of Wilshire Boulevard (“It’s right in the middle of a continual gang war,” says Steve Kowit), the Zen center was a burgeoning organization replete with its own medical and legal facilities, and even a nursery school. It owned and occupied an entire city block of houses, apartments, and an administrative center, at an estimated value of at least three million dollars. It was certainly not behind monastery walls, as it might have been in China or Japan, but instead was surrounded by the teeming, noisy commotion of city life. “It’s easy to remain calm at a mountaintop retreat, but I hear they’re all occupied,” laughs Yuin. “Being calm in the marketplace, in the thick of things — that’s another story. That’s the purpose of Zen, to handle ordinary life in a calm, centered way, and always with compassion.”

By the summer of 1983, however, paradise had begun to crumble. The Los Angeles Zen Center had become the scene of heavy drinking and sexual permissiveness that had gotten out of hand, despite the fact that the roshi Maezumi was married (to an American woman) and was the father of three young children. Turmoil began to drive residents away, and by last fall the increasing number of empty apartments at the center made it difficult for administrators to meet the monthly mortgage payments. Since there had always been a strong paternalistic link between the L.A. center and the San Diegans sitting at the Soule home on Black Mountain Road, and since Zen students had been taught that ‘‘when a leaf falls from a tree in China, the ripple is felt everywhere,” the rumbles from Los Angeles quickly traveled south.

Residents at the Soule home could see that they soon would need a new location, something permanent they could afford to buy. Under the circumstances, a move was timely: by coincidence, Michael Soule was returning from Los Angeles to live in his home. The Soule marriage was one of the casualties of the upheaval in Los Angeles, and while Michael Soule is not one to place biame publicly, it is clear that the roshi Maezumi contributed substantially to the crisis. Today Soule lives at his Black Mountain Road home with his twelve-year-old son. Although his view of Zen’s leadership has been severely altered, Soule says he continues to meditate on his own and sometimes with Joko. About leaving his tenured position at UCSD in 1978 to live at the Los Angeles Zen Center, Soule says he has no bitterness. “There are small pockets of disappointment, though,” he admits cautiously. ‘‘When I went up there, I saw myself as an ‘enlightened’ person, and now — well, I’m reassessing everything.” His family life has undergone drastic changes (he is in the process of divorce proceedings), but he has managed to pick up his career as a consultant in the fields of conservation biology and genetic biology and has recently accepted a position as an adjunct professor of biology at the University of Michigan, where he commutes for a week at a time every month or so.

Last July the residents at Soule’s home found their new abode; they paid $147,500 for a small, unpretentious, two-on-one property in the 2000 block of Felspar Street in Pacific Beach. It was a dramatic change from the peaceful setting on Black Mountain Road. Set amid small apartment buildings and private homes, just a few blocks from the huge Plaza condominium complex and from Pacific Beach's major shopping center, the new San Diego Zen Center, like the one in Los Angeles, was far from the calm mountaintop. The down payment for the purchase of the property was raised among members of the center. Four names are on the trust deed; Elizabeth Hamilton is one of them. These four individuals currently lease the property to the Zen center, and since the property is privately owned, it technically doesn’t qualify for tax-exempt status.

Last Labor Day, Yuin moved into the small house in back of the main house. In her bedroom is a futon bed and a trampoline; everything else is books, books, books, most of them concerning various aspects of Zen.

Joko returned from Australia a month later and moved into the other bedroom. (She brought a small television set with her. “I like to watch tennis matches and the weather,” she says.) The center pays Joko a stipend of $300 a month, which she turns back to the general operating fund.

There is no sign on the front house, no evidence to indicate that it is anything but a small, private residence with a scruffy-looking lawn, four twisted juniper trees in front, and a Criminal Beware sticker pasted on the front window. The main house is the zendo, or meditation area. Hardwood floors glisten throughout, and a framed speciment of Japanese calligraphy is the only wall hanging. A wooden altar is topped by an incense bowl, a bowl of leaves, a red flower, and a Buddha-like statue of Avalokitesvara, who represents the embodiment of compassion. “It serves as a reminder of our vow to be compassion itself,” Yuin explains.

Ben Thorson, a twenty-one-year-old Mesa College student who works weekends as a waiter at the Sculpture Garden’s restaurant in Balboa Park, occupies a bedroom in the main house. Ever since Ben took a karate class when he was sixteen, he has been interested in other aspects of Japanese culture. He’s been studying Zen off and on since then and says that being able to study with Joko has certainly hastened his road to enlightenment, to discovering himself. Ben pays $300 a month to the center; this includes rent, enlightenment, utilities, monthly membership fees (students pay twenty dollars monthly, adults thirty dollars, and family membership is forty-five dollars, although there are no special family facilities or benefits — no babysitting services and no youth groups). In the home’s antiquated kitchen, the old G.E. refrigerator is not only the repository for food but for information as well; it's covered with notes, computerized phone and mailing lists, and meeting notices.

On weekends neighbors and passersby watch adults industriously weeding, raking leaves, removing trash, cleaning patio furniture, sweeping sidewalks and driveways. Inside, as part of the “work meditation” period preceding meditation, other members dust windowsills, mop the hardwood floors, clean the altar, pare candles.

Demographically, members of the San Diego center are similar to those at other Zen centers throughout the United States. In San Diego they are all Caucasian, overeducated (‘‘The Ph.D.’s around here stretch for miles,” says Joko), financially and professionally secure liberals who have, for the most part, severed their affiliations with traditional religion and consider their Zen practice to be a secular one. Currently the center keeps a mailing list of about 400 interested San Diegans, of which seventy are active, dues-paying members.

On weekends those who live in Pacific Beach arrive at the center on foot; others come by car, though there are strict parking regulations insisting that members park at least three blocks away so as not to usurp the parking spaces of the other residents on the block. After they work manually and silently (pulling weeds, washing dishes) for about fifteen or twenty minutes, they deposit their shoes outside, in Japanese fashion, and then enter the meditation area. The atmosphere inside is calm, quiet, still. Sitters are encouraged to learn by paying attention. They’re instructed to dress with dignity, to make a standing bow with their hands in a specified position, and they're instructed not to talk or to look around.

The next procedure is to make another standing bow with palms together, fingers together, hands a fist’s distance from the nose, middle fingertips aligned with tip of nose and elbows bent out slightly. “After sitting on the zafu |cushion) placed on a zabuton [mat], do a standing bow toward the cushion while those on either side bow back. Then turn and do a standing bow away from the cushion while the person across bows back. Then sit on the zafu facing the wall,” say the instructions. Procedures for walking meditation, marked by bows and clappers, follow between periods of seated meditation. During the seated meditation, known as zazen, a "waking stick” is carried by a monitor; sitters may request to be struck between the shoulders. There is nothing sadistic or masochistic about this procedure. ‘‘It helps you pay attention,” says Yuin.

During sutra chanting, participants must maintain a uniform volume and pitch with the assembly, which is set by the chant leader. There arc separate, minutely detailed instructions regarding passing in front of the altar and leaving the meditation area. Written instructions suggest that unnecessary coughing: nose blowing, and nose wiping be curtailed.

Daisan, a private interview with Joko, is reserved for paid-up members only and is a regular part of weekend services. Although these interviews may last only five or ten minutes, they can be very powerful for the students who get this brief opportunity to discuss their own lives. Often Joko begins by saying, “What are you doing these days to kid yourself?’' The purpose is to break through various styles of resistance people use to obfuscate what's really going on in their lives. “What don’t you want to talk about?” is another ploy.

UCSD professor Allan Kaprow says he appreciates the aesthetics and the gracefulness of the movements during the meditations. More than aesthetics, though, Kaprow points to the artist as the historical paragon of individuality and recalls that Zen-related artistic disciplines are known as “ways” because they cultivate the inner state of the artist as well as a mastery of techniques of self-expression. Artists, says Kaprow, are “the rebels in the subculture. It’s been hard for us to vote — hard for us to join in. As an artist. I’ve benefited from those traditions of selfness. But there’s a paradox here: the more self-sufficient we are, the more isolated we are. So we either dry up or we go crazy or we invent a world of windmills and we become unhappy.” At the half-century mark in his life, Kaprow turned to Zen not out of heroics, he maintains, but from necessity. He’d been in psychoanalysis for years before investigating Zen. “I had no romantic notions about enlightenment,” he says. “It’s hard work and it’s dull — it’s off-putting and it’s soul-giving.” How does this long-time rebel feel about such things as Zen’s ritualistic bowing? “Philosophically, I’m joining the earth rather than bowing to an individual. Besides, it’s a welcome stretch after long periods of sitting,” he laughs. Kaprow says he was first attracted to Zen by his colleagues and associates who are practitioners. “They’re all such gracious human beings. I wanted what they had.’’ Since he began practicing six years ago, he claims his sense of humor has improved. “After six years of training. I'm just beginning to apply Zen to my daily life. I've developed an ability to accept what’s real. I'm aware of my feelings more quickly. I don’t overreact like I used to.”

Although artist Eleanor Antin has been attracted to Zen since the Fifties, she just began practicing in January of this year, when she became a member of the local Zen center. “It’s the parables, the apocryphal stories, and the absurdities that appeal to me,” she says. “And because it’s physical, because there’s no split between mind and body. And it’s aesthetically pleasing; I’ve always been a sucker for aesthetics.” She sits twenty-five minutes a day at home and twice a week at the Zen center, and says she already finds Zen practice effective. “I’m tired of thrashing about, tired of reacting to everything. I’d like some quiet,” she says, “but without giving up a passionate life, without giving up being a bete noire. When I noticed Allan [Kaprow’s] intelligent serenity at the chaotic faculty meetings, I figured that’s what I wanted. I want what William James wrote about. He said, ‘My life is just the same, but there is a difference.’ It’s that difference I want.”

Because Antin grew up in the Bronx in a permissive, passionate environment of atheistic Jewishness, she has never embraced formal ritual. “But I don't even think about it now. I just do it. After all, there's ritual in everything we do — in shaking hands, in kissing, in hugging — it’s all a pantomime situation anyway. Maybe it seems a little silly at first, but I do it anyway. It gives a pause. There’s a politeness about it.”

Ed McFadd is the self-described altar boy who takes care of the altar at the services each weekend. “When I was twelve years old and I wanted to be an altar boy in the Catholic Church where I grew up, they wouldn’t let me. Even so, I stayed in the Church through my college days. Then I joined the Peace Corps and spent two and a half years in Borneo. A few years ago I felt a resurgence of spirituality and I got involved in Zen and it changed my life, improved my relationships, and provided me with a method of self-discipline. And now,” he says with a smile, “at age forty-two, I’m really an altar boy.”

Instructions regarding formal meditation behavior are loaded with specific details, but there are few policies governing anything else. For example, although no meat is served at the Zen centers in San Diego or Los Angeles, the reason is practical, not spiritual. “Meat is expensive and the grease from animal fat is hard to clean up,” explains Brenda Beck, Joko’s daughter. “Vegetables are cheaper and cleaner.” There aren’t any rules against smoking and drinking either, she says. Excessive drinking, in fact, was clearly one of the critical factors in what Steve Kowit describes as the “psychic earthquake that rocked Los Angeles last fall and that had lots of serious fallout in San Diego.”

According to Brenda Beck, who moved into the Los Angeles Zen Center after she graduated from Madison High School and attended UCLA for a brief time, the hard-drinking environment there led to other abuses. “What do you do when God makes a pass at you?” Brenda says of her seduction by the roshi Maezumi when she was only seventeen years old. “ ‘Trust me. If you don’t trust me, you can’t trust yourself. I know what’s best. Trust me,’ he said. And I did. There were other women, too. He had a small harem until one of the secretaries got jealous and blew the whistle, and then roshi and I had to tell my mother before she heard about it through the grapevine,” says Brenda, who at that time accepted the Zen master’s benevolent dictatorship. But what disturbed Brenda more than what she politely calls “inappropriate sexual behavior” was the manipulation and the misapplication of power. “Oh, it wasn’t cultish. We could leave whenever we wanted to. But there were double standards and there was a dishonest tone about the whole situation,” she says. She recognizes, however, that what happened in Los Angeles wouldn’t necessarily be considered problematic in Japan; the trouble here was due to a collison of cultures. “In Japan it’s expected that a Zen master would have several sex partners, and alcohol in Japan isn’t considered a problem; it’s more a national pastime.” Brenda says she was troubled most by the hypocrisy and a sense of abandonment. “When the roshi’s brother flew in from Japan with his family to celebrate a Buddhist holiday, there was a lot of drinking going on the night they arrived and everyone got drunk and I wound up on the sofa with roshi’s brother in a very compromising position. We were interrupted by his wife and I got the blame for everything and I was ostracized,” she recalls. “The environment wasn’t supportive of honesty. It was hell on and off for ten years, but it was my home. But when I crossed the party line, there wasn’t any place for me there. There wasn't much harmony. In fact, it was antithetical; this wasn’t what Zen was all about.” Her body reacted to the contradictions at the Zen center with a chronic eczema rash and a continual series of cysts and infections.

Says Joko of her daughter’s experiences, “As a mother I was initially angry, but all that is behind me now. Suffering is a great gift. I wouldn’t have wanted to deprive Brenda of her suffering. I used to sit and hold her in my arms all night. Nothing was held back." Today both mother and daughter agree that they’re best friends.

Between the alcohol abuse, the inappropriate sexual behavior, the general tone of debauchery and dishonesty, the abuses of power, and the manipulation, there were direct confrontations and a general chaos that resulted in the small exodus from Los Angeles. Joko had already left. Her plans to move to San Diego permanently had been formulated in 1982 when the roshi asked her to take charge of the San Diego center. Brenda left. Through a roommate ad, she moved into a Pacific Beach house on Loring Street which she shares with a commercial pilot who’s a follower of Rajneesh. The tall, blonde, blue-eyed, sturdy-looking Brenda now rides her bicycle to work every day in downtown San Diego, where she works as a payroll technician for California First Bank. Although there is still a small eczema residue on her arms, most of it has dissipated.

Taizan Maezumi, the roshi of the Los Angeles Zen Center, has been unavailable for comment regarding the various controversies, but his spokesman, Gerry Wick, confirmed much of what has been related by Brenda and a number of other individuals familiar with the Los Angeles operation. Wick said the roshi is no longer drinking and has sought professional help for his apparent alcoholism. (Maezumi reportedly spent last December as a patient at the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.) Wick also confirmed a rumor that the extensive Zen property on Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles is being put up for sale. He declined to comment, however, on the subject of sexual misconduct or whether the alleged escapades had anything to do with the dwindling population of the Los Angeles center. But he did acknowledge that numerous Zen students have left Los Angeles in favor of San Diego. The reason, Wick says, is their affinity for Joko.

“Since Joko’s arrival, people have been coming here from all over because they trust her and because they’re attracted to her down-to-earth approach to life,” says Yuin (Elizabeth Hamilton). “She brings them a realization that our very life is the Nirvana spoken about by the ancient Zen masters.

“The newcomers are on their own,” she continues. “They’re expected to find jobs and apartments. All we provide is a place to sit and meditate.”

There is more than that, of course. Besides the scandals in Los Angeles and the urge to flee, there is the special attraction in San Diego of a strong sense of community and the unprecedented, quintessential American expression of Zen fostered by Joko and endorsed by members of the local center.

As spiritual head of the San Diego Zen Center, Joko has a substantial amount of autonomy with regard to the style of Zen being practiced here. But there remains some question of authority: is she completely in charge or does she still owe some allegiance to roshi Maezumi in Los Angeles, who directed her to take charge of San Diego's new center? The question remains moot for the time being (the roshi is currently in Japan), but Joko’s inclinations are evident in a recent exchange between Los Angeles and San Diego. The roshi had offered $40,000 for the purpose of adding a second story to the Felspar Street property. Joko declined the offer. She explains this current behavior on her part as a “temporary distancing.”

Of the Los Angeles turbulence, members of the San Diego center, in their boundless compassion, are trying hard not to appear to be judgmental, not to place blame. It’s predictable, some say, for abuses to occur in spiritual communities simply because it's the last place you’d expect them. Not even Gandhi was immune, they point out, to the problems of unmanaged charisma. (In the last days of his life, Gandhi allegedly slept with young women to “prove” his celibacy.)

Many of the students from the Los Angeles center who have felt disenchanted and betrayed, but who have not moved to San Diego, have instead been driving down for weekends just to sit for meditation on Felspar Street. They arrive with sleeping bags and camp out on the hardwood floors. “A few weekends ago,” says Joko, “when a family arrived after midnight, they felt it was too late to knock on the door so they spent the night in their car parked in front and in the morning they joined us for zazen. And then they left.”

According to Zen’s 2500-year history, it generally takes 300 years for Zen to make itself at home in a new land. Even though Zen has been in America for less than a century, our high-tech age has speeded the acculturation process, which is now the issue not only in San Diego but in Zen centers throughout the country. What are the politics of spirituality? Does one need a teacher? How should a teacher be treated? Japanese-style or American-style? “Zen is undergoing cataclysmic change,” says Allan Kaprow. “Its growth in San Diego is parallel to San Diego’s growth: it’s blossoming. And it's livelier in America than anywhere. But changes are in order.”

The February meeting in Joko and Yuin's living room officially opened the dialogue for American Zen to take its own shape, at least beginning here in San Diego. Joko knows that the major task of a first-generation American Zen teacher is to “sort the baby from the Japanese bath water” in an effort to remove those esoteric trappings indigenous to the Orient. Yet she also realizes she must retain enough structure to keep the practice strong. In order to do so, Joko senses that it may be necessary to keep some of the rituals, but since Zen is a matter of mundane, daily life, American Zen must by definition be American.

The issue of the Zen costume, the robes, went unresolved at the meeting, but before the group adjourned, the members agreed that the most pressing question was that of the student-teacher relationship. The critical problem of the Zen teacher’s charisma would be the topic of the next meeting.

“God doesn't live in L.A. anymore,” someone said as the meeting closed.

“God doesn’t live in Pacific Beach, either,” Yuin chuckled. Then she confided that her five-year hiatus from the concert stage would be ending in the spring of 1985. “I’m doing a recital with Anthony Newman,” she said, and smiled broadly. “Oh, and please, just call me Liz.”

The Then and Here and Now of Zen

Zen has been broadly and unsatisfactorily defined by the Oxford American Dictionary as a Japanese form of meditation with an emphasis on intuition. Another definition, from another dictionary, further attempts to explain Zen as a sect of Buddhism noted for its simple austerity, its mysticism leading to personal tranquility, its encouragement of education and art, and as a method of religious experience devoid of dogma or traditional religious institutions. Zen practitioners, however, say that there is nothing mystical or religious about Zen and that tranquility isn’t necessarily the goal, though “harmony” and “universality” are stressed, with compassion being the primary tenet. Zen is concrete, not abstract, they insist, yet they also stress that it cannot be explained, that understanding can come only from experience.

Charlotte Beck (known by her Buddhist name Joko) is the spiritual leader of the San Diego Zen Center, and she says, “We’re not a belief system, we don’t believe in anything. We don’t take a collective political stance. Zen is merely a life process, not a destination. And Zen practice is nothing but constantly drawing your mind back into the here and now.”

The roots of Zen Buddhism have been traced back about 2500 years to the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where Siddhartha founded an order of monks, which was the nucleus of the first Zen group. After passing from teacher to teacher, Zen finally reached Japan in the Twelfth Century, where Japanese words became integrated with the traditional Sanskrit and where Zen has flourished ever since. Zen first arrived in America in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but its spiritualism had already influenced the writings of Thoreau and Whitman. The first official Zen center was established in San Francisco at the turn of the century. In his book How the Swans Came to the Lake, Rick Fields explains that there is in Zen no central licensing agency, no “pope,” no board of elders. Each school of Zen has its own lineage system of transmitting dharma and permission to teach, to protect against unauthorized, self-appointed instructors.

In San Diego the style of Zen being taught is a synthesis of Soto Zen, influenced by Japanese elements and emphasizing solitary meditation, and Rinzai Zen, with its concentration on the study of koans, paradoxical problems drawn from the sayings of ancient masters. (In keeping with the nature of many koans, Zen masters are fond of saying, “There are no Zen masters.”) Written applications provided by the San Diego Zen Center for the purposes of intense meditation note that “Zen training is not therapy and it is our intention to be responsible to the mental health community by not handling situations for which therapy is more appropriate.”

Below is a glossary of terms and phrases common to the practice of Zen:

Daisan: a personal interview between Zen teacher and student.

Dharma: teachings of Zen.

Jisha: assistant to a teacher.

Jikido: timekeeper who starts and ends zazen by hitting bells and clappers.

Koan: traditional problems to be solved but which defy rational solution, the most well-known of which is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” An estimated 1700 koans have been collected throughout Zen’s history.

Rakusu: an abbreviated monk’s robe symbolizing a student’s accomplishments and commitment to the practice of Zen.

Roshi: a Zen master.

Sangha: a group of people who practice Zen together under the guidance of a teacher.

Samu: meditation practiced while performing some form of work, often manual labor.

Sensei: a Zen teacher.

Sesshin: a retreat featuring long, intense periods of meditation.

Zabuton: a rectangular black mat on which a zafu is placed.

Zafu: a round, black meditation cushion used for zazen.

Zazen: seated meditation, the core of Zen practice.

Zendo: a meditation hall.

The Three Pure Precepts: to do no evil, to do good, to do good | for others.

The Three Poisons: anger, ignorance, greed.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad
Close

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader