At the base of the mountain and in the market place: The Zen of Kyogen Carlson Barry Magid September 20th 2014

Download Talk

Today’s talk is dedicated to the memory of Kyogen Carlson, Zen teacher of Dharma Rain Center in Portland, Oregon, who died suddenly of a heart attack this week at the age of 65. Kyogen was a remarkable and exemplary figure in American Zen, even though his name is not widely known and he is not famous outside the circle of Zen communities or Zen teachers. His own training in history reflects an important development and transition in American Zen. After he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, I believe he went straight into the monastery of Mt. Shasta in California, run by a rather idiosyncratic Soto teacher named Jiyu Kennett, a British woman who trained in Japan and came back to America to establish a Japanese style monastery that was quite strict and ascetic in its practice.

Kyogen and his wife practiced there for a decade, I believe, and then were given permission to teach and then to establish a center in Portland. But his teacher had the idea that the rules really weren’t strict enough, and she decided that anyone who wanted to be a monk needed to be celibate and disrobe so they were forced to separate from her lineage and go their own way and in establishing their center in Portland. It became an important juncture in American Zen, turning away from the ideal of establishing a purely Japanese monastic training center towards bringing Zen into the community and into lay life, training both potential priests and lay people. Kyogen, I think, was very early on one of the few teachers who really put teaching lay people on an equal footing with teaching monastics. For most people in my and his generation, when we came up, teachers who taught lay people were happy to spread the dharma that way, but the idea was pretty pervasive that if you were a lay student, if you were really serious, if you really got it, then you would become a priest and you would at some point become a residential student. The lay teaching was sort of a feeding system to the real thing.

Kyogen really established a Zen community that was a genuine community that valued the lay people equally, and he was one of the first, if not the first, traditional Soto teacher in America to give full dharma transmission to a lay student. Kyogen was important to me in another way, as much for what he wasn’t as for what he was. I met him, I think, the first time I went to an American Zen Teachers’ Association meeting, maybe back in 2000 or so, and I was very interested to see the collection of American Zen Masters gathered in this room, all these exotic and charismatic people. But at that meeting there was just one guy who was sitting at a computer, busy taking notes, the secretary, and he was the most nondescript person in the room. He looked like somebody had brought the accountant in. He was the least charismatic person I had ever seen. And Kyogen had that kind of simple, direct, totally uncharismatic, ordinary nature that was very important in the transformation of what we imagine Zen to be and what we imagine a Zen Master to be.

I think we often do not realize the extent to which we are simultaneously inspired and entrapped by our pictures of enlightenment and what a Zen Master is. And many teachers, particularly Asian teachers for American students, had a kind of unattainable charismatic quality that made them very inspiring but also incredibly distant in possessing something seemingly unattainable. A lot of the first generation of American teachers, some of whom trained in Japan, cultivated that kind of aura of unattainable specialness, which could be very inspiring but equally daunting to students. It’s the kind of idealization that Hegel refers to as unhappy consciousness: you preserve an inspirational ideal, the one that is forever outside of yourself, forever on the horizon, something you can always see out in the distance and chase but never attain, and it’s almost by definition qualitatively different from who or what you are.

Now some teachers, as a kind of skillful means, can play with their students’ fantasies and idealization and make them wrestle with them, like Jacob with the angel, to finally make their own what seems to be impossibly distant. But I think too often teachers consciously or unconsciously settled happily into the mode, I’ve got it and you don’t, and perpetuated that kind of debilitating idealization over decades. I think Kyogen, having himself been trained by a rather autocratic, idiosyncratic, charismatic character of a teacher, instinctively went in another direction, allowing his own ordinariness to be inseparable from his teacher. His was a style that said to students, You already have it. We need to cultivate it and bring it out -- not I’ve got it and you don’t and you have to sit at my feet forever. In true Soto fashion, he taught that the enlightenment that we think we’re seeking is constantly available and present in our sitting, and we have to learn to trust and settle into it and draw from it. It’s not some special state of consciousness that we have to pursue and pursue forever in more ascetic or rigorous practice.

He wrote a little book called Zen in the American Grain, taking his title from William Carlos Williams. He very much wanted to find a way to maintain the essence of his Soto training, but within the life of a modern American community, not creating a monastery secluded on a mountain-top, where practice is available only to a select elite who are willing to give up everything to practice, but at the base of that mountain in the market-place, making Zen part of our everyday life. His legacy is deep and wide. He will be missed.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.