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East Meets West On a Zen Journey

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By Annette Hinkle

There’s an old adage that says “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For practioners of Zen Buddhism in this country, the journey has spanned oceans, centuries and a great cultural divide. Today, though it may resemble a form that the Japanese Zen ancestors would not have envisioned, the true tenets of the practice remain.

In his 1985 book “Nine-Headed Dragon River” Sagaponack author Peter Matthiessen wrote about his own journey as a disciple of Zen Buddhism. The book is based on Matthiessen’s journals which were written over a 13 year period, culminating in 1982 — the year Matthiessen (whose Zen name is Muryo) and his teacher, Bernie Tetsugen Glassman, as well as Glassman’s teacher, Taizan Hakuyu Maezumi-roshi, traveled to Japan to pay tribute to the great living masters who represented their Soto Zen lineage.

The pilgrimage was important, not because of the physical distance it covered, but because of the distance it covered symbolically. The trip represented a multi-generational meeting of minds and the point at which Zen itself moved from East to West — a passing of the mantel to a new generation of practioners dedicated to carrying on the tradition.

Photographer Peter Cunningham went along to Japan in 1982, and has just published his images from that trip in “Are We There Yet? A Zen Journey Through Space and Time.” The new photography book, which was co-edited by Sensei Michel Engu Dobbs, Matthiessen’s student (or “dharma successor”), also includes passages from “Nine-Headed Dragon River.” Dobbs, who lives in Sag Harbor, represents the next generation of Zen Buddhism and he explains how the book came about.

“I became friendly with Peter [Cunningham] who said, ‘I’d love to publish these photographs,’” says Dobbs. “He thought maybe we could do a book. So we collaborated. I looked at what Peter had written in ‘Nine-Headed Dragon River’ and saw what would fit into it.”

“It was interesting because the collaboration was much more fun than actually seeing the book,” adds Dobbs. “In some ways I think it was a way of paying tribute to my own teacher.”

Dobbs, who is now a Zen Buddhist priest himself, first came to know Matthiessen at his Sagaponack Zendo in the mid-1990s after moving to the East End from New York City.

“I was looking to move out of the city and one of the things I was interested in was a place where there was an active Zen community,” recalls Dobbs. “I heard of this one, came and sat and liked it.”

“I started practicing and after a while, I went to Peter and said ‘I’d like to take the next step,” he recalls. “Eventually I ordained, which was very unlikely. I’m from pretty radical atheists who still bang their head when they think about it.”

Dobbs explains that the bond between Buddhist teacher and student forms over time, years, in fact, and because lives change and people move on, it isn’t something that is decided upon early in the relationship. Rather, the transmission process is ever evolving and happens organically.

“Generally it takes a while before you actually enter into a relationship with the teacher and they make that commitment to you,” explains Dobbs. “At a certain level it happens when both of you know it. Or a teacher may see certain things about you that you don’t see.”

“The transmission is really an understanding. When you become a teacher, you make a vow that you won’t let the lineage die,” adds Dobbs who likens the process to a long apprenticeship. “It’s not a religion where you look for converts. It’s about developing trust and rapport. It’s not complicated. It just takes time.”

As part of his own spiritual journey, 25 years after Matthiessen’s 1982 pilgrimage, Dobbs traveled with Glassman (his “dharma grandfather”) back to Japan to retrace his teacher’s steps. He found that much had changed in the intervening years. Many of the Japanese masters had since died, and both women and lay teachers were able to take part in the trip.

“Visiting the monasteries was amazing,” notes Dobbs. “In Japan, Zen Buddhism is the religion concerned with venerating your ancestors. If you’re a Buddhist priest and walking around wearing the robes in Japan they think someone’s died.”

“In Japan it’s a religious institution with many rules and guidelines. People in that institution mostly make a living doing funerals and memorial services,” he explains. “The living tradition in Zen to be free is lost if you’re chanting around cemeteries all day long.”

Dobbs notes because of that, the Zen teachers in Japan have had a difficult time attracting new disciples. Which is why, more than 50 years ago, they began establishing temples in the United States where they found the time was ripe for a new form of spirituality.

“Most came to the West Coast where there where there was a community of Japanese people,” explains Dobbs. “It was almost considered a bad posting. But for Sunryu Suzuki-roshi, who came to San Francisco and wrote ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,’ hippies and all these other people showed up and it kind of clicked.”

“In this country in the ‘60s, a lot of people were interested in finding what the tradition had been – there was radical freedom and awakening,” notes Dobbs. “I think there weren’t many people interested in doing that in Japan. Here, the priests were freed from the rigid structure of that. It remains to be seen whether it will continue and how it grows here. There’s no Zen institution in this country now, which is what gives it it’s freedom. But it’s also difficult to know a true teacher.”

But Zen is also meant to evolve as people and societies do, otherwise, it risks becoming static. Which is why the religion was brought to this country in the first place. It also helps to explain Glassman’s reasoning for taking Matthiessen and Dobbs back to Japan where the practice was born.

“Bernie’s aim was to show Peter and then the rest of us that this is what the tradition looks like,” explains Dobbs. “But not by any means do we need to stay with it.”

“In Japan people don’t identify as Buddhist,” he adds. “instead, they often say they’re Shinto at birth, Christian at marriage and Buddhist at death. I think that’s wonderful. I’m not looking for definition — then people can pigeonhole you.”

“Peter once said this isn’t about becoming a Buddha, it’s about becoming you — yourself,” says Dobbs. “This is it, this is your life, so take the chance and live it fully.”

On Friday, December 17 at 6 p.m. Canio’s Cultural Café (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) celebrates the publication of Peter Cunningham’s book “Are We There Yet? A Zen Journey Through Space and Time” with a talk by Peter Matthiessen and Michel Dobbs.