2016-06-30
John Daido Loori Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, N.Y., and the founder and spiritual leader of the Mountains and Rivers Order--a far-reaching network of students, teachers, and practice centers. He is an award-winning photographer and the author of 12 books, including, most recently, the "Cave of Tigers: Modern Zen Encounters" (Weatherhill) and "Making Love With Light: Contemplating Nature With Words and Photographs" (Dharma Communications). He spoke with John Kain on the eve of Zen Mountain Monastery's 20th anniversary celebration.

John Kain: Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM) is one of only a handful of Zen monastic training centers in the West. How did you come about starting a Zen monastery?
John Daido Loori Roshi: The thing that attracts most people to Buddhism and Zen in particular is its monasticism--historically, that's what Zen was. Many of us identify with the romantic ideal of the wandering monk--that's what attracted me to begin with. When I came to Zen and was studying with [Taizan] Maezumi Roshi [1931-1995, the Japanese Zen master who founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles and transmitted dharma to scores of American students], I began to notice that what we were doing and what other centers were doing was a kind of compromise of monastic practice to make it accessible to Western practitioners.

You saw Buddhist teachings getting watered down?
Oh, very much so, including my own training. It all came home to me one day when Maezumi Roshi asked me to represent him at an ecumenical gathering for the Dalai Lama in California. When I got there, I was ushered into a room filled with people from every possible religion. We were all getting into our vestments and talking, and I realized that every one of these people knew about Zen Buddhism, and I knew very little, if anything, about any religion beside Catholicism [the religion of my upbringing]. I realized that I wasn't educated, I wasn't a theologian. I hadn't been trained properly. And I made up my mind that if I ever became a teacher, I would try to train monks properly.

When we started the monastery, it became clear that people didn't know what they were getting into.

So in 1980, when you founded ZMM, how did things start?
At first, survival was the main thing--it was a matter of supporting the monastery and keeping the practice going. My teacher kept saying that you have to ordain people, you had to make monks. He actually ordained the first one for me. But that monk didn't last very long. Maezumi Roshi had ordained 80 or 90 monastics in his lifetime, but at the time of his death in 1995 there were only a dozen or so actively practicing as monastics. It became obvious to me that people didn't know what they were getting into. They needed preparation for monkhood.

You mean they didn't comprehend the rigorous training schedule and the years of practice ahead?
Most people have no sense of what it means to be a monk. At most centers, a monk is someone who essentially does a lay practice but wears black robes. They have homes and families and businesses and so on. And that's how our training program starts out. But at ZMM it takes five years to become a fully ordained monastic and during those five years they go through a state of becoming a student, of receiving the precepts, of becoming a postulant, a novitiate, and then finally full ordination. That follows the Christian tradition.

The Christian tradition has been a big influence. You recently had a Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, come and do a workshop on monastic community, and you've even studied the Rules of St. Benedict.
We've done workshops on the Rules of Benedict several times. The extraordinary thing is when you look at the Rules of St. Benedict and compare them with the rules of Dogen [13th-century Japanese Zen master and founder of the Soto School of Zen] or Keizan [another 13th-century Soto master] you find incredible similarities. The dynamics of monastic community are the same regardless of religion or geography.

Your monks don't have to take a vow of celibacy. What is required of them? What rules do they follow?
Monastics can choose between living in a stable binary relationship or being celibate. The first vow they take is a vow of simplicity, to live a simple life which includes a vow of poverty--they receive a small stipend but they're not allowed to own property. The second is a vow of service to the community, to teachers, to all beings, which means essentially giving your life to the dharma rather than to yourself. One's needs become secondary to the needs of others. The third vow is a vow of selflessness--to forget the self and see the world through the eyes of all beings. They also take a vow of stability, which means major life changes are over. They don't have children to take care of, they don't have a family to take care of, so that all sentient beings become their family, and they become the caregivers for all sentient beings.

When the lay practitioners walk through those doors, they are living a monastic life for as long as they're here.

Social action seems to be a very important part of life at ZMM.
It's part of the monastic vow, the vow of service. At the monastery we have, for starters, the prison programs [which include meditation retreats at a New York State penitentiary and correspondence about Buddhism with other prisoners at many facilities], a program with seniors, one with AIDS patients, and an extensive environmental program. At our affiliate groups, such as the Zen Center of New York in Brooklyn, we work with soup kitchens and other programs. It's very much part of the way we train at ZMM. And it's part of the American tradition.

ZMM has lay practitioners as well as monastics. What's the difference between the two, and how do they function together at the monastery?
The monastic and the lay practitioners live and work together. The whole premise of [this system is that] there's no inside or outside, there's no elitist practitioner and second-class citizen practitioner--it's all one practice. There's a group that does it one particular way because of their worldly responsibilities, and there's a group that does it another way because they don't have those responsibilities. When the lay practitioners walk through those doors, they are living a monastic life for as long as they're here.

But the monastics are so much more immersed in day-to day training and have a very detailed schedule that promotes Buddhist practice. They don't have to worry about house payments and getting the kids to school--it's an ideal situation. I imagine that a lay person cannot help but compare their practice to that monastic ideal. Does this ever create problems?
It would be if we didn't also emphasize lay practice. We create special things to support lay practice, like Dharma Communications [an outreach program offering books, tapes, supplies, and home-practice programs to the public]. We use a model that still exists to some extent in the Theravadin tradition. In Southeast Asia, when somebody wants to study Buddhism, they become ordained as a monk, go into training for six months or a year or two or three, and then disrobe and go back into the world. When a lay practitioner comes into residential training at ZMM, they're coming into monastic training for that period of time.

How has the monastery changed over the past 20 years?
We've tightened things up quite a bit in terms of the requirements for people who come for training. People seek out religion for all types of reasons--to solve their marital problems or because they want to do better in business or for their health and well-being. But many of those things are questions to be resolved by a psychotherapist or a health spa, not by us. We make it clear that the reason to enter here is the question of life and death, the question of who am I? What is truth? What is reality? What is God? Those are religious questions. That's what we do.

ZMM has been referred to as Buddhist Boot Camp--it is perceived as a very strict and rigid program. Do you feel like an iconoclast?
No. I feel that we offer an alternative to what's out there. I like to think of it as radical conservatism, going back to the traditional principals of Zen, all the way back to Tang Dynasty China. But there's nothing that we do and no demands that we make that are any more stringent than what a good coach would require of somebody training for the Olympics or to swim the English Channel. I mean, you've got to do it. You go to bed at a certain time, do a hundred pushups, eat this food, stay away from sexual encounters. Zen is no different, except we're talking about spiritual jocks.

I had one more question but I forgot what it was...
I've got a response to that [laughs]. Ultimately Zen is not about understanding. It's not about believing, it's about realizing. It's about realizing and transforming your life. Period.

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