My Other Teachers III — Roshi Robert Kennedy

In many spiritual traditions, students are discouraged by their teachers from exploring other teachers or alternative teachings. Many Zen teachers discourage or even forbid their students attending sesshins (retreats) led by other teachers. There are some good reasons for this. It is easy for students, particularly early on their path, to get confused and then discouraged. And spiritual dilettantism can be a big problem, sticking one’s toe first in this pong and then in that pond and never really getting wet.

Good reasons, but there is always another side. Roshi Bernie Glassman never discouraged exploration. He honored people who studied deeply in multiple traditions and was probably the first Zen master to give transmission to clergy of other faiths including a Jesuit priest, a rabbi, and a Sufi sheik, and doing this at a time when many considered it outrageous that he would give transmission to Buddhist laypeople.

Wonderfully, I was privileged to make this evident in my transmission ceremony. Part of our Soto Zen ritual preparation for transmission involves the copying on parchment of documents which have been passed down from teacher to students for centuries. One is our lineage chart, in which the names of all the teachers from Shakyamuni Buddha through Bodhidharma, who brought the teaching from India to China, and Dogen Zenji who brought it Japan, and Maezumi Roshi, Bernie’s teacher, who brought the lineage to the US.

Arranged around a circle, the lineage seemed to me to resemble the petals of a flower. When invited by Bernie to  individualize this traditional diagram, I added a stem for my flower and three leaves, one for each of the teachers whom while not in the direct line from Shakyamuni to me had contributed enormously to the evolution of my Zen practice: Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, Roshi Jishu Holmes, and Roshi Robert Kennedy, S.J.

Bob, Roshi Robert Kennedy, exemplifying his extraordinary humility, always introduces me as his Dharma brother — meaning he and I received transmission from the same teacher. We are brothers in the lineage.

But I was always say that he is my  “much older”  brother and that really, Roshi Bob “raised me.”

After Jishu passed, Bernie tried to resume working with me long-distance. I even created my first email account on AOL in order to do Koan study with Bernie. (Koans are the brief, paradoxical stories that Zen students study as a pathway to enlightenment). It didn’t work. So, Bernie sent me to do Koans with Bob in Jersey City.

For six years, I got up once a week at 5:30 in the morning to drive across the Bayonne Bridge to Jersey City — to sit, to interview, to share a quick breakfast with Roshi’s sangha before getting back into the car. For the first year, I was driving to my State job in Brooklyn, arriving there by 8:30.

All these years, Bob was extraordinarily generous with me. Every year I would join one of his annual retreats at St. Ignatius, the gorgeous Jesuit Retreat House in Manhasset.

Nothing captures the spirit of Bob’s teaching more fully than his way of sesshin. Most typically, in the Zen tradition, there is a teacher (sometimes a guest teacher) who does the daily Dharma talks during the sesshin. Occasionally  these six or seven talks, organized as a series, have been reproduced as a book — but even if they don’t achieve that level of importance, it’s at least an opportunity for the teacher to make a more sustained presentation than what can readily be done in the weekly talks.

But Bob’s approach was different.

He wanted his students to hear multiple voices so he would invite each of his successors (who had already received transmission and were fully authorized to teach) or senior students (“Dharma Holders,” one step removed from transmission) to give one of the talks. Bob himself would give only the first talk of the sesshin and the last.

From the first time that I saw this, I was stunned by the extraordinary humility and openness that it represented. In this way, Bob extended the approach to openness which Bernie first exemplified.

Early in 2002, Bob invited me to join him at a sesshin which he was leading at St. Benedict’s, the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. I was amazed, thrilled by the opportunity.

Reading the journals of Thomas Merton, the Trappist priest, I had felt a wonderful kinship. Would I, I wondered, ever have the opportunity to spend time at a Trappist monastery? And here the opportunity presented itself.

I was thrilled. I was intimidated as well. I wanted to go. I didn’t want to pretend, to “pass” as Catholic. I would wear my rakusu for the sesshin. As part of the ritual of taking refuge in the three treasures, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, aspirants sew by hand from strips of black cloth a rakusu, a miniature version of the Zen monastic robe. I had sewn one myself years earlier, but when Bernie made me a Dharma Holder in 1998, he presented me with a new, brown rakusu which he had purchased in Japan. This Dharma Holder rakusu was the one I would wear at Snowmass.

In my first interview with Roshi Bob that week he complemented me on my beautiful rakusu.

“It’s my Dharma Holder rakusu,” I explained.

“I didn’t realize you were a Dharma Holder.” He was embarrassed. “You have to give a Dharma talk this week.”

Would I be willing?

I was honored. “Of course.” I was also terrified. It would be my first talk outside our home Zendo.

Seats were rearranged in the meditation hall, moving me to a place of honor among the teachers.

In my talk at Snowmass, I shared some of the teaching which I had received from the fire fighters who I had been privileged to sit with at Mt. Manresa following 9/11.

Toward the end of the sesshin, Bob gave the homily in the Trappist Church at their weekly public service. He began by thanking the Abbot for welcoming us to St. Benedict’s where Catholics and Buddhists and Jews could practice together.

I looked around the chapel. I thought I was the only Buddhist here. And I was the only Jew, too.

I was glad I’d worn my rakusu.

Heading home, on the flight from Aspen to Denver, I was sitting with Russ Ball — a great supporter of Bob’s and a benefactor of the Jesuits. Russ told me that at a recent dinner with the Jesuit Provincial, the Provincial had told him that he wanted to have a Zen meditation group in every retreat center in the Province.

Very energized by the experience of the week and having thoroughly appreciated the hospitality of Mt. Manresa in supporting the 9/11 first responders, I didn’t hesitate to offer, “If you ever decided to start a Zen group on Staten Island, I would love to help.” Less than six months later, on the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11, Roshi led the inaugural session of our Staten Island Zen group at Mt. Manresa. We continued to sit there every Tuesday evening until the Jesuits sold the retreat house.

At the same time, I continued to travel to Jersey City at least once a week to continue my koan study with Bob. I was a terrible koan student, but Bob was wonderfully patient. There were wonderful moments, but at others I wondered why he passed me.

I tell people, “Bernie was my final koan, my hardest-to-pass koan.” It seemed that I had been a Dharma Holder forever.

When would Bernie give me transmission? Would he ever give me transmission?

I even offered to let Bernie off the hook. “If you think you made a mistake making me a Dharma Holder, I’ll let you off the hook.”

Had he made me, Jishu’s senior student, a Dharma Holder in moment of intense grief? Had he thought better of it?

I felt I was offering a prospective spouse the opportunity to back out an engagement. Bernie declined.

I asked Bob, whose students seem to move from Dharma Holder to transmission much more rapidly, “Why don’t I switch and get transmission from you?”

“No,” he said. “Bernie’s a very important teacher. He’s worth waiting for.”

Bernie was difficult. I felt like he often gave me a hard time, though I imagine now that I may have been difficult for Bernie. Bernie was difficult for me because he was flawed. He made me angry. That was my final koan.

It was only when I fully “got” that Bernie was flawed and that he was a wonderful teacher at the same time could I realize the possibility that I, with all my flaws, could actually be a teacher.

I would share this experience with Bob’s students in a sesshin Dharma talk after I finally did receive transmission from Bernie. Talking about my final koan, I suggested that this would be an even harder koan for them. Bernie was actually easier because his flaws were easy to see. Bob, on the other hand, always seemed beyond reproach. I had to smile. My older brother.

For Bob’s students, the challenge of finding peace with their own flaws would likely be more difficult without the example of a clearly flawed teacher.

The wonderful moments with Bob were so numerous.  After getting us started at Mt. Manresa, he came several times as a guest to give the Dharma talk. One time, he talked about how to sound like a Zen master.

“Simply add the words, ‘or not,’ at the any of any statement.”

Wonderful. I try to remember that. Sometimes as we have built our schools, I have felt certain. I can sound very confident, very emphatic. Though in my mind, at least, I add, “Or not.”

I have to smile — what a gift.

Maybe more than anything else, Bob has taught me to appreciate the gifts which I have been given.

All of life is a gift, if we can just see it.

As our grandfather, Maezumi Roshi used to say so often, “Appreciate your life.”