Upaya Zen Center, outside of Santa Fe, is in a high valley at 7000 feet, surrounded by dry hills that are covered with high desert bushes and trees. Every hot afternoon, there was the mercy of high cumulus clouds and thunderstorms, accompanied by a celestial game of Buddhas Bowling, with thunder balls rolling down the valley.
The zendo is in an adobe structure and is an exquisite combination of Japanese woodworking and Southwest design. There are soji screens along one wall, and the remaining three sides are held up by giant grey tree trunks. A picture of Green Tara covers almost entirely one wall. The floor is a dark brown. The altar looks as if it could have been a Hopi Indian work table. Everything was cool and beautiful – all an expression of Roshi Joan’s aesthetic and attention to detail (and love of female bodhisattvas).
Eva B and I were roommates in the beautiful Upaya House, along with Norman and Kathy. I rarely saw Norman, but every morning at 5:30 am, I made coffee for them. And every morning Kathy and I bowed to each other in a way that is the Bowing Prayer: the bodies of bower, the bowed to, and coffee are one.
The following is very difficult for me, but I feel compelled to express my concern about the “scene” around Joan Halifax, or “Roshi” as she is called. For many years I was intimately connected with the guru scene around Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Gurumayi lived like a queen, while young people worked 12 hour days, with no pay, to anticipate her every wish. Apparently Joan has “retired.” She is doing important work, but the resident students at Upaya have no teacher. Based on what students shared with me, she inspires awe and actual fear. She has people preparing her lunch, doing her laundry, and one young, handsome man appears to be her constant companion, which was the most disturbing observation of all. I don’t really know the whole story, and I am probably coming from my own pain around the issue of celebrity, genius, abandonment by my teacher, and the exploitation that I have experienced in my own life.
For the first time, to my knowledge, Kathy came forward to take the dharma seat. She gave talks that subtly used her knowledge of amoebas, sea stars, and sharks to illustrate the dharma. She gave dokusan along with Norman, and as people discovered her great kindness and charm, the list for Kathy quickly filled up to capacity. And because the Upaya students are desperate for a teacher, many wished to become Kathy’s students.
So, every morning, I woke up at 4:30 and drank coffee until the first birdsong at 5:13 am, and then walked to the zendo in the early morning light. I often stopped at a stone bench, surrounded by wildflowers. For the first meditation, we all sat facing inward. I love the way that Norman so nobly enters the zendo, and I would always think, “Good morning, beloved friend.” When he did the three bows, it was clear that he was bowing to the altar, to us, and the great boundlessness.
Upaya has different versions of the chants. Norman says they have been “kaz-ified”
Creations are numberless; I vow to free them
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them
Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
The schedule was rigorous and was pretty much the same as that at Zen Center at sesshin. It took me almost two weeks to acclimate to the altitude, and because I have residual pain and fatigue due to rheumatoid arthritis, I had a difficult time physically. By the third day I was in tears and told Norman, “I can’t do this practice.” He gave me permission to rest during a period of zazen (although I ended up doing all zazen sessions except the late evening sits.) I was reminded that my practice is my practice. How could it be otherwise?
The three weeks was a wonderful way to practice with Norman in a monastic setting. And this practice for me is more than “just sitting.” It is sitting with sangha and is practicing with our teachers and listening to the dharma. Just practicing together, doing our best, knowing that in some mysterious way, it is the most important thing.