Why Are Roshi Jiyu Kennett’s Disciples So Reclusive?
Dear friends around the world,
People like Roshi Jiyu Kennett are truly inspiring, they would abandon their worldly concerns and attachment in determination of practicing the Buddha’s teachings completely.
With all due respect, for a woman like her who comes from a western country, it’s very hard to integrate into the Asian-Zen culture of spirituality and devotion, I rejoice very much for her determination and and strong will to pursue her path in spirituality. Yet she did integrate and also brought Buddhism to many people in the West. She practiced fully the dharma she was devoted to for the rest of her life. She is one of the great pioneers who introduced Buddhism to many others in her spiritual journey. Even now after her passing she is still a great inspiration and blessing to read about.
Why Are Roshi Jiyu Kennett’s Disciples So Reclusive?
Seikai Luebke | April 6, 2013
In 1969 Roshi Jiyu Kennett left Japan, where she had spent most of the decade of the 1960s training at Sojiji monastery, and running her own small temple. Arriving in San Francisco, she stayed briefly with Suzuki Roshi, who was teaching Zen to young, idealistic baby boomers, hungry for authentic teaching from the mystical Far East, especially if it included talk of enlightenment and meditation practice – zazen. She was willing to teach that, and more, to this generation of enthusiastic seekers. In so doing, she established herself among the first wave of Zen teachers to leave China, Japan and Korea, and take the risky plunge of teaching Westerners.
Now more than 40 years have gone by, and Jiyu Kennett, like most of that first wave of Zen teachers, has been dead for some time – 16 years in her case. Her books were never wildly popular in the way that The Three Pillars of Zen and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind were; books which were read by anyone even remotely interested in what Zen had to offer in those early years. But she attracted a loyal following, and there was a general awareness of her presence within the Zen community in America.
There were two ways in which she did, however, make an impact on the transplanting of Zen – or for that matter Buddhism in general – into Western society and culture. One was the fact of her being female, and as a female, was able to gain all the qualifications necessary to teach as a fully independent Zen Master; this was new for women. Over the years I have heard many times, from female Buddhist practitioners, that Jiyu Kennett’s story, as recorded autobiographically in her book Wild White Goose, was a major inspiration to them. If she can do it, I can do it, too.
The other thing she did which made an impact was to start a monastery as opposed to a Zen Center or a Dharma Center. Herein lies the answer to the question “why are her disciples so reclusive?” Shasta Abbey, which she founded in 1970, evolved into a place for Zen training wherein the main focus was on being a monk, and training as a monk, rather than on Zen practice as being for everyone. This has also been inspirational for those Buddhist teachers arriving in America intending to establish monastic practice within their tradition – but ironically not so much in the Zen tradition. Many of those teachers who have wanted to establish a Buddhist monastery have paid a visit to Shasta Abbey to see what Jiyu Kennett did that has, at least for now, survived the first few difficult decades.
Jiyu Kennett’s approach was to establish monastic training first, with the hope that, having trained up a generation of monks capable of teaching in their own right, creating a larger Sangha of lay practitioners would be the natural evolutionary outcome of doing so. Most of the Zen teachers and roshis who came to America looked at it the other way around: train up lay people first, cast the net wide, and you’re bound to produce a few monks and/or priests in the process. A few teachers, like Maezumi Roshi, ordained a fairly large number of people as Zen priests; one difficulty that has existed, however, is a lack of clarity concerning lay ordination and priest ordination, which are distinct levels of ordination and training, despite the fact that the same set of 16 precepts are taken in both ceremonies.
There is a certain logic in both approaches, but Jiyu Kennett herself changed so much in the process of teaching monks that her initial vision was never realized. Initially, she had the idea of creating a three year training program to produce Zen priests capable of leaving the monastery and establishing some sort of temple, Zendo or practice center (she used the old English word priory). To her mind, this would have reflected what existed in Japan when she lived there, and as it happened, some of her disciples did establish small temples or priories. But a profound shift happened before this idea could be brought to any kind of fruition: the adoption of celibacy. And the adoption of celibacy at Shasta Abbey came about as a result of the spiritual awakening accompanied by a long series of visions which she had in 1976. Her book How to Grow a Lotus Blossom or How a Zen Buddhist Prepares for Death was her accounting of that awakening.
Within the space of a few years, the focus at Shasta Abbey shifted from being a seminary, where one could be trained to do the job of a Zen priest, to a monastery, where one stayed put and lived the life of a monk. Jiyu Kennett decided that it took longer than three years to adequately train someone to be a priest. Plus, she would rather have her disciples stay in the monastery than leave it for the purpose of establishing a temple; her focus turned almost entirely inwards, within the tiny mandala of Shasta Abbey. This inward focus still exists there, and partially explains why none of her disciples have any kind of public presence or are well-known Zen teachers, with the notable exceptions of Kyogen and Gyokuko Carlson and James Ford, who is also a Unitarian minister. And the three of them all were gone from Shasta Abbey by the early 1980s. (The situation is a bit different in Jiyu Kennett’s native country, England, where a few of her disciples have a higher profile.)
Having entered the community of Shasta Abbey in 1977, I was witness to most of these changes as they unfolded. Jiyu Kennett changed the name of her newly founded order from Zen Mission Society to Reformed Soto Zen Church, and then to Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (OBC)— the last change being for the explicit purpose of removing the word Zen from the name, thus distancing herself from the rest of the Zen community in America, for which she did not have a high regard. It could be confusing knowing what was a policy versus what was an actual rule on the books. According to Kyogen, who was the Executive Secretary at Shasta for some time, “JK would occasionally decide that at some meeting in the past we had decided such and such a matter, and then have me record it as if I were recording it at the time. Most of the time these “decisions” had not really been made at all, although there would have been some discussion of the issue at hand. We all just went along with this. I think all of this led to uncertainty as to what rules really meant, and which ones might apply at any point in time. There was a caveat in place that said that the application of any rule was subject to the “discretion” of the abbot. That meant, in effect, that the abbot could pretty much rule arbitrarily. No wonder there was confusion.”
This latter issue – concentration of power in the hands of one human being, and the inevitable tendency to abuse power or wield it gratuitously – is one that many Zen organizations in America have had trouble with. Apparently it works in the context of Japanese society, but I’ve come to the conclusion that in America, with its democratic and egalitarians ideals, we need to find a better way of doing things, one which works well for Americans. The fact that we all went along with it at the time speaks to the huge power differential that existed then, that it was virtually impossible to challenge or openly question a teacher like Jiyu Kennett.
In the late 70s and early 80s there was a relatively small group of her disciples who had been ordained as Zen priests and trained as monks, but who were also married. They had to choose between living celibate lives in the monastery or as couples elsewhere. Some people who were caught in the middle of this change have said that Rev. Master Jiyu advised them to either “dissolve their marriage” – i.e. not live as a couple – or get a divorce, making it possible for them to train as monks under vows of celibacy rather than marriage. She may very well have done this – I don’t know. The split which Kyogen and Gyokuko Carlson made from the OBC in 1986 centered more specifically on the definition of discipleship and the dynamics of that relationship; their marriage, which happened a few years earlier before celibacy had been codified in the rules for the whole OBC, was not the central issue. In a larger context, however, the problem was that Rev. Master Jiyu had changed course, the change directly affected the lives of people who had trained with her, and she hadn’t always been totally clear about what her expectations were, what was and was not allowed, and what was an actual rule versus what was a policy which might ultimately prove to be temporary. The adoption of celibacy for all priest ordained trainees in the OBC, regardless of where they lived, took place in 1985.
The mid-1980s was a time of upheaval within Shasta Abbey, just as it was at the San Francisco Zen Center in the wake of the dismissal of Richard Baker as the abbot there. Several senior monks at the Abbey were unhappy with the way Rev. Master Jiyu had steered the community in the direction of strict authoritarian leadership, very tight discipline, and isolation from the world. The outcome of this unhappiness was the departure of a number of people who had been training there for in most cases 10 to 15 years. And Rev. Master Jiyu’s response to those departures was to turn increasingly inwards and to doing progressively less teaching as time went on.
This progression of changes was reflected in the use of titles within the monastery. In the 70s, Jiyu Kennett was referred to simply as “Roshi”, same as many other Zen masters and teachers in America then, and no doubt still today. That changed to the title “Rev. Zenji”, which in Japan would be used as a very honorific title only for very high ranking priests (Eko Little, her successor at Shasta Abbey, put through that particular change). A few years later, ‘Rev. Zenji’ was dropped in favor of “Rev. Master”, which she decided was an appropriate translation of ‘roshi’. That title is still used for monks of the OBC who have been qualified as Zen Masters as a result of sufficient years of training and depth of understanding.
From the early 80s onward, Rev. Master Jiyu spent relatively little time and energy teaching a lay audience. She would spend one week during the summer teaching at UC Extension in San Francisco, but that was about the extent of it. She rarely spoke to lay people within the monastery as well, leaving that task to her most trusted senior monks. I think she wanted her monks to become capable teachers of Zen who could then potentially reach out to a larger audience; the only problem was that she really didn’t have the energy or inclination to teach monks how to teach. One learned through a process of osmosis, which meant that her disciples have inadvertently copied some of her personality traits, and have also made the mistake of trying to teach lay people who have wives, husbands, partners, children, careers and busy lives in a manner that would be more suited to teaching novice monks.
Diabetes, a disease which she developed during her years in Japan, took an increasing toll on Rev. Master Jiyu’s health as the years passed, and helps to explain why she was unable to do more in the way of teaching herself, or teaching others to teach. The last six years of her life were spent in relative seclusion, as she lost the ability to walk and needed progressively more and more personal care. One of her doctors remarked that the reason she lived as long as she did was due to the intensive, tender loving care provided by the circle of disciples that was always around her, and made attending to her needs their first priority. It also meant that, as a community, Shasta Abbey didn’t have the collective energy to spend on traveling, teaching, cultivating a wider Sangha, or any of the things necessary to have a recognizable public presence in the larger Zen community in America.
Over the past 16 years since she died, it has seemed to me that although some attempt was made initially to reach out to a larger audience, on the whole the habit energy of how things were done for so long has stayed with Jiyu Kennett’s disciples. We were trained to be monks, first and foremost, who lived a relatively secluded, cloistered existence. Our attention was always focused inwards, both on the level of personal practice, and within how the monastery existed. The adoption of vows of celibacy had a large impact with respect to how members of the OBC have related to the rest of the Zen community in America. It set Shasta Abbey and the OBC apart as an organization that was doing something radically different by the standards of the Zen world.
The existence of a non-celibate Zen priesthood is something which extends back in time only a bit over a century, to the second half of the 19th Century. It was a profound shift, made during the Meiji Restoration, which was an attempt to diminish the power of the Zen priesthood, making them subject to the power of the Emperor and not just faithful to the Buddha. In most of the rest of the Buddhist monastic world, celibacy is still the norm – it was, after all, required by the Buddha – which means that in the eyes of most Buddhist monks and nuns, Zen priests and priestesses are, essentially, lay people unless they live celibate lives. This state of affairs has meant that the disciples of Rev. Master Jiyu feel more comfortable being with monastics of other Buddhist traditions – Chinese, Vietnamese, Theravada, and so on – as opposed to Zen people, who are by and large not bound by vows of celibacy.
I am no exception to this. Every year a group of Western Buddhist monastics has a gathering held at one of the handful of monasteries large enough to accommodate a group of 40 or so monks and nuns: The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, The City of the Dharma Realm, the Vajrapani Institute, Shasta Abbey, and most recently the Deer Park Monastery near San Diego. I try to attend these gatherings if I possibly can, and have made a number of friends within the Buddhist monastic world by doing so. There have been a handful of other Zen practitioners over the years, but they are few and far between. I wish it were otherwise, but meanwhile a question remains for all of us who were Jiyu Kennett’s disciples, namely, to what extent do we wish to have significant contact or dialogue with other Zen organizations and practitioners, if at all?
As some people in the larger Zen community are aware, the monk who succeeded Rev. Master Jiyu as abbot of Shasta Abbey, Eko Little, resigned his post and returned to lay life in 2010. This turn of events was accompanied by some unhappiness over his conduct as abbot which revolved around abuse of power issues. His undoing did involve crossing the line of what is now being more carefully defined as inappropriate conduct on the part of a teacher in the context of a teacher-student relationship or a master-disciple relationship.
That there is a serious effort being made in the Zen community to establish clear cut guidelines as to what constitutes sexual misconduct and violations of appropriate boundaries in personal relationships is a trend which all of Rev. Master Jiyu’s disciple would applaud. I certainly do. She would have been horrified by the conduct of one of her closest disciples, Eko, had she been alive to witness it. And the community of Shasta Abbey has had enough of a taste of the damage that this kind of thing can cause to want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The spiritual lives of completely trusting, sincere human beings can be thrown into a chaotic mess which is no small thing to sort out. To rebuild the trust necessary to engage in any kind of deeper spiritual practice and training in the wake of these episodes of power abuse and sexual predation is not a simple matter, requiring time, patience and, above all, human love and understanding for the people who have been abused.
As for Jiyu Kennett, there was never any question of sexual misconduct on her part, but depending on who you talk to, some people feel that she did abuse power to some extent. She had a huge, charismatic personality. Hers was a tiger personality: she could roar, swat, pounce, and chew your head off. She could also purr and be a pussy-cat in the most generous sense of the term. She wrote a column in the Abbey journal entitled News from the Tiger’s Lair. She was enormously inspirational to many people. In short, she was a very complex human being who had many facets to her personality, and she was always very sure of herself. It has been observed over the course of time that when such a person appears on the face of the earth, and they cultivate a following, usually a fairly substantial one, those people have a rough time of it following the death of the great leader, politician, teacher, Indian chief.
I think the reason for this lies in the magnitude of the great leader’s personality. No one can ever really fill their shoes, because no one with a similar personality would ever end up as the disciple of such a one; the vast majority of those who do, in fact, become followers or disciples of a great leader are people willing to be led, and are not, themselves, much inclined to lead. Of course there are always exceptions, but in this case, as it has happened, the two close disciples of Rev. Master Jiyu, who were handpicked by her to take over the reins of Shasta Abbey and the OBC are both gone. Daizui MacPhillamy, her successor as head of the OBC, died of cancer in 2003; Eko Little, as I mentioned, disrobed in 2010.
I have often thought of myself that I had all normal human ambition pounded out of me as a result of being Rev. Master Jiyu’s disciple for 18 years. It was necessary in that environment to give up ideals and ambitions, and sacrifice yourself to a perceived higher, collective good. There is a certain freedom in doing so because you are relieved of a larger sense of responsibility to look at the bigger picture, decide to undertake something big or far-reaching, or even just to step out on your own. But that, to my mind anyway, is the primary reason why Jiyu Kennett’s disciples are a reclusive group of people. We weren’t taught to be teachers; we were taught to be monks, plain and, hopefully, simple. But needless to say, we are all complex human beings, and one doesn’t need to have a huge personality for that to be so. All it takes, seemingly, is to be a human being alive in the 21st Century.
At this point I don’t know to what extent Jiyu Kennett’s legacy has made a mark on the collective consciousness of Zendom in America. In the late 90s, after her death, I was the guest master at Shasta Abbey for a few years. People would visit the monastery, saying they had studied at the Zen Mountain Monastery with the late John Daido Loori in Upstate New York. I found out later that he had included some of Rev. Master Jiyu’s teachings in the curriculum he developed for the study of Zen. That may have been an isolated case, but whatever the case, from a larger perspective, her legacy is probably as complex as she was. She left behind some visionary, radically different teachings; she created a Buddhist liturgy using Western church music; she founded one of the first Buddhist monasteries outside Asia, with men and women training side by side, and did so by means of sheer willpower and force of personality. And she left behind a substantial group of disciples, predominantly British and American, who live almost entirely under the radar.
For more interesting information:
- Must see Documentary!!!~Tenzin Palmo
- After the Monastery
- Mingyur Rinpoche leaves
- The Perfection of Concentration by Geshe Rabten
- Mother Teresa of the East
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