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Thoughts on the Life and Teaching of Jiyu Kennett Roshi

Complexity and Contrasts: More Thoughts on the Life and Teaching of Jiyu Kennett Roshi
by Kyogen Carlson, 1998

On November 6th we will come to the second anniversary of the death of my primary teacher, Jiyu Kennett Roshi. Right after her death I found myself reflecting on her background, her work, her contribution to Zen coming to this country, and on her various gifts and deficits. Now I find myself reflecting on her in a much more personal way; on the person I knew, my own experience of her, and especially on her as a study in contrasts, and the dramatic way she changed over the years. This leads me quite naturally into the sticky issue of what it means to train with the personality of a teacher. Such training has great rewards, in that human nature is the vehicle through which Buddha Nature is expressed – and great costs, because human nature is always flawed.

I'll always remember my first meeting with Kennett Roshi. I waited in a tiny room that served as the library at Shasta Abbey in the very early years there. She strode into the room with authority and I felt an impact, the force of her personality like a wave of sheer energy.

I'd spent months trying to find her, looking all over the San Francisco Bay area after she had already relocated to Mt. Shasta. I first arrived at Shasta Abbey one morning after driving up from Oakland the day before, then all around the countryside earlier that day to find the place, as I had no address or phone number. It was the middle of the Jukai sesshin and I was told to go away, make arrangements, and come another time. So I drove back to Oakland, then several weeks later managed to return, only to find she was away teaching in Vancouver B.C. and, of all places, Portland. This time I had to wait for days, much longer than I had planned, to get this first interview. It might seem that all this anticipation set me up to be overwhelmed when finally meeting her. No doubt it did somewhat, but I saw the same thing happen over and over with others.

I remember an incident a few years later when Roshi asked me to clean her purple rakhusu. I carried it up to the laundry room hanging from my right hand rather than folding it in order to keep whatever had soiled it from spreading. As I walked across the grounds, the monks started and snapped to attention as the mere symbol of her presence approached. Of course they all relaxed and either grinned or glared at the twerp causing the minor sensation. So even though she was a large and imposing woman, there was more to the effect she had on others than just that.

The most notable example of it I observed was when she met with the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa in Berkeley. I went with her, along with a monk from Sri Lanka and two scholars, one from UC Berkeley, the other from Stanford. Roshi entered the room first, with me right behind her and followed by the others. The Karmapa was seated on a throne in a large meeting room. I saw him react and take notice as Roshi entered. He stood up, came down from the dais for the formal greetings, then sat on a chair right across from her. After the meeting, the woman who arranged it said that she had never before seen the Karmapa come down off his seat that way. Another strange incident that day was when Roshi introduced me to the Karmapa as her successor, which came as a surprise to me, but helped an otherwise complete non-entity gain a little weight at the meeting. I didn't take it too seriously, however, as the "designated successor" seemed to change almost hourly in those days. While there were some who never noticed anything special in Roshi's presence, others have experienced the same thing I did, including many of my fellow exiles from Shasta Abbey. It was certainly very real to me.

Not too long ago I looked through an old photo album of my early Shasta Abbey years, and I was struck by how much joy and laughter I saw there. It was striking in contrast to the grim, dour place I remember from the later years. When I've told people who have had some experience of Kennett Roshi and Shasta Abbey that there was a time of laughter and good spirits there I've been met with skepticism and even flat disbelief. Seeing those photographs brought it all back. One photograph shows Roshi laughing and leaning back in a big easy chair in the common room with Ophelia, the matriarch of Abbey cats, on her lap having a good wash. In another photo from that same evening, a bit of a party during the Christmas break, Mokurai, one of Roshi's earliest disciples, wears a fake plastic "boater," has a toy knitting machine on his lap, and pontificates on some piece of trivia. In a third I am seated next to another monk, and we are laughing and pointing, each accusing the other of being a wee bit tipsy, as I recall. On another evening the senior monks were gathered in that same common room enjoying some camaraderie. We had an old hound dog who would howl whenever he heard a siren. Sometimes if we worked at it, we could imitate siren noises and get him going. The lot of us were at it that evening, Roshi included, when someone heard footsteps in the cloister just outside. It was the lay guests attending an introductory retreat on their way from the Zendo to their evening tea before bed, silently and mindfully making their way while the senior monks and Abbot howled like maniacs in the common room.The alarm was sounded and we all shushed each other, stifling our laughter. I remember Roshi with one hand on top of her head, the other covering her mouth as she sank down in that same chair, tears running down her cheeks, trying so hard to contain herself that she shook. How different things would become.

I also remember the way she would come out to community work projects, big ones like building the Zendo or raising a hay barn for the goats. She would sit in a chair and enthusiastically direct traffic, and we would all gather together for breaks. Another very strong image is of her in her room with the TV tuned to soap operas but her mind elsewhere, mulling something over. Often she would be fingering something, popping bubble wrap or cleaning the cover of a plastic notebook, while those invited to her house would sit there meditating to "The Guiding Light." She loved nonsense songs like "The Walloping Window Blind," and Gilbert and Sullivan's "Nightmare Song." Mokurai, the trivia pontificator, had an uncanny ability to memorize these, as well as dialog from the BBC's "Goon Show." This ability endeared him to her greatly. Roshi remembered one song from her college days studying music, and every so often she would dust it off and recite with gusto:

"That physicians are untruthful / I observed when I was youthful / when they made a diagnosis of my brain. / For they reported very often / that it certainly would soften / if exposed to any unexpected strain. / Now I do not mind confessing / that the prospect seemed depressing / but since cheerfulness can hardly be a crime / I determined I would use it / with the thought that should I lose it / I would certainly recover it in time."

Roshi had an earthy side. We used to joke that the generic description of an Abbey monk in those days was "thin, pale, and wears glasses." One day one of the women (Roshi called us "she-monks" and "he-monks") returned after a stint at a branch temple. This was a woman of rather generous proportions, and when she entered Roshi's room, Roshi exclaimed "At last! Finally another woman around here with a decent set of jugs. We've had nothing but skin and bones around here lately."

But I also remember something like a mean and quite vicious little demon who would appear in her, a demon that just had to hurt someone. On several occasions I accompanied her to the Berkeley temple by myself, with no one else to share the work of taking care of her, and that demon would pop out. With no one else for it to claw, and no prospect for my escape, dealing with it was a koan of no less immediacy than having one's hair on fire. Often on those trips to Berkeley I felt like an object in her world. Jishas, the abbot's personal attendants, are supposed to be unobtrusive when not needed, yet ready to provide anything when the need arises, which is very good training. But Roshi often showed complete disregard for the needs of those who provided for hers, even for obvious things like rest and nourishment.

Every summer I would travel with her, driving her enormous old Lincoln Continental, and the car would be packed to the roof with all kinds of stuff. Sometimes we even took a trailer, but there was never much room for the luggage of those traveling with her. Once in Berkeley I would be expected to have several sets of robes, a suit, dress shoes, work clothes and other items as well as my personal toiletries and so on, but we were only allowed one tiny bag each. I once suggested that some things be shipped, but she took that as an insult. (I never did find a way to deal with this gracefully.) When any of the jishas were closely involved with her, she would want us to be always available, sometimes almost living in her house, so she would have us keep many personal items there. One day she got very angry at someone – not one of the jishas – and I came to her house to find all those personal items thrown out onto the ground in a heap. I found my hat in the mud and my cup broken. I think it was then that I began backing away whenever I could. I used to think of her as a wounded wild animal: needing help and nurturing, but inclined to maul those who were closest to her.

While she could often be quite cruel, Roshi also had an instinct for when a disciple was getting near the point of rebelling or packing it in. Many times I saw her skillfully push and channel the frustration in a disciple until he or she gave up the struggle itself and broke through to the universal view. Roshi would then recognize and affirm this. In time I realized that many of the most difficult aspects of her personality were side effects of poor physical health, and as it deteriorated, these problems became worse as well. Then her skill at pushing her disciples into completely letting go, which was her greatest asset as a teacher, turned into a major problem as well. She started to believe that her mistreatment of others was in itself Dharma rather than upaya, confusing the imperfect means with the resulting awakening. It was only a matter of time before her personality flaws became elevated into expressions of enlightened behavior. There were those around her who wanted to believe she could do no wrong, something that has happened with other teachers with powerful personalities. Part of her wanted to believe this also, and in time, unfortunately, that view became part of the culture at Shasta Abbey.

As bad as things became, I have boundless gratitude for what I gained from being there and from her. I learned many little things: how to slow down when speaking, how to take time answering a question, both to give weight to the answer and to formulate a thoughtful response. I learned how hard it is to create a temple from scratch. I learned how to hold my own with powerful personalities. She was like a force of nature, and the time I spent with her taught me to be strong as well. I've stared a very large dragon right in the eyeball, and now there are very few people in this world that can intimidate me. I can be impressed or amazed, I can feel admiration, but awe and intimidation are hard come by anymore.

I've learned to recognize a spiritual crisis, and the signs of spiritual breakthrough. I also learned that you can abuse someone into such a breakthrough, and I've tried not to do that. Roshi never backed down with her disciples, even when she made an obvious mistake. Trying not to do that, I've made the mistake of not asserting my own position enough, then having to be harsh to get it across. It's odd how we can back ourselves into some of the very patterns we are trying to avoid. I've learned that the power and authority of a teacher needs to be held in check, not only for the good of the students, but for the good of the teacher. I have come to understand that a flawed teacher is the only kind we can follow, because perfection can only be worshipped. Kennett Roshi never tried to hide her flaws, and in the early years, openly showed how she trained with them. Despite everything, she always remained dedicated the Dharma, always lived for the Dharma, although it was hard to see that at times. I have also come to understand that even though there are no perfect teachers, somehow the Dharma itself comes out perfectly, and I can put my trust in that. This is a great relief, for otherwise I could not move into the space of a teacher myself. If I do my best, accepting my own human limitations with as much humility and good humor as possible, I can trust in the practice itself, and in people's innate sense of the truth.

On the level of Dharma, what I gained from my relationship with Kennett Roshi is beyond any possible measure. The cost of this is also beyond measure. To go there one has to be willing to sacrifice everything, to give up everything, and jump beyond all knowable boundaries. The paradox in this is that while it is true the disciple must risk all, that does not justify mistreatment by the teacher. This edge will appear naturally without that, and in fact is more clearly known and understood when such methods are not used. Nonetheless, in the years since I left the Abbey the validity of what she taught me, the truth of the awakening she helped engender in me and in so many others, has found confirmation with other teachers, and my work with them has brought some clarity to what belongs in the student/teacher relationship and what does not.

Not long ago during sesshin I sat across from one of these teachers, from whom I have learned a great deal in recent years, and said, "Today I learned that you have to appreciate every Buddha for exactly what it does; nothing more, and nothing less. I am filled with gratitude and astonishment at my good karma to have met Jiyu Kennett Roshi, to have received the benefit of her teaching, and now to have met you, and to have had the opportunity for this teaching to take root in me." He smiled broadly and said, "This is how it is when we get reason out of the way. When we do that, how else could it be? But still, we have to make this true every moment." This now is my work. When you take a teacher, you take the whole person as the teacher. A good teacher will challenge you by seeing further than you can, and seeing into your koan in ways you might not want to see. Meeting that and learning from it is the Dharma of the relationship. But just as you face your own limitations and flaws, so too you face the limitations and flaws of the teacher. Accepting and responding to this is also the Dharma of the relationship. For me the time came when responding meant stating clearly just what those flaws were, and that they had gone too far. But that does not change the fact that my primary teacher, my root teacher, my lineage teacher, is and always will be Jiyu Kennett Roshi. I do not love her any less, or respect her any less, for having seen her, all of her, clearly.