WENDY JOHNSON


Excerpted from the book
Gardening at the Dragon's Gate:
At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World

Bantam Books, 2008

With additional details from Wendy's anecdote in
One Bird, One Stone - 108 American Zen Stories
by Sean Murphy, Renaissance Books, 2002


I began practicing Zen meditation in 1971 in East Jerusalem with Dokyu Nakagawa, a disciple of Zen master Soen Nakagawa. I remember walking into the Mount of Olives zendo for the first time and sitting in that empty room overlooking the Judean desert and the expanse of the Dead Sea. There was a small altar in the room with a vase of dry wheat stalks, a brush painting of a sumi circle, and a turquoise-blue bowl of clear water. Nothing else.

Dokyu-san let me come every day for two and a half weeks before he showed me how to sit zazen. Some mornings I would be the only meditator in the room with him. It didn't matter, I didn't look around. I rode the bus up the mountain from the Arab Old City just before day-break. At sunrise the muezzin would call devout Muslims to prayer. For two years I sat in silence in that solitary zendo filled with light. Beyond the Mount of Olives, the huge bellows of Middle Eastern conflict pumped and blew fuel on hundreds of wildfire flare-ups. We sat still through them all, season after season.



***



My first Zen guide and original root teacher was Soen Nakagawa Roshi. He came to Jerusalem in 1972 to lead a seven-day sesshin, a silent meditation retreat, at a small Trappist monastery where the resident monks welcomed pilgrims like us from other traditions. The group included a rabbi, an Israeli draft resister, and a number of Americans as well as participants from orthodox Jewish and Christian backgrounds.

Soen Roshi was a fierce Zen teacher trained in Japan in the tradition of Lin-Chi, a Tang Dynasty Chinese Zen monk from the ninth century. In the Zen world, Soen was considered a wily rascal. He hated the stink of the Zen establishment and pointed underneath the formal layers and skirts of traditional Zen trappings to the bare bones of the teaching. Soen carried a mercilessly sharp sword that was often invisible but when unsheathed packed a memorable sting.





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