Becoming a Zen Teacher
Fr. Kevin Hunt, a former member of the board of Monastic Interreligious
Dialogue, is a monk of St. Josephs Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
As announced in the Board News section of this bulletin, he
was installed as a Zen teacher (sensei) on April 17 of
this year. He kindly agreed to write the following account of
how he came to undertake Zen training. - Copyright
MID / www.monasticdialog.com
came to the practice of Zen long before I was interested in
interreligious dialogue. As a monk, I meditated every day and
read a great deal about meditation, its theory and practice.
I wasnt too long in the monastery before I began to realize
that none of the traditional ways of meditation taught to the
novices seemed to work for me. I was drawn to more simple and
nonverbal practices. My novice master encouraged me to use these
more simple ways of meditation, telling me that the one constant
in prayer is that it tends to become ever more simple. During
these early years I was basically trying to find my way to a
form of meditation that I was comfortable doing.
someone who was devoting his life to prayer and meditation,
I had a certain curiosity about how other traditions practiced
meditation. I discovered the Jesus Prayer tradition
of the Eastern Christian tradition and fell in love with that
practice. Although I had heard of Zen meditation, I was not
sufficiently impressed to try it myself at that time. Several
years later I was sent to a foundation in South America. While
there, as I was still searching for my way of prayer, a friend
lent me a book on Zen. This time Zen interested me so I attempted
to practice it on my own. I rolled up some blankets and tried
sitting with my legs crossed in the Zen posture. I did not know
what to do so I thought I would just repeat one of the koans
mentioned in the book I had read. This koan was the famous one,
What face did you have before you were born? I just
sat and repeated to myself: What face did I have before
I was born? This continued for a number of months. I went
through the usual fatigue and pain and seemed to be getting
nowhere. I was coming to the conclusion that Zen had nothing
to offer me. What was I doing, a Christian monk practicing Buddhist
day as I was sitting I rose from the cross-legged posture and
suddenly realized the face I had before I was born. This happened
very quickly and was certainly not an ecstatic experience, for
I knew who I was and where I was. There was no form or color.
Looking back, I would say it was some intuition of emptiness.
I was startled and uncomprehending, but not frightened. I did
not have a teacher at the time, not even someone in my community
with whom I could really talk (and even if there had been such
a person, no words could have explained it all), so I just put
the experience aside. But that one experience did convince me
that I ought to continue my practice of Zen as a way that seemed
to work for me.
years later I returned to the United States. A short time after
returning, I was able to go to my first sesshin (Zen
retreat), a weekend in New York City. That weekend was a disaster.
I suffered physically to a degree I never had before. To make
matters worse I was never able to arrange to have an interview
with the Zen Master. I left New York thinking once more that
maybe I was mistaken about this Zen stuff.
months later another monk and I were driving through New Jersey.
He mentioned that he had a friend who was a nun teaching at
a boarding school nearby, so we decided to stop and say hello
to her. While we were chatting with this sister, she mentioned
that the school was being used that week by a group of Zen students
and there that was a Japanese roshi (Zen master) guiding
them. We asked if it would be possible to meet him. Shortly
thereafter an elderly Japanese monk came out to greet us. He
did not have much English so he was accompanied by an interpreter.
His name was Joshu Sasaki. As we talked, it turned out that
he was surprised to meet Christian monks. He did not think that
there were any Christian monks in America; he believed that
they existed only in Europe. When I asked if he would like to
visit our monastery, his immediate reaction was, When?
We agreed that he would come to the abbey in Spencer in a month
or so. (Joshu Sasaki Roshi is now in his mid-nineties, still
alive at the time of my writing this article.)
now had to go home and tell my abbot that we were going to have
a Zen roshi visit us. The abbot, Thomas Keating, graciously
agreed to the visit. Sasaki Roshi came for a weekend and spoke
to the community about Zen. This visit was shortly after Easter
that year and Sasaki Roshi spoke of the Christian experience
of Easter, Christs resurrection, as the primary experience
of any Christian monk who would gain insight into the practice
of Zen. The brothers of Spencer were impressed by the insight
of this Buddhist monk into this core understanding of the Christian
contemplative experience. Many thought it might be a good idea
to experience a sesshin so we invited the roshi to return to
give one. He did this several months later. This was the beginning
of a ten-year association during which Sasaki Roshi came to
Spencer regularly. During that same period I was able to go
to the roshis meditation center in California for a couple
of long retreats of 90 days each.
the roshi ceased coming to Spencer I had to practice on my own,
so for the next fifteen or twenty years I would practice either
in my room or in the back of the Church. Although we no longer
had sesshins at Spencer I was able, once in a while, to go out
for a sesshin and even had permission to go on a long retreat.
Some of these retreats I made at the Providence Zen Center in
Cumberland, Rhode Island. This center is only a couple of miles
from the former site of our monastery, when it was located at
a site known as Our Lady of the Valley. I still enjoy a good
relationship with the Providence Zen Center, which belongs to
the Korean Zen tradition. The practice in the Korean tradition
differs somewhat from the Japanese, and experiencing those differences
helped me in my continuing practice.
the years I found that Zen has helped me to appreciate many
of the traditional physical practices that have fallen out of
use in Western monasticism, such as long fasts, chanting the
Psalter, prostrations, and others. I still do some of these
practices, especially if I am able to get some days at one of
our hermitages, for it is difficult to do them in the context
of our monastery, where they might disturb others. After all,
chanting the Psalter at the top of your voice while banging
on a drum can cause problems for othersZen practice is
very physical at times!
five or six years ago Father Robert Kennedy, S.J., gave a talk
at the Center for Buddhist Studies. Another monk, Fr. Robert,
and I went to hear him. We both enjoyed his talk and spoke with
him after the conference. Fr. Kennedy mentioned that he would
soon be giving a Zen retreat at the monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.
Both Fr. Robert and I decided to attend that sesshin. During
the sesshin, I thought that I would like to become a student
of Fr. Kennedy. It had been many years since I had formally
asked someone to be my teacher, mainly because of the difficulty
of getting permission to visit a teacher. I felt that having
as a teacher a priest who lived relatively nearby (in the New
York area) would be helpful. It turned out that I was able to
attend several of Fr. Kennedys retreats. During one of
them I asked if he would formally accept me as his student,
and he agreed.
this time I also came to realize that I was ready to do some
intensive koan work. There are several collections of koans
that are traditional in the various schools of Zen practice.
A student will usually have to work his way through these books
of koans as he advances in his Zen practice, and it is almost
impossible to do this work without access to a Zen teacher.
This meant that I had to have more ready access to Fr. Kennedy
than a retreat every couple of months. I spoke about this problem
to both Fr. Kennedy and my abbot, Fr. Damian. Fr. Kennedy brought
up the possibility of my going to Jersey City and living in
the Jesuit community at St. Peters College. I asked my
abbot and community for a study leave, to which they graciously
agreed. I am also very thankful to the Jesuit Community of St.
Peters College for the wonderful graciousness and warmth
with which they accepted me into their midst.
after my joining him in Jersey City, Fr. Kennedy made me his
Dharma heir. Over the next eighteen months the two of us worked
our way through most of the books of koans in his tradition.
At one point Fr. Kennedy asked me if I would like to become
a Zen teacher myself. After consulting with my abbot and a couple
of others, I decided that I ought to take that role. Shortly
thereafter I returned to my monastery, although I would often
return to the New York area to help Fr. Kennedy give Zen retreats
to groups. I suppose I could call this period teacher
these retreats I would give talks to the people on Zen practice.
The relation of Zen practice to the Christian tradition would
frequently be a subject of interest to the group. There was
always an opportunity for students to see me for private interviews.
Such interviews were short, lasting for some ten or fifteen
minutes. We would talk about the experience of the retreat,
difficulties with ones posture, how the mind was working
during the silence, and other things that would arise in the
course of the retreat. Zen retreats are work, mental and physical.
The physical mostly grows out of the effort to sit quietly with
your legs crossed in front of you. There were also difficulties
with the schedule, such as getting up early and sitting for
long periods without moving. Mentally there are the doubts that
are so common in any way of practicing prayer and meditation.
One of the virtues frequently mentioned by Zen teachers is courage.
We Christians dont often think of courage as a virtue
that is necessary in the practice of meditation. We easily forget
that fortitude is a necessity in any life of prayer.
the end of my teacher training I was installed as
a sensei in the White Plum Asanga of the Soto tradition. The
installation took place here at my monastery. To my knowledge,
this was the first time that such a ceremony has taken place
in a monastery of our Order. It is my hope that this step will
help to bring this way of meditation into the Western Christian