How Great Vow Monastery makes mindful marimba music

Andrea Miller talks to Great Vow Monastery co-abbot Jan Chozen Bays about how her monastery attracts young people and makes mindful marimba music.

Andrea Miller
2 October 2015
marimba, music, monks, great vow monastery, lion's roar, jan chozen bays, andrea miller, buddha's daughters, buddhism

Jan Chozen Bays is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse. She’s also a Buddhist teacher who’s the author of Mindful Eating and co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon. Great Vow attracts an unusual number of younger people. It also has the distinction of being the only Buddhist monastery I know of with a marimba band! This interview with Bays is part of series to mark the publication of Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West, which was recently released by Shambhala Publications. Other interview subjects include Karen Maezen Miller, Gina Sharpe, and Judy Lief. –Andrea Miller

Why marimba at a Zen monastery?

It teaches mindfulness. You have to pay attention to what you’re playing—your mind can’t wander or the song breaks down. Playing marimba helps people who are collapsed into I-me-mine. It helps them stop obsessive thoughts, open their mind, and realize, “I’m part of a community. We have to play together. We have to listen to everybody else.” One young man told me that playing marimba was the only time in his whole life that his mind had been quiet.

Marimba is innately joyous music.

Marimba is innately joyous music. People sometimes come to rehearsal saying, “I’ve got so much to do. I don’t have time to rehearse.” But within five minutes, a grumpy mind state turns joyous. This teaches people that they can change their state of mind almost instantaneously if they have the right tools. As opposed to the violin, you can learn to play the marimba and make it sound good very quickly, so people quickly discover the joy of playing music together. 

How did Great Vow come to have a marimba band?

It started with me playing for my own enjoyment. Our monastery’s named Great Vow because we practice with vows. At age forty, I realized I’d probably lived half of my life. What did I want to do with the other half? One of my vows was to play an instrument, so I took up marimba and then, as people came for Zen training I also trained them to play. Now the monastery marimba band plays when we have a fundraising dinner or at the end of retreats or for festivals.

I understand that, through marimba, Great Vow Zen Monastery connects with the local community.

We talked to the music director of the local school system, which is a very poor, and it was decided that we’d offer marimba classes. In the elementary school, they don’t have a music teacher anymore so we’re the only music program. We try to teach kids the basics of music early on because it helps them with all their other studies. We had in our sangha a retired music teacher so she began teaching rhythm, scale, and playing and singing as a volunteer in the school system for K through fourth grade. We do a marimba program after school for fourth grade.

Why does Great Vow attract younger people?

I think it’s the power of intention or what we call vow. Once we made the clear intention to figure out how to get young people involved, then young people began coming. About twenty years ago, we talked about it at a board meeting. Then I went to a retreat in Alaska and this bright young woman said she was interested in residential training. I said, “Great, come on down.” Once we had one young person, more came.

What’s one way that you’ve introduced younger people to Zen practice and Great Vow?

We started a sitting group at Reed College in Portland. It’s been very successful—we get a lot of Reed students who train for a period of time at the monastery.

Sitting groups in colleges are important. They’re hard to maintain because the population is transient, but if people can learn to meditate at a time when they’re often quite troubled and wondering what to do with their lives, it can have a potent effect. Even if they only practice in college, then go on to graduate school and get married and have kids and get busy, they may come back to the practice in ten or fifteen years.

What has been your most effective method for opening Great Vow up to young people?

Our summer program. Usually you pay $500 a month to be here, which includes room, board, and all the programs. This is a bargain because some of the retreats cost $300, but a lot of people can’t afford it, and if we’re not going to just offer a practice for middle-aged people in the upper-middle class, we have to do something about that. So we offer two months of training in the summer that are on a donation basis, and a lot of young people come—from high-school age up. Older people come too, but mostly it’s young people. The youngest we had was sixteen, maybe fifteen, and the oldest person we have here as a part-time resident is eighty-two. So we have a huge age range and this makes Great Vow a lively place.

My husband, who is co-abbot with me, said that we’re like a university. People come to a university to learn something specific. They benefit from being there, but most of them leave when they graduate. Some people decide, though, “I want to be an academic. I want to stay on at the university make it my career.” So, just like at a university, a number of the young people who come to Great Vow for two months end up staying after the summer. A few stay on permanently.

What was your most unusual method for introducing young people to Great Vow?

We used to have career day for monastics, mystics actually. Matthew Fox, the Christian mystic, said there ought to be a career day for mystics. I thought, that’s a good idea. So for career days in Portland and Eugene, I sent some of our young people to talk about monasticism. Next to our booth was the CIA — and the army was there, of course!

Why reach out to young people?

We’ve had young people come into training who say, “If only I’d known about this in high school, it would have saved me years of agony. In high school, everybody was interested in football games and cheerleading and getting high, and I felt so out of place because I was interested in figuring out what I’m supposed to do in life.” There are a lot of young people out there who need a place, which speaks to their needs, and their needs are spiritual.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.