Zen’s Radical Conservative: John Daido Loori Roshi

John Daido Loori is an imaginative modernizer yet fierce upholder of the old ways of Zen. John Kain reports from Zen Mountain Monastery.

John Kain
1 July 2001
Bonnie Myotai Treace, John Daido Loori, student
(Photo: Nicholas Sugden)

The mind-
what can we say of it?
Forms, created by rock shadows.

-John Daido Loori Roshi

When asked how he came to Zen, Daido Roshi pauses, takes off his sage-green fedora and rubs his clean-shaven head. There’s a blue, sun-faded anchor tattoo on each of his forearms—remnants of his navy days—and he moves his fingers across one of them as if tracing the map of his past. “That’s easy,” he says in a deep, resonant voice, “photography.”

John Daido Loori Roshi was introduced to Zen techniques in the early sixties studying with the renowned photographer Minor White. “I was attracted to the way he integrated Eastern religious methods into his photography workshops,” says Daido Roshi. “He taught us many things—meditation, chanting, breathing exercises. It was a very transforming thing in my life. I had an opening experience in one of his classes and eventually found my way into Zen.”

Nearly forty years later, Daido Roshi—as a respected Zen teacher, accomplished photographer, writer, and avid environmentalist—continues the work of integrating Eastern and Western traditions. His signature talent is bringing ancient Buddhist forms and methods into a contemporary context, without compromising the vitality and veracity of the teachings.

Daido Roshi describes his approach at Zen Mountain Monastery, in Mt. Tremper, New York, as “radical conservatism.” And says, “It goes back to the traditional principles of both Tang Dynasty and Sung Dynasty China, and brings them into play in the context of the twenty-first century.” He has a healthy distrust of our consumer society and is in no hurry to exchange traditional Buddhist values for passing fads.

“I think that while there’s no question Daido Roshi is engaged in the Americanization of Buddhism, he’s doing it in a cautious, very protective way,” says Richard Seager, associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and author of Buddhism In America. “He’s been quietly doing what he does for many years now and I think people are finally beginning to recognize the validity of it, the necessity of it.”

Though there is a strongly traditional and deliberate side to Daido Roshi, there is also a sense of playful openness. Sensei Jan Chozen Bays considers Daido Roshi “something of a genius when it comes to integrating Buddhism into the American context.” Bays, who is Daido Roshi’s dharma sister and spiritual leader of the Zen Community of Oregon, goes on to say, “What he has done in just one generation is amazing. Yet he has never lost his grand sense of humor—which I think is essential—or his playful irreverence. Daido is very careful to keep things in balance, yet he’s not afraid to adjust, to experiment with the form.”

Sensei Pat Enkyo O’Hara, a former student of Daido Roshi’s who heads the Village Zendo in New York, agrees. According to her, Daido Roshi is “often seen as a standard bearer for the ‘old ways,’ yet he’s also a cowboy—he’s very independent and experimental in both his actions and his teachings. He’s very positive about women, about connecting with the environment, and he’s completely open to gays.”

Central to his work is Daido Roshi’s strong belief in using art as a skillful tool for teaching the dharma. “Daido Roshi understands that Zen training and creative exploration complement each other,” says Kaz Tanahashi, who has been teaching Zen brush workshops at the monastery since 1986 and is the author of The Brush Mind. “The creative process is a way of uncovering our consciousness. Daido Roshi uses art as a doorway into Buddhism.”

For Daido Roshi, that “doorway” is nothing but the intimacy of our own life. His writings and teachings continually dismantle the illusion of separateness—for him the worlds of art, Zen and nature are an intimate realm of seamless movement.

“We must first set down ‘the pack’—the notions and positions that separate us from reality. We must take off the blinders that limit our vision and see for ourselves that originally there are no seams, flaws, organs between us and the whole phenomenal universe,” Daido Roshi writes in the introduction to his book of photographs, Making Love With Light.

Daido Roshi’s childhood was a difficult one; at age eight he lost his father and had to navigate the rough streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. These difficulties planted seeds of introspection and spiritual inquiry that would blossom in later years. As well, being born and raised an Italian Roman Catholic gave him a sense of tight-knit community and tradition that have served him well in his role as abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery.

At the age of sixteen he forged a birth certificate and joined the navy, returning five years later to enter college on the GI Bill. Trained as a chemist, he worked in the food industry synthesizing natural food flavors into additives, but after 17 years he became “disillusioned by the slippery ethics of his employers” and returned to his first love, photography. Over the years his photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and more than thirty one-man shows.

From the late sixties through the early seventies Daido Roshi studied with Soen Roshi, a seminal figure in early American Zen. But it wasn’t until he met Maezumi Roshi—the influential Japanese Zen master who established Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967—that Daido Roshi found his true teacher. He soon moved to California with his wife and son, immersing himself in the day-to-day duties and practice at Zen Center, eventually receiving dharma transmission (shiho) from Maezumi Roshi in 1986. But he never thought of himself as a natural. “I trust zazen because I was probably the most deluded, confused, angry, anti-religious person you could ever meet. There is no reason in heaven or hell why I should be a Zen teacher, sitting here, talking like this. All I know is I found out about zazen,” he writes in The Heart of Being, his book on the Buddhist precepts.

Central to Zen is the “mind-to-mind” transmission of dharma from teacher to student. This intimacy is what keeps the teachings fresh and alive. The lineage of these mind-to-mind encounters can be traced back through successive generations to the Buddha. Daido Roshi likens this process to his own family bloodlines. He elaborated on this when we spoke.

“Many of the things Maezumi Roshi passed on live in his disciples. I can say the same thing about the qualities of my father. I hardly knew him, but I believe it when people tell me that I’m like my father. With my teacher it’s not a genetic thing, it’s mind to mind. Yet what passed between us, between Maezumi and myself, has, I think, an as-yet-undiscovered genetics all its own.”

Maezumi Roshi, having trained in three Zen lineages (including Rinzai and Soto), brought a sense of experimentation and integration that meshed well with American culture. Daido Roshi continued that spirit when he moved back to the East Coast in 1980 to start Zen Mountain Monastery, borrowing forms and teaching methods from the major schools of Japanese and Chinese Zen—as well as from Christianity—to sew an eclectic fabric of monastic practice.

Much of Daido Roshi’s inspiration can be traced back to Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master and philosopher who founded the Soto school. Daido Roshi has incorporated many of Dogen’s monastic training methods into the daily schedule at Zen Mountain, and, like Maezumi Roshi, he has continually used Dogen’s teachings as a model. In fact, the Mountains and Rivers Order (Daido Roshi’s umbrella organization) borrows its name from the title of one of Dogen’s sutras.

“The reason I identify so closely with Dogen,” Daido Roshi says, “is that I have a sense that what we’re trying to do here as first generation American Zen Buddhists is similar to what Dogen was trying to do as a first generation Japanese Zen Buddhist. He was bringing the dharma from a Chinese master and establishing it in Japan, making it Japanese. Basically, Dogen established the prototype of Zen monasticism in Japan.”

Daido Roshi’s interest in Dogen underscores his scholarly approach to Buddhism. He is working with Kaz Tanahashi to translate Dogen’s classic Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, adding contemporary commentary. “It is a landmark in American Zen, what Daido Roshi is doing—bringing forward these thirteenth-century writings and integrating them into a twenty-first century context,” says Tanahashi.

Nothing exemplifies Daido Roshi’s vision and personality more than Zen Mountain Monastery itself. What was started as a Zen arts center on borrowed money has grown into a large, thriving community of both monastic and lay practitioners, with affiliated centers in the United States, Europe and New Zealand.

The 260-acre monastery is in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, on a site that seems plucked from a twelfth-century Chinese scroll painting. The large, stone main building sits on a bluff above the confluence of two rivers. Tremper Mountain rises behind in a curve of hardwoods and pine, a large garden overflows with flowers and vegetables, and the surface of a pond ripples in the wind.

But any sense that Zen Mountain is held in antiquity is dispelled as soon as the doors open. The question is not, “What do they do?” but rather, “What don’t they do?” Besides the daily monastic schedule there are numerous (nearly every weekend) art, body, academic and wilderness retreats, as well as week-long sesshins (meditation intensives) held every month. Zen Mountain’s prison outreach program, started in 1984, was the first of its kind, and its Zen Environmental Studies Center has been a model for other organizations for many years.

“The monastery offers a very wide mouth, a wide funnel of introduction to Zen,” says Sensei Jan Chozen Bays. “There are many access points where people can enter. Once they connect, they can make a decision about which direction to head in, whether it’s doing an art retreat, a week sesshin, or a month-long residency. Or they could decide to come into training and make Zen their profession.”

Under the auspices of Dharma Communications (the cornerstone of the lay outreach program), the monastery runs a store; produces books, audio tapes and videos; publishes a quarterly journal (The Mountain Record), and offers an extensive web site. In continuing his integration of ancient and modern, Daido Roshi has not been shy in testing the use of computers, particularly via the Internet, to help spread the dharma.

“Daido tries to demonstrate that all of life is practice,” comments Charles Prebish, a long-time friend of Daido Roshi’s and author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. “His use of computers is creative and forward-looking. It adds a new tool for reaching those folks unable to visit a practice community.”

The core of the “training matrix” at the monastery is what Daido Roshi calls the Eight Gates. He describes them as “a modern statement of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.” He lists them as: “Zazen—that’s at the center of the whole thing; face-to-face teaching with the teacher; liturgy; the precepts—the moral and ethical teachings of Zen; academic study; work practice—how does all of this affect work and everyday life; art practice; and body practice—what’s the relationship of body and mind.”

To keep the training matrix running smoothly there’s a very particular set of monastic rules and regulations and a strict schedule. Daido Roshi has been up front about what he expects from practitioners and has put into place a stringent code of conduct.

“Daido Roshi is meticulous in maintaining an ethical standard,” says Charles Prebish. “He’s an incredibly moral person, yet he is also incredibly kind. He’s moral but in a playful way, in a way that lets the person ‘hear’ it without the perception of a put-down.”

Richard Seager agrees: “There’s nothing terribly sanctimonious about Daido Roshi or the monastery. He’s really just a humanist, a Catholic boy from Jersey City.”

All of this, Daido Roshi readily admits, could not be done without a dedicated group of monastics and lay people who work and practice side by side. This includes Daido Roshi’s two dharma heirs, who have been strong innovators in their own right. Bonnie Myotai Treace has started Fire Lotus Temple, a lay practice center in downtown Brooklyn that brings the Eight Gates into the lives of city dwellers and offers a number of neighborhood social action programs. Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the central figure behind the monastery’s prison outreach program.

It is the mix of monastics and lay practitioners that is perhaps the monastery’s most innovative and vital component. When I asked Daido Roshi if this mix has caused any tension or jealousy over the years, he admits to some upheaval. “People are people,” he says, “but really the problems have been minimal. We place a strong emphasis on lay practice and have an extensive outreach program to support the lay sangha.”

“But,” Daido Roshi continues, “there’s more to it than that. It must been seen in the light of Zen and the teachings of the non-dual dharma. In the monastery and in the world, in monastic practice and lay practice, all the dualities are completely intermingled. They’re all one thing and that’s the whole premise of ‘no inside or outside.’ There’s no elitist practitioner and second-class citizen practitioner; it’s all one practice. There’s a group that does it one particular way because of their worldly responsibilities and there’s a group that does it another way because they don’t have those responsibilities. So it doesn’t make one superior to the other. The monastics take care of the main house; they’re there 24 hours a day and they make it available to the lay practitioners who come for various periods of time to recreate themselves. When a lay practitioner enters through the monastery doors, they are living a monastic life for as long as they’re here, be it a day, a month, a year or more.”

The thread of the “non-dual dharma” runs throughout Daido Roshi’s teachings and the monastery’s programs, yet it is perhaps most clearly seen in Daido Roshi’s environmental ethic. It’s no coincidence that in 1980—the year of Zen Mountain Monastery’s inception—the first act performed by the Board of Directors was to designate 80% of the newly acquired 260 acres of monastery land as “forever wild,” which meant and still means no manicuring, no managing, no controlling. If a tree falls, it falls where it falls and then rots—the ecological equivalent of “Let it go.”

“Daido Roshi has been, like Gary Snyder, in the forefront of Buddhist environmental ethics. Not only is he a leading Zen master but he’s a naturalist as well and brings to the table a sophisticated sensibility of ecosystems and responsible land management,” says Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-editor of Buddhism and Ecology and Worldviews and Ecology.

Zen Mountain offers numerous wilderness retreats, has created an Environmental Studies Site on the monastery grounds, and has formed “The Green Dragons”—a watchdog group for the local watershed. It has also recently obtained acreage in the Adirondack Wilderness Preserve that will be home base for the newly formed Zen Environmental Studies Institute—a broad membership program (open to the public) that will include a sophisticated web site, education on Buddhist ecology, environmental monitoring, and watershed analysis.

“Usually when people look at the Buddhist precepts, they understand them in terms of human relationships,” Daido Roshi said in a talk last year at Naropa University. “Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Of course these are about human relationships, but what do they mean in terms of the environment? There is a particular kind of stealing that we do when we clear-cut forests, when topsoil is washed into rivers. There is a particular kind of killing that we do when we wipe out whole species. These precepts are taught not only as they relate to humans but also how they relate to the environment, to the ten thousand things. Not only the sentient, ‘feeling’ beings—deer, muskrat, beaver—but to the rocks, trees and river. All of it.”

The responsibility for the environment, Daido Roshi is quick to point out, is not held in abstract notions. It begins with what is under our skin: “The spider web and the Brooklyn Bridge are both works of nature. We must learn how the delicate dynamics of this unlikely relationship work. The earth’s heart is big enough to hold both. The question is, how big is the heart we manifest?”

Underlying all that the Mountains and Rivers Order encompasses—the numerous programs, the monastic schedule, lay practice outreach, the prison program, the art and environmental retreats—is Daido Roshi’s simple trust in an ancient, vital, open-hearted, yet difficult process.

“The attainment of our true nature is something no one can give us; each person has to do it alone,” he says. “Zen wasn’t invented yesterday. It is not a fad. It is simple and direct and very difficult. It challenges us to be with ourselves, to study the self, to forget the self and to be one with the ten thousand things.

“Zen is not Japanese and it’s not Chinese. It is American. It didn’t come from Asia; it has always been here. It is a way of using your mind and living your life and doing it with other people. Unfortunately nobody can supply a rule book to go by because what it is about can’t be spoken of, and that which can be spoken of is not it. So we need to go deep in ourselves to find the foundation of it. Zen is a practice that has to do with liberation, not some kind of easy certainty. The wisdom of that liberation not only affects our lives but all those whom we come in contact with, all that we know, and all that we do.”

John Kain

John Kain is a freelance writer and poet from New York.