SANTA FE, N.M. — At the outset of the ceremony, an old teacher used the feather from a calligraphy pen to symbolically open the eyes of a statute of Buddha sitting atop an altar at the end of a long room packed to the brim with more than 100 people.
It represented an awakening – a re-awakening in this context – for Santa Fe’s Mountain Cloud Zen Center, a Zen training and practice center nestled in the foothills just east of Santa Fe’s city limits.
The gesture, as well as the knocks on a woodblock and the ringing of a bell, and the chanting of the Heart Sutra to honor founding teachers, was part of a rededication ceremony celebrating, in part, the 31st anniversary of the Zen Center.
The ceremony also commemorated the connection between the center and the Sanbo Zen lineage of Zen Buddhism, headed by Yamada Ryoun Roshi of Japan, roshi a title meaning “old teacher.”
The hope is to make Mountain Cloud the principal center for the Sanbo Zen in North America.
“That is what I’d like to see,” the abbot said after Thursday’s ceremony. “My father, Yamada Koun, really wanted this to happen in this country. It’s a very important place for me to make it grow.”
Yamada Ryoun Roshi, who learned from his father, said the practice originated in India, then migrated to China and then to Japan.
“Likewise, I want to bring that into this country. North America is a very important place.”
Yamada was making his third trip to the center from his home in Kamakura, Japan, where the abbot also serves as CEO of Itoki Corp., a major manufacturer and seller primarily of office furniture.
He holds an MBA from Harvard, and is credited with orchestrating the merger of the Bank of Tokyo and Mitsubishi Bank in the 1990s, the biggest bank merger up to that time.
Not to be mistaken as religion, Sanbo Zen is the practice of meditation that can be integrated in all aspects of one’s life, even business, and is said to be uniquely appropriate to Western practitioners.
“Sanbo Zen is really true Zen, independent of any divisions,” Yamada said. “Those people who are Christian, practicing Zen can make them better Christians. Those who practice Islam, practicing Zen can make them better Muslims. Practicing Zen can help you realize your true self; that is why it is open to everyone.”
Students of Sanbo Zen include California Gov. Jerry Brown, and renowned Beat poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder. Former U.S. diplomat and presidential assistant Joe Wilson of Santa Fe is also a practitioner and is actively involved at the Mountain Cloud center.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Yamada led the North American Sanbo Zen Shesshin, an annual five-day silent meditation retreat. Dozens of people from different corners of the world attended the retreat, which was held at Santa Fe’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat and Conference Center to accommodate the large gathering.
Center now ‘busy’
For many years, the modest, yet impressive, main structure built for the Mountain Cloud center by its founding members was “underused,” says Henry Shukman, who practiced meditation at the facility for years before leaving the Santa Fe area and then being invited back by those still carrying on the practice to help revive the center in 2010.
“Now, we have quite a busy program of meditation gatherings,” he said, adding that the center, set on two dozen tranquil acres, also hosts retreats and study sessions, conducts hospice care projects and runs a prison outreach program, in addition to serving as a training and practice center.
The center may be able to expand its programs. Shukman says that, just last week, the center received approval from the county that will allow it to expand and develop, the culmination of what he said was a two-year process.
Shukman speaks with a British accent. He first came to New Mexico in 1991, following the tracks of English author D.H. Lawrence with the intent of writing a book. “Savage Pilgrims” turned out to be a descriptive narrative of people he met from Taos to T or C, intertwined with some stories of Lawrence’s own New Mexico excursion.
It was one of several books he’s written, both fiction and nonfiction. But perhaps most notable is that he is an accomplished poet who has won numerous major awards for his books and collections.
He has also published articles in The Guardian and the New York Times, and has often contributed writings to Buddhist journals.
“I’m also a teacher,” said Shukman, who trained under Yamada Ryoun Roshi, furthering the connection the center has with the original source of the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.
The initial ties go back to Philip Kapleau, a Sanbo Zen student and the center’s first director, who authored the 1965 book “The Three Pillars of Zen,” considered a fundamental book on the practice, offering a practical way to living and training in Zen Buddhism.
Kapleau oversaw construction of the Santa Fe center in 1985, but left after several years and returned to another center he had established 40 years earlier in Rochester, N.Y.
Built specifically as a training facility for lay students in the local community, the Mountain Cloud Zen Center was designed in the traditional layout for a Japanese zenbo, but was constructed in Santa Fe style, made of packed adobe and straw, and accentuated by vigas featuring designs carved by the builders and first users of the facility.
Inside are a kitchen and dining room, Shukman’s small office and the horizontal meditation hall.
Just outside the building is a patio-like area with a fire pit and gazebo that serve as gathering spots for small groups or a place one can sit silently. Small sculptures adorn the area from which hiking paths lead into the surrounding forest of juniper and pinon trees.
For two decades, the center was maintained by the community of local practitioners that remained after Kapleau’s departure. Thanks to them, Shukman says, the center survived to celebrate a 31st year and achieve a higher plane of significance within Sanbo Zen.
‘Simplest’ form of Buddhism
Shukman describes Sanbo Zen in simple terms because it basically is simple and perhaps easier for the Western culture to embrace.
“Among all forms of Buddhism, Zen is the simplest. It’s the most bare bones,” he said. “We don’t do deities. There is no belief system. In this lineage, we don’t do a lot of ritual. We keep it pretty simple.”
There are no monks, or people with shaved heads – unless they choose to shave their head, he says.
“It’s non-monastic … . It’s something you do,” he said.
He said the meditation “isn’t about retreating from the world, it’s about living in awareness, kindfully and helpfully.”
Beginners typically start by focusing on their breathing. Later, they’ll be introduced to koans – what Shukman called “mysterious little phrases” – the most famous of which is: You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?
Shukman says people find practicing meditation can change the brain and make the mind more elastic.
“Even if you do it 10 minutes a day, it will make a difference,” he said. “People can come to some experience and find much more peace of mind than they ever believed possible – all just by sitting still and being quiet, and with a little bit of guidance. That’s where the teacher comes in.”
The Santa Fe center offers a 70-minute introductory class beginning at 5 p.m. each Wednesday. It is free of charge, but donations are appreciated.
Mountain Cloud Zen Center is located up a nearly hidden driveway at 7241 Old Santa Fe Trail.