Mitra Bishop Roshi is the founder of Mountain Gate-Sanmonji, a Rinzai Zen temple nestled high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico where she offers a uniquely American approach to practice. 

Her own training was more traditional: starting in the mid-1970s, she studied at the Rochester Zen Center with Roshi Philip Kapleau, and later spent four years at Sogen-ji in Okayama, Japan, training with the Rinzai teacher Shodo Harada Roshi. She urges students to address their buried trauma—using psychotherapy, if necessary—to deepen their Zen practice. 

Mitra Roshi also leads nonsectarian retreats based on Zen principles for women veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress, called Regaining Balance. She explores all this in her new book, Deepening Zen: The Long Maturation.

How would you characterize your teaching style? I don’t teach classic Eastern Zen. I teach a really American format, which is not something that a lot of Zen centers in America do. They still stick to the straight and narrow. What I’ve learned through working with students and my own observations studying at Sogen-ji and Rochester has shaped my way of teaching in probably a more radical way than that of most Zen teachers in America.

What did you hope to achieve with your new book? It’s for the dharma, and to let people know that there’s not just one way to do Zen practice—that people’s histories and experiences have to be taken into account. There is no one-size-fits-all Zen practice. That’s how we were taught in the old days, and I’ve seen so many people crash and burn because they didn’t get a chance to work with things in a way that would have enhanced their practice, taken them deeper, and helped to transform their whole lives in a positive way. There have been so many instances of misbehavior among Western and Eastern teachers who have trained in that way. They have had the straight and narrow [approach], and so they have shoved their issues aside, putting them in a drawer somewhere. There were issues in their personalities that they never had a chance to work with and clean up, so to speak. That is probably the greatest fault of most American Zen today. The emphasis on “just this”—there are very few people who can handle that.

Zen practice is often associated with a distinctly masculine energy. As a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, do you bring a different, uniquely female perspective to the way you teach? Probably. Since I can’t transform into a male persona, I probably do. I understand trauma. I’ve had trauma—it took me a long time to work through it with a lot of psychotherapy—but I also was doing a lot of Zen practice at the same time. I recognize that trauma can impact your Zen practice. There are people who can’t do Zen practice effectively because they can’t remove themselves from dissociation. So that already was telling me something. 

Did you encounter that masculine approach in your own training? Rochester Zen Center was called “the boot camp of Zen.” And it was. Roshi Kapleau’s last teacher was Yasutani Roshi, who was from an old samurai family. It was all very dynamic and intense. Then I went to Sogen-ji, which was really different. You have this idea that with Japanese Zen you’re at the tip of a spear all the time. At Sogen-ji, while it was very strict, there was also a deep sense of compassion. I also saw over the time I was there that [the practice] is [more] flexible. 

There is no one-size-fits-all Zen practice.

In the book you often mention susok’kan (“extended breath”) practice. Could you describe that? It is the fundamental practice in Rinzai temples. We call it the “extended breath.” You are relaxed in your shoulders and belly, sinking deep within. You let yourself breathe out normally, and when you get to the point where you would automatically breathe back in, instead, you take it further out, focusing on your body. What it does is eliminate the possibility of thought. You cannot focus to that degree and also carry along other stuff. 

And as you go deeper— and I’ve added this aspect to it, because it’s important—you have a sense of openness to possibility, what Seung Sahn Sunim called “don’t-know Mind,” or Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.” It’s as if you’ve landed on some different planet that you’ve never heard of and you’re exploring what it is like to be there. There are no preexisting assumptions about it because it’s so different. For many people there’s a sense of yearning to return to “don’t-know what,” and you can put that sense of yearning to return also into that extended outbreath. It is extremely powerful and extremely effective for Zen practice, but this is where the whole thing about working with your history comes in. You cannot do it effectively if you are holding back in any way. And if you’ve been traumatized, you’re going to hold back. If you are dissociated, then it really is impossible. But it can be worked with, and this is what I’ve discovered both in my own practice early on and in working with students. I did a lot of psychotherapy all along the way, which helped a lot, and I gradually became aware of what was going on inside and was able to work with it. And, of course, the practice goes much deeper as a result of the work you do in psychotherapy.

Could you talk about the significance of kensho (seeing one’s true nature) versus what Torei Enji, the 18th-century Rinzai master, called “the Long Maturation”? Kensho is important. You can work on the Long Maturation from the get-go, but kensho helps you move toward it faster. It’s as though you’re finding your way up a mountain path in the pitch-black dark, and then there’s a flash of lightning, and suddenly you can see the path ahead. You have a much better sense of where you’re going and what you need to do. And that’s what kensho does. 

Most people who have kensho these days don’t have a very deep one. That’s why it’s so important not to stop there. A kensho will allow you to become more aware of your behavior, and then you have a choice. You can elbow it out of the picture, which is what traditional Zen practice will do, or you can choose to open to the bodily experience of that and explore it beyond words and release its hold on you. That is part of the Long Maturation. It’s becoming aware of our behavior patterns—all of them, not just the dysfunctional ones—and going down through the clouds to our true nature, which is unattached to anything. 

What led you to focus on serving women with trauma through Regaining Balance? My own history. Women veterans are at the bottom of the pecking order, and often out in the cold. There needs to be something that will help them. Our Regaining Balance retreats are pretty effective, because we’re teaching them ways to help themselves get grounded. Susok’kan is known to be very grounding, and there were other things that I did in my own trauma work that I felt were extremely helpful. We teach them the extended breath meditation. They do it twice a day for up to half an hour each time. They also go for a walk in the forest, which is also healing—to be in nature. 

And we teach them tools to help themselves de-stress. There’s a wonderful app called ArtRage. It’s aptly named and it’s quite excellent. You have a choice of background colors and textures, and different kinds of brushes, pens, pencils, palette knives, and so on. You use your finger to translate what’s going on in your body energetically to color in form. It’s not about making a pretty picture. It’s similar to journaling, which we also teach them. Handwriting descriptions of the energies in your body keeps you from getting hijacked by your amygdala [the part of the brain that regulates emotions]. And so you are able to begin to process some of those feelings without knowing what they are necessarily—they’re just uncomfortable. 

Our third tool is to go outdoors and focus in a particular direction—we do the cardinal directions—and you write down three words that describe something that you’re seeing within that view. You come back and turn those words into a sentence. Each sentence comes together to create a poem. Then we each contribute our sentences to a group poem. It teaches awareness, focus, and attention. 

deepening zen
Image courtesy of Sumeru Books.

Deepening Zen: The Long Maturation by Mitra Bishop Roshi is available now through Sumeru Books.

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