Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara is founder and abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City, and the author of Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges. We talked in her office on April 13, 2010.

Richard P. Boyle 

Can you talk about how you got started with Buddhism? There was never a question in my mind about what form of Buddhist practice to follow, because I’m of the generation where Zen was the practice of the moment. It was what was available in our culture. I was in high school in the late 1950s and started reading R. H. Blyth’s translations of haiku, the Faith Mind Sutra, things like that. His books on poetry were suffused with the Zen values and Zen tradition and the aesthetic of Zen. It was a time when the culture of Zen was introduced through those early translations of haiku, and the writings of D. T. Suzuki.
I was very attracted to it, and yet I was kind of a beatnik and certainly not a joiner. It was already very clear that I was of a different generation than those who immediately joined Zen communities. I didn’t join any community for 20 years. I visited a few, but I felt like an outsider. I felt like a rebel. What I saw were the snap decisions I made about what I thought I saw: a kind of conformity that I wasn’t attracted to at all. And a kind of holiness that I was not attracted to at all.

I read; I continued to read deeply in the Zen tradition. It’s kind of ironic, because in Zen we say that words are not the point. And yet, I would read the words “words are not the point,” read that again, and read that again. I would say that my life as it unfolded was suffused with the values that developed from a traditional Zen monastic experience, without ever actually having had that experience. But those values of poverty, of scarcity, of simplicity, of being humble, being ordinary, have been the core values of my life. I have never worked for a profit-making organization in my life. That’s karma, of course. I was always working for educational organizations or organizations that worked with the elderly, with the developmentally disabled, with drug treatment centers. So there was something about the whole culture of Zen that I felt was part of me. But I had missed the experience of working with a teacher, the discipline of zazen. Because when you sit alone, you tend to sit until something comes up, and then you get up and move. That is haphazard sitting, not like focused, prolonged periods of sitting.

You sat entirely alone from the very beginning? Yes. I must have been in my late 30s when my son (I was a single parent) was finally old enough to go off to Spain for a summer intensive during high school. I took that summer off and went to Zen Mountain Monastery, which is nearby, a couple of hours from New York City. I went there and practiced and discovered the other side of Zen practice, sitting as part of a group. That was a very disciplined community, a highly disciplined community. In so many Zen centers, when they first started out there was a lot of yelling and shouting, like in the old days of Zen. I don’t think that is common anymore in the West. It was good for me, because I learned to toe the line. All these values that I had—“not knowing,” “beginner’s mind,” “being open”—were challenged when I encountered the very hierarchical, very disciplined, and really very militaristic structure of Zen Mountain Monastery.

This was just what I needed at that time in my life, and I was old enough to take it with a grain of salt, to see its value but not feel oppressed anymore. I had finally reached that level of maturity in my life. It was good. It was a great beginning practice for me. I had some experiences during that time because in that particular culture we always sat for two-hour sits, or the samurai students did. We sat through the walking meditation if we were really one of the tough students. And of course I associated myself with that.

Who was running Zen Mountain Monastery? Daido Roshi (John Daido Loori). I fell for that whole thing. I was going to be the toughest, strongest sitter around, you know. I was not a young woman. And yet I did it, so I had some experiences. But I have never felt that to cling to one’s experiences is of any benefit whatsoever.

One time recently, last year, I told a group of people about an experience I had while I was eating oatmeal, but the reason I was telling them this was to deconstruct and to avoid the reification of experience. The simplicity of having satori when you are eating oatmeal and realizing that the whole world is oatmeal, that you yourself are oatmeal, allows me to pull the curtain back and say, “Listen carefully, this is about you and not about someone else’s description of an enlightenment experience.” In my view, the experiences that people talk about endlessly are not helpful for beginning students. They are actually like a cloud that goes through the sky. Yes, they are wonderful; you feel high. But I have felt high when I wasn’t sitting. So I didn’t cling to any of the “experiences” that I had, but I did change, and that’s what’s interesting for me.

The transformation went like this. I had been a professor of media and a person who worked with marginalized populations, so my interest was in how media can help marginalized populations. You could say that I was something of a do-gooder, living a “doing well by doing good” kind of life. And yet there was always that ability to distance myself. That shifted dramatically, through my practice. There is a kind of intimacy, an ability for intimacy and open-heartedness that arises out of the practice, which I think is the point of practicing Buddhism.

Then, after I had been practicing four or five years, the AIDS epidemic hit. There was a dharma brother, someone in our community, who received a diagnosis of HIV. We were very close, and somehow I fell into the whole world of what was going on at that time. In the mid-1980s it was a plague, a horrible plague. Here in New York, downtown where I live, you could see it. People were dropping like flies. They were creative, wonderful people, and it was a horror show. I became involved first with Robert, my dharma brother, who started a meditation group at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I supported him with that, and as he grew weaker I took it over, and came to see the incredible power of practice for people who are in a lot of pain, who are very weak, who are very frightened of dying, who are facing their death, and those around them who are grieving. So it was different. Before this, my practice was about learning to free myself and that kind of thing, being more open, being more aware. Everything shifted, and it became not about me, it became about compassion and about doing and seeing the major effectiveness of practice for healing. Up to that point I had been excited about my Zen practice and about my academic work. I loved teaching, mentoring students, establishing projects that showed how media could help marginalized populations. I was passionate about that. Suddenly I saw that Zen could do that without any media at all, that meditation practice in and of itself was this incredibly empowering tool.

What form did your first meditation take? Did Zen Mountain Monastery use koans? This is a good example. I went in with a clear opinion that I did not want to do koans, that I wanted to do shikantaza. I was very clear about it. I had read a lot, I thought I knew a lot—I was the classic new student. Immediately Daido said, “No, no, no, you’re the kind of person that should be doing koan study.” So I was put on the koan Mu very early, just a few months after I started practicing. I continued to be a koan student for the entire time that I studied. I love koans, I think they are wonderful ways of engaging the practice, although they are not for everyone. They are definitely not for everyone. I would say maybe two thirds of the students here at the Village Zendo are koan students and a third are not. We don’t say you must be a koan student or anything like that. But I love koans. Mu is the koan that is talked about the most, the quintessential koan. People have these major breakthroughs with that koan. For me the breakthrough happened when I went on a solitary retreat for a week, after I had been working on Mu for eight or nine months, maybe even a year. Suddenly, like everything else, it was . . . nothing special. Oh! I hate to be so deflating, but that was it. It was like, Oh. Oh, yeah. When I went back, I completed it and went on to other koans. A lot of the work that I particularly had to do involved getting rid of reification, any kind of reification of these koans or mysteries of the mind. For me the work involved bringing things down to the transformative aspect. How does it change your life? How does it change the way you are with others? This is what is important to me.

Did you have trouble dealing with concentration at the beginning? When I first started, I was counting the breath. That was difficult; that was a discipline, something that had to be learned. But you know, no more difficult than learning a yoga posture, or learning to do tai chi or something. It was challenging and frustrating, but yet—that’s what the mind does.

Right, but then you settled into it. I did, I settled in.

Would you say you were sitting peacefully with no thoughts in your mind for parts of the time? Or how would you describe it? Well, what I always tell my own students is that when you are doing it right, you don’t know you are doing it right, and then after you have done it right, you don’t know you did it right. The bell rings, and suddenly the bell rings again. I’ve had that experience, but it is not something to cling to. I would say that in order to do koans one has to have a stability of mind, because you don’t really work with the koan, you drop the koan into this mind and let it sit there. But you don’t do anything to it. You wait until the koan springs forth with its proper response, usually when you are washing dishes or closing the door or something. But that’s because the mind is at ease; it’s not trying to figure the koan out, strategize or anything, it’s just at ease. I found the shift from counting the breath to following Mu to working on other koans and now to shikantaza to be seamless. When you say “mindfulness,” we are probably talking about the same thing. Just sitting, and just sitting. I found that all these forms of meditation are natural, and not fundamentally different from one another. I mean, the only difference is at the very beginning when you are counting your breaths and you can’t get past one or two and you are scared to death, and your mind just won’t stop, and you don’t even know that you have another mind. That is frustrating, and I think students need to have their hands held during that period of time, until they are able to discover themselves and trust themselves and not be afraid of themselves, of their deeper mind. A lot of people are afraid, and that’s why there is such resistance at the beginning. I think a lot of the physical resistance is just the freezing of the body around the fear of opening the mind, the fear of just letting it relax.

That’s what I hear in the interviews. But now we are moving up to the time when the AIDS epidemic began to happen and a new thing came in. Could you describe the point when you realized that the sitting that you had been doing had changed you in some way, had had an effect on you? You know, I would say that the realization is in hindsight, as I look back. One just is living one’s life, and one just does what one does. But the quality of the feelings that I had, the depth of understanding, the sudden commitment to work with people who were very ill and to do it a lot . . . I worked myself very hard during that period of time because the need was so great. I had not been that kind of caregiver before. I had done good things, but I had always held back a little, felt a little resentful when overworked. This was a kind of opening of compassion. What it was was the dropping of the distance between me and the other, which one could say is the experience of awakening, when you realize there is no wall between you and the other. The opening of compassion just dissolved that sense of separation, through learning to meet dying and death and physical pain all the time, all around.

So it was a powerful meeting of the circumstances of life and my practice, and it changed me completely. As I said, I loved my academic career and was doing well. But then I was haunted by the need to just do the dharma, to just be teaching this to people who could benefit from it. I was a full-time professor at the time, and I felt pulled between these different demands. My son was receiving free tuition at the university while I was teaching, so I clearly couldn’t leave the university until he had completed his academic career. There were various circumstances that kept me there, but the transformation was clear, and I saw it also in my teaching at the university. There was a softening, in the sense of a greater understanding of what individual students’ needs were. Being able to meet people where they were was a very powerful change, rather than having them come up to meet me. I saw that was really important.

Toward the end of that period I ran into some differences of opinion with my teacher, Daido Roshi. I had met Maezumi Roshi, who was his teacher, so I left the Zen Mountain community and began studying with Maezumi. I needed something else, and I could see that that was to move out of the highly disciplined, highly hierarchical system at Zen Mountain Monastery. Daido did a wonderful job; he had many students, and he built an institution that will last for many years. He was wise. So I have nothing ill to say other than it is not my way. I was very fond of him, and I think he of me, and it was difficult leaving. Yet sometimes you just know what you have to do. I began to study with Maezumi Roshi, Daido’s teacher. That was difficult for everybody concerned. Maezumi felt a little awkward, but we had a good connection and I had something to learn from him—the value of imperfection.

I come from an alcoholic family. I’ve had addiction issues myself. I was drawn to a quality that Maezumi Roshi had. He had an incredible courage to keep on, to continue to practice, to continue to teach, to recognize in everyone this intimate quality of buddhanature no matter what delusions and difficulties these people were facing. And first of all, what he had to face, the issues in his own life. He had his alcohol issues. He had his womanizing issues. I had done a lot of work with young people with drug abuse problems at drug treatment centers. I had an interest in that. So rather than rejecting Maezumi Roshi, I was drawn to him as someone who had something to teach me. He was so humble and so ordinary and able to be intimate with you immediately. But he had his issues. I never witnessed any of that, interestingly enough. His drinking was done at home, not at the center when I was there, and he had no ongoing relationships with anyone that I could see. I wasn’t there spying, I was there practicing. For me, within this quality of, “Yes, it’s broken, I’m broken,” is the heart of humanity. The men I was working with during the AIDS epidemic were not saints. Actually, we have no saints here at the Village Zendo. That comes out of working with Maezumi Roshi. It is something he didn’t talk about but that he embodied. He embodied it in his every gesture, his way of working with you in koans. He was very strict, much stricter that anyone else I ever worked with in terms of koans. Here was a soft man who was so kind and sweet and loving, and boy, like a steel trap with the koans. Amazing.

In 1997 you received dharma transmission. Had you started the Village Zendo then? We started in 1985. It started when I first began to practice formally. I realized that I wasn’t very disciplined at home. I could do fine at the monastery, but not at home. So I had the idea, Oh, I’ll invite some people in to sit with me. That’s what this place is. It grew from there, one person, then two, then three, then five, then ten. We have a pretty large group now. After I received dharma transmission I continued to teach at NYU for maybe a year, and then I took two year-long leaves of absence. It was a real struggle for me to let go of a tenured professorship, but I really felt drawn to this work of teaching the dharma and teaching it in a slightly different way. Although I am conservative in some respects as a Zen teacher, I am not highly hierarchical or a disciplinarian at all. I pay a lot of attention to liturgy. I like liturgy a lot, and although I’ll make innovations, our sesshin and our retreats are pretty much sparkling clean and clear, and follow old traditions.

I finally had the courage to retire after 20 years. This enabled me to have a studio apartment nearby, which was necessary in order for this organization to survive. People had not even been paying dues, or putting $5 in the pot, and suddenly we were in a high-rent district. The rent on this place is $10,000 a month. So suddenly this hippie professor has to come up with $10,000 a month and a little stipend for myself to keep me going. I didn’t have Social Security at that time, I was too young.

We have mainly well-educated, high-functioning people in our community. A lot of artists, a lot of therapists, teachers, social workers—those are the kind of people who are in our community. All of them feel they are outsiders and rebels and would never join anything, and I keep telling them, “That’s okay. We can join this group because we are all outsiders, and so that means no one is an insider.” We’ve done very well. I now have five successors. I am very proud of them. There are three therapists, a chiropractor, and a professor of Latin American studies. One of them is a black man and he may be (we’re not sure) the first black male sensei.

While this was going on, what was happening with you? It’s like the story of the Soto person who walks through the mist at night and doesn’t realize that her robes have gotten wet, rather than the great thunderstorm of Rinzai satori. Very gradually, I have been tamed by this work of teaching. I am very humbled by the task at hand, by the kind of delusions that make it so hard for people to be clear, by the aspects of a person’s being that make it hard for them to accept themselves, to be compassionate. When I began, my approach was at a very high level, tinged with too much intellectualism about the dharma and koans and their saving property. It seems like every year I kind of ratchet down a notch or two and realize it is more about meditation, sitting, good posture, and having supportive people around. So it’s like coming out of the clouds. Each year my teaching gets more ordinary and more simple. Simpler and simpler and simpler.

For years we have gone to Sing Sing. A group of us goes to Sing Sing every Sunday and sits with the prisoners there. That’s a great project for the people here. Young people come in, and they’re all concerned about themselves and their issues. So I say, “Oh, why don’t you join the Sing Sing group and go up and sit in a bare and dirty room and see what that’s like?” I like to do that.

So in talking about the last ten years of your transformation, your heart has been opening and your mind has been becoming simpler? Right.

Any other little words you want to throw in to tell people about that? Well, you know, I think I was a moderately depressed person the first 30 or 40 years of my life. Now everything is just actually joyful all the time. Even when I’m with someone who is dying, there is some way to understand that it’s all interconnected and that there is a time when we are alive and there is a time when we die. You can feel that at the bedside of someone who is going, or when you are counseling someone who is quite old about life and death.

Especially at that time. Yes. It’s spring here in New York, and it’s hard to think about the cold winter we just went through because it is just so beautiful now. I feel kind of joyful all the time. I was kind of an angry young woman, and I don’t know where that went. It pops up from time to time, but it’s really not there.

You just notice that it’s been a long time since. . . Exactly, exactly.

But you didn’t do anything specific to work on it? No.

Some of the traditions that people I have interviewed represent have these very specific things to do, maybe a specific kind of meditation. Yes, I admire those forms of working with compassion, metta meditation, those kinds of practices. I think they sound wonderful, but they are not for me. My practice is really koan study, which opens up entire worlds. It’s uncanny. Every single koan you work on is about your life. When it becomes true, you see something: Oh, it’s about this. It’s about my fault-finding or it’s about this or that. But it’s not targeted. You don’t start out saying, “I’m going to work on my anger here.” It’s a different form.

Right, but the koans are saying, “Oh, there is a little insight.” Yes.

Now is that an intellectual insight or a spiritual insight? How would you describe it? I think the insight into the crux of the koan or into the heart of the koan is first like a feeling and then like a thought. It kind of comes out of the body, out of the heart area, and then words come and then it’s mental. That’s how I understand it. But there is another aspect. After you’ve had the insight of experiencing the koan, then you are going to have to go and talk to your teacher about it. After the person has presented the koan, has worked through the koans I have them do, my last question always is, “What does this have to do with your life, what is this koan in your life?” You know, it’s amazing the tears that come, the laughter, the realizations. Also, when I think back to those early days when I first began to practice, I seem to have had a realization a minute about my prejudices, about the way my mind worked. Not while I was meditating, but when I’d get up and walk out the door. I’d see my habits, I’d see these aspects of my being that I had never seen before, and I would laugh. That’s how one lets go of a lot of stuff, a lot of opinion making and so forth. So the Zen style works for me, in the sense that it’s not targeted. You don’t know where it’s going to come from. You are working on a koan, and suddenly you are working with the grief about your father’s death. You didn’t know that you were thinking about your father, and suddenly it’s there. It’s kind of like a Rorschach [test]. Koans are old, old stories, involving archetypal kinds of areas where the mind and heart need to work. The heart needs to soften, the mind needs to understand.

I like to be very specific about koans and not misuse them. I encourage people to come in to see me even when they don’t have an answer, because as you stand up from your cushion in the zendo, as you open the door to the sanzen room, as you walk in, as you bow, you don’t know at any of those points whether or not something is going to come. Or maybe the teacher will ask you a question that will elicit something.

During these five years when you were studying with Maezumi, is there any particular moment or insight or event that stands out, or comes back to your memory in any way? I’ve actually written about this before. It is a short story about when I was in charge of the altars and carrying one of these big ancient wooden cups and dropped it off the side of the banister at Maizumi’s Mountain Center in the San Jacinto Mountains. It cracked terribly, it had a big gash in it. I was upset that I had done that; it was a beautiful cup. The Zen center wasn’t wealthy, so I said, “Roshi, I’m going to replace that cup, I’m going to get a new one for you in Japan. I’ll order one. I am so sorry that I did that.” He took the cup and he said, “Look at the cup, Enkyo, it’s more beautiful now than it was before.” Here’s this man who has been humiliated by many Zen people across the country and abandoned by half his students, and I thought, here he is still teaching, still doing this work, and he is more valuable after all those scandals than he was before. I was this 40-something woman who was changing careers and leaving her academic world in order to follow this crazy man. I just saw the beauty of our humanness through him.

That’s the wonderful part. Yes, and there is a koan about that. It’s called the rhinoceros fan, rhinoceros horn fan, and he kept me on that koan for almost an entire summer. Talk about frustrating—I’d go in each time and I was really sure I was right, because it is one of those koans that has seven or eight points. You don’t just give one presentation, you have to give seven or eight, because all the great teachers have made comments on this horn fan koan. It was about that, about how each of our own imperfections is our humanity, not something to be rejected but something to be seen and recognized. It’s about buddhanature. Like the Mu koan—it’s about our buddhanature. Maezumi Roshi was a great teacher for me. He was a heart teacher for me. Of course, I learned so much from all three of my teachers.

But it was in the spirit of gradually getting wet from the soft rain. Exactly. The big experiences I had, I tried to let go of immediately. I also grew up in the days of psychedelics, so I don’t take those kinds of experiences very seriously. What I am talking about are the realizations that come all the time. They don’t have to be psychological. They can be moments of inspiration or joy, and then they permeate your behavior. They go into your life. It’s great; it’s really an underappreciated aspect of life. We who practice this are such a tiny percentage of the population. We are so fortunate. And that’s why we are willing to give our lives to sharing it.


Excerpted from Realizing Awakened Consciousness by Richard P. Boyle. Copyright © 2015 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


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