To travel to the small Costa Rican city of Santo Domingo de Heredia you need three things: a good map, a good cabbie, and a good measure of luck. On this afternoon, I’m grateful to have two of the three. Santo Domingo, fifteen miles north of the capital city of San José, is like most Costa Rican towns in that it abjures the need for road signs; travelers get from Point A to Point B using landmarks, as well a significant amount of gesturing and shouting. The directions I’ve been given to Casa Zen, Costa Rica’s lone residential Buddhist center, are laughably vague: “Make a left at the church, a right on the big road, another right after the telephone booth, and a left on the calle de tierra,” or dirt road. After twenty minutes of driving in circles, Cesar, my driver, has passed two churches and innumerable roads that probably qualify as de tierra, and his patience is growing thin. A call from a pay phone reveals our error—“Oh, that dirt road”—and suddenly we are there: a hedgerow opens into a compound of manicured lawn, flowering azaleas, and an unassuming one-story house marked with a small wooden sign. In a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic, this counts as ground zero for Buddhist activity.
I’m ushered through the front door by the cheerful, bright-eyed director of the center, Margoth Vargas, a tall woman in her mid-forties who seems a near-perfect embodiment of the Costa Rican expression pura vida, “the good life,” a ubiquitous phrase here that functions as both greeting and admonishment—the Costa Rican equivalent of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Chuckling at my broken Spanish, Margoth beckons me into a cool hallway, and I’m immediately struck by the silence of the place. San José, like most Latin American cities, is a cacophony of urban noise: one is rarely out of earshot of the bickering honks of taxis and mopeds, or the shrill of loudspeakers in public squares. Here, though, there is just the scuffle of children’s feet somewhere in the distance, followed by the occasional thump of a soccer ball.
The center, which was purchased and refurbished in 1994, is an artful amalgam of Japanese aesthetics and Costa Rican practicality: an open-air walkway leads to spare, elegant rooms; in the zendo, the windows are narrow to limit exposure to the equatorial sun. The beautiful hardwood floors call to mind the ancient Japanese temples of Daitokuji and Ryoanji, and in the expanse of gardens stand the familiar figures of the Zen tradition: Kannon and Manjushri statues tucked under the leafy shade of a palm; a small Jizo figure, clothed in red. As Margoth walks me through the center, she begins to tell me something of its history. Casa Zen, she explains, is a sangha some thirty years in the making, and its origins lie in a visit that Philip Kapleau Roshi (1912—2004) made to San José in 1974. It was at the Japanese Embassy in that year that Kapleau, the founder of the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, New York, gave a series of introductory workshops on Zen Buddhism. The workshops inspired the creation of a sitting group, and for several years Kapleau returned to lead sesshin and offer guidance. Throughout much of the eighties, however, the group was without a teacher, as other responsibilities in Rochester prevented Kapleau from returning. In 1987, a member of the group attended a sesshin at the Rochester Zen Center led by Sunyana Graef, a longtime student of Kapleau’s. The group asked her to become their teacher and to visit on a regular basis. With Kapleau’s encouragement, Graef agreed. The members of Casa Zen, who now number forty-five, were her first students.
Today, Graef is the guiding teacher of three sanghas—in addition to Casa Zen, she directs the Vermont Zen Center in Shelburne, Vermont, as well as the Toronto Zen Center. When I spoke with her recently, I asked if her teaching style had changed when she came to teach in Costa Rica, or if her Costa Rican students presented concerns that her other students did not. “People are people, no matter where they live. Birth, old age, sickness, and death exist everywhere. So the questions are the same; the answers are the same. But there are certain challenges in moving from culture to culture.” Graef mentioned, for instance, that the Costa Rican concept of time took some getting used to. “It’s part of our cultural heritage as Americans that we have this rigid obedience to the clock. And it’s just not that way in Costa Rica. People have a much more relaxed attitude toward time, and I needed to change my viewpoint to accommodate that.”
I asked her how Zen might be affected by its encounter with Costa Rica, in the way that all Buddhist traditions have adapted to their host cultures. She replied, “I think that Costa Ricans have much to offer to the dharma in terms of the social aspect, the clear warmth and love they offer to everyone. Zen in particular has had a reputation for being somewhat cold, and Zen people standoffish at times. And I think we need to learn that we can be warm and loving people, too, and that that attitude is just as much part of the dharma as anything else.
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