I grew up in Middletown, a midsize suburban town in the middle of New Jersey. (What it lacks in originality it makes up for in aptness of name.) Throughout my childhood I thought of it as one of many suburban towns that are the Wonder Bread of American society: plain, boring, and (mostly) white. 

I’ve heard it said that suburbia is a cradle of unimagined secrets. Still, when Tricycle came across Merle Kodo Boyd, founder of the Lincroft Zen Sangha in Middletown, New Jersey, I was shocked. I had spent 18 years of my life there, never knowing that a committed sitting group was less than 10 minutes from my home. 

Boyd grew up in Houston, Texas, part of the first generation of children to enter racially integrated schools. She was 10 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. “We were raised to go into uncomfortable situations,” she says, “because that’s what the times asked of us.” Unlike many Western Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is beyond race, throughout her life Boyd has articulately combined her self-identity with her spiritual practice. “I’ve always felt that there’s a connection between my being black and my being a Zen practitioner,” she says. 

Boyd went to college in Maine and received a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College in New York City, then worked as a clinical social worker and therapist in Middletown. Retired now, she lives there still, with her husband, an electrical engineer. She first began practicing Zen in the 1980s, at home by herself in a cocoon of pillows she set up next to her bed. After two years of sitting zazen alone, she began traveling to Yonkers to study at the Zen Community of New York. (The center is no longer there, but they’ve left their legacy with Greyston Bakery, a socially-minded business started by the Zen Peacemakers, a group cofounded by Bernie Glassman and his wife, the late Sandra Jishu Holmes.) Jishu gave Boyd jukai, the Buddhist precepts, and ordained her as a priest. Eventually, she began studying with Egyoku Wendy Nakao and in 2005 spent a year in residence at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 2011, she returned to ZCLA, serving as abbot seat holder while Nakao was on sabbatical. In 1994, with two other practitioners, Bill Nordahl and Peter Nyodo Ott, she founded the Lincroft Zen Sangha, initially an outgrowth of a Zen Mountain Monastery affiliate in nearby Freehold, NJ. Although it attracts a fair number of students from the local community college who are sent by their professors, it is also home to a core group of dedicated practitioners. 

Middletown is a far cry from the tight-knit community that supported Boyd as she grew up, one that taught her how to survive in a society that told her she was not okay as she was. “That’s all my life has ever been about—trying to make it okay to be who I am,” she says. Soft-spoken and eloquent, Boyd is a resilient and thoughtful spiritual warrior, even in the face of suffering. 

—Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor

You were born and raised in Texas. What was your childhood like growing up there? Did you have a religious upbringing? I was born at an historically black college in Prairie View where my father taught sociology, in the time of legally enforced segregation. So as you can imagine, I was born into a family that paid close attention to issues of race. My family talked a lot about race and the history of my people in the South. As we lived it, we discussed it, and we were very aware of what it all meant. 

I grew up attending the only black congregational church in Texas—it merged with a couple of other denominations, and now it’s called the United Church of Christ—which was associated with the college. My parents weren’t particularly religious. But in a way, there was no real separation of church and state in our schools, and religion permeated my life even though my family wasn’t religious. 

In the black community religion is very important. It’s part of your life, part of who you are. At least in the South, this is very true: religion is always with you. So a lot of my life took place at the church, and my minister was a very important figure to me. He looked after the children of Third Ward Houston. I was just back at my 50th high school reunion, talking with one of my closest friends, who happens to be the minister’s daughter. We realized we were pretty much raised by a community. Even if our parents weren’t active in something, there were adults in the community who looked after us. It gave a lot of diversity to my life because there were so many different adults. Many of them belonged to the church. In my family I was the one who went to church all the time. After I left home to go to college in Maine, my mother started going to church—it was like we needed at least one family representative there. [Laughs.

When you moved to New Jersey, did you raise your own daughter with this sense of community and the importance of religion? I grew up near where you live, and I don’t remember it being very communal—or very racially diverse. [Laughs.] No, I’m the only black member of the Lincroft Zen sangha! 

I raised my daughter without any religion because we didn’t join a church when we moved here. But I did introduce her to what I knew of the black church: what sustained the black community through circumstances that were almost impossible to live through or raise a family in. Because that’s how black religion is designed. It came into being organically in order to help slaves endure slavery, and that sense of endurance is still needed. I taught her a lot of black church music: sustaining songs, sustaining words. 

You’ve written online that you developed an interest in Zen after seeing Ma Yuan’s painting Solitary Angler, of a fisherman alone in the sea. What was it about the painting that struck you so much? When I saw the painting, what I recognized was myself as I knew myself to be, but not yet as I was in the world. It’s hard to say exactly why I thought that, except that I think that’s the nature of the dharma. It grabs you. It’s yourself that you’re responding to, your wiser or more complete self. I think there is a natural movement toward fulfilling your whole self. And when I saw that painting, it suggested to me that Zen was the direction I could follow to do that. I felt that it would feed that need to resolve something—something unarticulated. 

After seeing that painting, I read a book that taught me how to sit. I sat on my own here at home in New Jersey for a couple of years before I started looking for a place to sit with a sangha. This was the 80s, and it wasn’t exactly simple to find a Zen center near New Jersey. And a part of me just wasn’t ready to seek one out, anyway. 

I also read that you were quite wary going to your first Zen center. Why? Yeah, it was terrifying! [Laughs.] My heart was going a mile a minute. I don’t know what it’s like for people now, because there’s so much more information about Zen, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I had a little bit of information from the couple of books that I had read, but I just figured I’d go and I’d find out—I’d just be there and see what happened. I don’t remember what made me decide, “okay, now’s the time.” Maybe it was because I had been sitting for two years and felt comfortable in zazen. 

What I sensed when I sat was this feeling of being exposed. There’s something about the process from the very beginning that first exposes you to yourself, then exposes you to yourself in the presence of others, and finally exposes you to others. Given my experiences growing up, I was wary of whether or not I was ready to expose the beginning of my practice to possible racists. I was part of a community of children who were raised to go to newly racially integrated schools, to enter newly racially integrated social situations. In a way we were raised to go into uncomfortable situations, because that was what the times asked of us. So with the Zen center, it wasn’t that I hadn’t done it before—I knew I could do it. It’s just that I didn’t want to expose my new spiritual practice to the kind of subtle self-protection that you establish when you walk into a place where you might not be welcome. Luckily, that’s not how it panned out. I did feel welcome. The sangha, like most in the West, was white and middleclass, but its members all seemed unique and themselves. When I am in an environment in which people feel free to be themselves, I feel free to walk among them even if racially I am in the minority. 

You mentioned that you were practicing for two years by yourself without a sangha. A lot of people in that position have a hard time keeping up their meditation practice because of the lack of peer support. Was it hard for you? It was okay. When you’re practicing alone, especially at the beginning, you’re very self-conscious of doing this new and unusual thing, which is really doing nothing—just sitting still. I had a pillow to sit on next to my bed. I hadn’t even gotten a zafu or zabuton. But I had a comfortable place to sit anyway, so it was just a matter of actually doing it. I told myself the same thing that I tell myself about exercise: just get to the pool and get in. Then you can decide how long you want to stay there. That’s usually enough, because once I get into something, it has a life of its own, it has a way that it goes. Zazen takes care of itself. 

Your writing is featured in the forthcoming book The Hidden Lamp, which gathers reflections from contemporary women teachers on teaching stories from the Buddhist canons. [Read excerpts in this issue here.] You chose Chiyono’s “No Water, No Moon”: “With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together, / and then the bottom fell out. / Where water does not collect, / the moon does not dwell.” Why did you choose that verse to reflect on? The first time that I heard the verse was in a dharma talk that my teacher, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, gave. I don’t remember what was happening with me and my practice at the time that I heard it, but I was really grabbed by it, and I really wanted her to give me the verse, because I hadn’t heard it or read it before. 

What struck me was that feeling of letting go. First of all, how strong the urge to keep things together is and how hard we work at it. Patching the bucket is a wonderful metaphor—I can imagine constantly patching and re-patching the bucket when it shows wear or is about to give in some places. And then, finally, you just stop trying. I saw that in the painting Solitary Angler, too: what arises when one stops trying to hold anything together. 

Photography by James Salzano
Photography by James Salzano

A cherished experience from my childhood was solitude, since in solitude, I had no need to hold anything together. In my solitude, I was okay, and things as they were were okay. That’s also my experience of Chiyono’s enlightenment verse: how difficult it is to let go, but once you do, how much of a relief it is. 

Are there any other teaching stories or koans that are particularly close to your heart? Right now I’m working with a koan from The Blue Cliff Record called “The Hermit of Lotus Flower Peak Holds Up His Staff.” I worked with it in the past at a time of a rite of passage. I think now is some type of rite of passage, too, although I couldn’t say what it is. It’s been seven years since I received transmission, and I understand that seven years is a type of cycle. I’m definitely at a transition—I just don’t know what it is. Age and practice and time, I guess. 

The koan is about why we can’t stand still, why practice is not “you accomplish something, and then that’s it.” Sometimes it’s very hard for students that there’s no right answer, no final accomplishment, no final credential, no final attainment. It goes on forever and never stands still. 

In Zen Buddhism there is a lot of talk, like you mentioned earlier, about being okay with things as they are. But a lot of people don’t know how to reconcile that notion with circumstances that are clearly not okay. How do you reconcile it yourself, considering your experiences growing up in the segregated South? The South was a scary place. You could do the wrong thing, end up in the wrong place, and lose your life. Living like that presents you with a certain koan. I mean, everybody’s life presents them with koans, but some are more obvious than others. I was born into a life where the koan is pretty obvious: How are you going to make peace with these circumstances? How do we love ourselves in these circumstances? 

When I was born, the civil rights movement was starting again. It was a time of ending the terroristic environment that we lived in. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began when I was about 10 or 11. What I understood from that is that it presented the truth of the situation without anyone having to do anything else but that—present the truth of one’s life. Not riding the bus was just the logical action that came from bearing witness to the truth—what it was to be black in the South. 

What I witnessed as a child is that when you make that decision to not ride the bus, it’s not just your decision. The whole community supported the people who were standing up, who were actually presenting themselves as targets. These people risked their lives, but they made peace with their circumstances by doing so. Once you see what that looks like, faith isn’t needed anymore in the sense of believing in something. You’ve seen it, so it becomes direct experience, which deepens your faith in life. 

I’ve always felt that there’s a connection between my being black and my being a Zen practitioner. Actually, my whole childhood prepared me for Zen. It led me straight into it. When I was young I needed to work out how to be okay with who I was. And in a way that’s all my life has ever been about: trying to make it okay to be who I am. What I learned growing up was that being persecuted, being hated, for who I was didn’t make sense. I had to be okay, because it wasn’t like I had any choices about it: this is how I came into the world! And I would say that a time when we are always okay is when we are in solitude or in zazen. I experience both as freedom. 

I know a lot of people who would say that their experience of solitude is the opposite—it’s boring, it’s uncomfortable, they don’t know what to do with themselves when those pesky inner demons come out to play. How would you encourage people who are uncomfortable with solitude to be more comfortable with it? The key is compassion for and curiosity about who we are. The only thing that can make us uncomfortable with being alone is not liking who we are. That’s what we do when we face the wall: we face who we are. Being okay with however that arises is the most compassion and the most honesty you can ever offer yourself—to just accept yourself as you are. Even if you don’t like it, that’s okay, because not-okay is always a practice gate. We can always include what we don’t like in ourselves. But letting go of worrying about having to become perfect: that’s a gift that we give to ourselves. 

Whatever we need to adjust about ourselves so that we’re in accord with the way things are, those are changes we can make. But first we have to be honest about how we are, and solitude allows that. One of the promises that I made to myself as a child was to be honest with myself. I wasn’t going to lie about who I was. Something I didn’t really know at the time but my life ended up making clear to me is that being honest is more relaxing than pretending. Energy that has been used to pretend is no longer needed, and it’s free to go with the natural way of things. That’s what sitting zazen is about: no need for pretense. Okay as it is. Okay as you are.

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