The first time Reverend Seiho Morris encountered Buddhism, he was 17 and researching a paper for school on Friedrich Nietzsche when he randomly pulled off a library shelf the Shobogenzo, Eihei Dogen’s primer on Soto Zen, and began to read from it. “To study the way is to study the self,” it said. “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all living beings. To be enlightened by all living beings is to drop the barrier between oneself and other.” Morris was high at the time and in the throes of addiction, but the words pierced through the haze. “Something moved through me,” he said. “I was no longer intoxicated, and it scared me.”
Morris spent his formative years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Salisbury, Maryland. His father was a professional jazz musician and his mother a university professor. At 14, after five suicide attempts, he was diagnosed with clinical depression. A few years later, it was that fateful Dogen quote that set him on a path to recovery. Today he’s an ordained Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk who has been sober for 34 years.
Soon after his experience at the library, Morris made his way to Rochester Zen Center and read Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. While learning to sit zazen under Roshi (then Sensei) Bodhin Kjolhede, he got his first taste of the practice after falling off the raised tatami mat. “You want to look like the Buddha when you step off your seat,” he said, laughing, “but it doesn’t work, because your feet are asleep. That was my first introduction to Zen ego deflation.”
At the age of 22, in the wake of a bad breakup, he decided to enroll in Zen training at Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, a Rinzai monastery in Livingston Manor, New York. Among his teachers was Eido Shimano, one of the Japanese teachers responsible for bringing Zen to America. But when stories of Shimano’s sexual misconduct surfaced, Morris was crushed. Coming face-to-face with his teacher’s fallibility was eye-opening and a difficult lesson in discernment. (“The situation became a kind of koan for me,” he said later.) He struggled to reconcile Shimano’s duplicitous and harmful behavior with the image of the teacher he’d once respected.
Over the years it has become clear to Morris that codependent behavior infiltrates sanghas and society at large. “We don’t know how to relate to each other or ourselves very well,” he said. In a society where so many are riddled with anxiety and addiction, codependency is a means to “use people to fix our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Dharma practice helps to bring these relationships into greater homeostasis.”
Using his experience as an addiction counselor, Morris fuses his Zen training with twelve step methodology to create three- and five-day immersion workshops, practicing mostly with people he describes as “the untouchables”: addicts, alcoholics, and those with mental health issues. As an ordained monk who’s also African American, Morris believes he’s a bit of a “unicorn” in the Rinzai Zen community, but his identity plays an important role in his work, especially as it intersects with race—or what he prefers to call caste. In these environments, he brings Zen to his students in the same way he came to Zen. “Wherever we see our struggle, that’ s our practice.”
He’s quick to emphasize that he’s not trying to “fix” people but is working to help them see their strengths and restore their sense of dignity and purpose. Most importantly, he says, he wants to “heal the dysfunctional relationship we have with our mind that causes us to produce our number one export and import in America: suffering.”
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