© Sarah Schorr
© Sarah Schorr

Barbara Rhodes was one of the first women in America to be formally recognized as a Zen teacher. A student since 1972 of Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School in the Chogye lineage of Korean Zen, she was given the authority to teach in 1977 and now serves as the Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She has been a registered nurse since 1969 and currently works with patients at Home and Hospice Care of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence with her partner, Mary, and has two grown daughters. Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen interviewed her at the New Haven Zen Center in March 2002.

You’ve never expressed much discomfort as a woman in your role, although you trained in a lineage that has been traditionally very patriarchal.

I tend to fill whatever role I think is needed. I haven’t let anything get in the way of my being a mother, or a nurse, a good friend to someone—or a teacher.

You’ve spoken about your first trip to Korea with your husband. Even though he was the less experienced teacher, you say they treated him with more deference and that you responded by working with your own ego. Can you talk about that?

Not just working with my own ego, working with everybody’s ego. When you see it that way, there’s no room for personal anger. Look at how human beings relate to one another. There are lots of problems. I’ve been able to see that gender bias is not personal. I can only help women by being a strong woman and believing in myself. So I don’t get upset; I just see that there’s an imbalance in the way people treat one another.

In a difficult situation, when do you say, “All right, this is practice,” and when do you say, “This is unacceptable”?

It depends on the situation. We have to understand that people have varying needs and find support in different groups, as I do. But I may not need to speak about myself as a woman; I don’t even recognize myself as a woman. Still, it does hurt when someone says you can’t do something because you’re a woman. On a trip to Mexico recently, I approached a man about renting a sailboat. It was quite windy, and he looked at me and said, “You can’t, it’s too rough out there for a woman.” I got pissed. I gave him my American feminist look; I stuck my chest out and said, “I’m a woman and I can do it!” He let me have the boat. I was a feminist in that moment; it made sense.


enough-mind3 (1)My understanding is that your teacher once told you that women can’t get enlightened. Can you tell me about your response to that?

Well, of course it pushed all of my buttons. A woman can’t get enlightened! I was furious. But what he was pointing to was my identification with gender. A woman doesn’t become enlightened, just as a man doesn’t become enlightened—a human being becomes enlightened, that’s all. That was a great exchange.

Did your teacher, Seung Sahn, make much of a fuss about gender?

We were all treated the same. He’s Korean. He’s autocratic. He doesn’t pretend he isn’t. He doesn’t have us vote on things, for example. He always says, “Someday you’ll be making decisions, and then you can do it any way you like. This is the way I do it.” You can’t opt out of society, and so society must be democratic; but you can opt out of a sangha, or find another teacher if you don’t like his or her style. It’s all voluntary.

How do you view your teacher’s style now?

A lot of it is, I think, very skillful, and we have accomplished many things. But his style is one way. I’m not so autocratic. This doesn’t represent a schism; it represents a difference in style. Now that I’m older, I think I’d give him a harder time if I lived in the same temple again. I was much younger then, and so it was fine, but it wouldn’t be now! [laughs]

How do you account for the difference in style? Is it a cultural difference?

Perhaps. And also I think it has to do with our personalities. I find that when I teach, I’m more willing to share my own problems and struggles—these become teaching tools. Zen Master Seung Sahn doesn’t think that kind of openness is skillful. But he’s heard me speak, and he hears good things about me from the students, so he’s happy. He’s just more private. Some Americans are that way, too.

Do you find students turn to the therapeutic model in interviews with you? Getting into the specifics of their lives?

As I get older, I’m less inclined to let that happen. I just ask, “How do you sit with that?” When I was younger, sometimes I’d get into the personal stuff with students. I’m not a therapist; I wasn’t skillful at it. So now I see it’s not really helpful to go into it. Whether they’re having a problem with their husband or their boss, it almost doesn’t matter. It’s “What are you?” and “How do you work with that?” If you ask yourself these things, then you can quite naturally work with what you have to deal with.

You say you need to believe in yourself, and that you need to be yourself. What does this mean, especially when to such a great extent—as a mother, as a nurse, as a teacher—your life is so devoted to the needs of others?

Zen Master Seung Sahn didn’t want us to be devotees; he wanted us to believe in ourselves and be strong. As autocratic as he was, he was very accepting about how we led our lives, what our responsibilities were. In Zen, to believe in yourself, to find out who you are, is no different from discovering that there is no self. And when you’re really clear, it becomes obvious that the only thing to do is to help another. When you do something, just do it. It’s been the same with my career. I believed in myself. I always wanted to be a nurse. And it turned out I was right, this made sense. There are a million things to do as a nurse, and I enjoy it. When all my friends went to college, I went to a three-year training school. I didn’t even think about it. I was popular, I had good grades, I had the same background as my friends. But I didn’t think that it was “less than” to go into nursing. I just listened to myself. I went toward that goal. It was a challenging path, but it never veered. In fact, I’ve never understood it when people don’t know what they want to do. I feel that if someone really pays attention, they’ll tap into their skills, their purpose, and their ability to give. I know that if you ask, “What am I?” an answer will appear.

What would prevent a person from knowing what his or her path is?

Not having a clear vow. If you have a vow to help all people, if you have the Bodhisattva Vow, then the question will appear, “What am I going to do?” The universe is extremely generous. If you just listen and pay attention, the answer will come naturally, and your vocation will appear.

I have a favorite Zen story. There was a man whose job it was to kill cows. This was his position in life. His father had done it, his grandfather had done it. He’d use a sledgehammer to hit the cow on the center of its forehead. Although he loved cows and hated killing them, he was obedient, loyal to his family. After a time, he figured out how, with the help of a mantra, to do his job in such a way that he would inflict the least amount of pain possible; the cow wouldn’t know what hit it. One day, having developed great concentration, his mind opened up while killing a cow, and it is said that he attained supreme enlightenment. He became enlightened while killing a cow! So the career you choose is not the point. Do your work with clarity and compassion. You can’t go forward until you know where you’re going to step. You need to practice by asking, “What am I?”

Where does that question lead one—“What am I”?

It leads you right to this moment. That’s what’s revealing. A teaching term we use is that you have “enough mind.” If you’re in this room now, it means you’re completely taking in this room, this situation, and it’s enough. As your wisdom grows you attain “enough mind,” and that’s how you know where to step next. So asking, “What am I?” develops the state of mind in which everything is enough. You don’t wish you were somewhere else, or someone else, doing something else. You learn to be with each moment, to do what’s in front of you, and that it’s enough, however difficult the situation.

Is that where your confidence comes from, “enough mind?”

Well, enough mind is more than confidence; it’s enlightenment. It’s being human.

You’ve said practice must be rigorous. Where does that fit in?

Yes. I always tell people how incredibly fortunate we are to be sitting on that hardwood floor. We’ve learned a profound practice, and now we just need to do it. Keep your eyes open, stay attentive, stay with it. After ten or fifteen minutes, I see someone closing their eyes, slumping, and I say, “Stay with it!” It’s a waste of time otherwise.

As I get older, I feel this way more and more strongly. I feel the preciousness of this breath. I’m fifty-four now, and you never know. I see people dying around me every day in my hospice work, and so I don’t take my life for granted.

So many people burn out in hospice work.

I don’t believe in burnout. If we know our vocation and we have clear direction, we don’t burn out. This may sound corny, but when I pull into my driveway at the end of the day, I can’t believe I’m paid to do hospice work. I learn one lesson after another. I should pay them. That’s not to say that sometimes it’s not difficult. I may be with a difficult family, there may be a lot of cigarette smoke, there may be a lot of anger or a lot of fear, a lot of pain, or difficult people. But I can ask, “What is this? How is it right now?” And if I’m intelligently asking these questions, it’s like being on retreat, and burnout doesn’t make sense; I have far more energy than I otherwise would.

When you teach, you often caution against “checking.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Here’s an example of checking: We’re about to eat dinner, and I see you eating a bunch of cookies; I say to myself, “I’m not going to eat those cookies,” and so I don’t. I watch you eat them. Then I start to “check” you, judge you, and the thoughts begin; I think, “God, what a pig! Doesn’t he have more self-control? Boy, I bet he does that all the time.” That’s called “checking.” In our lineage, we say “checking, making, and holding.”


Well, first I make a judgment, a check. Then, I create a scenario; I can “make” that you eat cookies all the time. “Holding” is when, three days later, I think of you and say, “Boy, he ate like crazy. He’s got a problem.”

But when you think about it, the conclusions I’ve arrived at make no sense. I’m worrying about someone else’s problem, someone else’s stomach, and after all, he just ate a few cookies! But we do this all the time. We may be sitting, and we check to see if everyone else is sitting as well as we are, or perhaps better. We might think, “There he goes again, he’s slumping.” Then, “He’s not a committed practitioner, and he’s supposed to be a senior student.” And later, perhaps a week later, “Gee, I can’t believe he’s considered a senior student. He always slumps!” We all check, make, and hold. It’s good to recognize this and understand that it’s not helpful. And of course, you can check yourself: “I’m not able to do this; I don’t practice well,” and so on.

What’s the antidote?

Just ask, “What is this?” without checking, without making, without holding. Just go forward. And don’t bother saying, “I can’t do it.” Just “don’t know.” It may take you ten years to figure it out. Fine.


Your own teacher popularized “Don’t know mind.” He was always saying, “Go straight,” “Just look at what’s in front of you.” Are these suggestions admonitions against checking?

Yes, exactly. If you’re doing “don’t know,” you’re not “making” anything. But “just doing it” doesn’t mean never to step back, never to analyze; but if you do those things, do them completely. Forget about wondering, “Should I ever have done this in the first place?” “Will I ever learn?” We waste so much mental energy on checking, making, and holding.

Your teacher once said, “Before you can save someone from hell, you have to go to hell.” How did you understand that?

The Bodhisattva Vow asks you to go wherever you’re needed. We’re encouraged in most traditions to do this. With my hospice work, I go into really difficult situations. Going to many places with different people teaches me to be skillful, to do whatever’s called for in each situation, whatever and wherever that may be. There’s a deity—we call him Jijang Bosai—who lives in hell to help others. So it means to go anywhere without hesitation, to keep your vow.

The way I see it, everything I do can be practice. Being with my partner; being with my mother; being with my daughters; working at the hospice. Everything, even going to the gym. I asked a Seneca Indian friend once, “Do you chant?” She answered, “All the time.”

And when she said that, I knew that she meant it, that she never stops chanting: in the bathroom, cooking dinner, cleaning, she is a chant. She was a wonderful teacher. She was eighty at the time and had been practicing her whole life.

The way not to squander your energy is to keep practicing, keep asking, “What is this?” “What am I?” Don’t check, don’t make, don’t hold. Because that’s what tires us out. An argument, for instance, can be very draining, but if you’re focused when you’re having the argument, you don’t have to feel drained. You can have an appropriate relationship to the argument, and then not even an argument is tiring!

Easier said than done.

Yes, even when you sit. For instance, you can check your checking. At that point, you can say, “Just don’t know.” Not knowing is just to be with whatever it is, in the moment. I’ve heard Pema Chodron describe it beautifully. She advised, “Gently let go of the content and come back to this moment.” The word “gently” is key. Everything can be a “don’t know” moment. It’s about not knowing anything but what’s right there, not letting anything get in the way. Otherwise, you’re just drifting, just rambling through associations, wasting time.

You see so many people at the end of their lives. How is it to see someone wonder at the end, “Wow, what happened, where did the time go?”

Most people who have wasted their time don’t ask that question. I see people die all the time who didn’t have any direction, didn’t have any vow. Right now there are a lot of people walking around who never had a spiritual practice, and of course, some of them are dying. It’s not always so special to die. I see people die with the television set on. So they’re not asking questions. I think we have this image from movies that people get clearer at the end of their lives, but actually their energy is diminishing. They’re just trying to survive, to get a glass of water, to have bedsores treated. They don’t have time for introspection; the time has come and gone.

So you have a tremendous sense of their lost opportunity?

Well, perhaps. It’s easier to build your dharma energy when you’re younger, although that’s not to say you can’t begin when you’re older. But practice is not something people usually begin when their life is quickly coming to an end. I feel much more of a sense of lost opportunity when I see someone who is thirty years old and not practicing, because they have more time. It’s just the human condition: we’re ignorant. There’s a lot of suffering. The theaters and sports arenas are full, and people spend a lot of money to go to a show or a game. But they won’t go to church, or they won’t practice or work toward awareness. That’s why it’s important to do a lot of retreats now, while you can, to practice, to build your energy.

Do you have a reputation for being tough?

Some people think so. But a lot of people find me very nurturing because I’m a mother and a nurse. I reveal myself a lot. I’ll say I had a hard day at work, and bring that into my dharma talk. If I have self-doubt, I say it. That self-doubt can be a teacher; I’ll use my anger, my impatience, as fodder for practice. And my students will say, “Well, if she can do it, so can I.” If I pretended otherwise, that would intimidate them, and it wouldn’t be true, anyway. But some people say I’m tough because I do try really hard, and I expect that from others. I say, “Well, if you showed up more often, maybe you wouldn’t be having such a hard time right now. Maybe you should be coming to the retreats more often.” So people think I’m hard that way.

What has changed for you after thirty years of practice? I feel much more love and a lot more sadness. And more gratitude. Zen Master Seung Sahn talks about dae ja, da bi, “great love, great sadness.” If you love more, you’re going to be sad more because it’s a sad world. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about trying to become more skillful. I’m just grateful that I can take a step back and see what’s going on with me, and I’m grateful for the teachings I’ve received, and for the people I’ve known.

Just Listen
Barbara Rhodes tells the story of her first patient in hospice care.

My first hospice patient had cancer of the liver and colon. We had been doing guided meditations together for several months and became very close. As she grew sicker, her pain increased. With medication, she became confused.

This was the one thing she had been afraid of: losing control. She used to say to me, “My family might not be able to take care of me.” I told her it was going to be okay. I told her that her husband and three daughters would be ready to take care of her, and that I would help.

That’s pretty much the way it happened. She grew weaker. As she needed more equipment, I would bring it to the house: johnnies (nightgowns) that are easy to put on, pads for her bed in case she was incontinent, and a commode if she couldn’t walk to the bathroom. Afraid, she would ask, “Do you think we’re really going to need these things?”

And I would say, “Maybe we won’t need them, but why don’t you have them on hand anyway?”

© Sarah Schorr
© Sarah Schorr

Many families don’t want to look at death. Her family would hide what I brought. But slowly these things would reappear as they were needed.

She didn’t want a hospital bed. She wanted to stay in her own bed. It was a queen-size bed, big enough so that her husband and daughters and I could all sit with her.

Once, when she was in a lot of pain, we sat with her and held her hands. As the pain started to go away, I said, “Why don’t we pray for a little while?” They knew I was a Buddhist. They had a strong Catholic background, but we knew each other so well by then that we all knew what we meant by prayer. For about twenty minutes we were quiet, eyes closed. It was wonderful to sit with these people. Afterwards she looked up at me and gave me the most beautiful smile. It was such a gift after months of our trying to accept what was coming. There was no thinking, just this wonderful moment.

I thought, “Oh, this is how it’s going to be.” I imagined that because of my help, her dying was going to be just right.

When I returned the next morning, her abdomen had swollen. She was bleeding internally. With every exhalation she would grunt and grimace. I thought, “Oh, it’s not supposed to be like this!” The family was looking to me for help. I phoned the doctor and got permission to double her medication. Her family held her, telling her how much they loved her. I finally called a more experienced nurse and asked, “What is this grunting? Is she in pain?” The nurse said many people do that when they are dying, and it wasn’t necessarily painful. We all felt better after that. She continued in this way into the night.

We often talk about the direction of our lives, but basically what it boils down to is, “What am I doing just now?” I was just sitting there. I wasn’t family, but I had a role. I emptied my mind and took in the situation, and it came to me: “I think it’s time for us to tell her that it’s okay to let go.” Nobody had told her that.

Her husband was a great guy. He was warm but hid his feelings. He looked at me. “What do you mean by let go?” “Die,” I answered. “It’s time to tell her it’s okay to die. Maybe she thinks it’s not okay because everyone is holding onto her so tight.” He said, “I can’t do that!”

But one of her daughters, a nurse, agreed with me and said, “I was just thinking that myself.” So she leaned close to her mother and said, “Mom, it’s okay with me if you go now.”

Every time his daughter said it, the husband would cover his wife’s face so she couldn’t hear. He wasn’t angry with his daughter. He wasn’t sure it was okay to let go. Finally another daughter said, “Mom, it’s okay to go to sleep now.” She was modifying it. I asked,

“Are going to sleep and letting go the same thing?” And she answered, “Well, not quite. Just out of pain.” Then the husband said to his wife, “Yeah, I think it’s okay for you to die now.” Then he started to pray. He was telling her to let go, but there was something unfinished between them. At that moment I really admired him, because in front of his three daughters and me, he said to his wife, “I want to tell you something. I want you to forgive me for anything I’ve done in our marriage that has hurt you. I know that I’ve hurt you many times, and I am really sorry, and I want you to forgive me.”

Up till then she hadn’t moved at all, but now she moved her head toward him. He told her again that he loved her. It felt complete.

I really wanted her to let go. I was trying to keep an empty mind and just perceive what was going on. I said, “I think she’s trying to accept that it’s okay to let go.” Two of the daughters left the room, and I moved closer to her and held her. She started to relax. It was going the way we thought it would.

Then something happened I hadn’t expected. It’s our practice not to make some thought about the future but just to take things as they come. Dark blood started coming out of her mouth. I got a pad and a basin. The blood kept flowing slowly. One daughter, in her twenties, got some tissue and kept cleaning her face. It was so quiet in the room. The beautiful thing about it was that even though it was such an ugly and unexpected thing in a way, there was complete attention on our part. Her husband even kissed her on the mouth: unconditional love.

I called the other two daughters in. Their mother was resting; her respirations were very slow. Then she stopped breathing. Her husband took the basin and started to take it to the bathroom. I said to him, “Wait a minute. I’ll take this out and you go back to her.” He was afraid. She wasn’t going to take another breath, so I told him, “Go back and look at her, watch her stillness.” Then I left the room for a few minutes.

They all started to cry. The father had never before cried in front of his daughters. Then friends and relatives who had been in another room came in and began to cry and pray. Back then I was very composed and tight, even though I’m always telling people to relax. I stood back and watched it all, watching myself, too. I come from a middle-class Protestant background, and

I was telling myself, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with being Italian and screaming and yelling and saying Hail Marys.” Then I almost cried, but I held it back. I was so relieved that she was out of pain. Then something wonderful happened. The father and his daughters went into another room and closed the door. I could hear them laughing. They were so high, and they all had become so close in those last hours. All family friction had dissolved after this bedside retreat together. They were talking and laughing and telling each other how much they loved each other.

It’s wonderful when you can bring people together. You don’t have to use the word Buddhism or Zen. I’ve started using the word “pray” in my hospice work, because that’s what most people feel comfortable with. I never used to use the word “God,” but I do now because people like it. I say, “There’s this whole universe, and whatever makes this universe work is God. So let’s be quiet and just listen.” ▼