How I got into this...

by Mary Jise Jaksch

I was eight years old when I had my first Zen experience. My parents had sent me to a children's home in the Black Forest to recover from a nasty bout of influenza. Set in a landscape of meadows, forests, sparkling brooks and a ruined castle, the home was run by a starched dragon called Sister Elisabeth. The cottage was roofed and clad with weathered wooden tiles and was shaded by an ancient fir-tree, at least four times the height of the building. Climbing it was strictly forbidden and so I spent many a happy hour hiding on the topmost branches, reading a book in the gentle breeze. After lunch we had to lie down on camp stretchers in a large room with windows open to the garden. One day, just as I was on the verge of sleep, I had an overwhelming mystical experience that has shaped my life to this very day. A few years ago it was triggered again as I was sitting by a stream and came to life, completely fresh, as if stored in my bones and marrow.

This experience was the start of a religious quest. Both my parents had been burned by religion: My mother was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and my father an excommunicated Catholic. They agreed that I should not receive a religious upbringing. Yet I became deeply interested in religion, searching for a path that was right for me and I began a life of prayer. I tasted many different approaches: Anglican, Protestant, charismatic sects, Brethren, and even Russian Orthodox. Finally I landed in the Catholic church and went to mass each week for seven years. I used to go to church in Kiedrich, a tiny vintners village on the Rhine that boasts a fifteenth century church, a full-time Music Director, and an organ nearly as ancient as the church itself. I loved the silence and the darkness filled with candlelight, waves of incense, and the poignant beauty of Gregorian chants. But the sermons were an ordeal, the priest haranguing his flock about abortion, birth control and keeping women in their place! During these years I developed my own practice which I called silent prayer. I used to sit in inner and outer silence with wide mind and heart. I remember sitting for hours in the silence of old cathedrals, unable to move, deep in a state of rapture. Now and then I would venture to speak about this to priests and pastors but they invariably thought me odd and in the end I kept my own council. I practised like this daily for over a decade, not knowing that there were others who practised like this, let alone that there were teachers and retreats.

During this time, in my twenties, I was on a visit to England, fossicking around in a second-hand book shop when my eye caught the title: The Graces of Interior Prayer. It was a treatise on the mystical tradition in the Catholic church. I bought it and read it at one stretch like a person crawling through the desert downs a glass of water in one draft. And suddenly a truth came to me in a flash: I knew then that the mystical path was my life and if I didn?t follow that calling, my life would be in vain. I was stunned. "Do I have to become a nun?" I thought. I couldn't imagine myself doing that and so I put this truth aside, biding my time, waiting to find a path that would help me fulfil my calling.

When I was twenty-eight, I had my first bizarre brush with Zen. I was lecturer for music at a university in Germany at that time. I had invited Michael Vetter, a contemporary composer, to give an improvisation recital. To my surprise he turned out to be a Zen monk as well as a musician. We were sitting in a lecture theatre. Beside me was my Head of Department and I was surrounded by my students. Michael gave a one-hour improvisation. He started with farting noises, followed by loud bellows like a stricken cow, some bad recorder playing and selected gongs, bangs and clicks - all interspersed with unnerving silence. I raised an eyebrow at a student on my left and saw that he was heaving with suppressed laughter. While my boss sat stolidly by my side, my students and I collapsed into uncontrollable giggles - we wept and moaned and some ended up writhing under their seats...meanwhile Michael just kept on going! Afterwards there was opportunity for discussion and I remember asking with some asperity whether there was any compassion in Zen, taking Michael to task for not making gracious space for our laughter instead of continuing relentlessly. Afterwards Michael and I talked late into the night about music, life and Zen practice and he sowed a seed for which I am grateful. After this encounter I bought a book on Zen by Alan Watts. And yet it took another ten years before I entered formal Zen training.

In these ten years I married Uwe Grodd (who is now my favourite ex-husband), bore my lovely son Sebastian and settled in Nelson, New Zealand. Early in 1986 I started training in Seido Karate. The Chief Instructor, Shihan Andy Barber, himself a Zen Buddhist, included Zen practice in the training. As soon as I encountered zazen, I knew I had come home at last - it felt so familiar. Here, at last, was the path that I had been searching for all these years! I remember doing zazen in the dojo after a karate class one evening when Shihan suddenly gave a huge shout. The sound ripped up the fabric of the world and all that remained was a vast silence. I laughed and cried on my way home, wondering what had happened.

A couple of years later, John Daido Loori Roshi came to New Zealand to lead retreats and I attended my first sesshin. All of us participants were very raw recruits, wide-eyed with shock and wonder. I remember locking myself into the bathroom to howl with laughter during the breaks. Especially Orioki, the formal meals, tickled my fancy and I couldn?t wait to tell my friends that I had to drink my dishwashing water! And yet there were strange, precious moments when there was nothing else but the lowing of cows deep in the valley. John Daido Loori Roshi was a wonderful teacher, big in every respect; rather like a huge, bald, stooping eagle - ready to pounce. By this time I was deeply committed to Zen practice and it was hard for me to see a teacher only once a year. I had burning questions but there was no way I could get answers between retreats.

After some years I decided to spend some time at Zen Mountain Monastery in Upstate New York where John Daido Loori Roshi is the Abbot. On the way there I stopped over in Honolulu for three days. I had read "Taking the Path of Zen" and knew that Aitken Roshi lived somewhere in Hawaii. I got off the plane at eight o?clock in the morning, rushed to a telephone box and searched the phonebook. There it was: R.Aitken. I rang and when Anne, his wife answered, I was suddenly tongue-tied and stuttered that I was a Zen student from New Zealand and would be honoured to meet Aitken Roshi. "Oh," she said her - voice warm and bright, "why don't you sit the end of our sesshin with us? We finish at lunchtime." Twenty-five minutes later I was sitting at KokoAn in sesshin, marvelling at the intimacy of it all. At the end of the sesshin, Anne introduced me and Aitken Roshi welcomed me warmly. Then the Head Resident asked for volunteers to take the washing to the laundry. Everyone looked over at me and laughed. I looked up and suddenly realised that my arm was raised! "Why don?t you stay here with us?" said Roshi kindly. Later he gave me of his time and I was able to ask questions and be guided in my practice by him. To this day I am grateful for this act of generosity and kindness. I knew then that I had met the teacher of my heart and had found a warm and welcoming Zen family.

After that intimate family experience, the large monastery was somewhat of a let-down. Sitting sesshin was excruciating as I had a knee injury and could only sit seiza, sitting astride a small cushion with my knees resting on a thin mat. The pressure from the wooden floor caused huge pain in my injured kneecap. We weren?t allowed to use any support cushions so, in desperation, I folded back a corner of the sitting mat under my knee. Soon a leader came and removed the errant corner from under my knee. At that moment I vowed that I would always endeavour to treat students with kindness! Months later, after some soul-searching, I asked Robert Aitken Roshi to become my teacher and entered the Diamond Sangha lineage.

Some years passed with passionate practice, dark nights, and sudden vistas. One day I said to Aitken Roshi, "It would be good if people in New Zealand could experience the Diamond Sangha lineage." Roshi suggested inviting Ross Bolleter and in this way a new chapter of Zen in New Zealand was born. I started the Maitai Zendo and Ross, who later became a Dharma Heir of Aitken Roshi and John Tarrant Roshi, has been coming to New Zealand twice a year ever since April 1994. He has been incredibly generous with his time and teaching. At the same time he turned out to be a hard task-master in koan study - an iron fist in a kid glove! I travelled to Australia many times to sit sesshin in Perth, South Australia and Adelaide and, back home, spent a fortune on phone bills. In November 1997 Ross Bolleter Roshi asked me to take up the work of Practice Leader and, a year later, appointed me as a Zen teacher with the blessing of my elder Teacher, Robert Aitken Roshi.

What is my life like now as a Zen teacher? Let me answer with a story by Father Theophane:

There's a monk there who will never give you advice, but only a question. I was told his questions could be very helpful. I sought him out. "I am a parish priest," I said, "I'm here on retreat. Could you please give me a question?"
"Ah, yes," he answered, "My question is: 'What do they need? "
I came away disappointed. I spent a few hours with the question, writing out answers, but finally I went back to him.
"Excuse me. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. Your question has been very helpful, but I wasn't so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?"
"Ah, I see. Then my question is, "What do they REALLY need?? "

© Mary Jise Jaksch 1999

No reproduction without the authors permission please.