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Peg Syverson

Page history last edited by Peg Syverson 4 years, 4 months ago

this path


Peg Syverson

Spring, 2009

I first set foot on the path of Zen in the fall of 1966. I was 17 years old, and found myself in a comparative religion course taught by George Forrell at the University of Iowa. Every couple of weeks we would be introduced to a new world religion, and once we got to Zen Buddhism, I simply stopped. I read on, and learned a great deal about other world religions, but Zen was definitely it. I began reading as much as I could find, and attempted to establish a meditation practice, without a teacher or sangha in sight. Over the years that followed I read Three Pillars, Alan Watts, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and anything else I could get my hands on. As a student in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa I read Chinese and Japanese Zen poets and began writing poems in that style. And of course I was meditating, year after year.


I continued practicing Zen in that way for a very long time, until I found myself, finally, at a crossroads in San Diego in 1990. I was a single mother, bereft at the loss of a beloved husband, struggling to manage parenting a young son, three jobs, and a full course load in graduate school at UCSD. Casting about for something to sustain such a life, I found Joko Beck and ZCSD. It is safe to say that she saved me. Her fierce, unsparing, and unflinching support for my practice began to heal the devastating losses I had experienced. The clarity and wisdom she offered were like cold, clear water to slake an ancient thirst. I spent as much time as I possibly could with her from 1990 until the summer of 1994, when I graduated from UCSD and took my position at the University of Texas. When I asked her what I should do about a sangha in Austin, she suggested that I might start a sitting group by putting up some flyers, listing myself as her student. I said, “But I don’t know anything yet!” She laughed and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “You know a little bit. And you can keep in touch on the phone. If someone is sitting with you for a while, they can call me for daisan (individual practice discussion).”


I didn’t have the courage to stake such a bold claim. But one day, in the spring of 1995, I was asked to give a talk at a fledgling Unitarian Church on the topic of the “internet.” I suggested that a talk on Joko’s book might be more appropriate. Following that talk, members approached me and asked if I would start a meditation group. I said no, that I could not do that because I was not a teacher. But if people wanted to have a meditation period before church started, I would be happy to set things up and keep the time. And that is how Ordinary Mind began, although in those days it was still called the Live Oak meditation group. I was talking with Joko on the phone every two weeks, and returning to San Diego for sesshins as often as I possibly could manage it.


Our little sitting group puttered along happily, with an altar set up on a folding chair in a church multipurpose room that was sometimes full of teenagers in sleeping bags when we arrived to set up, or a noisy newcomers’ pancake breakfast down the hall. One time the church got burned out, the offices above it had somehow had an electrical fire, and we were displaced for many months to a grade school cafeteria, where we sat zazen on the linoleum floor under the buzzing fluorescent lights. As the church grew, we were squeezed more and more for space, and because we were few in number, we did not have much clout. When the situation became too difficult, we moved to a tiny, lovely zendo in a local yoga studio, which held about 7 people closely packed. Our Sunday morning program consisted of two sitting periods with walking meditation in between, followed by a reading from Joko’s books or listening to one of her recorded talks. Jeanie Forsyth and John Daniewicz were among our earliest members.


In 1998 I had a 6-month leave from the University, and went to stay with Joko, in the little garage apartment in the back of ZCSD.  Over the course of six months I attended every single zazen period, every single sesshin, every single zazenkai, heard every single talk. I filled many roles, organizing sesshins, work manager, and so on. I designed a comprehensive landscape plan for the grounds, and hosted outside guests who came in for sesshin. I spent hours and hours happily with Joko. It was so hard to leave, but I had to return to UT and my work. I continued my phone daisan with her on a regular basis, and continued to return for sesshins. While I was away for those six months, the tiny Live Oak meditation group continued to meet, sitting in zazen and reading chapters from Joko’s books. I was so pleased with their dedication. And so the group, though small, was thriving.


And then 9/11 happened. Terrified of what our government would do in response, and grief-stricken and horrified by the incident itself, I sought out a Zen center that would have the most sitting periods every week. Austin Zen Center was offering zazen both morning and evening every weekday, as well as a Saturday dharma talk. I began sitting night and day, literally with my hair on fire, and gradually took on more and more responsibilities there. It was established as a traditional Japanese-style Soto Zen temple, following the San Francisco Zen Center model. Although it was quite a contrast with Joko’s model, I felt as though I were gaining important foundational understandings about traditional Zen that paralleled Joko’s own beginnings. When I talked with her about it, she was supportive of my training in this way, even as we both recognized its distinct differences from Joko’s methods. This was not problematic, because I was still working with Joko as my primary teacher. And I was desolate about the spiral of violence, vengeance, and hatred that the entire world seemed to be ramping up for. What on earth could possibly turn the spiral the other way? Large-scale protests had failed to have the slightest effect, experts and intellectuals were unheard, and the momentum of rage and war and blind stupidity seemed to be accelerating.


One evening shortly after 9/11, during the service at AZC, I saw a newcomer standing next to Flint Sparks, one of the AZC priests and the founder of the sangha there.  She was at a loss to find the chant we were beginning in the chant book. Flint handed her his chant book, opened to the chant, and traded it for hers, and in that moment I saw such grace and kindness that I suddenly realized something: the only thing that could turn that global spiral of violence and destruction the other way was just such tiny gestures of kindness and connection. It was a complete and perfect teaching. And I realized in that moment too, something I had first experienced with Joko: the shock of recognizing my true teacher. From that moment, I spent as much time as possible observing, working with, and reflecting on the teachings I was privileged to receive every day in Flint’s presence.


As I took on more and more responsibilities, shared the struggles, joys, and challenges of establishing Austin Zen Center, and began giving invited dharma talks and informal teachings myself, I naturally found myself on the path toward priest ordination. I trained in and held a range of different positions at AZC: I was doan, kokyo, and jisha for the head teacher, I was a benji for a one-month summer intensive and the head student during another one-month summer intensive, and tenzo for numerous sesshins. I was invited to teach classes, including introduction to Zen practice, classes on koans, on writing as a support for practice, and on Joko’s books. I wrote articles for the AZC journal. I had the opportunity to hear and work with many well-known Zen teachers visiting AZC. All of this was discussed with Joko. In the spring before I was ordained, I visited Joko for a week, and we talked about this process and this path at length. I had made an agreement that I would have one year of formal training after ordination. Six months would be spent in residence at Austin Zen Center, under the direction of the head teacher there, Barbara Kohn, a dharma heir of Blanche Hartmann. And six months would be spent in residential training in some formal monastic setting.


I asked Joko if I could come and do this residential work with her, and we discussed it, but ultimately she did not think it would be appropriate because she did not really have a residential program for training. And so, at the direction of Barbara Kohn, I made arrangements to spend six months training at Great Vow Zen Monastery, with Jan Chozen Bays and Hogen Bays as abbots. Joko was skeptical about the monastic training, saying, “you don’t need that!” But as we discussed it a bit, she said, “well, it probably won’t hurt you. You’ll learn something; you always do.” And so I made the necessary plans, for this separation from my work, my house, my friends, my students, my beloved family and teachers.


In my first six months in monastic residence, at AZC, I was the house manager, organized sesshins, hosted visiting teachers, gave talks, and continued to support Zen students informally.  I made myself available for every kind of support and assistance many hours each week, even while holding a full-time position at UT as both a professor and director of a very large unit, the Computer Writing and Research Lab. On campus, I was teaching courses such as Zen Rhetoric and Non-Violent Communication. I was working closely with Flint as my teacher throughout all of this. When I visited Joko, she encouraged me to work with him, saying “he is good for you.” I brought her several CDs of Flint’s talks. Her response: “There is a man after my own heart!” She loved his teaching. After that, she had a strong appetite for any news of him, and I began sending her more of his talks and writing.


Throughout all of this work with AZC, I continued to lead the Ordinary Mind Sunday sitting group. I was finally able to prevail in moving the group to the AZC space for the Sunday morning program, so that we would have an appropriate space for meeting, when AZC had no programming scheduled. The group continued to be distinct, and to follow Joko’s model as I had learned it. The group was growing, and we were fortunate to have the space. I encouraged those who had been sitting with us to connect with Joko for phone daisan, and to visit ZCSD whenever they could for sesshins.


My ordination at AZC in August 2004 was a monumental experience for me. The path of ordination, working with Flint, had helped me recognize that my deepest aspiration is to put my life in service, almost like a public resource, a lake or a park. I could offer what Joko and Flint had given me, in my own vernacular, and with this body, heart, and mind. Practice and service had become the center of my life.


My monastic training at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon, from January to July 2005, was rigorous and traditional. We wore robes, shaved heads, and followed a monastic schedule. We rose at 3:50 and began sitting at 4:20, worked all day, and sat again in the evenings until 9:30. There was a public Sunday morning program, a 7-day sesshin every month, classes, workshops, and visiting teachers. I lived in a tiny, open cubicle, and I worked in the kitchen, the gardens, the workshop, and the office. It was physically challenging because of the bitter cold; the furnace in the residence dorms was broken and remained that way for my entire stay. It was extremely emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually challenging, and it was also a rich and rewarding experience.


I spent 6 weeks of that time as the Tenzo (head of the kitchen) of the monastery, including a weekend retreat for the memorial for Maezumi Roshi, where I was responsible for all meals for 43 people over three days, including the visiting dharma heirs of Maezumi and the residents. While I was staying at Great Vow, I worked closely with both Chozen and Hogen, and I had the opportunity to spend 11 days in a solitary retreat in a forest hut there. I was very involved in the massive preparations for the Jizo project and the pilgrimage to Japan on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, in August, 2005. I designed the project web site (http://www.jizosforpeace.org/) set up online contributions and catalogues, and created original art to contribute to the project. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/syverson/sets/642654/) I also learned to play the marimba in the monastery marimba band, and I learned to make scanner art of monastery flowers and taught others to do this, creating images for gift cards and posters.

I stopped to see Joko on my drive to the monastery, and on my return drive. She was very positive and supportive of what I was doing on the path, and clear about the fundamental issues of monastic practice.


While I was away for this six months, the little Ordinary Mind sitting group continued to meet, faithfully keeping to Joko’s teachings and sitting together in zazen. This alone is a testament to the group’s sincerity and dedication to practice, and to Joko’s teaching.


Through my life and training as a priest and a monastic, I experienced the deep mystery, beauty,  and support of the traditional Japanese model of practice, its grace and dignity, the profound meanings in those teachings. I saw it wholeheartedly through, until it completed itself, and I fully understood the wisdom of Joko’s spare, resolute, yet connected practice, so perfectly adapted for contemporary American lives. In September 2005, I moved the Ordinary Mind group to my house, where I had removed furniture from the front rooms to create a zendo. Sangha members painted walls and trim, and made shoji screens for the windows. In this way, we could have a dedicated space free from disruption by AZC’s sesshins and weekend events. (Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/syverson/sets/973377/)


In August 2006, Flint suggested that I begin giving practice discussion. I deferred to Joko, and in a phone conversation with her on August 27, she readily agreed, laughing, because I was already being sought out by people informally. She said this was what forced Maezumi to give her dharma transmission, the long lines of people wanting to see her, outside her little place. She said it is the students who make the teacher, not the other way around. This new work has delighted and instructed and humbled me. In it, I depend on the regular ongoing supervision with Flint, that has deepened my understanding and enabled me to continue to grow and develop as a teacher.


In December 2006 I left AZC and traditional Japanese-style practice, having thoroughly and sincerely trained in it, and began devoting my efforts full time to the growing Ordinary Mind sangha.  We had incorporated as a non-profit in October, 2005. We began offering weekday morning zazen, Wednesday evening zazen and discussion, and one-day sittings to complement the regular Sunday morning program. We had already begun a blog (http://ordinarymindaustin.blogspot.com) and a flickr gallery to provide information for anyone who was interested.

In May, 2007, Flint began giving practice discussion at Ordinary Mind. I viewed this as a historic occasion, the beginning of a true teaching partnership with my revered teacher. He has since moved his teaching base to Ordinary Mind, to my enormous delight. He offers practice discussion, Tuesday inquiry groups, and classes here.


Flint had recommended that I take the Hakomi training, and we arranged the three-level training with Flint, Ron Kurtz, the founder of Hakomi, and Donna Martin as trainers, to meet at our Ordinary Mind space over the course of two years.  It is a marvelous training in attunement and mindfulness in relation to another, in support of their self-inquiry, quite essential for genuine teaching. I coordinated that training and completed it. During the training dates, John Daniewicz began offering our series of outdoor zazen, the Ordinary Mind Four Seasons series.


I have since also completed trainings in Right Use of Power, as facilitator, Spiral Dynamics,  and Appreciative Inquiry, as well as intensive study in Buddhism and psychotherapy, Dogen and other Zen teachers, both historical and contemporary, and in the Pali canon. Flint and I have worked with Mu Soeng, the resident scholar for the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. He has expressed a genuine appreciation for the Ordinary Mind model of Zen practice for contemporary lives. We have also studied and met with Peter Hershock, the Director of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, and author of Liberating Intimacy and Chan Buddhism.


In the summer of 2007 we began construction of a small house in back of the main house, as an office for Flint, with a kitchen to use during workshops, intensives, and retreats. The little house was completed in February of 2008, and Flint moved his work there. This proximity allows opportunities for easy informal conversations about the sangha and its development, our writing, and our teaching. This has been a tremendous benefit for the sangha. This year we again expanded our offerings, leading 3-day intensives and ongoing classes.


In February 2008, a devoted sangha member, Margaret Harrison, passed away, and we learned that she had named Ordinary Mind as the beneficiary of half of her estate. We were extremely fortunate in this remarkable gift, because in the middle of May, a terrible tornado and hailstorm destroyed the roof of the main house, all of the screens and awnings, broke large tree limbs,  and exploded a number of windows. These extensive repairs were undertaken in the spring and into the summer of 2008.


In the summer and fall of 2008, we began completing the landscape work where the construction of the little house and the storm had torn up the yard. We built a torii gate, a privacy fence, a fountain, plantings, and stone paths with boulder clusters. Meanwhile we continue to offer our teaching in individual practice discussion, in dharma talks, in classes, intensives, and community events. In May, 2009, we will offer our first five-day intensive, at Lotus Lake Zen Community, near Dallas. Flint has become much sought-after as an international teacher, while I generally support and maintain the ongoing daily life of the zendo and the sangha and its online presence. We began two courses in fall 2008: I am teaching a one-year program of exploration of the Buddhist Precepts, and Flint taught a 6-month course on Waking Up and Growing Up. These classes are experiential rather than academic. They also marked our first attempt at providing course material and recordings online for students at a distance. Over 40 students registered for each of these courses, some from countries all over the world.


We are exploring a new form of inquiry using writing, adapted from the Learning Record, a way of documenting learning for K-grad school learners. I have about 20 years of research and development of the K-college Learning Record (http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~syverson/olr). The new version we are pilot testing this year is called the Learning Record for Adult Development, and it is intended to help anyone engaged in any kind of developmental, psychological, therapeutic, spiritual, or transformational work look closely, document precisely, and understand deeply the process of changes they are experiencing. Flint and I are also in the midst of writing a book together, which is a great joy to me. This path, these two teachers, this sangha, and this work is the central focus of my life and teaching.


And this is where we are today.






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