North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY


by Patty Harvey

Photo of meditators on the Arcata Plaza( photo by Elizabeth Mackay )

TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, Siddartha Gautama of the Sakyas went for the whole enchilada, from conspicuous consumption to grinding, ascetic poverty and self-denial. Not finding that bliss of enlightenment touted by Hindu pundits, he followed his own path to the Bodi tree where he awakened to the Reality Within and became the Buddha. Such was the effulgence of his joy, wisdom and compassion that, although he never intended it, a major world religion was launched.

Of the estimated 100,000 American-born Buddhists in the United States, there has to be a healthy representation on the North Coast. Every major branch has dedicated adherents here practicing the gentle tenets of their teachers.

Humboldt County Buddhists practice meditation in small groups or in private and try to live "mindfully" in service to others. They are not greatly organized, mostly unaware of their own numbers and don't proselytize the teaching that brings light and kindliness into their lives.

Deborah Mendelsohn of Arcata has been following Vajrayana Buddhism since attending a weekend retreat two years ago in Junction City at Rigdzing Ling.

Off state Highway 299 at Dutch Creek Road in Trinity County, the 268-acre temple is on a mesa created in the last century by the ravages of hydraulic strip mining.

Today, the exposed plateau is landscaped and healing. At the entrance is a 30-foot monument representing the figure of Guru Rinpoche, responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet 1,200 years ago. He sits enthroned on a giant lotus in the center of a pond, shaded by an enormous sky-blue-ceilinged pagoda. The entire structure is a visual feast of electric color and undulating forms, from the golden face of the guru swathed in wooden, many-hued robes to the intricate carvings of the pagoda columns. In his hands he holds the essence of Vajrayana Buddhism, the vajra denoting the direct route to enlightenment, and a cup symbolizing a reality beyond birth, suffering and death.

Alongside the pond stands a row of 20-foot-high, elaborate "stupas" colorful wooden monuments housing religious relics and a giant prayer wheel, perpetually turning to enliven its inscribed mantras blessing the environment. The compound includes offices, a publishing house and what's known as Tara House, a new two-story building comprising shrine, temple, kitchen and guest rooms. A store sells everything from academic and sacred texts and icons to prayer beads and handmade clothing.

( Photo of Rigdzing Ling Templephoto by Patty Harvey )

Lama Zangpo (Robert Racine of Hayfork) is an easygoing man of gentle humor and impressive scholarship with a touch of venerable grey in his tied-back hair. On a lush lawn under gathering storm clouds, the warm wind snapping strings of prayer flags into action, Racine talked about the history of Tibetan Buddhism and about himself.

He met and studied 18 years in Oregon with his spiritual teacher, H. E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk and father of the Chagdud Foundation, a network of 22 centers in North and South America. At the main center in Junction City, Racine is manager of Padma Publishing and chairman of the Padma Translation Committee and an editor for Cambridge University Press.

A graduate art student, raised a Roman Catholic, he spent some 10 years looking for answers not readily available in western religion, art or philosophy. The study of eastern religion focused his attention on the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana Buddhism, "the diamond vehicle." Vajrayana offers techniques to advance one's spiritual quest to enlightenment, and thus the image of the diamond as an incisive, resolute tool.

Racine says "people suffer because the methods they use to find happiness don't produce lasting happiness. For anyone who looks at life and asks `What is life about, why am I here?' the big questions you must also ask yourself (are) `Am I just trying to make my life easy, or am I trying to get to the basis of what life is?'"

For himself, Racine says, "The practices of the path of Buddhism develop compassion and wisdom," inseparable aspects of Buddhist thought.

"With Buddhism, you don't `get' enlightened because somebody else `gives' it to you. You already have that enlightened Buddha nature, and by using the methods that the (Vajrayana) tradition teaches, you reveal that. (It's a) clear expression of what constitutes the nature of reality, a profound philosophy (and) a balanced perspective beyond extremes. That's the foundation of the teaching, `the Middle Way,' the ontology of everything."

Rigdzing Ling has another connection to Humboldt County through Harry Wells, Humboldt State University religious studies professor.

Wells draws from a broad spectrum of teachings in religious studies: Buddhist texts, the New Testament and religion and psychology. He spent a year in Sri Lanka, India, on a Fulbright Scholarship as a participant/observer under academics from two branches of Buddhism. Not a Buddhist in the sense of "having taken refuge" formally under a teacher, he says, "Buddhism informs my life, I see the world through Buddhist as well as Christian eyes."

The religious studies department takes groups of up to 75 students to a monastery in Ukiah, the City of 10,000 Buddhas and also to Rigdzing Ling. "(I have) seen changes in students' lives as a result of (starting) Buddhist practice students who have gone back to the sites and sat with teachers and who have taken refuge, becoming key figures in the local Buddhist community," Wells said.

The foundation for Vajrayana (typically Tibetan) practice is Mahayana Buddhism, the "great vehicle" for enlightenment. Mahayana spread gradually from India to China, Japan and Korea in the centuries after the time of Buddha. The Mahayana ideal is that of the Bodhisattva, or nearly enlightened ones, who delay full enlightenment until "all sentient beings" enter into nirvana (enlightenment, or the cessation of the cycles of birth and death). The familiar form in the United States of Mahayana comes from Japan in the form of Zen, popularized in the United States during the 1950s by such leaders as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who introduced Zen to the beat poets and writers of the '50s in San Francisco.

The earliest Humboldt County Buddhists were Zen enthusiasts who practiced in the old Arcata Creamery in 1974. HSU Professor Lloyd Fulton was a member of that group, called the Internal School and led by Zen master Ta Hui (Donald Gilbert), a Korean Zen master and founder of the Blue Dragon School of Zen.

Fulton laughs remembering the sittings at the creamery as being "kinda rough." The group had to clean up the building as a part of the work periods between "zazen," or Zen meditation.

Gilbert, now in his 90s, still comes occasionally to Humboldt County to speak to former students, while Fulton continues to be active in the Arcata Zen Center and has shared his home for numerous sesshins, or retreats.

The Arcata Zen center is a going concern. Its mentor is the Rev. Maylie Scott, ordained in the Soto Zen tradition and of the lineage of Suzuki Roshi.

Diminutive, gentle and serene, she is nevertheless characterized by Fulton as "a strong-willed and organized woman."

Head of practice at the San Francisco Zen Center, she is a member of the board of directors of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an international association of Buddhists engaged in social activism, and a mentor for the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement, BASE. She spent four years demonstrating at the Concord Naval Weapons Station against weapons transport where, she explains in an article for BASE, she "learned more about living the Middle Way how to persist in the midst of trouble with the purpose of an open heart."

Scott comes to Arcata twice a month to sit with her Zen group, which she says "is like a family. They are very dedicated to intensifying their practice."

Like many followers in the area, she would like to see the establishment of a permanent meditation facility, for "daily practice, for retreats and to possibly become a force for engaged Buddhist activity, a kind of center for social change, a place where different Buddhist groups could come together, perhaps with links to Buddhist students at HSU."

Impressed with Humboldt residents' "sense of independence, the deep feeling for the land and the people on it ... (the concern for ) environmental justice," Scott is planning to move to Arcata. As a result, said Gordon Anderson of the Arcata

Zen Center, "we can expect a more connected Sangha (Zen community). Arcata is ripe for it; it's going to evolve our group into a real organization. Scott will no doubt inspire groups interested in social action within the larger group."

Another Soto Zen group in the area is the Redwood Coast Serene Reflection Meditation Group, which is an offshoot of the Shasta Abbey in the town of Mount Shasta. Founded in 1970 by the late Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, it is home to 30 to 40 ordained priests.

The Abbey is a descendant of one of the very oldest Zen traditions. Jiyu-Kennett's master in Japan had asked her to keep the spirit of the practice but adapt some of its cultural aspects to Western ways. So, in a mix of East and West, the Japanese scriptures were translated into English and Jiyu-Kennett, a musician, set the liturgy to music, Gregorian chants.

In 1976, Professor Patrick Tam of HSU facilitated a program in McKinleyville for monks from Shasta Abbey to visit and teach. This group continues to meet regularly in members' homes with periodical support from Shasta Abbey monks.

Richard Kossow of Kneeland, a visiting municipal and superior court judge, and his wife, Ginger, have been practicing Buddhism for 10 years and are affiliated with the Community of Mindful Living in Berkeley. It was founded by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, a prodigious writer and powerful force for engaged Buddhism. His activities to resolve the VietNam conflict earned him expulsion from his fatherland. Coinciding with his return to the United States from France in September, the Kossows plan to facilitate a residential retreat here in September 1999, inviting dharma teachers from the Bay area monastery.

Mark Sommers of Arcata spent many years with Zen but eventually came to Vipassana, which he terms "less rigid, kinder. (It) lets go of the trappings of culture."

Sommers says he "has always respected Buddhism's lack of evangelical fervor. ... It's a quiet influence, without insisting that other people believe in it." Sommers echoes a basic Buddhist doctrine when he avers that "one should express belief through service to, and by not `saving' other sentient beings." As a writer and journalist for his Mainstream Media Project he does just that, devoting himself to bringing "new and better informed voices into the major national and international issues, to inject new ideas and voices into the mainstream."

Not many Buddhists in the area belong to static groups.

Ken Berman is a Loleta carpenter whose great-grandfather settled in Fortuna in the 1860s. Born in Marin, Berman first came to Southern Humboldt through connections with other Zen practitioners. Once the youngest Zen student at Tassajara, he spent seven years organizing retreats and sittings in the south county. He remembers "going up Salmon Creek, near Miranda. I used to drive back there some 15 miles and sit with a Soto Zen group. ... And there's the Vipassana group in Mendocino they came to Garberville and 30 people showed up to hear them talk ... (but) since there's no teacher (in the area), everyone has had to sit together, in small groups, Vajrayana and Zen. You don't find a lot of people sitting together, so it's kind of anarchistic. Besides, those dirt roads, they get to you!"

One of Berman's meditation buddies lives in Briceland, Mick Burkholder, a Zen practitioner since 1971. Although diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease three years ago, through his meditation practice Burkholder has learned to "reinvent, rediscover the mystery in life. "

"It helps me focus and gives me a way. ..."

"Out?" it is suggested.

"No, " he replies, "A way in. One thing I've discovered is that the path of Zen meditation has helped me to dismantle the belief system that accepts a diagnosis as a sentence. And it has led me to alternative practices, Taoist, Chi Kung, alternative medicine, all of which have helped me deal (with this condition). ... Everyday life for most people allows you to forget each day, to forget mortality. We all live under a sentence. ... It gives me strength and courage to face everyday life with humor, compassion and appreciation of mystery."

Burkholder's friend and neighbor since 1972, Tim Clark, is student of the Kagyu line of Vajrayana Buddhism. He studied Eastern religion, art and Sanskrit at UC Berkeley and traveled in India where he met Tibetans.

"I was taken by them. Despite their terrible circumstances as refugees from India, they are very happy, wise people. I wanted to find out how they got that way."

Trained as an architect, Clark now works creating and selling Tibetan prayer flags, which he says "is more fun, and I'm making more money, which gives me freedom to travel during the winter."

For Clark, "Meditation is the most long-reaching, most important thing in my life. Tibetan Buddhists have that answer and a path that helps you attain enlightenment quickly. There's no doubt in my mind that they know what happens after death. You can study meditation to help relieve stress, but beyond that it develops wisdom and insight about how the phenomenal world works."

Humboldt County's only authentic Japanese Zen temple, Daishu-in West, is perched on a hillside about four miles from Benbow. Daijo Shoko (Tom Minick of Montana) answered a request for an interview with an invitation to dinner, bath, meditation and overnight lodging.

German-born Ursula Jarand, Daijo's wife and cofounder of the temple, welcomes guests to the 40-acre parcel. A slender, quiet woman, her strong sense of organization is everywhere, from the immaculately weeded vegetable garden to the carefully stocked and arranged kitchen. Articulate and genuine, she explained how she and Daijo had spent some 18 years in Kyoto, Japan, as students of (and ultimately wedded by) Shoko Morinaga Roshi.

It was Roshi, of the Myoshin-ji lineage of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism (and for 30 years abbot of the Daishu Temple in Kyoto), who sent the couple to find land and inaugurate the temple.

Every inch of the compound is cared for by its two abbots and any long-term guests who come, free of charge, for the experience of temple life. Hand-built rock walls line perfectly raked paths. Bamboo and other lush plants lend an air of peaceful serenity. Clearly, work periods here are serious business.

The showpiece, formally dedicated two years ago, is the solid redwood temple shrine. Santa Cruz designer/builder Karl Berneis studied his craft in Japan for many years, making three trips to Kyoto to consult with Shoko Roshi before being assigned the Benbow project. Roshi died in 1985 without seeing the result.

The shrine stands by a lotus pond overlooking Panther Canyon. The muscular beams are fashioned by nail-free, precision joinery that gives a dual impression of permanence and delicacy. Rice paper sliding doors stand open so that inside and outside merge in a metaphor for meditation.

Daijo, with shaved head and contagious good humor, exudes pure friendliness. He is committed to his calling, understood from the age of 18, and now in its fullest expression.

"I don't really want to be away ... I will die here," he says cheerfully. "The job of the priest is to be at temple. The nature and goal of temple is to do daily routine. This is engagement."

The schedule is strict, even austere. Money is scarce, and although three years' effort yielded state and federal non-profit status, they must soon depend upon donations to survive.

After dinner and a hot tub, everyone met at the shrine for evening meditation, which lasts three hours. (We were given the choice of increments of 30 minutes sitting but opted to stay for the full period as night ushered in the smell of cooling grasses and the sound of frogs, crickets and foraging deer.)

At 4 a.m. Daijo's sutra recitation in Japanese could be heard across the compound. Subtle yet powerful, it resonated from the shrine, seeming to rise from the earth itself to fill the valley with benevolent blessing.

In the morning it was hard to leave. Goodbyes were said to the young Kyoto monk, Soho Mukai, who had bee