The following is a transcript of a talk I had with Genjo Marinello, who heads up Choboji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Seattle, Washington. I was at Choboji in mid-June, and felt very welcome at the temple, even though I was a mess during meditation the following morning (as I've written before, the Japanese way of handling zazen is markedly different from the Korean way of approaching ch'am-seon). The transcript has been edited for style and content. The original recording is not currently available online.
KEVIN: I think we're go.
GENJO: All right!
KEVIN: OK. Well, first off, I'm acquainted with the Korean pronunciation of a lot of Chinese characters, but "Genjo" means what?
GENJO: It could mean several things. The two characters in my name, given to me by my ordination teacher quite some time ago now, back in 1979, are the characters gen and jo. Gen, in this case, is the character sometimes translated as "heavenly silence"; it could be translated as "essential mystery"; the most literal translation is "the black before black before black."
KEVIN: Huh. Interesting.
GENJO: And gen-cha, in Japanese, is very black tea. And jo is the character for "realize." So: "realizing the black before black before black" is my name.
KEVIN: So then, having put those two characters together, "realizing the black before black before black," what does that mean?
GENJO: A dharma name is something you aspire to, and in this case, I aspire to the realization of what is the mystery of the universe, and he [i.e., the ordination teacher] saw some potential in me back then, that I would be able to experience in an intuitive way and relate with the mystery of the universe. So that was his dharma name for me-- that I would be someone who not only could intuit what the black before black before black was, but share it with others.
KEVIN: OK. How does one share something like that?
GENJO: We're doing it right now. You know, it doesn't have to be through words; just through the presence of one's ordinary activity would be best. But certainly, and also in dharma talks, trying to explain the ancient dialogues between masters and disciples, and making, say, ancient Chinese poetry accessible to modern American idiom.
KEVIN: Is that part of what happens here at your community?
KEVIN: I notice you're wearing an aikido shirt. [NB: I don't want to give the impression that Genjo was sitting on his front porch while wearing a full-dress aikido uniform, which might be a breach of aikidoka etiquette; he was, instead, wearing a shirt with some sort of aikido logo on it, and this had caught my eye.] When I was walking up here, I saw there was an aikido--
KEVIN: Dojo. And when I was in Bellingham, there was an aikido dojo very close to the Red Cedar Zen Center. It's just a random connection, but it makes me wonder: do you have any connections with those communities?
GENJO: I do. Morihei Ueshiba O Sensei was the founder of aikido in Japan, of that particular martial art form, which [essentially] blends judo and kendo, which is sword. And he very much was taken with Zen, and didn't insist, but invited his senior students to also practice Zen. And most of the major art forms in Japan, anyway, turned to Zen as an augmentation of that art form, so whether it's martial arts or the high arts of calligraphy or painting or pottery-making or flower-arranging or whisking tea, they all turned to Zen as a way to augment or nurture their art form, and this was no exception when it came to O-Sensei [and] aikido; some of his senior students in the West have followed that, and I'm sort of the aikido-- I'm the Zen master that the aikidoists use, at least with a particular branch. There are many branches of aikido, in the same way that there are many branches of Zen. But there's something called the Birankai International branch of aikido, and I'm their Zen teacher.
KEVIN: Oh, OK. So does that mean that you visit the dojo and do your teaching there, or do they come here?
GENJO: Both. Our most intensive retreat is in the winter, and at our winter retreat, very often, senior students and instructors from Birinkai International will travel from all over the world to come to our retreat here in Seattle. It's also true that I go to Michigan, Pennsylvania, San Diego, Birmingham, England, and Strasbourg, France, and teach Zen to aikidoists in those locations.
KEVIN: Oh, wow! Fantastic! In France... you speak French?
GENJO: No, but I have good translators.
KEVIN: Oh, that's good. I was reading a book that came out in [French] first, and then it came out in English maybe a year or so later. It's called The Monk and the Philosopher. It was a dialogue between father and son: Jean-François Revel, the French humanist philosopher, and Mathieu Ricard, his son, who became a monk in the Tibetan tradition, and is the Dalai Lama's French interpreter whenever the Dalai Lama goes to France.
GENJO: Oh, how interesting!
KEVIN: I think the dialogue was mainly about how the father couldn't really understand why his son, who had been on a path toward science, suddenly switched gears and went into Buddhism. For you, what-- are you a cradle Buddhist, or--
GENJO: I'm a cradle nothing. My parents were both fallen-away Catholics, as they were married to other people when I was born, so that didn't sit too well with the Catholic Church on either side of that family, and my mother was afraid that if she let me too close to the Church, I would've been a priest, so the standard joke in my family, from my mother, is: "I shoulda' let you become a priest. At least then, you'd have hair!" And--
KEVIN: So in your strain of Zen here, you can't have hair.
GENJO: We shave our heads.
KEVIN: You do that, like, every two weeks or so, or--
GENJO: Oh, no; every few days.
KEVIN: Every few days. [At] many Korean temples, they do it every two weeks, like a big shaving event.
GENJO: Yeah, in Japan, it's on any day that has a 4 or a 7. I don't know why, but any day-- so the 4th, the 7th--
KEVIN: The 24th--
GENJO: Right. The 14th, the 17th...
KEVIN: Interesting. So, here, what-- would I call this building that we're sitting at now... would you consider this a temple, or what should I call this?
GENJO: We call it a temple. It's really more like a city center. It's not formally a temple, it doesn't look like a temple, it doesn't act formally like a temple would in Japan or Korea or Vietnam, but it's a little bit more on the temple side than it is on the center side. Basically, this is the Zen house, where my wife and I and the two dogs live, and there's one student who lives here, too, and then the group comes every day to sit, and four times a year, we do a week-long retreat.
KEVIN: This group is the one I'll be meeting tomorrow?
KEVIN: OK. How big is the group?
GENJO: Our mailing list is a hundred; our active paying membership is about forty; the number of people who will be here tomorrow morning, on any given morning-- about a dozen.
KEVIN: You told me about your aikido affiliation, but your strain, uh... how would you describe that affiliation?
GENJO: My sect of Buddhism?
KEVIN: Well, yeah, I guess that, and any specific organizations you belong to.
GENJO: Well, this temple, as I am, [is] in the Rinzai form, which would be Lin Chi in Chinese--
KEVIN: Im-jae in Korean.
GENJO: Right. So we're in that sect of Buddhism. And then within the Japanese stream, we're subsection Hakuin, so we're a Rinzai-Hakuin line. We're loosely affiliated-- we're definitely associated and loosely affiliated, though there isn't a direct financial link or directorial link, but we're associated with one of two Hakuin-Rinzai monasteries in the United States. There's an active one in Los Angeles and another active one in New York. And there is one on Whidbey Island that's also Rinzai Zen, but the teacher comes only twice a year. There are residential teachers in New York and Los Angeles: Joshu Sasaki-roshi in Los Angeles and Eido Shimano-roshi in New York. And of those two mother temples here in the United States of the Japanese Hakuin-Rinzai line, I'm most closely associated with the New York Zendo.
KEVIN: OK. So "Genjo" is how I should address you? You say it's your dharma name--
GENJO: The complete title would be "Genjo Osho"; "Genjo Osho-san" would be the most formal.
KEVIN: (repeating) Genjo Osho-san.
KEVIN: You speak Japanese? You trained in Japan?
GENJO: I was trained in Japan, briefly, and I speak a little Japanese. (speaks in Japanese)-- which means, "I humbly beseech you, I really don't speak much Japanese at all."
KEVIN: I caught the "ma-sen"-- "don't," "not," negation.
GENJO: That's right.
KEVIN: And "nihongo"-- I caught that part, too. I don't speak any Japanese at all. When I went to Japan [once], I had to stay for a day. I was in Fukuoka because I was changing my visa status. I don't know very many kanji, and I don't speak a lick of Japanese, so it was the first time I'd ever felt totally lost. I'd been in Korea, and so, going to Japan, I saw a lot of things that looked similar, but it was really a cool feeling to just kind of realize: "I can't say anything to anybody!"
GENJO: Of course, they looked at you and probably thought that you might be able to say something.
KEVIN: That's-- that's possible. Well, actually, in Korea, though, they don't look at me and see a Korean. They usually just see an American.* Whereas when I was in France, they saw: "Vous avez l'air asiatique," you know-- "You look Asian." That was the first thing they caught on [to].
GENJO: Clearly, you speak French.
KEVIN: Yeah, I was a French teacher.
KEVIN: So, all right, let's turn a little bit to interreligious issues, because I have a feeling tomorrow, in a half-hour, I'm not gonna be able to get much substance in that [time]. Your background is very interesting.
GENJO: Pretty unchurched.
KEVIN: "A cradle nothing," as you said. "Pretty unchurched"... oh, so you're familiar with that term! I thought that only Christians tossed that around.
GENJO: Well, I still grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, so I understand the things, and about the same time I found Zen, or a few years after, I found Quakers. So I'm also a Quaker.
GENJO: And I'm a member of the University Friends Meeting here in town.
KEVIN: You do self-identify as a Quaker--
KEVIN: As well as a Zen master?
GENJO: Correct. And there are a number of Quakers from the University Friends Meeting who sit here at the temple. So there's definitely a crosscurrent there. There's also a UCC minister, who'll probably be here tomorrow morning; an Episcopal priest, a woman, who comes here to sit; there's people who have a Jewish background who come here to sit...
KEVIN: What do you think these people are doing this for? These people coming from very specific traditions, they sit zazen here. Why are they doing that?
GENJO: You know, meditation, whether it's called "centering prayer," or it's called "contemplation," or it's called "meditation"... my attitude is that it all gets to the same place.
In many Christian traditions, prayer or contemplation or centering prayer is not terribly strong-- not nearly as strong as it's been handed off in the Buddhist tradition. And even Quakers, who are used to having an hour in silence, sort of once or twice a week... you know, we do an hour of silence every single day. So even for Quakers, who are a contemplative branch of Christianity, it's not as sharply honed.
So I think a number of people who want a contemplative part of their religious spiritual life can turn to Zen, and either identify as Buddhists or not, but use the tools that have been handed off from the Zen tradition as a way to deepen their spirituality, period. And whether that spirituality is Christian-based or Buddhist-based doesn't much matter to the people who come. It's deepening their sense of touching the divine, however they define it-- spirit, Ground of Being, however they define it.
And we're not so tightly wound up in words or definitions, especially in the Zen tradition; we're much more interested in the experience, and the commonality of the experience, at least from my reading and my cross-religious endeavors. The genuineness and universality of the experience seems to be anywhere and everywhere. Zen just happens to have the tools that appeal most to me, that help me, speaking for myself, go the deepest quickest, or more solidly, in a rooted way. I obviously am a Buddhist in the sense that I'm a Zen Buddhist priest, but I don't really cling to definitions of what "-ist" I am-- Christian or Buddhist or... that seems so, to me, superficial, and I think [that's true for] many others who come here.
I think the point, at least for the people who come to this temple, is that it [i.e., Zen practice] provides a kind of-- for them-- a direct route to their own sense of the divine and spirituality, and they take that and put it into their ordinary lives, hopefully, and it augments, hopefully, whatever religious tradition they're from, if they're from any. There are many who aren't from any.
KEVIN: I've been talking with other people about that. In Korean, the label for such people is mu-gyo, mu meaning, you know, "not" or "no"--
KEVIN: --and gyo meaning "-ism," tradition, or whatever. You don't belong in any particular... you don't fit into one of those squares.
GENJO: So even though we do very definitely fit into a certain square in terms of tradition, we understand that the tradition is handing off tools, and the tools bring us to a place of no-religion or non-religion. So I like that character mu a lot, of course. In Zen, we use that quite a lot--
KEVIN: The very first koan, right?
GENJO: Yes, indeed. One of your questions on your essay was "What metaphor do you use for the differences between religions?", and I want to give you mine.
KEVIN: Oh, good! Yes! Please! That's a religious pluralism question. I'd love to talk about that all day.
GENJO: To me, the great religious traditions are like trees. They may be entirely different species of trees, but they've all got great trunks, great roots, and beautiful canopies. They may be very different species of tree, but they're still trees. They reach towards the same source, in terms of the water table, and they reach towards the same light. So they stretch in both directions, and they're both trees; they've got a lot more in common than what separates them, and yet they're distinctly and uniquely different. You wouldn't want to say, "Well, because I've got this tree, I don't wanna have that tree." Why can't we have an olive tree and a pine tree and a eucalyptus tree, all right here in the yard? Yeah, that makes better variety! But they do still reach toward the same water table, exactly the same water table, and exactly the same light, and to me, that's how I see different religions.
In terms of Zen and Quakerism, for me again, just speaking for myself, if you thought of two trees of different species, great trees, reaching down to the same water table and the same light, and they're on different banks of the same river-- pretty different, and yet, where their branches intermingle and just gently blend-- for me, [that's] Quakerism and Zen.
Also, people have asked me, "Well, how can you do two traditions at once?" And I say, "Well, I have two legs! I get by just fine with two legs. In fact, I walk better with two legs. You don't have to have one leg; it's perfectly fine to have two legs."
KEVIN: Um... where did I wanna go with that... The question of the same source and the same light: would you apply that to just the major religious traditions that are out there, or would you apply [that] to even some of the wackier stuff that's around? I'm being a little bit difficult on purpose, here.
GENJO: I really can't say and I don't want to venture, because there's only two traditions that I've explored. I mean, I've done reading in Taoism and Islam and Judaism, and from what I can see-- very superficially, because I haven't delved into them greatly-- the great religious traditions do all do that [i.e., reach toward the same water and light], but I haven't explored sufficiently the others to say. I have no right to say. The only ones I have experience with to some degree are Zen and Quakerism. On those two fronts, I can say, because I'm practicing both traditions.
KEVIN: So there are at least two trees in this forest.
GENJO: There are at least two; I think I see many more. And whether it's a relatively new tree, or trunk of a tree, time will tell. But unless I investigated more directly, how could I say?
KEVIN: Right. I think one of my questions, probably not a very good question for you and for this community, was about marrying outside of the community and so on...
GENJO: (chuckling) Uh, yeah; probably moot. People want me to marry them, and they're from two different traditions, I'm happy-- I've done several ceremonies where we've had a priest from both traditions, or as the priest, I've mixed in elements from two traditions. I've had many people who would normally identify as agnostic, but have some sense that there's some unifying reality, turn to Zen and to Zen priests because they want something more than just a secular union, but they don't want something with too many trappings of the religions that they grew up in, and yet they do sense some kind of unifying reality that they want to speak to in the course of this ceremony. And I'm happy to do [it] that way, too. I say, "You can have anything on the altar you want." It can be a rock, it can be a tree... I ask that there be flowers, representing compassion, and a candle, representing wisdom. But anything else they want to put on there is fine.
KEVIN: Do you do some counseling for people, whether it's couples or one-on-one?
GENJO: Mm-hm. I do.
KEVIN: How does that work, usually, I mean, you don't have to go into specific cases, but just in general...
GENJO: Well, first of all, since I am a Zen Buddhist priest, I'm not gonna marry somebody that wants an entirely secular ceremony. I say, "Hey, look: here are some kinds of ceremonies that I've done, and can you pick and choose with what I've done to make something that works for you?" And if it doesn't [work out], then it's not a good fit, and, you know, you may need to go someplace else to find someone to help you celebrate a "spiritual" ceremony. I don't care if they call it "religious." There's a place on the marriage license that says, "Is it secular or religious?" and I always check "religious" if I'm doing the marriage. But in terms of counseling, mainly I'm looking at whether or not-- I don't care what traditions they're coming from, or whether they promise to bring up their kids in the Buddhist tradition or some other tradition. I'm trying to find out whether or not, as a couple, they have some common ground when it comes to their ideas of spirituality. And also, whether or not they have common ground as a couple: are they missing something that I might be able to help them see? And is this gonna be a couple that I feel [has a] sufficient bond to celebrate? If I don't feel like there's a sufficient bond, then I wanna work with them a bit to discover whether or not there is, then [if there's no such bond] I don't wanna get involved, either.
KEVIN: You're talking mainly about up to the marriage, right? I think my question was more along the lines of, uh, afterward-- you know: conflict arises or something... have you engaged in that--
GENJO: I've done that, too, from the Buddhist perspective, but I'm also certified as a spiritual director, and I'm also a licensed mental health counselor, so I've got quite a bit of background in that way. I have a private[?]** practice, but I also see people wearing either my Zen Buddhist hat or my therapist hat or my spiritual director hat. So yes, I do do that kind of counseling.
KEVIN: I'm curious as to how that works in Korea. I know it [i.e., counseling by Buddhist clergy] happens. I've seen ads for that sort of thing-- some smiling monk, a little phone number, but I don't know how that differs or how it's similar to psychotherapy as traditionally imagined in the West...
GENJO: I suspect it's very different, but I don't know, because I haven't been to Korea, or recently to Japan, even, to know. Here's another thing: I think Buddhism-- as it's moved from its original source, India, and has moved across the Asian continent to the US-- has picked up things, especially the branch of Zen Buddhism. When it moved to China, it picked up a lot of Taoism, and when it moved to Japan, it also picked up quite a bit of the Shinto sort of animistic ancestral component. I don't know whether it [i.e., Buddhism] did that in Korea, too. And as it moves here to the West, I think it's picking up a lot of psychology. And I think that's a wonderful blending, and it says a lot for the tradition that it's kind of, "Oh! That can be added to this! We can see how that can blend." It's a big jump to blend with whatever is indigenous to that location. I really like that about Buddhism.
KEVIN: I think a lot of religions, when they move from place to place, culture to culture, whatever, they do begin to pick up some trappings from the local--
KEVIN: I mean, if you go to Tibet, you see a lot of shamanism inside Tibetan Buddhism--
[Editor's note: I said the above so glibly that you might get the impression I've been to Tibet. Full disclosure: the only Asian country I've visited or lived in is South Korea. I've spent a day in Fukuoka, Japan, and several hours in Osaka and the Namba shopping district, but none of that really counts; in all cases, I was merely waiting for a new visa from the Korean Consulate or on layover as I waited for a connecting flight to Seoul/Incheon. So, no: I've never been to Tibet, or to any Asian country other than South Korea.]
GENJO: Exactly. And even Christianity, when it moved to South America or Central America, picked up a lot of indigenous components--
KEVIN: Right, right. Absolutely. The question of conflict spurred by religion: what's your diagnosis? I mean, if I take something like, say, Nigeria-- Christian-Muslim [conflict]-- how would you analyze that situation?
GENJO: As Buddhism in general would: that it's ego. Ego can corrupt anything. Whether it's individualistic ego or nationalistic ego or cultural ego, ego corrupts everything. Ego's all about having enough or having more, or being better, or being best. It can take the highest teaching and easily corrupt it to its cause of being better or best or more. And whether it appears in an individualistic way, or a more sophisticated or complex social, cultural, or nationalistic way, it's still ego. From the Buddhist perspective, it is the root of all so-called evil. It's where we get most corrupted. In Zen we would also say ego is nothing but no-ego; it's just one end of a continuum, but we so often get isolated in just that end of the continuum that we become quite corrupted and can do quite a lot of harm, nationalistically or even environmentally: raping the planet, our own mother. So whether it's conflict between natural resources, or conflict between nations, or conflict between cultures, or conflict between religions, from a Buddhist perspective, it all comes back to ego.
KEVIN: That sounds a little bit similar to a dharma talk I heard in Korea. There's an American monk there named Hyeon Gak [NB: romanized spellings vary: Hyun Gak, Hyon Gak, Hyungak, Hyeongak, etc.; credit to The Marmot's Hole, where I first saw this video]-- I don't know if you've heard of him. He's got some videos on-- some people put them up on YouTube and so on. He speaks fluent Korean; he's been living there for years and years now. He was talking about flipping channels-- watching the news on one channel, and he saw the people [on TV] were really angry and holding up their holy book and-- [mimics a demonstrator screaming in anger while holding up a holy book]-- like that, neck cords out and everything... and then he flipped the channel over to a conflict in America, and it was about the Ten Commandments being put into a courtroom, and the people were standing outside, demonstrating, and they had their holy book, and they were doing this [mimics angry demonstrator again] and he was like, "You know... it's the same thing." Pretty much the same thing. So I see where you're coming from.
OK, so, uh, I don't wanna hold you much longer, but one more question: What is God?
GENJO: The lovely thing about Zen is that we can say, "No-knowing." Beyond any kind of packaging. Even to use the word "God" or "Buddha-nature" or "Tao" or "dharma" or "sunyata" or "Ground of Being"-- anytime you put a name on something, you're already conceptualizing something that can't be conceptualized, that is inconceivable. And if it's not inconceivable, you've missed it, and if it's inconceivable, it cannot be grasped. So we're quite comfortable saying, "No-knowing," and there's actually a great relief in being able to say, "Can't be known. Cannot be said." But that doesn't mean it can't be experienced. It can definitely be experienced.
KEVIN: It should be, probably, the most ordinary thing, right?
GENJO: It is the most ordinary thing, if we have the eyes to see it or ears to hear it.*** It's the most ordinary thing, clanging at us in the wind chime or the motion of the leaves or the falling rain. It's shouting at us all the time, but usually we don't see it. However, the good news is there are ways to nurture our capacity to see what we think of as the divine in the ordinary, and that's exactly what Zen is all about. And when you have that experience, that realization of the divine in the ordinary, it's not only a relief, it's a blessing. It certainly generates a great deal of compassionate open-heartedness and peace of mind at the same time. If you're feeling that, you don't need to know.
KEVIN: Again, that's very similar to what I heard from Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was the teacher of the American monk I talked about before. He [Seung Sahn] wrote a book called Only Don't Know. "You have to keep that don't-know mind!" That's how he put it.
Well, I have a thousand more questions I could ask you, but I think I'll stop here and let you go.
GENJO: I'll let you get a good rest. I think your quest and your trek are really quite admirable. Happy to host you. See you tomorrow morning.
That marks the end of the recorded exchange between Genjo and me. I hope you've enjoyed reading it. I wish I had recorded the subsequent conversation with Genjo's meditation group; I didn't take notes and can no longer rely upon my shaky memory to relay who said what during that fascinating exchange (which, unlike my prediction, did turn out to be substantive).
I'll be writing some commentaries about this exchange as time goes on; in the meantime, I'll continue to prep the transcript of the hour-long dialogue between Brother Luke and me at St. Martin's University. Can't say when that will appear, but it'll appear. Sit tight.
Oh, by the way... this post is Number 500! We're at the half-millennium mark.
*This was one of those regrettable racial slips that comes from hanging around Koreans, especially older-generation Korean-Americans or Koreans in Korea (i.e., Koreans who haven't been fully assimilated into American culture). The word "American" is often a substitute for "Caucasian" or "white" in the Korean mind. All other races are swept under the rug. If you find yourself hanging around Koreans, you might find yourself sucked into this same linguistic vortex... unless, of course, you're a non-white American! If you hear a 50-year-old ajumma in Annandale, Virginia say, "Yeah, my daughter's dating an American guy," that probably means, "My daughter's dating a white guy."
**I wasn't clear, in listening to the audio, on whether the word was "private" or "prior." I think "private" makes more sense in this context. Genjo...?
***Compare what Genjo says here with Hyeon Gak's Jesus quotation (I'll need to dig up a scriptural reference, but quick online research reveals one possibility to be Mark 8:18, in which Jesus seems to phrase the eyes/ears matter as a question, not a declaration) from the above-linked video of the Hyeon Gak interview.