Les Kaye Roshi - Kannon Do Zen
ZEN AND THE ART OF BEING IN THE PRESENT: A TEACHER TALKS ON MEDITATION
Les Kaye, 60, is the roshi, or teacher, at Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View. Raised in a Jewish home in New York, Kaye moved to San Jose in 1956 to work as an engineer for IBM. He was introduced to Zen in the early '60s -- the radio lectures of Alan Watts had a keen effect on him -- and practiced meditation while raising two children with his wife, Mary, and pursuing his high-tech career.
When he was asked in 1983 to take over Kannon Do by its previous roshi, a Zen missionary from Japan named Kobun Chino, many of the center's members bolted. Kaye did not fit their image of the enlightened Zen master. But Zen has continued to grow into its new American skin. And Kaye has continued to lead a growing group of meditators at Kannon Do -- it means place of compassion -- who come to the deep silences of Zen amid the Silicon Valley rat race. We spoke in the Japanese-influenced garden that his wife, a landscape designer, created at their home in Los Altos.
Q. From the beginning, what is Zen?
A. Zen means meditation. Some people say Zen is an attitude. Some people say it's a way of life or that it's a philosophy. My feeling is that Zen is a continual spiritual practice in which one's every activity emanates or evolves from the meditation. The point of Zen is to continue with what we call bodhisattva mind in every daily activity. To be continually aware.
Q. And what is bodhisattva mind?
A. Bodhi means awake. Buddha means awake. And Zen practice says, Be awake! If you notice you're getting distracted, come right back. This is Zen: being alive, awake, in the present moment. All the time. Not just on Sundays or when you're sitting on your meditation cushion.
Q. The modern practice of Zen owes a lot to a teacher who lectured in this very house, right?
A. Yes, the Zen master who came from Japan in the 1950s and eventually founded the San Francisco Zen Center was named Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. Once a week -- this is before I lived here -- he came down from San Francisco to deliver a lecture in the garage, which had been turned into a meeting hall.
Suzuki-roshi wrote a book called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind which was warm, practical, encouraging. A classic. And it was taken from the lectures he delivered here. So this is kind of a shrine. Now what is beginner's mind ? We are all born with it. It lets you see things fresh every moment. This is the whole point of Zen -- to have beginner's mind.
Q. How has Zen been Americanized?
A. Women have an equal role. There are many female Zen teachers; not so in Asia. Zen has been democratized here. In Japan, what the roshi says, goes. Another change is that the meditation practice here is lay-oriented. In Japan, it's pretty much a monastic tradition. But when Zen hit this country, it wasn't priests who ran out to do it, it was us. We don't have very many monastic training sessions. People aren't interested. People want to practice Zen in their lives.
The irony is that in Japan the people who primarily do Zen are the monks who don't go out in the world. Few practice Zen, yet Japanese society has absorbed the peace and cooperation that come from Zen. Its spontaneous spiritual quality has permeated the culture: the art, the calligraphy, the workplace.
Here in America, we do go out in the world. And yet the biggest question I hear from people is, How do I take this practice into my everyday life? I hear lots of stories and anecdotes which go like this: Everything's fine while I'm sitting on the mat. I'm at peace. I'm aware. I hear the birds. I hear the sounds. Then I go out on the freeway and I lose it. It's a big question: How do I hold on to this?
Q. What do you tell them?
A. The first step is to notice that you're distracted. The second step is to come back. Come back to an awareness of what's happening in the present moment, not to something that's happened in the past, not to something that may happen in the future, or to an invented present reality that you're fantasizing about. Come right back and experience the cold. There's a saying in Buddhism:When you're cold, be cold Buddha. Be fully awake in the moment. It's the only reality you have, so appreciate it.
Q. Zen is said to be beyond words, beyond the mind. But if it's so profoundly anti-intellectual, why does it attract so many intellectuals?
A. It may be that they realize their analytic thought processes have not answered their questions about life. So they come to this practice that says, That's right. You've got to stop intellectualizing to find the answers. They've gone overboard. It's time to stop seeing the world as a technological problem to be solved.
Intellect cannot touch ultimate truth. That's why Zen is so filled with stories about seeing a peach blossom or hearing a stone hit a fence. Your mind is free from conceptual thinking -- free to accept the world. That often happens early in the morning before the mind clicks into gear. It's very peaceful, isn't it? That's the sort of thing you experience in the midst of meditation. Then the busy day rushes in, but it stays in the background.
Q. Do people look at Zen as therapy?
A. Unfortunately, many people see it as one more technique to solve their personal problems. Well, you know, I really need to know how to relax. I get depressed a lot. That's a big misunderstanding of spiritual practice. It may have that effect. Maybe you'll be calmed, relaxed. But we should see Zen practice as nothing more than an expression of our inherent spirituality.
Q. Who comes to Zen?
A. I would say people start coming in their mid-30s. They've settled down a little, they're starting to see a direction in their life, and they turn to spirituality. Who am I? What's going on? These can be people who are successful; life is well-oiled for them. Or they can be people who are unhappy; things aren't coming together. When I started, I was on a fast track. Fat city. Lovely wife. Great job. But something -- something was missing. Big doubt. What's going on? I'm doing everything people tell me, but something's wrong.