By Roshi Nancy Mujo Baker, 2000
I am one of those who find Japanese architecture and interior design extraordinarily beautiful. This has been true for a long time. In the very early days of my practice Japanese style surroundings seemed to be a necessary part of zazen, even if in a big old landmark house in Riverdale, New York. It wasn’t a monastery in Japan, but ZCNY did its best to imitate one. This worked as long as you didn’t look at the walls and the ceiling in the zendo and the stairway and the carpets outside the zendo. I remember reading in one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s books that you ought to be able to sit next to garbage cans. Yes, yes, of course, how cool, but actually I couldn’t imagine myself doing such a thing. It was also hard to imagine sitting somewhere where there was traffic to be heard as was true of the first zendo in which I learned to sit zazen. Even though the walls and ceilings of the amazing house in Riverdale didn’t fit the bill perfectly, at least we had trees and great expanses of lawn outside as well as a small glimpse of the Hudson River. Recently Barbara Wegmuller gave me the website address for Felsentor in Switzerland. Standing in the gardens surrounding a perfectly gorgeous Zendo, apparently constructed exactly as they are in Japan, one sees in the distance an unbelievable panorama of mountains and water. I hope I get there some day, though probably now sitting in the zendo will be less important than walking around the gardens and hanging out with the view.
What exactly was needing a particular kind of place in which to sit all about? When I look back on it, I can remember something about the ordered, simple, beautiful space of a zendo making me feel ordered, simple, possibly even beautiful. And then there were the sitting robes and a particular posture finally mastered. All of this contributed to a very satisfying self-image—not exactly what zazen is all about. It makes me think of Master Ummon shouting at his monks that when they sit they “sit with a sit-view.” Eventually, I realized that I was hitching a ride on the zendo—and it had to look like a zendo. There were two of us: the one learning to sit and the one ‘viewed,’ looking a particular way in a particular surrounding.
One day in the early years before the Berlin Wall had fallen, we were visited by an East German Lutheran pastor. He talked to us about his sitting group. Getting together for such a purpose was actually against the law! He and his friends had to hide in various basements and often change the places where they met. He expressed such a longing to sit, such gratitude that there even was such a thing. It was a privilege to be able to sit together, no matter where and to be willing to risk getting caught. I will never forget that evening. It really changed something in me. The photograph of Gary Snyder in the 70’s sitting alone in the dust outside a chain link fence around some nuclear military something or other had a similar effect on me.
That, of course, was followed, thanks to Bernie, by several years of learning to sit no matter where. After the house in Riverdale, was sold, we sat in the basement of a little house in Yonkers. When that space was needed we moved to the floor above the bakery in a bad section of town. We shared the open floor with the offices and as time went on the ‘zendo’ became smaller and smaller as more room for the desks was needed. There was some traffic outside, but more noticeable was the yelling unmentionable words from the bar below. After that we sat on rocks at School 6, an old Yonkers school abandoned because of asbestos. After sitting each morning, instead of sweeping and polishing the beautiful wood of a Japanese style zendo, we picked up the beer cans, condoms and needles left the night before on the sidewalk that ran along the school yard. And then, of course, there was sitting on the selection site of Auschwitz for six days. I had come a long way from ‘sitting with a sit-view.’
The No Traces Zendo is nowhere. We sat for awhile in a church basement. We couldn’t use zafus and zabutons because the floor was too wet, so we sat in a circle on folding chairs. Now a small group of us sit on chairs in my small living room once a week. Once a month we have a zazenkai, a day sit, at Sheila Hixon’s wonderful house on the Hudson in Riverdale. The zafus and zabutons are stored there, so we push back the furniture in the large living room and set up a zendo. A few times a year we use the Grail, a lovely house that sleeps 25 about an hour and a half from New York City. We’ve made a careful map on the living room—of precisely where the rug is, the furniture and lamps—so after taking everything out of the living room we’ll know exactly how to put it back. This is probably the closest we will every come to a ‘real’ zendo. We are renters and pride ourselves on leaving no traces. But without fail every time we’re there someone manages to leave some personal item behind. It’s become sort of a joke that No Traces always leaves something. We were guests at the church and we are guests at Sheila’s. In my living room I’m not sure what we are. We all live far from one another, so last year we began a practice of a virtual sitting together early Monday mornings, each in our own homes.
Having no home has been a wonderful practice. It’s probably not an accident that my favorite 20th century Japanese Zen Master is Homeless Kodo. He had no temple. What holds us together is sitting together no matter where or how. In addition to sitting our main practice over the years has been group work, a talking practice we do, where we have learned to be completely open with one another. One evening last year we sat together in my 3rd floor city garden for about an hour in silence watching an amazing sunset in the direction of the Hudson River. A few weeks ago on a very icy zazenkai morning at Sheila’s 3 of us were able to make it and drank tea together at 6:30am. Eventually we were joined by various people and we just stayed in Sheila’s warm kitchen where we all had an unplanned, quiet but, not silent breakfast together. Then we went into the living room and without making it a zendo, we just turned a motley collection of chairs around to face the river and sat together in silence watching the ice floes go by. The whole morning was actually just zazen.