All photos by Peter Cunningham, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Roshi Peter Muryo Matthiessen was a master novelist, naturalist, and literary voice for nature—an acclaimed activist concerned with ecological issues, and the rights of indigenous peoples, social justice. He was a Zen teacher—a Zen Master, a Buddhist priest—Zen Buddhist priest, and founder of The Paris Review. He has written over thirty fiction and nonfiction books, and a plethora of powerful, deeply researched and artfully crafted articles. He was my first Dharma successor. And I gave him inka, that is, he became a Zen Master in January of ’97.
I first met him in 1976 at the opening ceremony for Dai Bosatsu Zendo, in the Catskills of New York. He told me that he wanted to leave his studies with Eido Shimano Roshi, and was looking for a new teacher, and we talked. And he said he would like to come study with Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles. So we set that up, and he started to do that. He lived in New York at that time (and until he passed away just a few days ago, April 5th, 2014)—has lived in the same place in Long Island, in the Hamptons—Sagaponack.
So he started to travel to Los Angeles, to come to Zen Center of Los Angeles to study with my teacher Maezumi Roshi. And since I was also teaching at the time, he was also studying with me. And he was one of the reasons that I moved back to New York—the state in which I was born—in December of ’79. There were a number of students asking me to move back to New York, and ready to start study, and he was one of them. And in fact [he] came on board of the Zen Community of New York in ’78, as we were starting to form how the Zen Community of New York would look.
And from the beginning, he was one of the stronger students I had. He was studying all the time, coming to all the retreats, and in fact, he became my major student. And accompanied me in all of the Bearing Witness type events that I started to do. He was on the first three retreats. He was on our first Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz. He came again, then later on, came again.
And during the first retreat at Auschwitz, it so moved him, he decided to write a book about (as he said at the time) about human nature. That book is almost out. It’s been published, and this is April 7th, I believe the book comes out in about one week. And it’s already had wonderful reviews.
He decided to ordain, and did that with my teacher Maezumi Roshi. I helped in that ceremony, and I’ll be posting various pictures, and some of them are his novice priest ceremony. And he ordained in Riverdale at the Zen Community of New York. And we were calling this center—the facility was called Greyston. He ordained in ’81. And he was going to be the first head, or senior priest that I was to have—in a three-month training program, in New York.
And so before that, I thought it would be good to do a pilgrimage to Japan with him, to go to all of the various places that figure in my lineage. And also, since he was such a wonderful poet, and writer, and naturalist, we also followed the trail of Basho, the famous Japanese poet and naturalist. And that was quite an amazing trip. We continued each day to do Koan study together. And that resulted in a book he wrote called The Nine-Headed Dragon River.
We came back. We had the training—the three-month training program, which he led. And then he became the first senior student—senior priest—at the Zen Community of New York.
He’s an amazing person—a very humble person. You know, he had done so much, written so much, had so many awards, and knew so many people. But he was very serious about his Zen studies, as well of course as all his work with particularly the Lakota, but various indigenous groups; with the environment; with the causes of the fisherman. He worked with Cesar Chavez, in union farm issues—very serious and very humble. You never heard him dropping names or resting on his laurels.
I love the man. I’ll always love the man.
And I want to end with two episodes. At the age of eighty, he was going home and it was a dark night, and a deer jumped out. And as they sometimes do, he hit the deer with his car. And he felt fatally wounded, and the deer limped away into the forest. And Peter was eighty, I believe at the time had some problems with his foot, but the thought of this poor deer dying a slow death—a painful death—really disturbed him. So he stopped his car, got out of the car, crawled into the woods to find the deer, and ended his life so that he wouldn’t be in misery. This is at the age of eighty.
He died at the age of eighty-seven. And his senior priest, Sensei Michel Engu Dobbs—a wonderful man who I feel will carry on Peter’s work in the zendo in a beautiful way—Michel spent much of the last few days with Peter. And Peter was already—he was in the hospital, he was on a lot of morphine—he was dying. And the last few days he didn’t speak. He didn’t speak. And he died on Saturday. And he came home from the hospital on Friday, to die at home in hospice. And Thursday night, Engu Michel was with Peter at the hospital. And as I said, Peter wasn’t speaking, but Michel saw on the TV screen it was Fox News. And so he said to Peter, “Are you watching Fox News?” Peter said, “No!” And then he said, “Do you want me to change the channel?” And Peter said, “Yes!” And so Zen Master Peter Muryo Matthiessen’s final dying words were “Get Fox News off of that TV!”
Read his books, and enjoy his writings.
Link here to read the New York Times Magazine article about his latest book and his life.