WHAT’S IN A PHOTO?
By Roshi Eve Myonen Marko
Photo by Peter Cunningham
Monkfish Publications, which is publishing a book on Lex Hixon and the radio interviews he did in New York City’s WBAI in the 1970s and 1980s, recently asked us for a photo of Bernie from years ago. I SOS’d Peter Cunningham, photographer extraordinaire, and we went back and forth with various old photos (“Wow, look at that one!” ”Who’s that guy?” “Remember her!” “When was this?”, and on and on), and somewhere in that process, it hit both Peter and me how historic some of photos are, and the broad, multi-weave tapestry we’ve not only witnessed over these decades but have been raveled into ourselves.
One photo showed Bernie, Peter Matthiessen, and Lex at a table in the Greyston mansion in Riverdale. Bernie, bald and in his tattered brown samue jacket, is the essence of animation as he lays out one vision after another, Peter looks pensively (painfully?) down, probably wishing he was back home writing a book, and Lex shines like the sun, face radiant. I’m not there, it’s before my days, but I’ll bet a million dollars that this was a board meeting to discuss Bernie’s thoughts and plans for opening up businesses and not for profits as vehicles for Zen practice. Any old member of the Zen Community of New York will remember those endless meetings, the excitement, exhilaration, and the trepidation (How are we ever going to get the money!).
It caused me to recall my own first experience, coming up with a friend to the Greyston mansion in 1985 for the evening sitting, only to bumble into the middle of a residents’ gathering in an immense dining room. Generously, we were invited to sit in the corner of the long table as they talked about plans to serve monthly meals at the Yonkers Sharing Community to homeless people, hiring those same folks at the Greyston Bakery (which was already in existence), following that up by building permanent apartments for homeless families (in a county that for years built no apartments of any kind, just private homes and Mcmansions), child care centers, and programs to help folks get off the welfare system. I sat there, novice that I was, and thought to myself that I was witnessing something historic, a vision for Zen practice that I hadn’t seen in other American communities.
Photos bring back people, some of who represented new answers to the question of what Zen practice will look like in America. Can a Jesuit priest like Fr. Bob Kennedy get dharma transmission? How about Nancy Mujo Baker, who has never ordained? Or transmission to a Sufi sheik (Lex Hixon), a Jewish rabbi (Don Singer)? Can a teacher be a writer or social activist rather than one who only teaches in a zendo (Peter Matthiessen often apologized for being a very poor student and teacher because he wrote fiction and nonfiction on behalf of the environment and Native American leaders like the imprisoned Leonard Peltier)? By now there’s a sense that a lot of Bernie’s responses have met wide acceptance (it’s hard to find a Zen center now that has no social action involvement of any kind), but years ago his open approach, and his desire to work with a great variety of people, generated controversy and criticism.
He likes to quote his own teacher, Maezumi Roshi, who said that Zen was life, all of it, nothing excluded. Zen was construction of 68 Warburton, the first housing project (We have to replace the roof! How many windows in each apartment? Square footage? Public spaces?), Zen was after-school programs for kids, tenant organizations, AA meetings and Christmas parties, AIDS centers and businesses.
Most people like the exciting photos: lying on a bench at the first street retreat in 1991, or standing by the tracks at Birkenau working out retreats at Auschwitz. But I prefer the more boring photos of people at meetings, contemplating a whiteboard on an easel, a human at the side holding a magic marker, working out new structures, new earth forms and movements to support practice-based activists, laying the seeds for events that no one could yet see for they were far in the future, such as pilgrimages to the beautiful, ravaged Black Hills, working with refugees arriving in leaky boats on the Greek coast, bearing witness in favelas in Rio, Brazil. And then there are scenes not caught by any photo, moments that reflect the full totality of life, such as Joan Halifax sewing a kesa, or priest’s robe, out of multi-colored fabrics from people whose death she’d accompanied, or sitting on a terrace outside a gracious Zurich home as Bernie, in a curious, thoughtful voice, first articulates his Three Tenets: Not-knowing, bearing witness, loving action.
You don’t need much faith when you’re trying for short-term results. But working towards an unfathomable, unforetold future—that’s a different thing entirely. You have nothing to go on, just the daily thread, the daily practice, the daily work, the one time in the day when you open your eyes and smile even as inside your heart clenches in loss or defeat. Dropping your cynicism but not your doubt, letting yourself be used in acts of creation.
Originally published on Eve’s blog. Read more of her writings on www.evemarko.com