S: We hear so much about the importance of working with a teacher, of that checking, and of being empowered by the teacher. How does it feel to be on your own? Is it lonely? Scary?
RS: I’ll jump in first. I’ll have to acknowledge that, given how I understand myself, I need Shugen Sensei in this position as Head of the Order, in a very real way as a checkpoint. It’s not a cop-out, I think. It’s just a matter of acknowledging strengths, weaknesses, and the fact that I have both the desire and the need for somebody who brings a certain discernment into what we’re actually doing.
SS: Daido Roshi is still very much present. I hear his voice in different situations. I’ve actually thought, how would he see this? How might he respond to this? Not because I need to mimic him, but just as a way of turning towards his wisdom at that moment, to inform or counterbalance whatever my own perspective might be. I don’t experience it as a lonely perspective or place, but it is alone. Because really no one else can share it.
RS: I think about how it was for him in terms of when he became the abbot here. What were his resources? He reached out to Maezumi Roshi and his dharma brothers and sisters from ZCLA. I was thinking that it’s different here, but is it really? Ultimately, with him gone, it is within the sangha, within our relationships where I would be turning if I needed reflection, input or a different opinion.
SS: The sangha is enormously influential in terms of that checking. There will always be people within a community who will step forward and say something, and in some way hold the teacher accountable. Whether it’s just by reflecting back what they’ve received, or by actually challenging it. In a sense, a teacher really needs to rely on that. Daido Roshi once said—and actually that was a big part of how he set this whole place up—that everybody has to be accountable to somebody. Everybody needs to understand that they’re in dynamic relationship and having an influence. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to go astray.
S: How do you see working as co-abbots? And how do you both see our sangha’s relationship to the larger Buddhist sangha? Are your views on this different from one another? Are you guys in full agreement? With that is also your dedication to continue Daido Roshi’s vision of the way he wanted things to work, and also develop and cultivate your own.
SS: We’re not really co-abbots. Ryushin Sensei has a clear empowerment as the abbot here, and I’m the abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. Being Head of the Order means that there is— “overlap” is not quite the right word—a richness; it’s not a clearly drawn line. So one of the things that I am doing is asking the question: how do I preserve and support Ryushin Sensei’s role as the abbot and not get involved in it, because it’s his responsibility, and what are the things that have to do with my responsibility as the Head of the Order?
S: So just to clarify terms. You, Shugen Sensei, are the Head of the Order and the abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. And Ryushin Sensei is the abbot of the Monastery…
SS: Right. We actually worked quite a bit with the terminology while Daido Roshi was still alive. The Order is an idea. It has no corporate body to it, either legally or physically. It’s a way that we engage the buddhadharma together through the eight gates of training and the teachings of Dogen, and so on. There is no abbot of the order, because it’s not a place.
RS: Given the structure and overlap it means we have to work very, very closely with each other and with the more senior people to make sure that we’re evolving together and also within the individual realities of a place like the Temple, where the lay practitioner is much more active, and the Monastery, where, at least in my mind, the assurance of the monastic tradition continuing and establishing a rigorous, somewhat protected retreat space has to be maintained.
SS: As Daido Roshi said to me one time, it’s like an Italian family. The norm in Zen is that when a successor is born, he or she leaves and sets up a place somewhere else, oftentimes taking part of the sangha with them. What Daido Roshi said was, instead of leaving, just build an addition to the house. I’ve come to really appreciate and value that vision of keeping the sangha cohesive—one sangha. Because the easiest thing to happen would be for the Monastery and the Temple to move more and more independently and begin to diverge and ultimately separate. But he really wanted to try to do things in a different way. I think the way he set things up really makes a very compelling case for this relationship to work, because beyond just my own emotional attachments to this place, I’m obligated, as part of my vow, to take care of the Monastery and all that’s here and the larger Order as much as I do the Temple, and to see all of that as one thing.