Nestled behind a Burlington Coat Factory in Columbia, South Carolina is the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, a Soto Zen tradition that traces itself back to the Buddha. Its head monk is Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke who established the priory in 2001. It is home to an undeniably unique community of Buddhist, able to find enough support to sustain itself in the Bible Belt. My surprise over its existence and success was surpassed by the Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s surprise regarding the faith of its two visitors on a November evening: my 14 sister and myself 20. Upon explaining our agnostic upbringing in the “back woods of South Carolina”, Rev. Rokuzan Korenke remarked that the majority of visitors to the priory are staunch Christians. At first this made sense, but as my visit to priory continued it became abundantly clear that the priory’s faithful congregation is composed of overwhelmingly middle class white Americans. Though the congregation is roughly a dozen members they are extremely devoted to the Priory, attending 5 AM morning meditation services six days a week. I was amazed to learn that the priory, which houses two monks and is situated on a large piece of property, receives its funding solely from non-compulsory donations.
After coming to understand the makeup of the priory’s congregation, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained to us the fundamentals of Buddhism. He began by explaining the Three Refuges in a way truly unique to this South Carolina based community. Taking refuge in the Buddha was explained as doing such in an essence rather than a sentient being. The Buddha as Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained, is not like the Abrahamic God as much as it is like the force of good itself. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then explained that the Buddha, as the essence of goodness, can only be attained by taking refuge in the Dharma. The Dharma of the Buddha provides the pivotal path to recognizing this ultimate goodness. Lastly, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained the necessities of taking refuge in the Sangha as a way of preventing oneself from falling into “dark places.”
While the Three Refuges are staples of Buddhism, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained them as the fundamentals that meditation must also be based upon. He explained that while Buddhism is ultimately striving for goodness and that meditation should be aimed at the realization of such goodness, mediation often leads to evilness and depression. It is therefore important to always take refuge in the Buddha when meditating by thinking of the Buddha as a force of goodness. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then pointed out that the idea of “goodness” is itself subjective and can often be claimed in the guise of evil. Because of this, refuge in the Dharma is essential to Buddhism. The Buddha’s teachings serve as touchstones for practitioners to base meditation on. Lastly, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke paused and stressed the importance of taking refuge in the Sangha. It was then explained to my sister and me that without a community to support and guide you on the path to ultimate enlightenment, you would be much more susceptible to the dark recesses of the mind.
The topic of meditation was one that Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke was quick to use as a critique of other Buddhist communities. He made it abundantly clear that American Buddhist communities not only focus too much on the act of meditation, but in a manner that he deemed harmful. Without focus on Buddhist scriptures and teachings, American Buddhists tend to lose sight of Buddhism’s core values. Without truly taking refuge in the Dharma, American Buddhists misuse Buddhism to fulfill selfish desires. This then lead Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke to explain that “meditation without guidance is dangerous.” As the Buddha was able recognize how individuals must be taught in order to attain enlightenment, a teacher must intimately know his disciple and how they need to be taught. Without a dedicated teacher providing guidance, practitioners will become lost and ultimately misunderstand the use of meditation.
After explaining the dangers of unguided meditation, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then led my sister and me in meditation. It was a task rife with ceremony and displays of respect. We bowed to a shrine dedicated to his teacher, to the representation of the Buddha, and lastly to the other members of the priory. In every action we were asked by Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke to facilitate deliberate and thoughtful behavior. He explained that this was essential to Buddhism in order to destroy our own prejudices and recognize the inherent good in all. Once the proper steps were taken we gathered our mats, bowed to them and recognized their purpose, we were seated in a position of roughly our own choosing. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke demonstrated the full lotus and half lotus positions but said if we were unable to properly sit in these positions we could simply kneel. He explained that the position itself is not what is important but the act of successful meditation. The members of the priory sat facing outwardly from the room’s center at the walls. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then instructed us not to stare at a fixed point on the wall but through it into nothingness.
Once some time had passed we put up our mats and convened in front of the shrine dedicated to Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then explained to us that she was the true founder of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory and she had named him Master of the Order in 1987. Though she spent no time at the Columbia Priory itself, her influences were certainly present in Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennet was ordained into the Chinese Buddhist Sangha in Malaysia and was later invited to study under the Very Reverend Keido Chisan Koho Zenji in Japan. She received her certification as Roshi from Very Reverend Koho Zenji in the late 1960’s. After becoming a certified Roshi, Master Rev. Jiyu-Kennet received a First-Kyoshi and a Sei Degree. She also became the Foreign Guestmater of Soji-ji and Abbess at her temple in Mie Prefecutre. She later founded the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives with seven branches in the US, including the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory.
After our meditation and observation of Master Rev. Jiyu-Kennet’s shrine, my sister and I were led upstairs to review the Ten Great Precepts. These were quite what one would expect from the Zen tradition: do not kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, intoxicate oneself, speak against others, being prideful, withholding dharma, anger, defaming the three refuges. When asked which of these ten were the most troubling for members of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke noted that refraining from intoxication was one of the more troublesome ones. He remarked that it is particularly difficult for Buddhists living in secular America to withhold from indulging in the intoxications of decadence and delusional thoughts. Whether it be deluding oneself into a false sense of security related to the minute stresses of life or telling oneself love is what it is not, delusional thinking is omnipresent. In all these instances meditation helps to eliminate false realities while helping cope with the harsh realities. When asked about adhering to the monastic precepts, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke said “we do our best.” However, as he said this he notably adjusted a pair of golden glasses.
After explaining the Ten Great Precepts Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke spoke about the Bodicitta within us all. While we all have the potential to find enlightenment, he cautioned us it would not be easy. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke said that in fact it would take the rest of this life at least. He then remarked that he has found Buddhism cannot mix with another faith. Eventually one must choose Buddhism or another faith. Although we can ultimately become enlightened through Buddhism, another faith will not necessarily lead to this.
The Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory appears to be a contradiction within itself. While it is a part of the American Soto Zen faith, the priory does not recognize itself as one of the four types of temples. This is the essence of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, in that the priory is by all means a community that follows Zen beliefs but with the adaptations necessary for its survival in South Carolina. For example the “fire and brimstone” style of Christianity that is so common in the Columbia area saturates Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s teachings. While this type of language is absent from the online doctrine of the priory, it is undeniably present in the underlings of Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s speech. The uniqueness of the priory’s beliefs don’t end here, continuously appearing in the subtleties of Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s words. While outwardly the Three Refuges appear straightforward and perhaps intentionally marketed as comparable to the Holy Trinity in Christianity, his elaboration upon these points gave a different view. In each one of the Three Refuges it felt as though they were saving off an impending doom. It appeared as though each of the Three Refuges were saving practitioners from evil and depression, while those who do not adhere are doomed to Samsara. While the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory is Buddhist, it endures as an entity inseparable from the region it calls home.
“Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory.” Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
“Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.” Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
Visit their website at:
List of books recommended at the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory: http://shastaabbey.org/teachings-publications.html