By: Jasmine Boehnke
The Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was founded in 1981 by Philip Kapleau and hand built by himself and a handful of his students who volunteered to create a Sanbo Zen center that emulates a Japanese zenbo. As a result, it features a blend of traditional architecture and instruments with Southwestern viga beams, straw-and-adobe walls, flat roofs, and softly rounded corners. The center is tucked away on two dozen acres of land in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains off Old Santa Fe Trail and its environment is conducive towards sesshins where practitioners are stimulated by the grasses, sun, desert wind, and New Mexico climate to discover the miracle of each moment.
It is small, but appealing, with a zendo inside the front door which seats 22 people on a raised tan and contains artful wooden carvings on the viga panels. Practitioners say it “has a very handcrafted feeling to it” and serves as a training facility for lay students in the local community.
Kapleau chose this location because he preferred the New Mexico climate to the Rochester winters he was accustomed too. Eventually he left and returned to the Rochester Zen Center he established 40 years earlier. For 28 years, Mountain Cloud was maintained by its devotees and without a teacher. Their membership declined over time and the center was largely unused until Henry Shukman aided in its revival in 2010. He was recruited as Head Teacher after embarking on his own personal Zen journey and is the first teacher to have taught since its founder.
The center shares in the “Zen Buddhism Dharma of the Sanbo-Kyodan lineage based in Kamakura, Japan, using koan study and shikantaza, or ‘just sitting,’ and offers weekly dharma talks.” The Sanbo-Kyodan lineage of which the center is founded in, has three primary objectives. These are:
- To bring back the actual experience of deep awakening and the heart of Zen,
- To offer intensive koan study along with meditation training, and
- To make training available to lay practitioners
The Mountain Cloud Zen Center fulfills these objectives through daily evening meditation at 6:30 p.m., Sangha meetings, all day sit, yoga and zen workshops, weekend meditation retreats for both students and teachers, and welcoming diversity in their students. This is present in their student body, whose ages range from people in their 20’s to people who are 60 or 70 years old. It prides itself on popularizing Sanbo Zen in the United States through its inclusivity, especially to Westerners, and the Three Pillars of Zen, authored by its founder Philip Kapleau.
Each season is accompanied by a seasonal sesshin and Sunday mornings rotate between a meditation, zen talk, or tea time. There are 4 cabins available that can accommodate 20 people during sesshins. Everything at this time is done in silence, but as one student puts it, “you feel supported, so you don’t give up as easily.” Private ‘dokusan,’ or interviews with Henry, are available throughout the week for prospective students. You can become a student by regularly attending meditation sessions and having attended at least one sesshin. In becoming a formal Zen student, you commit to having Henry as your primary guide.
Since its practitioners are well-versed in poetry and literature, the center also offers author talks. One such talk was with Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. His primary focus of study is grief and dying in North America and he provides insight into what it means to live and die well, and how to do so. His rhetoric is based on his personal experience and firsthand account with dying people and their families. He emphasizes the center’s aim of living kindly and its dedication to serving those in hospice.
Yet most creatively, the center hosted a weekend workshop with Henry Shukman, and Japanese calligrapher and Zen teacher, Kazuaki Tanahashi. He is an author and translator of Buddhist texts from Japanese and Chinese to English, most inspired by Dogen. During his time at Mountain Cloud, he participated in meditation, Dharma talks, discussion on Dogen, and demonstrated his prowess in calligraphy. The center is not short on producing creative events for all to attend and enjoy.
Additionally, Mountain Cloud offers several member group programs that allow practitioners to extend their practice beyond mindfulness and meditation to serving the local community in acts of service and kindness. Among these are the Three Treasures Prison Project, which teaches yoga and meditation to inmates at the New Mexico State Prison (PNM), Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) that provides workshops on non-violent communication with inmates and community members, Mountain Cloud Care Network for members facing personal emergencies and difficulties, and several hospice care outlets. The most distinguished program is the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute (RGMI).
The center trains teachers and educators in the area to practice mindfulness in the face of increasing stress and anxiety in the workplace among students, paperwork, teacher evaluations, and day-to-day pressures. Known as the ‘Heart of Teaching’ mindfulness retreat, it encourages teachers to meditate and breathe in silence, including at lunchtime during a period of ‘Noble Silence.’ It fosters confidence, morale, and reminds teachers to slow down and focus on the present task than on all the chaos. Teacher mindfulness can positively influence students as well. Breaks from classes or set meditation periods can help ground students and increase focus, attendance, and better social behavior.
The Mountain Cloud Zen Center teaches beginners to focus on their breathing during meditation and provides guidelines on their website for how to best practice. Among these are to maintain a daily sitting practice and sit still on either a chair or cushion, and pay attention to the present moment. Practitioners are encouraged to wear comfortable clothing, welcome every state of mind during this time, and be kind towards themselves as they practice letting go. After beginners master meditation, they are introduced to koans. According to Henry, “Koans are able to untie things we didn’t know were tied and to open things we didn’t know were closed.” One of the most famous that beginners are introduced to early on in their practice is:
“You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?”
Through training, beginners learn that Zen is a moment by moment practice, and is about self-reflection and living in awareness. People gain peace of mind and an appreciation for life through routine practice, no matter how long is spent in meditation. It regards itself as not a religion, but a practice of meditation that can be integrated in all aspect’s of one’s life, including business. This allows itself to have far-reaching effects in the West because it is easy to adopt. There are no deities, belief systems, and not a lot of ritual. It is truly a non-monastic practice. As Yamada Ryoun Roshi says, “Sanbo Zen is really true Zen, independent of any divisions,” and is compatible with any faith or none at all.
The center’s website offers a range of free resources for beginners, including intro to Zen talks and a Zen podcast series that is also available on iTunes. The podcasts are influenced by the center’s Thursday evening ‘teishos,’ or dharma talks. These teach students to practice listening, offer core Zen training, and supports the center’s Prison Project to work with inmates, the community, and international sangha. They provide training on the three fruits of Zen practice, present-moment awareness, the Buddha’s five hindrances and how to remedy them, and the three essentials of Zen practice: Great faith, great doubt, and great determination. The website also features a bulletin that is updated regularly with messages from Henry that discuss dharma and Buddhist teachings.
Two years ago, Mountain Cloud celebrated its 31st year amid a crowd of over 100 people with a rededication to represent a re-awakening of the center. The ceremony began with a teacher using a feather from a calligraphy pen to symbolically open the eyes of a statue Buddha sitting on an altar. There were knocks on woodblock, the ringing of a bell, and the chanting of the Heart Sutra to honor its founding teachers, in accordance with its Sanbo Zen values. Yamada Ryoun Roshi of Japan headed the ceremonies and commemorated the connection between the center and its Sanbo Zen lineage of Zen Buddhism. He spoke of his father, Yamada Koun, and of his desire for Mountain Cloud to become the principal center for the Sanbo Zen in North America. Yamada Ryoun Roshi honed in on his father’s will, expressing that he places a great importance on expanding Sanbo Zen in America and especially from the Mountain Cloud Zen Center. Just last year, he led the North American Sanbo Zen Sesshin, an annual five-day silent meditation retreat, and with it, encouraged the center to participate in this large gathering of both Western and non-Western Buddhist practitioners.
The Zen Center entered mainstream politics over the summer during the uproar of the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Henry Shukman added his signature along with over 200 others, to a statement produced by Western Buddhist teachers that addresses the US Customs and Border Protection’s practice and calls for an end to the practice. It condemns the practices as a contravention of basic human rights and as “against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions.” In response, it suggests defenders visit border crossings and child detention centers to experience the effects of their decisions. Eventually the statement was posted on Change.org as a petition so others could add their signature.
- “Explorer’s Guide to Santa Fe & Taos: A Great Destination (Eighth Edition) .” Explorer’s Guide to Santa Fe & Taos: A Great Destination (Eighth Edition) , by Sharon Niederman, Countryman Press, 2013, p. 117.
- U.S.-Mexico border dispute
- Calligraphy with Kaz Tanahashi
- Mountain Cloud Zen Center and Henry
- Rededication Ceremony
- Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute
- “Insiders’ Guide to Santa Fe.” Insiders’ Guide to Santa Fe, by Nicky Leach, Insiders’ Guides, 2010, p. 288.