The Minnesota Zen Meditation Center (MZMC), just off the Eastern shore of Lake Calhoun, not five miles from downtown Minneapolis
By: Colin Weinshenker
Smack in the middle of flyover country and blisteringly cold for almost half the year, Minnesota ranks understandably low on lists of ideal locales for Zen Buddhist masters. But as Tomoe Katagiri remembers it, that is exactly why her husband, Dainin Katagiri, founder of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, wanted to go. In Andrea Martin’s biography of the master, Ceaseless Effort: The Life of Dainin Katagiri, Tomoe recalls Dainin Katagiri saying, “‘If I can go, I want to go [sic] the place where nobody wants to go'” (Martin 11).
Born in Osaka, Japan, on January 19, 1928, Dainin Katagiri–known alternatively as Katagiri Roshi (master)–was the youngest child of a large family. Katagiri first encountered Buddhism through his parents, who were devotees of Shin Buddhism (2). At fifteen, following the death of his mother, Katagiri joined the Japanese air force amidst the Pacific battles of World War II. Having failed his pilot’s exams, Katagiri never saw combat. Instead he served eighteen months as an airplane engine mechanic. Toward the end of his service, Katagiri was tasked with final inspection of kamikaze planes. He recalled “Privately…crying for the…pilots” (2).
After the war, Katagiri returned home to find his family’s restaurant turned to rubble. To support his aging father and siblings’ families, Katagiri took work as an engineer. In their own ways, the violence, confusion, and hunger of post-War Japan were an introduction to Buddhism.”‘I felt,'” Katagiri later recalled, “‘how transient and fragile human life was.'” One day, Katagiri visited a Shin temple. Attracted to the tranquility of monasticism, in contrast to the chaos of his daily life, Katagiri decided to seek ordination at a nearby Zen Temple (2).
Many years later, having studied Soto Zen extensively, married, moved to San Francisco to promote Buddhism, and earned the title of Roshi (supervisory training master), Katagiri found himself courted by an enthusiastic group of Minnesotan Zen practitioners. With none of the resources of Zen communities on the U.S. coasts, these Minnesotans had been teaching themselves Zen guerilla style. Relying on published lectures and popular Zen literature such as Phillip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, they had developed a practice. Now they felt ready to start building an organized sangha base, with an official community center and a dharma master at its head. On January 27, 1973, The Minnesota Zen Meditation Center became the first Soto Zen Buddhist community with a resident master between California and New York (12). Originally, the Katagiri family’s apartment doubled as zendo, but a growing number of members led the MZMC to purchase the Lake Calhoun house (pictured above) in 1978 (14).
Since his death, Katagiri Roshi has been succeeded by a series of leaders, including some of the fourteen men and women he ordained (18). The active leader, Tim Burkett, took position as Guiding Teacher in 2002 (“About”). Since 2010, the MZMC congregation has grown to roughly 175 active members (McKenzie). Compared to Wat Munisotaram, a Khmer temple in Hampton, MN, with a majority membership from Minnesota’s large Hmong enclaves, the MZMC’s congregation is relatively metropolitan. There is a diversity of ethnicities represented and no clearly dominant group. The MZMC website even points out that, “Visitors who may be expecting to find an exotic group of people at MZMC are sometimes surprised to find that the sangha is made up of average, householding Americans who are simply committed to Buddhist practice” (“About”).
Many newcomers arrive at the MZMC with a dim concept of the principles of Buddhism. To accommodate novices, the MZMC’s beginner and intermediate courses of study survey Buddhist doctrine across many traditions. Introductory courses cover the Four Noble Truths, the Bodhisattva path in the Mahayana tradition, basic Soto Zen precepts, Soto Zen ritual, and the practice of mindfulness. Intermediate courses of study place special emphasis on the refinement of practice, the cultivation of mindfulness and insight, and understanding of total emptiness through Nagarjuna’s Middle Way. Advanced students add to this repertoire readings from the original Pali canon; critical koan studies; and the writings of Dogen Kigen, the founder of the Soto school (“Zen Studies”).
The MZMC’s core doctrinal positions are informed mainly by the Soto Zen principles Dainin Katagiri brought from Japan. A subset of issues on which the Soto stance deviates from common Zen principles, or on which the MZMC has a special stance, are covered.
- Karma and Rebirth:
- In the earliest Buddhist traditions, karma and rebirth are foremost among issues that inform practice. While Dainin Katagiri certainly interprets karma and rebirth literally, his writings take a somewhat secular bent on the matters. Rather than emphasize the hells that await transgressors, Katagiri focuses on facing karma as a therapeutic measure. In Each Moment Is the Universe, Katagiri advises, “Whoever you are, whatever karma has accumulated in your life, however you feel about your life, just accept it and make repentance to the Buddha” (Katagiri 202). Katagiri’s view on karma frames it as cause of the conditions under which one pursues enlightenment and the opportunity for free action that will inform future circumstances.
- Emptiness and Mind:
- The MZMC’s view on emptiness is taken from Nagarjuna’s system, which teaches Zen Buddhists to “deconstruct all conceptions to show how [the] thinking mind limits…contact with the infinite” (“Zen Studies”). By practicing logical deconstruction and koans (a transplant from the Rinzai tradition, koans are riddles with deliberately paradoxical answers), Zen students come to recognize the futility of the intellect. They then work to turn away from the intellect and its tools–language and logic–in order to achieve enlightenment.
- Monastic Conduct
- Dainin Katagiri recognized that the circumstances of life in the U.S. would inform the views and practices of American Buddhists, and he welcomed these natural transformations (Martin 18). At the MZMC, men and women share equal status and opportunity for advancement through the monastic hierarchy. Karen Sunna, one of Katagiri Roshi’s twelve dharma heirs, succeeded the master after his death.
- Soto Zen traditions include both celibate and non-celibate monastic practice. Katagiri himself was married with children, and MZMC teachers decide for themselves whether to be celibate.
- The Nature of Enlightenment
- Soto Zen embraces the Mahayana concept of the bodhisattva way and promotes seeking enlightenment for the benefit of all beings rather than mere escape from cyclic existence. Compassionate activity is a keystone of the MZMC’s practice.
- Sudden enlightenment, as opposed to its gradual counterpart, is the official position of the Soto school. As opposed to Buddhist traditions that frame enlightenment as a state one obtains permanent tenure in, Soto Zen’s version is inseparable from practice. Gaining and sustaining enlightenment is thus a daily endeavor. This constant effort may make Soto Zen’s enlightenment seem like no enlightenment at all, but in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, “This is not so…when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment” (Suzuki 777).
The central practice of Soto Zen, and thus MZMC members, is zazen, or daily meditation. Zazen begins with the zabuton, a thick square mat placed against the wall. Meditators sit up straight on the zabuton and face the wall. Placing left foot on right thigh, meditators maintain posture while clearing their minds of objects and thoughts. The goal, practically speaking, is to free the mind from distractions, from within and without. A mind free of distraction can attain full awareness of life’s emptiness and transience (“How to Do Zazen”). Between zazen sessions, Soto Buddhists also practice kinhin, or walking meditation. Rising from the zazen position, meditators walk clockwise around the room holding their hands clasped in front of their chests.
Meditation sessions are open to the public by donation on Monday through Thursday and weekends in the morning, and Monday through Wednesday in the evenings. Each meditation session includes both zazen and kinhin, and a chant book available on the MZMC website lists all the Buddhist sutras recited regularly. Some meditation sessions are punctuated with “work practice,” or care for the zendo as a means of applying Zen teachings. Mopping floors and scrubbing sinks, MZMC members strive to develop a Zen attitude toward household chores, seeing them not as the unwelcome distractions from “real” life but as parts of real life itself (“Work”).
MZMC teachers hold regular classes that explore both the breadth and depth of the Buddhist canon, including teachings outside Soto Zen. More advanced students, or those who have questions or concerns about the Zen practice, can arrange meetings with senior teachers or other members of the community’s leadership (“Zen Studies”).
As an extension of its Mahayana attitude toward compassion, the MZMC also hosts programs for the benefit of the community at large. Through MZMC, members can participate in Habitat for Humanity, family events, and volunteer with adults in correctional facilities.
Ties to Other Buddhist Communities
Not long after ordaining his first dharma heirs, Dainin Katagiri began to think that his initiates could benefit from training in Japan. In August 1983, Katagiri, his wife, and three initiates traveled to Japan in search of a monastery. On the trip, Katagari reconnected with Tsugen Narasaki, a monk with whom he had studied as a novice. This was the beginning of a transfer program of sorts. The next year, Narasaki visited the MZMC and the the San Francisco Zen Center, where Katagiri had worked and trained before moving to Minnesota. In 1985, Narasaki’s elder brother, Ikko Nakarashi Risho, led a training program at the Hokyoji Zen Practice Community, another Buddhist community Katagiri founded in Eitzen, Minnesota in 1986*. Inspired by MZMC’s successful gender equality, Nakarashi Risho decided to reopen Kyushu’s Shogoji temple as a training center for both men and women (Martin 19). Since 1983, many of Katagiri’s initiates and initiates of their own have studied in Japan. But Katagiri felt that American Buddhism should be allowed to develop independent of Japanese tradition. Toward the end of his life, he took a neutral stance on the registration of American priests and temples with Sotoshu, the Japan-based global organization for Soto Zen Buddhism.
MZMC maintains ties with Japanese Soto communities, the San Francisco Zen Center and other Minnesotan Buddhist communities.
*Once a single organization, MZMC and Hokyoji Zen Practice Community have since split amicably (Martin 14).
“About MZMC.” Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016. <http://mnzencenter.org/index.php>.
“Classes, Practice Periods, and Ongoing Groups.” Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <http://mnzencenter.org/classes.php>.
Cook, Francis H. “Enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen.” HeiJournals. Peeters Publishers, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/viewFile/8591/2498>.
“How to Do Zazen.” How to Do Zazen. Sotoshu, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/zazen/howto/index.html>.
Katagiri, Dainin. “Turning a New Leaf.” Each Moment Is the Universe. Ed. Andrea Martin. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2007. 200-07. Print.
Martin, Andrea. Ceaseless Effort: The Life of Dainin Katagiri. Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. N.p., 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016. <http://mnzencenter.org/katagiri/bio_pdf/katagiri_biography.pdf>.
McKenzie, Sarah. “Sharing the Benefits of Mindfulness.” Southwest Journal. N.p., 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <http://www.southwestjournal.com/focus/2016/04/sharing-the-benefits-of-mindfulness/>.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Ed. Donald S. Lopez. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Buddhism. Ed. Jack Miles. 1st ed. New York: W.W.Norton, 2015. 770-77. Print.
“Zen Studies at MZMC.” Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <http://mnzencenter.org/studies.php>.