Eiryu-ji Zen Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey was founded in 2012 by Eran Junryu Vardi Roshi. The Center’s goal is to “[continue] the wisdom practice of self-realization and compassionate action,” mostly though daily Zazen practice and study of Zen Buddhism. Practice is based in the teaching style of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi of the Soto lineage, transmitted from two Rinzai teachers of the Harada-Yasutani Lineage. Maezumi Roshi had created a hybrid of the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen, including Koan study and shikantaza (“just sitting” method). Eran Junryu Vardi, as holder of this hybrid lineage, is especially oriented towards maintaining multiple approaches to Zen practice. Like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), Eran Junryu Vardi founded and heads two organizations that operate independently, but the teachings and styles of one may inadvertedly come into contact with the other due to cross-participation. The other organization is the Aikido Dojo, which shares the same space as the Eiryu-ji Zen Center in Wyckoff. The center offers many opportunities for Buddhist practice, including daily Zazen, scheduled training periods of all-day Zazenkais held at the center, and multiple day retreats (Sesshins) at a monastery in New York state. Other opportunities include Dokusans (meetings with Zen teachers), Koan and general Buddhist study, taking vows in Jukai ceremony, and priesthood training. Eiryu-ji Zen Center also has a sister-center located in Seattle headed by students of Junryu Roshi.
Junryu Roshi’s path to spiritual and physical Zen mastery started as a teenager reading Buddhist literature. After time in the Israeli army and travels throughout the world and Asia, he had been exposed to both classical and Zen Buddhism, even spending time as a lay person in a monastery in Thailand. He was introduced to Zen-in-motion, Aikido, in 1989, and opened a center to practice Aikido in Ramapo Valley, New York/New Jersey in 1997. He began to incorporate Zazen practice and Zen teachings, eventually founding the Eiryu-ji Zen Center as a separate organization in 2012. Eran Junryu Vardi Roshi has completed full priesthood, holds a 6th degree black belt and is an instructor in the United States Aikido Federation. He has three children, and is married to Reverend Yvonne Myogen Vardi. Reverend Vardi is also an ordained Zen Buddhist Priest, as well as a public school teacher. The staff at the center is rounded out with Rev. Yves Keichi Calderone, Rev. Akesha Taishin Baron, and Rev. Ricardo Mitsugen Petroni. All are ordained Buddhist priests, and have different aspects of their lives including marriages, alternative spiritual practices, and academic accomplishments. The professional and personal diversity of the staff may be a representative clue to the diversity of the constituency which is attested to as a “non-discriminating community” on the center’s homepage of their website.
Eran Junryu Vardi Roshi
Speaking to Junryu Roshi on the phone, I gathered that the majority of the constituents of the Eiryu-ji Zen Center are white, American-born “coverts” to Buddhism and the practice of Zazen. However, Junryu said the word “covert” does not accurately describe who his students are, because they have not “converted” to a religion that is mutually exclusive to other cosmology. Due to the center’s teaching focus on Zazen and other meditative practice, and not cosmology associated with other forms of Buddhism, Junryu said many of the practitioners actually identify as a different faith. There are many Christians, who still identify with a Christian belief in god and theology, but adopt the meditative and Zazen practices of the lineage. Eiryu-ji seems to be teaching in a style somewhere between the CIMC and Wat Phila styles we read about and discussed in class. They do have pictures of the Buddha, hold dharma-talks (which are available as podcasts on the webpage), and follow the bodhisattva path, precepts and all, but Junryu’s students live a life outside the Zen center. They have families, careers, and enjoy other activities and hobbies when not at the center. They are not monastics, and do not live in a monastery. But, they are more than lay people as well, they are “ordained lay,” as he calls them. A hybrid of engaged Buddhist practitioners who follow precepts and guided wisdom according to sutras of the Buddha, but mainly focus on the practices of mind emptying, meditation, and one-awareness. These are the core principles of Zen and Zazen practice, according to Junryu. They do not venerate monks or pray, similar to CIMC members, but they do also discuss sutras and Buddha teachings, similar to Wat Phila sangha members. The participants of Eiryu-ji also hold meditative retreats, at both their own center once a month, which last a full day of meditation practice. Twice a year they hold a multiple day retreat to a monastery in the Catskill mountains of upstate New York, about 2 hours away. Finally, the center also holds 3-month long ango, or periods of time during which meditation is taken very seriously and special practices may be introduced when practitioners come to practice. The ango calls back to the three-month long rain retreats affirmed by the Buddha himself, to give monks relief during monsoon season in Southeast Asia.
This repeating retreat to the monastery in the Catskills builds a strong relationship with the sangha there, according to Junryu. At the retreats, the residential monks in the Catskills join Junryu and his students for their dharma-talks, and for their meditation practice. Moreover, Junryu has a personal relationship with the head of another Zen center in New York City, about an hour away from his center in Wyckoff. All three Sanghas are connected, as members of the New York City center join members of the Wyckoff center on their retreats to the Catskills monastery, in addition to the members of both Zen centers joining each other for practice during the rest of the year. Junryu said that sometimes members of the New York City center come by for daily Zazen, which is offered 6 times a week all year.
Most interestingly, Junryu has created and teaches at the center a hybrid school of Zen Buddhism, combining it with the martial arts form of Aikido. Roshi had become introduced to Zazen practice through Aikido, which is all about harmonizing movement, recognizing attacks, and redirecting them. On learning to blend the two schools, Junryu says it is about “assuming shape according to need.” While he admits it is a very unique setting, having both his Aikido classes and Zazen classes share the same space at different times, he says that combining the martial arts and spiritual practice is actually bringing them back to their roots. That traditional Samurai of Japan were skilled in both martial arts and Zazen. After over 30 years of practice, Junryu firmly believes that “Zen acts as a way to link Aikido practice into everyday life.” Which is why although he does hold separate practice times and groups for each school, he finds many members who come to Aikido soon discover that Zen practice and its spiritual path, according to his and his members’ views, fit very nicely together. The Zen practice includes study of Koan, liturgy, readings, and Dokushan, or private discussions with the master. He also emphasized their traditional way of eating as important to their practice. The “just enough” custom is a formal monastic method, including 3 bowls, zero waste, and a cleaning method using tea to rinse their bowls. The main aspect of Zazen incorporated into the “just enough” traditional eating practice is to pay attention to the senses, and have no preference for one thing over another, giving all options equal attention. The Sangha is supported financially through Dana donations from members, that are given voluntarily, with amounts suggested. Junryu admits that there are no lay members of the community to give for merit-making, because there are not many lay Buddhists in the U.S., like there are in majority-Buddhist countries like Thailand. Members of the “lay center” take Jukai, or 16 precepts which vow to uphold the bodhisattva path. Zazen, however, is the “cornerstone” of Zen, including prostrations, robes, and meditations. Robes of priesthood are sewn by the newly-ordained members themselves, when they also receive dharma-names which are listed on the webpage. Junryu Roshi says as for traditionally central aspects of Buddhism available in the Zazen teachings, some Koans touch on issues of Karma, emptiness, and focus on the present moment. Generally, the concepts of reincarnation and multiple forms of existence are left out of the dharma-talks and Koans, because they do not advance the ideas of the present moment so essential to Zen practice. Junryu Roshi says that his center’s teachings make sure to hold in mind the two primary teachings of the Buddha, emptiness and causation, which help support the ideals of Zen Buddhism.
Jukai Ceremony – 10/21/18
In digesting Junryu’s thoughts and ideas, in addition to what is presented on the webpage (http://eternalflowzen.com/), a very clear picture is painted of the Eiryu-Ji Zen Center. A minimal, sacred space that shares itself between Zen and Aikido practices, both under the guidance of the same teacher. Students of both schools generally find value in the other, and find value in adopting body and mind practices to physically and spiritually enlighten themselves in their lay-appearing lifestyles. Practitioners of different backgrounds and who come from different walks of life come together to practice Zazen, while juggling the needs of their families, careers, and other spheres of living. While some simultaneously posses non-Buddhist theologies and cosmologies, all students find refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
Members of the Eiryu-Ji Zen Center
By: Stephen Lereah