SZ: I first want to ask you about your background before coming to Zen practice. What was your upbringing like?
NC: I was born in Auburn, New York in 1941. Auburn was an immigrant factory town, and I grew up there. My parents were second-generation Ukrainian. My grandparents spoke Ukrainian – very little English. My parents were bilingual, but they never taught me Ukrainian. They were assimilating and becoming American. My father and mother practiced Catholicism, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic version. When I was really young, church services were mostly in Ukrainian, so I didn’t know what the hell was going on. My mother was always pretty devout. My father was for a while; he read the Catholic rosary weekly on the radio. But, for some reason, he stopped, and I never knew why. When I think of my father, I’m reminded of the following poem by Rilke:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
trans. Robert Bly
That was my father and I. He always stayed home and just sort of gave up on any sort of spiritual practice. I was the one who left on a spiritual journey.
My mother was always devout. It never made very much sense to me. As I mentioned, the church services were mostly in Ukrainian and I couldn’t understand it. After a while, they changed to English, but by that time, it had little meaning for me, and going to church was something I did because my parents did it. My mother and sister and I would go to church every Sunday, and my father would, just to annoy my mother, drive very slowly to church (she always wanted to get there early to sit in the front). My father, being somewhat passive-aggressive, would drive slower and slower (laughs). My mother would get very upset. I went through that every Sunday.
When I was a teenager, I got too big for my mother to continue making me go to church. I was a musician and played in bands, so I would play out on Friday and Saturday nights. I wanted to sleep in on Sunday morning. My father would say, “Let him sleep. He got home really late last night.” My father was really very good about things like that. So, I just kind of drifted away and didn’t really get interested in spiritual practice until I became interested in Buddhism as a high school student after reading the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. They kind of piqued my interest.
SZ: When was it that you first encountered Zen Buddhism?
NC: Not until years later—in my mid-twenties. I was very unhappy. I was teaching English at the college level at that time and was growing tired of that. My marriage was falling apart. I was pretty miserable. I had a friend from my hometown of Auburn, which is about 60 miles from Rochester, and he found out about a teacher there. My friend had been to Vietnam with the Army , and he was in a supply group that was next to a Zen Buddhist Temple. He grew fond of the monks, and when he got out of the service, he found that there was a Zen Buddhist Temple in Rochester, New York. He visited there and had them send me a copy of Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. I read it, and it gave a little bit of instruction on zazen. I remember going up to my wife and I’s bedroom, taking some blankets and pillows from the bed and sitting in a kneeling posture (Jap. seiza for about 10 minutes). I felt like I had come home. It was a profound experience. I never really kept up with it, though, not at that time.
Then once, when I was home visiting my parents, I met up with my friend and we drove over to Rochester and attended an instruction in zazen meditation there. That was in 1966, I believe.
SZ: So right about the time they had first opened.
NC: Yeah, right around that time. It was 1966 or 1967, something like that. Like I said, I never really kept up with it.
I eventually got divorced and quit college teaching. I went through a lot of changes from the time that I had first sat zazen until the time that I first found Dainin Katagiri roshi, I went through three different careers (musician, child-care worker, pipefitter/welder) had become involved in a serious love relationship after my divorce, and became a quasi-hippie. The time that elapsed between when I first sat zazen to the time I met Katagiri roshi was about 10 or 12 years.
I ended up in Minneapolis in 1978, I believe. I had wandered around quite a bit. When I was unhappy, I would start sitting zazen. Once I felt a little bit better, I would quit. I went through that cycle for approximately 12 years before I met Katagiri roshi and, once I met him that was it. I just jumped in with both feet.http://sweepingzen.com/2011/04/13/nonin-chowaney-interview/