New Teacher, New Teaching Model

Letter from Roshi:

The time has come, I believe, for our Sangha to have the services of a second fully-sanctioned teacher in Rochester, and I have asked John Pulleyn to fill that role. He has also agreed to partner with me as Co-Spiritual Director of the Center (we’re retiring the title “Abbot”). This will be a new model of spiritual leadership for the Center, but one that has proven successful over some twenty years for our sister-centers Zenbuddhistiska Samfundet (Zen Buddhist Association), in Sweden, Finland, and Scotland, under the partnership of my Dharma-heirs Roshis Kanja Odland and Sante Poromaa.

In other news . . . . My wife and I recently bought a house in Sarasota, Florida. Angela will be cutting back her practice of clinical psychology later this year, and we will divide our time evenly, in alternating periods of six months, between Florida, in the winter, and Rochester, where we plan to keep our present house (on which we just paid off the mortgage). The plan is for John, in the winter months (November-April, more or less), to be doing the lion’s share of the in-person teaching in Rochester, and the same with me over the warmer months in Rochester. Ours will not be a hard and fast schedule, though. I hope to persuade John to give some in-person dokusan and a teisho or two in the summer, and likewise I’d like to come north to visit a few times even in the winter—just because I’m sure to be missing the Rochester Sangha and our city and country centers.

I will continue offering online dokusan year-round, and John will begin doing the same. While we’re in Rochester that will mean, for both of us, online dokusan mostly for out-of-town members—that is, people who can’t practically attend Rochester dokusan in person.

What has prompted this expansion in teaching authority? My sense, which has been growing for a while, that thirty-five years of having just one person at the spiritual helm of the Center is long enough. To be sure, I’m not looking to retire. Giving dokusan and teisho, leading sesshins and introductory workshops, and managing the residential training at Arnold Park and Chapin Mill are as fulfilling for me as ever. In fact, as we emerge from the pandemic now, I’m thrilled to be able to give dokusan 3-dimensionally again, even as I’m straining at the leash to get back to sesshin at Chapin Mill. But I’m convinced that our Sangha will be enriched by the services of a second fully-sanctioned teacher and Director—a second voice at the top.

Like me, John is no youngster. We both have more years behind us than ahead (to say the least), and if I had a younger student with his long and deep Zen experience, I might have chosen that person to partner with, even if just to spare John this “iron yoke” at a stage of life which for most people means retirement. So in his teaching he will be able to draw from a well of life experience which, as a bonus, includes that of being a parent—something unknown to his Co-Director in this life.

For some twenty years John and I have worked closely together, both in the dokusan room and outside it, on staff, where he logged a record number of years as Head of Zendo; in Japan he might have been called Assistant Roshi. Throughout this span of service he has demonstrated an uncommon devotion to the Dharma and to the Rochester Zen Center in particular. Needless to say, I’m deeply grateful for his willingness now to take on this assignment. And I’m grateful as well that we’ll both have the assistance of our current Heads of Zendo, Trueman Taylor and Donna Kowal, and the rest of our staff.

John will begin giving dokusan at the upcoming June 5-day hybrid sesshin, led (from New Zealand) by Sensei Amala Wrightson. (Permission to give dokusan, as distinguished from Private Instruction, confers the authority to assign people koans and pass people on koans.) Ordinarily a new teacher would first be sanctioned in a ceremony, but with the pandemic still not fully over, we wanted to wait until more people are likely to feel safe to attend the ceremony in person. Even now, though, members are asked to begin addressing John as “Sensei,” a title of respect for newly-sanctioned teachers in our lineage and many others.

John and I have yet to work out the specifics of our dokusan schedules outside of sesshin; with two teachers, in two states, able to offer dokusan online as well as in person, there are many variables to consider. But already we agree that anyone who is a student of either of us will be able to take dokusan with the other, as has been the case with my other teacher-disciples and me. And anyone who is formally a student of mine now will be able to continue taking dokusan with me both remotely and in person.

As for the rest of this year, I will follow my pre-pandemic calendar of teaching activities—dokusan, sesshin, workshops, etc.—until November, when I take up residence in Florida for the winter. I have little idea yet of what I’ll be doing while in Florida, besides offering online dokusan and probably doing some writing. But since the question has already arisen, I’ll just say now that I have no intention of starting a sitting group there.

Such is the plan, then. Soon John and I will further articulate the details of this shared effort, but even then we’ll be feeling our way as things go along, adapting as called for.  We feel confident that this new model of tandem teaching will contribute toward the flourishing of the Rochester Zen Center in the years to come. Meanwhile, I do trust that you all will give John your full support.

In the Dharma,