Becoming a Zen Teacher

Fr. Kevin Hunt, a former member of the board of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, is a monk of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. As announced in the Board News section of this bulletin, he was installed as a Zen teacher (
sensei) on April 17 of this year. He kindly agreed to write the following account of how he came to undertake Zen training. -
Copyright MID /

I came to the practice of Zen long before I was interested in interreligious dialogue. As a monk, I meditated every day and read a great deal about meditation, its theory and practice. I wasn’t too long in the monastery before I began to realize that none of the traditional ways of meditation taught to the novices seemed to work for me. I was drawn to more simple and nonverbal practices. My novice master encouraged me to use these more simple ways of meditation, telling me that the one constant in prayer is that it tends to become ever more simple. During these early years I was basically trying to find my way to a form of meditation that I was comfortable doing.

As someone who was devoting his life to prayer and meditation, I had a certain curiosity about how other traditions practiced meditation. I discovered the “Jesus Prayer” tradition of the Eastern Christian tradition and fell in love with that practice. Although I had heard of Zen meditation, I was not sufficiently impressed to try it myself at that time. Several years later I was sent to a foundation in South America. While there, as I was still searching for my way of prayer, a friend lent me a book on Zen. This time Zen interested me so I attempted to practice it on my own. I rolled up some blankets and tried sitting with my legs crossed in the Zen posture. I did not know what to do so I thought I would just repeat one of the koans mentioned in the book I had read. This koan was the famous one, “What face did you have before you were born?” I just sat and repeated to myself: “What face did I have before I was born?” This continued for a number of months. I went through the usual fatigue and pain and seemed to be getting nowhere. I was coming to the conclusion that Zen had nothing to offer me. What was I doing, a Christian monk practicing Buddhist meditation?

One day as I was sitting I rose from the cross-legged posture and suddenly realized the face I had before I was born. This happened very quickly and was certainly not an ecstatic experience, for I knew who I was and where I was. There was no form or color. Looking back, I would say it was some intuition of emptiness. I was startled and uncomprehending, but not frightened. I did not have a teacher at the time, not even someone in my community with whom I could really talk (and even if there had been such a person, no words could have explained it all), so I just put the experience aside. But that one experience did convince me that I ought to continue my practice of Zen as a way that seemed to work for me.

Several years later I returned to the United States. A short time after returning, I was able to go to my first sesshin (Zen retreat), a weekend in New York City. That weekend was a disaster. I suffered physically to a degree I never had before. To make matters worse I was never able to arrange to have an interview with the Zen Master. I left New York thinking once more that maybe I was mistaken about this Zen stuff.

Some months later another monk and I were driving through New Jersey. He mentioned that he had a friend who was a nun teaching at a boarding school nearby, so we decided to stop and say hello to her. While we were chatting with this sister, she mentioned that the school was being used that week by a group of Zen students and there that was a Japanese roshi (Zen master) guiding them. We asked if it would be possible to meet him. Shortly thereafter an elderly Japanese monk came out to greet us. He did not have much English so he was accompanied by an interpreter. His name was Joshu Sasaki. As we talked, it turned out that he was surprised to meet Christian monks. He did not think that there were any Christian monks in America; he believed that they existed only in Europe. When I asked if he would like to visit our monastery, his immediate reaction was, “When?” We agreed that he would come to the abbey in Spencer in a month or so. (Joshu Sasaki Roshi is now in his mid-nineties, still alive at the time of my writing this article.)

I now had to go home and tell my abbot that we were going to have a Zen roshi visit us. The abbot, Thomas Keating, graciously agreed to the visit. Sasaki Roshi came for a weekend and spoke to the community about Zen. This visit was shortly after Easter that year and Sasaki Roshi spoke of the Christian experience of Easter, Christ’s resurrection, as the primary experience of any Christian monk who would gain insight into the practice of Zen. The brothers of Spencer were impressed by the insight of this Buddhist monk into this core understanding of the Christian contemplative experience. Many thought it might be a good idea to experience a sesshin so we invited the roshi to return to give one. He did this several months later. This was the beginning of a ten-year association during which Sasaki Roshi came to Spencer regularly. During that same period I was able to go to the roshi’s meditation center in California for a couple of long retreats of 90 days each.

After the roshi ceased coming to Spencer I had to practice on my own, so for the next fifteen or twenty years I would practice either in my room or in the back of the Church. Although we no longer had sesshins at Spencer I was able, once in a while, to go out for a sesshin and even had permission to go on a long retreat. Some of these retreats I made at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This center is only a couple of miles from the former site of our monastery, when it was located at a site known as Our Lady of the Valley. I still enjoy a good relationship with the Providence Zen Center, which belongs to the Korean Zen tradition. The practice in the Korean tradition differs somewhat from the Japanese, and experiencing those differences helped me in my continuing practice.

Over the years I found that Zen has helped me to appreciate many of the traditional physical practices that have fallen out of use in Western monasticism, such as long fasts, chanting the Psalter, prostrations, and others. I still do some of these practices, especially if I am able to get some days at one of our hermitages, for it is difficult to do them in the context of our monastery, where they might disturb others. After all, chanting the Psalter at the top of your voice while banging on a drum can cause problems for others—Zen practice is very physical at times!

About five or six years ago Father Robert Kennedy, S.J., gave a talk at the Center for Buddhist Studies. Another monk, Fr. Robert, and I went to hear him. We both enjoyed his talk and spoke with him after the conference. Fr. Kennedy mentioned that he would soon be giving a Zen retreat at the monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. Both Fr. Robert and I decided to attend that sesshin. During the sesshin, I thought that I would like to become a student of Fr. Kennedy. It had been many years since I had formally asked someone to be my teacher, mainly because of the difficulty of getting permission to visit a teacher. I felt that having as a teacher a priest who lived relatively nearby (in the New York area) would be helpful. It turned out that I was able to attend several of Fr. Kennedy’s retreats. During one of them I asked if he would formally accept me as his student, and he agreed.

Around this time I also came to realize that I was ready to do some intensive koan work. There are several collections of koans that are traditional in the various schools of Zen practice. A student will usually have to work his way through these books of koans as he advances in his Zen practice, and it is almost impossible to do this work without access to a Zen teacher. This meant that I had to have more ready access to Fr. Kennedy than a retreat every couple of months. I spoke about this problem to both Fr. Kennedy and my abbot, Fr. Damian. Fr. Kennedy brought up the possibility of my going to Jersey City and living in the Jesuit community at St. Peter’s College. I asked my abbot and community for a study leave, to which they graciously agreed. I am also very thankful to the Jesuit Community of St. Peter’s College for the wonderful graciousness and warmth with which they accepted me into their midst.

Shortly after my joining him in Jersey City, Fr. Kennedy made me his Dharma heir. Over the next eighteen months the two of us worked our way through most of the books of koans in his tradition. At one point Fr. Kennedy asked me if I would like to become a Zen teacher myself. After consulting with my abbot and a couple of others, I decided that I ought to take that role. Shortly thereafter I returned to my monastery, although I would often return to the New York area to help Fr. Kennedy give Zen retreats to groups. I suppose I could call this period “teacher training.”

During these retreats I would give talks to the people on Zen practice. The relation of Zen practice to the Christian tradition would frequently be a subject of interest to the group. There was always an opportunity for students to see me for private interviews. Such interviews were short, lasting for some ten or fifteen minutes. We would talk about the experience of the retreat, difficulties with one’s posture, how the mind was working during the silence, and other things that would arise in the course of the retreat. Zen retreats are work, mental and physical. The physical mostly grows out of the effort to sit quietly with your legs crossed in front of you. There were also difficulties with the schedule, such as getting up early and sitting for long periods without moving. Mentally there are the doubts that are so common in any way of practicing prayer and meditation. One of the virtues frequently mentioned by Zen teachers is courage. We Christians don’t often think of courage as a virtue that is necessary in the practice of meditation. We easily forget that fortitude is a necessity in any life of prayer.

At the end of my “teacher training” I was installed as a sensei in the White Plum Asanga of the Soto tradition. The installation took place here at my monastery. To my knowledge, this was the first time that such a ceremony has taken place in a monastery of our Order. It is my hope that this step will help to bring this way of meditation into the Western Christian tradition.