Dharma In The North-Atlantic

Nothing but sitting (for coffee) with the Roshi who brought Zen to Iceland
22.8.2012
Words by Eli Petzold
In his shades and North Face jacket, you probably wouldn't recognise Jakusho Kwong-Roshi as a highly influential spiritual leader. But that's sort of the point—Roshi teaches a layperson's version of Zen Buddhism, which draws little distinction between the spiritual and the everyday. When he was first ordained as a priest, he planned to always wear his ceremonial robes. But when that sartorial choice garnered more attention than he wanted (not to mention a few wardrobe malfunctions), he switched to the garb of everyday life.

Though he spends most of his time leading meditations and intensive retreats at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Centre in Northern California, he travels once a year to Iceland and Poland to visit the two Zen communities that he helped established. We talked to Jakusho during his recent visit to Iceland, and learned about the Icelandic Zen community and his role in founding it.  

Contemplating the Kreppa

After more than 25 years since his first visit, Roshi has noticed a slow, but steady, rate of change with regard to Zen in Iceland. He once was met with scepticism, even prejudice. “They would give me a hard time when I'd come sometimes when they ask for your passport [at the airport],” he recalls. But that has changed, he says.

Roshi says he is more interested in noting the differences he's noticed outside the context of Zen, in particular, the financial collapse of 2008. Roshi sees the collapse as an opportunity for increased self-reflection for Icelanders: “When things get bad, people start looking in,” he says. He proposes Zen practice as a sort of antidote to the consumerism rampant both here and in other affluent countries around the globe. When you realise that you are and have everything you need, you don't feel compelled to participate in the culture of necessity and consumption. This sort of investigation needs to happen on a personal scale, regardless of, or even detached from, any sort of contemplative tradition. “But when you don't investigate,” Roshi tells me, “the problems just go on throughout history.”

India to Iceland

But how did Buddha get to Iceland? The Mahayana Buddhist traditions (of which Zen is derivative) pay particular attention to the spatial, temporal transmissions of teachings (called the Dharma), from the historical Indian Buddha to the present day teachers. According to legend, a figure named Bodhidharma brought Indian Buddhism to China where it fused with Daoist philosophy and tradition to give rise to Chan Buddhism. Chan then crossed the sea to Japan where it became adopted (and transliterated) as Zen. Then, in the last century, the Dharma travelled to the West. Jakusho Kwong-Roshi, born and raised in California, played his part in this transmission by founding the Sonoma Mountain Zen Centre in 1973.

In 1986, an Icelandic student visited Roshi at Sonoma Mountain and invited him to bring the Dharma to Iceland. Roshi obliged and came to find a tiny, but excited group of students with whom he established the group, which calls itself Nátthagi (“Night Pasture”). But if this story is lacking in the mythological complexity that so many of the Dharma-transmission tales have, Roshi offers me a more fanciful, fateful version: “When I was a baby, I used to try and reach as high as I could on the map, and that was Iceland.”

Nátthagi is by no means a large organisation, though it is growing at a consistent (read: very slow) rate. According to Statice.is, there are 98 people officially registered with the group. But Mikhael Aaron Óskarsson, Office Manager and newly ordained Zen priest, tells me that the number of practicing members is even fewer. There's a core group of 15 to 25 people. Many of the others don't come to events and meditation sits, but have become official members to support the organisation—the tax money that would usually go to the National Church goes to the Zen community instead.

“It's not really that much per person, but it adds up,” Mikhael tells me. And indeed, it has amounted to something: Nátthagi was originally renting different spaces around town—a cellar that alternated between Zen meditation and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for instance. But in 1999, the community applied for and gained status as a legal religious organisation, allowing them to receive this tax money. These funds then enabled them to buy their two room office at Grensásvegur 8—a clean and peaceful space in an otherwise ugly, nondescript office building. There's a quiet, beautiful meditation hall where the community holds daily sits, and an impressive library of books from Eastern teachers—certainly the largest collection of metaphysical books I've seen in Iceland thus far.

Doing Nothing

I visited the office of Nátthagi on an open house day. All of their daily meditation sits are free and open to the public, but on this day, members of the community would instruct anyone curious and interested in trying zazen, Zen meditation. The entrance to the office is through a back door in an alley off of Grensásvegur. I'm half-convinced I have the wrong address as I enter. As soon as I arrive on the fourth floor, however, the faint smell of incense makes it clear I'm in the right place.

A Zen student from the community sits at a table, eager to instruct newcomers in zazen. I had had a little experience with Rinzai Zen meditation in which practitioners sit on cushions facing the centre of the hall, working with koanas, Zen riddles that can only be solved through experience, not logic. A well-known example goes: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But Nátthagi, part of the Soto lineage, practices a slightly different version of zazen called Shikantaza, which translates to something like “doing nothing but sitting.” And that's exactly what it looks like—practitioners sit along the sides of the meditation hall and face the wall, focusing on nothing but breath. The idea is to empty one's self of the normal contents of consciousness, allowing a calm, non-judgemental, non-objectifying emptiness to arise in the mind. “Because if it is empty, it can contain everything,” the Roshi explains.

Before I enter the meditation hall, the student points to a bouquet of incense and asks if I want to make an offering of incense. I'm supposed to light the incense with a candle in the meditation hall, then place it in a pot of sand to burn. The offering is not some sort of mysterious sacrifice to a deity, but rather an experiment in presence.

Like the traditional Zen tea ceremonies, the rite itself is an end, not a means. The goal is to infuse each motion with intention and presence until the distinction between the self and the ceremony falls away. When I enter the meditation hall, however, I find the offering and zazen much harder than I expected. There are a handful of students sitting still, facing the immaculate walls.

My mind races as I light the incense and it continues to distract me as I sit, staring at the dizzying white wall. I try to focus on breath alone, but it's difficult. That's why they call it practice.

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