Talking with Roshi Jiyu-Kennett
Morgan Zo Callahan, 1983, Santa Barbara California

Roshi Jiyu-Kennett, founder of Shasta Abbey, died on November 6, at the age of seventy-two. In thirty-three years of teaching, she guided hundreds of students, and her books, including The Wild, White Goose (1977, 1978) andSelling Water by the River(1972),* are read widely by Western Zen practitioners. In her last years of life, however, Kennett Roshi increasingly isolated herself from other Zen lineages in the United States and Japan. - Tricycle Memorial

Morgan Zo Callahan: What is Buddhism for you? What was its attraction for you, as a young lady in England who would later go to the Japanese Soto Zen Soji-ji monastery (’62-’68) to study and practice with your teacher, Koho Zenji, to whom you offer such admiration and affection; and then begin Mount Shasta Monastery in ’71 in Northern California?

How did you come to understand the Buddhist teachings regarding the cultivation of insight and wisdom, founded in moral and character development, heart-connected in compassion? And secondly, you are offering this retreat for Catholics, and we tend to shy away from Buddhism as “atheist.” Would you clarify for us Buddhism’s purpose and heart, which you said in your talk, is “to find the Eternal,” an aspiration appreciated by us Catholics who are theists?

Zenji Jiyu-Kennett: Yes, it is the being intimate with the Eternal that both attracts me and puts my own practice into perspective, even with the incredibly varying expressions of what Buddhism is. I acknowledge that some Buddhists teachers don’t agree with me.

You are a Catholic, yet there are significant places where we can meet in our two traditions, as well as acknowledge our theological-philosophical-ritual differences.

So I will start by quoting an ancient sutta, attributed to Buddha shortly after his own experiencial finding of the Eternal: “O monks, there is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated. If this were not true, there would be no point to life and no point to our training.”

This is the nearest Buddhism comes to God; it is the “apophatic” way of stating that there is something, as opposed to the “cataphatic” way which gives specifics of what that Reality is.

Negatively, we say that the great Reality is not changing, not dying, not being born, not being created; so we are far form being atheists. Some Buddhists call it “the deathless.” Zen just refuses to say what it doesn’t know for sure and encourages people to find out for themselves rather than rely on doctrine, including Buddhist doctrine.

Morgan Zo Callahan: Yes, thanks for conveying that we are in this together, as Buddhists and Catholics; I appreciate being with you here in Santa Barbara.

I’ve been adjusting my own notion of sin, both original and personal, from observing the possibility that we can experience great potential for love in ourselves and others, by not covering it up so much with all our thinking and hurtfulness.

I know you speak of moral precepts, which we, Catholics, also try to embrace as essential to spiritual practice along with our prayer, worship, meditation, reflection, and service, with a preference for the poor.

May I review meditatively with you the Five Precepts: don’t kill; don’t steal; don’t practice hurtful sexual practices; don’t lie; don’t abuse intoxicants-expressed positively as, may I practice compassion, generosity, sexual responsibility, truthfulness and listening, and mindful consumption?

Zenji Jiyu-Kennett: Yes. There’s a famous Buddhist scripture which says that the most important human challenge is to understand birth, life and death completely. Life and death should not be avoided but embraced, lived, met completely; being detached does not mean being disinterested, above it all.

Life and death themselves will be found to be nirvana, with your sincere involvement.

Practice and taste for yourself. If we find the Eternal in life and death, then we are no longer so afraid. Even death is another moment in the Now.

Life becomes a sharing in the Eternal and that’s why we meditate, to stay in that beautiful, peaceful place with the Eternal. That’s why we strengthen our ability to concentrate and to discipline ourselves to be morally straight. The kingdom of heaven is within each of us.

This teaching can be used by you, as a Catholic, or by one from any religion or without a religion, because we’re talking essences of what great religion is, rather than all the “isms” themselves. Buddhism does not require any doctrine. Prove it true for your self.

Your questioning of sin is an instructive example. In Buddhism we say, “Refrain from,” not “ You shall not.” Your unskillful intentions, speech, and actions are covering up the original goodness to be discovered. You do not, in our view, have some outside God giving you a commandment, but you find out that if you do good, refrain form being hurtful, greedy, jealous, and mean, you will then know a peace and happiness.

You only let yourself and others down if you break a precept; but you don’t feel shame and guilt before a God. You just dust yourself off and start to practice again; you don’t feel a fear of a supreme being who will condemn and punish and judge you. You yourself carry the consequences.


See Tricycle memorial on Zenji Jiyu-Kennett