“There is no point in being Buddhist! One does it for the sheer joy of swimming in the infinite!”
– Robert Thurman, as quoted in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
When the three gongs sound, the Ocean Zendo practitioners take their seats in the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike — on cushions and mats, crossing their legs into full lotus, half-lotus and Burmese, or in chairs, their feet touching the floor, hands in their laps.
In the silence, their eyes do not close; instead, they drop to a 45-degree angle, unfocused, as they begin to breathe.
And while the group follows one another in practice, and no one person ever stands out, 90-year-old Dorothy “Dai-en” Friedman is an unmistakable presence — in part because she never misses a session.
“She’s an extremely dedicated practitioner — extremely,” Zen monk Linda Coleman said. “She probably shows up more than anybody in the zendo on a regular basis. We all do, but she’s never not there. She is amazingly attentive and open to people, and a wonderful guide.”
Established in the 1980s by Sagaponack-based writer Peter Matthiessen, Ocean Zendo is one of several year-round Buddhism practices on the East End, though, to a keen eye, they all vary widely from one another, according to Lutha Leahy-Miller, founder of East End Dharma, which meets at The Ross School in East Hampton. “The ultimate goal of realizing the unification of wisdom, emptiness and clarity is the same, pretty much,” he said, “but how you get there is completely different.”
In the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that Mr. Leahy-Miller has practiced since 1997, they predominantly chant and meditate, while Kadampa Meditation Center The Hamptons in Water Mill uses meditations and teachings during any given class, according to resident teacher Neil Toyota.
“It’s more than just going into a meditation class and being guided through something that is relaxing and soothing, and leaving the class, and, as soon as you get in the car to drive off, that peace is lost,” he said. “We’re actually guiding people through meditations that are intended to not just give you peace in the moment but to learn how to cultivate and hang on to peace once you’ve left.”
Compared to other religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, the Buddhist population on the East End is quite small, according to Mr. Leahy-Miller, who strayed from his own Irish-Catholic and Jewish heritage to practice a religion that felt more aligned from the start.
“I always noticed that all the Tibetan monks were always laughing, so that’s what kind of sold me on it. I was, like, ‘Hey, these people seem to know what they’re doing,’” he said. “And, after 20 years, I’ve definitely become more compassionate, more patient, less fearful and less judgmental, and much less angry.”
Before meeting at The Ross School, which held a Dharma talk and Tibetan meditation with Lama Ani Lhadrun on Friday night, Mr. Leahy-Miller would gather his group every Wednesday at Ocean Zendo — which was then located in a small horse stable on Mr. Matthiessen’s property.
There, Ocean Zendo followed the Zen Peacemaker Order, which initially attracted Michel “Engu” Dobbs to the practice in 1994, not the celebrity of its founder.
“There were people who came to meet Peter, and for me that was an extra,” Mr. Dobbs said. “He had a strong presence, and strong, quiet presence, and I was impressed by him — and a little intimidated. But I was a New York City kid, so I tended not to be pro-authority figure. It took a while to get over my reluctance to accept authority.”
He even felt an internal resistance when Mr. Matthiessen — known in the zendo as Isshin Muryo Roshi — asked him to become his Dharma Heir through the process of transmission, which required Mr. Dobbs to first become a Zen priest.
“I was like, ‘Really?’ I come from atheist stock, so it was, like, ‘Oh, my parents will be so disappointed!’” Mr. Dobbs said with a laugh. “We talked about it. He was, like, ‘This is the way it was done. I did it with my teacher, so that’s how I would like to do it.’ So I was, like, ‘Okay.’
“In that relationship, of course, there’s certain loyalty and obedience that happens where you do things even against your own desire, because your teacher wants you to,” he continued. “You trust that it’ll bring you somewhere good, hopefully.”
In the years since Mr. Matthiessen’s death in 2014, the new Roshi — or Zen master — has found himself in a place where he “doesn’t really judge things as good or bad too much anymore,” he said, while simultaneously maintaining his practice and preparing his next Dharma Heir.
“When you do transmission, you actually make a vow that you will also pass it along,” he said. “It’s really important that you pass it along, not to let the lineage die with you. There’s other pressures involved in that transmission, and it’s also, like, ‘Who might be able to step into my role?’”
This winter, Ms. Coleman will take that first step and become a Zen priest.
“That will be a lifelong exploration. How I ever arrived at being a priest is a mystery, a big one,” she said. “I’m humbled by all the events and the knowable and unknowable influences that have arrived me at this place, and I have uncertainties — like, what does it mean? — but, mostly, I know that it does mean to serve others and to carry on the tradition, which has really done so much to free me. I’ve seen the beauty of it, in its way of freeing others and serving others. I guess that’s how I comfort myself in not feeling like an imposter.”
Her first experience with spirituality came by way of a quiet Catholic church from her childhood, where she lit candles and felt at peace with her nanny, a woman she trusted and loved. Without any previous connection, she felt that same sensation when she walked into Ocean Zendo in Sagaponack for the first time, she said.
“I felt at home in a way that I really hadn’t felt at home, probably in my life, in a lot of ways,” she said. She was a mother, with children about 7 and 10 years old, and had just gotten out of a difficult marriage. Ms. Coleman said what she found at the Ocean Zendo was a different kind of peace, a different kind of home.
“And I never left,” she said.
Ms. Coleman, who worked as a hospice nurse for many years, was by Mr. Matthiessen’s side when he died, she said, as a caregiver, a student and a friend. “There was a lot of grief and difficulty finding a rhythm,” she said. “I don’t remember how long after he died that we moved out of the zendo, and then reestablished practice at the UU. It’s a little bit of a blur for me now. Certainly I grieved and still grieve for him. I loved him very dearly.”
The group has changed over the years, but their three tenets — Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Compassionate Actions — and the zendo’s core members have remained the same, among them Ms. Friedman. Her spiritual journey began in the 1960s, she said, while she was working as a professional dancer while suffering from a bad back.
“I tried everything that was available at that time: orthopedics and osteopath and so on and so forth, and nothing was helpful,” she said. “Then a friend suggested that I try to work with a particular teacher who was a pioneer, off the usual track of things. And the first class I went to, it’s like my life changed drastically. It’s like I was in my body for the first time as a dancer, never to have been in your body this way. I was aware of breathing for the first time in my life. It was extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. It just completely changed my life.”
Her path led her to mysticism, and then Hindu, but “there was something missing that I couldn’t grasp, that connected me with the ground,” she said. The answer was, first, Buddhist Vipassana practice and then, in the 1980s, Zen Buddhism — and Mr. Matthiessen.
“I learned that he was very generous, to be there, to talk to you about any difficulties you were having with the practice,” she said. “There’s a certain intimacy that evolves when you can be fully honest with somebody. So that existed, and that was a support for the process. That’s what a teacher is for: not to tell you what to do, but more to support your process in which you’re discovering yourself, which is unique.”
She carries his teaching through her own work today, sharing herself with anyone who asks, without expectations or any return. Her work is a state of evolution, with no begging and no end, she said.
“All I can tell you is I get younger and younger as I get older. I have more energy than I had 20 years ago,” she said. “I attribute it to having shed old patterns that use your energy in a negative way. It’s letting go of a lot of weight. My life has changed enormously as I shed my history.
“It’s all about discovering who you are as a result of letting go of all of your conditioning,” she continued. “Our conditioning leads us to have certain attitudes and opinions about what life is about, and when you enter a Buddhist path, you don’t just take that for granted. It’s a little bit like finding your home. In other words, you can explore different groups, but you eventually have to find a place where you feel you can be comfortable with yourself — where you’re fully accepted, unconditionally.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and Southampton Press