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Jagged Karma

The first time I heard the words “jagged karma”, I was sitting with Roshi Jishu. She and Bernie had asked me to serve as chair of the Zen Community of New York board. ZCNY was in the process of selling the Greyston Bakery to The Greyston Foundation. Beginning from the ZCNY platform, Bernie and Jishu had created The Greyston Foundation, a network of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises and in so doing had created a pathway out of homeless for residents of the poorest community in Westchester County (at that time, the wealthiest county in America).

As we moved to sell the bakery — part of Bernie and Jishu’s exit strategy from Yonkers — a number of former Greyston Zen students whose sweat equity helped to get the bakery going were asking where “their share of the profit” was going. There was a lot of upset­­­­­­ness.

“Bernie has created a lot of jagged karma,” Jishu told me. “Try to see what you can do to heal this situation.”

Bernie was an enormously creative teacher, and when he felt “done” with a project he moved on. There were always students who were left behind.

I wasn't sure what to do.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but I talked to a bunch of unhappy people. They didn’t really have an equity stake, I explained. Although the bakery was a for-profit enterprise, it was wholly owned by ZCNY which was a not-for-profit corporation. They may have forgotten, disappointed as Bernie moved from the zendo to the street, but their contribution to the project was a contribution to ZCNY not an investment in the bakery. Not very satisfying news, but some, I think, appreciated a willingness to hear their stories, appreciated that someone from ZCNY had called.

I was glad that I had made the effort but can’t say I had developed any skills in healing jagged karma.

Jagged Karma. In the weeks this year leading up to Maezumi Roshi’s memorial, the White Plum Asanga, the organization of successors in Maezumi’s lineage, offered a wonderful series of zoom conferences. My favorite was a panel with Maezumi’s living direct successors. I was struck by the absence of Genpo Roshi, Dennis Merzel. Genpo was the second of the successors, after Bernie. They were close. Genpo was the first person Bernie gave Inka, the final seal of approval as a teacher. Maezumi Roshi had died in Japan having just completed the formalities of Bernie’s Inka registration at the headquarters of the Soto Sect. It was then up to Bernie to carry forward with the Inka empowerment.

Genpo was not mentioned by anyone on the panel of direct successors. I was reminded of Voldemort, the Harry Potter villain. “He who must not be named.” There was danger, it seemed, even in the name.

A few years ago, Genpo was at the center of one of American Zen’s sexual scandals — Dharma teachers accused of sexually inappropriate behavior with female students. The White Plum email chain burned. What to do about Genpo? This was much too judgmental for me. I distanced myself from the White Plum. I just didn’t want to be involved. I have only just re-engaged with the White Plum during the Pandemic.

It was a wonderful panel though. Maezumi’s other living direct successors shared their experience of Maezumi as a teacher. I learned so much.

I learned so much.

And then the following week, following the Memorial service which was hosted by Roshi Tenkei Coppens and his sangha from the Netherlands, there was a tribute to Maezumi Roshi’s European legacy. First, we watched a wonderful video documenting Maezumi Roshi’s three trips to Europe. There, throughout the video, front and center, was Genpo Roshi. So many wonderful photographs of Genpo and Maezumi, laughing together, enjoying each other’s presence. The video was followed by a panel with Tenkei, my good friend Roshi Michel Dubois, and Roshi Catherine Pages, all successors of Genpo, all sharing wonderful memories of Maezumi and the gifts which he brought to Europe. Tenkei told the story: Genpo had brought the White Plum lineage to Europe, establishing groups in England, France, and Poland. Maezumi visited to lead sesshins with Genpo’s groups, to offer his support. Catherine shared, “Maezumi Roshi was a grandfather to me, the teacher of my teacher.”

I thought back to the panel the week before. Genpo Roshi had been disappeared from the White Plum. How had his successors managed with this?

In such moments, I am always remembering a wonderful line from Roshi Issan Dorsey. Issan was a successor of Roshi Richard Baker, Shunryu Suzuki’s first successor at the San Francisco Zen Center. Suzuki Roshi had established the other major Soto line in the United States, paralleling the White Plum. Baker Roshi had been caught up in a scandal which appears to me from the outside quite similar to Genpo’s. Asked about the scandal, Issan had responded, “Baker Roshi is my teacher.”

This is my touchstone. Whatever jagged karma should emerge, Roshi Bernie is my teacher.

Strangely that weekend, I picked up Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Failure and began to re-read. I had re-read her earlier memoir, The Long Quiet Highway early in the pandemic. I had loved it. I loved her voice. I was beginning to find my voice and my way of weaving my life stories into my teaching. I was inspired by Natalie’s model and I wrote to her. I was trying to figure if there was a way I could get to study with her, get to one of her writing workshops, maybe bring Jamie whose writing talents were really blossoming. But COVID was too much. We didn’t manage it.

Natalie was moved. She wrote back, “If you liked Long Quiet Highway, the sequel is better.” I ordered The Great Failure immediately but it didn’t hit me the way the first volume did. And then the weekend of the Maezumi memorial, I pulled The Great Failure off the shelf and began to re-read. This time, I was blown away.

Natalie is digesting the sexual scandal that shook Katagiri Roshi’s sangha six years after his passing.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi, like Maezumi and Suzuki, grew up in the Japanese Soto Sect and came to the United States as a young man, essentially as a missionary. After working for a number of years with Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, Katagiri had established the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. Natalie had studied with him there.

Natalie’s memoir shows the process of coming to terms with the betrayal she experienced in the revelation, a process which ran deep and connected her with other shadows in her lie, other betrayals.

I wrote to her again to express my appreciation and gratitude. She thanked me for sharing the appreciation. It meant a lot because The Great Failure had been greeted by almost total silence from the American Soto world.


Natalie had emerged able to hold both the pain which she felt arising from the knowledge of Katagiri’s failure and simultaneously a love and appreciation for the gifts which she had received from him.

Silence. The Great Failure was disappeared. Genpo Roshi was disappeared. Where is Zen understanding? “Delusion and Enlightenment are One.” I reach out to Roshi Michel. Can he help me understand? We zoom. Jishu had asked me to deal with Bernie’s jagged karma. I had never succeeded in doing much with that.

Perhaps this is another opportunity to take up the challenge.

Michel shares the pain that he went through when the scandal around Genpo surfaced, how strained their relationship was for a time and how they have managed a reconciliation. He wishes that the breach between Genpo and the White Plum could be healed. “Why don’t you call Genpo?” he suggests. “You are an outsider to the estrangement. Perhaps you can do something.”

I call Genpo and we zoom that week. I have met Genpo in person only once, in Bernie’s living room in Santa Fe the morning after Jishu’s funeral. I like him. It’s a good talk. He is not interested in a reconciliation. Michel had expected that so I am not surprised. But he is worried about White Plum, about Zen in America. “We are having a very difficult time dealing with our shadows.”

“The Shadow,” Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s term for the aspects of ourselves, of our lives, which we are afraid to face. Repression of the Shadow is, for Jung, the cause of suffering. To heal is to bring the Shadow to light, to become whole.

I have been misunderstanding what Jishu was asking me to do. All this time, I have been thinking that jagged karma is healed through reconciliation. I began by trying to reconnect Bernie and the students who had experienced great pain in their relationships with him.

Now I am seeing something different. To heal our jagged karma is to bring our shadows to light. They are part of us. I had seen that years ago in my relationship with Bernie but only, it seems, a glimpse. I often tell people, “Bernie was my final koan, my hardest-to-pass koan.” It had seemed that I had been a Dharma Holder forever. When would Bernie give me transmission? Would he ever give me transmission? Twice I had offered to let Bernie off the hook. Had he made me, Jishu’s senior student, a Dharma Holder in a moment of intense grief? Had he thought better of it? “If you think you made a mistake making me a Dharma Holder, I’ll let you off the hook.”

I felt as though I was offering a prospective spouse the opportunity to back out of an engagement. Bernie declined. I asked Roshi Bob Kennedy, -- Bernie had sent me to do koan study with Bob when Bernie and I were living 3,000 miles apart, rarely seeing each other more than twice a year; Bob’s students seemed to move from Dharma Holder to transmission much more rapidly, -- “Why don’t I switch and get transmission from you?”

“No,” Bob said. “Bernie’s a very important teacher. He’s worth waiting for.”

But Bernie was difficult. I felt like he often gave me a hard time, though I imagine now that I may have been difficult for Bernie, too. Bernie was difficult for me because he was flawed. l got angry with him too easily. That was my final koan. It was only when I fully “got” that Bernie was flawed and that he was a wonderful teacher at the same time could I realize the possibility that I, with all my flaws, could actually be a teacher.

Bowing in gratitude.

For me, a whole new way of looking at jagged karma has arisen. I am bowing in gratitude to Maezumi Roshi, to Bernie Roshi, to Genpo Roshi. To Natalie Goldberg.

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