It has recently been my pleasure to make the acquaintance of Myosen Marcia Olsen, a Zen Buddhist Priest and author of Experiencing God Through Zen Insight. Through this intriguing book, Myosen endeavors to shed light on the often misunderstood practices of Zen Buddhism. Through her own personal experiences and realizations, the author appeals to readers on a personal level. I was compelled to take her thoughts into account with an unbiased perspective, as all should. I would also like to thank Myosen for this beautiful interview. She has worked diligently on answering my every question, for which I am sincerely grateful. I will be posting my official review of Experiencing God Through Zen Insight in due time, but for now, here is our dialogue:
Ty: Myosen Osho, you are a Zen Buddhist osho, which is nearly synonymous with a priest. Could you please elaborate on what this entails? How has your history and past experiences shaped you into the person you are today? Out of these experiences, which have most enabled you to become an Osho?
Myosen: Buddha invited people to come and experience for themselves. He did not want anyone to believe blindly and expressly said so. I wish to mirror that sentiment.
Perhaps if I talk about my experiences, people will be able to relate to my experiences at least to some degree. I have not reached mastery, but I have had both experience at practice as well as enlightening experiences. I know the value of practice and where it leads.
Regarding your question about becoming an osho, here is a list of some things a student does to further his practice and help others: Practicing in intense, formal ways; meditating in moderate but consistent ways daily; practicing in everyday life; studying the master’s teaching and sutras; experiencing truth; and having a willingness to teach others are all a part of becoming osho. I studied Zen twenty-one years with a very high-level master before I became an osho. Practice involves both physical and mental efforts in tandem with the use of one’s will. Some people have become oshos in a shorter period of time. I became osho in 1989 after having supported and functioned within our own center, Joshu Zen Temple, for nineteen years along with my husband. Each person’s situation is different. Capacities, needs, and limitations vary from person to person. There are different aspects and levels of practice. Each person does what he can to practice.
Regarding what has shaped me in this life, in general I think it is partly experiences in one’s life that shape a person, but a big part of it is a person’s innate personality. People are born with greatly varying personalities which include strengths, weakness, and tendencies. I’ve had a very challenging life, but I also have a tenacious spirit. I think my tenacious and somewhat optimistic spirit helped me continue with my Zen practice.
There were a lot of good things that happened in my early life, but the bad things that happened might have broken a weaker person. Perhaps the good things helped keep me stronger, but there’s also an intangible element involved, something deeper. I think kids need all the love, moral support, and guidance they can get without dominating or squelching their inherent personalities—especially in today’s world. They also need some discipline, structure, and need to learn to handle disappointment. However, one’s character usually shines through it all.
I’ve always been drawn to the religious and spiritual. Christianity gave me some satisfaction when I was growing up, but I reached a point where it no longer served my needs. Our family life began falling apart when I was thirteen or fourteen. The family relationships became more corrosive and toxic. I found that without a happy, supportive, and cohesive family life and without happiness in life in general, my religion did nothing to soothe or bring me happiness.
I did not realize it then, but I was searching for happiness that was not dependent upon things like family happiness or worldly happiness.
When I found Joshu Roshi, I was impressed with the form of practice and the teaching of Rinzai Zen as done by him. The Roshi helped me progress. He was very refined and skilled. He was and is powerfully spiritual. The experiences I’ve had in Zen practice have been remarkable. The master also helped my husband and many others. Thanks to my practice and my master, I experienced things I could have never anticipated. I always doubted that I could do it, but I did eventually have some profound breakthoughs.
Perhaps a person must feel drawn to practice. I would say it is pretty rare that anyone could be pushed into developing an interest. On the other hand, our master was put into Zen practice by his family as part of the Japanese custom. The custom was that older sons would inherit the family property, and the younger sons would often go into a temple or monastery as a Zen monk. I believe something similar happened with the famous master, Ikkyu, who entered a Zen temple at five years of age. The Japanese culture supported and encouraged this. So you can see that masters have come forth from such a culture.
In our organization, a person who has studied Zen sincerely and long enough with our master and has put forth the effort to help others through establishing a Zen center and thereby teaching others will usually be ordained an osho. When one becomes osho, he is given formal authority to speak and expound about Zen practice. However, an osho who has not been ordained a master is not a master. We have about twenty-five oshos in our overall organization, none of whom has become a master. There have been thousands of Zen students who have come and gone.
Ty: Throughout your book, it was mentioned several times that words are not the way, but merely guide posts along the way. If the ultimate goal is to experience Dharmakaya, do you believe that Experiencing God Through Zen Insight could be a helpful source for students of Zen?
Myosen: Some of my friends who are experienced Zen students and oshos liked my book very much. The book may inspire people who are seekers or who are open in general or who are inclined to go in this direction. Some who find their lives are unsatisfactory may be interested. There is the possibility that the book could motivate someone to practice Zen. It may help an interested person to get an idea of what to expect. It might also provide an interested person who reads the book a little bit of background from which to begin asking questions. I never knew what questions to ask; I just delved into practice. I began reading books on Zen when I was around fifteen or sixteen, but I did not begin Zen practice until age nineteen. There was a famous master who did not start until age sixty.
Ty: You experienced a Christian Upbringing. Do you feel that this has allowed you to approach others of varying religions with Zen concepts, keeping in mind that all spiritual paths share core values?
Myosen: I believe the book gives people educated in the Western culture and Western way of looking at religion something about Zen to get their teeth into and maybe provides a starting place to be able to relate, just a tad, to the Zen mind. I firmly believe that the teachings of Buddha and Christ are much closer than people realize. The book provides some fairly strong correlations from a very different perspective. Human beings tend to pigeon-hole and categorize everything into neat little boxes, all of which are rigidly separate from one another.
Ty: There is a point in your book where you discuss two forces of the universe: expansion and contraction, or masculine and feminine. What have you deduced about homosexuality? It is quite possible that humans are inherently attached to being male or female. Although, perhaps love can transcend gender. What is the difference between spiritual love and attachment?
Myosen: Spiritual love occurs spontaneously when one has dissolved self. A whole new world opens up. Spiritual love does not move from one object to another. One experiences infinite love. Human love is more attached love coming from the particular mind and heart of an individual. Both kinds of love are good, but when we practice Zen sincerely, human love becomes more balanced, less conditional, and less selfishly attached—happier and freer.
I have known many homosexuals, most of whom have been wonderful people—industrious, very intelligent, congenial, energetic, and productive. I like them just fine. Homosexuals have the same spiritual capability as everyone does. We human beings should not expect the world to change for us. It is more spiritually productive to look at oneself and work to find happiness that goes beyond the human world. Everyone experiences some kind of rejection or prejudice. I’ve had plenty of that in my life. I’ve worked around it and have meditated through it. It is actually conducive to one’s spiritual growth.
Ty: We both know that theorizing and idealizing will not provide results in the ultimate attainment of Dharmakaya. However, you discussed something called Mahayana Democracy. Could you elaborate on this? What is the usefulness in conceptualizing if we know that the world is inherently imperfect and always will be?
Myosen: Even though Zen practice focuses on the individual, it is possible for mankind to evolve as a whole, with many beings making efforts to evolve spiritually and intellectually, thereby uplifting the culture. Some countries have been examples of this, even though they never reached “perfection”, there is an intangible perfection.
I think it is instructive to examine ourselves and our ideals and longings as human beings. I think it also illustrates what is possible, even though highly improbable. I think there is value in expressing our ideals about a perfect world, even if it is futile. Then we must throw it away completely and not attach to it. That is important.
This painful world is our spiritual growing ground—just as it is. Even though the world is imperfect and we are imperfect, we can realize and experience perfection—right in this imperfect world. I personally would love to see all the people of the world work toward a higher level of spiritual attainment and stop enslaving and hurting one another in so many ways. But then, it would be immature of me to expect the world to change to suit my personal desires. I can change myself. I can attain happiness that goes beyond the world and is not dependent upon any particular worldly conditions or manifestations, not dependent upon people smiling at me and affirming me.
Ty: Suffering is an intrinsic aspect of life. Everybody carries the burden of an overflowing chalice. Our minds are ridden with worry, anxiety, fear, and attachment. Many are skeptical that Zen practice can make a difference, and many believe that there is no time for such “idleness” in their lives. How can we incorporate mindfulness in our every day actions? How can simple endeavors such as washing dishes become spiritual practices?
Myosen: It is up to the individual, of course. Everyone is different. There are different avenues for different people. Some may consider Zen practice as “idleness”, but many appreciate the dimension it has added to their lives. I have found it indispensable.
Yes, the human mind is full of worry, anxiety, fear, and attachment. When we are feeling those things, that means we are experiencing just that—the human mind. We naturally want to experience something greater, the Absolute Mind, to rise above suffering. After experiencing the Absolute, we come back to the human experience feeling revived, invigorated, and more balanced, more at peace. The cycle continues, going deeper and deeper with practice, depending upon the individual. It is a struggle, a worthwhile struggle. It is a struggle that leads in an upward spiral, not a downward struggle to despair, even though it may get difficult.
In Zen practice it is important to unify with our everyday activities such as washing dishes, sweeping the floor or cooking dinner. We utterly dissolve into those activities. That is all that exists for that moment. Then we go on to the next activity.
Zen practice has helped to keep me grounded. It helps me to cope with life. Zen practice has helped me counter stress. My practice has helped me in many ways, from dealing with stress and emotional problems—all the way to having wonderful, spiritual experiences at times. It depends upon each individual, how his particular situation unfolds, and how much consistency, patience, and energy he can put into his practice.
I am an ordinary person. I have used it in my life and have proven it for myself. There is no magic bullet that will wipe away all suffering in one fell swoop. There are some things in our lives that must unfold and with which we must deal. The question is: How does one deal with the good times and the bad times and stay in balance—not attaching to the good and only seeking the good or exciting things in life? One can thoroughly enjoy the most mundane things in life. This is the way to maturity.
Ty: For those who are curious about Zen, what knowledge would you impart before they embark upon this journey?
Myosen: One cannot be dependent upon society, the group, or “group think”. One cannot attach to that way of thinking in Zen practice. One must free himself from society, culture, and his upbringing in order to discover his True Nature or True Self. One can function more happily in society and culture—just as it is—when he has freed himself from it.
Zen practice is an individual endeavor. Progress takes place within the individual. We do help students via the structured discipline and the teaching, but the Zen student must make his own efforts. The student gets help from the “outside”, but he must apply himself to change himself on the “inside”. That’s why it is said that the practice is an individual endeavor.
If you enjoyed this interview, you can learn more about Myosen Marcia Olsen here, and purchase Experiencing God Through Zen Insight at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Crisp, Ty (2013) Interview with Myosen Marcia Olsen