The Rebel Abbot of Zen Mountain

Snapshots of John Daido Loori Roshi

Sean Murphy

Daido had a close relationship with my daughter Eliza, whom he called his “youngesdaido cartoont Zen student.” Once she had some questions—she was about seven—and he sat down with her for dokusan in the dining room. He took it seriously enough to call it that: dokusan. Eliza remembers her question as “What happens to us after we die?” She doesn’t recall Daido’s answer, but remembers she was satisfied at the time. Now she says she wishes she did remember, because she still has the same question. There’s a painting Daido gave Eliza, with a little girl and Daido sitting cross-legged and a tree with an owl in it saying “Who?” It says “Daido loves Eliza.” Daido really connected with kids.

—Wally Taiko Edge, Mountains and Rivers Order senior lay practitioner

An enduring image many have of Daido Roshi is of him riding his vintage red tractor as he cut grass in the large field adjacent to the monastery. For smaller swatches we used the Gravely, a lawn mower that I came to love while in residence. The Gravely was akin to an aircraft propeller facing down, and it generated enough power to propel its rider at a brisk clip. I moved quickly, smartly turning the powerful machine with precision—an intoxicating feeling.

It was spring, and I was approaching the front gate, where a magnolia tree stood in full bloom. I had a good head of steam and pulled a lever—the wrong one. The mower sliced through the magnolia’s trunk in an instant, leaving a tiny stump. Magnolia blossoms were everywhere.

I was appalled, but when Daidoshi arrived shortly thereafter, he simply surveyed the devastation, saying little. The next day he presented me with another magnolia to plant, near the stump, which is why there are two of them today; the original came back stronger than ever. During the ensuing months, I became Daido’s arborist. He had me planting trees all over the place.

—Donald Genshin Bucher, Mountains and Rivers Order lay practitioner

After my mother’s death, suddenly alone with Daido in dokusan, I doubled over in sobs. With the firm, comforting touch of a hand on my shoulder came a quiet voice of perfect understanding: “Now your practice is crying for your mother.”

—Steven Hozan Baker-Horvath, Mountains and Rivers Order lay practitioner

I’d finished a month at the monastery and was pondering staying for a year. I hadn’t a clue about practice or monastic etiquette. I’d moved from a ranch in Wyoming; the only time I felt comfortable in those early days at Zen Mountain Monastery was when I had a hammer or chain saw in my hand.

One night there was a windstorm that blew a bunch of pines into Long Pond. We got in Daido’s canoe (which made him very happy), and he steadied it while I cut logs with a chain saw, standing and balancing in the bow. I plowed through the wood, sometimes with just one foot in the boat and the other braced against a log. “You’re fucking crazy,” Daido said, smiling. I didn’t know Zen masters swore.

After I’d cut them, Daido got his beloved tractor and with a thick rope began pulling the trees from the pond. I’d tie them, he’d drag them out. With one heavy log he stalled the tractor and cursed, started again, and gunned it. The rope snapped like a bullwhip, missing my head by only a couple of feet, sounding like a shot from a deer rifle. Daido turned off the tractor and calmly said, “I guess we should stop.” There was a long silence. The air smelled of pine and pond. Daido stood watching me, a faint smile on his lips; something was happening between us, but my mind was blank.

“Two feet one way or the other and poof!” he explained.

I felt strangely at home. “You’re fucking crazy,” I told him, smiling.

I stayed the year.

—John Kain

Ice Head Form John Daido Loori

 

Image 1: © Rachael Loori Romero

Image 2: Maezumi Roshi (left) and John Daido Loori Roshi © Mountains and Rivers Order, National Buddhist Archives

Image 3: (cartoon by Daido)

Image 4: Photograph by John Daido Loori “Ice Head Form,” 2009 johndaidoloori.org

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