An Interview with John Daido Loori by Jeff Zaleski
John Daido Loori (June 14, 1931-October 9, 2009) was a Zen Buddhist rōshi who served as the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and was the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order and CEO of Dharma Communications. Daido Loori received shiho (dharma transmission) from Taizan Maezumi in 1986 and also received a Dendo Kyoshi certificate formally from the Soto school of Japan in 1994. In 1997, he received dharma transmission in the Harada-Yasutani and Inzan lineages of Rinzai Zen as well. In 1996 he gave dharma transmission to his student Bonnie Myotai Treace, in 1997 to Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, and in 2009 to Konrad Ryushin Marchaj.
In addition to his role as a Zen Buddhist priest, Loori was an exhibited photographer and author of more than twenty books.
In October 2009, he stepped down as abbot citing health issues. Days later, Zen Mountain Monastery announced that his death was imminent. On October 9, 2009, at 7:30 a.m. he died of lung cancer in Mount Tremper, New York. [Wikipedia]
In December, you’re giving a course at Zen Mountain Monastery on
the “Vows for the New Millennium.” This year, you've offered “Zen
Teachings for a New Millennium” at the Smithsonian Institute and
throughout the country. What does the millennium mean to you?
In a sense, it’s a millennium because by agreement we make it a
millennium within our particular calendar. But because it seems
important to people all over the world, it becomes an opportunity to
teach. As a teacher, one aspect of my job is to seize opportunities like
this and use them to bring focus and awareness to our vows, morality,
and ways in which we can improve the lot of people who are suffering all
over the world.
Are your teachings for a new millennium different than your teachings for the old millennium?
Of course not. The teachings are basically a moment-to-moment nonstop
flow; each breath follows the previous one. Yesterday it was like that;
today is like that; tomorrow will be like that.
In the catalog description of your workshop on the vows for the
new millennium, you mention “complexities and challenges of the
twenty-first century.” What are the particular challenges facing
Buddhism as we enter into this new millennium?
I really feel that Buddhism has something very special to offer. I
think that understanding the nature of the universe and the nature of
the self from the Buddhist perspective can help us take care of many of
the problems in this world if enough people are practicing. I think that
we need to address our relationship with the environment, population
explosion, hunger, and peaceful coexistence. Buddhism is equipped to
deal with these issues. The “Flower Garland Sutra” describes the
universe as a net of diamonds that exists in three- dimensional space
and in the fourth dimension of time. It goes backward and forward in
time. Every diamond in this net is multifaceted and reflects every other
diamond in the net. When you see one diamond, you actually see every
other diamond in the net. You see the whole thing. Nothing is left out
of the picture. When you touch one diamond, you’ve touched every diamond
in the net. It’s incomprehensible that each thing contains every other
thing, that there’s a mutual identity and causality, that each thing
contains the totality of the universe. But that’s the nature of reality.
Those are nifty ideas and they sound right, but what does that
mean for me sitting in this chair here? How does it work on a personal
This is where practice becomes indispensable. All of the teachings
are an abstraction to the listener. Some of it’s not even logical. This
morning I talked to my students about formless form. What is formless
form? Those are contradictory terms. It’s a paradox. The phrase doesn’t
make sense. It is an intuitive and intimate realization; that’s why you
can’t explain it to somebody. That’s why practice is so important. Each
person needs to see it for themselves. There’s a skillful process and
the process says to “take a backward step.” Go very deep into yourself.
Let body and mind fall away. Experience the absolute basis of reality.
But the path doesn't end there. This is just the peak of the mountain.
You need to continue the journey.
Where do you go when you’re at the peak? Straight ahead. It’s always
straight ahead. Straight ahead when you’re on the peak means down the
other side of the mountain back into the marketplace. That’s where your
realization needs to manifest. Otherwise, what’s the point? It surely
isn’t to spend our lives contemplating our navels on a 245-acre
monastery hidden in these mountains. It’s got to do with manifestation
in the world. Realization needs to be actualized. And having realized
the fact that there’s no separation, an imperative arises to reach out
to take care of things. That’s compassion. We take care of things
because everything is this very body and mind itself. What we take care
of is another question.
Is that the challenge for Buddhism at this point, to really figure out what to take care of?
I don’t think that you can determine that precisely in terms of the
institution of Buddhism. The point of view of the institution of
Buddhism is to take care of it all. When we get down to each individual
Buddhist, each person needs to look at their own resources, power,
position in life, commitment; how much are they willing to do?
Let’s talk a little bit about this monastery and the way that you
practice Zen here in these mountains. You’re a Japanese lineage, and
you're in the middle of the Catskills. You walk around the monastery in
Japanese robes. Yet, you don't seem to be involved in what I call
American Buddhism. You’re really an authentic model of Japanese Zen.
I would disagree. A lot of people think that - except the Japanese.
When the Japanese come here and see what we’re doing, they call it
“cowboy Zen.” Many of the forms and trappings that seem exotic or
foreign have to do with the fact that this is a monastic setting. If you
were to enter a Trappist monastery, you might feel equally estranged by
their exotic forms and rigorous discipline.
What role do you think monasticism will play in American Buddhism in the upcoming century?
It will be pivotal. Until deep monastic roots are established on
American soil, Buddhism will not fully have arrived here. Ten years ago,
at one of the Buddhism and psychotherapy conferences, somebody on the
panel said, “There is no model for monasticism in the West.” In a single
stroke they wiped out centuries of Christian monasticism. There’s
definitely a model and a place for monasticism in Christianity and in
western Buddhism. It’s not going to be popular. It never was popular,
even during the golden age of Zen. It doesn’t need to be. Zen training
is very demanding. Monasticism is the core of this practice tradition.
It shows that it’s possible to do this all-out. The monastics here
dedicate their lives to the Dharma: seven-day sesshins every month,
sitting every morning and night, year after year after year. They
maintain the archive of sanity and serve the sangha. The rest of our
sangha comes into the monastery to recreate themselves and then brings
their practice back out into the world. And it definitely affects their
lives and how they do the things that they do, the ten thousand things
they do - teaching, mothering, doctoring, loving, working. There is an
interdependent relationship between lay practice and monastic practice.
The monastic role will always be important.
I found a wonderfully provocative statement of yours that I’m
going to read back to you. It’s from one of your commentaries on a koan:
“There are hundreds of Buddhist centers throughout the country and
hundreds of teachers but very little real Buddhism.” What is real
Essentially, I’m talking about authenticated teachers. There are very
few teachers in this country who are authenticated by their teacher.
There are many self-styled and self-appointed teachers. Much of what we
have in North America is a self-styled Buddhism, and it’s easy to sell
style when you have not come out of twenty or thirty years of training.
You don’t know the difference between the baby and the bathwater. It’s
easy to miss and dismiss important dimensions of practice. I think that
the more training a teacher has the more clarity they develop and the
more cautious they are about making changes too swiftly.
One of the things that you have maintained here is hierarchy, and
there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that’s you. I saw a film of a
Dharma combat you had with your students, and you were literally sitting
on a pedestal What’s that about?
What you are calling a pedestal is the “high seat,” common to almost
all schools of Buddhism and indeed most religions. What I was sitting on
was a ten-inch-high platform, a compromised version of the traditional
high seat, which is three feet high. We have one of those also; it is
kept in the corner of the room and has only been used twice in the past
twenty years for special ceremonies. Hierarchy is a fact of life.
Whether you like it or not, you have to deal with it all the time.
We only like it when we’re up in the hierarchy.
Exactly. And we don’t like it toward the bottom. Most people are
frightened by hierarchy, recoil from it, rebel against it, but never
resolve the problem. Hierarchy is a convention. It’s there because we
allow it. How do you learn to be free of it? In the context of practice,
you deal with it within the hierarchy itself. You “use the
entanglements to cut the entanglements.” We’re not going to solve the
problems that arise within hierarchies by declaring that everything is
equal. The face-to-face interviews in dokusan, the Dharma combat - they
are set up in the traditional, hierarchical way. I’ve got an altar
behind me, incense is burning, people prostrate themselves, come
forward, and ask for the teachings. All the while my responsibility is
to help them see their own inherent wisdom and power. There is an
incredibly different way that the senior students deal with hierarchy
from the way the beginning students do. Within the hierarchy, senior
students have learned to trust themselves.
Still, there’s the idea that the guy on the pedestal knows the
truth at every moment, and the student doesn’t know. And that isn’t the
truth of it.
You’re right. The person on the high seat doesn’t “know the truth at
every moment” - not at all. Students inevitably do want to give their
power away, and one of the things that the teacher does is to constantly
throw it back at them.
How do you do that?
By having them take responsibility. I’m not going to solve their
problems. I have nothing to give them. There’s nothing to be given;
there’s nothing to be received. And if a spiritual teacher says that
they have something to give you, run for your life. You are dealing with
I would imagine that people constantly come to you looking for something. They want something from you.
That’s the illusion. What I inevitably do is what my teacher did for
me. Turn it back to them. Each one of us must realize our own power. In
many religions, there is the tendency to surrender to a higher
authority. That’s not the case in Zen. In the beginning of training it
may seem so but, ultimately, the student needs to be free of the
teacher, free of Buddhism, free of the whole catastrophe.
I question whether how much of what you’re saying applies when you
move from your role as spiritual guide to your role of administrator.
After all, it seems like the buck stops with you.
According to the bylaws of our corporation, the spiritual leader is
also the president of the corporation. At board meetings, if I take the
chair, people are always trying to figure out what I want. So, someone
else runs the meetings. I usually sit back. Usually I abstain from
voting. The power is definitely there if I choose to use it. We also
have a Board of Governors. I am not on that board. It consists of the
representatives of the people we serve. It’s a group of about one
hundred people that meets every few years over a weekend to develop a
consensus about the future of the community. There are three other
formal groups that have real power and make decisions. I’m not a member
of any of them.
Do any of these groups ever actually contradict your wishes?
Definitely. Recently they decided to expel a student. The student was
a cause of a lot of disharmony. Well, you know, I have done similar
things in my time. I had a soft spot for him and felt that we should cut
him some slack. So I argued strongly in favor of the student being
retained. I gave a pretty strong argument, but I also said I would honor
their decision, and they decided to ask him to leave. I trust the
individual and collective wisdom of these groups. They are, after all,
[The following questions to Daido Loori are about his most innovative
teaching vehicle: his vigorous exploitation of electronic
communications, particularly the Internet, to spread the Dharma. We turn
to his computer where he accesses a beta, or test, program, “Cyber
Monastery,” a Zen training program that will be accessible only online.
On the screen appears a list of requirements. The first two point to the
future: “1.zafu. 2. IBM Pentium (computer).”]
Is this a secret site?
it’s not available to the public yet. I’ve got five of my seniors
working on our new project for the last year and a half. It’s called
Cyber Monastery, an online Zen training program. People will register
and go through the same screening process that any student that comes
here to practice has to go through. If they are accepted, they will
enter the program. They will receive in the mail an interactive CD-ROM,
and several video and audio tapes. The CD-ROM will contain links to the
chat room. They’ll have an assigned training advisor who will be
available for them in real time online for dialogues and discussions.
There will be assignments, projects, and exams online, and the whole
course will end with a traditional online Dharma combat with me.
Then what do they get? Enlightenment?
[Laughter] What happens at the end of a Zen training workshop? It’s
an introduction to Zen practice, but I’m also trying to get a couple of
colleges to acknowledge it and give credit for it as a Buddhist studies
All of it seems like a very wonderful expression of what can be
done with computers. But on the other hand, it seems like a very poor
substitute for the real thing.
The obvious question is, what’s the real thing? As I said before, a
teacher really has nothing to give. The Dharma can’t be given; it can’t
be received. Practice is a process of discovery. It’s got to do with
realization - not knowledge or information but realization. But that
doesn’t mean that knowledge and information don’t play a role in the
Dharma. The course in cyberspace is an extension of what we already do.
We create videos, audios, CDs. We publish a journal and books. If you
package that differently and use an instrument such as the Web, you can
communicate with people anywhere on the face of the earth. You make the
Dharma available to anyone who has a phone line and a computer. You can
bring the Dharma to those who may never be able to come to a training
center. People that are housebound, isolated by distance,
institutionalized. This is an experiment. I am trying to find out if it
can work. Is somebody going to come to enlightenment on the Web? I doubt
it, but you can never tell.
It seems highly unlikely.
It also seems highly unlikely that somebody would become enlightened
by hearing a pebble strike a bamboo or seeing a peach blossom. But it
It seems much more likely that people are going to be hypnotized by watching the screen.
That has a lot to do with the Web designer. If you make it
entertaining and hypnotic, that’s what it’s going to be. If you make it
challenging and introspective, that’s what it’s going to be. In the use
of media - any media - we have the power to edit; we have the ability to
shift perspectives. This can be done in a way that nourishes and wakes
us up or it can hypnotize and poison. A key aspect of the Buddha’s
teachings is to use what is at hand to nourish and empower. This project
is about empowering people. If the Web can do that, it could be a very
valuable adjunct in training.
You say “adjunct.” At what point is it necessary to give up the
books, the audios, the computer, and step in front of a living breathing
I think that will always be necessary. Practice via cyberspace is not
going to replace that. There are the Three Treasures - the Buddha, the
Dharma and the sangha. The personal aspect of the Three Treasures is not
going to be superseded by a computer. Buddha treasure is the teacher.
Dharma treasure are the teachings, the direct pointing to the
enlightened mind. Sangha treasure is the community of practitioners. All
those three aspects are really necessary for authentic practice to
flourish. It makes a big difference when you’re sitting with a group of
other people than when you’re sitting alone. Or when you have someone
making demands of you face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, heart-to-heart,
as opposed to talking via your computer about it, where the person on
the other end of the line can remain some sort of an abstraction. Take a
look at liturgy. That’s where the power of the sangha comes in. There’s
a big difference when you’re in a room with a group of people who are
chanting their hearts out and when you’re hearing it on tape, or even
watching a videotape. But I’ve used that to help my practice along when I
was unable to train at a center. In my early days of practice, when I
was a lay practitioner, working in the world, I created a tape that had
all the sounds of the monastery on it: the wake-up bell, then the wooden
han [wooden block that is struck to call people to the zendo]. The
regular morning sequence leading to my dawn zazen. It was hooked to my
alarm clock. The alarm clock would go off, the bell would ring, and I
was transported to the monastery. Sitting periods were timed so that I
couldn’t cheat. During liturgy the whole sangha chanted and I chanted
So why bother going to the monastery at all?
Because of the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha.
It’s been speculated that it won’t be too long before we’ll have
computer programs so sophisticated that you won’t be able to discern
whether you’re talking to a computer or a human being. What do you think
distinguishes a human being from a highly advanced artificial
I saw a TV a program about robots. They had several robots programmed
with artificial intelligence. These robots were to pick up little
blocks of wood in a room. The one that got the most was somehow
rewarded. They were programmed to learn from their mistakes. The
researchers found out that after repeatedly having the robots in the
room together, they began to get aggressive and knock each other out of
the way to get the wood. When I saw that I thought, no difference. We
don’t even know what human consciousness is. I don’t think we have even
scratched the surface of its possibilities. And not being able to
appreciate what human consciousness is, it’s difficult to compare it to
With all that on your plate, if you were to project yourself ahead
a thousand years, what will the forms of Buddhism we are developing now
look like in the future?
[Laughter] Moment-to-moment, nonstop flow; breath after breath.