Zen. Life as it is. Rose Mary Myoan Dougherty, Sensei

Written by Martine Palmiter, Dharma holder, in honor of her Teacher, Rose Mary Myoan Dougherty.

Life is just what it is—It is a simple concept—that our life matters—-and we have our life to live, but it is also very difficult. What is our life about? Why practice zen? I know that for me, and others who start studying and practicing zen, once it grabs hold of you, and you see your “problems” for the first time, it is hard to just “get by” any more; it is hard to just sit back and wonder about what you thought life was about. Practicing zen usually brings more questions.

My teacher’s dharma name Myoan means “Subtle Peace.” I had struggled with excessive activity and striving in my life….doing things well, doing a lot of volunteer work, but often the stress of too much activity made it hard to slow down. Hard to find peace. I was living what I thought was a useful life, a purposeful life. But at some point, when I first came to zen practice 17 years ago with Sensei Rose Mary, I was not sure what I had really expected to learn, but in meeting my teacher, I felt a great sense of peace.

My teacher, Rose Mary Myoan Dougherty, was a Catholic sister and Sensei in the Soto Zen tradition. She also had a long career with Shalem Institute, developing their spiritual direction program, working with students to help them get in touch with a sense of “calling.” She wrote books on discernment and spiritual direction. When she retired she started an organization called Companioning the Dying, helping caregivers of those who were helping the dying. She accomplished a lot in her life, a lot of “activity” you could say…..but her very presence showed me that something was different in how you approach that calling. Rose Mary first learned about zen practice after reading Charlotte Joko Beck’s book, Everyday Zen and it became her practice too. Her next teacher, Janet Jinne Richardson, installed her as a teacher of zen and Rose Mary set up a zendo in her sitting room on her enclosed porch. She offered a space for students to sit in silence, and sometimes hear poetry. When we got too large, she moved us into a local church. She was a humble and compassionate teacher. She rarely presented lengthy or complicated dharma talks. She rarely wore or said anything that would indicate, “ I am a zen teacher.” She did not stand out in a crowd and avoided such attention. Sensei Rose Mary often taught by reading poetry from Rumi, John O’Donahue, David Whyte, Hafiz, or Mary Oliver. She steadily taught those of us in the Sangha to sit still, “go gently,” be kind to yourself and others, enjoy your life and mostly to pay attention. Her teaching of “Just This!” was subtle and peaceful, but strong. That is why I became her student.

Rose Mary Myoan also had a subdued sense of humor, and a very kind heart. She was clear and direct. She listened with her deep heart to help each of her students. She was not afraid to call things as they are. Now I see that she offered each student a path to follow their heart’s calling. Several zen students moved on to follow those callings. I remember the turning point for me a few years back when I told Rose Mary I was done with all the useless busyness in my life that did not bring me the happiness I desired. She encouraged me to love the restful practice of going to the beach, being with family, reading novels, going to movies, spending more time in my garden. And sit more of course!

When life abruptly changed for Rose Mary several years back, she taught us with her very life experience. Rose Mary suffered with Parkinson’s disease, and as it progressed, she was not able to come to our zen practice sessions anymore, and her voice weakened. She invited people over to her house for “conversations” and company. She moved to a nursing home a few years ago and we held some meditation sessions at the nursing home, and we all appreciated her presence even in this new location. She learned to move and speak in new softer ways, and to submit to new environs and treatments, and though seemingly with her body diminished, her strong presence was always evident. I observed all the kindness she gave to the nurses and aides who were constantly visiting her room, or to others in the nursing home. She continued to teach to her very last days. One her last teachings I heard was: “Keep your eyes and heart open.”

Ken McLeod, a zen teacher, in his book Reflections on Silver River, reviews the teachings of Tokme Zongpo of Silver River. Tokme wrote: “With some teachers, your shortcomings fade away and abilities grow like the waxing moon. Hold such teachers dear to you. Dearer than your own body—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.”

McLeod wrote, “When you find a teacher who embodies what you seek, cultivate that relationship and take care of it. Like any relationship, it takes work. The teacher shows you possibilities, trains you in the skills and abilities you need and points out your internal material when it gets in the way. Your responsibility is to make sure you understand what you are learning and make use of what the teacher gives you without corrupting or editing it. When you do study with someone, pay attention not only to what you intend to learn, but what you are learning. It is a mystery. You cannot predict what actually happens.”

What actually happens is our Life. When we practice diligently with an open heart, we can find out life over and over again in each moment. Over the years, practicing with Sensei Rose Mary helped many people find more compassion and peace. The meaning of Life was in the living of it. There was no need for me to travel too far to embody the awakened way. It was right here in front of me. Rose Mary helped point us to following our heart in this very moment, Just This! I learned the beauty of zazen—sitting in silence, wholeheartedly, without expectations—Just letting life unfold. And appreciating the birdsong, and the beach, and more. Sensei Rose Mary Myoan, a bodhisattva— Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha! (Gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, gone to the other shore in compassionate embrace of all things, blessings, so be it, amen!) Subtle peace to you, our Teacher!