Vassar is not exactly a place that one thinks of as a hotbead of Zen practice. Yet this small not to say unassuming Poughkeepsie New York college which used to be the sister school to Yale has produced several major roshi and abbots heading major monasteries in America. So what is it about Vassar that led to this happening? Several of the strongest teachers and founders were majors in cognitive science, and perhaps that deep questioning into the nature of mind and the unique program that Vassar had (the first in the Nation!) led to a strong influence on Zen.
Certainly the strongest influence on the Zen and Vassar experience was nearby Mount Tremper Monastery and the Mountain and Rivers order, founded by American John Daido Loori. Daido had received formal recognition to teach in both the soto and rinzai traditions and is one of the few Americans ever recognized in Japan in a Zuise ceremony where they become acting abbot for a day of the major soto monastery in Japan. So to be under the shadow of Loori and his student Geoffry Shugen Arnold – now his dharma heir at the ZMM order, was quite a strong presence indeed. This was true zen not the STINK of zen and the false practice of hippies out on the left coast. Formal study in the mountain’s cold winter air and dark season was a strong presence indeed.
First from Vassar cam Sherry Chayat who attended Vassar in the 1960s and went on to head up the Syracuse zen center. In 1992 she was given teaching permission and then received dharma transmission in 1998 from Shimano. She was the first American woman to receive transmission in the Rinzai school of Buddhism.
Vassar’s first formal space for Zen practice was an offshoot of the ZMM order studying in the noisy dorm room halls. The first formal student Zen group given a room in the Vassar Chapel was founded in 1988 by Tim Stefanini (who majored in cognitive science) and Ken Morton (a philosophy major). Stefanini brought four zafus or sitting cushions and Morton brought the ring gong and incense and a humble little practice space was established.
A few years later Josh Bartok would encounter the Vassar Zen Center and Zen Mountain Monastery. Josh graduated from Vassar College in 1993 with a degree in Cognitive Science. While at Vassar, Josh began his Zen practice with John Daido Loori, at Zen Mountain Monastery, and then lived there for 18 months upon graduating–formally leaving the Mountains and Rivers Order in 2000. Josh (Keido Mu’nen) is now the abbot (head teacher and spiritual director) at the Greater Boston Zen Center. He is a Dharma heir of James Ishmael Ford Roshi in both of the roshi’s lineages: the ordained Soto Zen lineage of Jiyu Kennett, and the koan introspection lineage of John Tarrant.
Vassar is the kind of place where soul searching and introspection keeps students investigating every avenue of knowledge and for many years to come Vassar students whether they know it or not, will contribute and continue to fill the shoes of major Zen teachers in America, not the career path many thought they were embarking on when they first entered the gates to be sure.