Angie Boissevain Interview
This interview was retrieved January 2019 from the Internet Archive. It was originally published May 2010 on the Sweeping Zen website maintained by Adam Tebbe. Links have been updated to current websites.
Angie Boissevain is a Soto Zen roshi and guiding teacher of Floating Zendo located in San Jose, CA. A former student of Kobun Chino Otagowa, Boissevain is a Dharma heir of Kobun Chino Otagowa through Vanja Palmers. She is the former Director of Jikoji Zen Center in Los Gatos, CA, which Kobun-roshi founded in 1983. For many years, while Kobun Chino was teaching abroad, Boissevain was effectively left in charge of the practice site. At the time of Otagowa’s untimely death in Switzerland in 2002, she and the late teacher had been making preparations for her Dharma transmission. Boissevain later received transmission from one of Kobun Chino’s Dharma heirs, Vanja Palmers, in 2004. In addition to her work with the Floating Zendo. Boissevain is also a teacher with the Arcata Zen Group.
SZ: How did you find your way to Zen practice? You started out at Tassajara, is that right?
AB: When my husband and I moved to CA we took exploratory drives into the countryside, and one of them took us back behind Carmel where, at the end of a precipitous road, to our surprise, we discovered a newly opened Zen monastery (Tassajara). They had just started their first guest season. We stayed the weekend, were taught zazen, heard Suzuki roshi give a talk…and came back for 2 or 3 years as weekend guests, when I would sit all the sittings and soak up the teachings, while my husband relished the Narrows and the hot springs and the food. After several years someone mentioned that a “Zen Master” lived in Los Altos, in my neighborhood, and gave me Kobun’s name and the address of Haiku Zendo. Eventually, I grew brave enough to slip in one Wed. night. That’s when I first saw Kobun. I never left.
SZ: How did you manage your time while serving as director and later teacher at Jikoji while also raising three boys back at home? Were your children raised religiously, kind of like many kids grow up Catholic, etc.?
AB: “Managing” time has always been painfully difficult for me…still is. I didn’t start to practice at Haiku zendo until my youngest son was 7, and the other two were 10 and 12. My great good fortune came as the sangha held sesshins 1/2 a mile from my house at a youth hostel. I could put the boys on the school bus (those were the days!), spend the day at sesshin, and get back in time to make supper. Without this, practice would have been much much more difficult. Also, at this time, my family built me a little A-frame room in an oak tree, so for the first time I had my own space in which to practice, and write, and evemtually do much of Jikoji’s paper work.
By the time the sangha bought Jikoji my kids were in their teens and needed me less.
They were fascinated by the Jikoji situation and were enormously helpful there. They hauled out tons of junk, and built whole rooms as we struggled to make the place habitable. They were very fond of Kobun, he was a kind of uncle to them, but they weren’t interested in formal practice at all, and it was never an issue for me. My husband, too, loved Kobun, but practice wasn’t his way at all.
SZ: I understand that when Kobun-roshi authorized you as a teacher, it was a very informal. He basically just handed you a teaching stick one day and walked away (I imagine in silence). Is that sort of how he went about things as a teacher, showing rather than explaining?
AB: It was a very slow process. He handed the teaching stick to me as I was assisting him at a memorial service during sesshin. I walked back from the altar to my seat holding it, as he continued chanting for the dead.
He had asked me to sew the first okesa…a brown one… and then, when I gave it to him, he kept it for 2 years until another sesshin, and another memorial service, when suddenly he called me up to the altar, put the okesa on my head for the daizai, and then dressed me. On the way out, he said, “You know, it isn’t yours. You keep it in case someone comes from Japan to visit and needs an okesa to wear.” I didn’t wear it for at least a year after that…until I went to Japan with Blanche Hartman, where I learned how to take it on and off!
I would study his “way” at the altar until I thought I understood how-to-do, and then he would do something different! He often advised me to “make it up.” At the same time, he would take me along to a Jukai or wedding ceremony and my helping him was how I learned the spirit in which he made it up.
SZ: I recently published an interview with Hakuryu Ian Forsberg. During our talk we discussed Kobun-roshi’s intuition, which I characterized as telepathic. Basically, I understand it that several of his students and friends felt he had some sort of…well, I don’t know exactly. I find it remarkable, whatever it was, because so many have reported it. For instance, Ian’s wife reports that Kobun and she would sometimes dream together. In the morning she would go to him to inquire and both would acknowledge the occurrence. Did you have any experiences of this nature with Kobun-roshi?
AB: We sometimes said about Kobun that he was stronger on the “emptiness” side, to explain his shamanistic presence among us. Though most of my students never met him, many have had powerful experiences of his presence, especially at Jikoji. I always felt that my connection to him was closer than breath, and when I heard that he had died, it was as if he had gone straight inside in a new and final way.
I wrote this for him:
I STILL FEEL YOU
You have become a murmuring in my wrists,
high whine inside the collarbone,
eerie familiar whisper
whenever I wake and become an ear.
Your low white words stalk slow as egrets
up and down the dark knobs of my spine.
Year after year your insights burn
into my knees and ribcage, sometimes
flaming into sudden useful knowledge.
Your constant presence still lives in me
from inside out like good food.
SZ: It must have come as a shock when everyone got news of Kobun’s death. That, coupled with the tragic death of his young daughter, must have been a lot. What was that time like for the sangha? Ian Forsberg said that everyone came together during that period, both for support and to ensure the organization and Kobun’s lineage survived on.
AB: That’s just what we did, we came together in several different ways to recover together from the shock. First there was a service in Switzerland where he died. Then each little sangha had a service, and Jikoji had one to which several hundred people, from the Bay Area came. There were discussions about who his heirs might be, and it was found that Vanja Palmers had been given transmission papers by Kobun, so he was asked to take on the role of Kobun’s Dharma heir. Later it was discovered that Bob Watkins in Taos, NM, had also received some papers, so he and Vanja shared what papers each had. By that time three of us had been sewing for transmission, Jean Leyshon, Carol Atkinson, and I. Vanja arranged a Sangha meeting at Jikoji at the one year anniversary of Kobun’s death and brought a number of Kobun’s heirs from Europe to join us in sesshin. During this sesshin Vanja finished the transmission of the 3 of us in a short private and even shorter public ceremony.
SZ: Do you have a favorite story from your years of practice you’re fond of retelling?
AB: Most of what I learned, I learned at Jikoji where, at the beginning, 60 disgruntled people were living on the land as an “anarchistic commune,” and declared that “only God owns the land.” Kobun invited them all to join us in the zendo. There were several tumultuous years when “saving all sentient beings” took on a very different meaning for us. It meant working with Vietnam vets and runaway kids and ex-cons. There was one crazed vet who’d been a helicopter gunner in ‘nam, who scared everybody. He was very tall, and very very angry. One day the work leader called Kobun out of the zendo during sesshin to tell him that Brett was stealing the engine from Jikoji’s truck in the parking lot. “I’ll take care of him,” said Kobun.
“Oh, no! He’s dangerous!” “It’s ok,”Kobun said, “I have a knife,” and he opened his robe to show a big knife.
Kobun walked up to the parking lot while everyone waited a long time on the zendo porch. Then he was back.
“I gave him the knife and I told him he would have to kill me first in order to take the engine,” he said.
“He took the knife, got in his car, and drove away.”
SZ: Tell us about your current work with Floating Zendo in the San Jose, California area. I believe you meet regularly at a Quaker meeting house. Do you consider yourself a Quaker?
AB: We do meet in the San Jose Quakers’ little old fashioned meeting house, but none of us is a practicing Quaker. Our Sangha is a Silicon Valley mix of artists, and businessmen and women. The group formed when I retired from Jikoji and I said I’d be happy to sit with anyone if I didn’t have to organize anything (ever again!). Slowly people gathered, and we have been meeting now for close to 10 years. We sponsor a one week sesshin every year at Jikoji, and sit together once a week, when we also study helpful material about practice. Also, we have either a half or a one-day sit once a month at the Quaker center. Since I travel to different sanghas, some people go with me to, say, Taos, and sometimes Taos people, or others come here to join us, especially for the one-week sesshin at Jikoji that the San Jose group sponsors every August.
SZ: What does taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha mean?
AB: In my experience, taking refuge has many levels, many meanings, as people mature in practice. At first it may mean little at all, and then develop as a devotional experience, when the Three Treasures become a projection of a mind discovering itself. With experience in sitting, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are experienced as closer than breath. Then taking refuge is to ‘return,’ as, in my tradition, we recite the refuges: ‘Return to Buddha, return to Dharma, return to Sangha,’… and recognize it has never been gone from here.
SZ: What role do you feel that belief plays in Zen practice?
AB: Belief is what we release over and over in our practice as we open to see and understand better what is before us. If belief is not tentative and flexible, confusion is the result. However, tentative beliefs are useful, if we don’t hold them too tightly, and are willing to be disabused of any idea when we need to get closer to what’s true.
On the other hand, I feel that faith is essential to Zen practice…Without confidence, without some essential trust in our basic ‘situation,’ it’s very hard to have a practice at all. Paradoxically, the more we practice, the more we are able to trust, even as we realize more and more how we’re mostly working in the dark and making lots and lots of mistakes!
SZ: Is there a goal to Zen practice? If there is, how would you define it?
AB: An engaged Zen student has lots of little goals: to get to the zendo on time, to sit at least once a day, to, as Kobun used to say, try not to fall off the cushion during zazen. But these, essentially, are all about staying awake and paying attention…not so much a Goal, as an ongoing intention. Otherwise, no goal.
SZ: Is there a difference between the altruism that sometimes defines what students think of as compassion and true compassion? Is there a wider net to cast?
AB: I don’t know what students think of as compassion, but certainly compassion is bigger than helping out at 2nd Harvest or sending money to help Haitians…or than chanting the Daihi Shin Dharani for others. As practice, it’s willingness to be the mind of compassion itself in any situation whatsoever, is willingness to respond in whatever way helps, in spite of our own, mostly self-serving agendas. It’s also to allow ourselves to be constantly reminded that compassion is constantly at work as world force behind and within all that happens, and to be that consciously (but unselfconsciously) as part of it.
SZ: How is it possible to save all sentient beings?
AB: In a sense, we are, each, all sentient beings, so the small hard tasks we do as we try our best as individuals, are for the sake of all. In another sense, there is no one doing it…in the original Bodhisattva Vows, there is no “I” expressed. It’s only, ‘Beings are numberless, vowing to save them.’ (Kobun’s translation of this is ‘Beings are numberless, they will save themselves.’) This, to me, is another expression of the energetics of compassion mentioned above. It is how we are.
There is one thing I realize might be added on the subject of saving all sentient beings, and that is how we currently express it in our robe chant, when we vow to “be with all beings,” instead of “save.”
SZ: In the United States, we live in a country that is predominantly Christian. Many of us who have found our way to Zen practice come with experiences, good and bad, in that religion. What needs might a person have, coming from such a background?
AB: Maybe a Christian Zen student’s biggest challenge would be in coming to terms with an understanding that beliefs are ideas, are thoughts, are accumulations of helpful and mistaken, wholesome and unwholesome notions that may or may not be true. There are many Christians who are able to practice Zen (I know a Franciscan nun who is ordained as a Zen priest), and who affirm both. I have always encouraged students to not take on Zen as a new flavor and throw away the old one, but to look deeply into their own traditions as their sitting practice unfolds.
SZ: Emphasis is often placed on the role of lineage, ones which trace their roots all the way back to the historical Buddha. Do you think that our modern day Zen lineages are historically accurate? Does that even matter?
AB: We know for sure and certain that our lineages are not historically accurate….except in the sense that we are all connected to that empty circle at the top of the lineage chart, with not only all the many names that follow the red line down, but with the countless others those names stand for, including myriad women. There are ancestors, and we are becoming ancestors. In this sense, our lineage is important. But these lines have been fiddled with all through history…and will continue to be, no doubt! This is why it’s so tragic that women in the Theravadin tradition are denied full ordination, and that women in the Vajrayana are not fully supported.
SZ: Angie, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this project. I found your responses to be quite fascinating. In closing, what book(s) might you recommend to someone interested in Zen practice?
AB: I’d recommend The Posture of Meditation by Will Johnson, and encourage them to find a place in which to develop a sitting practice. What I tell people is that it’s useless to read books about swimming if you haven’t been in the water. Better to find a teacher and a sangha first, and later, maybe look into Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, still one of the best beginner books around.