[The following content is adapted from the Bright Way Zen website with permission from Domyo Burk ]

In 1960, an Englishwoman named Peggy Kennett met a Japanese Zen teacher when he was visiting London. His name was Keido Chisan, and he suggested she come study with him in Japan. Miss Kennett did not appreciate at the time what a radical and unusual suggestion this was. Keido Chisan Koho Zenji (1879-1967) was abbot of one of the two head training monasteries of the Soto Zen Buddhism sect in Japan. No foreigner and especially no woman had trained at this monastery. Yet.

Keido Chisan and Peggy Jiyu Kennett in Japan
Keido Chisan and Peggy Jiyu Kennett in Japan

Two years later Peggy Kennett arrived at Sojiji, Keido Chisan’s monastery, and insisted on staying. Because of her gender and nationality she faced countless challenges in her training in addition to the ones anyone would face during intensive Zen practice. Peggy, later Roshi Jiyu Kennett, completed her training in Japan with public, formal ceremonies that previously women had had to do in private. It turns out Keido Chisan was a quiet but formidable champion of women’s equality within the Soto organization in Japan.

After Keido Chisan’s death in 1967, Roshi Kennett came to the United States and began teaching. In 1970 she established Shasta Abbey, a training monastery in Mt. Shasta, California, which is still thriving. Her teaching was characterized by a strong emphasis on awakening, monastic practice, an intense student-teacher relationship, and Precepts.

Enter the next generation. Gary Carlson, a thoughtful young sociology student at UC Berkeley, was troubled by the conflict and violence he was witnessing there and around the world in the late 60s. He found himself on a spiritual search and ended up at Shasta Abbey in 1972, where he was ordained (his ordination name is Kyogen). Kyogen trained as a monk at Shasta for five years before receiving full certification as a teacher (Dharma Transmission and inka). He remained at Shasta Abbey another five years to continue training, and to serve as a staff member and personal assistant to Roshi Kennett.

Andrea Kroenke arrived at Shasta and was ordained in 1975 (her ordination name is Gyokuko). She received Dharma Transmission from Roshi Kennett in 1977. In 1980 Gyokuko graduated from the seminary program, then remained at Shasta Abbey to deepen her practice and to help out as a staff member.

Kyogen and Gyokuko were married in 1982 and came to Oregon to teach at one of Shasta Abbey’s subtemples, or priories. Both felt drawn to working with lay practitioners. There was strong emphasis at Shasta Abbey on monastic practice and the Carlsons were interested in establishing a place where lay practice was presented as a complete and equal path in and of itself. This intention has remained central to their work to this day.

Gyokuko and Kyogen Carlson

Dharma Rain Zen Center. In 1986 Kyogen and Gyokuko were the leaders and resident priests of the Oregon Zen Priory when serious disagreements with Shasta Abbey caused them to resign their membership in the organization headquartered there. This separation came after much consideration, discussion, and heartache. The sangha in Portland split and the Carlsons established Dharma Rain Zen Center as an independent Soto Zen temple. Shasta severed connections with the Carlsons.

Despite the separation and the lack of resolution of their concerns, the Carlsons continued to treasure the Dharma they had received from Roshi Kennett and to regard her with gratitude. Some insight into the relationship between Kyogen and his teacher, whom he has called “a spiritual genius,” can be gotten from his essay, written in 1998, two years after her death: Complexity and Contrast: More Thoughts on the Life and Teaching of Jiyu Kennett Roshi.

Dharma Rain Zen Center has been the primary focus of the Carlsons’ lives since its beginning. They have served as full-time resident priests dedicated to supporting sangha. Dharma Rain has continued to thrive and grow over the years and as of 2019 has around 200 members, several additional full-time resident priests, ten next-generation transmitted teachers (both priest and lay), and one of the largest and most vital children’s programs at any Zen center in the West.

Although the sangha was devastated by the loss of Kyogen to a sudden heart attack in September of 2014, the community is fulfilling his dreams for it by remaining strong and vital without dependence on any particular person or teacher. For Kyogen’s obituary and memorial pieces by several close friends, read:

Kyogen’s obituary in the Oregonian

Kyogen Carlson: A Brief Remembering of a Zen Master by Kyogen’s Soto Zen Dharma brother James Ford.

Kyogen Carlson: Bridge-Builder over Troubled Waters  by Paul Metzger, an evangelical Christian friend of Kyogen’s with whom Kyogen had a meaningful dialogue for many years.

The Carlsons’ teaching was strongly influenced by Roshi Kennett’s in its recognition of the importance of awakening and Precepts, and the potential value of monastic practice and a close student-teacher relationship. They have strived to open the doors of the Dharma wider, however, and support people as they practice in a wide variety of ways, primarily in lay life. It could be said that Roshi Kennett instilled in the Carlsons a respect for the potential depth of practice, and they have worked to maintain contact with that depth while increasing the breadth of the practice available to people.

While Dharma Rain Zen Center offers meditation retreats, residential practice, formal student-teacher relationships, and even ordination, they never imply that practice incorporating these things is any better than a practice that does not. As long as you sit zazen and keep the Precepts you can be a full-fledged Soto Zen Buddhist. What the Carlsons would further recommend, however, is that you avail yourself of the support of sangha – the Buddhist community – because it can make all the difference. Finally, they teach that you should be “ordained into your life” and aspire to manifest your life as a sacred vocation, whatever your circumstances or work.

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