When I was in college I took a class on World Religions, which was my first serious exposure to Buddhism. I got interested in Zen, and read all the books in the library on it, mostly by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. My professor also lead a zazen group that met before class; I went as often as I could. I didn't understand why, but the practice was important to me. It showed me that there is a way to explore our experience that didn't require belief or dogma.
After several years of desultory practice in my early 20's, I ended up living in Madison, WI for a few years, just a few blocks from the local Zen Center. I was vaguely rootless and depressed, and taking up the practice gave me a way to start to understand and explore my suffering. I was hooked! That group was affiliated with the Rochester Zen Center, an established traditional practice center, and I soon began to do sesshin (long retreat) in Madison, Chicago, and Rochester. I became a student of Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede, who gave me my first koan. The sesshin were quite rigorous and strict: no moving in zazen, long hours of sitting, running for dokusan, getting rung out time after time. This was actually great for me at the time, as I was young and benefited from the intensity and structure. I am grateful to Bodhin for his encouragement in those early years.
In 1995 I moved back to California, and asked Bodhin who I should work with there; he sent me to John Tarrant's group, then called California Diamond Sangha (John is an heir of Robert Aitken). They changed their name to Pacific Zen Institute a few years later. I began sitting with their Oakland affiliate, Oakland Zendo, affectionately known as OZ. We did sesshin several times a year at St. Dorothy's Rest in Sonoma County.
John's group, PZI, couldn't have been more different from Bodhin's. While both taught in the koan tradition, John was hardly a traditionalist. He emphasized innovation and improvisation, and always looked for ways to make the practice contemporary without losing its essence. Retreats featured coffee, music with Richie Domingue, art with Mayumi Oda, group koan improvisation, and many wonderful teachers. I continued my koan work there, and became a practice leader. I also met Joan Sutherland, who was just starting to teach. I was blown away by her brilliance, and was so grateful to have a woman role model. She became my primary teacher, and I did Jukai with Joan and John in 1998. During this time I was practicing with a lot of emotion, old conditioning and mental habits. I was also entering the koan way.
During the 90s I was doing four or five sesshin per year, really throwing myself into the practice. I was also a graduate student getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Things really shifted about 2001. First, my son was born, which meant fewer sesshin (though he attended several as a baby) and more parenting practice! Joan also left PZI to teach independently, and I went with her. Between 2002 and 2007 we did a series of retreats together. This was a sweet time for me as I had lots of time with Joan, long luxurious dokusans, collaborations, and enjoyment of the koans.
Joan moved to Santa Fe in 2007, the same year I started psychoanalytic training at PINC. There she established Awakened Life, a wonderful practice community. I went out to Santa Fe once or twice a year for sesshin, and continued to work with Joan on koans by phone. Before she left Joan had asked me to teach Zen, but I didn't feel ready. It was a busy time of life for me, and I wanted to see where the dharma would figure in.
By 2014, big changes were happening. Joan's health, never robust, had taken a turn for the worse, and she had to retire from teaching. Of course this was a huge loss to many of us. I also decided I was ready to teach, and became a Sensei (authorized teacher) in a private ceremony on a houseboat with Joan. I also started Crimson Gate, a sangha for mental health professionals, at first with just a few people.
Over the past two years, Crimson Gate has grown in ways I'm excited about. We sit together weekly, and do two sesshin per year with Rachel Howlett's group, CityZen. We are doing our first solo weekend retreat in March. I'm offering dokusan and koan work for those who want it. I'm also happy to be a part of the Open Source, a network of Joan's other dharma heirs in the Western US.
I look forward to what the future holds! I am committed to continuing Joan and John's tradition of koan innovation, Zen practice for contemporary life, community building, and opportunities for diving deep. This Way has profoundly transformed my life, and I'm grateful to be able to support others in their practice.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..