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 Former Zen teacher Walter Nowick has died

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Former Zen teacher Walter Nowick has died   Mon Feb 11, 2013 1:02 pm

Walter Nowick, pianist and Zen teacher, dies at 87
Posted by: Adam Tebbe on February 7, 2013 - from sweepingzen.com


We’ve received news that former Zen teacher, Walter Nowick, died yesterday morning at the age of 87. Nowick had been in declining health over the last year, suffering a stroke and having pneumonia. He had been on a feeding tube until recently, when he chose to remove it. He was cared for by several of his former Zen students.

The following was written by Kai Harper Leah, a Zen teacher in the Suzuki roshi lineage who studied with Nowick:

When I was a college student in Brooklyn some of my classmates found out about a pianist that had set up a practice place in Surry, ME, his name was Walter Nowick. We had heard that Walter had attended Julliard and his teacher had encouraged him to study Zen to improve his piano playing. Walter went to Kyoto and stayed for over 20 years, sitting zazen, teaching piano and eventually completing Koan study and with the encouragement of his teacher who Walter called Zuigan Goto Roshi. He came back to the states to teach Rinzai Zen after Goto died. He was the first to teach as a lay ordained person. He didn’t want to be a priest.

Some of us had been experimenting with sitting meditation, it was the 70’s, the Beatles were hanging out with the Maharishi and we tried eating in silence and then gardening silently.

When my friends drove up to Surry, a very small spit of a place located right on the ocean on the way to Bar Harbor, ME. where Walter had set up Moon Spring’s Hermitage on his family’s dairy farm, the guys were told by Walter that if they wanted to practice to come back with their families.

That Summer a group of us headed for ME. I was more reluctant than the rest and found my own place to stay and entered the community gradually at first, coming to sit but not choosing to live there. I was working at an art gallery that Lenore Thomas Strauss showed her work in. She encouraged me to become more involved and I eventually moved out of my own house and began living at Moon Spring’s.

At that time there were approximately 35 students and their families.

A student that had been sitting with Lenore in her old place in Washington, DC came up and helped build the Zendo. He was an MGM property master and took on the task of building an authentic looking Zendo. A man named Kenny who had been in Kyoto with Walter made a formal Zen garden out of an old dump on the property and eventually a Dokusan house was built for Walter to see students in.

When Walter took you on as a student it was a full commitment. The head monk one practice period became very ill during Rohatsu sesshin with diabetes. Walter went to the hospital and slept on the floor beside his bed to make sure that he was well taken care of. It wasn’t unusual for him to come to your house if you or a family member was sick and cook for you.

In those days we sat three months on, worked the farm for three months and then went back to three months sitting. We grew our own food, which included pigs, chickens and vegetables. And Walter had a small lumber mill that was used to make boards for houses that the students built to live in. Many of the students had never been out of Brooklyn and there were many hilarious moments with us trying to learn how to use farm tools, drive a tractor and feed the bull. Walter taught us all with a warm sense of humor. Even when one of our guest students lost their false teeth in the silo during hay season Walter stopped the machinery shouting ‘my poor cows’ as we dug with pitch forks to find those teeth that had turned a bright shade of emerald green.

Summer time brought people who vacationed in the area and came to hear Walter and several other students play Classical music in the barn. Mostly affluent older women came, a young Japanese student and Walter and a woman student who played Debussy duets on grand pianos in the barn served tea. One year we had the first Cellist from the NY Symphony Orchestra. This music was the beginnings of his training those students that were musically talented to participate in his opera in later years.

I remember Walter being invited to the first Zen master conference in Los Angeles; he sent a single wooden shingle we had made from a contraption that had been fashioned out of an old Nash Rambler.

Although we worked on Koans with him there were no lectures, chanting or services. It was his belief that you studied Buddhism for several years and then took your practice into ordinary, everyday life.

Walter Nowick, my beloved teacher. Although I left after four years and went on to spend many more years practicing at San Francisco Zen Center Walter was always my root teacher. It is with great sadness and enormous gratitude that I write this farewell to honor his life and teaching.
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PostSubject: Re: Former Zen teacher Walter Nowick has died   Mon Feb 11, 2013 2:56 pm

Tricycle Magazine ran a few articles about Nowick over the years. These are all what are generally referred to as hagiography - profiles or biographies that idealize or idolize their subjects - like the Catholic Church with their lives of the saints - and much of standard Zen history is filled with hagiography - much of it totally invented centuries later - human nature deleted, shadows non-existent. They are terrific stories and often include brilliant Dharma teachings and insights gathered over the centuries from all kinds of sources, but stories none the less. And it is not only about students wanting to paint their teacher in the most holy divine light possible - as we have seen at Shasta with the Church of Kennett. Yes, devotees, devoted followers tell these stories, but also the teachers themselves often spend years self-promoting their own hagiography - as Kennett did in the Wild White Goose -- and as Nowick did - consciously.

And also journalists can fall into the enchantment - they often want to write the idealized simple version of the story. In the piece below, the writer begins: "He's the quietest Zen master in America" -- the writer has set his story from the first sentence - that's the story he wants to tell. What a great tale. "Nowick has been quietly blazing a Zen trail on the northern coast of Maine." Really? Is that even vaguely true?

(Nowick stopped teaching his form of Zen in 1985, his scene fell apart and he returned to being a music teacher.This article was written in 2009, nearly 25 years after he stopped all his zen activity. "Quietly blazing a Zen trail." Really? Even from this starry-eyed article below, there is no blazing going on of any sort. And for more on Nowick being a teacher, read Stuart Lachs piece which I am also posting a link to it below. The Tricycle article glorifies Nowick's "full Rinzai dharma transmission" - which he never received. Never happened. He was never authorized to be a teacher nor given the title roshi. Even within the formal Rinzai tradition, he was not a "master." Much like Kapleau actually. But that's the story the writer wanted to tell, so he told it. And it appears that Nowick went along with it, allowed the exaggerations / fictions to stand. Why not, a better story. It was, as the writer says, "believable."

And in writing stories like this, the writer does not look around, peer beneath the surface, ask any challenging questions, talk to former members, even consider that some of Nowick's account might be exaggerated or even invented. Holy Zen teachers don't make things up, do they? Zen is all about truth, seeing the truth, living the truth, so whatever this zen teacher says must also be truth. How could it be otherwise? Well, what we find, from direct evidence, is often otherwise. Often a mix of fact and fiction, exaggeration, and even some outright invention. Real life can be complicated, filled with rough edges, and contradictions, and mistakes, even messy.

The recent example of Lance Armstrong lays this game out. He was a master at self-glorification, self-promotion. Wrote books about how wonderful he was. He was the great athlete, the all American success story. He surrounded himself with devotees, handlers - it was a cult. And they all wrote stories about how wonderful Lance was. Anyone who criticized or attacked Lance was vilified and sued. Much of the media went along with this big fable. It was such a good grand tale. And it was one continuous fiction, hagiography in action. Motivation is key here. Why was Lance doing this? Why do spiritual leaders self-glorify? What is their motivation. They often say that even in writing their autobiographies, they are only doing it to inspire others, not to promote themselves. I haven't bothered to read Lance Armstrong's books, but no doubt he often said things like that also. But the underlying intention is actually self-protection and self-promotion. They want to be loved, adored, respected, and worshiped. They want to control their image and the world around them. They want adoration - continuously. They want one story about who they are.

Anyway, I find it interesting to read a story like what is written below and then read an essay that looks beneath the surface, that asks more challenging questions, that does not blindly and naively assume that everything a zen teacher or a priest/bishop or a Lance Armstrong says is absolute truth / reality.

This is myth-making in action and I find stories like this fascinating in how they demonstrate so clearly our need to create stories and fables and heroes and gods in the quest to avoid things as they area - with their rough edges.

From Tricycle Magazine - Spring 2009:


Down East Roshi
For decades, Walter Nowick has been quietly blazing a Zen trail on the northern coast of Maine. His blue jeans disguise a remarkable history. Dana Sawyer


“He’s the quietest Zen master in America,” said Huston Smith, the famous scholar of world religions, as we sat in a Japanese restaurant near his home in Berkeley, California. “And he was the first American to go to Japan and receive full dharma transmission in the Rinzai lineage.” We were talking about Walter Nowick, who once shepherded Huston around Kyoto for a season in 1957, after Huston’s friend D. T. Suzuki recommended that Huston study with Nowick’s master, Goto Zuigan Roshi.

“Never heard of Nowick,” I replied.

“Few have. Everyone’s heard of Suzuki—and many are familiar with Nyogen Senzaki, another pioneer of American Zen, but Nowick gets left out of most accounts.” Huston looked up from his bowl of Udon noodles, a favorite dish of his. “And what’s interesting about this is that Nowick has some of the best Zen credentials around.”

Walter Nowick, 82, left for Japan in 1950, where he became the first American to receive full Rinzai dharma transmission.

Huston explained further. Goto Roshi, Nowick’s master, was a disciple of Sokatsu Shaku, who, in turn, was a disciple of Soyen Shaku, the famous roshi who first presented Zen to an American audience at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, in 1893. Among Soyen Roshi’s other students were D.T. Suzuki and Senzaki, but unlike these other two, Sokatsu Shaku was made a formal dharma heir, and so Goto Roshi was formally in the lineage of Soyen Roshi.

“Too bad Goto Roshi never made it to the United States, if he was an actual dharma heir,” I remarked.

Huston corrected me: “He did. But Soyen Roshi made him return to Japan, and Goto followed Soyen as head abbot of Myoshin-ji, the ‘Temple of the Marvelous Mind,’ where I studied with Goto Roshi. And after that he became the abbot of Daitoku-ji, the most prestigious of all Rinzai monasteries.” Huston widened his eyes, as he often does for emphasis. “But it’s no matter anyway. Soyen and Goto Roshi’s lineage lives on here in Walter Nowick Roshi.”

I was slightly embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of Nowick, although later, when I got home and looked into it, I learned that at least part of the blame lay with Nowick himself, who is very low profile.

“Do you know where he lives?” I asked Huston.

“Sure. He lives in a little fishing village in Maine.” Huston’s eyes flared again. “Hey, wait a minute. You live in Maine, right?”

As kismet or karma would have it, it turned out that Nowick lives only six miles from where my wife and I have spent every summer for many years. I felt like the proverbial bumpkin who, after an exhaustive search for a teacher, realizes there’s a Zen master living in his backyard. So I decided to look him up. It took a while—mostly because I had to drive around. Nowick doesn’t answer his phone. We were finally able to meet on a sunny September morning at his saltwater farm, in Surry. Nowick, still burly and spry at 82, was dressed in faded blue jeans and a gray fleece. Not what I had expected. But I reminded myself that Zen masters don’t always dress in kimono or stand on formality; in fact, Ikkyu, the great fifteenth-century Zen master who, like Goto Roshi, had also served as abbot of Daitoku-ji, once referred to the fine silk robes of his dharma brothers as “glorified [banned term] covers.” And Lin Chi, the Chinese master from whom the Rinzai sect takes its name, was a notorious slob.

Nowick’s farm no longer functions as such; today it’s mostly a collection of dilapidated buildings in the familiar New England style of sharply pitched roofs, gray cedar shingles, and granite foundations. When we went into the barn for our interview, a sign over the door read: “Surry Opera Company.” Inside were three grand pianos, two upright pianos, and lots of theater seats. He seemed to enjoy the surprised look on my face.

Nowick, who never married or had children, grew up in New York, on Long Island, the son of Russian and Polish immigrants who ran a potato farm. As a child he was deeply interested in music, and at the age of 14 he auditioned— and was accepted—at Juilliard, where he studied piano with the keyboard virtuoso Henriette Michaelson. Thus began his lifelong involvement with music.

“And she’s the one who introduced me to Zen,” Nowick explained, pointing to an old photo of Michaelson on a shelf nearby. “It was right at the end of World War II. She knew Ruth Fuller Sasaki, whose husband, Sokei-an Sasaki, had started the First Zen Institute of America in New York, in 1931. Henriette used to go there, and she told me about it. I thought, ‘Sitting? Meditation? What’s that?’ So I went with her and found out.”

By the end of the 1940s, Nowick was deeply immersed in Zen practice. From time to time he would accompany his piano teacher to the northern coast of Maine, to Surry, where she kept a modest summerhouse on Morgan Bay, and there they would play the piano and sit for long hours in meditation. “I loved it here and came up to see her several times. After that, I thought of Maine as a kind of home.

“Back in New York I wanted to train more deeply in Zen, but there was nobody who could help me. Ruth Fuller knew a great deal about Zen, but she was not a roshi—and there’s a difference between a teacher and a roshi: one has information, and the other has experience. So she helped me write a letter to Goto Roshi, who had been a friend of Sasaki, her husband. Then Goto Roshi wrote an answer. He was very sorry, he said, because he could not leave Japan at that time and come to America, ‘but if anyone will come here I will be happy to accept them as a pupil.’” Nowick packed his bags, shipping out for Japan on a steamer in early 1950.

“He was wonderful in teaching and helping me. He told me, ‘I will take my English out of mothballs, but you must learn Japanese.’ And so I did.” Nowick discovered that having an ear for music gave him an ear for languages. He learned Japanese quickly and began supporting himself by teaching English, but soon switched to teaching music, at Kyoto Women’s University.

“I thought I was done with music, but one day I found a piano in a shed behind the place where I was teaching English. I nearly cried when I saw it—it had been so long. So I used to sneak in there and play piano when there was time. One day the head of the university begged me to teach music. When I asked Goto Roshi if that would be all right, he said, ‘Walter, you like music better than teaching English. Go do it.’”

With his finances secure, Nowick threw himself into Zen practice, meditating for long hours and undergoing divided into three parts, and you will take one part home to Maine and bury them there and build a zendo.’” After the master’s death, Nowick said goodbye to his dharma brothers, including the two others who received portions of Goto’s ashes: Sesso Oda Roshi, who followed Goto as abbot of Myoshin-ji, and Soko Morinago Roshi, who became the next head of Daitoku-ji.

Arriving back in Maine in late 1965, Nowick was intent on carrying out his master’s wishes but had no idea how he would make a living. He used a modest inheritance from his father to settle on a rustic farm once owned by elderly friends of his music teacher from Juilliard, and basically joined the back-to-the-land movement of the sixties. Like many hippies—and Zen masters—before him, he discovered the deep satisfaction that can be found in chopping wood and carrying water. But word had spread that a bona fide Zen roshi was hiding in the Maine woods, and soon a circle of students grew up around him, some traveling from the Zen Institute in New York to relocate in Maine.

Nowick accepted these students, but he made it clear to them that he wanted to touch the deep bones of Zen, without such things as robes, incense, Buddhist names, and other “trappings” that he perceived to be more cultural than necessary. In general, he centered the practice for his sangha of some 40 students on two things: physical labor on the farm and koan training. To help financially support the fledgling group, Nowick bought a small sawmill.

“Men who run sawmills often lose their hands or fingers on the job. When I bought the sawmill, the man said, ‘I can’t teach you anything, but I can tell you one thing. Be attentive.’ That stuck in me instantly.” After more than twenty years of Zen training, Nowick found it quite natural to pay attention. “I still have ten fingers,” he told me, smiling and holding up his hands. “Good for playing the piano.” Then he gestured to the high ceiling of the barn. “See those wide boards up there? We milled all of those—and many more for the zendo.”

“This isn’t the zendo?”

“No, no. This is the opera house.”

It seemed a bit grandiose to call an old barn an “opera house,” but Nowick explained further. Back in the late sixties and seventies, when gurus, yogis, and roshis were in particularly high demand, Nowick had avoided the limelight, choosing instead a life of quiet practice. Even after the Dutch novelist Janwillem van de Wetering published an entire book about Nowick’s group, A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community, in 1975, they managed to stay off the radar, thanks to Nowick’s stipulation that his friend Janwillem (who later moved to Surry to live near Nowick) not use his real name or say where he was. And while other roshis lectured in multimillion-dollar facilities, Nowick ran a sawmill and lived in a shack.

“And I was playing the piano,” he added. “I couldn’t stop playing music.” Some of Nowick’s students saw his musical activities as a distraction from his duties as a roshi, but Nowick disagreed. Zen can be taught through any medium of expression, and many Zen masters before him had been musicians, artists, and poets. Furthermore, Nowick had been hatching a plan to use music for generating peace and compassion in the world.

“It was during the Cold War, the time of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Everyone was worried there would be a nuclear war. So I decided we could form a musical group to travel to Russia and give concerts; that way, some Russians and some Americans would meet each other directly instead of through their politicians, and we could become goodwill ambassadors.”

Nowick founded the “Surry Opera Company,” made up mostly of members of his sangha, along with lobster fishermen, pulpwood cutters, and housewives thrown into the mix, and eventually, in 1986, they made their first trip to Russia (and visited Japan as well). To date Nowick has traveled to Russia to perform and teach music more than 40 times. “The Opera Company was a great hit. People loved it. We made many friends in Russia. And it really captured people’s imagination that we could do something directly to ease the conflict between our countries.” Nowick’s efforts were applauded on both sides of the Iron Curtain, gleaning lots of press, but none of it related to Buddhism.

“And what about Zen?” I asked.

Nowick explained that he eventually became so busy with his opera company that in 1985 he stopped teaching Zen formally, finding a greater sphere of influence for spreading compassion through music. Once détente with the Soviets was solidly in place, Russians started coming over in groups to Surry to study music with him, and Russians still arrive every summer and offer concerts to the local population. Nowick may be a Zen master on the quiet, but he isn’t actually quiet at all.

As we walked through fields of goldenrod toward the zendo he built with his students in 1972, Nowick pointed out some of the buildings on his farm. “I live in that small one over there. The one beside it is my shrine room, where I meditate every day. And that one is the milk shed, where the Russians live in the summer. And way over there, that’s Allen’s place.” Allen Wittenberg, a music therapist and longtime disciple, helps Nowick take care of his property and lives as simple an existence as his master.

Cutting through the bushes, Nowick shooed away a fly and talked about meditation. “I practice twice every day for 40 minutes, in the morning and evening.” Specifically, he recites a 250-word Japanese prayer that was taught to him by Goto Roshi. “I say the whole thing in two breaths and then repeat, all the time being mindful.” He turned his head away. “And that’s the zendo over there.” Nowick pointed to a low building nestled by a pond. “And that little cottage behind it is the sanzen-room, for interviews during koan study.”

Nowick donated the land for the zendo (which he called Moon Spring Hermitage) to the sangha, and a trust continues to keep it up, though Nowick has retired as presiding roshi. “It’s not technically a zendo anymore,” he explained, “because there’s no roshi. But people meditate there.”

Without further explanation, Nowick turned away from me and walked to the edge of the woods, where I followed him up a short path. We stopped beside a large boulder, and Nowick pointed to a bronze plate screwed into a low rock beside it. “That is the marker we made. Goto Roshi’s ashes are buried there.” I bent down and read: 1879–1965. Here lie some of the ashes of the Japanese Zen Master Goto Roshi Zuigan, my teacher. They were placed here in Oct. 1968 in the hope that his teaching will continue. Walter Nowick.

I looked up at Nowick, now standing ramrod straight with his hat off, as if at military attention. His face held an intense look of both presence and reminiscence. He seemed to be planted simultaneously in Maine and Kyoto.

“But what about Zen?” I asked again. “Will you continue Goto Roshi’s teaching?”

Nowick smiled, put on his cap, and without a word started walking back toward the opera house. As we stepped through the fields of flowers, I had a few minutes to reflect on our morning together. Nowick is deeply believable as a roshi: he has an intense and yet easygoing presence that bespeaks the real deal. But why wasn’t he teaching Zen and doing what his master wished? I fished around in my mind for an answer.

When Huston took koan study with Goto Roshi, Goto had accused Huston of having “philosopher’s disease” because he asked so many questions. Nowick, on the other hand, seemed completely bored by my philosophical questions, and this, I reflected, might have been what Goto had found attractive in him. Raised by farmers, Nowick is oriented toward the practical and bored by the abstract—a good fit for Zen. And now he was content to spread compassion through music and otherwise live a simple life, another good fit for Zen. I found myself feeling silly that I had asked whether he would continue Goto Roshi’s teaching. Maybe philosopher’s disease was getting the best of me too.

After I said goodbye to Nowick (who was on his way into town for a meal of Udon noodles) and returned home, I took down A Glimpse of Nothingness and read a passage in which van de Wetering reflects on a visit he once made with Nowick to Goto Roshi’s grave:

I thought of the old master. His ashes were buried in the forest. …Nothing was left, but the direct results of his lifelong labor were all around me. The line of his teaching continued, was as alive as in the days when the Buddha wandered all through India, on his bare feet.

Van de Wetering, who died last summer, had written those lines more than 30 years ago, yet I found no reason to alter his conclusion. Walter Nowick is an old farmer who enjoys a deep love of music, but a lotus still blooms in Maine. ▼


Dana Sawyer is a professor of religion at the Maine College of Art and the author of Aldous Huxley, A Biography. He has recently edited Peaceful Mind, Compassionate Heart by Khen Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan, and he is currently writing the authorized biography of Huston Smith.


Last edited by Jcbaran on Mon Feb 11, 2013 3:05 pm; edited 2 times in total
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PostSubject: Re: Former Zen teacher Walter Nowick has died   Mon Feb 11, 2013 3:00 pm

Here is the link to Stuart Lachs piece on hagiography. The first half of the article focuses on a Chinese teacher. The second half on Walter Nowick. If you want to see myth making in action, first read the Tricycle article above and then read Stuart's analysis of the article and his experience of the truth of Nowick's scene.

http://www.hsuyun.org/index.php/essays/from-readers-members/articlesbylachs/733-saintsgomarchingin.html
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