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The Center of Zen

news2_zenSanta Cruz Zen Center welcomes new head teacher
Everything is impermanent. This is one of the central teachings of Buddhism, apparent in the constant changing nature of thoughts, people, and organizations. Nothing escapes, not even the Santa Cruz Zen Center (SCZC). The zendo (meditation room) was recently remodeled and there’s a new head teacher to welcome: Kokyo Henkel arrived in October 2009, previously having practiced Zen meditation and studied Buddhism at the San Francisco, Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm Zen Centers in the Bay Area and Bukokoji in Japan.  He replaces Katherine Thanas, who was head teacher since 1989 and remains as abbot. 

“I’d been moving toward stepping back as I’ve gotten older and looking for someone to succeed me,” she says.

Thanas began her Zen training in 1967 with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In 1988 she founded the Monterey Bay Zen Center, and began teaching at the SCZC one year later, where she became abbot in 2002. Henkel was a student of Thanas’. “I met Katherine when I first came to Tassajara in 1990,” Henkel says. “She was my first Zen teacher and then she came to Santa Cruz. I stayed at Tassajara and Green Gulch Zen Centers the next 19 years … A few years ago, as she and the Zen Center were thinking about the transition, they got in touch with me.”

Thanas smiles and recalls earlier times they shared. “It was fun to meet again after all these years,” she says, turning to Henkel. “I still have a drawing that you gave me from that first summer; a quote of Dogen’s and a beautiful tree, with the roots reaching into the ground and the water. It’s very beautiful.”

Meditation is the central practice at SCZC, an activity that Henkel describes as “natural as eating a nutritious meal.” “I notice it if I haven’t done meditation for a while—things don’t go quite as smoothly,” he says, adding that the SCZC is a peaceful environment for locals to get into the habit of meditation themselves. “At SCZC we have daily morning, noon and evening zazen. It’s a very concentrated, quiet place to study and practice.”

He says it has been a big transition to go from larger centers with many residents to the smaller Santa Cruz center. “There were 60 people living at both Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm, and more people visiting for shorter retreats. We were all meditating and studying together every day,” he says. “Here in Santa Cruz people are fitting Zen practice into their busy lives and it’s unknown who will come at any given time and how long they’ll keep practicing.”

Henkel says that meditation is often about balancing your life—something he believes the busy but zen-inclined in Santa Cruz could use. “No thinking is really rare, but what can change is how we relate to the busyness,” he says. “Can we be at ease with the busyness?  People say, ‘Your concentration must be much stronger than when you first started.’ I’m not really more concentrated, I’m just more willing to be un-concentrated.”

Thanas adds, “I still find that working with the body is an essential part of practice.  Many of us are pretty unconscious about our body experience …  Looking for results is not what meditation is about really.”

Thanas had simple intentions when she arrived at the SCZC. “I’ve often thought that what I was doing before Henkel came was creating a wholesome environment for the community,” she says. “They could come and weed, paint, do some cooking, do some meditation. I’ve had really modest expectations.” Henkel turns to Thanas and offers appreciation for the humble attitude. “I think it’s very profound to create [this] community in modern American culture,” he says. “There’s so little sense of community. Zen Center does have that community feeling. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the value of that.”


Kokyo Henkel is leading a class on the first teaching of the Buddha: Turning The Dharma Wheel every Sunday from Feb. 7 to March 14, 6:35 to 8 p.m.  Visit sczc.org for the daily meditation schedule, or call 457-0206. John Steven Malkin is a local journalist, musician and host of The Great Leap Forward every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and freakradio.org.  He is author of “The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America” (2008, Wipf & Stock).

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