“How does humor play into your experience of the dharma?” a fellow resident asks Shinzan, Upaya’s Temple Coordinator and senior resident. “Because I find you to be a pretty funny guy.”
“Humor is the base of life,” Shinzan says. “Not to take anything too seriously. To be silly, to be goofy, to dismantle what we call ‘the self.’ Humor helps us do that.” In his recent dharma talk on the Three Marks of Existence, Shinzan shared an exercise that helps him step outside of his experience of the self, when he finds it’s becoming too rigid: “When you are upset, when you have something you are struggling with, go to a bathroom, and look at yourself in a mirror. And then let the emotions come out and you will see it. And you will see how pointless it is to be holding on, and there is going to be a release. First thing, I am laughing at myself. You create another persona, to see… the emptiness of such a feeling or situation… It’s gone. It was last week.”
When Jose Manuel Palma first read about meditation and Zen, he was a college student in Mexico City. He remembers reading the book The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi; “it made a lot of sense to me,” he said. “I was very interested. I wanted to learn meditation and what it was about.” It was at this time in 1996 that he saw a flyer for Korean Zen that led him to join a sitting group where he met his first teacher, Samu Sunim. Shinzan sat with this group in Mexico City for four years before Samu Sunim invited him to residential training in Toronto. In 2004, Shinzan was ordained a Zen priest.
In 2005, Shinzan first met Roshi Joan Halifax when she came to the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto to give a dharma talk. Later that year, he decided to leave Toronto. In the course of training Alicia, a friend and colleague, to take over his job there, he told her about Upaya and passed along a brochure about the place. Over the next year, Shinzan returned to Mexico for a while, and Alicia left Toronto herself and came to Upaya. It was through Alicia that Roshi Joan inquired after Shinzan and made a fateful invitation: “If you are still interested in continuing with a dharma community, you are welcome to come to Upaya.”
Shinzan shares that his favorite part of living in New Mexico is feeling “close to my culture,” in terms of the people, language, and food. While Zen training in itself can often come as a culture shock for Westerners, as new residents can often attest, for Shinzan, it was adjusting to American culture that proved the biggest challenge in adapting to life at Upaya at first. He remembers that when he first left Mexico for Toronto, the only English he knew was “My name is…” Not only did he learn a new language, but quickly figured out how to operate in a totally different cultural context. He remembers how much felt new and unfamiliar: it was hard to understand the dynamics around gender as they differ from those in Mexico, and workplace etiquette; the approach to planning in this setting, for instance, he said, is “very American.” He was struck by the pervasiveness of the values of competition, independence, and privacy in the American way of life. Even in sangha community life, he said, there is still an emphasis and a value given to private time. These are just “not characteristics in Latin culture,” he said, where “Community is the only way you can survive. The strength of Latin culture is a sense of sharing.”
“The thing is…obviously, there are so many filters to connect with people. When I connect with people, I don’t connect as a Mexican…I connect… from a bigger place and that is buddhanature. If I go into that place then everyone is equal. That’s where the magic happens. To be Mexican, to be American, to be poor, to be rich, to be short to be tall is just the container. Buddanature is bigger; it includes everything.” In casual conversation, Shinzan refers to Zen ancestor Huineng as “the man” because of his teachings about Buddhanature. (Listen to Shinzan’s dharma talk, “The Life of Huineng.”)
“What I like about Zen is the simplicity and also it’s so direct,” Shinzan says. It doesn’t go to the intellect, he says, it goes to your heart. “You will never grasp it, so that’s…the beauty. As soon as you say ‘I got it,’ you are most lost.”
“I love the Zen practice. I love the formality of everything. My question is how can I express my practice in the world?”
“Since I was a kid I had a feeling of empathy for other kids,” Shinzan remembers. Passionate about working with young people, Shinzan has a vision to return to Mexico in the future to share the dharma with the kids and teens living on the street. Amidst the chaos of drugs and violence in Mexico today, he says, “there are no good role models… There is no clear path for an ethical life.” Now more than ever, he sees it as a crucial time for “planting the teachings of the Buddha,” in the minds and hearts of youth who are struggling. He dreams of building an organization to facilitate offering training to these young people in his home country. Shinzan sees young minds at a formative stage; they are “wide open,” he says, making it an opportune time to begin cultivating mindfulness training: “a good seed,” he said, yielding, “a good fruit.”
Today, one of Shinzan’s roles at Upaya is the work he does to coordinate the Resident Program. In this capacity, he has watched many residents come and go; it used to frustrate him to see people leave, he says. “Now, it’s important to me that everyone who leaves Upaya leaves happy.” No matter how long they stay, whether it’s a week or a year, he says, “they are doing dharma, they are going to get something. In the end, it’s going to be good.” He says his “faith in human beings and buddhanature” is what inspires him in this work. “Shinzan has been an incredible mentor to me and my fellow residents, both a role model and friend in the dharma. He has such a generous heart,” says resident Sam Senko Watts.
In 2010, in what Shinzan remembers as “a big surprise,” Roshi Joan made him a dharma holder, initiating him in giving dharma talks and practice interviews. On January 26, he will undergo the Shuso Hossen ceremony, culminating his training as Upaya’s Head Student for this month’s Winter Practice Period. Roshi Joan explained this tradition to the Upaya Sangha: “The Shuso Hossen ceremony is a rite of passage testing the candidates ability to take on serious responsibility and to learn to be totally accountable to the sangha and to their practice,” she said.“Part of the ceremony entails the new Shuso doing a dharma talk (traditionally, their first dharma talk), and entering into a ceremonial dharma dialogue with the community, where the community tests the depth of the Shuso’s practice and realization.”
As he moves toward this rite and the new responsibilities of this role, Shinzan says, “I try not to have expectations in my practice. My vow is not to cling to the teacher role and then if it happens… if that’s what the dharma is going to ask me to do, I will be a teacher, if not it’s totally fine. It’s up to the students.”