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Interview with Paul Discoe and other links

undated 2007


from the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center web site

On a warm July afternoon, Cam Kwong, Lorna Myers and I begin an interview with Paul Zengyu Discoe at Joinery Structures in Oakland. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest and a dharma-brother of Kwong-Roshi, Paul Discoe is a renowned Japanese-trained specialist in traditional temple construction, who has offered to help design and build the SMZC Mandala project. As Paul began to talk, however, we realized that the tape recorder wasn't working, and began taking hasty longhand notes. Despite the confusion this caused, by the end we were all deeply impressed by how closely Paul shares Roshi's vision of the need for a refuge on Sonoma Mountain, in which the authentic dharma can survive for future generations.

Our report:

Paul explains that he first encountered Buddhism in the early sixties, listening to Alan Watts on local radio, and later helping to build the Tassajara complex. He soon became a student of Suzuki-Roshi, who eventually urged him to go to Japan and train under traditional master-carpenter builders. He returned five years later, and although he found that few westerners were interested in wood-based Asian temple architecture, he continued to work in Europe and the U.S., designing and building a variety of structures based on traditional methods, including several prestigious homes, in addition to the Kojin-an Zen temple in Oakland for Akiba Sensei, the Founder’s Hall and Kitchen at Tassajara, the Lindesfarne Guest House and Wheelwright Center as well as the Abbot’s House at Green Gulch. He sees the current Mandala project as a “unique opportunity” to develop a significant Zen temple complex in North America.

Paul’s connection with Jakusho Kwong goes back to their years practicing with Suzuki-Roshi, when he considered Kwong to be his older dharma brother. Paul talks admiringly about Kwong’s always interesting take on the disputes that swirled then around the San Francisco Zen Center, and about how Kwong “always went his own way,” in Paul’s words, indifferent to internal politics but grounded in a view of Zen as an actively living practice, a matter of just doing beyond subterfuge or dense philosophical conceptualizing.

When asked about his conception of a Buddhist architect’s art, Paul replies that he sees it as stimulating the “way-seeking mind” by encouraging people to grow, to view the world in a different way. Although brilliant teachers like Trungpa can accomplish this transformation through verbal exposition, he says, such an effect doesn’t always last. Paul insists that it’s impossible to sit zazen and absorb the dharma for others, but that it is possible to create enduring buildings in which something significant is clearly taking place, so that the “way-seeking mind” might truly awaken. Particularly in the structures envisioned for the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center Mandala, Paul hopes to instill a feeling of the unexpected, to stir the imagination profoundly.

Paul points out that Asian temple architecture has evolved for more than two thousand years, but continues to enhance the spirit. “We have tomb figures and building models from Han China,” he observes, “of enormous simplicity and beauty.” In these configurations the way vertical meets horizontal, wall meets roof, has become increasingly refined over the centuries. There’s a progression here that continues to embody an ancient vision, tangible but apart from any particular conception of time and space. “Such buildings aren’t ego-trips,” he says. “Their architecture and construction came out of the same cauldron from which Zen Buddhism emerged. They’re firmly rooted in tradition. The space they provide for ritual gives rise to a non-linear experience that deeply affects our minds. They manifest the power and energy one feels when chanting the Heart Sutra. Their very existence is a teaching in itself.”

Of course, developing such structures in North America in the 21st century means blending the traditional and the contemporary . “My feeling is that I don’t want to be trapped in narrow versions of either one or the other,” Paul remarks; “rather, I want to find a form that harmoniously combines both.” For example, the impact of a traditionally built zendo lies partly in the height of the ceiling within the inner meditation hall, which provides a generous, ventilated interior space, which is in turn ringed by an outer walkway that’s open, luminous and yet protected from the elements. This is a formula that applies to contemporary homes, courtyards and spiritual structures alike. Such layouts carry the proportions of the human body and spirit intimately within themselves.

In response to the question of how he developed these ideas, Paul explains that they were drawn from many directions. He came from a family of builders, and was dyslexic as a child, but loved working with his hands. At six he asked for a set of woodworking tools, and often “built” wooden structures in his mind. When he went to Japan years later, he was astonished to find the same style of building long established there. “It was as if I’d come home to something I already knew,” he observes. He was struck particularly by the rich cultural cauldron from which Asian temple architecture evolved, including a mix of influences from ancient India, and Chinese Buddhism and Taoism alike. He admires Tang (618-907) architecture especially for its purity and classic elegance: “one of my most powerful experiences during my training in Japan was helping to build a six-story pagoda in Tang style on an island in the Inland Sea,” he recalls. Even when this style became more complicated during later periods, he suggests that something fundamental remains. He feels, as a result, that one virtue of traditional Asian temple architecture is that it allows past and present styles to mingle, since the two simply aren’t considered separate entities. This, he points out, is obviously relevant when constructing buildings in North America, where in general most things are regarded as temporary and fleeting.

Paul obviously shares Kwong-Roshi’s commitment to building a “sanctuary” for dharma training that will last three-hundred years. He’s concerned with keeping Zen Buddhist-practice as it was taught by Suzuki-Roshi from being co-opted by temporary trends and fads. So much of what we do in Zen, he observes, is expressed through ritual and physical forms, such as cross-leggged sitting, walking in kinhin or bowing, that have little intrinsic value in themselves. The act of consistently doing them preserves and maintains them, giving them a central role in defining dharma practice itself. It’s absolutely crucial, Paul insists, to have a refuge in which these rituals can continue to be taught, and the dharma to thrive.

As for the placement on the new Zendo on Sonoma Mountain, Paul mentions that, in contrast to Japanese temples, it’s appropriate that ours will face north, since in our region that slope is far more hospitable. According to the master plan, one will pass the lotus pond, with its purifying element of water, before encountering the Zendo steps. The Zendo itself will be raised, backing into the hill behind it, since like all meditation halls it represents “the mountain” one climbs to attain the Buddha Way.

To the Sonoma Mountain Sangha, Paul says that “Kwong-Roshi’s Mandala project is a very important event, that needs to be taken seriously, and deserves to have energy put into it. It involves creating a space that can truly encourage the health of the human race in the future. Buddhist practice is a key ingredient in teaching people how to be alive without devouring everything around us. In the past century the world has experimented with both Soviet communist and Western capitalist models of social organization. Neither has been satisfactory. We now need to find an ecologically sustainable model for human existence. I think that Buddhism has a lot to say about that!

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