I was born in New Jersey in 1946 to the children of Jewish immigrants trying to find their way in a new world. My mom’s way of coping was hysteria—as a means of control. My dad’s was looking happy and confident, and being smart, cool and friendly. In me, they tried to create the regular American guy they themselves wished to be. Looking back, it seems as though who I am was not important to them.
As a freshman at the University of Michigan, I was asked by a friend what I wanted to do in life, and I was dumbfounded by the very question. It had not occurred to me that I might be part of this decision. I stopped going to classes and instead played pool and bridge for the next four months. At the end of that semester, my father, who never recovered his footing after his business failed, died of a broken heart. I transferred to a college in New Jersey to support my mother.
In 1968, I moved to Berkeley to attend graduate school, and suddenly the possibilities of consciousness, sensuality, self-directed thinking, self-respect and love opened themselves to me. The women were beautiful, the classes stimulating, the political street life invigorating, and the spiritual awakenings whole-making. The contrast must have all been too much, because a few days after receiving a draft exemption, I took a leave from school to find a spiritual community, perhaps seeking the family I’d never had, perhaps to turn down the amperage of my year of openness.
I received zazen (Zen meditation) instruction from Mel Weitsman at the Berkeley Zen Center and hitchhiked north, practicing meditation wholeheartedly at communes in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In B.C. I met a man who had just come back from the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara Springs, California, and on December 1, 1969, I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center to prepare to train at Tassajara. I liked the Zen Center community’s low-key friendliness, their efforts at cultivating wisdom, and the beauty and order, and I stayed for fifteen years. The abbot—literally “father”—Shunryu Suzuki-roshi was a humble, kind man whose presence inspired confidence. Two years after my arrival, Suzuki-roshi died, and Zentatsu Richard Baker-roshi, a brilliant and charismatic man, returned from Japan to succeed him.
During Baker-roshi’s tenure as abbot, Zen Center grew to more than 500 residents and other regular practitioners, and thousands more came to the City Center, Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm for lectures and meditation. Baker-roshi helped start five right-livelihood businesses while maintaining individual practice relationships with hundreds of students and giving deep, engaging lectures that combined science, literature and ancient Buddhist teachings and stories. There were moments when I looked at Baker-roshi and saw my father’s face imposed on his.
Baker-roshi was comfortable with power. He hung out with the young Governor Jerry Brown and introduced him to many of those who became his cabinet and department heads; organized an “invisible college” of cutting-edge thinkers, movers and shakers; and encouraged the wealthy and famous to support American Buddhism and, in some cases, begin a meditation practice. I was both drawn to this kind of power and terrified of it. When a beautiful and famous folksinger-goddess walked into the Tassajara office, I was frozen speechless. My hands shook as I served soup to E. F. Schumacher, the iconic author of Small Is Beautiful. And I was moved to tears to spend a weekend at Tassajara hosting celebrated sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
I remember so fondly the many times Baker-roshi would come back from Japan or Russia or somewhere else in the world like a conquering hero and “talk-story” with the community, sharing tales of his travels and his vision for Buddhism in America. He made us feel a part of something big, a world-changing movement. He had the reins, and I had confidence in his greatness. I rose up the ranks of Zen Center’s hierarchy and, by the early 1980s, was head monk and then Baker-roshi’s executive assistant. I loved the glow of being with a compelling and strong father figure. It was empowering and made me feel whole and complete. When ice cream was served at Tassajara, a genuinely big event at that remote mountain monastery, I elbowed my way to the front of the line because I was “serving Roshi.”
While working with Baker-roshi, I fell in love with another of his assistants, Therese Fitzgerald, and six years later, we married. One day, while riding between Green Gulch and the City Center, Therese asked some senior Zen Center students challenging questions about Baker-roshi, and their response was, “I support my teacher unequivocally.”
In 1983, while Baker-roshi was leading an intensive retreat at Tassajara, word spread through the Zen Center community that he’d had affairs. One in particular really upset people, and the dam burst. Long-suppressed complaints about personal, economic and existential matters surfaced, and within days Baker-roshi went from being regarded as flawless to being seen as the cause of every level of unhappiness. It was painful to watch this powerful man broken by this ongoing assault and his own inability to comprehend, or perhaps unwillingness to accept, what his students wanted from him. The trust was broken, the positive projections were withdrawn, and the fundamental difficulties were never resolved. Under pressure from the community, Baker-roshi resigned in 1984 and began a Dharma center in New Mexico. After a brief effort to help him establish a satellite center in San Francisco, I knew I had to venture forth also.
That summer, Therese and I visited Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France. Baker-roshi had introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh two years earlier in New York, and I reminded him of the young monks he’d taught and then left behind in Vietnam. When he said, “If you don’t enjoy the practice, you’re not practicing correctly,” I was transported back to my time of openness in Berkeley.
In 1985, I accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh on his teaching tour across the United States. Sitting in a small room at the Providence Zen Center with about twelve retreatants, Thây (meaning “teacher,” the name his students call him) held my hand tenderly as he spoke, and I felt seen, loved and appreciated. Here was the loving father—and mother—I longed for. When he suggested we start a publishing company together, I enthusiastically agreed.
For the next eighteen months, I established Parallax Press’s infrastructure while also transcribing tapes of Thich Nhat Hanh’s lectures and editing them into the book Being Peace. When the first 5,000 copies were delivered, it felt like giving birth. I kept the trunk of my car filled with books and felt joy and gratitude as Bookpeople agreed to distribute copies, Black Oak Books put them on a front table, and retreatants in Santa Barbara and other cities where Thich Nhat Hanh taught purchased copies directly from the publisher. Parallax Press was up and running. I was empowered by association and felt that as love.
Thich Nhat Hanh, his senior assistants and I worked closely together for fourteen years. I edited transcriptions of his talks and translations of his Vietnamese writings, and Parallax published sixty books and tapes, more than half by him. His books sold in the tens of thousands and were translated into nearly thirty languages. In 1990, Therese and I helped start a nonprofit organization, the Community of Mindful Living (CML), to organize Thich Nhat Hanh’s increasingly well-attended U.S. lectures and retreats, and in 1993, I donated the assets of Parallax Press to CML. Hundreds of people were now participating in each of his retreats, and thousands were attending his lectures. These dynamic, creative individuals formed what poet Deena Metzger called “the interdenominational floating sangha.” And each summer, people gathered at Plum Village for what felt like an international Dharma festival.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s ability to convey Buddhist teachings simply and accessibly had drawn me to him, and over time he became one of the most important and helpful teachers in the West. His capacity to explain complex subjects, his emphasis on the lay community’s being as important as the monastic community, and his advocacy of engaged Buddhism inspired meditators, peace activists and other readers worldwide. As we worked together creating books and producing retreats and lectures, Thich Nhat Hanh offered me encouragement and sincere appreciation.
He did, however, make several important publishing decisions that I felt were not in the interests of Parallax Press, and he executed these decisions unilaterally, without communication or even courtesy. Each time it hurt me a lot, but when I tried to bring these matters up, my efforts were not successful. The work I was doing was so satisfying and my feelings toward Thich Nhat Hanh so positive that I did not pursue resolving these conflicts, and the pattern only grew over time.
In 1988, at Grdhrakuta—Vulture Peak—in India, Thich Nhat Hanh ordained one Western and two Vietnamese women as nuns; and by the mid-1990s, dozens of monks and nuns he’d subsequently ordained were living at Plum Village. In the spring of 1995, eight Plum Village monks and nuns joined Thich Nhat Hanh in leading retreats in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and China, and Therese and I were invited to travel with them. When we arrived in Taiwan, we could feel a change in the air. On the third morning of our trip, I entered the dining room at the guesthouse where we were all staying and encountered the long, low table where everyone else was already seated for breakfast. Thich Nhat Hanh was at the head, and there was a place next to him. Therese signaled for me to sit there, and despite my emotional recognition that things were different and this was not going to work, I did. Sure enough, Sister Chân Không, the senior nun, said to me, “Arnie, you like yogurt. There is yogurt at that end of the table.” She pointed to where the laymen and laywomen who had joined our group were sitting. “Why don’t you sit there?”
In most Asian Buddhist countries, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen— in that order—constitute the hierarchy for ceremonies and certain organizational functions. Until this time, Thich Nhat Hanh’s egalitarian emphasis—his signature teaching was that anyone, lay or monastic, can awaken deeply to the present moment just by washing the dishes or doing any activity mindfully—had trumped this traditional form. Now, suddenly, as we traveled together through Asia, lay practitioners were relegated to the back of the bus (literally) and the side doors of temples. It felt as though we were not just respecting the local customs, but that Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns actually regarded themselves as superior. I felt angry and hurt to be treated as a second-class citizen. After all, I’d edited and published the books and helped organize the retreats and lectures that had drawn almost everyone in the group, and thousands of others worldwide, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. And I’d been a monk myself at the San Francisco Zen Center. At a gathering our last evening in Korea, when Thich Nhat Hanh extolled the virtues of his monastic sangha, excluding mention of lay practitioners, I challenged him about this omission. In East Asian cultures, Rule Number One is not to cause another to lose face, and I did this in front of our Korean hosts. For the next four years, the tension between us was palpable, yet we continued to work closely without directly addressing the issues that had arisen. Then, in February 1999, I got a phone call from Sister Chân Không: “A lawyer will be contacting you for information about Parallax Press and Thây’s royalties. It’s for Thây’s estate planning. Please cooperate with him.” I responded to each of the attorney’s requests and demands, which felt increasingly hostile.
I phoned Sister Chân Không to suggest that I fly to France to speak with Thich Nhat Hanh to find out what was happening and try to reopen communications. Her response was to invite me to call a special meeting of the Community of Mindful Living board to be held at Plum Village. I agreed, and on February 28, 1999, three of us took a redeye flight from San Francisco to Paris, arriving at Plum Village late the next afternoon.
The following day, Sister Chân Không told me that Thich Nhat Hanh was going to propose that we add four monks and nuns to the board of CML. Until then, three of us, Western lay students, had constituted the majority of this governing body of Parallax Press and Thich Nhat Hanh’s American practice community. Adding four monastics would essentially give Thich Nhat Hanh unitary control of the assets and decision-making. I suggested that we slow the process down and discuss it with the American practice community.
That night after I went to bed, a monk came to my room and said that unless I supported Thich Nhat Hanh’s proposal to add monks and nuns to the CML board, Thich Nhat Hanh would create a new organization to replace CML and would cease to publish books with Parallax Press. I gasped, breathless, and the monk insisted I write a letter to Thich Nhat Hanh on the spot confirming my intention to support the proposal.
The next day, shaken to the core, I led the voting to add monastics to the CML board, thereby relinquishing control. Three days later, Thich Nhat Hanh walked into the room where the newly constituted board was meeting, with a handful of legal documents that would dissolve the Community of Mindful Living and merge its assets with those of his recently incorporated Unified Buddhist Church. He said we should all sign these papers right then, that it would be a beautiful act. Although we didn’t sign the papers that day, a few weeks later, feeling powerless, confused and pressured, I and the other members of the old CML board signed away stewardship of the assets we had been instrumental in creating.
Overwhelmed by a feeling of personal failure and deep disappointment in the men I’d trusted, I developed a bronchial condition, sweated constantly and lost eight pounds in the week following the board meeting. Six months later I was fired for failing to obey an order from the new leadership of Parallax Press, whom I found ill-informed and autocratic and whose empowerment I had failed to prevent.
In December 1999, Therese and I moved to Hawai‘i to help start a retreat center and to absorb all that had happened. The healing ocean waters, moist tropical breezes, beautiful culture and music of aloha helped us slowly reconnect with life. I also began Jungian therapy, and through my sessions have finally begun to touch the core issues I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding.
I have spent my whole life crafting myself in the image of my father—smart, cool, kind, equanimous and accommodating. My effort now is to know when I am in my image and when I am authentic and present. I experience great openness and vulnerability when I stay connected with my true feelings. But these moments are still rare. Most of the time I opt for the familiar comfort of living in my image of being a great person, fed by association with great people, and avoiding the unbearable feeling of failure. I’m trying to hold both poles at the same time—image and vulnerability, comfort and authenticity, big shot and failure. Between cycles of numbness, as I return to the truth of who I am, painful as that is at times, I find real power and hope.
In the decade since I wrote this essay, I’ve done a lot of self-inquiry, and my primary takeaway is that Thich Nhat Hanh and I share responsibility for the beautiful work we did together and the unskillful and painful severing of our connection.
For seventeen years, I felt encouraged by his appreciation, guided by his wisdom, seen for my gifts, and safe in my role. In other words, I felt fathered, after not receiving that kind of guidance, security, or support from my own father.
During our last years together, the ground shifted. The way I see it now, his vision changed from building an international mindfulness community, of which I felt an integral part, to reviving Vietnamese Buddhism globally, which was not my calling. But I clung to the way things had been, and Thây and I never talked about it. As a result, we were unable to co-create a mindful separation.
—Zoe Rose WolfArtist Zoe Rose Wolf lives and works near Chicago. She paints in her studio and teaches yoga. The rest of her time is spent in meditation or with her family. She stopped going to Chicago Zen Center in 2007.