Zen: Ruth Becomes Chigetsu

       Although Ruth's letters refer to a few of her Buddhist activities, they focus little on this profound change in her life. Since I was only slightly aware of her new vision of reality, I must draw on the memories and the records of those who influenced her studies and shared with her the philosophy and practices of Zen Buddhism.


Tai-san (Eido Roshi), Chigetsu Ruth Lilienthal, and Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, 1970

       Ruth was drawn to Zen Buddhism during the 1960’s while still teaching at the Milton Feher School of Dance and Relaxation. After her retirement from Hunter, her interest in Buddhist studies grew. She began to take a significant role in the growth of the Rinzai Zen community. I first learned about Ruth as Chigetsu when I interviewed Ruth’s teacher, Roshi Eido Shimano. Her letters to me only occasionally reflect her commitment. The Roshi showed me Ruth’s 1975 foreword to the history of the coming of Zen communities to the United States; since reading that I have tried also to learn more about some concepts and practices she does mention in her letters. To define these is to oversimplify. Yet at a simple level, Zazen means sitting meditation, Satori means enlightenment, and Sangha means a Buddhist community. The title Roshi can be translated as Abbot.

       To follow Ruth's progress toward becoming Chigetsu, I will quote again some passages from her letters, and trace her earlier work with exercise regimens.

       For many years before her retirement Ruth spent a good deal of time at the Feher studio. In June of 1952, she tells me that going there pleases her so much that she will limit her holidays so as to remain in the city on weekdays.

There won’t be any long-range meandering for me this summer—just three day weekends among shrubs—which suits me fine because of dance classes. How unfortunate for me that my curiosity about coordination should have developed in middle age. (6/7/52)

       Late that September, well into Hunter’s fall semester, she reports that she takes a body class every day at dinnertime. Then she adds, Does that sound mad?! I still try to live three lives. (9/30/52)

       A couple of years later as we try to match calendars so that I can bring my children to see her during August, she gives me two phone numbers, one at home and the other at the studio (7/11/54). Plainly she spends long hours there.

       During many summers our get-togethers were arranged by phone; I can’t recall how much she mentioned to me about her activities at the studio later in the 1950’s. But in July of 1962 she writes of enjoying the season, including a project she shares with Milton Feher.

These summer days are a lark for me. No early morning snow-tracks into the subway, no pursuit of resistant children, no dealings with administrative pinheads. Instead awaking to the noble light, reading; studying coordination, helping Mr. Feher prepare a brochure for his Relaxation Record, seeing wonderful movies . . . (7/15/62)

       A number of Ruth’s students have commented on her suggestions about yoga exercise. Some were rather amused by what she would show and tell about body coordination. Others took her modeling and advice seriously, and testify to the benefits they experienced, especially the few who went to the Feher studio.

       After her retirement from Hunter in 1962 she spends even more time at the studio, both as an instructor and a student.

In teaching coordination on Saturdays and two evenings, I make obeisance to my destiny. Otherwise I have a fairly happy time pursuing my programs of osteo-arthritic control and inquiries into Zen and Tao doctrines. (December 1964)

       These comments, curiously combining her work at the studio with her first mention of exploring Eastern philosophy, put great emphasis on the pragmatic exercises of coordination: obeisance to my destiny suggests an inevitable and lasting goal. And yet, less than a year later she turns to a philosophy centering on stillness of the body and silent concentration.

       During 1965 she speaks clearly about her growing ardor for Buddhism. First she tells of her delight in reading R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. She calls this anthology a labor loving study encrusted with gems. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Robert Louis Stevenson come off with highest honors. Then she quotes a favorite translation:

A butterfly
Asleep, perched upon
The temple bell

       Although the gong, when it sounds, will break the stillness of the butterfly, at least for now all is quiet, at rest.

       Even more important to her than studies are the practices she is learning.

Three Zen sesshins this summer were a travail and a fascination. The physical benefits of intense, prolonged (meditation) (concentration) are astonishing. Although I do not expect to achieve a full satori, I’ve had a few minor experiences which make further work tantalizing. (9/21/65)

       She adds a lighter remark about a friend’s reaction to her ardor for the Zazen regimen: Cornelia says that I will spend the last of my days in a hut on a mountain top.

       What has become of her role at Milton Feher's studio of Dance and Relaxation? She never again mentions it to me.

       Instead, she has become a devoted student at the New York Zendo, practicing Zazen meditation under the guidance of Eido Shimano Roshi.

I’m in class until 7:00 on Tuesdays, but can get to downtown Manhattan by 7:30ish. If necessary I can forgo the class but it’s not an easy release for me. (3/27/69)

       The Roshi came to the USA early in the 1960’s as a young monk, then stayed to teach the Rinzai Zen rituals and principles to Americans who yearned for such commitment. Ruth was among the early pioneers who shared in the Roshi’s development of Zen sanghas in the United States.

       The naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen has described the progress of the Roshi’s American projects. In Nine Headed Dragon River, a memoir based on his Zen Journals, Matthiessen chronicles many events of the years 1969-1976, describing his feelings as he takes part (1-68). During the winter of 1971-72, his wife Deborah succumbed to cancer, and died late in January. Throughout her weeks in the hospital Eido Roshi and members of the sangha often stayed with her at the hospital, easing her suffering. Matthiessen mentions that the Roshi brought Ruth Lilienthal along with “other senior students, still in their robes”(25) to be with Deborah just after a morning sesshin at the Zendo on January 23rd.

       Eido Roshi has written a rich narrative of the birth and growth of Zen communities (161-223). In Namu Dai Bosa: a Transmission of Zen Buddhism to America (1976), he honored Ruth’s years of devotion by naming her among his longtime friends (222). Also he chose her to contribute the foreword to this history. In the two pages she wrote (xi-xii), she quite poetically surveys the benefits of Zen Buddhism with its practice of Zazen, the role of Eido Shimano as a Zen master, and his many achievements in America. She conveys the joy and wonder of Buddhist peacefulness and shared devotion. And in a passage that is particularly lyrical, Ruth describes the natural setting of the Zen monastery in the Catskills: . . . students are surrounded by the irresistible teachings of dawn, twilight, sun, moon, stars, morning mists, raindrops, snowflakes, ice forming, ice melting. . . .

       Near the end of her comments Ruth quotes a sutra about stillness:

Bamboo shadows sweep the stairs, yet not a speck of dust is stirred;
Moonlight penetrates the bottom of the lake; yet not a trace remains.

       Or rather perhaps the sutra presents a paradox: beauty moves deep; it alters yet does not alter the serenity of stillness. [This sutra appears on her grave marker, in a slightly different translation.]

       Ruth signs her essay Chigetsu Ruth Lilienthal. Thus I am sure that Eido Roshi had chosen this Buddhist name for her some time before the date on her Foreword, May 30, 1975. Chigetsu translates as Wisdom Moon. Students receive their Buddhist names in a ceremony honoring them for further progress along the Way. Information on the dust jacket of Namu Dai Bosa notes that before 1976 she repeatedly taught courses on Zen Buddhism at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

Tai-san (Eido Roshi), Chigetsu Ruth Lilienthal, and Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, 1970
Tai-san (Eido Roshi), Chigetsu Ruth Lilienthal,
and Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, 1970

       Only long after, in 2006 when meeting with the venerable Eido Shimano Roshi, did I begin to realize the breadth of Ruth’s share in the persistent and joyous efforts that led to the foundation of the New York Zendo and later to the building and completion of the Dai Bosatsu Monastery near Beecher Lake in the Catskills. In l973 she does tell me how gladly she takes part in some of the early labor.

It looks as though I will not be at home from August 16 through September 1. The first construction of a Zen monastery is to be made on the Catskill Mountains, and although it will not be completed until July 4, 1976, Sangha maid must be intensively present throughout the preparation. (5/28/73)

       And yet she then turns to other topics so smoothly that I failed to realize the deep meaning of her role as Sangha maid.

       In Namu Dai Bosa Eido Roshi tells the full story of the next three years of hard work leading to the completion and formal opening of the monastery. Then after Ruth's death in 1997, his memorial tribute to Chigetsu describes how intensely present she was when the long-awaited day came.

Chigetsu witnessed all the events of my New York life, including the opening ceremony of Dai Bosatsu Zendo. On the morning of July 4, 1976, after Morning Meeting I exclaimed “at last July 4th!” Immediately and energetically Chigetsu replied “Congratulations!” She always carried that dynamism, but she did not show it publicly.

Fall/Winter 1997 Newsletter of the Zen Studies Society.

       Eventually I learned more about Ruth as Chigetsu. In June of 2006, Eido Shimano Roshi granted me an hour’s interview so that I could ask him questions about our mutual friend.

       The Roshi was in residence at his headquarters near Beecher Lake northwest of Manhattan. With my son driving, we were a party of four; others who came along were Richard's wife Sheelagh and my daughter Babette. In the last half-hour of our trip, a light drizzle muddied the narrow rural road that ran through the Adirondack woodlands. When I saw the Monastery, it seemed to me as if a part of Kyoto had come to the Catskills.

International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo Ji

       Stepping into the sanctuary, we waited in the austere entry hall, admiring its high woodpaneled walls and noticing the wide wooden steps where shoes could be left. Then a nun ushered us into a small meeting room where black square cushions surrounded a low table. The Roshi welcomed us and asked about the memorial project.

       I explained my two approaches: first to survey students who remembered Mrs. Lilienthal and then to edit her letters to me, discussing what she wrote about herself and about me. I needed his advice and recollections so as to add this Zen section (one that I had not originally planned) telling about Ruth’s part in the communities he had founded and led. His comments were imensely fruitful.

       I began by showing the Roshi Ruth’s earliest comments to me concerning her zen studies (9/21/65), describing her delight in reading R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. After looking over Ruth’s remarks, Eido Roshi sent for his own copy of Blyth’s volume. He let me see me how he had inscribed it with his name repeatedly across the decades, not just to record certain times when he reread passages, but also to note how his hand-writing had changed across the years..

       He spoke about his childhood name, Taisan, and told us how Ruth gradually became such a close friend that she might call him that, just as old friends did. For some of my questions I could hardly find adequate words. I wanted him to explain why and how Ruth turned to Buddhism--was it like a discovery? or a conversion? It seemed to me that some traits of hers were not consistent with the Zen regimen. How could she become meek? Like many of her other students, I knew her as a forceful teacher, directive, demanding, sometimes impatient, even exasperated, as she tried to shape us toward our best selves.

“No, not at all,” said the Roshi, “she was never meek.”

       So I quoted the Roshi’s own anecdote about Ruth’s unusually energetic congratulations during the 1976 opening ceremony for Dai Bosatsu Zendo: “She always carried this dynamism but she did not show it publicly.” Didn’t that repression of her vitality turn her into a hesitant, retiring person?

       My question made the Roshi smile. “That was her strategy,” he said. By speaking rarely, she increased respect for what she did say. Other questions of mine revealed my assumption that Buddhism is mystical and unscientific. I wondered how our biology teacher could dismiss the world-view that she taught us, grounded in science. From her we learned the primacy of the scientific method, how observation leads to hypothesis and experiment leads to outcomes that are always verifiable and often useful. How could she come to revere inwardness and stillness rather than movement and activism? The Roshi assured me that Buddhism does not reject rationality and experiment; instead it wholly encompasses science.

       Yet I still could not encompass his explanation. Our discussion left me with much to mull over.

       I tried to express my gratitude for Eido Roshi’s time and thought. He spent more than an hour with us, delaying other appointments. Beyond appreciating his generosity, I am indebted to him for leading me to Namu Dai Bosa. Its illuminating foreword by Chigetsu Ruth Lilienthal provides fascinating testimony about her faith in Zazen and her admiration for Eido Shimano Roshi and his endeavors.

       In the 1970’s, Ruth and I were not writing to each other as often as in earlier years. Across that decade while the monastery grew from a hope to a reality, we communicated mostly by phone and during my infrequent visits to Manhattan. Ruth did always write faithfully when I went overseas. As she noted in a short letter to Athens, her purpose was to add to our MAIL CALL in far away places (5/21/78). During the l980’s I spent two academic years teaching in the Fulbright program. In her letters to Romania and China she holds mostly to our usual subjects, with only passing references to the Zen community.

       Writing to me in Romania, for instance, when recommending the novels of Anne Tyler, she praises the author’s understanding heart and reminds me that rationality can be overstressed; she mentions that one of the Roshis characterized the expression of intellectualization as overstanding (7/27/83).

       Ruth’s 1986 letter to me in Beijing includes her only mention of being at the monastery during a sesshin. She describes her shock and bafflement following the theft of the gong at Dai Bosatsu Zendo:

In my Zen monastery, secluded on a Catskill Mountaintop, was a huge bowl-shaped gong whose voice was very important in Zen training. It was fashioned 300 yrs. ago in Daitoku Ji, Japan, and we bought it twenty years ago at Gump’s in San Francisco. During the most intensive retreat of the year, somewhere between 2 and 4 A.M., while forty people slept, the gong was STOLEN! Whodunnit?! (12/25/86)

       Eido Roshi tells more about this gong in Namu Dai Bosa (198-200). Beyond its beautiful sound and size and color, its fascinating history made it a perfect choice. It had been forged in 1555 for an important Rinzai Zen Temple in Kyoto. Roshi narrates the happy coincidence of discovering the gong for sale in America. He was overjoyed when an unexpected gift enabled him to purchase it for the Zendo.

       After Ruth died in June 1997, the Roshi’s memorial to her in the Zen Studies Newsletter ( Fall / Winter 1977) conveyed much more than I had known about Ruth’s life as Chigetsu. He remembers her long involvement with the Zen sanghas: for more than 35 years dedicating her life to the practice of Zazen. He specifies 1962 as the year when she endured a crisis of the spirit that led her to search for the enlightenment and peace that she would find through Zen Buddhism.

       During our meeting with the Roshi in 2006, he said that the situation which so troubled Ruth in 1962 was the Cuban missile crisis. She and I rarely discussed politics in our letters after the 1950’s. No letters to me in the fall of 1962 mention those two eerie weeks in October when war loomed. Yet the Roshi’s recall of Ruth’s anguish did remind me of a comment she made years later. In 1983 when she looks forward to the Centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge, she speaks of her distress as she contrasts those festive celebrations with America's starker uses of technology:

On May 24, the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge will become one hundred years old. Demonstrations of pride and affection begin today with thousands of pedestrians, dancers, painters, sculptors, historians, pickpockets, und so weiter. Is this the same culture that buys and makes and sells missiles? (5/21/83)

       Across the decades after Ruth’s retirement when she became so devotedly a Sangha maid, she kept up with her family and friends as she always had. In letters to me she no longer comments on films or the theater, but she still reads widely, fiction and beyond, noticing such matters as sociological studies and international conditions, and even baseball. Realizing later, as I do now, the power of her dedication to Zen, I am even more grateful that she cared to stay in touch with me and other Hunter students of old, even though we could not follow her Way.

       I particularly treasure one late effort of hers to show me that she cared about the rites of passage in my life. When I let her know I planned to retire in May 1990, Ruth sent me a special card and wrote a special poem:

Card from Ruth, 4/18/1990

Dearest Carolyn Hodgson Meyers Rhodes

In the vineyard
of thoughtful heads
and loving hearts
I sit cross-legged
to celebrate
your presence

April 18 1990

Ruth

       Admittedly I was then clueless as to the profound meaning of I SIT CROSS –LEGGED. Now I console myself that she might be pleased that finally I came to recognize the reverberations of Zazen. Always, of course, from our earliest acquaintance over fifty years before, I knew how she valued both thoughtful heads and loving hearts.


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