A short history of the White Plum Lineage in the UK

Taizan Maezumi RoshiThe beginnings of the lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995) in the UK date back to the early 1980s, when Colin Fuko and Sumi Ryoko Barber set up the Zen Practice Centre in their home in Dulwich, in south-east London. Both had trained with Maezumi Roshi in the USA and Sumi says that Colin’s dream was to see Maezumi’s ‘White Plum’ lineage flourish over here.

In 1980 Maezumi Roshi had given shiho (Dharma transmission) to Genpo Merzel Sensei and, at the Barbers’ invitation, Genpo Sensei gave a talk at the Rigpa Centre in North London and then led the first sesshin at Zen Practice Centre, in 1982. I had stumbled upon a flier for Genpo Sensei’s talk at Rigpa, quite by chance, in a pile of papers in the office of the FWBO’s London Buddhist Centre and made up my mind to go along on the spot. Rigpa was packed for the talk, and I remember Genpo spoke stridently and without notes on one of Bassui’s letters. It was an engaging and inspiring performance, and I was one of the many people frustrated to discover that the weekend sesshin at Zen Practice Centre was fully booked!

Maezumi Roshi with Genpo The following year Genpo Sensei returned with Maezumi Roshi and a young monk heralding from Manchester, called Charles Tenshin Fletcher. There was a weekend sesshin at the Rigpa Centre (the house in Dulwich was too small for the number of people wanting to attend) and a longer retreat at the Manjushri Institute in Cumbria. I first met Jo Isshin Dennys on that weekend at Rigpa. I was sure, although she denies it, that she was Roshi’s jisha. Anyway, I thought she was very severe and scary about the etiquette of the dokusan line! After this visit, Maezumi Roshi and Genpo Sensei travelled in Europe visiting other sangha, and making connections with friends and supporters across France, Holland, Germany and Poland. A number of members of the UK Sangha received Jukai from Maezumi Roshi on that visit, and two of the key decisions to emerge from the successes of that year were that the Zen Practice Centre Trust would be founded as a charity to work for the growth of Maezumi Roshi’s lineage in the UK and that Genpo Sensei would move to Britain to found the European Kanzeon Sangha.

Genpo Sensei and his family did come to England the following year, but they did not stay for long. In those days the British Sangha could not compete with the offer of a flat surrounded by a strong, dedicated group of practitioners in Amsterdam, and that is where the Merzels first settled. Even Holland was not a viable long-term proposition for Genpo Sensei, however, and in due course he returned to the USA, setting up residential centres first in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1988-92, and later, after a sojourn in Oregon, in 1993, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

From 1983 onwards, the practice of the Kanzeon Sangha in Europe became focussed around three annual visits from Genpo Sensei and his entourage of senior students to lead week-long sesshin at successive destinations in England, Holland and Poland, plus occasional forays into Germany. This demanding schedule was interspersed with other, longer sesshin, such as an annual month-long retreat at Browfoot Farm in the Lake District, or at venues in Holland or Poland. From 1985, until around 1993, almost all Genpo’s sesshin in England, apart from those at Browfoot, were held at Amaravati Buddhist Centre at Great Gaddesden in Hertfordshire. There were some notable exceptions, though. I remember a rather cold and uncomfortable week at Youth Hostel in Castleton in Derbyshire in, I think, November 1984 or 1985, on which I began to grind away at Mu! and met Dr Dave Scott for the first time! Over New Year 1986-7 Genpo Sensei led sesshin at Gaia House, near Totnes in Devon, where he began to deliver the talks that were eventually to be transcribed in The Eye Never Sleeps (Shambhala: 1991). He stressed the practice of shikantaza and the correct Soto Zen form and announced his intention to found a residential centre in the USA. In 1988, he led sesshin at Park Gate high on the North Yorkshire Moors, near Preston, in a fine old farmhouse that Nancy Genshin Gabrysch had carefully converted into a retreat centre with help from volunteers in the Sangha. Park Gate narrowly avoided becoming the British Sangha’s first retreat centre when Genshin decided to sell the farm and give the capital to the Bar Harbor project.

Genpo Sensei first introduced his British students to his ideas about new teaching methods based on “Big Mind” in September 1986, when the sesshin did not follow the usual schedule. Individual interviews with Sensei in daisan gave way to what he termed ‘group daisan’ and the idea of Big Mind was presented in a series of talks and guided meditations. However, by the time of Maezumi Roshi’s return to Europe in 1987, Genpo Sensei had more or less reverted to the mix of koan and shikantaza used in Maezumi Roshi’s lineage and the sesshin schedule was following the Zen Center of Los Angeles model once more. During this visit Genpo Sensei gave Jukai for the first time and Maezumi Roshi gave a series of wonderful teisho on Dogen’s comments on the Sutra of the Seven Wise Sisters contained in the Eihei Koroku. These talks, which Genpo Sensei later described as some of the most inspired he had ever heard Maezumi Roshi give, were eventually transcribed by Tenkei Coppens, and published as Teaching of the Great Mountain (2001 Tuttle). Maezumi Roshi concluded his visit to visit to the UK by giving what turned out to be a rather provocative memorial talk at Dharmadhatu in Clapham, South London, in honour of Trungpa Rimpoche, who had recently died. The only thing I remember about that talk was that at one point Maezumi yelled at his audience that, when Nietzsche said “God is dead”, he was “nuts”!

The Barbers left London for Boulder, Colorado in 1988 and the organisation of the British Sangha passed into the hands of a wider group of Zen Practice Centre Trustees under the chairmanship of John Shodo Flatt (1913-94), who was to receive shiho from Genpo in the year he died.

Throughout these punishing years of extensive European travel Genpo Sensei was also putting a lot of stress on residential training for extended periods on Ango. Two things slowly began to change. First, those of his senior European students who were able to do it gradually began to spend more and more time first in Bar Harbor and later in Salt Lake City, many of them taking shukke tokudo, to become monks, training to be shuso (head training monks), and subsequently becoming hoshi (assistant teachers); and secondly Sensei himself began to visit Europe less often. With hindsight, 1992 probably marked the high-water mark for Genpo Sensei’s commitment to acting as the sole leader of sesshin in Europe. That was the year of Maezumi Roshi’s final visit to Europe (he did not come to the UK), it was the year that Sensei’s first successor, Catherine Genno Pages received shiho in Poland (in Maezumi Roshi’s presence) and it was also at around that time that Genpo closed his centre in Bar Harbor.

There was a fantastic moment in Poland immediately after Genpo Sensei had given shiho to Genno Sensei. They were both sitting in the zendo either side of Maezumi Roshi when he grabbed each of their hands and clasped them together in his own in unity in front of us all. Quite a number of those present collapsed in tears at this point!

In the following years Genno Sensei began to lead the autumn sesshin in England in place of Genpo Sensei and soon afterwards Dave Shoji Scott began to organise an annual sesshin in the north of England led by Tenshin Fletcher Sensei, who became Maezumi Roshi’s 12th Dharma successor in the year before Roshi’s death. Anton Tenkei Coppens Sensei became Genpo Sensei’s third Dharma successor in 1996 and he too began to lead sesshin in the UK.

Genpo Sensei became Genpo Roshi in 1996, when he received inka from Bernard Tetsugen Glassman Roshi, and Genpo continued to lead annual sesshin in the UK until 1999, by which time he had decided to take a break from traditional Zen training methods and concentrate instead on teaching his Big Mind voice dialogue method.

By the beginning of the new century Genno Sensei and Tenkei Sensei were beginning to focus on the work of running their own centres in France and Holland and have over the intervening years withdrawn from directly leading sesshin in the UK. They received inka and the title of Roshi from Genpo Roshi in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Meanwhile, in 2002, Dave Shoji Scott was made hoshi by Genpo Roshi and with the continued help and support of Tenshin Roshi (who also received inka from Genpo Roshi in 2006) began to build a strong centre of practice for the British Sangha around Liverpool. In 2006 Genpo Roshi gave shiho to Genshin Gabrysch Sensei, who returned to England in a teaching role after many years in Salt Lake City. And then, in 2009, Dave Scott received shiho from Tenshin Roshi and became Keizan Scott Sensei. That year the Zen Practice Centre Trust was also reconstructed and renamed the StoneWater Zen Centre Trust, to act as the charitable support vehicle for Keizan Sensei’s work in the StoneWater Zen Sangha.

It’s taken tireless work by Genpo, Tenshin, Genno and Tenkei Roshis and indeed everyone who has supported the British Sangha these last 28 years to bring the Colin Barber’s dream to fruition (and sadly he has not lived to see it), but I do feel that particularly with Dharma transmission from Tenshin Roshi to Keizan Sensei on UK- soil, in 2009, Mancunian to Scouse (!), it’s safe to say that its moment has truly come.