• Practice Leader at the Prairie Zen Center in Champaign, IL

    Interview with Ed Russell


    In this issue, we interview Ed Russell, practice leader at the Prairie Zen Center in Champaign, IL, and Darmha Heir of Elihu Genmyo Smith, who, in turn, was the first Darmha Heir of Charlotte Joke Beck, founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School.  Ed hosted a Day of Zen here at IMU in early May. For more information about Ed Russell and the Prairie Zen Center, visit prairiezen.org

    Please watch our monthly newsletters for notice of upcoming workshops and events.

    Question:  In simple terms, what is a Zen practice?

    Ed Russell:

    When we come down to gut level practice—not theories, philosophies, or opinions—it’s about experience.

    And it’s about how to clarify our experience and how we cloud our experience in so many ways. We cloud our experience with our reactive habits, our stories, and our beliefs. What modern science is teaching us is that we’re a wet computer inside a skull. This wet computer—our brain—is doing the best it can with limited information. If we truly understand this, if we understand our limitations, and can see our errors and our judgements, then we can appreciate that we and everyone else are doing the best we can the information available.

    Wherever you go, whatever you do, that’s your practice. When we forget that, we miss so many opportunities.


    Q: How did you get started with meditation practice?

    ER: My interest in meditation practice and what you might call Eastern philosophies began in college at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. It was the late 1960s, and Carbondale was sort of the Haight-Ashbury of the Midwest.

    But we were getting a quasi-Westernized version of Eastern philosophy. No one really knew what they were talking about. The Viet Nam war was going on. I took time off from college, and immediately got drafted.

    I was in the Army from 1969-1971, stationed in Texas. This put all philosophical endeavors on hold. When I got out of the Army, I wanted to pick up where I left off. First, I went back to college, and then began graduate work in human development counseling.  Eventually, I went to the Adirondack Mountains and started a commune. However, it was not going in the direction which I wanted. Even though I didn’t really know it at the time, I wanted to create a meditation center; instead, it was becoming a “hippie free-love” center.

    I returned to the Midwest, and joined a rock band, where I played guitar for 15 years. We toured the Midwest playing in bars and at colleges and were the warm-up band for B-level national bands. I was also got into computers, and became the first computer technician for IBM PC’s in Springfield. I just loved computers. And I loved playing in the band, too. So I did both.

    I still had this interest in meditation, though. I had gotten interested in Zen at the commune, where I had correspondence with the San Francisco Zen Center. However, I didn’t have much interest in the overlay of Japanese traditions, which all the Zen centers here had then since the teachers came from Japan. The centers were very heavily influenced by Japanese culture. I found it distracting. I thought it prohibited some Americans from being able to take the opportunity to participate. I have since developed an appreciation of Buddhist and Zen heritage and history, of course.

    At the time, there really were no Zen resources in the Midwest. I had been sitting with a group in Springfield when I heard that the Prairie Zen Center had opened in Champaign. I went up to visit, and I became a student of Elihu Genmyo Smith in 1999.

    I really liked Genmyo; his teaching was reflective of his own teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, who I think of as one of the first truly American Zen teachers. She was one of the early ones who realized that every other culture in the world has taken the inherent qualities of Zen and adapted it to meet the culture in which it resides.

     She and Genmyo thought that some adaptations needed to be done here, in the U.S., and they were right. Joko left behind much of the Japanese cultural flavor which we Americans couldn’t really relate to, for obvious reasons. She created an American practice, and called it the Ordinary Mind Zen School. Genmyo was one of the founding members.

    I really liked that style of practice. It accommodates us with our western perspective. We wanted a teacher to talk about what we deal with, how we see the world in which we live, how we manage our lives here. Joko also was interested in what psychology and neuroscience could teach us about human nature. I liked that, as well.

    Here in America, we’re very much individuals. Joke realized that any contemplative practice has to be individual. Everyone brings something different to practice. You cannot expect everyone to act the same, and the teacher cannot respond the same to each student. She and Genmyo knew that you must start with what is fundamental to being human, and then adapt it to the individual situation. She was a genius in that regard and it’s one of Genmyo’s strengths. Genmyo left the Zen Center of L.A. to go with Joko to the San Diego Zen Center. Joko eventually made Genmyo her first Dharma Heir, and he ended up coming to Champaign to be the teacher at the Prairie Zen Center.

    For myself, after a couple of years of practice at the Prairie Zen Center, I became time keeper at Sesshin [Ed.note: Sesshin is an extended sitting]. Then I became Genmyo’s attendant and began koan practice. He gave me Dharma transmission in January of 2015. He later moved to California and is guiding teacher of the Prairie Zen Center, and still comes for the quarterly Sesshins. The rest of the time, I am the practice leader at the Zen Center.

    Actually, each of us is the leader of our practice. But there are people who have had experience and can be helpful to others in looking at their practice from an individual perspective. Zen is not something you teach. You cannot teach someone what their life is, but you can help them clarify and see aspects of their life to which they are attached. But you cannot make people do anything, at least not effectively. Practice is a very personal thing. Christians talk about a personal god, and I think that can be a helpful concept as long as it doesn’t become a static theory or dogma which hinders compassion.


    Q: Can you describe your current practice?

    ER: I don’t have a specific ‘practice’ any more. When I became a Dharma Heir my practice changed. My practice is your [the student’s] practice. I deal with my life, and yes, that’s a practice. Things happen in my life I have to manage and deal with. But practice in a formal sense, it’s now, “What can I do to help your practice”? If I can be of help, let’s talk about it. If not, that’s okay too. For a typical Zen student, someone else’s practice is none of their business. You can only work on your own practice. But when you become a teacher, that changes. Other people’s practice is very relevant to me.

    I sit regularly. In fact, I do a lot of sitting. I can’t say that it’s something that I have to do. It’s not something anyone has to do, but it’s very helpful. Waking up to our life is much more challenging without a regular schedule of sitting. Some teachers might say necessary. But then it could become a rule we have to follow and judge ourselves on. So we’ll say that sitting is good, very helpful. It helps us to center ourselves, to observe ourselves, see what it means to be human and to exercise our ability to be just this moment experiencing.

    But that’s not the real effort in Zen practice. Zen practice is when you go to work and someone calls you an idiot. This is the part of practice that most of us neglect. We think there is a Zen practice, and then there is our life. That they are two different things. But they are not.

    Keep it simple. There are three Pure Precepts in Buddhism, and one can basically start with that: Do no harm; do good; do what you can to help others do good.

    It’s interesting to me that the first precept is similar to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take: First, do no harm.  And then if you can help another person, certainly do that.


    Q: What can a person do to begin or maintain a practice, even without coming to a workshop? What are some simple things to do during one’s day-to-day life that can familiarize us with meditation?

    ER: Practice is so individualized that it’s hard to be general. But, in general, Zen allows us to appreciate who and what we truly are. It’s about opening up and clarifying who and what we truly are. The practice is to notice ways in which we avoid that, ways in which we avoid being who we truly are. Zen is an experiential thing. A regular sitting (meditation) practice is very helpful, especially sitting with others. Also, working with a teacher you trust and feel comfortable with can be of great benefit.

    It won’t take long after you begin a practice to know what we are talking about. Then the real practice begins! The real practice is discovering, embracing, and manifesting who and what you truly are, and that’s all I can teach you. You can learn about texts, sutras, and ancient teachers, and this is all helpful and interesting, but when it comes down to it: Zen is about appreciating and manifesting your true nature.


    Share this: