The Early Days of Throssel Hole Priory
Back in 1972, having become fed up with the world (or so I thought at the time), a unique opportunity arose. The previous year I had attended a sesshin at Purley, Croydon, Surrey. I had gotten wind of an English Zen Teacher, who had studied and practised Soto Zen in Japan. She had gone to America where she established a Zen training monastery. As England was her native land, the Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett came back over here in 1971, to conduct a couple of retreats. I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of the retreat. I became so impressed with her that I undertook lay ordination, recieving the name of Zengetsu Kembo (which translated into English came across as the moon of zen shining over the cliffs). Rev. Master Jiyu returned to America, vowing to come back the following year. She was soon followed by an Enqlishman, whom she ordained as a monk. He came back to England as Rev. Daiji Strathern in 1972.
I met up with him and he told me that he had come into an inheritance, and was about to purchase an old farm in Northumberland, with the view of turning it into a mona-stery. I was working as a gardener at the time, and jumped at the chance of going up to Northumberland with him.
welcome me—memories return
with the fading light
Throssel Hole Farm (its name being taken from the throstle, or song thrush, which nested in the eaves, now an endangered species), had been taken over by a bunch of hippies and was run as a commune. When we arrived, the farm and surroundings were in a bad state of repair. We
spent a couple of months doing the place up, painting and decorating the property in anticipation of the Rev. Master Jiyu’s arrival. A lot of hard work went into preparing the old farmhouse. Though it was still very basic, it became liveable.
Walking up the hill—
but no longer a burden
the clouds on my back
Rev. Master Jiyu arrived with monks from Shasta Abbey, California. Four sesshins were conducted during that summer, and on the first one, I undertook ordination as a junior monk. During the summer period I was given the opportunity to become Tenzo (Chief Cook), a responsibility from which I shuddered. I had never cooked before, apart from the occasional vegetable curry. The cooking was basic, as we only had an aga and limited budget for food. During this period I acquired a reputation for steamed puddings and custard! Ideal for the Northumberland climate. Another speciallity being ‘toad in the hole’ and scotch eggs, made from peanuts, flour and herbs. We survived.
full moon haiku—nearly
burnt the porridge!
Throssel Hole Priory, as it was then called, became the first and still is the only Zen monastery in England. Looking back, I can only say that this was a wonderful opportunity to engage with a long line of Zen ancestors, and a rare chance to encounter the Buddha’s teachings.
A face appears
through the zendo window—
full moon of autumn
At the end of the summer period, I undertook the ceremony of Nyudo-no-hai, whereby I became Chief Junior, whose task it was to lead all the other trainees. As well as being Tenzo, I was now responsible for everyone else. I was also given the job of Ino, Chief Disciplinarian, and further duties were added. But I survived and learnt that I had so much more to learn. Rev. Master Jiyu returned to Shasta, leaving the Rev. Mokurai (Silent Thunder), as prior, and me as his Chief Junior for the next year. Autumn drifted in winter.
Snoring so loudly
not even in harmony—
monks in the zendo
I remember snow bound weeks, frozen toilets and wash bowls. One morning, awakening everyone for morning service and zazen, only to find that our zafus were covered by a couple of inches of snow that had drifted in through the eaves. I remember paraffin stoves to keep us warm at night, camp beds to sleep on.
the snow on my zafu
was it a dream?
Winter drifted into spring, with the arrival of the Rev. Master Jiyu and three monks from Shasta Abbey. Four retreats were held during this period, and 35 people received lay ordination, whereby they affirmed their commitment to do good, cease from evil, and help others. On the first retreat, Rev. Mokurai completed his duties as prior with the ceremony of Jodo, and I as Chief Junior, was examined in the ceremony of Hossen, ‘Dharma Battle”, whereby I had to answer (mondo) questions put to me from the other monks. I remember a great feeling of peace descending upon me as I answered their questions, yet feeling at the end of it, that there was still so much more to learn.
After all those years
plunging into the void—
no moon, no finger
The summer retreats intensified. For the most part, my duties as Tenzo would occupy me for a good part of the day, and left me out of the talks and lectures given by Rev. Master Jiyu, there were however occasions when she would let me sit in on talks given to the senior monks, and I no longer felt left out It was very intense during this period, and I remember one of the lay people coming up to me saying that my eyes were like spinning tops and how could I keep up with the pressure?
By now, training no longer seemed like a chore, and I would not become disconcerted as the work load increased. The more difficult it seemed, the more I would respond positively. It was a time when I thrived on what would normally be described as stress. I learnt that ultimately there is nothing that could harm me, save my own delusive thinking.
What’s it all about?
samsara and nirvana
nothing but snowflakes
I was taken aback, when the Rev. Master Jiyu said that I was ready for transmission. Of course, I had read about it, but only vague hints, shelved in mystery. This would put me in direct line with all our ancestors, going right back to Shakyamuni Buddha. I felt that I was not ready for it, but as Rev. Master Jiyu explained, transmission only occurs when the teacher has acknowledged that the trainee has changed and wants to do something about his or herself. Transmission was not the end, but rather the true beginning of training.
Early autumn frost—
a woodpecker, pecking holes
I will be forever indebted to Rev. Master Jiyu for having that faith in me, a faith that I always lacked.
Rev. Master Jiyu invited me out to America, and I took up a years further study and practise at Shasta Abbey. But, after a while, ultimately, or my own decision, I decided to return to lay life as a gardener back in England.
late autumn snow turns to rain—
this dream within a dream
I moved to Bexhill on the Sussex coast, working as a hospital gardener for a couple cf years. All the while remembering the advice that Rev, Master Jiyu had given me,that if nothing else, meditation would give you peace of mind, but only if you kept it up.
I attended a couple of retreats in the early 1980s at Throssel, but due to misunderstandings and karmic circumstances I was not to return again for another 18 years.
By 1996, Rev. Master Jiyu had passed away, unbeknown to me. I was not to find out until a couple of years later. Throssel Hole had now become an Abbey, with priories scattered throughout the country. The monastery has increased in size, with new buildings and 50 or so monks, both male and female.
rain on rooftops, in one ear
and out the other
Having attended 2 week-long retreats in 1998, I made the decision to return as a lay person for a period of 6 months in the following year.
Out of respect, and in memory of my teacher, I offered my services tohelp out in the Rains Retreat of January and February 2000. I worked in the kitchen, preparing and cooking food for the monks and community. When not doing this, the time would be spent in meditation. I made lots of new friends, and no longer felt homeless, as I had for the previous few years.
Night of endless rain—
how refreshing the sound
of the zazen bell