O-An Zendo came into being as the result of two intersecting currents in our teacher’s life as she explains:
After decades at universities, teaching, writing about, and advocating for environmental health and sustainable living, I came to understand that the most significant obstacle to the building of a better world was not to be found in inadequate political, ecological or academic understandings, but rather in the deeper failure to experience and thus gain insight into the interconnectedness of all beings. During my role as Director of Peace Studies at Penn State, I discovered Zen—a practice that offered the possibility of experiencing this interconnectedness directly. Creating a meditation space and eventually a zendo where such experience could be cultivated with others became the natural next step in service to my vocation and the greater community.
The life energy I dedicated to environmental activism was matched only by my passion for dance. In 1978 I built a dance studio on the second floor of my house in the woods at Sky Top Mountain near State College, Pennsylvania. I formed the Extemporary Dance Theatre and taught classes in improvisational movement. Meditation and the discipline of being fully present in the moment, which is at the core of Zen practice, was the perfect complement to our study of improvisational dance. Thus, once a week, the dance studio was transformed into a meditation hall and became home to five Buddhist friends practicing as the Happy Valley Sangha.
As the years went by and we grew older, the emphasis at Sky Top shifted seamlessly from dance to meditation; and by the year 2000 when the state of Pennsylvania exercised its right of Eminent Domain and replaced my home with an interstate highway, it was clear to me that building a zendo was to be part of building a new home and a new life at a new location.
Taking salvaged windows, doors, cherry trees and flat rocks from my home of 25 years, I left Sky Top in 2001 and moved to Julian Woods Community. The dream of building a home that embodied the principles of sustainable design, which I had for years taught to university students, became a reality in a timberframe, straw bale residence, along with a second structure to house an art studio and zendo. The zendo was appropriately named O-An, meaning “hut of harmony”, and dedicated by my Zen teacher, Genro Lee Milton Sensei, in 2003. He said that it reminded him of the guest hut at his home practice center, Dai Bosatsu Zendo in upstate New York.
O-An was to be a woodland hermitage, a secluded refuge and modest temple that would serve the spiritual needs and aspirations of friends and neighbors. In developing our program of Zen Buddhist practice, I also hoped to capture the best of the American spirit – celebrating diversity, self-reliance, freedom of expression, and rootedness in the land.
In its first years, O-An’s vital, flexible spirit brought many rapid changes – some unexpected, some radical. We were guided by a variety of visiting teachers, governed by a changing Board of Directors, and operating on the basis of experimental organizational structures and protocols. But what remained constant was the dedication of a few practitioners who saw the zendo through its growing pains, the resiliency of practice, and the light of the Dharma which continued to shine—sometimes dimly, sometimes brilliantly—through it all.
Since its birth in 2003, O-An has been on its own spiritual journey, exploring its true nature. Though I took the steps of ordaining as a priest in 2011 and assuming the role of resident teacher in the Soto style of Zen practice; though our Board of Directors has formulated and recorded a set of protocols and guidelines for our operation; though our core group of dedicated practitioners has stabilized and is thriving, I expect that O-An’s wonder-full, surprising spiritual journey will continue to evolve.