A spiritual journey finds a destination in woods of Shamong

Seijaku Roshi at the Jizo-An meditation center. If Shamong sounds far away, Roshi says, "think of it as Medford."
Seijaku Roshi at the Jizo-An meditation center. If Shamong sounds far away, Roshi says, "think of it as Medford." (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 07, 2014

As a young boy, Stephen Reichenbach found himself "drawn to the quiet" of the woods of Cinnaminson, his hometown.

"I had already begun my meditation practice" on those solitary walks, the 60-year-old recalled recently.

For religion, however, he pedaled his bike to the local Catholic church, never imagining his attraction to "the mystery" he sensed in the woods and the Latin Mass would put him one day in the black robes of a Zen abbot.

Those woods of Cinnaminson are long gone and so, in a sense, is Stephen Reichenbach.

Stocky, shaven-headed, and sandal-shod, he is now Seijaku Roshi - Japanese for "pure tranquillity" and "teaching master." He can be found most days in the quiet of Jizo-An, the five-acre Zen meditation center he created 14 years ago in the woods of Shamong.

Most of his students come from Jewish or Catholic backgrounds, he said, "and the first question many ask is, 'Do I have to become a Buddhist' to study Zen?

"I tell them, 'No, there is no conflict between meditation and religious belief,' " he said. "I'm not interested in converting you - just whether you want to sit or not."

Spiritual home to three priests, six teachers, and about 50 regular students, the community is named for Jizo, protector-deity of children, animals, and women. Like the woods, it is another theme from Roshi's past.

Prior to creating the community, he worked for a dozen years as a spiritual counselor at a Catholic women's shelter in Mount Holly, "where we hid women from abusive partners."

Jizo-An means "little Jizo" in Japanese. The community also goes by the name Pine Wind Zen Center.

Founded in 1987 - the year Roshi was ordained a Buddhist priest - the community, or sangha, met for its first two years in a large Victorian house in Riverton, then for 10 years in a split-level in Cinnaminson.

Roshi discovered the current house in 2000. Partly buried, heated by solar panels, and once cooled by a now-gone sod roof, it was designed as a residence by the late "green" architect Malcolm Wells of Cherry Hill.

"Some people think Shamong is the end of the Earth," Roshi said with a shrug. "So I say, 'Think of it as Medford.' "

Few passing motorists are aware of its presence, tucked off McKendimen Road inside pine and oak woods, and adjacent to 50 acres of protected forest.

Welcome mat

Turn onto the winding driveway at 863, however, and you are greeted first by a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of compassion, then by a tall wooden grizzly bear and cub, then a child's log cabin, and finally the concrete walls and long, low red roof of the main house.

But don't knock on the door with the doormat that reads "Go Away." That's Roshi's residence. (The doormat is in jest; it's a paradox, he assures.)

Instead, slip off your shoes and step into the serene zendo, or meditation hall, at the far end.

Here, pine timbers frame cream-colored walls that rise to a high, timbered ceiling. The floor is lined with traditional bamboo tatami mats topped by orderly rows of 16 meditation cushions flanking a white, ceramic Buddha.

Nearly lifesize, the statue sits cross-legged before a low wooden table, his eyes downcast, palms cupped in his lap - the traditional pose of his enlightenment. A small Jizo, his hands clasped in prayer, stands alongside him.

"We wanted to create as authentic a zendo as you'd find in Japan," said Roshi, who planned the space with the help of a Berlin, N.J., design firm. The hall includes one less traditional element: a photo by the door of his late dog, Aubrey.

"She was my best friend," he said. "When we'd chant the sutras she'd sit to my right and hum." Divorced, he has a 5-year-old daughter, Katie, whom he fondly calls "the true teacher."

Although fellow monks once resided at the center, Roshi now lives alone, except for when Katie stays.

His days typically begin at 6 a.m. with prayer and zazen, or meditation, usually with a few monks and students. Daily duties may entail chores around the property, study, and teaching, ending with evening prayers and more meditation. He also does weddings and funerals, and blesses newborns as well as pets.

The community is supported by memberships and visitor donations. Roshi also receives a modest income from his family's trucking business.

Jizo-An practices the Soto approach to Zen, which emphasizes the "quiet illumination" of meditation over the question-and-answer dynamic of Rinzai Zen, which seeks ecstatic epiphany.

Although trained at a traditional Zen monastery and ordained by a highly regarded Zen master, Roshi insists he is "not concerned about things like schools and lineage."

Instead, he said, he teaches a message of self-awareness and authenticity - ideas he first encountered at age 12, when he found a copy of Seeds of Contemplation, by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in a pew at his church.

Turning East

"I remember one line," he said. " 'A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.' It jumped out, and it became central not just to my life but the theme of everything I preach: to be who and what we are.

"I tell people, you do not do Zen, only be it."

He immediately began to "devour" Merton's other writings, he said, and by age 15 "knew I had to turn East," to Buddhism. His parents "did not stand in the way."

And while traditional Buddhism eschews belief in what the West calls "God," Roshi uses the word frequently in his teachings: "I don't believe Buddhism or the theistic traditions can claim absolute awareness of what is so."

For the last two years he has conducted monthly "Zen chats" at the Yoga for Living Center in Cherry Hill, but after the July 19 chat titled "What is Zen?" (start time is 7 p.m.), he will resume them at Jizo-An in November.

"People were not getting the whole experience" of a Zen temple, he explained, adding he hopes the 35-minute drive time from Cherry Hill won't deter prospective students. "The talk in Cherry Hill was a talk. This is the experience," he said.

"I want to bring them home."


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841 doreillyinq

The center is hosting an "open house festival" Aug. 9, starting 1 p.m.

For more information, contact Jizo-an Monastery/Pine Wind Zen Center at 863 McKendimen Road in Shamong, call 609-268-9151, or go to www.pinewind.org.

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