Oral Histories

Interview of Wendy Egyoku Nakao

Zen Buddhist priest. Abbot and head teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Zen Buddhist priest. Abbot and head teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
Cline, Alex
Nakao, Wendy Egyoku
Persons Present:
Nakao and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Zen Center of Los Angeles in Los Angeles.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Nakao was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content. The corrections made were entered into the text.
11 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii—Father’s family is from Hiroshima, Japan—Grandfather founded Tenrikyo temple in Hawaii—Mother’s family background from Madera and Azores islands off Portugal and her family's immigration to Hawaii—Family’s education and upbringing—Discussion of biracial marriage—Family settles in Mountain View—Relationship with father—Nakao's very poor and hard-working upbringing—Parents’ spiritual views—Relationship with Hawaiian community—Decision to leave Hawaii and opportunity to attend college—Exposure to news and entertainment in the 1950s—Family’s history in Hiroshima—High school education in Hilo, Hawaii where is exposed to more ethnic diversity—Studiousness in high school—Memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination—Departure from Hawaii in 1966 to attend University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington—Departure from University of Puget Sound to study at University of Washington—Education at the University of Washington and political climate while in college—First marriage during senior year at University of Washington—Attends graduate school in library science—Job at community college in Seattle area—Summer class in Japanese art and architecture and meeting a Zen master from Japan—Lack of resonance with Christianity—After learning what a Zen sesshin is and after husband’s friend makes a wager that she can't sit still for a whole retreat, decides to attend the sesshin with Katsufumi Hirano—Reflections on the lifelong importance of the first sesshin she attended—Immediate decision to leave husband following the sesshin—Subsequent divorce—Travels to Japan—Continued interest in Buddhism and intensive meditation training at Zen Center of Los Angeles—The pivotal experience of the sesshin.
Challenging elements of early meditation experiences—Commitment to experience of zazen—Arrival at the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) for sabbatical on January 1, 1978—First impressions of ZCLA leaders—Beginnings of involvement in ZCLA community—Taking jukai—Attendance at vipassana retreat in Joshua Tree—Decision to attend three-month retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts—Decision to visit India—Experience at Insight Meditation Center—How Insight Meditation broadened Nakao's perspective and opened her mind—Decision not to continue with Zen Buddhism and pursue Insight Meditation—Travels to Calcutta and positive experiences staying at the Mahabodhi Society—Travel to Burmese Buddhist temple in Bodhgaya and ten-day retreat—Visits to caves where Buddha is said to have practiced—Exposure to different traditions of Buddhism—Reflections on encounters with Indian culture—Visit to Hawaii once visa expires in India—Return to Joshua Tree for another vipassana retreat.
The second vipassana retreat in Joshua Tree—Invitation to live at the Hollywood Hills home of Ruth and Henry Denison—Return to Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) in 1981—Reflections on state of ZCLA in the early 1980s—Internal strife at ZCLA in 1983 due to leader Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi's misconduct —Maezumi’s entry into a rehab facility and talk of selling ZCLA’s holdings—Restructuring of ZCLA and departure of many members—Reflections on Maezumi’s openness as a person—Reflections on the state of the center after implosion—Involvement with the Healing Light Center and rituals—Reflections on Maezumi’s depression—Return to ZCLA in the late 1980s to be Maezumi’s assistant—Decision to stay at ZCLA after 1983—Death of mother in 1995—Maezumi’s trip to Japan and death while abroad—Impact of Maezumi’s death amongst successors—Travels to Japan for Maezumi’s funeral.
Difficult relationship between Maezumi’s dharma heirs—Fractures within Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA)—Reflections on Maezumi’s inclusivity—Maezumi’s memorial services—Shocking discovery that Maezumi died by drowning and not by heart attack, as previously thought—Move to Yonkers, New York to continue studying under Bernard Glassman—Recollections of living in Yonkers for a year and a half—Reflections on William Nyogen Yeo, who stepped in as lead at ZCLA while Nakao and Glassman were in New York—Allegations of misconduct against Nyogen cause Nakao to return to Los Angeles and assume a temporary leadership role at ZCLA while Glassman remains in New York—Healing strategies Nakao employed while leading ZCLA after internal upheavals—Experiences leading to her receiving dharma transmission from Glassman in Yonkers before returning to ZCLA—Recollection of receiving dharma transmission.
Dharma transmission and return to Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) in 1996—Feelings and lack of ambition upon returning to Los Angeles—Uncertainty felt when returning to ZCLA—Initial plan to stay at ZCLA for three months extends into a years-long commitment, beginning with massive cleanup of the ZCLA facilities—Reconfiguration of the ZCLA board of directors and beginning of shared leadership approach—Installation as the abbot of ZCLA in 1999—Struggles around creating policies for residential status at ZCLA—Reflections on revisiting ZCLA’s mission and vision—Receiving an Angell Foundation organizational spirituality grant—Dealing with a former inmate convicted of child molestation who stayed at ZCLA following his release—The inmate’s eventual legal absolution and death— The shared stewardship discussion continues and leads Nakao to propose a new possibility to work toward collective awakening—Description of Nakao's role and personal style at ZCLA— The sixteen Zen bodhisattva precepts are moved into a place of prominence in the center's training program, providing an ethical foundation and informing many regular practices there— How ideas about the Zen master or teacher may have contributed to earlier ethical difficulties in the development of American Buddhism—Learning to be prepared to challenge situations that arise in the practice life— How the difficulties experienced in the history of American Buddhist communities are contributing to reshaping and redefining the nature of Buddhist practice in the USA—How the inherent messiness of life becomes the source of real insight.
Meets partner Eberhard Fetz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, in 1976—The couple reconnects eighteen years later in Los Angeles—Their decision to remain in a long- distance relationship since 1994—Fetz’s relationship with the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) community—How Nakao currently splits her time between being at ZCLA and being with Fetz in Seattle—Fetz’s background in Germany and scientific training—Reflections on the strength of the couple's relationship—How ZCLA manages its diverse operations and teaching responsibilities, including during times Nakao is away—Nakao's current focus training senior students and priests—The role and importance of ritual in Zen center practices and in human life— The practice, meaning, and collective experience of the daily temple ritual at ZCLA— ZCLA's relationship with other Buddhist centers in the L.A. area—Development of American Buddhism, including the contribution of the various scandals to its developing identity—Major changes over the years in the neighborhood where ZCLA is located—The ethnic mix of the neighborhood—ZCLA’s relationship with the surrounding Korean community—How Zen Buddhism in the United States is affecting the religion’s status in Japan.
Thoughts regarding diversity in American Buddhism—Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA)’s current racial and ethnic composition—ZCLA’s history of inclusivity and how inclusivity is in line with Buddhist teachings—The broad nature of Buddhism—Changes over the years in students' ideas about enlightenment and reasons for coming to the practice—The importance of lineage at ZCLA—The history of the White Plum Asanga lineage emanating from Bernard Glassman—Current relationship with Glassman—Reflections on celebrities’ interest in Buddhism—The accessibility of Buddhist teachings in the age of the Internet—The importance of context— Generosity and the degree to which Nakao's teachers gave everything to the dharma—Social engagement at ZCLA—The importance of ZCLA maintaining its place as a refuge for members—Buddhism’s role in drawing attention to the importance of dealing with climate change—Current students at ZCLA compared with those from the sixties and seventies—Reflections on the impulses that led Nakao to explore diverse aspects of herself and ultimately to focus on Zen practice—The importance of lucid dreams to Nakao's spiritual journey—The solidity of her practice—Involvement in mentoring and training teachers at ZCLA—Study and other activities Nakao would like to do in the immediate future—Nakao doesn't think of herself as an American Buddhist but recognizes that being a woman, being an ethnically mixed person, and providing an environment for refuge are important—The uniqueness of Los Angeles—Exchanges with practitioners from the Asian countries where Buddhism originated— The importance of practice centers like ZCLA creating and donating archival materials to academic libraries.