Lakeside Zen center aims to expand minds, building

The Midwest’s oldest Zen center is outgrowing its historic space

Expansion plans for the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center call for a bulky central stairwell to be removed from the interior of the house and replaced by a new set of stairs in the backyard. Photo by Zac Farber

There were very few Zen Buddhists living in Minnesota in December 1974 when Dainin Katagiri Roshi toured an old Spanish colonial mansion on the east shore of Lake Calhoun.

Roshi, a Japanese-born Zen master, had moved from California to Minneapolis in a U-Haul two years earlier to become the founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, the first Buddhist center in the Midwest. (“I want to go to the place where nobody wants to go,” Roshi said before his move.)

As he toured the house on the lake, Roshi was joined by Robert Pirsig, a St. Paul resident whose new novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — a study of Zen’s role in the “everyday world” — had sold 50,000 copies in the three months following its publication and would go on to sell more than 5 million.

The goal of their visit was to find a permanent place for the dozen or so core members of the Zen center to practice their faith, but the three-story house at first seemed too dilapidated and rundown to make a suitable home.

Constructed in 1905 to resemble houses on the Spanish Mediterranean, seven decades of Minnesota winters had taken their toll. Decades later, after protesting neighbors stymied plans to erect a high rise on the site, the building was sold to a substance abuse recovery center. “The windows leak[ed], the walls [were] peeling, the ceilings show[ed] irregular circles of water damage,” wrote Erik Storlie, who accompanied Roshi and Pirsig on their visit, in a 1996 memoir.

Yet the old house retained an undeniable majesty. Sitting on a lake-facing porch and looking out over “a mile of crusty, wind-sculpted snow” as sunlight filled “the white, plastered room with glowing pinks and golds,” Storlie remembered thinking, “I know we’ll buy this building.”

Pirsig and his wife, Nancy, donated $20,000 from his book royalties, and the Zen center purchased the home in May 1975.

Four-plus decades later, the Zen center has grown to more than 200 members and the historic “Vista del Lago” house is becoming increasingly crowded.

A popular introduction to Zen class brings upwards of 1,000 people a year to a small bedroom on the building’s third floor, and the class’ leaders are often forced to turn people away. Co-guiding teacher Ted O’Toole said you can sometimes “feel like a sardine packed into a tin of sardines on a hot day.”

The center is now in the final phases of a multi-year $730,000 capital campaign to expand the size of the 3,700-square-foot building at 3343 East Calhoun Parkway. The center has raised more than $450,000 so far and aims to start construction in spring 2020.

A couple dozen members of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center listen to architect Rick Okada’s June 30 presentation on plans to expand the center. Photo by Zac Farber

O’Toole said the main problem with the building is the lack of a large central hall. The center’s first-floor zendo meditation room is no bigger now than when it was used as a living room. Plans call for a bulky central stairwell to be removed from the interior of the house and replaced by a new set of stairs in the backyard. This would allow the zendo’s wall to be moved out by eight to 10 feet and add about 600 square feet of useable space throughout the building.

“An expansive space encourages the mind to be expansive,” O’Toole said.

Architect Rick Okada, a practicing Buddhist, said design work is expected to start in the fall, and he will look to give the building more of a Japanese aesthetic, using earthen colors, rough textures and natural materials such as unfinished wood.

Zoning restrictions prohibit expansion to the side of the building facing Bde Maka Ska, so changes will either stay within the existing footprint or add space to the Zen center’s rear.

A bamboo front porch would be remodeled to reveal what O’Toole called “the most beautiful unrealized view of the lake in the city.” Windows would be enlarged, ADA-accessible bathrooms added, and the roof and driveway repaired. New storage rooms would be designed for future conversion into an elevator shaft.

“We want to be able to share this practice with anyone who wants to do it, regardless of physical ability,” O’Toole said.

Ted O’Toole, a co-guiding teacher at the center, bows to members during a June 30 public kickoff of a $730,000 capital campaign to expand the center’s building. Construction work could start by spring 2020. Photo by Zac Farber

‘A great hunger for some calm’

O’Toole attributed the Zen center’s growth in membership to “increasing stress in our society” and the heightened popularity of mindfulness techniques in popular culture.

“Our country is divided in many ways, the pace of life keeps quickening and there’s a great hunger for some calm in the midst of all of that,” he said. “People want to go to the source and get the true understanding of mindfulness.”

Before coming to the center in 2006, Paul Gilsdorf said he felt like he was “sleepwalking through life.” He said the center got him “to wake up and connect with the present” and stop “being a slave or follower of my patterns.”

Katie Albright described sitting meditation as a refuge from the chaos in the world and in her mind. “You just sit and look at what your brain is doing and watch it without judgement,” she said. “You just notice, ‘I’m freaking out about something,’ and that gives you the space to understand what’s going on.”

Jeremy Thotland attended a Tuesday night talk at the center in 2014 and soon after became a Buddhist. He said he was raised Catholic and became a born-again Christian in high school before he was overcome by doubt about “man’s ability to execute religion.”

“I was anti-religious for the next couple decades,” he said. “Each religion has at its core this truth and people just lose that along the way and wind up full of abuse.”

He said that Buddhism was “no different” and pointed to allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior leveled against Roshi, the Zen center’s founder, after his death.

But Thotland said he found appealing the Zen center’s focus on community and its encouragement of open inquiry. “The ability to question dogma — the requirement to question it — is what drew me to Buddhism,” he said.

He said he appreciated the opportunity to grapple with his questions about why the Zen center is “a community of mostly white people” in a class at the center on Unpacking Whiteness. “We want to be inclusive of others, we want diversity,” he said. “We explore our role in perpetuating white supremacy and racial inequities.”

Introductory classes and daily meditation sessions at the Zen center are open to the public by donation. For fees starting at $40 for non-members, the center offers one- and multi-day meditation retreats and classes on topics like the Four Noble Truths, Creative Writing as Buddhist Practice and Zen and the Art of Public Speaking.

O’Toole said the act of remodeling the building is in accord with the Buddhist faith’s aspiration to “joyfully enter into the world’s activity.”

“We need to take care of this very old, beloved, decrepit building in keeping with our Zen principles of doing the work, taking care of what’s in front of you,” he said.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi, the founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, leads a meditation session in the center’s first-floor zendo room in this archival photo. The room is no bigger today than when it was used as a living room in the early 1900s. Submitted photo