October 07 Journal » Profile: Chigen
Steve Junryu Reed

At first glance, Joe Chigen Kennedy seems to have walked rather speedily on the Buddhist path.

He began regularly attending the Village Zendo just last fall. He sat Tangaryo in February and took jukai this summer. His Zen practice moved quickly, he says, "but it just felt right."

Perhaps that's because the rapidity is something of an illusion. Kennedy's spiritual path actually stretches back decades—back to the years he spent in college with a controversial religious group, to the years he shunned spirituality, to the time he spent with friends being introduced to different Buddhist traditions. Kennedy came a long way before arriving at the Village Zendo.

Born in New York 57 years ago, Kennedy grew up in Queens. He attended Manhattan College and NYU, which then had a campus in the Bronx, where he majored in economics and English.

His eclectic academic background led to an even more eclectic professional one. Kennedy paid his way through college with a job checking ad copy at The New York Times, and upon graduation became a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in the South Bronx. He eventually got a city teaching license, but at that point the city was in the midst of a financial meltdown and in no position to hire teachers. So Kennedy worked as a substitute for several years.

"That was interesting, because I went all over the place and had some very unique experiences, like getting threatened with murder by eight-year-olds whose fathers were in prison for murder," Kennedy said.

Sensing that a career change was in order, Kennedy briefly ran a restaurant in Brooklyn. He then became an editor at Prentice-Hall, a publisher of textbooks and educational materials. He earned an MBA and finally left to work in public relations, which remains his profession today.

During his time at NYU, Kennedy became involved in Eckankar, a spiritual organization founded by Paul Twitchell in 1965 and characterized partly by beliefs in soul travel and a form of karma.

"I, being young, got very wide-eyed and impressed with it," Kennedy said. He spent about 10 years as a devotee, eventually traveling and running seminars for the organization. But then Eckankar suffered a series of scandals based on its teachings and finances.

"I really was disillusioned and terribly hurt by this," Kennedy said. "From then on, I wanted nothing to do with the spiritual path."

That remained true for more than a decade. Then, in the 1990s, as Kennedy spent more time with friends who were Buddhist, he found his interests in Buddhism beginning to grow.

Until five years ago or so, "I only knew the most general things about Buddhism," he said. "I had a lot of friends who were Tibetan Buddhists." He set out to learn the differences between Mahayana and Vajrayana, between Pure Land and Nichiren.

During this time, he read books such as "What the Buddha Taught" and works by Charlotte Joko Beck and Alan Watts.

Then, in late 2002 or so, he met Enkyo Roshi during a workshop at the Shambala Center organized by Diamond Metta, a gay & lesbian Buddhist group. Intrigued by Roshi and Zen, he came to the Zendo a few times for midday sitting.

Ultimately, "what I really liked about Zen was the simplicity of it," he said. "The deities and all the complexity in Tibetan Buddhism is really fascinating, but I liked the kind of pared-down, essential quality about Zen—the stillness of it."

So after he began regularly attending last year, jukai didn't really seem all that far off.

As he traveled north on the train this summer to precepts study week at Grail House, he saw himself passing many of the places that were part of his earlier years—the old NYU campus, his old home in the west Bronx, the school where he used to teach, the offices in Tarrytown where he worked for Prentice-Hall. At the time, he was sewing his rakusu on the train.

"The train was weaving its way through the fabric of my life, and I was weaving this thread thought the fabric of the rakusu," Kennedy said. "When we got to Beacon I got off the train, and by the time I got to the Grail I was ready."

Kennedy took Jukai on August 11, 2007, and received the name Chigen, meaning "Wisdom Eye." Kennedy lives in Manhattan and Bridgehampton with his partner of 35 years, John Canemaker, a filmmaker and head of the animation program at NYU. Kennedy also has two twin sisters, Eileen and Frances, who live in Minnesota and Arizona. He generously donates to the Zendo his expertise in public relations.

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