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December 31, 2013

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In Memoriam: Myogen Steve Stücky

Daitsu Myogen Steven Stücky (Great Pervading Subtle Eye; March 6, 1946 – December 31, 2013)

San Francisco Zen Center’s first central abbot, Myogen Steve Stücky, died shortly after 4:00 on the morning of December 31 at his home in Rohnert Park, California. He was 67. SteveStucky_RenshinBunce_withPhCredit_colorbalSince receiving a diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer in late September, he has been widely admired for courageously sharing publicly his ongoing personal process of living with terminal illness, first in a dharma talk titled “Gratitude,” given two days after receiving his diagnosis, and subsequently with posts on his Subtle Eye blog. His longtime emphasis on body practice—learning from and respecting the body—took on a particular poignancy in the months leading up to his death. As he said in his talk, “Each of us can do something, right up to the last moment.”

Myogen, also known for the last seven years as “Abbot Steve,” was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Newton, Kansas, with two brothers and a sister in a family of Mennonite farmers. This upbringing imbued him with a sense of mission, and he retained a serious regard for personal purpose in life. While in Chicago as a conscientious objector from 1966 to 1968 during the Vietnam War, he worked in the inner city helping urban youth discover alternatives to gang life. His deep concern for social justice and diversity found further expression in later years as a Buddhist, such as the recent Zen Center initiative he led to openly examine the issue of white privilege within the organization.

As a young adult, a driving question for Steve was about how reality is perceived, and how to clear the doors of perception. In Chicago in 1971 a friend, Bob Lewis, gave him a copy of The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau. Eventually he read Zen Mind, Beginners Mind and became interested in Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In 1972 he hitchiked to San Francisco, at first sleeping in Golden Gate Park and stashing his sleeping bag in the bushes during the day in order to go to meditation at San Francisco Zen Center.

He stayed for the next eight years, studying with various Zen teachers, including Zentatsu Richard Baker, Dainin Katagiri, Robert Aitken and Tenshin Reb Anderson, and residing at each of Zen Center’s three temples during that time. He played a particularly important role at Green Gulch Farm from its Zen Center beginnings, when no other pioneer resident had any farming experience.

From 1983 to 2006, he supported his family as a householder priest by designing and building many gardens as a landscape designer/contractor, and living in Mill Valley, San Rafael and Rohnert Park. Not surprisingly, as a Zen teacher he was known for emphasizing a solid respect for the earth and the environment, as reflected in statements such as: “Each human body is independent and simultaneously the entire earth. A tree is as much a part of me as my shoulder. . . . I’m very grateful to have this practice. It sustains me and will continue to sustain me to the last moment of consciousness.”

Steve completed all but the dissertation for a doctorate of ministry in pastoral counseling from San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. His additional advanced training in Internal Family Systems psychotherapy was reflected significantly in his work as a spiritual teacher and counselor.

When he received dharma transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1993, a sitting group he had started in Mill Valley in 1985 was incorporated as Dharma Eye Zen Center in San Rafael, which he led as its guiding teacher until his death. In addition, for many years he was co-leader of the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin State Prison, housing California’s only death row for male inmates.

Within the last decade, his influence on Buddhism in the West began to be felt on a wider scale, starting with his service as board president of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (2004-2006), and also on the faculty of Shogaku Zen Institute in a training program for Soto Zen priests called SPOT (Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training).

SteveStucky_LipingZhu2009_x350He became co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center in February 2007 (living at Green Gulch Farm), and in 2010 became the first to fill the role of central abbot as a part of restructuring the abbacy. In the summer of 2013 the SFZC Board had invited him to extend his term into 2017, a 10-year abbatial term. In a statement at his Stepping Down Ceremony on December 15, Abbot Steve reflected that he had been “a happy abbot.”

Referring to Zen Center, he also expressed confidence “that the fundamental practice that we hold dear can be fully realized and be a way to face the fears that beset suffering human beings—and be relieved of suffering not by turning away but by turning toward what is most difficult.”

Recent events surely tested this practice. As a result of the Basin Complex Fire in central California in 2008, he is remembered as one of five “fire monks,” who bravely defended Tassajara from the rages of the disaster after its evacuation. The story was immortalized in the book Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire, by Colleen Busch. In his last dharma talk, Steve compared his cancer to that fire: “It’s an engagement, and there are certain things that I can do to take care of this side, and the fire or the cancer will do what it does, and it’s a matter of paying close attention and keeping attentive and responsive, with the thought of being the most helpful to taking care of what’s most immediate. And so I’m learning fast, and a lot.”

Some of this same spiritual ferocity could be seen also in a simple daily practice described on his blog: “The ‘practice of gratitude’ for me begins simply with saying the word ‘gratitude’ and allowing whatever arises in thought to be regarded as loveable no matter who or what it may be. This immediately cuts off the mind of personal preference and acknowledges that everything, absolutely everything is fully participating in the fact of my existence this moment. The challenge of this practice often slaps me in the face and sets off a series of seemingly impossible barriers ….”

In his Stepping Down statement, he said, “Today I am also so grateful for this chance to say that this precious time I have been given has been a great blessing and chance to savor and enjoy this life.”

Another way that Steve commonly expressed his positive outlook was through song, sometimes blues tunes self-accompanied on the guitar. Often he would include the audience in a cappella singing as part of a dharma talk. Renditions of “Relax Your Mind,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Red Red Robin” and other songs could be considered “standards” at Steve’s talks.

Myogen’s teaching lives on in his many students, including a few who received authorization from him as independent teachers in his lineage, all in 2013: Renshin Bunce and Christine Palmer by dharma transmission, and Elizabeth Sawyer and Tom Millard by lay entrustment. His teaching, exemplified in his steadfastness and capacity for presence in life as well as through sickness and death, has also deeply touched scores of Zen students, practitioners, and audiences around the world, as evidenced by the many heartfelt statements received by both his family and Zen Center since his diagnosis.

He is survived by his wife, Lane Olson; son, James Asher; daughters, Hannah Dominguez (Dan) and Robin Williams (Jeff); and four grandchildren, Zhora, Chloe, Dylan and Harley.

A funeral service to be held at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center will soon be scheduled for the coming weeks. In lieu of flowers and in accord with Steve’s wishes, the family suggests that donations may be made to San Francisco Zen Center’s Widening the Circle Capital Campaign, on the web at imagine.sfzc.org. Comments to the family or Zen Center are also welcome on the Subtle Eye blog, or by mail to 300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.

For further updates and sharings, please visit subtleeye.sfzc.org, the blog dedicated to Steve during his illness.

22 Comments
  1. Marc Alexander
    Jan 1 2014

    Steve Stucky

    From the 16 hour days as a youth working beside a combine following the wheat harvest in the Great Plains, to ascending Zen Center’s Mountain Seat, you have always stretched my view of human possibilities. Your ability to manifest your dreams such as work horses at Green Gulch, your open eyed calmness in the face of family traumas, your passionate support for employees in your landscaping business, your practice of gratitude and love for all beings—your life expanded and embraced us all. I will always treasure my good fortune to be a part of your life, and I will miss your version of “Alligator Man”.

  2. Nowell
    Jan 1 2014

    Thank you for your dedication and discipline and for sharing so much of your life. Blessings!

  3. Josie Kamin
    Jan 1 2014

    So sorry to hear of Steve’s passing. So fast – it’s scary. He led a marvelous, meaningful life. May his memory be a blessing.

  4. Phil Hodgson
    Jan 1 2014

    Wishing him and all at SFZC peace. Feelings of gratitude and respect. Words are difficult but thank you for the teachings.

  5. Mehri Hajian
    Jan 1 2014

    His passing is trully a big loss. Steve was a great man and a great teacher. I will remember him as a beautiful bodhisattvas that is always with us.

  6. Jan 1 2014

    Now, if we look realistically at the nature of human life, we see that it is fleeting and unpredictable, illusive almost. Birth, life and death pass by in the twinkling of an eye. Thus we never hear of the human body lasting for ten thousand years.

    And who today can keep the body young and healthy for even one hundred years? Yes, how quickly our lives slip away. Whether I am the first or someone else, whether today or tomorrow, our lives on earth do indeed one day come to an end. Life seems to vanish unseen like ground water, or to evaporate like the morning dew on the summer lawn.

    Thus our bodies may be radiant with health in the morning, but by evening they may be white ashes. If the right causes and conditions prevail, our two eyes are closed forever, our breathing ceases and our bodies lose the glow of life. Our relatives in great numbers and with great wealth can assemble, but they are powerless to change our situation. Even the rites and rituals of grief and mourning change nothing. All we can do is prepare the body for cremation; all that is left is white ashes.

    In view of these facts, does it not make sense to focus on the things we can change? We cannot control the passing away of both young and old alike, but each of us can take refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Life who promises to embrace, without exception, all beings who but recite his Holy Name – Namo Amida Buddha. This you can do here and now, freeing yourself of any worries concerning your future life.

    With friendly reverence, I remain,

    Rennyo (1414-1499)

  7. Charles Nold
    Jan 1 2014

    So sad.
    A huge loss

  8. alberto van heel
    Jan 1 2014

    Brave man..interesting take on what human experience is all about

  9. Michele Casazza
    Jan 1 2014

    We all make this transition with you keeping your teachings in our heart and carrying out your teachings into our lives. When in the stillness of the present moment we hold you on our hearts. So thank you for the of your presents in my life, walking beside me, loving me, supporting me and always being there. You teachings have transformed my life and wool contribute to do so. I send ask Mt love work you in peace
    Michele C

  10. Peter K.
    Jan 1 2014

    Please accept my sincere condolences with the passing of Steve.
    Quote: “If tears could build a stairway and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven and bring you home again”! Author Unknown

  11. Kathleen Leonard
    Jan 1 2014

    Thank you for your joy and love as you talked to us at Green Gulch Farm and for inviting us to sing with you. I know you will be singing as you transcend and be one of our angels.

  12. Trout
    Jan 1 2014

    A while back, Steve, you gave me your beautiful wooden canoe. I return it to you today, so that you’ll have a good boat to carry you on the next river of your journey.

    Thanks for visiting us.
    Thanks for walking the no-Keystone road.
    Thanks for the fence you built beside our home.
    Thanks for being such a fine neighbor.

    Each morning we chant
    “No old age and death and no extinction of them.”
    Yes.

    Much love from Silvia and me to you and Lane
    and to your extending family.

  13. Robert Anderson
    Jan 2 2014

    We were fortunate to have Steve and his pragmatic/unadorned Zen which let us all know that with work and compassion that we could all master this practice. Thank you for the love, thank you for the encouragement Steve. May We all continue to find a way to return it.

  14. Jan 2 2014

    When visiting SF once for a business trip in 2009 I had the chance to sit w/ SFZC one Sunday morning and he gave a dharma talk about dealing with loss amidst the financial crash since 08, reminding all that life itself is what should be treasured, protected, and not squandered. That was a sharp time and context to face life’s impermanence. Here in NY at ZMM when Daido Loori passed it was another stark time for facing the ceaseless pervading impermanence of everything, but also this curious energy in how a sangha is always changing and the wheel is always turning. Thank you, Myogen’s words hit me at a low point in my work and affirmed to me of the value of this path, one I’ve since become a formal student of here in NYC.

  15. Jan 2 2014

    A man I knew a little and liked a lot. Chobo-Ji chanted for him as a Dharma Ancester of American Zen practice at our New Year’s Day celebration.

  16. Tracy
    Jan 2 2014

    I live in a far away country where the nearest Zen Centre is 600km away from where I live. To learn in peace, many voices from SFZC over the years have passed on their insights, given advice, stilled churned waters- all through the ‘magic’ of the internet.

    Now one of those voices has fallen silent. I stop in reflection. I faced a diagnosis this year just gone (life-changing but not terminal). The bravery Steve displayed in the face of his illness was exemplary. His dharma goes on in my heart.

    Thank You Steve

  17. Ryoten Mary Lehmann
    Jan 3 2014

    I only met Steve once…in 2010 when i stepped off the plane in
    Portland…there he was standing with a small group waiting for a
    ride to the SZBA conference at Great Vow…..
    The first thing i saw was his great big welcoming smile….which felt
    like it was just for me. Right then ….in just one moment
    i too was included in his circle.

    Thank you.
    Ryoten…..Katagiri Lineage….midwest

  18. Marcus Lund
    Jan 4 2014

    Infinite blessings to you, dear fellow fire monk.

  19. Jan 8 2014

    My time at Green Gulch and the City Center in the early ’70s would have been incomplete without meeting Steve, and laughing with him on occasions during work practice (oops, were we supposed to be silence?). His warmth and conscious presence was a great gift to us all.

  20. Patrick Monk.RN.
    Jan 9 2014

    Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bhodisvaha.

  21. Wayne Codling
    Jan 10 2014

    I am used to thinking about Steve; by which I mean his teaching. Each time I drive my car I recall his linkage of our meditation skills to our driving skills. Steve was a very practical fellow and showed me how the receptive samadhi could make driving into a spiritual exercise. This simple teaching has now become a veritable template for how Zen can work its alchemy in this world.

    Not having spoken with him for many years, his death came as a shock. Natural, effortless teachers like Steve are rare. Worthy of emulation.

  22. IRENE APARECIDA DE ALMEIDA
    Jan 18 2014

    Estou emocionada por saber da transformação de Steve, a vida é mesmo uma ponte, e uma ilusão construir casas sobre ela.
    Sua transformação foi com dignidade e PaZ, isso me conforta.
    Meus sentimentos a sua família e todos da sua convivência.
    Irene
    Sotozen Shu
    Brazil
    Irene
    Gasshõ

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