January 27, 2016
Love is Vast and Wide: Gratitude and Generosity

Artist Susan Spencer tells the intimate story of her 20 years of practice, how she met her late teacher Darlene Cohen, and why she has decided to make a gift to SFZC in her will.


Artist and Zen student Susan Spencer

In 1995 I was living in Minneapolis. As an Episcopalian I was encouraged by how the church was changing, for example beginning to ordain women and gay people. But I was looking for something more—something that included more quiet time. One Sunday morning on my way to the cathedral, I noticed a sign outside a Unitarian church inviting people to a session of Zen meditation. I walked in, and my life of practice began. Soon I was practicing regularly at Clouds and Water Zen Center in St. Paul.


‘Granny Contemplates the Cosmos’, by Susan Spencer

In 1998 my daughter Ellie, who lived in San Francisco at the time, suggested I do a practice period at Green Gulch Farm. I applied, and to my great surprise was accepted and spent three months practicing there with Reb Anderson. Near the end of that year I moved to San Francisco and began practicing at City Center. At first City Center felt formidable, but after meeting with Barbara Kohn, who was open and welcoming, I was reassured.


Soon thereafter I took a workshop on meditation and movement with Darlene Cohen.  She became my teacher and I was lay ordained by her in 2001. That same year Darlene and her husband Tony Patchell moved to Guerneville and by coincidence I moved to Sebastopol. I began sitting with Darlene and Tony in their small cabin. The sangha grew into Russian River Zendo and I was a member of the first board.

Since then I have done several practice periods at Green Gulch and City Center. In 2010, when I was 79 years old, I did a three-month practice period at Tassajara. I thought initially: “This is great, I’ll be so peaceful here!” But then things began to happen. There are challenges in Zen practice—challenges with other people; challenges with yourself. But Zen gives you a way to be with it, and to work through it.


Pottery figures by Susan Spencer

When I lived near City Center I had an exhibit of my journals in the Art Lounge that Darlene and Michael Wenger both supported. I went through journals I had kept since the ’60s, turning images into books and small boxes. The process of working toward this exhibit helped me to see the connection between Zen practice and creativity that has helped me create work that feels authentic and meaningful.

These days, first thing in the morning, I make coffee and go to my garden to sit. I remember Steve Stucky speaking often about gratitude. I sit with gratitude for all of it—birds, bees, gophers (really—in that moment!), the passing of time, thinking about dying and what I will leave behind. From gratitude comes generosity—the desire to give back from a life of plenty. I have included San Francisco Zen Center in my will, and there is something about making this gift that is very important to me. I thought, nothing changed my life the way Zen practice did, and continues to do.

When my teacher Darlene Cohen was dying, I asked her if she could feel the love in a room full of her students. She replied, “Oh, Susan, love is much bigger than that. Love is vast and wide.”

I am grateful for her teaching and the teaching of so many others. Life truly feels miraculous. I write this with love and gratitude.

San Francisco Zen Center is offering a free workshop, Sunday, February 28, 3 – 5 pm, with a professional financial advisor, What Kind of Good Do I Want to Help Create in the World? Aligning Giving with Your Personal Values. Please click through to register online, or call our toll-free number (888.743.9362) or our local number (415.475.9362)..