When asked whether she is a Seattle native, Dorothy Kannin Deming replies, "Am I ever!" The energetic 89-year-old fusses over her guests, pouring tea and plying us with Oreos. Then she settles back into her favorite armchair to share her stories, including recollections about embarking on Zen practice in the 1970’s and creating a Zen Hermitage some twenty years later.
During the Depression, Deming’s family moved from house to house in the Matthews Beach area, leaving when the month's rent came due. Deming recalls, "You can't understand those times unless you were there.... There were lines of men on Second Avenue waiting for one apple. Men lined up and down Second Avenue, waiting patiently."
When Deming enrolled at the University of Washington she moved to the U-District to live with her great aunts. Their four-story house, a stone's throw from campus, still stands. World War II cut her college education short, but a quarter of a century later Deming's curiosity about Buddhism brought her back to the UW.
In 1973, a colleague at the Seattle Opera mentioned Dr. Glenn Taylor Webb, a professor of art history at the University. A specialist in the medieval art of Japan, Webb was also a Zen practitioner in the Rinzai tradition. He was then perhaps the only Westerner teaching zazen in Seattle. Though curious and interested, Deming was unsure. It took a year before she attended Webb's meditation class. She was 55 years old.
“He was on the fourth floor and I used to carry a zafu and zabuton up four flights of stairs. He had 45 people sitting in an art room," she recounts.
Another year passed before she worked up the courage for a personal interview with the teacher. Their connection was instant. She attributes her thirty-five years of practice to "the shining light of Glenn Webb," who is now Professor Emeritus at Pepperdine University’s International Studies and Languages Division. They visit often.
Deming's Ballard home contains the evidence of a rich student-teacher relationship. The calligraphy, the altar cloth, the framed illustration from a classic Buddhist tale, the robes that she made herself under the direction of Glenn Webb--all bear her Dharma name, Kannin (Cold Jurisprudence), and that of Webb, Kangan (Cold Rock). The names stem from the Cold Mountain (Han Shan, or Kanzan) lineage, a branch of Rinzai Zen that originated in Suzhou, China, in the 8th century. All priests in the lineage take the founder's name, "Cold" (in the sense of "serene" or "calm"), as part of their names.
Soon after she took her priest's vows in May of 1995, Deming founded the Cold Mountain Buddhist Hermitage at 820 NW 90th Street in Seattle's Crown Hill. Originally a "lunch bucket house" occupied by Scandinavians in the 1920's, it was transformed under her direction into a haven for women wishing to follow the path of Zen Buddhism.
“It was a tiny, tiny house, and I went in there and blew the ceiling out. I ran a ladder up to a little loft. It had a fireplace. Anyone who came and wanted to sit with me had to climb up the ladder."
A shoebox on a bookshelf contains some 100 cards bearing the names of students who have passed through. She teaches, still. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Seattle in April, Deming's students walked the Burke-Gilman Trail from Ballard to Montlake to hear him speak at UW's Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
"He was spectacular," she says. "He changed this town in five days.” She hopes that he can return periodically to continue the work.
Not surprisingly, Deming and Webb were on hand during the Dalai Lama's first visit to Seattle—and to the West—when he was invited to visit a small local Zen center, "a little bit of a house...nestled under the beginnings of the I-90 Bridge. A couple of Zen kids lived there. Two or three, I think. And they had made a dinner you couldn’t believe. It was the most gorgeous thing. The whole kitchen was just aflame.”
“There were about 45 of us, sitting in this huge circle, cheek-by-jowl."
The group waited expectantly as the Tibetan entourage pulled up. Four men disembarked from the first car and stood around it. The second car contained the Dalai Lama and his driver.
“The Dalai Lama gets out. He has on his orange robes, barefooted. STOMP, STOMP, STOMP! He comes up to the house. STOMP, STOMP, STOMP, STOMP, STOMP! He comes right through; he sits down; and he says, ‘What do you want me to say?’” The group was completely cowed, but finally a girl asked a question.
“He answered it,” Deming says, “stood up, and STOMP, STOMP, STOMP, STOMP, STOMP! He went out, and we were left with all this food!” She bursts out laughing. The Dalai Lama and Buddhism in the Northwest have indeed changed since Deming started her practice. “Just a little bit,” she says, chuckling.
And what does she think of it all? What advice does she have for younger Buddhists?
“Godspeed. Go for it. No apologies. Nothing. Your life is your showpiece. You live another 10 years. You live with Buddhism. Your responses to people are compassionate, thoughtful, not personal. You have nothing to do with any of it. I have nothing to do with any of it. It happens out here. It happens on the rim. And all we can do is just…stay calm. Stay calm. Stay collected."
Contributors: Amy Groncznack, based on an interview by Amy, Caterina De Re, and Timothy O’Brien.
Photo: Caterina De Re.