Zen’s path to Des Moines

The Des Moines Zen Center (DMZC) is 31 years old, it’s designation as Shinsenji (Deep River Temple) scarcely 2 years. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a 2,500 year-old world religion borne of the awakening of one person, Shakyamuni Buddha.

A prince in what is now Nepal, young Shakyamuni’s material needs were more than met yet
sequestered palace life was dissatisfying. Venturing out, as legend has it, he encountered suffering for the first time seeing a sick person, an elderly person, and a dying person. He also encountered a monk which kindled in him the realization that ultimate peace and happiness are not contingent upon material possessions. Seeing that all of the comforts he had were not going to save him from experiencing the reality of life’s suffering, and seeking an existence of peace and happiness that was completely independent of material possessions, led him upon a spiritual quest. Rejecting various ascetic practices, Shakyamuni rested beneath the Bodhi Tree. Following six years of silent sitting, touching the earth as his witness, he saw deeply into the nature of being and arose as Buddha (one who has awakened). Thereafter he taught Four Noble Truths¹ regarding suffering and its alleviation. Never claiming godlike status, Buddha taught that we all possess such inborn knowledge, it need only be sought through following The Eightfold Path².

During a dharma talk (sermon) when the Buddha realized he was close to death, he smiled upon disciple Mahākāśyapa, acknowledging Mahakasyapa’s understanding of the Dharma (i.e. the Buddha’s teaching and the reality of life). Mahakasyapa became the Buddha’s first successor. This  silent mind-to-mind transmission germinated the seed of Zen.

Buddhism spread throughout Asia and now the West, Many schools and sects of Buddhism have arisen, each with their own emphases variously focused upon devotional practices, sutra (scripture) study and/or meditative practices.

The DMZC follows the Soto Zen tradition placing greatest emphasis upon zazen (“sitting meditation”), known also as shinkantaza (“just sitting”). Zazen is rooted in Buddha’s most fundamental practice, transmitted from India to China in the 6th century by the Indian sage Bodhidharma, becoming Ch’an (the Chinese equivalent of “Zen”), and from China to Japan in the 13th century by the Japanese monk Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school.
Eastern peoples and thought migration to the West began in the late 19th Century. Cultural exchange slowly grew and by the mid-20th Century interest in Zen, its thought and practices grew beyond Asian communities.

The Japanese priest/monk Shunryu Suzuki quietly arrived in San Francisco in 1959 assuming priest’s duties at Sokoji, Soto Zen Mission, founded 1934 serving the Japanese community. Under Suzuki’s leadership the number of Westerners visiting Sokoji grew dramatically, overwhelming the facility, leading to the founding of San Francisco Zen Center in 1962 and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1967, Soto Zen’s first monastic training center outside Japan.

In 1966 Dainin Katagiri, another Japanese priest/monk, joined Suzuki to assist in teaching this rapidly growing sangha (community of Buddhist practitioners). In 1972, Katagiri migrated to Minneapolis, establishing Zen Meditation Center of Minnesota and later Hokyoji rural practice site in southeastern Minnesota. Though passing from this life March 1, 1990, Katagiri’s reach remains deep and wide. Several of his dharma heirs (priests bestowed dharma transmission) remain in the Midwest and four have contributed directly to nurturing the Des Moines Zen Center. It is in Dainin Katagiri’s lineage that DMZC securely rests.

The DMZC was established in 1992 by a small group of lay individuals with interest in Zen thought and writings, drawn to the awakening offered through zazen, and seeking the support of community, sangha.

In 2002, DMZC adopted bylaws, defined organizational structure, and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit religious organization. As the sangha grew, the DMZC migrated through a series of rented sites: Thoreau Center (1992), Drake area apartment (2001), basement space south of Grand Ave. (2010), 35th St storefront (2013), until purchasing the current site in 2018.

DMZC holds deep affiliation with Rev. Shoken Winecoff, a dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri and a first generation American Zen teacher. Rev. Winecoff built and is abbot of Ryumonji Zen Monastery near Decorah, Iowa.

Rev. Eido Espe, the DMZC’s first head priest, assumed that mantle following dharma transmission from Rev. Winecoff in 2010. Rev. Espe is a second generation American Zen teacher. Due to the efforts and practice of Rev. Espe, the DMZC received international temple status on May 19, 2021 from the Japanese Sotoshu (i.e. “Soto School”), the international governing body of Japanese Soto Zen. The DMZC took the temple name “Deep River Temple” (“Shinsenji” in Japanese).

During Rev. Espe’s tenure (2010-2023), he ordained Rev. Eishin Houghton and Rev. Gendo
Thornberry. Rev. Houghton received dharma transmission in 2022 from Rev. Espe (making Rev.
Houghton a third generation American Zen teacher) and became the DMZC’s head priest in April 2023. Rev. Espe then transitioned to emeritus priest.

The DMZC carries on a tradition that began 2,500 years ago and includes elements from India,
China, and Japan. But the DMZC falls under the category of the relatively young (from historical
standards) American Zen Center. When the DMZC received its international temple status, the
Japanese Sotoshu offered the prayer that the temple would continue to develop within the Soto Zen tradition and share with all who are interested the teachings and practices that are intended to relieve suffering.