Michael Elsmere wrote this profile after ‘interviewing’ Ingen during a visit to Totnes in November 2011. Ingen was there to lead a weekend Zen retreat for the local Dancing Mountains Sangha.
Profile Ingen Breen November 2011
I’m walking towards the medieval courtyard of Dartington, Devon with Ingen Breen a teacher from San Francisco Zen Centre who is here in Totnes to hold two practice days with the local Dancing Mountains Sangha. We had intended to walk through the park with its huge old trees now winter gaunt and dripping but the rain is heavy. We decide to divert to the Roundhouse café and take the stroll later. As we enter the distinctive voice of Johnny Cash pours out of the CD player and we talk with the woman serving us about the music she loves and recent films we have all seen. I tune in to the gentle Irish burr in Ingen’s voice which reflects his origins. He was brought up in a working class family devoted to Roman Catholicism with an elder brother and two sisters in Dublin. Tragedy struck this happy close knit family early. Ingen was only eight years old when his father died.
“This sensitised me,” Ingen says “to notice in an intuitive way aspects of and the beliefs of my catholic faith. I would go to evening mass but always sit at the back, part of the mystery but at the same slightly aloof, wondering.”
When his brother took up Yoga Ingen became interested and began to practice and later followed this with TM meditation. In his secondary/High school studies his favourite subjects were maths and physics and he took up Aikido which is still an important part of his investigations into life.
When he left education he became an apprentice electrician but continued his interest in rationalism by reading thoroughly Plato’s Republic which led him to question his own faith at deeper level, since, in his view his Catholicism seemed in part to be based on the Greek philosopher’s views and theories about human nature and being. All this led to what he calls the first great koan of his life
“Could I be happy if it was incontreverably proved that there was no life after death?”
He was now beginning to recognise that much of what he believed was simply what others had told him was true and posed the question:
“How do they know?” Which led him to his second koan
“Why do you believe in life after death?”
As his apprenticeship neared its end Ingen had considered three possibilities as careers; engineer, teacher or priest. He realised that the latter was now impossible since his constant interrogation of himself and his faith had led to the realisation that he was an atheist! He went to college to study electrical engineering but his studies were interrupted by serious health problems and during this time he started meditating again using a simple technique he learned from his Yoga practice. At this crucial time in his mid-twenties his mother died and he came across Shunryu Suzuki’s classic text ‘Zen Mind Beginners Mind’. This opened up a new universe of possibilities for the young seeker. He realised that he could live his life in a new way within the vast potential offered by Suzuki’s teaching. He found a teacher and sangha of the Western Buddhist order and sat with them as they explored the fundamental teachings of Buddhism such as the four noble truths whose rationale and pragmatism resonated strongly with him. He then reasoned, there are plenty of electrical engineers in the world but not many dharma teachers, so moved to Vajraloka headquarters of the order in Wales to deepen his studies. Ingen remained in residence for one and a half years whilst also exploring other traditions such Theravada and Zen including time at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland, England. A motorcycle accident in 1993 resulting in minor injuries came with the realisation that if he was to continue to explore the ‘suchness,’ of all things he needed to take care of his physical being more carefully! The search went on and eventually led him in 1996 to Green Gulch Farm Zen Centre in California which had been founded by Shunryu Suzuki in the nineteen sixties.
“I was impressed by the egalitarian nature of the centre and the wealth of practice, teachers and teachings that would be available to me.”
His mentor throughout the long and arduous training was Zoketsu Norman Fischer from whom he received dharma transmission in 2009.
Ingen observed with a smile that life had seemingly laid out the circumstances of his spiritual search perfectly.
“If I had gone to Green Gulch first with its many forms, rituals, bells and incense I would almost certainly have rejected it as too closely mirroring my former Catholic faith. However the grounding I derived from the Western Buddhist order gave me the insight and patience necessary to overcome a misunderstanding and rejection of these forms.”
Now based temporarily in Dublin Ingen travels in Ireland, U.K., Sweden and Italy offering dharma teachings, sessins and practice days.
The interview over we walked through the Dartington gardens with the trees scattering golden offerings in the puddles across our path. I reflected with deep gratitude on the blessings committed teachers such as Ingen Breen bring to us all.