Meet Ryūki Tom Hawkins!

Gesshin Claire Greenwood  |  March 22, 2021

Ryūki Tom Hawkins is a Sōtō Zen priest and candidate for the Master of Divinity at IBS. Here he shares a little bit about his passions and interests. 

Q: Tell me about yourself. How did your life make its way to IBS?

A: I grew up in eastern Virginia, completed a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Virginia, and moved to California in the early 1990s. My partner had just joined a medical practice here in Modesto, and we have lived in Modesto since 1992, where he continues to practice cardiology with the same medical group. 

Landscape architecture and environmental issues coexisted with a passion for photography. I found myself transitioning to a career as a photographic artist, with a particular interest in 19th-century printing methods. I love the experience and process of “making” an image, which is a more contemplative undertaking than “taking” a picture. My work began to get recognized by the gallery community, and before too long, I found myself immersed in the “art world.” At some point, pursuing the approval of galleries, “chasing” representation, self-promotion, and the proliferation of images everywhere (on the internet, everyone is a photographer…) had overtaken the reason I made pictures: to communicate how I experienced the world and what I felt was meaningful in an image.

My spiritual practice of Sōtō Zen was essential in gaining some clarity. It encouraged me to ask “What is This?” in every moment. Why am I making pictures? What am I really trying to communicate?

I came to Zen practice at first through a program of Twelve Step recovery, and I found the two spiritual paths remarkably compatible and enriching. Recovery was a vital entryway into Buddhist practice for me, and working with others on the same path is humbling and joyful. As practice life deepened, I felt the call to move beyond my initial interest in Recovery and explore the Sōtō Zen tradition as fully as possible. I was ordained as a novice priest a few years ago.

Life presented me with an opportunity to study the tradition in-depth, and I enrolled in the Sōtō Zen certificate program at IBS.  What a gift it was to find the community of faculty, administrative staff, and the student friendships that have developed… I have felt deeply encouraged, and the depth of scholarship offered was like discovering a jewel. As study became more and more important, I acknowledged a longing that I had long been aware of,  the need to get as close as possible to the essence of the Sōtō Zen tradition.

Q: Tell me more about your Zen practice and how this relates to your academic career. 

I re-ordained in a traditional lineage and am registered with the Sōtōshu in Japan as a novice priest.  I am very fortunate to practice as a novice temple priest at Kojin-an, the Oakland Zen Center, under the guidance of Rev. Gengo Akiba. He is an accomplished scholar and calligrapher and a profoundly compassionate example of a priest. AkibaRoshi serves as sokan (roughly analogous to a bishop’s role) for the Japanese Sōtō Zen governing institution in North America. He is establishing a Sōtō Zen training monastery in Lake County, which is a tremendous undertaking. Akiba Roshi has been in the U.S. for over thirty years and has worked to bring the essence of the ancient Sōtō way to Americans in a beneficial and meaningful form. So, I feel that I have “landed” in the best of both worlds. 

The pandemic’s reality has altered my plans to participate in monastic training in Japan, which is an essential part of a priest’s training in our lineage. I hope that travel restrictions will change by the fall, and I look forward to traveling to Japan for a three-month ango in October.

Completing the Sōtō Zen certificate at IBS led in a very organic way to enrolling in the M.Div program. The program offers the skillset and academic foundation that I feel will be invaluable in my ministry as a Sōtō priest. Understanding the real depth of our interconnected life -with others, with all beings, with our universe- is a call to act with awareness. A priest needs all the tools available to encourage others on their spiritual path and accompany folks on their journey to transform their suffering. 

Q: How do you see yourself weaving together your personal interests in the environment with your formal spiritual practice?

I don’t see myself in the role of a professional chaplain who would work in a setting that requires a professional credential. However, I have become very interested in the new “Movement Chaplaincy” practice that has emerged over the past few years– spiritual support to folks who are active in social and environmental justice movements. The School of Global Citizenry offers a training program in Movement Chaplaincy that I plan to take part in this summer. 

Engaging in a graduate program at the “tender” age of 61 is humbling. It brings all kinds of new opportunities to transform my suffering! But I am so very grateful to follow this path at this moment in my life and the life of our world. I am supported and encouraged by so many people, and my practice reminds me how all beings, known and unknown, support me.

Q: Hobbies/interests? Random facts about you?

A: Yikes. Well, we grow olives at our place. And when causes and conditions are aligned (and the gophers have put their attention elsewhere…), our garden produces vegetables. And keeping John, our two canine pals, and me fed and reasonably clean is a kind of rustic art form.

Q: I vaguely remember a Facebook video of yours involving a cute dog chasing and being very terrified of a blueberry. Care to elaborate? 

A: That was Isla, our Jack Russell, (in puppy form) reacting to “a thing that rolls around when your nose touches it.” It was hysterical. I try to recreate the experience, but she’s wise to my ways. However, she did the same thing yesterday to a sparrow that had flown into the window and was stunned. No contact, just rolling around, tilting the head, and barking.  I put the sparrow out of reach and on a rosemary bush. The bird was relieved, I think. Isla moved on to the next adventure…