A four-decade study of Buddhism and zen has left Edwina “Edie” Norton at peace and able to tell the story of how she became an ordained zen priest in her late 70s.
When the 80-year-old Bellingham resident was born in 1935, few Americans had heard the word “zen.” Soon after World War II, the Japanese brought zen to the United States, and by the 1960s authors such as Alan Watts had begun to popularize it.
I had been under a lot of stress and discovered zen in my late 30s.
Edwina Norton, zen priest
Norton has two sons and four grandchildren. She graduated from Washington State University, taught high school and college English for 16 years, then worked in industrial management development until she retired in 2000 and moved to Bellingham three years later.
“I had been under a lot of stress and discovered zen in my late 30s,” she says. “I soon found a college class and began to study zen.”
She has never stopped studying, and participating in zazen, or seated mediation.
It is our misunderstanding that causes our suffering, because we think we should have or not have certain experiences, but we can’t control what comes to us.
Edwina Norton, zen priest
“This practice allows one over time to know yourself and to learn how to meet what happens in life without resisting it or craving more,” she says. “The study of Buddhist teachings is also important.”
She sums up Buddhist teachings this way: “We suffer or are perpetually dissatisfied because we resist what we don’t like and we desire what we don’t have or want. But because everything, ourselves included, is always changing — is impermanent — resisting and craving are pointless. So it is our misunderstanding that causes our suffering, because we think we should have or not have certain experiences, but we can’t control what comes to us.”
Becoming a priest involved daily practice of zazen, retreats and monastic experiences in Japan and America. She was ordained in August 2013 and is now board president at Bellingham’s Red Cedar Zen Community, where she is one of four zen priests.
“It’s a chance to support and encourage others in zen practice and in life, to be humble, see Buddha in everyone and always try to help,” she says.
Norton had to create her own robe for her ordination as a priest. The robe, about 5 feet by 10 feet, includes thousands of stitches that, for most people, could only be created by someone whose mind had been sharpened by zazen.
“I said or thought ‘Namu Butsu Kie’ — meaning “I take refuge in the Buddha’ — and if I neglected to do that, I had to take the stitch out because it would be a bad stitch.”
Red Cedar Zen Community
Where: 1021 N. Forest St., Bellingham
Benefits of mediation
A new study says “mindfulness meditation” activates areas of the brain related to focus and calm, and reduces a marker of unhealthy inflammation in the blood months later, according to The New York Times. Thirty-five unemployed and stressed men and women were split into two groups. One group was taught mindfulness meditation for three days, giving close attention to their bodily sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant. The other group was taught a fake form that focused on relaxation and stretching but also included chatter and other distractions.