His own unfolding life has led Steve Hagen from his hometown of Duluth to a path of spiritual questioning and the study of Zen Buddhism.
He founded Dharma Field Zen Center, a meditation and learning center in Minneapolis, and has written a best-selling book on Buddhism. And he’s part of the first generation of American Zen teachers.
In his books, the Zen teacher tries to dispel misunderstandings about Buddhism. He also tries to help people understand how their thinking can lead to difficulties, such as longing and loathing, and suggests ways to avoid those ways of thinking.
Hagen, 58, receives phone calls and mail from spiritual seekers worldwide. Some show up at Dharma Field.
Hagen’s early life growing up in Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood was marked by the death of his father, Maurice, who died from a brain hemorrhage when Hagen was 6.
His mother, Mildred, moved her family to Duluth’s West End neighborhood because she wanted to live closer to her church, Salem Lutheran Brethren. She worked odd jobs to support her family before getting a job in the laundry at the former Cook Home. She also received help from her extended family.
The youngest of three children, Hagen said he was a very serious kid. He liked science because it was no-nonsense.
“I wanted to get to the truth,” he said. “I wanted to understand the world. After the sudden death of my father, I just wanted to know what’s going on here.”
His eldest brother, Dale Hagen of Duluth, said Steve Hagen always had a questioning mind.
“When he got to junior high, we had long, serious philosophical discussions that were unusual for a kid his age,” he said. “We talked about the cosmos, about the universe.”
Drawn to Buddha
After graduating in 1964 from Denfeld High School, Hagen attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth. About 1967, Hagen took a course called “Nonwestern World View.” He already had been interested in Eastern philosophies, but the course made him want to learn more.
Increasingly, he felt drawn to Buddhism.
“The thing that appealed to me about Buddhism was that it wasn’t selling anything,” he said. “It’s not a belief system. It’s about examining your life.”
During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Hagen moved around and worked odd jobs while studying science, philosophy and Buddhism on his own. He had majored in biology in college and got a job with a salmon research project in Alaska. Among his other jobs were photographer, surveyor, janitor and bridge inspector.
Hagen ended up in the Twin Cities, working for the University of Minnesota in a soybean research project and saving money to go to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. A year later he learned Dainin Katagiri, a Zen Buddhism master, was teaching at the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. Hagen became one of his students.
In 1978, at age 32, Hagen was diagnosed with a severe case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments knocked out the cancer and he remains cancer-free. Hagen believes his meditation practice helped him through the treatments.
Becoming a master
Katagiri ordained Hagen to begin a deeper study of Zen Buddhism in 1979 and sent him to a Buddhist training center in Japan. Hagen also studied with a Zen master in Japan and later went to France to study with Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Zen monk from Vietnam.
In 1989, Hagen received dharma transmission – permission from Katagiri to teach. Katagiri died the next year from cancer.
Soon, students began seeking out Hagen at his Minneapolis home.
Roger Lips, a Zen Buddhism scholar who lives in Duluth, said Hagen is an excellent original thinker and author.
Katagiri was one of the greatest Japanese Zen teachers to come to the United States, Lips said. Being a dharma heir to Katagiri gives Hagen good credentials as a Zen teacher, he said.
Hagen is part of the first generation of American Zen teachers. There are about 50 in the United States, Lips said.
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