“U of R’s Zen specialist”
Awaiting a gracious response for the gift he’d just presented, Mark Rhodes felt a proud
sliver of smile creep across his face. His Zen Master, having finished his examination,
pulled the pride off of Rhodes’ lips with his simple response:
“Pride and self-advertisement will carry you nowhere. Find humility and non-action.”
Rhodes left his master feeling disappointed and confused, yet determined to understand
his master’s vague statement.
Years later, across the Atlantic from Kyoto, University of Richmond art professor Mark
Rhodes looks over his eight-acre farm and ponders his master’s words. They feel as far
away as Japan now, distant memories drowned out by the vibrant skirts and pressed shirts
of his students. In a largely affluent University where self-reflection is stifled by the thirst
for Facebook and Twitter, Rhodes’ offerings regarding Zen wash over many students.
Yet during a summer when he was hit by a car, was told his wife had cancer, and faced
quarantine on his beloved farm, Rhodes’ knowledge of Zen provided his ability to
The majority of Rhodes’ students fall into his class to fulfill Richmond’s general
education requirements. Whether teaching the required first-year seminar or a studio art
class, Rhodes finds many students are bored and disengaged. “I know most kids aren’t
into this stuff, so if I can make a difference for the kids who are interested, I’m happy,”
Using Zen and Christian mystic traditions to positively influence a classroom full of techsavvy students is no small feat. Modern technology like smartphones has changed the
classroom experience, allowing students to escape lectures and presentations with a few
rapid thumb taps.
As a result, some of Rhodes’ students breeze through his classes without ever really
appreciating the material they offer. At a University with under 4,000 students, and
business being the largest major, true art aficionados are hard to come by. Even more
rare, are students willing to put down their I-phones and answer some of Rhode’s
Brian Khzouz, a sophomore at Richmond, was one of Rhodes’ more intrigued students.
He was struck when he entered Rhodes’ class on the first day. “I saw this guy in beaten
up overalls and a t-shirt in the corner of the room. He adjusted his baseball hat and I saw
that half of his pinky was missing. He didn’t look like my other professors,” Khzouz
During that first day Rhodes gave a lecture that summed up what the class would be
studying: Zen, Christian mystic traditions, Taoism, and the beliefs that hold true across
these traditions. After the lecture Rhodes provided each student with a single word,
instructing them to offer him a Taoist response.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Khzouz remembers. “I can’t even remember what I said. All
I remember is that Professor Rhodes told me that what I said was enlightening and
beautiful. It wasn’t the kind of thing I expected from a teacher,” Khzouz added.
Rhodes does not conduct his class according to expectations. The complexities of Zen
and Christian mystic traditions are not something that can be taught, according to
Rhodes. Instead they must be experienced, and Rhodes has been known to perform rituals
like tea ceremonies during class time.
“He brought us out to the courtyard and let us choose one of the handmade tea bowls that
we felt connected to. Then he brought groups of four through a tranquil, peaceful garden
that he’d arranged. He served us tea and discussed humility, it was a very calming
experience,” Khzouz said.
Humility and peace are aspects of the Zen tradition, with the ultimate goal being to reach
“Satori.” Satori is experienced through a conscious interaction with God––an awareness
and peace with the divine spirit. Though Rhodes doesn’t think reaching Satori is a
reasonable aspiration, he allows the principles of Zen to guide his actions. It allows him
to enter a state beyond his conscious, in which he produces his best ceramic work. “When
I can resist material thought from entering my mind and remain truly calm, my pieces
seem to create themselves,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes’ passion for Zen and mystic traditions took seed during his college years at
Murray St. University. The first of his family to attend college, Rhodes was admitted to
Murray St. on an athletic scholarship for track and field. He signed up for a ceramics
class during the second semester of his junior year. After a few ceramics classes he
changed his major from biology to art. “I wanted to study biology because I loved the
reality of nature, but ceramics was more real than anything I’d learned in science,”
Rhodes said. The tangibility of working with clay and fire entranced Rhodes, and he
appreciated being able to make something real. Not long after Rhodes quit the track team.
“It was realistic at the time, that I was never going to succeed in college track and field,”
Rhodes said, a point that his Richmond colleague Dr. Stephen Addiss contends.
“The thing that most amazes me about Mark is his ability to succeed in whatever he
tries,” Addiss said. He’s seen Rhodes’ dynamic abilities as an artist, his eloquence as a
musician, as well as his knack for filmmaking. “Whatever he decides he wants to do he
does. Nothing gets in Mark’s way,” Addiss added.
May 2012 presented something in the way of Mark Rhodes, and began a series of
obstacles that lasted the length of the summer.
Rhodes didn’t know that the skunk that attacked his goat was rabid until weeks after
she’d been bit. During that time the virus could have spread to his many other animals,
and the reality of the situation suddenly slapped Rhodes into despair. “I didn’t know what
to do,” he sighed. “I didn’t know if my other animals had been infected or what would
happen to them.”
A month later in June Rhode’s despair was compounded when a car struck him while
riding a bicycle. He broke a rib and cracked two more, and lost the ability to exercise. “I
gained so much weight it’s sad,” Rhodes said.
The final blow came soon after, when Rhodes’ wife was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
In a society dominated by technology and instant gratification, Rhodes stands among few
who appreciate the simplicities in life. His cell phone is rarely used, and accompanies
him only on long bike rides to call assistance if need be. He is an avid outdoorsman with
a particular passion for fly-fishing and hiking. His refined love for nature stems from his
Zen master’s teachings, which made him appreciate things that can simply “exist”.
Rhodes strives to live simply, but the inescapable complexities of life often pull him
away from what he’s learned. Oftentimes he calls on lessons or parables that his Zen
master taught him, one of which he shared with me in his office.
Rhodes sat at his desk quietly, rubbing his worn hands against each other as he
contemplated his story. Smooth, cool-toned tea bowls lined the windowsill, and a fiddle
bow was the only wall decoration. He gripped his grey-white beard, gently pulling on the
hairs as if part of the parable hid between them. His bald head reflected the only light in
the room: sunlight straining through the shade-less window.
Speaking softly, he tells the parable: “A monk asked his Zen master to tell him how to
reach Satori. The Zen master told the monk he’d make him a mirror, and picked up a
stone and started rubbing it against his robe. The monk told his master that a mirror can’t
be made by rubbing a stone, to which the Zen master answered, and you cannot achieve
Satori by trying to reach it.”
Rhodes used lessons like this one to push through the past summer. He believes if we
invest too much thought and emotion in the future that we will waste the present moment.
He reflected that any fear we have about the future can only be dealt with in the time that
we have now. With broken ribs, a rabid goat, and an ill wife, Rhodes’ ability to remain
engaged in the present moment kept his life together. “It was amazing how calm my wife
and I remained during that time,” Rhodes recalled.
After a surgery, doctors were able to determine that Rhodes’ wife did not actually have
cancer. His ribs have almost fully healed, and his farm’s quarantine is scheduled to be
lifted next month. He plans to begin exercising again as soon as his body lets him, and
hopes to get back to his roots and talents with long distance running.
Rhodes is a man of many talents, a point made by his colleague Dr. Addiss. “He’s a racecar driver, a musician, a poet, an athlete, a teacher, and much more,” Addiss said.
Reflecting on his teacher, Brian Khzouz recognized his talents as well, “I’ve never had a
teacher like him and doubt I ever will again. A bunch of classmates and I even decided to
stop bringing our phones to class.”