Soto Zen in America
(2) San Francisco Body Work
John R. MacRae
In many meditation halls, students are told not to move at all while sitting. Any change of position, even just a fidget, represents a loss of concentration, a break in one's steely resolve. Over the years I've often heard gruffly shouted commands to "sit still!" echo through the silent space of the zendo. Once I spent a week sitting with a group that had each practitioner perch on an individual wooden platform, the top of which was sloped just enough to give the legs a comfortable inclind -- or just enough to send one slipping inexorably forward if one so much as twitched a muscle! During that week -- over thirty years ago -- a newcomer to Buddhist practice, of high school age, was repeatedly berated for not being able to sit through 50-minute periods without moving his legs. I often wonder what became of him.
This last summer I spent a long weekend at the San Francisco Zen Center, where I was able to interview a half-dozen or so people about their Zen practice. Although quite a number of different issues were discussed, the one theme that came up in virtually every case was a particular attitude toward the body. I've taken to calling it the "San Francisco body work" style, a particular combination of attention to inner changes and a very hands-off attitude toward consciously influencing those changes.
One long-time Zen practitioner there had formerly been in charge of instructing newcomers at Tassajara, the San Francisco Zen Center's justifiably famous retreat near Big Sur. "I tell them to go ahead and move," he said, almost revelling in what was clear to him as a radical break with Zen authoritarianism. His point was that zazen is a process of both listening to what goes on in body and mind, and allowing body and mind to settle naturally. As Dogen counseled, zazen is to allow body and mind to "drop away." Over the course of a single period, let alone a day's retreat or a full seven-day sesshin, the body is going to flex and sag, relaxing into position or building up internal tension. Enforced stolidity would be unnatural.
In this context -- and perhaps throughout Soto Zen in America -- "control" is anathema, rejected on deep ideological grounds. Control, to Americans on the cusp of the twenty-first century, implies an abandonment of freedom, the introduction of artifice.
Most of us do not realize how odd the contemporary American ideology of freedom is within the historical panorama of the Buddhist tradition. I once had a Zen student auditing a course on Buddhist meditation in East Asia who reacted instantly when he heard my discussion of the traditional methods of controlling the mind and its thoughts. He immediately raised his hand to ask, "Don't you mean freeing the mind?" I replied that centuries of Buddhists believed that a lack of self-control left one at the mercy of one's senses and desires, a prisoner of samsara -- the very opposite of our conventional understanding of "free" as "able to do what I want." The auditor, who had taken jukai from a teacher in Maezumi Roshi's White Plum lineage, stopped coming to class from about that point on.
In a similar fashion, my San Francisco Zen Center informants also recoiled, with an automatic and almost physical revulsion, at the very notion of control. In both cases this attitude was probably based on a combination of contemporary American concepts of freedom and a unique perspective on religious practice. I suspect, but am not at all certain at this point, that this combination is widely shared throughout American Soto Zen.
Another practitioner in San Francisco, one with considerable experience at Zen Center, told me that she found the meditation mudra (the position in which one's hands are held, one palm on top of the other and the thumbs touching) uniquely meaningful during sitting. The quiet circle formed by the hands just in front of the abdomen became a portal between her and the world, a channel through which her energies were concentrated and delivered. Years of sitting meant that she was entirely at ease during meditation, and although I didn't observe her during zazen (and watching other people sit motionless for hours at a time is not a research method I plan to adopt!), I'm certain that there is no sense of enforced rigidity about her at all. More important, as I think over the explanation that I'm paraphrasing here, the interpretation she placed on the circle formed by her hands fit very closely with the style of interactive collaboration that she described between her and her co-practitioners. That is, for her and for her cohorts at the San Francisco Zen Center, Zen practice is a never-ending process of negotiation among a multitude of personal situations. Just as one watches and reacts to changes within one's own body, so is one to respond to developments within the community. "Control" is simply not part of the picture.
This same practitioner said she remembered only one time when Suzuki Shunryu Roshi, the founder of Zen Center, ever got angry at her. This was when she informed him she had now gotten pretty good at keeping her concentration on counting the breathing, thank you, and wondered what she could do next. His response was on the order of, "Never think that you are doing zazen!"
Not all of us are so comfortable in our bodies as the Zen students I've mentioned here. In fact, given what seems to be a commonly shared "San Francisco body work" style, I find it odd that the institution offers no instruction in and practice times for yoga, stretching and strengthening exercises, and the like. I was told by students that the attitudes they expressed were adopted from the instructions of their teachers, not imported from other religious contexts or the world at large, but also that Zen Center does nothing programmatic in terms of physical preparation for long hours of sitting. I do not mean to advocate that there should be time set aside for Zen calisthenics, only to observe that the absence of any such institutionalized activity is in accord with the "don't just do something, sit there!" approach.
Several years ago I visited a Rinzai training center in Hawaii, where calligraphy and the martial arts occupied an important part of the curriculum. Residents and trainees were required to write the same Chinese character on very large paper once every week, and the teacher said he would sometimes have each student display several months worth of these large characters at once, examining them to determine the student's psychological and spiritual evolution. I can't imagine this approach ever being used at a Soto Zen center, and if it did occur I'd be tempted to label it Rinzai influence. Along with the hyper-sensitivity to issues of "control," American Soto Zen seems to involve a reluctance to design or plan out a comprehensive system of training, let alone to have a teacher do so. This may be perfectly in accord with the teachings of Japanese Soto Zen as they have been handed down to us, but it's unusual within the Buddhist tradition as a whole. The San Francisco body work style uniquely fits the ethos of the times -- and perhaps specifically of the great city -- in which it has developed.
(3) Wimpy Missionaries at Work
Buddhists are wimpy missionaries. Although there have been occasional examples of aggressive or at least energetic proselytizing in Buddhist history, the more common pattern has been to teach when asked rather than to force one's own religion on others. This is an old pattern. Buddhism was actually the world's first missionary religion, and Shakyamuni Buddha's brilliance was evident not only in his spiritual insights but in his capacity as an organization builder. As the Sangha that he and his followers designed spread throughout various principalities and regional conclaves of what is now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, there were more than enough groups that eagerly sought out their instructions. The importation of Buddhism to China, Korea, Japan, and later Tibet was often accompanied by political conflict over whether the new religious powers of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas would benefit or disrupt local society, but the issues at stake involved efficacious ritual action rather than belief. Christianity and Islam became far more energetic missionary religions than Buddhism, and especially the latter developed programmatic strategies to enhance mass conversion. Historically, tax breaks seem to have been far more widely effective than the sword in promoting the spread of Islam.
Many of us who have converted to Buddhism in America or who through our participation have experienced what might be termed partial conversion deeply appreciate the profoundly non-aggressive posture of the religion, which openly declares that we should accept it only after thinking about it for ourselves, not because someone else is pushing it. Soto Zen Buddhists in America are continuing this passive attitude toward the spread of their religion. Of course, it is absurd to imagine a street-corner Zen evangelist, thumping his copy of the Shobogenzo in the manner of a fundamentalist Christian preacher with the Bible. Dogen's injunction "just sit!" (shikantaza) certainly doesn't lend itself to high-energy mass appeal. Soto Zen Buddhists go where they're invited, teach when there are opportunities, and help others develop their religious practice according to a host of local and personal realities. Whether or not some other approach might be more effective is profoundly irrelevant: Zenheads are not going to change their style, and they don't particularly care about evangelical expansion. Making the teaching more widely available would be wonderful, but each individual is expected to decide whether the way of zazen is appropriate in his or her life. There is no shared sense of urgency that the world must learn about Dogen Zen in order to save itself.
Last December I spent a few days at Zen Center of Asheville in North Carolina. I had been to Asheville many years before, on a vacation to the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway, and I remembered it as a spectacularly beautiful place. On this trip Asheville also struck me as something of a Santa Cruz or Big Sur for its new age and spiritual diversity. While there I briefly visited the Southern Dharma Center, a retreat facility used by a variety of Buddhist and other groups in the mountains up in the mountains outside the city. On the airplane trip back to Atlanta the two middle-aged (by which I mean they were older than I think of myself as being!) women in the row behind me talked of their weekend's vision quest workshop, and by eavesdropping as much as the cabin noise would allow I realized that they devoted considerable time to such pursuits.
Rev. Teijo Munnich has been in Asheville since 1992, when she accepted the invitation of local Zen Buddhists who wanted the assistance and instruction of a resident teacher. Based on this foundation of local interest, Teijo's energetic guidance and devoted efforts have led to the development of a strong and dynamic community. They rent a small (900 square feet, plus basement) house in a residential area, where they carry out a regular schedule of evening instruction and discussion meetings, Saturday meditation days, several sesshin throughout the year, and occasional potluck dinners and other group celebrations. The weekend I was there, for example, came on the heels of a ZCA craft fair and potluck dinner attended by some one hundred people. The Saturday sittings and evening discussion groups are attended by far fewer people, of course; about a dozen people sat for a period or two, and some for the entire schedule, on the Saturday I was there.
ZCA is a friendly and informal center, as befits both Teijo's personality and local culture. People come and go according to their own timing, and there is none of the stiff formality of some larger centers. Nor are there too many zendo rules I was wearing dark colors, required for zazen periods elsewhere, but certainly not the norm here. During kinhin my eyes were unavoidably attracted by the variety of seating arrangements used, especially one zafu with a tastefully understated brocade top and a beginner's set of pillows with modernesque polygons in warm earth tones of pink, turquoise, and brown. Lunch was served in the zendo and was a time for friendly conversation; I am told that silence is however the rule during sesshins. I am also happy to report that Southern hospitality still lives: Teijo and the members of her community I met were absolutely wonderful in their welcome and in responding to my requests for interviews, and I am profoundly grateful to them all!
Thanks to Teijo's scheduling assistance, I did eight interviews in Asheville, ranging from forty minutes or so up to an hour and a half. The range of individuals (and one couple) involved, in terms of their backgrounds and differing levels of involvement with Zen practice, was also very impressive, and I believe that several of their life stories deserve to be told already. I also spent hours chatting informally with Teijo and members of the group, and although I did not hear her teach it was very clear that her strong emphasis on zazen had played an important role on attracting them to ZCA and in guiding their different approaches to their own practice.
Due to limitations of space, I wish to focus here on just one interviewee, whose experience in the religious culture of western North Carolina is an inspiring example of the power of Buddhism to change human lives. Richard Dellinger is now 50 years old, single, and working at present as a stock clerk/data entry clerk. (I suspect he's had a succession of similar jobs, although only one other a brief stint as orderly at an institution for developmentally disabled came up in our discussions.) Although now a resident of Asheville, Richard grew up in the little mountain town of Spruce Pine, which is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, about an hour's drive from the city and even closer to the Tennessee state line. In Spruce Pine he grew up as a Southern Baptist, although as a boy he briefly attended a Roman Catholic youth program. (There he began to learn the rosary, but was frustrated when neighborhood gossip led to him being pulled out of the classes by his parents.) Always interested in religious and philosophical matters, at one point in his life he took seminary classes and was planning to become a minister. Looking back on those years, he now describes his approach to Christianity as based on the hope that if he learned more about it would eventually make sense.
Around 1987 Richard's mother became ill, and he took care of her until her death in 1994. During this period a column appeared in a Memphis newspaper, stating that those who had not heard of and therefore had not accepted Christ were destined for eternal damnation. Richard wrote a reply, suggesting that the God of Christian love would certainly not have condemned people to hell for no fault of their own. Some letters to the editor suggested he had unfairly attacked the minister who had written the original column, which had not been his intention at all, and others suggested that Richard was sentencing himself to perdition because of his heretical views. In his own mind, though, there had been no question of personal invective, and there certainly was no worry about life after death: he was simply trying to figure out what he should believe, and fundamentalist Christianity turned out not to be it.
Around the same time Richard discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church, which he joined and is still active in today. Where he once drove down to Asheville every Sunday for services, after his mother's death in 1995 (his father had died three decades earlier), he moved to Asheville and so that he could attend services and other meetings more easily. In contrast to the rigid dogmatism of the Southern Baptist churches he had attended in Spruce Pine, the Unitarian Universalists were warm and open in both their ideas and sense of community. Although he had tried some meditation on his own as far back as 1990, it was only a few years ago that he gained any real introduction to the practice, on the basis of a series of teachings that Teijo offered at the church. For the past year he has been sitting for twenty minutes every evening, doing breath counting. He told me that Teijo has suggested he try a Saturday sitting, but thus far he's been reluctant to do so. He pointed out that he's very used to the pillows he uses at home, and the "pillow potluck" of the zendo might result in a painful day. When I pointed out that he could certainly bring his own sitting cushions he agreed that this was true; the real thing holding him back, as I see it, is simply that he is taking one step at a time.
Another important part of his story is that Richard suffers from a partial hearing loss, which has influenced his life in ways I can only begin to imagine. He had no apparent trouble understanding me, but his own pronunciation is a bit indistinct, and a couple of times I had to ask him to repeat himself. I mention this only because of my impression that, over the course of his life, people around Richard have probably often underestimated him. In contrast to this first impression, he has a deeply inquisitive mind and has read widely in Christian and Buddhist religious literature (and no doubt in other areas we didn't touch on as well). In our discussions he rattled off the names of books and authors who had influenced him, from the Episcopal Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar writings to a variety of Buddhist teachers. Richard also remembers a tape recording by Rev. Jiyu Kennett, in which she described the Buddha's attitude toward testing assertions on one's own rather than accepting them because they might have come from the mouth of some religious authority. Characteristically, Richard's appreciation of Kennett's presentation was nuanced, since he recognized her approach as unusually theistic for a Buddhist teacher.
I am confident that in the remaining decades of his life Richard will continue to walk his own religious path. At present it seems certain that this will include ever-greater involvement with Soto Zen, especially increased participation in zazen practice. He is an example of the manner in which Buddhism as a whole, and in particular Soto Zen, have penetrated even the backwoods of American society. Although he was calm in recounting his life story, I am certain that a significant measure of individual anguish was involved in the living of it. To borrow a feminist idiom, I celebrate the sincerity with which he approaches his spiritual path, and I thank him for sharing his story with me. (Richard kindly agreed to the telling of his story here, as well as the use of the picture Teijo took of the two of us "including Daisy, the zendo superdog!" with his digital camera.)
Richard Dellinger's life story embodies a number of important lessons about Soto Zen in contemporary America. First, of course, it is heartwarming to learn that Buddhism has penetrated so deeply into American society that it can provide guidance to someone whose original life circumstances were so culturally restricted. I have not been to Spruce Pine, and my touristy jaunts up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway do not qualify me as even remotely knowledgeable, but the sense of cultural distance is palpable in Richard's own telling of his story. Obviously, Richard's ability to learn about Buddhism was based on the availability of print and media information throughout late twentieth-century America, as well as on the increasing number of resources about Buddhism itself.
Second, Richard's quest has been completely self-directed. His deep curiosity in religious and philosophical matters is a life-long matter, and even that brief contact with Catholic education left him with an "itch" that he was only able to satisfy much later in life, when he completed the study of the rosary he had not been allowed to finish as a child. Although he mentioned several members of different churches who had helped him along the way, and whom he considered noble exemplars of religious being, he never referred to any one individual as the guiding force in his life. Teijo's role in his spiritual path remains within this pattern, since she is a respected source of guidance but not an emotionally demanding or intrusive presence. Richard is a self-starter.
Third, I was struck by the role played by the Unitarian Universalist Church in Richard's story, and it reminded me of accounts I have heard from Soto practitioners in other communities, such as Framingham, Massachusetts, and Bloomington, Indiana. It would be useful to study the extent to which this and other liberal churches and synagogues function as gateways to Zen practice in North America. Actually, in sociological terms, I suspect such gateway functions apply not just to Zen but to a whole range of non-mainstream religious and self-awareness endeavors.
Fourth, although Richard is now practicing according to the model provided by Teijo and Soto Zen, there is little indication from our one brief interview that the principles of Dogen's distinctive Buddhist philosophy have moved him in any unique or profound way. This impression may simply be an artifact of how little time we spent together, and I will follow up on this point in a subsequent visit. However, it seems noteworthy that in this one individual case at least Soto Zen is "working" without a very prominent explicit role played by the founder of the Soto school himself. I am reminded of a comment I once heard from a priest at Zen Mountain Monastery, who claimed that the participants there had little awareness of the sectarian identities of either Soto or Rinzai Zen. In Richard's case, Jiyu Kennett was the only Soto Zen teacher mentioned, and he seemed far more profoundly influenced by Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, Lama Surya Das, and Joseph Goldstein. These observations cut both ways: while Dogen's name is not foremost in Richard's religious identity, the capacious flexibility of Soto Zen teaching has provided him with a nurturing spiritual environment.
In an article published in Tricycle several years ago, Jan Nattier suggested that there were three different patterns by which Buddhism had come to America, for which she used the nicknames "import," "export," and "baggage." When Asian Buddhists bring the religion to America along with the rest of their culture and continue to practice it here as a means of maintaining a connection with their roots, she wrote (without any negative connotations) that it was present in their overall cultural "baggage." When other Asian Buddhists took it upon themselves to spread the Dharma around the world the most prominent example of which is Soka Gakkai International, the lay Nichiren "new religion" this active missionary effort is the "export" of a religious system. According to her typology, American Zen is primarily a demonstration of a different phenomenon, in which participants in American society not necessarily connected to Asia by ethnic or other cultural links take an active role in seeking out the religion for themselves, what she labels an "import" enterprise. Richard Dellinger's case is a striking example both of the reach of Buddhism's appeal and of the internal dynamics of the "import" phenomenon.
(4) Doin' the Dharma Two-step
When we talk about Zen, we usually discuss a select number of its founders, ancestors, and legendary teachers. For China, we'll emphasize Bodhidharma and the Sixth Patriarch, Caoshan and Dongshan (who together become "Soto" of the Soto school), Linji (Rinzai), and others. For Japan, we'll naturally focus on great figures such as Dogen, Keizan, Ikkyu, and Hakuin, etc. In the context of world culture, this is totally unremarkable. Humans everywhere seem to direct their attentions at the "great men" of history, and Zen is no exception.
Part of this emphasis is simply the natural desire to focus on the main part of the story, to get to the essentials and avoid distractions. However, this can be taken too far. For example, some popular writers and translators use a "core and periphery" model to explain Zen Buddhism. The assumption (sometimes explicitly stated) is that "true Zen" represents precisely the understanding and activities of the great figures who constitute the mainstream of the lineage scheme, whereas the understanding and activities of those who were not recognized in this way simply didn't make the grade. Sometimes such authors describe the figures on the periphery (who are mostly anonymous, although not always) as corrupting, or threatening to corrupt, the "true spirit" of Zen. The history of Zen is an ongoing battle for some idealized form of religious "purity." The "core and periphery" model is simply one variant of the "golden age and decline" model, in which everything that happened in a suitably far off set of good old days was pure and wonderful, but it's been downhill ever since.
The "core and periphery" and "golden age and decline" models do not do justice to the complex dynamics of Zen as a religious movement. They are too simplistic and too value-laden. In addition, both models are profoundly influenced by the subject matter they attempt to explain, implying a debilitating logical circularity. But I'm getting too complicated too quickly; I'll have to leave this point to be elaborated more fully on a later occasion.
Even when we consider only the focus on the great historical models of the Zen tradition, not broader interpretive strategies such as the two models just mentioned, the matter cannot simply be summarized with the observation that "that's what people everywhere do." To be sure, people in all human societies may focus in some way on great central figures. However, there is a mechanism in Zen Buddhism that compels its followers —by which I mean anyone who participates in the religious movement known as Zen, by the broadest possible definition —to focus on the "great men" who dominate the main story line. This mechanism is lineage.
In Zen Buddhism, lineage schemes are as common as the air itself. Each teacher is identified as representing a long series of masters that goes back, through Dogen and Bodhidharma, for example, to Sakyamuni Buddha himself. And, rather like the bare end of an electrically charged wire, that teacher is by no means the end point of the lineage, but only its active node, its point of connection to the future. Like the rhizome of an orchid, the lineage grows onward indefinitely, consolidating energy when it must but dividing and propagating whenever it can.
The lineage schemes of Zen are not merely public knowledge; they are ritually implanted into the consciousnesses of all Zen teachers and students by means of their regular recitation within Zen liturgy. Every morning and every week, Zen practitioners and communities define their religious identities by intoning the names of their saintly predecessors. We are those who follow after, we are those who inherit, we are those who emulate. We are Zen practitioners, because we are in lineages descended from Zen masters.
My reference to "great men" above should have been something of a red flag: what about the great women of Zen history? In the past several years some American Zen communities have added female names to the lists of ancestors, great contributors to the Buddhist tradition such as Mahaprajapti, the Buddha's aunt and first bhiksuni. Feminist sensitivities are also involved in the use of the term "ancestors" rather than "patriarchs" as a general term to the great predecessors that dominate the Zen family tree. I applaud this change in terminology as one small step in the transformation of our tradition, as part of the natural evolution that Zen is and will continue undergoing as part of its growth outside of East Asia.
But as a description of Zen within the traditional societies of East Asia —China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam —to call the figureheads of the Zen lineage "ancestors" rather than "patriarchs" would be to miss the point. The assumptions of patriarchalism, in the feminist sense, were fundamental to the societies in which Zen developed, and to Zen itself. When we study the past, we must be constantly diligent to be aware of our preconceptions and prejudices. In spite of what our college history professors may have told us, we have every right to be judgmental, to make value judgements about the events of the past. We should simply be aware when we get caught in a feedback loop, in which our preconceptions and prejudices are influencing our analysis of what actually happened in history, which then get used to bolster our preconceptions.
My point is that the Zen lineage scheme constitutes a template by which we approach the Zen tradition, a lens through which we understand it. As template or lens, it imparts a certain shape or color that was not necessarily part of the subject matter.
It seems absurd, even, to consider Zen without a patriarchal succession. I generally argue — in my college classroom, in weekend seminars at Zen centers, and in academic publications — that Zen is fundamentally "genealogical," in the sense that the concept of lineal succession fundamentally structures its historical self-conception and its style of religious practice. It is not enough, actually, to say (as I did just above) that lineage schemes are as common as the air itself: they are the very water in which Zen swims. The point here is not to see what Zen would be apart from lineage, but to understand how lineage affects the way we understand Zen.
So, the Zen lineage model induces us to concentrate on a succession of great male leaders. That is, the Zen lineage model is a conceptual structure that provides religious and intellectual justification for the ordinary human focus on great male leaders.
This is of course only one of the many observations we can make about the Zen lineage model. Some of my historical research at present is devoted to exploring the Zen lineage model in traditional Chinese Zen Buddhism. In the present context, though, I want to use these initial observations about Zen lineage per se as a steppingstone to some comments about Zen in America. That is, having briefly stated some of the reasons for the "great man" emphasis of Zen Buddhism, I wonder: How about those who are not the "great men" of Soto Zen in contemporary America? More broadly, what is the role played by those other than the great teachers in contemporary American Soto Zen?
The question really should be obvious. How could we possibly think about Zen in America without thinking of all the people involved? If we tried to imagine American Zen as consisting only of the recognized teachers, what would we have? A very small group of individuals, for one thing. An empty shell.
As I travel about to Zen centers preparing my study of Soto Zen in America, I often jokingly say that, although my main interest is in students, I will "condescend" to talk to the teachers. Teachers, after all, are the ones who get to talk all the time, telling their students how things are, showing them how it's supposed to be done. Teachers are the ones whose Dharma talks are recorded and pub-lished, whose books are sold.
Students, on the other hand, spend far more of their time in Zen listening rather than talking. So, when I come along with my tape recorder to ask them how they approach their Zen practice, the students are always anxious to talk! At least, there are always Zen students around who are willing interviewees. Basically all I have to do is turn the tape recorder on and say, "Well?" Forty-five minutes or an hour later I have an articulate description of one person's encounter with Zen Buddhism.
In the course of all these visits and interviews, I've noticed that there is a natural division apparent in the offerings and participants of many Zen centers. One set of students is dedicated to full-time self-cultivation, perhaps as on-site residents, but certainly as frequent and regular participants in the particular center's training activities. In terms of administrative workload, this "first set" of students provides most of both work force and leadership pool. It may also be true —although I am not able to make reliable generalizations yet, and the situa-tion probably varies widely from site to site —that this set of students also receives the major part of the teachers' attentions and energy. In terms of the traditional lineage model, this "first set" of students represents the pool from which candidates for inclusion in the Zen lineage are drawn.
The other group or "second set" of students is composed of the vast spectrum of individuals, couples, families, and groups whose lives intersect with the Zen center in some way or other. From one perspective this "second set" is defined simply by its members' exclusion from the first set, but it would be a mistake to overlook this second set as simply the less dedicated. As human institutions, no Zen community could survive without support and participation from this second group. This is not a moral value judgement. What I am saying is that a Zen community that does not have a healthy relationship with its less dedicated participants does not have a solid institutional foundation and is thus more likely to disappear. In contrast, a Zen community that adequately or creatively meets the religious needs of its less dedicated participants will have a better chance of institutional survival.
Let me describe two different Zen communities, which I'll call Zen center A and Zen center B. Both of these are specific institutions, not composite images. Zen center A derives from a Soto tradition that emphasizes long hours of "just sitting," with a notable disinclination to religious ritual. Located in a beautiful mountain setting several hours' drive away from large population centers, Zen center Amaintains a strict zazen schedule but no other group activities whatsoever. Based on the idealistic position that those who want to practice Zen in their particular style will find the center if and when it's right for them to find it, Zen center A does nothing to actively attract participants. The resident teacher does a certain amount of lecturing at colleges and other groups in the area, but he does not actively seek to develop these contacts into a net-work of support for his center. And in several ways this center very effectively discourages the creation of any sense of community identity. It does not maintain a mailing list, let alone send out fundraising circulars or announcement of events' because there are none, other than the regular sitting schedule. Even during meditation retreats, participants are required to bring their own food, and those who show up with guests are sometimes met with open disapproval. Practice continues, with an explicit fondness for strictness and an unspoken emphasis on self-motivated dedication.
Zen center B is also located in a beautiful mountain setting a couple of hours away from a major population center, and it too has a rigorous practice schedule. But there the similarity ends. In the first place, the arrangements made for full-time and fully dedicated students are institutionally elaborate. This center has an extensive training system, in which formal application to a committee of teachers and community leaders is required for passage from one level to another. In the second place, there are extensive offerings for the weekend warriors of American Zen: Zen center B actively advertises its many workshops on art, calligraphy, ecology, photography, and a whole host of subjects. I receive its slickly produced catalogs in my mailbox every few months. The teachings of Zen center B's founder are available in cassettes, CDs, videos, and books, some of which are found at mainstream bookstores. The first generation of his successors is now beginning to found centers of their own, and a network of living-room zazen groups and local communities is developing with Zen center B as its nucleus.
Which center represents "true" Zen? I would hate to make this judgement! Zen Center A is maintaining a certain style of Zen institution, adapted to the contemporary American situation but with deep roots in East Asia. Given its philosophy of no-nonsense practice, and in par-ticular the dedication to the goalless endeavor of shikan taza, who could possibly say that there is anything "wrong" with its approach?
However, when we ask, Which center has the better chance of institutional survival?, the answer is clear. Which center influences more lives? Which center does more to heal the madness of contemporary society? Here too the answers are clear.
This last summer I made two separate visits to Zen Mountain Center in southern California (which is neither Zen center A or B, incidentally). On the first visit, really just a Sunday morning stopover, Rev. Tenshin Fletcher briefly explained some of the innovative meditation techniques he'd used at a recent wilderness retreat. I won't try to describe them in full detail until some later occasion, but they involved actively dealing with one's false thoughts in different ways. For example, one of the techniques involved simply vocalizing every thought that comes to mind. Those on the retreat would each go to an isolated area, out of each others' earshot, and verbalize every thought that occurred to them. I have always been surprised by the wide variety of specific practices that Zen practitioners use, but this was a new one on me.
When I went back later in the summer and did some interviews with resident students, I was a little surprised that none of these innovative techniques was mentioned. Students referred to all the most widely known practices — breath concentration, shikan taza, koan study —but none of them mentioned practicing the four rather unconventional techniques I had heard about a few weeks before. Since I had only done a small number of interviews, it was very possible that I'd just missed their mention by accident. However, it turned out to be something else.
When I asked Tenshin about them again, he reminded me that the techniques he'd described earlier were associated with a wilderness retreat, and he explained that they were not part of the ordinary practice curriculum for resident students. They had been developed specifically on behalf of the "second set" of participants as described above, and that is why none of the "first set" participants had mentioned them to me.
At this point, I suspect that Zen Mountain Center is more like Zen center B than Zen center A. At the very least, Tenshin's decision to provide qualitatively different religious services to weekend workshop participants is insightful and commendable in social institutional terms. Rather than ignoring the "periphery" in favor of the "core," providing markedly different types of guidance for different clienteles is a function of greater institutional sophistication. "Doin' the Dharma Two-step," as I like to call it, might not necessarily be any "better" according to some idealized religious standard, but it is certainly more effective as means of disseminating the benefits of Buddhist practice to a larger number of people. Paying attention to different subsets of the Zen "clientele" turns out to be good institutional design strategy, simply because it involves helping people in ways that are appropriate to their own situations.
(5) Zen at School
What’s up with Zen at school? I’ve been getting mixed signals from the people I talk to. Here are the impressions I’ve formed, which you’ll see are pretty contradictory. I’ll pose questions as I go along.
Quite a number of Soto Zen teachers lead meditation classes and meetings at colleges. In spite of this on-going effort, I’m told that these classes generally do not lead to increased participation or membership. That is, students come to the classes, sit a bit and talk a bit, then go their separate ways. They do not tend to become active members of the given teacher’s center or group. I wonder: Is this impression accurate? In addition, are there any meditation classes being held at high schools, or at off-campus locations but aimed at secondary school students?
In contrast to five or ten years ago, there are significant numbers of late teenagers and twenty-somethings participating in Soto Zen activities, including meditation retreats. We used to talk about how even those people who became newly interested in Zen were most often in their fifties and sixties, who had heard of Zen for many years but just hadn’t gotten around to trying it yet. This generalization—if it ever was true—simply isn’t accurate anymore. Everyplace I go there seems to be a pretty good distribution of the participants across the generations. So: Are these generalizations accurate for your center, both past and present?
Where are the younger Zen students coming from? At one meeting in Portland last November (a combined meeting of the Dharma Rain and Zen Community of Oregon groups), about twenty-five of us went around the room and explained how we’d become interested in Zen. I wasn’t taking notes, but Chozen Bays mentioned to me afterward that quite a number of people, perhaps half of those present, had mentioned college courses as part of their initial inspiration.
inference is clear, but is it accurate? That is, the impressions stated
above seem to imply that college courses on Asian religions do more to
lead students to Soto Zen practice than the activities of Soto Zen teachers
themselves. This has odd implications for both academic faculty and Zen
teachers. That is, we academic faculty may have a greater impact on our
students’ lives than we think, even when we work to keep proselytization
out of the classroom. (And I’m not sure that other faculty are as
Recently, students and I in a graduate seminar read a book called "Religion on Campus", a detailed ethnographic description of religious activities at four different colleges and universities around the country. I was very impressed by the different ways and human levels by which Christian pastoral services reach out to students. Religious groups not only create worship opportunities, but also provide for emotional support, social bonding, and friendship. (Yes, they also create comfortable dating environments.) In order to offer these services, different traditional denominations and newer evangelical movements provide significant staffing and other institutional support to campus ministries—we’re talking serious bucks and lifetimes of dedication here. Although the research did not attempt to track how many students remained active participants of the religious groups in question after graduation, many of those interviewed discussed their futures in terms of continued involvement.
The co-authors of this particular book seemed to be thoroughly uninterested in Asian religions on campus—at least, they found virtually none of it. In only one of the four institutions they studied was there a Zen center in the vicinity, and they failed to visit it to gauge student involvement. Is it possible that Soto Zen and other Asian religious groups have an essentially negligible role on American college campuses?
One hypothesis is that Zen groups that make some provision for social bonding will attract teens and twenty-somethings better than those which do not. That is, groups where people simply come to do zazen and study Dogen’s teachings together, but do not have pot-luck dinners, social work outings, Zen-at-the-movies video nights, or other group activities, will attract relatively fewer younger people. On the other hand, groups that effectively cater to students’ lives will have greater student participation. (Homer Simpson would say, "D’oh!") At one Zen retreat center I have visited, there seemed to be a healthy recognition that students will come and go, and some of those present were undertaking a few months of Zen training in between college graduation and moving on to graduate or medical school. (I call this "semester at Zen.") Does this happen elsewhere?
In addition to meditation groups on campus, Soto Zen teachers around the country are also deeply involved in "prison Dharma," the teaching of meditation to prisoners. There are good humanitarian reasons for this activity, which may transcend the institutional consequences. However, I can’t help but wonder if the time devoted to the prison population does not overly detract from the abilities of small meditation centers to reach larger numbers of people?