Tenku Ruff is concerned that Zen in the west is too often presented from the perspective of white boomer males. Currently she is board president of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association – the youngest person to ever hold that office – and is engaged, she tells me, in leading the association through “a generational shift.”
I am a white boomer male.
She wears traditional Buddhist robes and shaves her head. I ask her how important these choices are. “I think it’s important for us to be recognized as monks. I know that a lot of Westerners choose not to keep their head shaved, choose not to wear identifiable clothing, but I made a decision when I was a novice to dress like my teacher and not to let my personal choice come into it. I thought I would see what would happen when I was no longer a novice. What I found is it makes me identifiable as a source of help. People recognize that on the street. I do get questions. People approach me. I don’t mind. In the airport I sit next to somebody who needs to tell their story or ask questions. When people need help, they know to come to me, and that’s what I’m here for. On the flip side of that, I can’t turn it off. I see that as my vow, that we are in this for a lifetime. I don’t want to be a part-time monk. I can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like being a monk today. I’m going to wear lay clothes and a baseball cap.’ That can feel really tempting, and it’s certainly a relief when it happens, like when I’m exercising. I don’t wear robes then, and people don’t recognize me, which can feel freeing. But I don’t think being a monk is something we should turn off, because the vows that we take . . . they’re very heavy, and they require a lot of responsibility. Being visible as a monk holds us to those vows and that level of responsibility. It asks something more of us.”
“The foreignness of it, the fact that it’s Japanese, is that ever a problem?”
“It could be, but I don’t allow it to be. I have an open question policy that acknowledges, ‘Hey, I look different.’ And anyone is welcome to ask me things. If the question is inappropriate, I just tell them, ‘That’s an inappropriate question.’ But 99.9% of the questions do not come from a mean place. People want to connect. At the hospital, as a chaplain, we come from different faith traditions, but we’re trained to be available to the patients according to their spiritual practice, not ours. I learned that I have one chance for that first connection with them, and that’s the moment I walk through their door. Maybe that won’t be the only chance, but that’s the most valuable one. I’ve learned not to waste my time worrying about how I look but to walk through the door and immediately meet the Buddha in front of me. I’ve had very few people reject my help because of the way I look. That’s the same attitude I take out in the world. It’s our job as priests to be available, to not accept people’s projections, and to just genuinely connect.”
At her zendo, she maintains the Soto forms as she had been taught them but notes, “I’m probably not as strict as my teacher, especially with beginners. I try to adapt to the situation. In my zendo, we keep the forms, but when I go out and teach somewhere else, I’m a little lighter on them. When people come to my zendo, they know what to do. I try not to get rigid about it, and I don’t scold laypeople for not keeping the forms properly. I don’t believe in that.”
The forms, after all, are only useful if they help the practice. In the end, what’s important is that the people who come “feel at home in the world, and that they feel connection and love for the people and the world around them in a way that is genuine and real.”
Another concern is that Zen be socially relevant. So it was that on June 4 (2020) – in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others – Tenku and other SZBA board members issued a Call to Action on Systemic Racism, challenging all Soto centers “to dig deeply into our own roles in institutionalized and systemic racism and engage in the following actions:”
- Center voices of color and their needs in our Zen communities. Without conscious centering, these voices and needs can get lost in our predominantly white-dominant spaces.
- Reach out to your members of color and offer emotional, spiritual, and practical support.
- Commit to 49 days of meditation, ritual, and mourning for George Floyd and for all who suffer from systemic racism and other forms of injustice.
- For these 49 days begin your services with the SZBA’s “Statement of Recognition and Repentance.” Include the statement in your monthly Full Moon Ceremony.
- Commit to amplifying the voices of Buddhists of Color, especially Black Buddhists, and their teachings.
- Speak directly about anti-racism with your Zen communities, through Dharma talks, workshops, and community discussions. Ask for feedback to make sure your message and actions strike the right note for people of color.
- Engage your community members to make actionable plans for stepping up and speaking out, honoring Right Action and Right Speech. Create community accountability for these plans.
- Listen deeply. Allow space, voice, and permission for anger and rage without judgment, guilt, or pressure to bypass these emotions.
- Reach out to Black clergy and Black social justice organizations in your community and offer your support.
- Have your communities commit to a series of brave, fierce conversations on race, privilege, and bias.
- Vow to hold ourselves, and our leaders, accountable.
The Story of Zen: 401-05, 435