AZTA Conference – July 8, 2021

[photo above with Genjo Marinello Roshi]

[The American Zen Teachers’ Association invited me to address their Annual Conference on July 8, 2021. This is the text of that speech.]

I started writing because my leg broke.

I’d been taking a medication for osteoporosis called Fosamax. You used to see a lot of ads for Fosamax on television. A well-known actress of a certain age with a look of determination on her face told the viewer that she was going to start taking charge of own health now and that she was going to look after her bones.

You don’t see those ads anymore because it turned out that Fosamax had this side-effect. It could cause your femur – the strongest bone in the human body – to shatter.

It’s not that it was more likely your femur would break if you had a fall – although that could happen. It was quite literally that you might be walking across the room and suddenly your leg would snap in two. Then you’d fall.

That’s what happened to me in August of 2010. In my case, it took 26 months and three surgeries before the bone began to mend. It is under circumstances like these that one really appreciates Canadian socialized medicine

During those two years of convalescence, when I was no longer able to take part in the kind of activities I generally thought of as being the stuff I do – hiking, biking, kayaking, cross-country-skiing – I filled the time, instead, by writing.

My first two books were examinations of the development of Zen in China and Japan. Then to complete what I still think of as a trilogy, I wrote about the pioneers who first brought the practice to this side of the Pacific.

By the time the idea for Cypress Trees in the Garden – my fourth book – came about, I had retired from a career in International Development and was able to get around haltingly with the use of a cane. The premise for that book is the same as the premise of my most recent book, Zen Conversations. I assumed that contemporary North American Zen teachers – you – had things to say that were at are at least as worth preserving as Tang dynasty comments about mounds of flax, turtle-nosed snakes, or excrement sticks.

So in March of 2013, starting in San Francisco, I began a tour of Zen centers throughout North America. In total, I interviewed 124 American, Canadian, and Mexican teachers before the COVID outbreak put an end to travel. They represented the Soto, Rinzai, Sanbo and Kapleau schools, as well as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean lineages.

Those seven years were, coincidentally, a transition period in the history of North American Zen. The generation of teachers who immediately followed the pioneers – the second generation of Zen teachers in America – was starting to pass. Walter Nowick died just a month prior to my trip to San Francisco. All three of the abbots I spoke with there – Steve Stucky, Blanche Hartman, and  Mel Weitsman – have since died. As have Albert Low, Bernie Glassman, and others I was fortunate to be able to meet and record before they left us.

I treated that tour much like a pilgrimage. I undertook it without expectations. I had no agenda in mind. I wasn’t seeking to defend a particular theory or to argue to a particular end. I tried not to take sides in any of the several differences of opinion I encountered. My goal was simply to record a phenomenon I found interesting and personally meaningful.

What I’d like to do now is share with you some of things I observed over the course of that process. Some of the things that you told and showed me.

I first became interested in Zen fifty years ago, at a time when it was still a pretty marginal activity. I grew up in Northern Indiana, and, when I was in high school in the 1960s, at a time when the beginnings of what would become a Zen boom were starting to take place in other parts of the country, I only remember coming across one reference to meditation. It was in one of those display cases they sometimes have in front of Protestant churches where the topic of the following Sunday’s sermon is posted – like a preview of coming attractions: “Don’t miss Pastor Pete’s breathtaking review of the seven deadly sins next week!” What this display said was: “Meditation empties the mind so that the Devil can come in and take over.” Actually, on reflection, I’m not sure why that didn’t intrigue me more than it did.

Today Zen is not only socially acceptable, it’s practically mainstream. It has even become a word in the English language – although its dictionary definition refers to neither Buddhism nor meditation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines zen as “the quality of being relaxed and not worrying about things one can’t change.” That’s the way you hear it used in sit-coms: “Don’t go all zen on me!”

With Taigen Henderson Roshi

It has become a marketing term. When I visited Bodhin Kjolhede at the Rochester Zen Center one of the things he shared with me was his collection of products that included the word Zen in their names. There’s Zen tea, Zen breakfast cereal, Zen perfume, Zen laundry detergent. There’s the “Zen of Zin,” a California Zinfandel. There was an early electric car produced by Ford in Canada, called the Zenn (with a double N – “zero emissions, no noise”).  You can purchase Zen chocolate chip cookies, Zen bath products, and even a Zen underwire bra.

I mention this because it reflects something of the current popular misunderstanding of what Zen is.

Back in the bad old days, when the citizens of LaPorte, Indiana, were being warned about the dangers of demonic possession, a handful of people elsewhere in the country were starting to make their way to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rochester, Honolulu, and even the backwoods of Maine, seeking spiritual enlightenment. That’s the language they used; that’s the language that many of you used.

Few of them – few of you – knew at the time that there was actually more than one “type” of Zen, and they were surprised when some of the centers they went to discounted the idea of enlightenment. And while many of them – many of you – learned to accommodate that, it was still often the search for enlightenment that had brought them to the door in the first place. Even those of you for whom the enlightenment-model no longer holds up admitted to me that it was often the idea of a path to enlightenment which prompted your early investigations into Zen.

In the era of Zen respectability, however – the era of Zen wine and cookies – you tell me that the people who come to your door for the first time seldom use that language. More likely, they tell you that what they’re looking for is to reduce stress in their lives; they want to overcome anxiety or lower their blood pressure. One teacher did theorize that this could be because of a contemporary shyness about talking about spiritual aspirations, a fear of being thought pretentious if one did so.

You have also pointed out that when people first come to your centers, it isn’t usually with the intention of “joining” anything. If you become a Christian, for example, part of the deal is to start showing up on Sundays and gathering in prayer with others. But it appears that people often look at Zen less as a spiritual path than as a psychological technique. Several of you tell me that you hold regular introductory workshops – one place charges a $50 attendance fee – and that at times you even have waiting lists of people seeking to take part. But you also tell me that you don’t expect to see most of those people more than once. After all they get what they want in the workshop, which is instruction in a technique. No doubt some of them will go back to their families and back to work and tell people that they’ve taken up Zen and how much good it’s doing them. (“Really! It’s dropped my blood pressure by 9 points.”) Some of them might buy a book – more and more likely an audio-book. It’s frequently been remarked that far more people have read (or listened to) a book on Zen than have ever spent any time at all at a practice center, a phenomenon that I suppose I’ve contributed to in a small way.

The few who do stick around, even if they originally came in order to find a way of coping with stress, do, of course, acquire a more mature perspective about practice. And, of course, there were always those few people who come with more existential concerns about the purpose of existence or who are looking for a way of life that seems meaningful.  Still, although these individuals can become staunch supporters of a particular sangha, they often retain a fairly narrow understanding of the scope of North American Zen. They assume that other Zen centers run pretty much the same as the one with which they’re familiar. And that’s just not the case.

It is, of course, a natural assumption. After all, as I write in Zen Conversations, a Roman Catholic attending mass in Venice, Oaxaca, or Ottawa would find the experience essentially the same. For that matter, a Rotarian attending a luncheon meeting in Italy, Mexico, or Canada would expect the format to be similar save for, perhaps, a few cultural differences.

But a Zen practitioner visiting two centers in their own community might well find them so different that they scarcely appear to have anything in common.

First, there is the wide range of visible differences – whether the guiding teacher at a center is lay or ordained, whether they have hair or not, whether they adapt a specific style of dress; the use or absence of liturgy, the regulations governing how people sit – facing walls, facing forward, facing one another. There are still a few places where the kyosaku is used, although these are becoming rarer and in most instances its use is only on request. One center gives you the option of a shoulder massage. There are centers which make use of what amounts to a talking circle. There are centers in which participants are encouraged to engage with one another socially before and after sits; there are other centers where there is almost no social interaction at all. There are degrees to which center leaders – if they are priests – understand their role as religious ministers to a community, with responsibility for visiting the sick, providing hospice care, officiating at weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies.

With Kevin Hunt Roshi

Much of this is, frankly, superficial, but it also indicates that there is no standard approach to practice in North America, there’s no central authority, no Vatican. Some members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association have suggested they would like to be recognized as a denomination, which would necessitate some form of standardization, but I didn’t see much interest in that elsewhere. You’re generally a pretty independent – if oddly conservative – lot.

Some of you have told me – especially those of you who studied with one of the pioneers – that you felt an obligation to retain the tradition as you received it at least until your teacher’s death, only after which you then felt free to begin making adaptations that you hadn’t previously. Some of these adaptations seem pretty minor from the outside, like Kapleau’s famous fight with Yasutani over whether the “Heart Sutra” could be chanted in English or not.

The matter of what I’ve heard referred to as the “container” is something most of you consider important. There is general agreement that there needs to be some kind of container for the practice, and that the one you inherited from Asia is a strong one. The tension is always with how “foreign” or “exotic” that container appears to be. The container consists of the ambiance of the space you use – the formal decorations – the forms used (bowing, prostrating, sitting cross-legged), the language used, the nature of – or the lack of – liturgy, the type of name one uses. The title – if any – you prefer to be addressed by.

One of the biggest surprises to me during my conversations with you was how often you didn’t know what your colleagues were doing. It wasn’t unusual for me to describe something I’d seen elsewhere and for you to express surprise and then quiz me for details.

Much of this could simply be considered a matter of style. But then we get into more substantive matters, such as just how Buddhist does this all need to be?

The abbot of one of the monastic communities I visited told me that he thought of himself first and foremost as “someone who is studying and practicing Buddhadharma.” In other words, for him Buddhism is primary and Zen just happens to be the particular tradition – or perhaps upaya – that he employs in his practice. On the other hand, there were centers where, when I asked authorized teachers with impeccable teaching credentials if they considered themselves Buddhists, I was bluntly told, “No.” Just recently a teacher who saw the profile of her I had posted on my website wrote to ask me to correct it. She considered herself, she told me, a Zen Practitioner not a Buddhist.

There is even a small, but significant group of teachers – whom I find fascinating enough to have written a book about – who continue to self-identify as Roman Catholic. The first Canadian – and, in fact, one of the very first Westerners – to be authorized to teach Zen is a Roman Catholic nun from the province of New Brunswick, where I live. She is now in her 90’s and no longer actively teaching, but she still forcefully makes a distinction between Zen and “Zen Buddhism.”

The most significant difference of opinion amongst you, however, is one which cuts to the very function or purpose of Zen practice.

When I conducted the interviews for Cypress Trees, I had only two prepared questions. “How did you become involved in Zen practice?” and “What is the function of Zen?” The range of responses to that second question was impressive. It was naturally something that you had given thought to – although the teacher with whom I studied for the longest time pointedly told me that Zen has no function at all. In one location, I was told that “the function of Zen is to see beyond the constructions of the mind that blind us to reality.”

Another teacher phrased it this way, “Zen is a practice through which people dissolve the mind that separates us from everything else in this world.”

Neither of these sounded spontaneous – they are both the products of careful reflection – but they’re essentially saying something others of you put more directly and in more traditional language: the function of Zen is awakening/satori/enlightenment, whatever vocabulary you choose to use.

And when I asked what you meant by awakening, I was often told that it is a process rather than a single event, although many of you held that an initial event – let’s call that kensho – is essential to begin the process. Again, your range of expectations regarding kensho is broad. One teacher told me, “we allow for different intensities of that experience. We aren’t looking for ‘great kensho,’ per se. It might, for some, be just a subtle release, maybe a tear in the eye, maybe some laughter, but not necessarily great awakening.”

With Mitra Bishop Roshi

Other teachers had higher expectations. One told me it was the necessary initial taste of non-duality which then needs to be cultivated for full spiritual awakening. And yet a third referred to it as the “shock of discovering that all the multiplicity of phenomena are somehow one single phenomenon.” Frequently you insisted that the experience itself can be transient and of little value unless nurtured by further practice.

The transient nature of that initial insight made others of you question its value altogether. One of you good-humoredly remarked that as far as she could see kensho seemed to have had little impact on helping the people she knew be happier or overcome their sense of personal inadequacy or insecurity. She told me that she preferred to think of Zen in terms, not of achieving a particular spiritual experience, but as a means of liberating individuals from the grief and neurosis of suffering and, by doing so, helping those people turn outward and become more aware of and attentive to others. Again, not a spontaneous reflection.

The most articulate proponent of this point of view told me straight out that he had no interest in “enlightenment” whatsoever – that the people that he’d met who claimed to have had any kind enlightenment experience were no more mature – by any measure – than anyone else he knew. For him, what Zen offers is “a vehicle by which people can grow up in a profound way.” Maturity – learning how to hold oneself in the world – he argues is more important than “what it looks like inside your head.”

If I pushed you, you would usually – although at times reluctantly – agree that the various forms of Zen despite these differences share common goals; they are all about transformation in one way or another, whether that’s described as spiritual awakening or personal maturation. There are debates about things such as how effective shikan-taza can be compared to koan study, especially when working with lay people outside of monastic training situations. Or whether koan training doesn’t just create a “gaining mind” which has to eventually be shed. I suspect those debates are healthy.

All of which is to say that as a North American style of Zen continues to evolve, it will not be monolithic. Well, that was the case in China as well – with its Five Houses and Seven Schools. And there’s value in that. When you were describing your personal stories to me, you frequently talked about trying more than one form of Zen before finding the one with which you resonated.        

There does seem to be general agreement that transformation should impact the way people relate to others and to the social and physical environments – that prajna in itself is of little value without karuna, without compassionate action. That seems pretty self-evident today, but that emphasis wasn’t always there in the early days of the transference of Zen to the West.

This is the one area where I found that the member of your sanghas sometimes held stronger attitudes towards a subject than you did. Occasionally – especially during the Trump debacle – I’d hear sangha members muse about whether their centers should be more politically or socially active. But as near as I can tell, most of you don’t consider that your job. Your role is more like that of a physician, and it’s not a physician’s position to tell their patient what they should do with their lives once their health has been mended. It’s possible that my surgeons held some opinions about what I should have done after they kinda-sorta fixed my leg, but they wisely kept those opinions to themselves.

You seem to recognize that you remain a work in progress. It is worth remembering that the first Soto missions established on the west coast are not yet 100 years old. That won’t happen until next year. The Los Angeles mission was established in 1922. Coincidentally, 2022 will also be the hundredth anniversary of the first public talk on Zen that Nyogen Senzaki gave in California. Although he didn’t do so in that talk, Senzaki would become the first person to give zazen instruction in North America.

And, as we approach those anniversaries, it’s salutary to keep in mind that the house still isn’t entirely in order.

When I set out to begin these interviews in 2013, the Zen community at large was reeling from two scandals that had achieved national prominence even on cable news networks. Given that, it’s disheartening that since then, two of the teachers I spoke with – both articulate men with what I believe is a sincere commitment to the Dharma – have had to resign their posts because they fell afoul of the ethical boundaries increasingly recognized as essential to all professional – let alone spiritual – relationships.

You have also admitted to me that you are aware you are still no where near as diverse as you need to be. This is a matter of practical concern to me because while my wife and I are both white heterosexuals, our children and grandchildren represent a range of cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. Zen Conversations is dedicated to my great granddaughter who is a status member of the Wolastoqiyik First Nation. It would be an enormous disappointment to me if at some time in the future any of them felt disinclined to take up Zen practice because they failed to see themselves reflected in your numbers.

Having said all this, let me end by saying that you are a thoroughly enjoyable group of people to interact with. I wrote in Cypress Trees and then repeated in Zen Conversations that as I look back over the seven years during which I was engaged in these conversations what most strikes me is how much fun they were. I was welcomed graciously and had the good fortune to meet warm and generous individuals who responded to my (at times wholly impertinent) questions frankly and with good humor. I have described you as the type of people one would enjoy spending an afternoon with drinking beer – or tea, if that’s your thing – and discussing just about anything other than Zen.

I also look back on these visits with a genuine astonishment at the trust you placed in me, at the way in which you were willing to share the most intimate details of your lives with me. I remember a conversation in which one of you spoke about your struggles with mental health issues. The emotion in that exchange became so charged that I tried to back out, saying that we didn’t need to go any further. And what I was told was, “No. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I’d be talking about this. But now that it’s on the table, let’s look at it.” I’m still impressed by the courage that took.

Mind you, a couple of you later reconsidered what you’d revealed to me and got back in touch to say, “You know that thing we were talking about? Maybe that shouldn’t be put into print.” But even then you trusted me to honor that request.

So it has been a genuine privilege to have been able engage in these conversations with you and to have the opportunity to help ensure that your collective wisdom will be preserved – along with those weird Tang dynasty quips – for future generations. For that, for the trust you placed in me, for your hospitality and kindness, and for your attention this afternoon, I thank you.

With David Rynick Roshi, Dosho Port Roshi, and Melissa Blacker Roshi

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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