Dené Granger Redding is the Head Cook at the Rochester Zen Center. I ask if people refer to her as the “tenzo.”
“Occasionally,” she tells me.
“When they’re being very formal?”
She laughs lightly. “I feel that it gets used in an endearing way.”
She is also in the Sangha Programs Coordinator, which, she explains, is a new position.
“One of the things that happened with the pandemic and all of the race-riots [following the police killing of George Floyd] is that Zen Center started reflecting on our place in this, our responsibility in this. What can we contribute in a good way to racial justice at large. So we ended up developing a group that organizes different programming around racial justice issues. When there was a lot of anti-Asian violence happening this past spring, we had a conversation on that with a woman who is an Asian-American Buddhist practitioner, just trying to understand her experience with being Asian and practicing in a mostly white sangha.
“So my position, what happens is somebody comes and says, ‘I want to host this program, how do I make it happen?’ So it’s taking sangha members’ idea and trying to bring them to life. We have more ideas than we can put on the ground and run with right now, so we really have to prioritize what projects we have space for.”
“The community takes the initiative in identifying the issues that they want to find some way of incorporating into their practice?” I ask.
“I think just being able to deal with collectively. It’s so easy for people to come to the zendo and sit and then go home. But we want to be able to get to know each other. So there’s a kind of community development sort of aspect to this too, and these collaborative kinds of social engagement projects give us something to come together on. Also social justice is generally an interest in our sangha. People want to learn more about their own personal biases, be able to figure out how to come together collectively on some of these issues.”
The first concern she focussed on in her new position was anti-trans bias. I ask how she determined to deal with that issue.
“We have a sangha member who identifies as non-binary, and they came out as being non-binary while a member of the Zen Center. And they were struggling with the fact that people were having a hard time using ‘they/them’ pronouns and identifying them correctly. And they are also somebody who’s a fantastic organizer; they had experience doing event coordination. And I wanted to get their help in doing some other programming that we were doing, but I also wanted to support them in living in a community that could appropriately support them. And so I threw out the idea why don’t we do some programming around trans-bias so that they can find support in an organization that knows how to support them.”
“So it’s like the Ten Bulls,” I suggest – referring to the traditional series of illustrations on the stages of Zen practice. “The final picture, you return to the marketplace with ‘gift bestowing hands.’ So, is that you’re doing? Looking for ways to bring your practice out of the Zen Center and . . .”
“Oh, absolutely,” she says before I can finish my sentence. “So when we did this ‘Anti-Trans Bias in the Media,’ we didn’t really know what skills we had to bring to the table. We didn’t really know if we knew how to make it go. And so we kept programming mostly in-house, but some of the trans-people at the Zen Center ended up inviting their friends over. So their first exposure to the Zen Center was through this anti-trans-bias conversation. And since then we’ve realized that every time we host a program like this, we have to find out who in the community would have some interest in this topic. So we are very intentionally reaching out to different members of the Rochester community. And then we’re starting to think about how can we bridge these gaps for people in a bigger way?
“I think this is something that Buddhist groups are struggling with in general right now. If you think about it, I think there’s no point in our history where we’ve been as diverse as we are now. Monasteries were usually all men of the same nationality and race. And we don’t have that anymore. We have a whole range of genders, we have a whole range of sexuality, we have a whole range of races that are trying to figure how to come together and make this thing work for all of us. And at the same time, there is this immense wealth of knowledge that a trans-person – say – can bring to the Dharma on gender that hadn’t really had a place so prominently before when it was more a monolithic group that was coming together. So I think as we become more diverse, we learn more about what resources we each bring to the table depending on where we’re coming from that adds to the Dharma in general. It can be the stuff that divides us, but it can also be the stuff that brings us together.”