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HOLDING THE LOTUS TO THE ROCK: reflections on the future of the Zen sangha in the West

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James Ishmael Ford

(The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, MDiv., MA, guides the Desert Lotus Zen Group, and serves as senior minister of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, 1700 W. Warner Rd., Chandler, Arizona 85224. Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship (

The Schools

It is still much too early to say that Zen is irrevocably established in the West. Decades, possibly centuries must pass before we will know the answer to that question. But more than thirty years have now passed since the first western Zen centers were established, and a fair amount of water has passed under that proverbial bridge. We are now witnessing the emergence of a generation of western born, and frequently entirely western trained Zen teachers. So now, in 1997, with the retirement of Robert Aitken Roshi, widely acknowledged as the dean of these western Zen teachers, this is perhaps a particularly appropriate time to begin to reflect on the great questions of whither and how of Zen in the West.

Deeply rooted or not, western Zen is well on its way to being established in Europe, and also now has active expressions in Australia and South America. In addition to which, the first tentative steps toward establishing an African Zen have now been made. But, at this point the greatest number of centers and the greatest focus of western Zen does seem to still be in North America and particularly the United States. So, the emerging Zen of Turtle Island will remain the focus of this essay.

Until recently the Japanese-derived Soto schools have been the most active in establishing centers in the Americas. At the same time the ethnic Japanese temples have not proven to have had much direct influence in the shaping of this western Soto beyond the very important act of bringing several of the more significant teachers such as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Hakuyu Maezumi Roshi as their temple priests. However, as these teachers attracted European descent students, they moved out of their temples and established independent centers. As with the shape of the dharma in the West in general, there remains a great divide between the ethnic Asian Buddhist communities and those with European (and, to a much smaller degree, African,) descent.

Despite its being the first Zen sect to have a presence in the West, the Rinzai school has not so far been particularly successful at taking root here. Perhaps the scandals around Eido Shimano Roshi and Walter Nowick Roshi, and the untimely death of Maurine Stuart Roshi, have particularly stricken the early Rinzai work. The principal exception to the low profile of western Rinzai, has been Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who while choosing to largely work in isolation from the larger western Zen community, has created a network that in all likelihood will survive him. This is not to write off the Rinzai tradition as a western expression. There are now also a new crop of teachers, both Japanese and of European descent, who will continue to offer the Rinzai perspective in coming years.

Koan Zen has primarily found its western expression in the Harada/Yasutani lineage, which is a lay-led Soto derived school offering a full koan curriculum. The Diamond Sangha and Hakuyu Maezumi's White Plum Sangha have worked hard to preserve and transmit this significant tradition. The Diamond Sangha has done this as a lay-led school and the White Plum within the Soto priestly tradition. Also, worth noting in this regard, is Roshi Philip Kapleau, who has transmitted an abridged form of the Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum through the various centers established by his students.

For the most part Chinese Zen (Ch'an) has been limited to ethnic Chinese communities. Western students who have an interest in Chinese Zen have had to adapt to Chinese cultural patterns, such as has been the case with the various students of the late Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua. The result of this has been a tendency to isolate direct Ch'an influence from the larger western culture. The principle exception to this tendency has been Ch'an Master Sheng-yen, who has worked extensively with western students.

However, through the astonishing work of Zen Master Seung Sahn we are guaranteed that western Zen will not simply reflect its Japanese expressions. In fact while being a relative latecomer here, today the Chogye derived Kwan Um School of Zen is probably the widest spread of the Zen lineages in the West. Institutionally, this certainly is true. To a lesser degree this has also been true of the work of the Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim. No doubt Korean derived Zen (Son) is a clear alternative to Japanese derived Zen for any westerner wishing to explore the possibilities of Zen practice.

Also in this manner of alternatives to Japanese Zen expressions, we need to be mindful of the Order of Interbeing established by the peace activist Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Through the centers established by his many students this Vietnamese derived Zen (Thien) community also frequently bridges to the western Vipassana community--an emerging western Buddhist school with roots in the Theravada traditions.

 Indeed, we are beginning to see a cross fertilization among most of these schools, as well as experiencing influences from other Buddhist groups, particularly that emerging western Vipassana school. While what all this will lead too is far from certain, it seems certain we are witnessing a general openness to eclecticism and syncretism among western Zen practitioners that brings with it both great possibilities for depth as well as many dangers along the way.

Who Belongs To The Western Zen Sangha?

After a great flourishing in the sixties and early seventies there appears to have been a drop off in involvement in western Zen. In part this may have to do with the changing demographics of North American culture. The so-called "Baby Boomer generation" that birthed the hippie movement, expressed a great hunger for spirituality that Zen seemed to successfully feed. The next generation to come along, the so-called "Generation X'ers," have not to date shown such a great interest in matters spiritual. Although as we approach the millennium, this well may be changing.
 Another possible reason for this apparent leveling off of interest in western Zen may lie with the various institutional scandals, mostly around sexual matters, which have shaken contemporary western Zen communities. It is hard to say. But, certainly few western Zen communities and centers have made it through unscathed to this date.
 Whatever the reasons for the leveling off of Zen interest, at this time most centers have been aging--where in the nineteen sixties and seventies the average age of students seems to have been in their very early twenties, now the average age seems to be the late thirties and forties, if not older. Practitioners are overwhelmingly of European descent.
 Many, probably most, western Zen practitioners come from the more affluent classes. A significant majority have university training, a good number with professional degrees. At the same time there seems to be a trend toward underemployment among active Zen students. With the majority now in their mid-thirties and forties, a general preoccupation with work, professional training and advancement, child rearing and retirement, seems to be rising.

Western Zen Teachers

Western Zen teachers in general combine a charismatic, almost shamanistic character, together with a serious commitment to "transmission," formal authorization within traditional lineages. For the most part they have spent years in training, often within semi-monastic situations. A number have spent some time in Japan or other East Asian countries, although few are conversant in Asian languages. The focus of their training has almost exclusively been meditation, and broader knowledge of Buddhism among these teachers is very uneven.
As with Zen students in general, questions of ordinary life, family and profession, have begun to rise. The shape of their professional lives has been varied. There are a few "super stars" who attract financial support and sometimes write well selling books, as well as lead profitable workshops. Many function in a monastic or more frequently semi-monastic state, living hand-to-mouth, as their communities barely support them. This marginal financial life is the more common reality for western Zen teachers. Here we find constant concerns over such things as health insurance, costs of educating their children (in the case of the semi-monastic), and retirement.
An interesting variation on the monastic state are the Catholic religious; monks (usually also priests) and nuns (the majority Jesuits and Maryknolls), who have devoted themselves seriously to the dharma, and who frequently have received formal authorization as Zen teachers while continuing to be supported by their Catholic Orders. These include such individuals as Patrick Hawk Roshi and Robert Kennedy Sensei.
Other western Zen Buddhist teachers have returned to school and have acquired professional status in some other occupation. Frequently this is within the mental health field--many have MSW's, or MA's and PhD's in psychology, such as John Tarrant Roshi and Zen Master George Bowman. Others are nurses, such as Zen Master Bobby Rhodes, or other health providers, such as Jan Chozen Bays Sensei who is a medical doctor. Most seek occupations that allow sufficient free time to lead the retreats that lie at the heart of Zen training. Here they frequently work professionally part-time and as Zen teachers part-time. Financial concerns continue to press them in their private and public lives.

The Centers

For the most part western Zen centers have functioned primarily as "schools" or "academies." Here support for the center comes from dues and fees from retreats. The tradition of "training periods," as well as the more concentrated times of sesshin or yong myong jong jin, have lent themselves comfortably to the ebb and flow of a quasi-academic schedule. In a principle variation on this theme those groups focusing on koan study provide retreats as what have become "kensho factories." Here the emphasis is even more strongly on retreats and all leadership leads through the experience of "realization," or "insight," most usually experienced within these settings. In neither case has there been any kind of organic growth of "communities" as would be generally recognizable by westerners.
A few monasteries have also been established. However, most of these have followed the Japanese tradition of supporting "married monks," (The convention is to refer to both male and female monastics as "monks.") where men and women (and in most centers, same sex couples, as well) may pair off, but otherwise live recognizably monastic lives. Tassajara, Green Gulch, Zen Mountain Monastery and other semi-monastic centers are genuine adaptions of the institutions of their Japanese forbearers, and are fascinating contemporary experiments in finding the shape of a western Buddhist community.
The raging question for many western Zen students, however, has been how to raise their children. And from that question, how to move beyond a narrow focus on individual realization and toward something that can genuinely be called community. Indeed, the questions of community seem to be the strongest concern for many western Zen practitioners at the end of the twentieth century.
In this regard a few western Zen students (and a couple of teachers) have found the Unitarian Universalist churches particularly inviting. Now, with the formation of a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship within the Association, the possibility of a hybrid connection looms large.
Many however, simply do not wish to reconnect with a western church, however liberal and open to Buddhist insight it may be. Certainly there are substantial problems in making a connection with an already established institution with its own standards for religious leadership. For those who do not want such connections, the Zen center becomes increasingly important as a focus for a sense of community, and by this usually understood in some sense of "church" or "synagogue." Here the problems surrounding the needs for a basically egalitarian community comes into conflict with the charismatic and more-or-less authoritarian nature of Zen teaching.
 Some have attempted to completely eliminate the division between teachers and students. This sometimes leads to the separating of Zen from Buddhism. Ironically, this is less the case for the Catholic practitioners, and not at all the case for those involved in Unitarian Universalism. But, it is a growing edge of western Zen. One important western teacher inclined in this direction is Charlotte Joko Beck Sensei. At an even more extreme edge, Tony Packer has worked hard to create a completely egalitarian community, dropping even "Zen" together with Buddhist." How this will turn out is still very much an open question.
 At this point no centers seem to have been completely successfully in addressing the question of community. Indeed, this may be the great "koan" of institutional western Zen as we look toward the twenty-first century. How do we move beyond establishments focused exclusively on individual realization or depth to institutions that allow the fullest expression of human personality and life? How do we come to a western Zen Buddhist church while remaining faithful to our individual quests for insight and depth?
 Of course a fair number of us don't want any such thing. The idea of "church," whether within Unitarian Universalism, or as a new independent Buddhist activity, is repugnant for many called to the practice of Zen. Many western Zen Buddhists simply do not want any institutions beyond the bare necessity allowing teacher student relationships. Here American anarchic and libertarian tendencies meet with Taoist inclinations. This remains a strong and problematic perspective within contemporary western Zen centers.
 When one looks at the history of attempts at establishing broad based western Buddhist institutions, there is little to give encouragement. For instance, the history of western Jodo Shinshu has a sobering lesson here.
 The Buddhist Churches of America, established first as a Japanese ethnic enclave in North America, has almost from its foundation experienced decline. Second and third generation members seem to abandon the Buddhist Church for Methodism at an astonishing rate. Despite a recent inflow of a small number of European descendant members and ministers, they no where near match the numbers of those leaving this body. This one grand experiment in establishing a western Buddhist church seems unfortunately on its way to being a failure.
 And so, there appears to be no consensus on where we should be going as western Zen Buddhists. The only shared emotion among those of us who have found our lives shaped by Zen is concern.

So, Whither and How?

As western Buddhists we have several options facing us. In all probability we will try every one of them and several others into the bargain. Of course, time only will reveal which if any will bear fruit.
 One option is to treat Zen practice as an amateur activity. Here I mean amateur in its highest sense, as an act of love. Both teachers and students work in other trades or professions for their livelihoods, and gather together for regular sitting and sponsor retreats as frequently as possible. This is a genuine possibility. It is also defacto what many of us are already doing. The problem here is that this does not allow the transmission of a Buddhist culture to our children or to the larger society, nor a fair way for our teachers to make a living in their chosen work.
 In some ways this is our default choice. It is what is mostly happening. But, if this is our option, then we probably really should pursue connections with the Unitarians, a broad and generous people who will allow us to raise our children as identified Buddhists, while providing a frame for communal raising of children, as well as the many other necessary activities of a genuine spiritual community.
 Another option is to professionalize our centers. This would mean clarifying the nature of religious leadership within our sanghas, and probably require additional training beyond mastery of the techniques of meditation for our teachers. Here we would also need to develop some form of regular public celebration or worship, such as puja, probably additionally focused on a type of sermon; as well as providing formal religious education programs for children and adults; in addition to the many other activities of contemporary religious communities.
 Here we would without a doubt be establishing "churches." As there are many additional requirements for our priests, it would also require decent financial support for them as professional leaders. Of course, in every case, it is starting from scratch. There are no generally accepted seminaries for Zen priests. All current training is tutorial. And as we've already discussed this training is now focused almost exclusively on meditation. Nor is there any existing "denominational" structure to assist in the financing of buildings and the credentaling of religious professionals. This is possibly the most difficult of our possible directions.
 Another option is reclaiming the monastic focus of traditional Buddhism, and generally reserving religious leadership to monks and nuns. Once again it requires the active support of a core leadership, in this case committed monastics. In some ways this is a variation on the professional priest option, although it more closely conforms to classic Buddhist models. I believe that for this to work, to attract sufficient financial and moral support, it probably would require a more stringent monasticism based in the traditional Vinaya than the semi-monastic tradition that for the most part we are currently familiar with. On the other hand enforced celibacy is a thorny issue in our times, and the sexual hypocrisy of many monks is a scandal in the waiting. We've long since learned we western Buddhists don't tend to do sex well.
 Whether we end up with one of these institutional structures, create hybrids of several, or go in entirely new directions, there is little doubt that we live in, as the Chinese curse goes, interesting times. I believe we stand at a critical time in the development of a western Zen. The choices we make in the next few decades may well determine whether a western Zen actually takes deep root in our native soil and flowers. So, it is time for us to begin seriously discussing our options, and to consciously pursue the development of the dharma in the West. I have little doubt the future of Zen in the West is in our hands. It is an awesome responsibility. While I remain optimistic, I find I pray we are up to it. The happiness and welfare of many depend upon our choices and our actions in these rich and dangerous years.