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Buddhadharma : Fall 2009
45 fall 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery, once wrote, “Here in America we cannot define Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American stu- dents are not exactly priests and not exactly laypeople...[so] I think we must establish an American way of Zen life.” What did he mean by this? Who and what did he hope we might become? Suzuki Roshi had a vision for Buddhism in America. It was a courageous and creative vision, of a universal Buddhism based on tradition, but not limited by it. From the time he arrived here in the late 1950s, Suzuki Roshi realized that for Zen to truly take root in America, it could not be just an imi- tation or extension of the Japanese style of practice in which he had been trained. It would have to be transformed by his American successors into something indigenous to American culture. So what is the state of Suzuki Roshi’s vision today, fifty years later? Does it hold relevance for other Buddhist tradi- tions in the West? Are we truly making the Asian traditions our own, or are we still imitating Asian ways? A Meeting of Zen Minds Three years ago we got together with four other teachers empowered as dharma heirs in in the Suzuki Roshi lineage to take up this and other questions. Those teachers were Darlene Cohen, Gary McNabb, Alan Senauke, and Steve Stucky. The six of us had a lot in common. We had all been trained in one or more of the residential practice places of the San Francisco Zen Center, where we continue to teach and train; we wore the priest robes of Soto Zen; we had received dharma transmission, giv- ing us authorization to teach in the Soto Zen lineage; and we had struck out on our own to start our own Zen sitting groups, just as Suzuki Roshi had done. Yet we were still wondering about Suzuki Roshi’s vision and were brimming with questions. Through our ongoing meetings, we realized that all of our years of Zen training—leading a regimented life, keeping a strenuous meditation schedule, ringing bells, and bowing at altars—had given us a good understanding of the dharma. It had improved our focus, concentration, and sense of Buddhist ritual, but it did not seem to have prepared us very well for what we were actually doing as American Zen teachers. We were not in monasteries or retreat centers anymore. We were helping ordinary people with jobs and families to find their Buddhist way. What was the connection between our training and this emerging vocation to share Buddhist practice with our lay sanghas? These early peer-group sessions were the first time that most of us had ever given public voice to our concerns. We were part of the first generation of graduates from the training centers that Suzuki Roshi had founded, and each of us had gone off on our own to teach Zen—and now, coming together after so long on our own, it was comforting and a bit surpris- ing to find us all in the same boat. The role of Zen priest can be isolating and lonely, and we cherished our new companionship. As our discussions evolved, we realized that perhaps it was unrealistic to think that our training, based on Asian models of practice and pedagogy, could have prepared us fully for the work we were now doing. Moreover, our residential training at Zen Center and Tas- sajara was not even representative of the many ways that Zen priests in Japan receive training. Every Japanese person is reared and nurtured in a society and family that are deeply infused with Buddhist imagery, attitudes, and values. (Facing page) SPOT participants take part in the Opening Buddha’s Robe ceremony before morning meditation. (Below) Rev. Sarita Tamayo of the Russian River Zendo and Crystal Springs Zen Group giving a dharma talk for the group to evaluate. PeTerSchireSOnrenShinBunce