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          Reflections on the future of the Zen sangha in the West
                             James Ishmael Ford
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                                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,)
   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
   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
   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
   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
   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.
   (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

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