INTERVIEW: Adam Kō Shin Tebbe, Director of Zen in America

(L-R) Adam Kō Shin Tebbe and Roshi Joan Halifax.

Adam Kō Shin Tebbe is the director, producer and cameraman of currently-in-production documentary film Zen in America. In addition to his work on that production, Adam is also editor of Sweeping Zen, a popular Zen community website he founded in 2009. He also blogs for the religion section of The Huffington Post.

Ko Shin has held an interest in North American Zen history for many years, and has been approached by James Ishmael Ford Roshi to co-edit a future 2nd edition of his book Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen.

He and I used to blog together for the Shambhala Sun Foundation, and when he wrote to me recently about the film I invited him to be interviewed for this blog. I’m happy that he accepted the invitation, and our subsequent email conversation is below…

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Why a movie, Adam? You’ve really made an art out of using the internet to document Zen practice in North America. Why branch into this new art?

I see the making of Zen in America as a natural extension of my work at Sweeping Zen. The moment I first got the idea I knew I was going to end up making it, and film offers one more way to document the Zen tradition for my audience. It’s one thing to write about a subject, and another thing entirely to show it.

Zen Buddhism’s history in North America is an interesting one, and there is a lot to explore in the film. There are well known figures and lesser known figures that helped establish this tradition over here, and I can think of no better medium to introduce people to them all than film. This whole project excites me endlessly! In addition to being an informative series on Zen in North America, this entire endeavor is going to be an amazing journey for me personally, as well. I see it as being a bit analogous to a pilgrimage.

Many people know you as this great chronicler of American Zen, but would you share with us a little bit more about who you are? How did you first come to Buddhism and what has your path been like?

They know me as that?! That’s a little scary but thank you for your kindness, Danny!

I first developed an interest in Buddhism in my early twenties after a relationship that went sour. I was very depressed at the time and I wanted a way out of that. I just wasn’t functioning very well. My sister sent me Richard Wilhelm’s translation of The Tao Te Ching and I was really impressed by that text. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time but I could sense there was something very deep in there, and so I continued my readings.

At some point, not long after, I found the book The Compass of Zen by Seung Sahn. That’s the book that really did me in, as it were. I read it several times and have since lent many copies of it out to others. It was like reading the truth for the first time, and I’d never had an experience quite like it before then. I even considered becoming a part of the Kwan Um School of Zen at that time with a secret wish to become a monk. I remember calling the Providence Zen Center expressing that desire to whoever it was on the other end of the line and they had good advice for me. They said I’d probably want to get some more practice time under my belt before making a commitment like that, as it isn’t a light one to make.

So I scrapped that idea and established a little sitting practice for myself at home, retaining my interest in Zen. Fast forward a number of years and I was training to be a chemical dependency counselor at a local community college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and I chose that path largely because my father is a social worker and I respect him a lot. I soon realized it wasn’t my calling, and I had been working on a little website I called Sweeping Zen around that time. I got tremendous pleasure out of the work and decided to put all of my energy in the project. I still enjoy it a lot, though it isn’t quite as small as it once was.

This year I ordained as a Buddhist after many years toying with the idea. I was at a 30-day retreat at Empty Nest Zendo in California offered by Myoan Grace Schireson, and she agreed to be my preceptor. I received the name Butsu Mon Ko Shin, or Buddha Gate Shining Heart. It’s interesting how there is a psychological shift when one undergoes jukai. The precepts are far more important now to me than they were previously, even though I have done my best to uphold them over the years. Because of my work at the website and now with this film, I plan to continue my practice with a number of teachers. This documentary is going to take me all over, and I’ll have a rare opportunity to meet a lot of practitioners along the way. So, that seems to be my path at the moment.

Would you tell us a bit about your vision for the film? From here, what do you hope the end product will look like? What subjects and ideas will you be addressing?

I want this film to cover a lot of ground, which is why I will be making a series out of it rather than as one feature film. You just can’t do the subject justice in that amount of time is my thinking. Most documentaries on Zen to date are filmed in Japan and are set in a monastery – two great ways of presenting the tradition and two practice paths that are not the norm for most of us in North America. Here, lay practice is by far the more dominant path, and we’re doing the practice in office buildings, residential homes, conference centers, and more. There’s a lot of diversity in what’s going on over here, and that’s what I seek to show above all else.

The film series will start by offering an introduction to the history of Zen in North America, so we’ll be covering the early pioneers and the generations of people who found their way to the tradition. From there, the series will break off in to a number of directions. The film will cover the rituals and ceremonies associated with the various lineages and will explore topics like engaged Buddhism, the empowerment of women in the sangha, the teacher/student relationship, the participation of persons of color and LGBTQ individuals.

I want this film to be representative and thorough, leaving as few rocks unturned as I can manage. In all I envision a 5 or 6 part series, as I plan to visit as many Zen centers and conduct as many interviews as I can physically manage in the next 3 or so years. The views expressed will cover the gamut of Zen in North America – told from the perspective of teachers, academics and practitioners.

Where are you now in the process? What have you got “in the can?” What has been exciting and/or difficult? Any surprises or good stories to tell us?

Right now I’m waiting for the funding to come through so I can get out and do the filming. Right now I have footage I collected in California and also Toledo, Ohio, where I filmed for a few days at the Great Heartland Buddhist Temple of Toledo. To date I’ve interviewed Myoan Grace Schireson, Hozan Alan Senauke, Myoun James Ford, Sojun Mel Weitsman, Myo Denis Lahey, Jay Rinsen Weik, Karen Do’on Weik, and also a large number of practitioners and lay teachers. I’ve got some footage from the Berkeley Zen Center, Empty Nest Zendo, Hartford Street Zen Center, San Francisco, and Great Heartland, which I mentioned.

The most challenging dilemma I face in making this film is gaining the access and trust of communities that have had their issues over the years with teacher misconduct and such. The film series is not going to be an expose on controversy, though it will take a look at some of that as it is part of the narrative here. I plan to handle sensitive topics like this from as neutral of a position as I can muster, allowing supporters and critics alike to offer us their take. Covering Rinzai Zen in North America will be particularly challenging in this regard, as two of the four or so main lineages have struggled in this particular area. I only hope that these organizations will allow me access so that we can offer as fair and balanced of a view as is possible.

I’m excited because I have a number of offers to do shoots and interviews at this point. Most exciting at this point for me is an interview with Shohaku Okumura Roshi of the Sanshin Zen Community in Indiana. He’s someone I’ve wanted the opportunity to interview for Sweeping Zen for a long time now, so meeting him in person will be a great honor. There are other interviews I’m equally as excited about that will help flesh out some of the lesser known lineages in Zen, like the Soyu Matsuoka and Kobun Chino lineages (two significant founders of Zen in North America).

I’m familiar with all of the main lineages over here and have a lot of contacts I’ve made over the years in my work at Sweeping Zen, all which will allow me to really offer an interesting and compelling film in the end.

How can readers help with the project?

Right now, as I said above, funding is the number one need at the moment. I’ll be making this film for the next three years of my life and it’s going to require I do a ton of traveling as a result.

So your readers can get involved by visiting our Kickstarter campaign for the film (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1342531262/zen-in-america-a-film-on-zen-buddhism-in-north-ame) to help us make the film. There are a number of pretty cool rewards we’re offering to backers, from signed books by various dharma teachers, to one-of-a-kind paintings and brushwork, to spots at upcoming retreats. This project is going to require a lot of people get involved to make this a reality. Getting the word out is crucial at this point, so another way people can help is by sharing the Kickstarter page or this interview on their Facebook walls and Twitter accounts, or point folks to us through their sangha newsletters. If this film can get funded, I promise to hold up my end in this and make an awesome film that will stand the test of time. Thanks for talking to me today Danny!

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Visit the official Zen in America Kickstater campaign page here.

Zen in America official website: http://zeninamerica.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Zen-in-America-a-documentary/147801322090302
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/ZenInAmerica
Our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCr4SE7s9aVNFpJ-wmNlBNMA

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