More on Zen Community

Among the comments I received about my posting concerning money and Zen communities I particularly felt moved by “Jack’s” remarks.  As I have a few minutes of free time, I want to at least make a tentative response…

Jack observes how many sanghas (and here I think we’re both thinking specifically of Zen sanghas) ask members to contribute time and money, but rarely to have actual decision making responsibility. Jack says the enterprise is almost always owned by the teacher. And the truth is that few teachers have the inclination and fewer still have the skills to allow the development of a genuine community. 
In general, I agree. 
For the most part our Zen teachers are meditation teachers. Many, although I’m not sure most, have some knowledge of the Buddhadharma as an academic discipline. That’s pretty much it. It is almost unheard of that a teacher has any training as a pastor. (Not that North American seminaries provide much by way of preparation for actually running an institution much less empowering others in the enterprise. I attended a very good seminary and took a single brief course in administration during a three-year program.)
This is additionally complicated by the fact the Zen tradition was nurtured within a monastic setting. There is a healthy minority of Vinaya-ordained monastics, but the majority of teachers in the West are priests in the Japanese-derived ordination system, and, I’m so glad, actual honest-to-God lay teachers. Still, the normative model of training, whether the teacher ends up a nun or monk, a priest or a lay person, has been extremely hierarchical, usually with an extensive monastic or monastic-like period of training. And more than one teacher of my acquaintance has said something to the effect of I can only train my students the way I was trained…
And, honestly, I know how easy it is to just be in charge.
And, honestly, how hard it is to let go of that. 
And, honestly, how important I feel it is for us to find authentic communities. I think the teachers need them as much as everyone else. I alluded to that in my previous post. I think I’ll let that stand as an assertion for now: For Zen to survive in the West, I believe it will take, among many other organizational possibilities, real living communities of faith and practice.
There are all sorts of interesting experiments going on around North America, and I suspect in Europe that are attempting to push the boundaries and whether consciously or by inadvertence will allow community to emerge.
Mostly it has been leveling the teaching field. For instance the San Francisco Zen Center complex has so many teachers now and a rotating abbacy that it has significantly diffused the cultish aspects of Zen training. If you are having trouble with a teacher, you can get another. This is also true in a somewhat different configuration for the Kwan Um School of Zen. And these are the two largest Zen institutions in the west.
At our Boundless Way project we have given a lot of thought to this question of community. The struggle has emerged as to how to let the teachers teach and at the same time to empower the membership to foster the community as a community. At this point we’ve done this by separating out all financial matters, and putting them under the care of the “leadership council,” which is our board of trustees. The reality is, however, that up to this point what the teachers want (there are three transmitted teachers at this time and one person with limited teaching authority…), the teachers have gotten.
So there has been no push come to shove.
When that time rolls around it will prove to be the first real test of our intentions.
We’re informed by the fact all three of the teachers also identify as Unitarian Universalists, two as lay members and one as an ordained minister.
As such we all start with a healthy skepticism of authority, including our own.
And we are interested in the mechanisms of congregational polity.
Which leads me to two related thoughts. One, is how many Western Buddhists of many stripes, including Zen, have let the Zen institution be more on the model of a “school,” while finding the community within UU congregations.
Worked pretty well for me.
And I’m aware it isn’t an option for many, maybe most.
So, another possibility is to take the various resources UUs offer and establish lay owned Zen communities. As a self-established organization then contract with Zen teachers. Raise your own money, rent your space and pay the contracted teachers a fair stipend.
There are many out there who would be very interested in such possibilities.
Now that could open a whole conversation about dana and fees and pledging.
And closely related, whether a Japanese-derived priestly ordination is “homeleaving” in the sense of monasticism. I suggest not. And think that confusion has been a source of much confusion for all involved, not to mention much hurt. I argue for a more professional understanding of ordination in the Japanese-derived model, expecting people to be ministers and not nuns or monks. (And I know this begs further unpacking as well as definitions of terms…)
And I’m sure this could open many other directions for conversation, as well.
But here I have to stop.
For now, anyway…
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  • http://www.daiun-ji.org James Foster

    “So, another possibility is to take the various resources UUs offer and establish lay owned Zen communities. As a self-established organization then contract with Zen teachers. Raise your own money, rent your space and pay the contracted teachers a fair stipend.There are many out there who would be very interested in such possibilities.”I think this sounds like a *very* viable model. There are times when it seems like the UU method of “calling” a minister (mostly the amount of time it takes) seems a bit overlymuch – but other than that, it sounds like a very nice organizational template.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04878684373898294730 Dosho Port

    Thanks for this, James, I’ve commented at my blog:http://wildfoxzen.blogspot.com, with “Thoughts on Zen Communities, Teachers, and Growth.” Best wishes for you and your community’s sesshin!Dosho


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