The Dharma Orphan in Zen, and Options for Healing Breaks Within the West’s Convert Zen Communities

Today is the lull before a small storm…

I’m packing for a drive out to Toledo. I decided on the drive as it gives me a day and a half each way for a little “James” time. I find me fine company, at least in small doses. But with the way things are in my life these days I don’t have that experience very much. So, drive it is…

I’m going out to Toledo to participate in the Toledo Zen Center’s sesshin, to conduct jukai for their new crop of aspirants and to join in a discussion with the general membership about what it might mean for them to join the Boundless Way Zen project.

The temple priests Karen & Jay Weik are lovely people whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing for several years now. They had been what we sometimes call “dharma orphans,” a phenomenon unique to Western convert Zen. “Dharma orphan” doesn’t really apply to those who’ve had some passing connection to a Zen group or center, but rather are long time and serious practitioners who in most cases have come to have some leadership role in the group which they’re no longer with.

After studies with various teachers including most notably John Daido Loori and Bonnie Myotai Treace, Jay & Karen found themselves leading a practice community without an affiliation. While there is a romantic view that Zen has nothing to do with institutions, that’s nearly complete nonsense. Zen is in fact a tradition of understanding and practice, held together over time by lineage. And people who are not formally connected through formal authorization within the lineage, while they may be legitimately practicing, are not practicing within the bounds of Zen. They’re Zen like or Zen inspired, but not Zen. Karen and Jay understood this as a profound problem for themselves and their community. They looked around a little and found the Boundless Way. We’re Dharma cousins offering the same koan curriculum in which Loori Roshi had trained, and which they were training, they saw the writings of our teachers around the web and in a couple of books, and that was sufficient for them to contact us.

Now, here’s a truth. We’ve been contacted by various leaders of unaffiliated groups over the years. There are a surprising number of Dharma orphans. We quickly learned that the correct response to any inquiry is wonderful, glad you’re interested. Please come and sit a sesshin with us. Then we can talk. Almost none of the people who’ve initiated a contact have done this. One, so far, has taken the leap and sat retreat with us – where we all saw there was no affinity. And one more. Karen and Jay.

The affinities were obvious from close on. Oh, of course, there are stylistic differences. But, from the start we saw these were real Zen folk with very similar concerns and hopes.

Now people in these situations, Dharma orphans, quickly become used to their autonomy. And, they’re seen ever more as teachers by their communities. So, the truth be told, bowing, acknowledging they need to continue their training can be difficult.

Karen and Jay have bowed. Karen has become Melissa Blacker’s student and Jay, mine. And with the exception of familial responsibilities crossing schedules once in a while they have become ardent participants in our Worcester multi-day retreats for several years now.

The biggest problem for us coming together is that Boundless Way Zen was initially conceived and organized as a single group with affiliated sitting groups. However our approach to Zen has found an astonishing resonance with many people and we’ve been growing like Topsy. And then two of our initial sitting groups have become sizable enough to demand a separate organizational structure. We’re quickly becoming a network of Zen centers and sitting groups. The larger ones expected to incorporate for themselves and to be responsible for their own affairs, while there’s also a central organization to assist smaller groups (I like to call it the Missions Board. For some reason no one else likes that term…) And now there’s Toledo.

They’re a real and solid Zen community with their own history, style, and leadership.

For many in Western Zen if a group led by Dharma orphans approached them, I’m afraid the response is simple. They’re welcome to be absorbed. Anything that happened before is mooted and everyone starts from scratch.

Personally, I find that offensive. These independent groups are often beacons of the Way, and have persisted, sometimes for years, offering an entrance to something precious. And their leaders, admittedly, usually without all the training they need, have nonetheless given their lives to the work. And they deserve respect for that. And acknowledgement. And, I can say this view is shared by all the guiding teachers within the Boundless Way.

So, we’re engaged in a bit of a dance, engaging in a conversation about how and why they should be Boundless Way and we should embrace them as part of our project. And the conversation isn’t just with Karen & Jay. Their community and particularly those who’ve come to take on leadership roles in that community need to be part of this conversation.

It can be a bit slow, sometimes like walking through molasses.

And I love it. Not the molasses walking, but the open hearted way, where we’re all included. In fact I see this as the beginning of something larger than our own small endeavor.

Here are some things that are necessary to bring us all together. We all share in that larger desire that the Zen way flourish and take deep root here in the West as our primary understanding. And it requires a lot more than a commitment to practice and the faithful transmission of certain styles. It requires a willingness to be changed, to grow to never stop.

On our part, and here not just Boundless Way, but any established lineage group that is approached by groups led by Dharma orphans, it means bringing in a group that has its own style and assumptions, and respecting that. On their part, those groups who wish to move into the mainstream of Zen, and to have full access to full training, it means accepting their teachers are in fact apprentice teachers, who need to continue their formal training.

It means throwing ourselves into the stream, our ancient and ever evolving way.

The Zen way.

With whole hearts.

And, so, here I am, about to drive off to Toledo, to sit with them, to do interviews with them, to conduct Jukai for them, and to talk about this great way, our shared way.

I’m so honored…

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