A Small Hope that the Western Zen Community Will Grow Up & A Couple of Signs it Is


One of the signs we’re seeing our Western Zen community growing up is how our Worcester Zen temple has launched a capital campaign to purchase the property that has been our home there for the last few years. I love how it is being done, the thought and effort as well as the transparency for a Zen community that continues to respect our inheritance of spiritual directors in lineage together with an increasingly flattened organizational structure.

I see in this the best of what we are becoming.

As part of that there was an email sent to the list of folk who’ve over the years have requested they receive notifications. Mostly, of course, this is a list of people involved in the project at one of our near dozen Zen sanghas in New England and Ohio. But it also includes folk who’ve just asked to be added on, who’re interested in what we’re up to.

One of those later folk felt compelled to send not one but two notes in response, listing the immorality of building buildings and supporting institutions dedicated to spiritual projects when people are hungry.

This sort of misdirection is not that uncommon when someone does not want to support a project. This is not unlike the story of the Mulla Nasrudin who when asked if he would lend his donkey to a neighbor and replied I’m sorry, but I’ve loaned it to my nephew, to have it pointed out by the neighbor that he can see the donkey tethered by the side of the house, to which the mulla responds, If I don’t want to loan you my donkey, any excuse it good enough. Of course, throwing in the hungry elevates the argument for the person who isn’t interested in support, it makes him not interested, but rather morally superior. A position I know I always like, so, I guess I shouldn’t be annoyed.

But, I have to admit I am.

I take it as part of the swirl of what I’d call immaturity perhaps too many on the Zen path indulge way past an age where that’s something attractive.

People who are trying to put together systems of accountability within our Western Zen sanghas are accused of building empires. Training expectations for Zen teachers are assaulted as interfering with the sacred autonomy of teachers in naming successors. And communities trying to build lasting institutions are accused of stealing bread from the mouths of children.

Fortunately for the sake of the Dharma in the West, and for all those for whom it opens doors of wise hearts, I think these naysayers are increasingly a web-fed fringe, having less and less to do with what is actually going on.

For me the good part of this, I think, has to do with the emergence of a distinctly Western Zen.

I believe we in the West have long had a wonderful intuition that the individual is something precious and wonderful. The wisdom of Buddhism is that the self is a construct, a meeting of many things within a moment.

Western Zen, at its best, sees the preciousness of the individual, knowing that precious individual is a construct, that moment in time, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud.

Bringing both a sense of connection and a sense of urgency.

So, the desire to feed the poor is right. As is the desire to build institutions of care and support over some long haul. Or, at least, some longer haul…

The mature way is to know this world in all its hurt and loveliness, calls for many things.

It calls us to notice.

And it calls us to action.

Each in its time.

Being grown up is about making choices and living with the consequences.

While I can be annoyed, and am, at the silliness I often encounter, I’m glad to see more of those mature decisions being made, and serious work being done.

And on this gray morning, I am hopeful…

  • Genryu

    Thank you James.

  • Gianni Grassi

    It seems to me that much of the Rev Ford’s argument is merely argumentative: aggressive, defensive, over-heated and too dimly lit itself to illuminate anything much beyond its rhetoric.

    Have I illustrated the problem?

    People who might step back from building projects while reminding others of the needs of sentient beings are not necessarily immature even if they are somewhat unconcerned about their attractiveness at a certain age.

    There is a middle ground, I think – a middle question, really.

    Will this institution be dedicated more or less as a landing pad or as a launching pad for Bodhisattva practitioners?

    The concerns of those who are making inquiry into the presence of compassion in the wisdom of making a major capital investment in bricks and mortar, could possibly be allayed by assurances that this project isn’t just a museum grade black hole for medieval Japanese re-enactors and cushion bound escapists, but a training ground for compassionistas who go forth about their business in the world looking like everyone else while interacting differently.

    Just saying.

    • Aaron Caruso

      Dear Gianni. As a member of the Boundless Way Temple (Worcester Zen Temple), I would like to invite you to come for a visit, if you haven’t been here already. You can decide for yourself of the quality of practice that is happening in Worcester.

      Thank you,
      Aaron

  • Stephen Slottow

    Uh…and what type of assurances would you accept?

    • Gianni Grassi

      Stephen, I neither accept nor reject assurances. Rather, I consider them to be revelatory of central organizing principles (aka animating values) to which I may or may not choose to align my support.

  • Brett Luther

    @ Gianni Grassi: Did you read some different post than the rest of us? Or maybe you’re just talking about your own issues, subject be damned, which is what we often tend to do.

    The key line for me was “I think these naysayers are increasingly a web-fed fringe, having less and less to do with what is actually going on.” Because as a participant in a vibrant growing urban sangha (having participated in many of many sorts over 20+ years since I was a teenager) I don’t think many of the issues plaguing older Buddhist sanghas seem all that applicable to ours. We don’t chant in Japanese, we don’t call our teacher by any titles much less ‘roshi’, we are democratically run and diverse in age income and (still not enough in) race, talks are followed by wide ranging open discussion, and we transition in and out of busy lives with very little Zen jet lag.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

    There are pros and cons to having buildings.

    The pros:
    * it’s somewhere to have meetings
    * you can use it as a place to help the poor and homeless (offering shelter, food, training etc)
    * you can use it to build community, because you have a permanent base

    The cons:
    * it’s a money pit
    * you need a committee to maintain it

    Oh and I was humming “We’ll build a land” in the shower this morning!

  • Stephen Slottow

    Well, there’s a lot of material at http://www.boundlesswayzen.org/. I think that anyone expecting assurances should do some research. There’s probably enough reassurances there already–enough to provide a good sense of the priorities, motivations, style, and position of Boundless Way within the wider sangha.

  • Mary Gates

    As someone who most often practices within the Christian tradition, I am reminded of Jesus saying the poor will always be with you. Not suggesting that the poor don’t need our care but that in caring for the poor we can not ignore self care. Or Merton saying that focus on social justice issues without making time and place to nurture our contemplative hearts is simply another kind of violence. Having had the great good pleasure of sitting a few sesshins at BWZ I am grateful that you are providing that place of nurture which allows all who benefit to return to our daily lives better equipped to care for those in need. Thank you.

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