Living and Dying in Zen

We’re now about half way through the 2013 gathering of the American Zen Teachers Association. This year we’re hosted by the Houston Zen Center, a sangha in the San Francisco Zen Center lineage, led by the always generous and wise Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin. While there are somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred members of the AZTA, I don’t think we’ve ever had more than fifty show up to one of these annual gatherings. And when they’re not on the coasts the numbers drop further, this year we’re twenty-three. Or, were before Ruben Habito had to dash off to California.

I am among those who would like it if the group would move toward being a professional organization. But, there’s considerable resistance to the idea, and I know as maybe as many as two thirds of the members are either part of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association or the Kwan Um School of Zen, both of which have in recent years created ethics codes and other standards that moot much of the need for the AZTA to be more than it is – a support group for teachers of Zen in North America. Still, there are a fair number who could use a larger web of mutual accountability, and, so, perhaps, if not this group, another will happen.

We’ll see…

And then there is what is.

I know how grateful I am for the companionship of these people, all of whom have just two things in common. Each of us has been authorized as a Zen teacher in some traditional manner, and all of us have had years and years of practice. I estimate none of us were made teachers before we had sat in aggregate a full year of retreats. Many with many more days on the pillow than that…

We share something.

And we find a reminder of a question. To what purpose that sitting, all that pillow time, and the meeting with our teachers, and then, our being made teachers ourselves?

It has to do with the matter of life and death, of seeing deeply into the great matter, and finding for ourselves, each of us, who and what we are.

A complete thing this practice?


But meditation is an important, maybe a critical step on the great way. I think so.

And while we have much to do and differing focus, all of us touch together that place.

And I find myself thinking of the journey.

One of the cooler things I found here at the HZC is a corpse plant in their back yard. If you lean in you can get a distinct whiff of vomit. When in full bloom I gather that smell of rotten flesh becomes overwhelming. Fortunately it isn’t in bloom.

Also, the plant reminds me like nothing so much as Audrey, and her bottomless need…

I rather enjoy the hint of death the plant brings, a small echo behind our gathering, a bit out of sight, but never far from the mind or heart.

The lingering truth, that tells us about our calling, and our work.

And calls us back to the pillow,

And, then, to the work at hand…

LEARNING TO FALL A Meditation on the Stoic Way
Happy birthday, Spike!
Do Not Deny, Do Not Forget
On the Preservation of the Species: A Mind Bubble on Earth Day
  • Kim Koei Hart

    Dear Mr. Ford.
    There are 2 things you write that concern me.
    The first is this:
    “I estimate none of us were made teachers before we had sat in aggregate a full year of retreats.”
    Jeez is that all? That’s, like, 4 Ango’s. It worries that this is considered sufficient to receive transmission and be able to teach.
    and secondly:
    “But meditation is an important, maybe a critical step on the great way. I think so.”
    MAYBE a critical step? – am I to take it that you think we can see into the great matter without meditation?
    All the same, thank you for the thought provoking article,

    • jamesiford

      With the counting as I meant it, Kim, during an ango only the sesshin days would qualify, so, twenty-one days out of the ninety, if one is following a traditional model. And, perhaps I didn’t make it clear, most sat much more. And, of course, there are the wildly differing expectations of the differing schools that are involved. Only alluded to, as our requirements are so different. For instance my preparation involves completion of the Harada Yasutani koan curriculum…

      • Kim Koei Hart

        Dear James,
        Thank you for your prompt reply.
        Yeah – I suppose the word retreat is what I misunderstood, and I was hoping you meant ‘sesshins’ :)
        I am curious though about what you meant when you wrote that meditation is an important step on the great way. I feel that there will be very little insight without consistent meditation, and it is therefore not only important but utterly critical.
        What do you think?

        • James Ford

          Just a stylistic quirk of mine, Kim. I write with a bit of hesitation. I’m really much more full of opinions than it might seem…

  • Cherry Zimmer

    It is sad, but true, that the SZBA ethics code did not exist when I ran into trouble, and then it got fast-tracked to ensure that folks who had been ordained but not yet transmitted were chattel. They also have no grievance procedure.

    While they require that their members are covered by an ethics code (and presumably grievance procedure), they do not enforce this.

    So, it continues to be the case that if you have a grievance against the teacher at a center which only has one, you are forced to leave. And you will be stripped of all empowerments. Especially if it requires a group before you have the courage to leave (then one of you becomes the devil who stole your students and their money and work).

    Fortunately, there are other options to us if we try hard enough. I think it’s like Buddha’s advice not to take refuge in anything other than Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Teachers and professional organization also are not to be taken refuge in.

    • jamesiford

      It is all very much a work in progress, Cherry. I see much good happening, and many failures. Mostly, I suspect, somewhere in the middle of that range. And, I’m glad you’ve not let a bad experience stop you from your practice, as hard as it has been. I don’t know how your search has turned out, but I very much hope you’ve found a suitable community, that sangha part of the deal…

      • Cherry Zimmer

        The Sangha part of the deal has been easy since we did leave as a group. Actually more than one, but that’s another story of course. The difficulty is in bringing in new life to the Sangha when there is no great and powerful totem. But we are doing that as a work in progress too.