ZEN IN THE WEST & THE BOUNDLESS WAY A Status Report from 2014

A Status Report from 2014

James Myoun Ford, Osho
Member, Senior Guiding Teacher’s Council
Boundless Way Zen

7 June 2014

Delivered at the

Boundless Way Zen Annual Meeting

At the Boundless Way Zen Buddhist Temple
Worcester, Massachusetts

There are several places one can mark the beginnings of Zen in North America, starting with the unlikely but still possible visit of a fifth century Chinese monk to the Western coast of North America. Undoubtedly among the mid-nineteenth century Chinese laborers more than a few were adherents of Chan Buddhism, and there are accounts of “joss houses,” Buddhist temples raised within West Coast Chinese immigrant communities. Whether anyone was practicing the disciplines is just not known. Although within Chinese descent communities there continue to be temples, direct descendants of those first joss houses, and monastic sanghas and practicing communities.

The Japanese Rinzai abbot Soyen Shaku 1893 talk at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago is certainly a significant marker, apparently the first time we can attach names and places for Zen being presented. And of course there are those two gifts he bestowed on the West, the scholar D. T. Suzuki and the peripatetic teacher Nyogen Senzaki. In addition the abbot’s student Ida Russell became the first person of European descent we know to take on koan introspection practice. The lay Rinzai master Yeita Sasaki, better known as Sokei-an appears to have been the first fully recognized Zen teacher to both reside in North America and to take on people of European and maybe African descent as Zen students.

A trickle of teachers from China and Korean and Japan came to North America in the first half of the twentieth century, mostly as visitors. By the nineteen sixties and seventies, when Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese teachers came as missionaries to the barbarians of Turtle Island and Europe, often with the intention of staying. Notable among these are the Japanese Rinzai masters Joshu Sasaki and Eido Shimano, the Japanese Soto masters Soyu Matsuoka, Shunryu Suzuki, Taizan Maezumi, Kobun Chino Otagawa and Dainin Katagiri. The Korean master Seung Sahn would establish a world-wide network representing a reformed version of Jogye Son. The Vietnamese masters Thich Thien-An and most of all Thich Nhat Hanh would become important figures in what was a growing convert communities. Convert teachers would come along soon after, including Peggy Theresa Nancy Kennett, better known by her Dharma name Houn Jiyu, Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Walter Nowick, Charlotte Joko Beck, Richard Baker, and Ruth Fuller Sasaki led the pack.

Critically important, in 1922 Hosen Isobe established a Soto Zen temple in Honolulu, an institution that continues to this day. In 1926 he established another temple in Los Angeles, and in 1934 he established a third temple in San Francisco. In May of 1953 Rosai Takashima passed on the Dharma to and fully ordained Ernest Shinkaku Hunt in Honolulu, making Hunt the first person of European descent that I am sure was ordained a Soto Zen priest. Here we get the first glimmerings of Western Zen institutions, although at this point very much as outposts of the Japanese churches.

In fact while many of these teachers maintained some connections to their East Asian institutions for the most part Zen in the West was wildly idiosyncratic, at once individualistic and cultic, centering around the person of the teacher in ways unusual if not unheard of in the East. Disconnected from the restrictions of Vinaya codes for the continental teachers or the bonds of Bodhisattva ordination for the Japanese teachers, the emphasis in nearly all Western communities were on the practices of meditation and the intimate guidance of the teachers, while other aspects of the Zen Buddhist Dharma from ethics to scriptural study were downplayed, ignored or outright dismissed.

On the one hand something wonderful happened. Hundreds, thousands of people were introduced to the astonishingly powerful disciplines of the Zen way. Many have found their lives re-oriented, discovering the world’s vast wisdom and the mysteries of their hearts to have the same source. Some have dug deeper still, and have come out of their training as competent meditation teachers. A few have traveled East and have undergone the traditional training and have brought aspects of those disciplines back home.

A couple of notable extended communities have arisen, particularly the sanghas that maintain a relationship with the San Francisco Zen Center, the extended White Plum sangha and the Kwan Um School of Zen. While its practices probably place it outside the bounds of what most who use the word Zen will find familiar, there is no doubt Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing has Zen connections and has become a very important aspect of Buddhism in the West, and one of, it not the largest Buddhist organization with a significant, perhaps majority convert membership.

And then it all seemed to fall apart. Over what has been decades the large majority of teachers in the first and many in the second generation, one after another found themselves swept up in scandal, mostly of a sexual sort. Many could be accused principally of bad boundaries, the least challenging, but definitely problematic, of taking up partners who were also students. Some, frankly, seem to be little more than sexual predators, or rather, more complexly, in addition to being teachers sometimes of astonishing skill, were also sexual predators.

Additionally, trading on the confusion around authority in Zen in part because of this proliferation of scandals, all sort of people with questionable claims to authority have offered themselves as Zen teachers. Some of these have legitimate claims to titles, but without much by way of training. Others have said that they have authorizations but also say anyone who questioned from whom they received their authorizations “totally misunderstand Zen.” Perhaps most devastatingly, still others began to assert there is no need for authorizations, or even that those with authorizations are to be trusted the least.

In short as we’ve come to the beginning decades of the twenty-first century, Zen in the West is in a state of chaos.

Still, there is good news. People who have given their hearts and lives to the Zen way have stepped up to the plate and have begun the hard work of creating a Zen tradition that includes all the traditional parts reshaped in ways suitable for our culture.

The American Zen Teachers Association is a loose alliance of Zen teachers standing in most of the legitimate lineages now in North America, while strongly resisting becoming a professional or credentialing organization has recently decided to require all members in addition to having had extensive training and standing in a legitimate lineage must now also belong to an organization that has a public and actionable ethics code. Also, the majority of Soto Zen convert priests are joining together into the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, which is shaping up as a proto-denomination with strong and published expectations for training of their priests as well as ethical boundaries. A third organization, the Lay Zen Teachers Association has recently formed to help further this uniquely Western reality of lay teachers, providing mutual support and accountability. Across the continent Zen teachers and communities are concerned with forming viable communities of practice, giving the widest range of training opportunities for people and for cultivating the next generation of teachers.

It was against this background that Boundless Way formed. Melissa Blacker had been a long time student of Richard Clarke an independent teacher who had previously studied with Philip Kapleau. David Rynick had begun with Clarke, but was after that a longtime student of George Bowman, including extensive retreat experience with Joshu Sasaki. I had been ordained by Jiyu Kennett and had been authorized as a teacher by John Tarrant. And really, there are two other founders, Josh Bartok who had been a student of Daido Loori and Jan Seymour-Ford who had also been a student of John Tarrant. Others deserve mention as well, but to do a just list is beyond the limits of this talk.

With some fits and starts the five of us, and others joined forces and formed the Boundless Way. As there were groups that have preexisted the formation of our community that have become part of Boundless Way and our corporate status was several years after we’d fully integrated, it is hard to say exactly when we began. But I think the clear beginnings were taking shape in the last months of 2000, making us at this time about fourteen years along in our shared project. And, I think worth noting, fully a product of the twenty-first century.

We decided we didn’t want to repeat our teacher’s mistakes; there are so many interesting new ones we can make for ourselves. Through a process of discussion and consultation within a context of ongoing practice we set a process in place that has now moved beyond any one, two, four, or five people’s hopes and aspirations into something that has taken on its own life.

First, we moved away from the myth of the Zen master to the reality of a common Zen life. We see our teachers as standing within a rich tradition that calls for extensive training and acknowledgment from both teachers and fellow practitioners, and we hold them accountable as ordinary human beings always capable of the best and of the worst. And we see that we are all of us at every stage of our lives responsible for ourselves and to each other. This openness and commitment to mutuality has allowed something rich to emerge.

In our first years the Boundless Way was created as a single organization with branch sitting groups. As time passed and we grew some of the groups became large enough that they could stand as independent and that it no longer made sense to consider them all one organization. We began to encourage these larger groups to seek their own independent legal status and that Boundless Way itself move toward being a denominational structure.

Today within Boundless Way we have three major centers, the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, and the Buddhist Temple of Toledo, together with a dozen smaller groups, mostly in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but also expanding within the orbit of Toledo, as well as a new start in Sacramento, California, for which we have great expectations. We are not sure how many people we serve. But these centers and practice communities serve more than two hundred people, and may approach serving to some degree up to three hundred people.

We cherish our rootedness in the Zen tradition and transmit it with care and love. But we do this with our eyes open and with a desire to also be of use in the world in which we find ourselves. We cannot do that without allowing ourselves to be touched and transformed. So, we see our Boundless Way expression of Zen to be at once traditional and modern.

Stylistically one old Zen hand described us as basically “shabby Soto Zen with some Rinzai flourishes.” While we acknowledge attention to the minute detail of liturgy that marks traditional Soto Zen can indeed be a powerful part of Zen training it has not been central for us to date. The Rinzai flourishes are most obvious in how we sit facing into the sangha rather than toward the wall, as well as the importance for many of us of the Harada Yasutani reform of the Takuju Hakuin style of Rinzai koan introspection. Our indebtedness to the Korean inheritance is less visible, but is just as and maybe more important than our outward style through our use of the Kwan Um way of acknowledging teachers at levels prior to Dharma transmission, and the cascade of details in how we acknowledge each other’s understanding and ability to contribute to our shared project.

We are among the first Zen sanghas to have a public and published ethics code. It has already been used as a template by several other Zen communities. Our leadership structures are intentionally flattened while at the same time we acknowledge our teachers have something very important to offer. We are also among the first Zen sanghas to spell out those structures and particularly the paths along which one travels on the way to spiritual leadership and to publish them.

While everyone is welcome among us and everyone is welcome to practice to the degree they find appropriate for their stage in life, we also are clear about the singular importance of Zen’s disciplines and what it is those who find their hearts and aptitudes leading them toward leadership need to do to fulfill that aspiration. With, I need to add, the sadness that it shows we may not all achieve every outward acknowledgement we might wish for.

Among the more important contributions to emerge out of our community is a critical examination of what it means when a spiritual discipline is removed from a monastic setting, and what it takes to sustain and advance that discipline within that new context. We see the importance of intensive practice and offering both traditional and new ways to do it. While we encourage people who can to undergo traditional monastic training periods of ninety days, and more, we also see that a too rigid commitment to that traditional training model is neither necessary nor healthful. Instead we hold up the ideal of shorter retreats over an extended period of time, allowing the formation of leadership to grow more slowly than within a monastic context but with as much power and with as much success.

We also see the importance of continuing education in aspects of the Zen Buddhist dharma beyond the pillow. We are committed to providing ongoing study opportunities from the most introductory subjects to study comparable to what one would find at a university. This includes being open to using Western university training and seminaries as part of the formation of our teachers and priests. The second of our priests is now registering for a clinical pastoral education unit, an expectation for many ministers and rabbis in the West that I suspect will become ever more common among our clergy. While we have a long ways to go in living up to these aspirations, our major centers are all well launched in this commitment.

While it remains even more aspirational at this time we are also committed to helping those who wish to raise their families within the Buddhist sangha. The Worcester temple has begun a program, amd the Toledo temple has been particularly successful in creating a substantial Sunday school, which includes a Coming of Age program for adolescents.

Many of us are deeply concerned with our lives beyond the pillow and the sangha and are finding ways to bring our insight of radical interrelatedness into our lives as citizens and living beings on this planet. We have included as part of our jukai ceremony taking on the commitments spelled out at the 1993 Chicago Parliament of Religions, written by the Christian theologian Hans Kung, and formulated by the Zen Peacemaker community as the four commitments, calling us to nonviolence and a reverence for life, to seek a just economic order within larger community, to a broad tolerance of others as part of a life based on truthfulness, and the full equality and partnership between women and men.

As part of our broad view of practice and life we have found no good reason to divide practice into lay or ordained, and instead see only Zen practitioners among our number. We do this while acknowledging the importance of ordination as a path of service and often of leadership, and cherish and carry forward the Bodhisattva ordination model we’ve inherited from the Soto Zen school of Japan. As part of this we continue in our commitment to remain in dialogue with others who transmit the Soto lineage in North America, particularly through our participation in the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

While our first four fully transmitted teachers are also priests, I’m pleased to report that as we look at our next generation of teachers, the first formed mostly or fully within the Boundless Way, of those first three people to receive Denkai transmission, the first step toward full authorization as Zen teachers, two are lay people. Here we separate from most of the communities that stand within the Soto tradition, and with our inheritance through the Kwan Um School and the Harada Yasutani lineage. Our lay teachers are counted as fully equal to our ordained teachers. I believe this will prove to be a very important aspect of our emerging style.

So, what happens next?

That depends on us.

Jan & I will be retiring from our jobs in a year, me as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, and Jan from her beloved Perkin’s School for the Blind. We will be moving to the Santa Barbara area of California where we will be establishing another Boundless Way sitting group. At the time it will be either our second or our third, depending on how things shape up this coming year, Boundless Way outpost among the western barbarians.

We are very excited at the prospects of this next geographical extension of our project. And we are already working on how to maintain close connections among our leaders and teachers as we continue to spread.

And so, today, in June, 2014. Our communities are solid. We are doing good work. And there are many possibilities for us to do better, many of these which we are aware, and are striving to improve.

Personally, I hope we will continue strong with our primary project of providing healthy and rigorous opportunities to delve into the disciplines of the Zen way, particularly zazen, koan introspection practice and intensive practice opportunities. I hope we will continue to provide training for future teachers and leaders and priests for the Zen way as it establishes itself here on Turtle Island.

And, I hope we will continue to find ways to be of use to families and children seeking communities that support full lives. And with that I hope we find opportunities to represent our values in the larger world, witnessing that better way within our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our states and our nation, as well providing a witness before the world.

A large agenda.

But, today, some fourteen years into the project, it is increasingly looking to me as if we will. We are sinking deep roots. And our presence seems to be creating something important, a genuine and healthy expression of the Zen dharma in the West.

And for that, I thank you.

From the bottom of my heart.

"Buddhism to me is about individuality. What is right and true for one, isnt right ..."

Behold the Spirit: A Meditation on ..."
"Me too, Stephen. The prelude and postlude to the 3rd ox 🐂 seems to be ..."

Small Intimations: A Reflection on Kensho, ..."
"The way I understand it, most Buddhist schools ascribe to three basics -- Sila (conduct), ..."

Small Intimations: A Reflection on Kensho, ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment