Drafting a Manifesto for a Western Zen Buddhist Sangha in the Twenty-First Century





Drafting a Manifesto for a Western Zen Buddhist Sangha in the Twenty-First Century

As most of my friends know, Jan & I retired from our professional lives and returned home to California intending on spending the balance of our lives closer to family. We were past fortunate in finding a lovely little condominium that we could afford in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood of Long Beach.

Of course we started a Zen sitting group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach. And some months later a second at the Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church in Costa Mesa.

The other day someone asked how many Zen sanghas, communities, have we helped to establish, and if I’ve counted this right our SoCal community is our seventh. The name is a bit fluid, but right now we’re calling the two groups here in Long Beach and Costa Mesa Blue Cliff Zen Sangha, and the two groups in Seattle and Woodenville that have thrown their lot in with us as Bright Cloud Zen.

I remain a member of Boundless Way Zen, and I see this community here as an emerging affiliate of that project. But, this project here is, of course, taking on its own flavors. In part this represents some of our collaborators, particularly the Reverend Gesshin Greenwood, who is a Soto priest who trained pretty much entirely in Japan, and her husband Gensan Thomson who has done all of his training at the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara. I also have a growing friendship with the minister of the Buddhist Church of Long Beach, a Soto priest, the Reverend Gyokei Yokoyama.

For me this has been a great gift. My own Zen history started with the San Francisco Zen Center and then with the Zen Mission Society, later to be renamed Shasta Abbey, both pretty straight forward Soto Zen (Shasta Abbey would take on unique colorings, but after I had left). But, then after a bit of wandering I settled into working within a branch of the Diamond Sangha, later Pacific Zen Institute, a lay community focused on transmitting the Soto reformed koan curriculum developed by Daiun Sogaku Harada at the turn of the twentieth century.

Along my own way my path began to include a focus on integration. This began very personally with looking into my own divided heart with a hope of bringing those disparate parts together in a more harmonious way. Then it turned toward my spiritual disciplines and for the past decade I’ve worked hard to bring that part of my life devoted to the work of liberal religion and that part focused on the disciplines of the Zen way into harmony. And, I feel with some success.

And, now, in what is likely to be the end game for me, my desire is to integrate the more expansive and experimental while at the same time relentlessly devoted to zazen and koan introspection way that is Boundless Way with a re-examination of more traditional Soto Zen forms and style.

And, it is happening. A lot of with the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, which with fits and starts and stops is trying to be a center for the many Soto lineages that are emerging here in North America and the West more broadly. I’ve been involved with the SZBA for years. I was a part of the first class to do the Dharma Heritage ceremony, which was intended as a North American substitute for the Sotoshu Zuisse ceremony. And, a few years later was invited to be the doshi, or chief celebrant at another Dharma Heritage ceremony. I am now completing a term on its board of directors.

But, the styles I’d been working with as Boundless Way have been significantly divergent from “normative” Soto. But now, thanks to our collaborators, and friends, our little group here in SoCal (& up in Washington State) is beginning to take on shape. Still formative. And it retains much of the Boundless Way spirit of welcoming and innovation, I feel. But we are also more obviously respectful of our Soto inheritance. How this is going to manifest fully, well, time will tell. But, it also requires intentionality. And, we’re bringing that to the table.

All this said by way of preamble, as a point for conversation for us I’ve offered a draft manifesto to our Blue Cliff/Bright Cloud leadership. Strictly a first draft, but it reflects the vision I am bringing to our ongoing conversation.

And it seems to me there are others on the way who might find it interesting. So, for all who might be interested, here you go.

A Manifesto for a Western Zen Buddhist Sangha in the Twenty-First Century

First Draft

Vision without action is just a dream.
Action without vision becomes a nightmare.

Japanese saying

The Bad News:

Perhaps you’ve noticed. We live in a world of hurt. It is both personal and communal. It extends to the earth itself and includes everyone and everything on this planet.

The Good News:

It need not be this way. This world has always been perfect and beautiful and it is to this day. The truth is we are all of us intimately connected. We are in fact more intimately connected than words can convey.

And, this is the beautiful within this good news: we can know this deep connection, we can know the connections. And when we do this, it opens our hearts and minds, and it gives us a way to live in this world that brings healing to us as individuals and to the world itself

The Challenge:

There are practices of body and mind and heart that open us up to the deep truths of who we are and how we are connected, each of us to the other. We need to engage them as best we can. They involve learning practices of silence, studying the wisdom of the elders, listening, weighing, and finding out for ourselves what it is they point to.

Within our tradition we have practices open to everyone. We offer the heart discipline called just sitting, the way of intimate presence, and koan introspection, the path of words and freedom within the constraints of our human condition. And, beyond these we have practices for those who are called to a more rigorous discipline both lay and ordained.

And, we need to act. We need to become a sangha of the poor and dispossessed. We need to become a sangha of trees and forests. We need to become the sangha of hope. We need to becomes a sangha for the children and the old, for everyone who has been forgotten or left behind.

The Invitation:

We are a gathering of Soto Zen Buddhists. Our teachers are both ordained and lay. We have inherited disciplines from Japan and China, and we are seeking ways to keep them alive and purposeful here, today. We are seeking more egalitarian forms of community while at the same time bowing to the wisdom of experience and a path of training.

We currently offer regular opportunities for Zen meditation. And we have begun offering more intensive meditation periods. We want to add in a regular communal gathering where we can find inspiration and challenge, perhaps more like a Western style worship service, but perhaps in other ways. We believe there should be opportunities for continuing education for ourselves, and opportunities to raise families within the principals of the Zen Buddhist dharma. And, we burn to bring this into the world in action. We want to examine how the delusions of our lives cloud us, separate us, and how clarity means reaching out.

Join us for the practices, stay for the work.

The healing of the world and ourselves…


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