The End of Zen Exceptionalism: Some Thoughts on Zen Center Transitions

IMG_1219Dear Reader,

It’s been about six months since I last posted something here. About a year ago, Tetsugan and I moved from Portland, ME, to Omaha, NE, to lead the Nebraska Zen Center (NZC) and it’s been a very full year!

You see, the NZC Board hired us to come in and do a Zen center make-over and that is just what we’ve done, not only cleaning, painting, and reorganizing the inside space, but also revamping the organization (re-doing the by laws, drafting the first budget, recreating the website, and implementing numerous program changes). Click here for the NZC website.

In the spring, we launched a successful fundraiser for our backyard, now the Timeless Peace Contemplative Garden, and have also been digging into that project. Literally. In the photo, that’s the old blog dog, Bodhi, meditating (eyes cast down at a 45 degree angle, even) in the garden.

Now all that might sound good … but the transition here was rather rough – like really really rough. Made me really grateful for this practice. Without it, I think I’d have gone nutty (or nuttier, depending on your perspective). The first few weeks would have made a helluva reality TV show. So we almost left … but the Board of Directors and at least 90% of the members hung together in support our leadership. That’s all quieted down now and things are going quite well. Some students who practiced here over the years but left for various reasons have returned and there’s a good crew of new students (young ones too) coming in too.

Recently, a new-ish Zen teacher who is thinking of accepting a position at an established center, contacted me and asked what I’ve learned about transition. That got me thinking and here are a few ideas.

  1. Don’t get hooked by drama. Focus on the practice.
  2. Zen exceptionalism is pernicious. Of course, I think Zen practice and awakening are wonderful. After all, I’ve dedicated my life to this work. However, the consideration still heard in Zen centers across the land, “We don’t need to do best-practices organizationally, or financially, or in relationships (or fill in the blank) because we’re Zen” is a serious sign of dysfunction. “Special” Zen is really ordinary. So my advice is to open to what’s been learned in this culture especially about nonprofit governance (Policy Governance, for example), financial management, and healthy relationships.
  3. Have a business plan. This might not sound controversial … but in the Zen world, I think it might be. We live in a culture where support for the dharma doesn’t come from the state, as in ancient China, or from families who have their ancestors buried in the Zen Center cemetery. I don’t know one American Zen place that has a cemetery. So the notion that money will just come or come if only we practice purely enough, is often more of a fantasy than a notion. It certainly isn’t a plan. One long-established Zen center in the northeast, for example, has recently discovered this, from what I’ve gleaned from their public notices, and they’ll be selling their building and the teacher who’s been there for a couple years will be moving on. So let’s face it – Zen centers have expenses – how are these going to be covered? What mix of membership, classes, fundraisers, etc., will make it possible to offer the dharma in whatever situation you’re in? What can we do to offer the dharma we love to others, to really make an impact in the community. How can Zen Centers add value?
  4. Drive fast, take chances. Click here for a Tetsugan talk by this title. In this context, what I mean is this – be creative! And have fun. If you’re not having fun offering this incredible practice to others (and doing it yourself), roll over. We’re just at the beginning of establishing Zen here in the West. This is a time for experimentation and change. Just because you’ve always done something some way (a phrase we heard about 10,000 times the first few months here), doesn’t mean anything, really, other than that you might be stuck and using the practice to control something – like anxiety – or someone – like others. Remember that a monk asked Yunmen, “What is the teaching of an era?” Yunmen said, “One statement in response.” What is that now and here? 

That’s what I’ve got to say about this for now. And speaking of “roll over”, I’ve been rolling this over for a couple weeks and hadn’t gotten anything down until a nice person from Patheos contacted me today and gently suggested that I post with some regularity or they’d move this blog to dormancy. Gads! “Dormancy!” And here James Ford is making big money on his Monkey Mind blog, enough to go out to dinner with his wife a couple times a month in Long Beach, no less.

So you’ll be hearing more from me.


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