A Small Meditation on Zen in North America After the Great Die Off of Boomer Practitioners

A Small Meditation on Zen in North America After the Great Die Off of Boomer Practitioners August 19, 2018



Not long ago I had a Skype conversation with my old friend the scholar and author Rick McDaniel. His books are wonderful narrative accounts of Zen, tracing it over various volumes from China to Japan to North America. And now he has a new book project he’s working on and wanted to ask me some questions.

I thought we were going to be talking about my ordination master Houn Jiyu Kennett, and indeed we did talk a little about her. Or, maybe my koan master John Tarrant. But we didn’t touch on him at all. Rather, the conversation fairly quickly turned to something I said in an interview back in 2013. At the time I spoke of what I call the “great die off,” the coming passing of the Boomer generation of Zen practitioners. He said he’s been thinking about it.

Apparently at the time I suggested how I wasn’t sure whether or not Zen in the West, at least in North America, was simply a “Boomer thing.” A blip on the historical record of religion in the West. A decade or two back I know I did wonder about the possibility. Generation X was not producing a whole lot of Zen practitioners. And, I did fear for the worst.

But, then I saw that indeed Gen X was producing Zen people, just not in the numbers from my generation. Still, enough for the project to continue. And, then the Millennials have proven to be nearly as interested in religion, or, as it is called these days, spirituality as we Boomers were. Although with twists unique to their generation, many still unfolding.

The bottom line is that today, while we are still facing a great die off, the aftermath doesn’t feel quite so dire to me – at least in regards to whether or not there will be a North American Zen. Of course there are going to be some serious bumps along the way. And, I think the next wave of Zen, the post-Boomer wave isn’t going to look a whole lot like what we’re doing. And, I find I do have a sense of what might be shaping up.

All of it through a glass darkly, of course.

First, what the Boomers are leaving in our wake:

There are various circles of involvement.

One. Out on the inter webs there are a ton of people with strong opinions but very little actual experience with Zen as a spiritual tradition and constellation of practices. However, because of their potential reach, particularly if they write at all compellingly, they cannot simply be ignored. Sadly, I think they tend to contribute to a “dumbing down” of our Western understanding of what Zen is. Bottom line there’s a lot of noise and a lot less signal, as some might say, out on the inter webs.

Additionally, when I first started out there was two small subsets of Zen people. A few were folk who had come into contact with Zen teachers who passed on various ordinations and authorizations with little actual training connected to it. And there was another subset of people who simply made up their ordinations and authorizations.

Today, the completely making it up group has largely withered away. The reason as I see it is that “cheap” transmissions are getting easier and easier to come by. A title and a lineage connection is no longer sufficient to ascertain even rudimentary competence as a spiritual director.

Do remember: caveat emptor applies to a lot of things…

And. Some good news. There is signal amidst the noise. There are a lot of people practicing Zen, including those with questionable credentials, who have matured in the practices, and who are indeed competent to guide others. And they are leaving lineages behind. A visit to the San Francisco Zen Center complex is heartwarming for the numbers of young people present and practicing. Yes, with shadows. Of course, with shadows. As is true of the other communities and lineages all across the country.

All around there are genuine practitioners, and even some teachers. Communities of practice are coming into existence, some flourishing, some passing away.

The Zen center as opposed to Zen temples, a unique product of Western Zen has become normative. Our egalitarian aspirations continue. The assumption of gender equality, whether realized or not, has become a hallmark of Zen in the West, and with that a significant LGBTQ presence. And, finally, finally there are people of color coming to Zen. It’s still mostly the territory of the well educated and relatively affluent. But, the possibilities of accessibility to Zen and its disciplines beyond the middle and upper classes of White Americans is beginning to happen.

With that there are training temples that look solid, if all existing with some precariousness. Tassajara, Yokoji, Dharma Rain, Great Vow, Zen Mountain Monastery, Zen Center of Los Angeles, Boundless Way Temple, Great Heartland, are a handful that immediately pop into my mind. These and others of their energy are likely to survive. No guarantees. And not all of them will.  There are many others. Many of the smaller ones will pass away. No doubt. Others will emerge. Of that I have no doubt, either.

What I see in this area I would call our emerging North American “normative Zen,” is a reconciling with our Asian, and particularly our Japanese inheritances, and the institutions from which we are derived. So, for instance, within Soto practice increasing numbers of our younger Zen priests go to Japan to train. Of course this does have a class problem attached to it. And it brings some other shadows as well, particularly about what might be “real” Zen. But, it is also exciting.

I have no doubt Soto Zen will continue strong. I believe the Kwan Um school, derived from Korean Son, will also flourish. In recent years the Korean Taego order has established itself in the West. I have some concerns about the rapidity with which one can ordain within their community, but am really curious about how the disciplines of their tradition will take root. And too early to have any kind of read on it. But, I am impressed at how it does maintain connections with the institutional center in Korea. While Chinese Chan has largely remained within the cloister master Shen Yen has left a handful of Western (of both Asian and European descent) lay teachers, several of whom seem to be establishing solid communities.

Rinzai in the West continues to be more complex. The serious scandals that overtook the two principal Rinzai missionaries have left compromised institutions. But, I know several of the teachers who have passed through those fires and believe between them and newer Japanese teachers who take up temporary residence, especially Shodo Harada Roshi guarantee there will be a Rinzai presence.

Koan Zen continues to be represented by teachers transmitting the Soto reformed curriculum developed by master Daiun Sogaku Harada. This training model enlivens Sanbo Zen, the White Plum, Diamond Sangha, Boundless Way, and our emerging Blue Cliff, among others. These lines continue to flourish, some as lay lineages some also continuing within the penumbra of our North American Soto Zen.


What comes next?

Well, first a shrinking. I suspect within twenty years the number of people seriously practicing Zen will shrink by between a third and a half. Many smaller centers will simply disappear.

And, I think we will see a change in the complexion of Zen in the West, especially here in North America. I suspect there will be more Japanese and Japanese-trained priests offering Soto perspectives, relative to the population of priests and teachers than is currently so. I believe, and not just wish, that there will be a lot more priests and teachers who have Asian and African ancestry. And, I believe we are a heartbeat away from having a significant Spanish speaking Zen presence here. This is already true in South America.

I suspect various larger coalitions will rise and fall apart. And they will be critical in establishing “normative” assumptions for Western and North American Zen.

I believe the American Zen Teachers Association, which attempts to be a support group for teachers will continue. But, their minimal standards for admission, some recognizable lineage authorization and about a year of retreat folded into training is probably not rigorous enough for the long haul. Something of an ironic observation because of the numbers of people who are offended at those “harsh” requirements. Did I mention caveat emptor yet? The Soto Zen Buddhist Association is attempting to create standards, but is mired, in my view, by an apparently overwhelming desire to simply be the American representatives of Japanese Soto. I can’t predict their future with any confidence. I’m very taken with the rise of the Lay Zen Teachers Association, and look forward to how they engage what I see as the too wild variety of authorizations their teachers hold.

Beyond this the mists of possibilities cloud my vision.

And it becomes a calling into dream times…

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