Cyber Zen: Practicing Awakening in These Very Times

Cyber Zen: Practicing Awakening in These Very Times April 1, 2021

Above you’ll find a talk that I gave on Sunday, March 28, 2021, for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. Although, it is titled, “Cyber Zen,” the subtitle, “Practicing Awakening In These Very Times” took about forty-five minutes of the hour-long session for me to unpack. So to provide a fuller expression of the cyber theme, in this post, I’ll give a description of the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training (aka, the Vine), summarize the talk, and then I’ll say more about the “Cyber Zen” aspect, the “how to” of supporting householders in really doing this work, based on my experience over the last eight years.

If you are interested in Vine training, we are growing the Vine and so have several seats available. The first step is to attend at least a few of our Saturday Open Zen sessions (click here to sign up for the weekly update with registration info), and then complete an application (available by emailing nebraskazencenter@gmail.com).

The Vine is designed for those who are determined to awaken (kensho) and actualize the great matter of life and death (post-kensho training). And who aren’t shy about it. Our primary avenues for cultivating verification are daily zazen, study, and engagement in the Vine forums and in the world. Students who have some history of in-person practice tend to acclimate best to the Vine environment.

Now back to the SZBA talk. A lot of what I had to say might be seen as controversial and maybe even heretical by some members in the organization, mostly American Soto Zen priests. I had no interest in starting a fight, though, and so hoped my tone was in the “gentle challenge” range.

Before the talk, I was informed by the very competent director of the SZBA, that over 100 people had registered. As a sign of the times, though, almost everyone who attended the talk were either students, Zen teacher colleagues who share most of my views, or students who heard of the talk through the Rinzai Zen Facebook Group. I didn’t see anyone in attendance who I recognized as an SZBA member.

It is increasingly difficult to communicate with those who are not in our “perspective silos.” I knew how true that was in politics, but was surprised to see it also in the Zen realm.

The main points are these:

– a proposal for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association to include a more diverse range of perspectives on awakening and reclaim the Soto tradition’s great awakening narrative and practices while at the same time focussing on householder training
– an exploration of three perspectives on awakening in contemporary Soto
– a stream of awakening stories from within the tradition, including those of Gesshu Soko Zenji, Nishiari Bokusan Zenji, Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and two contemporary women practitioners
– finally, I briefly share the experience from the Vine as an example for how we might support the practice awakening of householders

More about our Cyber Zen experiment, the Vine

After eight years, the Vine of Obstacles is alive and well.

We’ve always seen what we’re doing on the Vine as an experiment, applying the principles of dharma work from our hybrid background – Soto forms with the Yasutani-Harada koan curriculum – to support householders in their practice-awakening projects. Our key principle for cyber dharma is to explore the possibilities of this technology, NOT to try to do what we’ve done before with the only difference being that we’ve got cameras connected to the internet trained on us. 

The pandemic became an opportunity for adding several levels of interaction and intimacy, including morning and evening zazen, Saturday Open Zen dharma talks, and regular online retreats. Tetsugan Sensei came onboard as a co-teacher, joining me and our assistant teacher, Ed Goshin. A handful of students from the Nebraska Zen Center, our in-person group, also joined the Vine, and I think each of them has grown considerably from the process. One in-person regular before the pandemic said, “Before the Vine, I thought I had a home practice, but it turns out it was weak.”

Our Vine training is designed to support householders’ zazen, study, engagement. Cyber Zen, like in-person Zen, is a relational activity. So every student meets with a teacher every week for a fifteen-minute practice meeting. Students are also required to share in the online forums. These forums are carefully designed and facilitated in order to keep it personal and focussed. Encouraging focus on the internet, a most dispersive medium, is an essential element of the work of the teachers and the monitors.

Another essential element to the success of the Vine sangha is how we study the buddhadharma together. We apply the Soto emphasis on careful attention to detail in our online communications, just as our in-person focus on training would be on how someone rings a bell, for example. How a student communicates online becomes a rich field for instruction and feedback. 

The teachers design learning opportunities for students to enter whatever text it is that we are studying, currently, The Record of Empty Hall, and express themselves from inside. We aim at something that can be digested in a single day – this is another key element of successful Zen training in the midst of work and family. One objective for instruction is to offer the student a fresh and lively dharma focus everyday, for example, a Dogen paragraph or even a single sentence, a passage from the Diamond Sutra, or a letter of Dahui’s.

The student role is described in our communication guidelines in listed below, but the main thing is heartfelt sharing. Vine communication is NOT social media off-gassing! The result of this focus is that students on the Vine know much more detail about each others’ lives and practices’ than is true for most in-person students. Here are those guidelines:

– take the student seat; it isn’t your job to advise, teach, fix, or straighten out others

– focus on inquiry

– make it personal; use “I” statements

– empathize, share your experience, draw out points of interest in other’s posts

– don’t pontificate/intellectualize (i.e., avoid a “brief explanation of everything”)

– don’t link to other dharma talks or websites

Online work is different than in-person work with it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses. A primary weakness is the difficulty of learning Zen body practices by cyber means. Therefore, a combination of both in-person and cyber work is the best. So we all are looking forward to the resumption of in-person sesshin.

That’s a brief summary. If you are interested in doing this work, see above and get in touch.


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