Jan Chozen Bays pauses a moment along the flagstone path. “See this earth?” She points to a patch of dirt. “These days people are frightened of it. They’d rather be in front of a computer screen, or sit side by side texting each other, than have a face-to-face conversation.”
I’m attending the annual conference of the White Plum Asanga, an organization of dharma successors descended from Taizan Maezumi Roshi and the largest single lineage network of Zen teachers in the West. On assignment for Tricycle, I’m the only non–dharma holder in attendance, though I’ve practiced in this lineage for over 20 years. Chozen Roshi, one of the first Americans to be sanctioned as a Zen teacher, is coabbott along with her husband, Hogen, of the Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon. Our conversation began as an analysis of the possible dharmic uses of Facebook—which I think we’re about to conclude are basically nil.
In five minutes walking along these flagstones, we seem to have touched on nearly every aspect of the virtual sphere, from creating fictional online identities through the procedures used for testing video games.
“Still,” says Chozen, “underneath it all there’s this great need for connection.”
If truth be told, I’m a bit charmed that this senior Zen teacher would take time out of these busy two days to chat with me on a matter so apparently peripheral. But this seems to be Chozen’s way. Whenever our paths have crossed over the years, she’s always been, as the Zen phrase goes, “just like this.” As we close our conversation, however, I realize she’s been angling gently toward a point that is not peripheral at all: “It’s our responsibility in Zen to keep this faceto- face teaching alive.”
That’s what we’re doing here this weekend at Roshi Joan Halifax’s Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where adobe walls and viga ceilings converge with the austere style of old Japan.
Although the White Plum was originally organized along traditional hierarchical lines, it has changed its mandate in recent years. President Gerry Shishin Wick emphasizes that the organization is currently structured as an affinity group, in which any formally sanctioned teacher in Maezumi’s lineage can choose to join — or not — and everyone has an equal voice. “We’re not a sanctioning or disciplinary agency,” explains Shishin Roshi, “but a community of peers.”
What he doesn’t say is how revolutionary this is. A dharma organization operating outside of seniority, title, or gender roles would have been virtually unheard of through most of Buddhist history. Although, as anyone can see from the informal tone of this first night’s gathering—the attire ranging from monastic black to blue jeans, and the gender balance of 18 women and 17 men—the revolution has already occurred.
The White Plum Asanga currently numbers some 80 Zen teachers. A little less than half are present—not unusual, since teachers always have full schedules, and there are too many members to coordinate perfectly. Absent friends include a number of the organization’s elders: Bernie Glassman, Dennis Genpo Merzel, John Daido Loori, Peter Matthiessen, Father Robert Kennedy, and Rabbi Don Singer.
Then again, perhaps after years of overseeing the complex logistics of bringing Zen to the West these elders have had their fill of such meetings— which I could well understand after concluding our first evening’s business, filled with procedural questions, points of order, and seemingly interminable discussions that last till nearly midnight. As I stagger off to grab some sleep before morning zazen, I run into Ilia Shinko Perez, who, along with Shishin Roshi, leads the Great Mountain Zen Center near Boulder, where I now practice. She delivers a wry, weary smile. “So, Mr. Tricycle Reporter, was all this as interesting as you hoped?”
“Well… not exactly.”
I’d always wondered, hearing of these annual gatherings, what being in a room with so many Zen teachers might be like. Magical? Transcendent? Ordinary? Meaning, of course, that special brand of Zen ordinariness exhibited by teachers like Maezumi Roshi—which, in drawing no attention to itself, actually becomes rather extraordinary.
I’d have to say, however, as I shuffle off rubbing my eyes, that tonight was largely just ordinary, like any nonprofit board meeting anywhere. Still, there was much of interest along the way, —including one issue that will become a running theme throughout the weekend: the legacy of Maezumi Roshi, who died in 1995. Tonight’s discussion centered largely upon the material side: some 1,500 recorded talks, many pages of handwritten notes in Japanese characters, and uncounted calligraphies and photos, all of which must be preserved before they are swallowed by the inevitable forces of impermanence.
But the next morning’s gathering, following zazen, service, and breakfast, opens into new dimensions. Our focus is on service-oriented projects, presented by three of Bernie Glassman’s dharma successors: Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Eve Marko (Glassman’s wife), and our host, Joan Halifax. All of these projects address, in one way or another, the typical areas with which we jolly Buddhist folk tend to preoccupy ourselves: suffering, disease, old age, and death.
Fortunately, we are able to keep our sense of humor about such things. When the discussion turns to dharma work in prisons, someone mentions the high attrition rate among prison meditators, who often fall away from their practice after release.
“Attrition rate?” Roshi Joan responds, one eyebrow raised. “A major practice here at Upaya is work with the dying. That attrition rate is 100 percent!”
The room breaks up.
“But then,” adds Joan, “I’ve always had a particular attraction for lost causes.”
Things are definitely beginning to loosen up, hearts opening, people speaking and listening closely to what they really care about.
Saturday afternoon’s agenda is to address the purpose and future of the White Plum Asanga. As Shishin Roshi quips, “Yesterday was about the past, today the future. We’ve decided to skip the present moment entirely!”
Suggestions include developing joint projects among White Plum affiliates, group practice sessions, ongoing teacher training, and further addressing the preservation of Maezumi Roshi’s archives, housed and protected these many years largely through the efforts of Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, who has inherited the responsibility of maintaining the “‘home temple”’ as abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
Tenkei Roshi, who leads a practice center in the Netherlands, suggests a cross-training program, in which new teachers from one sangha would do a practice tour of others. He seconds a call from Chozen for continued strong efforts to keep this “family” together, emphasizing how valuable it is for him as a European to connect with the American side of the lineage.
“It is my hope,” he says, in his lightly accented English, “that this group will go on not for just one generation, or two, or three, but for a very, very long time.”
At some point, inevitably, the talk turns back to Maezumi Roshi himself. One teacher comments that Maezumi Roshi is still here now, alive among us, embodied in his dharma heirs. And although this truth is undeniable, it’s countered, in sensible Zen fashion, by someone else pointing out that nevertheless, it’s also true that he’s dead, and his lineage will have to find its way forward through his living descendants.
Sensei Joan Hoeberichts, of Heart Circle Sangha, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, reminds us of Maezumi’s injunction to his successors to “be ourselves, for that’s what makes us unique.”
And it is true that the group is diverse. A half-dozen Zen teachers present identify themselves as Christians, including two Catholic nuns—exhibiting, ironically, no traces of the black garb associated with both Zen and Catholic monasticism, but dressed in ordinary street clothes.
Roshi Seisen Saunders, of San Diego’s Sweetwater Zen Center—who showed great kindness to me when I was a beginning Zen student with legs so stiff I couldn’t sit without a half-dozen cushions stuffed under each knee— sums it up by saying, “Maezumi Roshi’s genius was that he saw the dharma in all kinds of people.”
At a certain point the conversation closes in on what appears to be a central issue of this year’s gathering: In the years since Maezumi Roshi’s death, each meeting of the White Plum Asanga has had to deal in some way with serious questions of how—and sometimes whether—to go forward as a sangha. For many of those present, this feels like the first meeting in which such concerns no longer dominate. There is a newfound sense of freedom, with past troubles and conflicts laid to rest. Several participants point to the joy of simply coming together so openheartedly, of the great gift of sharing the dharma face to face. One of our Catholic nuns, Sister Rosemary, reminds us of a phrase Maezumi Roshi often repeated to his dharma heirs: “Forget about me. Do what you have to do.”
As we close for dinner, a number of participants appear close to tears.
Later that evening, Sydney Musai Walter Roshi of the Prajna Zendo, in Lamy, New Mexico, closes the 2009 White Plum Asanga meeting by quoting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in words eerily reminiscent of those of the Buddha:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherits shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
As Shishin Roshi pointed out to me, sometime during the weekend, the term asanga, despite its similarity to the word sangha, actually means “without attachment”—a play on words chosen by Bernie Glassman and Maezumi Roshi in the original naming of the organization.
So what will become of the White Plum Asanga, the lineage left by Maezumi Roshi, one of the great pioneers of Zen in the West? And what of the larger question that lurks behind that one: What will become of Zen in America? Even as the White Plum seeks to carry the teachings of its founder and the Zen tradition into a new century, its path going forward is not yet clear.
As Chozen Roshi puts it: “We can’t control cause and effect. We have no idea what will happen. We just have to do our best.”
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