Photographs by Alan Senauke
Photographs by Alan Senauke

For decades, Sojun Mel Weitsman has been an anchor of the Buddhist community in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. It might well be, however, that even if you’ve been around the North American Buddhist world for many years, you know little or nothing about him. I’m pretty sure that Mel—or Sojun Roshi, as he’s called formally as a Zen teacher— is just fine with that.

The image of an anchor speaks of Mel’s style of dharma activity: it runs deep and steady, mostly below the surface of things, and its effects are often hard to see. This makes him less than a ready fit for Buddhist publications. His dharma talks, divorced from the quiet force of his presence, can lose much in translation to the printed page. He is not big on innovation, and he doesn’t go in for major projects or dramatic pronouncements. If he does attend a conference or seminar, chances are he is in the audience rather than on the podium. He is neither a mover nor a shaker.

What Mel does is pretty much what he has done for more than forty years. In the morning, he gets up early and goes to the zendo (meditation hall) for zazen (sitting meditation) and morning service. He takes care of the Berkeley Zen Center, and he encourages his students. He spends time with his family. At night, he goes to the zendo for zazen and evening service. There’s not much there that’s newsworthy. Yet, if one investigates the matter further, it is clear that there is much more to the story.

For several years, we at Tricycle have tried to think of something we could do about Mel that would do him justice. Nothing we came up with seemed quite right. Then, last year, I received a copy of a small, privately printed book written for Mel on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The book, Umbrella Man, is a collection of tributes from Mel’s 20 deshi, or dharma heirs. Edited by Max Erdstein and Michael Wenger, it is an informal little gem of a book, not least because it so clearly demonstrates that as a teacher, Mel is best appreciated for the light that he has sparked in others.

Mel began Zen practice in 1964 with Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and the author of the now classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In 1967, Suzuki Roshi, with Mel’s help, established the Berkeley Zen Center, and two years later Mel was ordained as the center’s resident priest.

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