Left to Right: Lou Hawthorne (with camera), Anne Cushman (seated aat left), with a ZCLA practitioner and Maezumi Roshi (standing); © Craig Feder
Left to Right: Lou Hawthorne (with camera), Anne Cushman (seated aat left), with a ZCLA practitioner and Maezumi Roshi (standing); © Craig Feder

Twenty years ago this winter, a few weeks short of my twenty-first birthday, my college boyfriend and I sat in a guest apartment at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and listened to a weeping American Zen Buddhist nun warn us that we were on the verge of single-handedly destroying Buddhism in the West.

“The dharma is very young here. It’s fragile, like a new green shoot,” she said, tears splashing into her black-robed lap. “If you tell the world what is going on here at the Zen center, you could wreck the flowering of twenty-five hundred years of Buddhist practice.”

Lou and I looked at each other. We didn’t know what to say. Outside, I could hear the distant wail of a police siren. I definitely didn’t want to destroy the Buddha-dharma in the Western world. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is my senior thesis. If I don’t finish it, how am I going to graduate?”

Lou and I had come to the Zen Center of Los Angeles to shoot a video documentary on Zen in America for my undergraduate senior thesis in the Religion Department at Princeton University. I had spent all the time I could handle hunched over dog-eared books in the basement of Firestone Library, eating Fritos and writing treatises about ancient texts that told me the Buddha-way could only be tasted through direct experience. I wasn’t interested in dissecting Nagarjuna’s philosophy or analyzing the historical forces at work in medieval Japan. I wanted to look at Buddhism as it was practiced in my culture, in my time.

Over the previous year, I’d researched and visited American Buddhist centers and had settled on ZCLA as my subject: an urban residential Zen community with a Japanese roshi and American students, on a street lined with palm trees on the edge of a barrio in southern Los Angeles. At the time, I was stringing for local newspapers through the University Press Club; Lou had been shooting video ever since his mother’s boyfriend handed him a camera at age nine. Together, we wrote a proposal for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make a documentary about religious acculturation and assimilation at an American Zen center. Somewhat to our astonishment, we got funded.

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