The American Zen community is manifold—in some ways a community of divisions. Any consideration of the future must begin with that. A few prominent Zen centers offer monastic-style training for both monks and laypeople. Scattered across the country are many ethnic temples with rapidly changing congregations, striving to blend dharma and heritage. In between, in every state, are countless sitting groups serving almost entirely lay sanghas, most with no resident teacher. (I use the word “teacher” to refer to both lay and monastic leaders.) The few large training centers are past wondering how to survive and now must address the questions of the institution—hierarchy and roles, how to serve divergent needs and avoid stagnation and rigidity. Newer, small temples struggle with isolation, lack of direction, and the parched thirst for teaching.

"Bodhidharma Facing the Wall" © Tetsuo Kurihara, courtesy of Kazuaki Tanahashi
“Bodhidharma Facing the Wall” © Tetsuo Kurihara, courtesy of Kazuaki Tanahashi

Certain concerns for the future are voiced across these superficial differences. How can we best instruct our children? How can we plan for the retirement and health needs of elderly members and impoverished teachers? Daunting real estate prices and troublesome zoning laws even restrict where we will practice. Will there be a collective face of Buddhists to stand beside other religious collectives in the political sphere? As Zen Buddhist ideas blend in the mainstream culture with New Age eclecticism, its terms and concepts are twisted into commercials and catchwords. The religious practice, in turn, is infiltrated—for better or worse—by psychotherapeutic terms and methods. Tonen Sara O’Connor, priest at Milwaukee Zen Center, says, “My concern is not whether we will have an American Zen, but that we will Americanize, popularize, media-ize and celebrity-ize Zen.”

Entwined in all these concerns are the questions of leadership. How will we train teachers? Who will our teachers be? Every religion asks this question, bur the centrality of the teacher-student relationships in Zen and the importance of a living transmission of dharma to all of Buddhism lend the questions particular power in the Zen community.

Would American Zen benefit from more coherently defined leadership? I think so, bur not everyone would agree. In particular, how authority is granted and what is meant by transmission is a matter of overt disagreement, which has led to a sometimes divisive independence of form. How can we define leadership when every practice community and lineage has its own standards?

Les Kaye, abbot of Kannon Do Zen Center in California, notes that American Zen teachers have routinely been given authority on the word of a single person, which doesn’t occur in other professions. “Leadership is the biggest issue that should concern Zen people in the next ten years. There is no filtering process, nothing equivalent to a qualification exam, no check and balance on the roshi’s choice, no years of being mentored by many other leaders in a variety of situations.” Such a lack of oversight is not, in fact, traditional. Can we develop an American pilgrimage (angya)? Mature students have long wandered from their spiritual home to meet other teachers and be tested in their understanding. We are a land of travelers, and this practice seems to fit our heritage well in many ways.

American Zen was brought to this coumry as a quasimonastic practice, but it has been largely practiced by laypeople. Reliance on Japanese models works for Americans in many ways, but not necessarily here: the Japanese priesthood is built from a complex culture fundamentally different from ours. We can’t entirely answer questions abour leadership until we agree on terms. There is no clear definition in this country abour what a monk is, how a priest’s life is led, or how much aurhority a layperson can hold. The history of Zen has many examples of fully awakened laypeople, with and withour transmission, bur American Zen has no clear method for acknowledging its many deeply accomplished lay members. In turn, how should the crucible of monastic training be supplied? Who watches over the teachers?

Zuiko Redding, priest at Cedar Rapids Zen Center, is one of several Midwestern teachers scattered hundreds of miles apart. “It’s a lot like the frontier. Our here, we’re more interested in dealing with our feelings of isolation than we are in retirement packages and hierarchies.” Isolation and loneliness are problems for clergy in most religions. Nonin Chowaney, abbot of Nebraska Zen Center, noting that such feelings can lead to misconduct, sees an ongoing need for fellowship as well as “oversight and intervention” by peers. “Communication needs to be continued and expanded.”

“The challenge at the moment is adapting serious zazen practice and Zen scudy to the rhythms of lives that must be lived, by both ordained and lay, in the worlds of work and family,”‘ says Tonen O’Connor. She wants to see American Zen develop a true “life practice”—one “that neither devalues the demands of jobs and family and the mechanics of sustaining a Zen Center nor too easily suggests that just a little here and there, or just anything we do, is indeed Zen practice.”

Many sanga has have little or no family practice at all, and even single and childless adults eventually may drift away, finding it impossible to reconcile the demands of lay life with the rigors of monastic-style practice. Philip Shinko Squire, priest and administrator at Zen Mountain Center in California, says, “I see our Western and Japanese monastic model running into the great American independent soul. It’s difficult for people to make a commitment to training in residential centers over the long term.”

I believe a third form is emerging from our growing national sangha—a form blending the essential qualities of mature lay and monastic practice. Many American Zen Buddhists lead lives encompassing both dedication to formal practice and dharma study with family, career, and community responsibility. Sometimes it is called lay, and sometimes priest—sometimes even monk. It is not really anyone of these.

This is one of my wishes: that we have a long conversation about leadership and roles, a conversation that would include students, monk and lay, from around the country. Perhaps we can agree on a few definitions and goals. Only then could we’ develop a few regional training centers with more general or generic styles to provide basic monastic training for several lineages—and more teachers for the multiplying small sanghas everywhere. Of course, even organizing such a conversation is difficult in our current state of dispersal. Real decisions and action would require a more overt and central organizational structure than American Zen has ever had. Are we willing to submit our individual methods to a central hierarchy? If not, what are we choosing by that refusal?

Hozan Alan Senauke, priest and director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, notes that many American Buddhists fail to acknowledge the immigrant Buddhists here who come from the very cultures in which Buddhism arose. Many of our ongoing concerns have been answered in these cultures, and while the exact models may not translate, the experience of answering can do so. “Acknowledging their priceless gift to us and our endless debt, we owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors to welcome them. If we fail to include and learn from practitioners and teachers of color—Asian, African American, Hispanic—we will certainly fall into exclusion and myopia. This reflects a flaw in our grasp of Buddha-dharma.”

In the near furure, in Tonen O’Connor’s words, “Steadiness will be the watchword, not fashionableness or visibility. Perhaps our greatest single challenge will be to be awake, to question everything, and not to sink comfortably into the structures of an ‘organized’ religion.”

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