This weekend, more than 400 people are expected to travel to western New York for a celebration honoring Rochester Zen Center’s 50th anniversary.

The center, started in 1966 by Roshi Philip Kapleau [1912-2004], is among the oldest Buddhist meditation centers in the United States. The anniversary weekend is expected to draw former Zen center members from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of whom haven’t visited in many years.

Below, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, who has served as abbot of Rochester Zen Center since 1986, talks about the center’s changes under his leadership, how Zen in America has changed since then, and what he hopes to see happen in the next 50 years.

Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, Web Editor

Tell me about when you transitioned to the role of abbot. What do you remember most about that time? 
There were a lot of growing pains; a lot was happening in those first 20 years. In these last 30 since I’ve been the abbot, things have settled down a lot.

In 1986 I was getting my footing. I had some big shoes to fill with Roshi Kapleau having preceded me, and I had to find my own way. I am forever grateful to what he provided here, but we’re not the same. He was 35 years older than me and had been imprinted with his Japanese training quite a bit. When he asked me to take over I said, “Yes, but I’m going to have to make some changes.” And he agreed. One of those changes I saw early on was to make the center less Japanese. He was always clear that we had to Americanize Zen just as the Japanese had Japanized it and the Koreans had Koreanized it when it came to those cultures.

But it’s a much bigger leap. Those three major Zen countries in Asia share a Confucian ethos. Confucian means, for example, hierarchical. And I recognized that this is not a perfect fit for Americans. Yes, there’s a place for hierarchy and for seniority, but we also had to acknowledge that Americans are much more oriented to egalitarianism. So that was one of the early changes I made. I can’t actually tell you right now how I did it!

How has the residential training program changed over the years? 
When I took over there was still a fairly strong martial quality to the everyday residential trainings here as well as the sesshins [retreats]. And I came to feel that it was also just a little too much for Americans. Having spent just six months in training in Japan, I came to see how much of what I thought was Zen was actually Japanese!

I came back from Japan with more clarity about what we should hold on to in the way of traditional forms and what we could let go of. I would have to say that it’s a kinder and gentler Zen center than it was under Roshi Kapleau. He had his own kindness, but it was wrapped in a more fierce quality.

We have never done monastic training in the traditional sense; we don’t have people who have taken lifelong vows of celibacy. We’ve followed the Japanese way, which is that once you become ordained, then you still have the option of getting married. The residential training here is kind of a semi-monastic style. One of the things we’ve struggled with for 50 years is how to integrate the residential training with the parish quality of the larger membership. So we have maybe 450 members, but only 20 to 25 are living in residence and following the schedule full-time.

And when you say you struggle, you mean that you would like to see the number of people living in residence go up?
Yes. Residential training has always been my own affinity. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 22, but it’s simply not for most people. At this time in Buddhism’s history, it’s still largely a householder’s practice. So I wanted to make the opportunity available for people who feel drawn to residential training, but I also need to make the center more like a parish, available to most people.

You mentioned earlier that there were more growing pains in the early years. Why do you think that is? Is it perhaps because Buddhism isn’t the radical new Western phenomenon it was back then?
I suppose with founding any organization there is a lot of learning to do. This may have been especially so for Roshi Kapleau because he had been out of the country for 13 years in Japan and had to get reacquainted with his native country and shed some of the unnecessary Asian elements.

But then in those first 20 years we had a lot more young people. When I first came here and got started almost all of us were in our early 20s. And now there are many more gray hairs in dharma centers than there used to be. And so with all these young restless people from the drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll scene there was a lot more going on here temperamentally—they were still playing out family issues and father issues with Roshi Kapleau. And now I think it’s a much more mature sangha. Not just with age, because about a third of our membership includes people younger than 40.

It’s hard to have a conversation about the state of Buddhism in America without addressing the mindfulness movement. Has the popularity of mindfulness changed the people who are coming to the Rochester Zen Center?
Yes. About seven times a year we have daylong introductory workshops. And what we’ve seen in the last couple years is that more people coming to these workshops have some experience in meditation. A lot of them are more versed in the vocabulary of mindfulness and have been exposed to mindfulness. But then what I have to do is make clear—maybe not explicitly—the difference between secular mindfulness and Buddhist meditation.

In Buddhism we have the eightfold path, and the seventh and eighth steps are right mindfulness and right concentration. If I’m asked to compare Zen meditation with secular mindfulness, I will sometimes say that mindfulness is just one of seven elements of the path and that Zen is something where concentration is given equal importance to mindfulness. I’ll point out that what I don’t see in secular mindfulness is anything about awakening. The experience of awakening—not just for oneself but for the sake of all beings. The bodhisattva vows are also paramount. We can’t be doing meditation just for ourselves. If there’s any purpose to this meditation, it’s to help and be of service to others.

But I am delighted that the practice of mindfulness has become so widespread. I really am. I mean, who wouldn’t want more people in this world practicing mindfulness?

Sanghas across the United States have been working to become more inclusive. Can you tell me about how your center is addressing diversity?
The lack of diversity is a thorny issue that we’ve struggled with and is something I know that other Zen centers have struggled with as well. It’s something we have racked our brains with here in Rochester. I continue to ponder how we can attract more people of color. I think the number one thing is for people of color to see people of color at a center, but how do you get that started? We’ve tried different things, we’ve experimented, we’ve done more outreach, but we still have only a handful of members who are black, for instance. An ongoing thing in our agenda is to figure out what we can do about it. The problem we always face is that there’s no place in Zen for recruitment. This is one of the traditional features of Zen that I think is valuable. We don’t want to go out and recruit people. We want people to initiate their interest in the center. In spite of that we did some outreach, putting up posters in black communities, which we’ve never done anywhere else. So how do you find that balance? That’s one of these koans that I continue to face. It’s an open question.

What do you hope the state of American Zen will be 50 years from now? 
I would want everyone in the world practicing either Zen or some other kind of Buddhist meditation. It’s the secret to life and the ultimate resource to finding our way. Coming to terms with our lives and our deaths is practicing meditation. So, I hope it comes to appeal to more and more people, and I would love to see more people drawn to monastic or residential training, because there’s no substitute for it. There are very few people at Chapin Mill [Rochester Zen Center’s rural retreat center] right now. It’s used primarily for our sesshins, which draw between 50 and 60 people. But then when people go home there’s a skeleton crew left there. And there’s so much land and so many resources there that I would love to see the community grow and have more people doing residential trainings.

Rochester Zen Center’s 50th anniversary celebration continues this fall. Jon Kabat-Zinn is scheduled to give the 50th anniversary lecture on October 15.