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Lions Roar : September 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2012 32 rocks, the cook stirred cereal in the kitchen, and an owl hooted nearby. The day began with zazen, and it would end with zazen, but, as we were often reminded, even when the schedule said something else—study or work or bath time—zazen continued. Moving sand- bags didn’t look like zazen. Oryoki didn’t look like za- zen. But both were an extension of zazen, simply other ways to practice being present. Shunryu Suzuki probably didn’t expect to teach oryoki when he came to America in 1959 to lead a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist congregation in San Fran- cisco—and ended up inspiring a generation of young Americans. He taught the curious how to sit facing a wall and settle body and mind on the present moment so that when the bell rang signaling the end of the meditation period, they could enter the rest of their lives with the mind of zazen: awake, compassionate, open, connected. Together, Suzuki Roshi and his students forged a path for Zen Buddhism in America—not as a religion or a phi- losophy to be studied, for it had already been introduced in that sense—but as a constant practice, an embodied way of living, with zazen at its core. “When you become one with your practice, whatever it is, not only zazen but drinking, eating...you are one already—one with every- thing,” Suzuki Roshi told his students in a 1969 lecture. Everything, he added, meant “something greater than things which you can figure out.” When Suzuki Roshi died in 1971, his students still had a lot to figure out. They’d come a long way from the first early morning meditations at Sokoji: incorporating as San Francisco Zen Center in 1962; buying Tassajara, a monastic retreat in the wilderness near Big Sur in late 1966; and publish- ing Suzuki’s talks in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in 1970. Zen Center would expand further in the years following Suzuki’s death, acquiring farmland in coastal Marin County and opening a variety of businesses—a bakery, stitchery, grocery, restaurant, and “work company” for odd construction jobs—during abbot Richard Baker’s tenure as Suzuki’s chosen dharma heir. Then the sky came tumbling down. In 1984, Baker resigned as abbot af- ter abuses of power surfaced, including sexual indiscretions. For years, the organization struggled to right itself. This took time, and some thought Zen Center would fail. But it survived, argu- ably stronger for the growing pains. These days, San Francisco Zen Center is a thriving practice place—three places, actually—with a diverse membership and af- filiations across the globe, offering a full schedule of daily practice, intensives, retreats, and programs for residents and the wider com- munity. In 2008, when wildfire threatened Tassajara, expressions of concern and goodwill streamed in from around the world. This August, Zen Center turns fifty, a natural time to look both backward and forward, from inside and out. I asked the venerable religious scholar Huston Smith, now ninety-two, for his thoughts on the significance of the anniversary. “Meditation is a good word in America,” he said, pointing to the same innocence that drew Suzuki Roshi to his American students, who were free from the cultural and religious baggage of Buddhism in the East. Smith characterized Zen Center’s endurance as “a great boon.” According to Professor Richard Seager, author of Buddhism in America, the Center has “a certain historical preeminence. San Francisco Zen Center was there before the others with a leadership crisis, developing institutional responses,” he told me. “Those who made it through were part of establishing a real live institution.” David Chadwick, compiler of the Suzuki Roshi archives and tireless Zen Center historian, thinks it’s a healthy sign that there are so many young people at Zen Center. “It’s not a monoculture. It’s easy to criticize institutions, but Zen Center gives individuals a place where they can focus on having a life, or at least a period of time, to concentrate on fundamental questions.” That’s the way the seeds of Suzuki Roshi’s lineage have scat- tered and grown, says Zen Center central abbot Steve Stücky. “People stay here for a while, then go out and make the dharma Above: Ceremonial procession at Tassajara, the first Zen monastery located outside of Asia. Right: Zendo at Tassajara in the winter.