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Newsette 12-14-2021

The nights are still growing longer and the days shorter as we move toward the Winter Solstice. Many sanghas are planning gatherings to celebrate the return of the light and to welcome the new year. And poetry is in the air – several sanghas are offering poetry events, including readings, a haiku walk, and Zen Poetry classes.

Sanghas held Rohatsu sesshins at different times this year. On Sunday December 12, Brooklyn Zen Center finished their first in-person, in Brooklyn, Rohatsu retreat in two years with 50 people attending. Laura O’Laughlin, their co-guiding teacher writes: “It was powerful, joyful and poignant to be together again for Rohatsu. If all goes well, we will rent a large parish house space on Saturdays at Christ Church in Cobble Hill starting in January (if the variant doesn’t stop us again).  Father Mark, the pastor there, kindly let us use the space for our five-day sesshin. We included a long work period each day organizing and cleaning the parish house, which was needed care.  We were building the temple while sitting in the temple!”

December offerings

Zen Center North Shore (MA) is offering two poetry nights. Sangha members will be sharing their own or others’ poetry on December 16th and Norman Fischer will be reading his poetry on December 23rd from 7:15 to 8:30 EST. “When we invited Everyday Zen founder and spiritual director Norman Fischer to Zoom over to us, he told us that the last books he’s written are all poems. We asked him if he would share them with us and are so happy that he agreed. You can read more about Norman Fischer here in a piece written by one of his students. Here is the link to his reading:  ZenZoom Poetry with Norman Fischer 

In Chicago, Gyoshin Laurel Ross, a priest at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate will be offering a Haiku nature walk on December 16th.from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. CST. “We will walk in relative silence enjoying whatever Mother Nature has to offer that morning—possibly rain of course. We will carry note pads or sketch pads or cameras and not write poetry as we walk but make notes or sketches of our experiences.  Participants will be invited to write haiku afterwards and share them with the rest of us if they wish.”

Many sanghas, including Zen Center North Shore and Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver, B.C. are offering winter solstice celebrations. ZCNS will have an outdoor bonfire, hot cocoa, and a full moon ceremony. Mountain Rain sangha members are invited to bring poetry, visual art, or songs to share about the turning of the season, darkness and light

Ancient Dragon Zen Gate has invited one of their regular visiting teachers, Zenshin Florence Caplow, to give their year-end Sunday talk December 26th, as well as their inaugural 2022 Monday evening talk January 3rd. Florence is a Teacher in our Suzuki Roshi Zen lineage, as well as a Unitarian Universalist minister. She is a long-time environmental activist and the co-editor of The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. Please see our website schedule for information on all our events.”

If you are looking for a way to be with others virtually on New Year’s Eve, you may want to join Mountain Rain’s inter-sangha gathering on Friday, December 31, from 8 a.m. to midnight: Sitting and Chanting for Peace. “Please join Mountain Rain and friends from other sanghas in a New Year’s Eve retreat to cultivate peace in our hearts, our families, our communities, and in our world. Each hour will consist of 40 minutes sitting meditation, ten minutes walking meditation and 10 minutes chanting. Usually we close by ringing the temple bell 108 times to dispel our many delusions.

On New Year’s Day in Milwaukee, the local Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapter offers a New Year’s Peace Gathering, Cultivating Joy in Uncertain Times at 10 a.m. CST. It will be both in-person and on Zoom (zoom link available at info@mkzen.org). The morning consists of silent meditation, recitation, readings on Cultivating Joy, discussion, and a sock drive.

Offerings in 2022

For poetry lovers, Houston Zen Center is offering a six-week class in Zen Poetry, taught by Muso Constance Braden. It will be offered both in person and online on Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 CST beginning January 4, 2022.

Milwaukee Zen Center is also offering a six-week Zen Poetry class beginning January 17, 2021. “In this six-weeks class, we will become acquainted with ancient and contemporary Zen poets and also find a new approach to Dogen Zenji’s work.”I think this class will be in-person only. For more information, email info@mkzen.org.

Please let me know if your center or sangha is offering New Years Eve or Day events. I will include them in next week’s Newsette.

Please cherish yourselves!

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Newsette 12-7-2021

I am back in touch after the weeks of Thanksgiving and Rohatsu Sesshin. City Center’s sesshin was in-person (truly wonderful!), with about 30 participants in the zendo and Buddha Hall. On December 3rd we held a special memorial service on the 50th anniversary of his death. The next day we celebrated Buddha’s enlightenment joyfully in the morning and had a Shuso ceremony for Roger Hillyard, who was a warm and energetic Shuso for the Fall practice period. Yesterday I attended Green Gulch Farm’s Shuso ceremony. Michael Gelfond from Presidio Hill Zen Group in San Francisco was Shuso. And Tassajara’s Shuso ceremony will be on December 10, with Tim Kroll, who practiced at Austin Zen Center for many years, as Shuso. All three centers have had in-person Fall practice periods.

Sanghas from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada – including Brooklyn Zen Center in New York, Austin Zen Center and San Antonio Zen Center in Texas, Red Cedar Zen Community in Bellingham WA, and Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver, B.C. – are still sitting Rohatsu sesshin. Ian Case writes in the Brooklyn Zen Center newsletter, “This week we celebrate and commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment and his awakening to the fundamental truth of our interconnectedness with all things. May we awaken together and realize spiritual friendship for the benefit of all beings.”

This is also, for many Zen Centers and sanghas, a time for year-end fundraising. Please consider giving generously to your own sangha or to others, as we come to the end of a year that has been financially challenging for many individuals, families and sanghas.

News from sanghas in England and Germany:

Recently Totnes sangha in Devon, England has been engaging deeply with the local parish church of Saint Mary’s in its “Unity in Diversity” programme, where different faiths have come together around the Climate Conference COP26 and the Covid pandemic. The church was built in the 13th Century; people have been worshipping here for well over 800 years!

A few months ago, we heard from Akazienzendo in Berlin about their plans to plant a long hedge in Obersdorf, in the country, where they host sesshins. Charlotte, Gisela, Bernd, and Zaher wrote: “A big truck from a local nursery delivered the plants on Friday morning, and for a day our yard was full of rock pears, rowan, willow saplings, white hawthorn, elder, cornelian cherries and roses. We labeled each one, and now the new hedge has taken its place on our land. Soon, we have no doubt, it will unfold all its qualities as a refuge and food source for birds, insects, and all sorts of creatures. We are still completely filled with the energy and also the friendliness and harmony of planting together with 20 members of the sangha – which was possible thanks to your financial support.”

“After the last climate demonstration in Berlin, shortly before the German elections, Greta Thunberg was asked in an interview what success meant to her. She answered: If we can say we have done everything we can to save this earth, that is success to her. Please let’s not stop trying to do everything we can to help this wonderful planet in its great diversity; each and everyone in his/her private sphere, and especially to continue to work together and network. Thank you very much!”

Last week my interview with Hakusho Ostlund about establishing Brattleboro Zen Center in Vermont during the pandemic was published in San Francisco Zen Center’s Sangha News.

Looking ahead, if you’d like to bring in the New Year by sitting with others, Brooklyn Zen Center will be hosting an online sit and celebration. “Please join us for this intimate celebration of community and collective practice, in what is the longest running BZC celebration – we have been doing it since 2005! Registration for this offering closes December 30. More information and registration is available here.”

May you feel nourished by our shared practice at this time of year, which is for many a time of both grieving and celebration.

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Starting and Growing a Sangha During the Pandemic

Hakusho Ostlund
Hakusho Ostlund

In the spring of 2020, San Francisco Zen Center resident and priest Hakusho Ostlund and his wife Marie Py decided to step out into the wider world. Hakusho had held several positions at SFZC during his 14 years of residency, including tanto (head of practice) at Tassajara and had begun taking online classes at the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley.

When Marie was hired for a job in Brattleboro, VT, she and Hakusho left Tassajara and moved there. After years of community living, Hakusho found it challenging to live in a town where he didn’t know anyone and with only one person. He wanted to practice with a local Zen group as a way of settling into the community. There had been a Zen group in Brattleboro prior to the pandemic but it was no longer meeting.

At first, he thought he would wait and start a Zen group post-pandemic. In an email exchange Zoketsu Norman Fischer said, “Maybe you should start your local Zen center now, not wait until Covid is over.” So Hakusho decided to take the first step.

He began by creating the Brattleboro Zen Center website, making flyers and posting them at the Brattleboro food co-op, bookstore, and library, and creating a mailing list. Within a few days people contacted him. A woman he met at the Food Co-op, who practiced insight meditation, knew others and helped spread the word. Hakusho started online, offering zazen five mornings a week. He added a weekly dharma event with discussion, some talks, and a half-day sitting one Saturday a month. “It’s been encouraging to offer what nourishes me in my practice, and find that people respond.” Currently the group is renting a space that will allow them to meet in person at the beginning of 2022.

Hakusho appreciates Zen forms and ceremonies and refers to himself as “a high church guy.” He is wondering how to transmit the forms in a way that is appropriate for his new sangha. He asks himself, when they meet in person would it be best to start more formally or to begin simply and add? As it will be tricky in the new space to face the wall for zazen, he wonders whether the practitioners should be required to do so.

Starting on Zoom meant that expenses were minimal, especially as he had no rent and had a free forty-minute Zoom license. However, more is involved in getting established in a physical space: teaching the forms; purchasing altar supplies, a statue, and instruments; beginning to fundraise to cover other expenses (and hopefully a modest stipend for himself at some point). Hakusho is also setting up a board and working on by-laws and a mission statement. To balance the additional time these activities take, Hakusho notes, “It’s so much fun and energizes my practice.”

Five years earlier, during his Branching Streams Fellowship at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, Hakusho learned about what it takes for a smaller sangha to thrive. He made connections with Taigen Leighton, the guiding teacher, and with Eishun Nancy Easton, a senior student who had been on the ADZG board for many years. Eishun has advised Hakusho on how to establish his board. He has also begun networking with other Branching Streams Zen teachers and with Zen teachers from other lineages in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Hakusho with members of Brattleboro Zen Center
Hakusho with members of Brattleboro Zen Center

Hakusho envisions the sangha he is establishing as a force for good in the world. Several sangha members, concerned about the climate crisis, meet weekly to explore options for addressing this urgent issue. They began by gathering signatures on postcards as part of a Just Transition climate action sponsored by 350 VT, calling on the Vermont Climate Council and legislators to bring about a transition from fossil fuels to a just and climate-resilient Vermont. “It is the first step in an exploration of how we as a Sangha may bring the ethics, concentration, and wisdom of our tradition into concrete beneficial action in the world.”

There are two aspects of Zen practice that Hakusho finds particularly meaningful. “One is ritual, how we pay homage to the Zen ancestors and engage in a practice of gratitude and humility through forms and ceremonies. The other is sangha, the recognition that awakening takes place in relationship. While the former grounds our practice in tradition, the latter asks us to be flexible and kind as we adapt to one another and the world we live in. My aspiration is to establish the Brattleboro Zen Center at the intersection of tradition and community.”