Posted on Leave a comment

Newsette 10-24-2022

Sejiki is approaching, the time to welcome and feed the hungry ghosts everywhere, including within us. Here’s a photo of Austin Zen Center’s outdoor altar last year, taken by Choro Antonaccio:

This Newsette features several programs highlighting social, racial, and climate justice offered by Branching Streams sanghas and teachers in different locations in the U. S. and Canada.

Valley Stream Zen Sangha in Sacramento CA is hosting Racial and Social Justice as Dharma Practice: A Multi Sangha Program open to all facilitated by Hoka Chris Fortin and Paravrtti Doralee Grindler Katonah, monthly on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. PDT.  The next meeting is September 29, 2022.

The Racial and Social Justice as Dharma Practice Group is committed to study, intimate investigation and conversation, and embodied bodhisattva practice to actualize personal and collective freedom for all beings. If you are interested in joining this group please or The zoom link is sent out each month.

The Engaged Buddhist Practice committee at Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver B.C. will show the new documentary by, Fracking the Peace on October 27 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. PDT, both in-person at 2016 Wall Street, Vancouver and on Zoom. The Zoom link will be posted to the Events page on the Mountain Rain ZC website. Watch the film trailer.

Abbot Gaelyn Godwin of Houston Zen Center will participate in a nation-wide program sponsored by Buddhist Global Relief On October 29, at their Buddhist Action to Feed Hungry online Dharma gathering, “Creating a More Compassionate World.” “We’ll be featuring speakers from our partner organizations who will share extraordinary stories about the wonderful projects made possible by your generosity—in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, India, and Uganda. We’ll also be sharing reflections on ways to create a more compassionate world from outstanding Dharma teachers—Joseph Goldstein, Bhante Buddharakkhita, Roshi Gaelyn Godwin, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara, and Bhante Saranapala.”

Here is a message from Hozan Alan Senauke, Abbot of Berkeley CA Zen Center: “This was just published at BuddhistDoor Global. Please sign the petition and share this piece widely:”

Please send me news of residential retreats or one-day sittings for next week’s Newsette.

Posted on Leave a comment

Newsette 10-20-2022

In this Newsette I’ll share some highlights from my road trip to four Zen centers in the Suzuki Roshi lineage in Arcata CA, Ashland OR, Bellingham WA, and Vancouver BC. I also visited Shasta Abbey in Mt. Shasta CA and Great Vow Monastery in Clatskanie OR, spent time with dharma friends in Eugene and Portland, OR, hiked in an old-growth redwood forest, and explored the Oregon Coast on my way back to San Francisco. I traveled over 2,300 in my trusty Honda Fit and was warmly welcomed in every place I visited.

My first stop was Arcata Zen Group, whose founding teacher, Maylie Scott, had been one of my mentors when we were both on the board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the 1990’s. The current guiding teacher, Gene Bush, divides his time between Arcata and Santa Cruz Zen Center. Gene was beginning an eleven-day visit to Arcata Zen Group when I arrived. Most events at AZG are both in-person and online. As is true in many Branching Streams sanghas, some sangha members live at a distance, or have health or family issues that make it difficult for them to participate in person. Several people came in person for zazen, Gene’s dharma talk, and an afternoon of temple work, while others joined the first two events online.

Since the zendo has reopened to in-person participation some new practitioners are joining the seasoned sangha members. As is true with many other Zen centers, some members are finding it difficult to make their way back to the zendo in person.

[In addition to the Zendo, there is a building on their property that houses a library, dokusan room, kitchen, and storage space, as well as two apartments that are currently rented to local college students. The grounds include a memorial garden which Marcia Lieberman helped to create when she visited AZG a few years ago, and many apple trees. Apple-picking was one of the work afternoon activities.]

I drove over mountain roads to the town of Mt. Shasta. The snow-capped mountain seemed to float in the sky over the town, and over Shasta Abbey, one of the earliest Soto Zen centers in the U.S., founded by Rev. Jiyu Kennet, an English woman who had studied in Japan in 1970. The current Abbesss, Rev. Master Meian Elbert, gave me a tour, and we sat outside, within view of the magical Mt. Shasta, for tea and a home-made chocolate chip cookie. She fondly remembered Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who had once visited.

As I was approaching Ashland Zen Center, a sign on the sidewalk advertised “A Little Zen Farm Stand.” Inside was an offering of produce, potted plants, lavender sachets, cards, and other items for sale on the honor system.  Guiding teachers Stacey and Ramana Waymire gave me a tour of the many gardens and buildings. They live on site with their teen-age son and another sangha member, Barbara. Their founding teachers, Harold Little and Patty Krahl, had built the zendo and a small abode where they lived, and which is available now for visitors to rent. Ashland ZC also has two apartments and a bunk room for visiting students and sesshin participants. They welcome Zen students to come and practice at AZC.

The vegetable and flower gardens were extensive, and we enjoyed figs, raspberries, and vegetables that night for dinner. Harold and Patty, long-time Zen practitioners who had met at Tassajara and later practiced at Kannon Do in Mountain View CA, joined us and I shared the history of the Zen Center. One question they asked Branching Streams to explore is the issue of retirement for senior Branching Streams teachers.

After visits with dharma friends in Eugene and Portland and a rest day in Portland, I drove to Bellingham WA, a long stretch on Rt. 5 with many big-rig trucks. I made it a practice to stop and get out of my car at least every two hours, stretch, have a snack.

In Bellingham I visited Red Cedar Zen Community, founded by Norman Fischer and his student Nomon Tim Burnett in 1991. Tim is now the guiding teacher. Red Cedar gave up their rented meeting place during the pandemic and raised funds to buy a new space. Since they began reopening, they have been renting a large space in a Unitarian Church. They store zafus and zabutons in the church and set it up as a Zendo every Thursday. Zazen and Nomon’s dharma talk were also accessed on Zoom.

I returned to Bellingham on my way back from Vancouver to have lunch with Tim, Tanto Chris Burkhart, and sangha member Hannah Sullivan. Hannah took me to see the new property, an office building they are in the process of converting to a Zen center, with an office space upstairs they will rent out. A committee is working on the design of the new space.

I arrived in Vancouver the morning of the Canadian National Holiday, Truth and Reconciliation Day, formerly Indigenous People’s Day. This year the day was also called Orange Shirt Day, to remember the indigenous children who had died in boarding schools. I met Kate McCandless who is co-guiding teacher with her husband Michael Newton, at the site of Mountain Rain Zen Community, a storefront space they rent from an indigenous women’s non-profit. Kate was wearing a vivid orange t-shirt with an indigenous design and the words “Every Child Matters.” We headed for a park to meet sangha members. As we approached the park it seemed that people wearing orange t-shirts were streaming toward the park from all directions. We met up with at least ten sangha members and their friends, as we stood and listened to speakers, drummers, and saw dancers on a raised stage.

Kate and Michael live about an hour’s drive east of the city of Vancouver, in a house with a zendo in the basement, and a large garden in back. The next day, Kate and I led a daylong Zen and poetry workshop attended by eleven sangha members. The day included meditation, listening to poems participants brought with them, writing outdoors, some writing prompts, and listening to one another’s poems in a closing circle. Michael was Tenzo for the day and provided lunch.

Sunday was a practice day at the Vancouver location, with zazen, service, and a dharma talk by Kate on the theme of their Fall Practice Period, the Vimalakirti Sutra. At lunch I met with members of the Engaged Buddhism committee, and then sat in on a Council (board)meeting that was in-person with a few Council members participating by Zoom. Many in leadership roles, including the Ino, Council Chair, and Treasurer are young (from my perspective) and have been practicing at Mountain Rain for several years.

After a rest day in which I visited the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia and had a cello lesson from my teacher, who moved from San Francisco to Vancouver with her family last summer.

On my way back to San Francisco I spent about 24 hours at Great Vow Monastery, enjoying the teaching of Chozen and Hogen Bays, the kindness of sangha members, morning service in which there was some melodic chanting and a harmonium, oryoki breakfast (my first since the pandemic began) and a walk in their Jizo garden, where moss clings to some of the trees and hugs the heads of some Jizos.

I drove home along the Oregon Coast, stopping to follow a trail to a 500 year old Sitka Spruce and walk on a sandy beach with the nearby lighthouse hidden in dense fog.

Posted on Leave a comment

Newsette 10-10-2022

I returned from my journey to Vancouver yesterday, having driven over 2,500 miles. In addition to practicing with Branching Streams sanghas in Arcata CA, Ashland OR, Bellingham WA, and Vancouver BC, I visited Shasta Abbey, Great Vow Monastery, and dharma friends in Eureka CA and Eugene and Portland OR. I walked in redwood forests and on sandy beaches. 

Meanwhile, last week City Center launched our Fall Practice Period, led by Abbots Ed Sattizahn and David Zimmerman. On returning to work today, I learned of celebrations at Suzuki Roshi’s home temple in Japan, and the loss of Black Mountain Zen Centre’s space in Belfast, Northern Ireland due to a fire. I also received October newsletters from many sanghas and saw that two articles related to Branching Streams I’d written for SFZC’s Sangha News had been posted in my absence.

In order to keep this Newsette to a reasonable length, as well as to take some time to reflect on what I learned on my journey, this week’s Newsette will focus on the Rinsoin ceremonies, the Belfast fire, and will include links to my two Sangha News blogs. I’ll report on my journey in next week’s Newsette.

Rinsoin Ceremonies

Here is a message from Taiga Ito at the Soto Zen Buddhism International Center office in San Francisco: “This year is 550th Anniversary of Rinsoin in Yaezu, Japan, along with the 50th anniversary of Suzuki Roshi’s passing away. They will have celebration events and ceremonies on October 22 and 23. 

Regarding this wonderful occasion, our office is planning to send flowers and a celebration telegram on behalf of sanghas or teachers who wish to celebrate. The cost for the flowers and telegram are $100 each, and you could send either both flowers and a telegram, or only one of them.

Please return your reply to this mail by October 15th; (please do not be late)


Flowers= we will put your name or your Sangha’s name with the flowers, so please send the name you would like to send with the flowers.

Telegram= send your message of up to 25 words and your name. We will translate and send it.

Please made your payment to Soto Zen Buddhism International Center and send the check to our office, 1691 Laguna Street, San Francisco, CA 9411, tel. 415-567-7686.”

On October 3 a fire broke out in the building that housed Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. All of the Zen Centre’s cushions, instruments, art work, and other belongings were destroyed. Djinn Gallagher, the abiding priest, started a Go-Fund-Me campaign to raise funds to recreate the Zendo in a new space. For photos and some words from Djinn, see their FaceBook page.

Ryan Wong, the Director of Brooklyn Zen Center, just published his first novel, Which Side Are You On. I interviewed Ryan for SFZC’s Sangha News. Here’s a link to the interview. I highly recommend the novel. 

Here’s the link to my interview with Alan Senauke about his becoming the second Abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and his reflections on his engaged Buddhist path.

Posted on Leave a comment

Which Side Are You On: An Interview with Ryan Lee Wong

Book cover and Ryan Lee
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

I met Ryan Wong in April at the Branching Streams Conference in Austin, Texas, which Ryan attended in his role as Director of the Brooklyn Zen Center. When I learned that he is a writer as well as a Zen student, the idea for this interview arose. His novel, Which Side Are You On, was published by Catapult Books on October 4, 2022.

Ryan first had the idea that sparked his novel around 2015 when he was living in Brooklyn, NY, and was involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. A pivotal moment was the event involving Peter Liang, a Chinese American police officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man. It was shocking to Ryan how many Chinese Americans supported Gurley, and how this caused a huge rift in the Asian American community.

Although Ryan had known that his mother had been involved in Black-Korean organizing in the 1980s in L.A., that work had been overshadowed by the 1992 uprising. He wanted to learn some history and decided to write a novel because “fiction is a way to tell a story without taking a side. I could explore the more emotional and social sides of the story.”

What interested Ryan is that both his parents had been long-time activists, community organizers, and teachers and they had made a conscious effort not to speak about their politics or impose them on him. Some of their friends had tried to involve their children in politics, but they didn’t like going to protests and meetings with their parents and took more conservative paths.

Many of his parents’ activist experiences had been difficult and painful, hard to explain to a young child—for example, some of their friends had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. Both Ryan and his parents had to be ready to share these stories.

In writing the novel, Ryan considered ways to engage his potential readers. “The main thing I had to create was dramatic stakes for the main character. It doesn’t come naturally for me. A reader doesn’t have any investment in opening a novel. You have to tell them what the stakes are for the character. In Zen language, Reed, the protagonist, has to see the image of himself as a successful activist crumble.”

Ryan attended an MFA program in Fiction Writing at Rutgers from 2017 to 2019 to immerse himself in reading fiction and learn the craft of writing. He and his fellow students took apart famous stories and each other’s stories. “If you’re doing your job well as a writer, all of that is hidden from the reader. Your job is to make the machine work, so the reader doesn’t have to think about it.”

His Zen practice and his writing practice are inseparable. “I can’t picture one without the other. I see my writing practice as Eihei Dogen’s teaching, ‘To study the self is to forget the self.’ Writing is one of the ways I can see my karma and articulate it. As soon as I see my karma, I’m changing. In fiction, one character can illustrate this process. As soon as they learn something about themself they have to choose whether to hold on to that identity or let it go.” At the start of the novel, the main character, Reed, who is very entrenched in his political beliefs, often alienates the people close to him with his self-righteousness.

Ryan sees writing as a compassion practice. “If I’m not able to be compassionate toward my characters the writing suffers. The hardest character was Reed. Six years ago I was more like Reed than I am now. For me it’s often hardest to be compassionate with people who are going through what I recently went through. It involves turning toward part of myself that has been hard to accept. But there’s no turning away. As soon as you turn away, the reader can tell. As readers, we have very sophisticated truth detectors. We want the writer to be honest.”

Ryan spoke about the ways in which the novel explores generational trauma. “A key component of the plot is Reed’s understanding of his inheritance. He’s not just an individual. He’s tied to this particular ancestry. In the beginning he sees himself as an individual and makes choices from that place. As the novel goes on, he still has to make choices, but it’s from understanding his family’s history, Korean history, a history of organizing and struggle. Learning about this from his parents entirely changes his world view as well as his view of his parents.”

I asked whether Ryan writes poetry. “As fiction writers, we’re trained to be specific, to capture details. Even though a novel is long, it’s made out of sentences. Poetry shows you how to do that—not waste words, be precise with language, build an image. A house should be made of solid bricks.”

Ryan spoke about the discipline it took to work on his novel in the midst of a full life. “A big part of finishing this novel was building a writing routine. Between 2016 and 2019 I tried to write every single morning. At first, writing takes a lot of practice—like preparing for a long run or learning to play an instrument.” He wrote the final draft during the summer of 2020 while following the monastic schedule at Ancestral Heart, Brooklyn Zen Center’s country temple. Though the schedule began early in the morning, there was a two-hour break in the afternoon. “I’d swim in the quarry, think about what I would write, then type it out for half an hour or so.”

“Writing is a solitary practice, but for me it’s not lonely. At every stage I’ve felt community—the writing community, the arts community, and the sangha. The container and stillness and mirroring of sangha has been essential to my writing.”

This summer, for the third time, Ryan attended the annual retreat with Kundiman, an organization dedicated to providing a nurturing space for Asian American writers. “I learned to really give myself permission to be a writer at these retreats. Growing up, it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer, because most of the books I read in school were by long-deceased European writers. I didn’t know many writers, let alone Asian American writers. It was essential to be with peers who were doing just that. The world of books is so much more diverse than it was twenty years ago. It’s exciting to be a writer now. It feels like it’s part of being a wave or a movement.”

Before Ryan began writing fiction he was an art critic and was more comfortable with non-fiction. Since finishing Which Side Are You On he has written some essays and personal reflections and a short story about a character who is just starting to meditate and is struggling with his mind.

This Spring, Ryan left the monastery and returned to Brooklyn. “Back in Brooklyn the myriad things are coming up all the time. I’m a different person than before my two years of training at Ancestral Heart. I have more grounding and stability. It’s more fun now to be in New York, because if there’s a place that doesn’t conform to your preferences, it’s New York City.”

Before beginning Zen practice with Brooklyn Zen Center in 2015, Ryan tried a few other Dharma centers. “I stuck with Brooklyn Zen Center because I was attracted to the mix of social engagement and dharma.” His teacher is Kosen Greg Snyder, from whom he received the precepts in Fall 2019. His dharma name is Churyu Hongo / Faithful Dragon, Original Home.

Ryan will give a reading at San Francisco’s Booksmith on Haight Street on November 7. For readings in New York, Los Angeles, and other venues see his website.