A History of Branching Streams
By Hogetsu Rick Mitchell, Houston Zen Center
When Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco in 1959 to lead a Japanese Buddhist congregation, he let it be known that he did zazen each morning at 6 a.m. Gradually, people started showing up, mostly Americans, interested in learning more about this Asian form of spirituality. And so was born the San Francisco Zen Center.
Now, nearly six decades later, Suzuki Roshi’s way has thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of adherents, practicing in Zen centers and sitting groups scattered throughout Northern California, around the country, and all over the world. Some of these centers are led by priests who trained in San Francisco and have received dharma transmission in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage; others are organized by lay students, some of whom may take a less traditional approach to forms and ceremonies. But all these sanghas are united by Suzuki’s Roshi’s simple directive: “Zen meditation practiced here.”
Branching Streams – the name comes from a line in the Sandokai: The Harmony of Difference and Equality, an ancient Chinese poem by Zen Master Sekito Kisen – grew out of the first Tassajara alumni reunion in 1986. The next year, Wind Bell (the newsletter of San Francisco Zen Center) listed 15 sanghas affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center in the Branching Streams network. Michael Wenger, editor of the Wind Bell at the time, felt it was important for these sanghas to keep in touch. He began organizing gatherings of the affiliates every two or three years.
“It’s hard to get people together,” he says. “From the beginning, I was hoping we could send [priests] out. People become stuck in the San Francisco Zen Center. I shouldn’t say stuck. People become vital here. It’s hard to leave.”
In 2006, Susan O’Connell became vice-president of San Francisco Zen Center and took over the administration of Branching Streams. “One of the first things I was asked to do was to help structure that activity,” she says. “We did a couple of surveys, asking what [the affiliate sanghas] would like to talk about, or be taught about – working with boards of directors, fundraising, doan training…One of the things I was working on from the beginning was to determine what the criteria would be for becoming a Branching Streams affiliate. We worked with a small group to develop the criteria, and then did a survey to see how many groups actually fit those criteria. The development of appropriate and helpful criteria is still in process.”
Currently there are 47 affiliate sanghas in the United States and six in other countries.
In 2012 the first Branching Streams conference held outside San Francisco took place at the Houston Zen Center. About two dozen teachers and senior students attended from California, Oregon, Montana, Chicago, New York, Austin and San Antonio. San Francisco Zen Center was represented by the late former abbot, Steve Stucky, and Susan O’Connell, now the president.
“One of the reasons I wanted the meeting to be in Houston was to change the emphasis of affiliates learning from San Francisco Zen Center to an emphasis on the affiliate sanghas’ learning from each other,” says Susan. Among the issues discussed during the three-day conference were the growing pains that predominantly lay-practitioner sanghas often experience as members attempt to balance a deepening commitment to Zen practice with family and professional responsibilities. The affiliates also worked on coordinating routing for visiting teachers.
The most recent Branching Streams gathering took place at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center in September, 2013. Approximately 60 people participated, representing some 40 sanghas. Many were from California, but some came from as far away as Florida, North Carolina and Massachusetts. The conference was co-chaired by Steve Weintraub, a psychotherapist and longtime priest at SFZC, and Roy Wyman, a senior lay practitioner at Chicago’s Ancient Dragon Zen Gate. Discussion topics included the fundamentals of Zen practice, training for serious practitioners, the nature and future of Western Zen centers, and how to best serve diverse communities of practitioners. Another theme centered around the relationship between San Francisco Zen Center and the affiliate sanghas: How can San Francisco Zen Center more effectively support the needs of its many and varied affiliates, and how can the affiliates more effectively support each other?
With its residential monastic practice at City Center, Green Gulch and Tassajara, San Francisco Zen Center has long served as an essential training center for priests and lay students. For those who live at a distance, a stay at Green Gulch or Tassajara for a guest student residency or practice period is like a rite of passage for serious practitioners. Of the 47 San Francisco Zen Center priests who have received Dharma Transmission and who are actively teaching, 22 have left the Bay Area and moved to other locations in the U.S. and around the world. “There was a maturity that needed to occur for the San Francisco Zen Center to produce people who wanted to and were able to start groups of their own,” says Steve, who, as liaison for the affiliate sanghas since 2013, has assumed responsibility for coordinating and expanding the outreach activities of Branching Streams.
“Why people stay at San Francisco Zen Center is complicated, and has been changing over time. Early on, a large number of us thought we were going to stay here forever. There are very few people for whom that has turned out to be the case… At the same time, it’s a large operation. There are a lot of full-time jobs for which a senior practitioner makes sense.”
Asked if he has a map of the country with stickpins on it wherever a Suzuki Roshi sangha can be found, Steve laughs. “Heaven forfend! There is no sense of proselytizing, that we should spread Suzuki’s Roshi’s lineage,” he says. “However, as teachers mature, and as more people discover Zen practice and develop an affinity for Suzuki Roshi’s way, requests for help come from all over. That makes sense to me. I can appreciate that. I appreciate his way also.” Among the activities Steve is currently focused on are the development of a new Branching Streams website, which if you are reading this will have become a reality, and a fellowship program, in which San Francisco Zen Center will send out one or two senior or mid-level teachers per year for six-month residencies at affiliate sanghas. “Suzuki Roshi’s lineage is flourishing, and in that flourishing, there are many expressions of the teaching that have come out and will come out,” he says.
The next Branching Streams conference is scheduled for Spring 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The abbess of Chapel Hill Zen Center, Josho Pat Phelan, had been living in or near the San Francisco Zen Center for 20 years when she accepted an offer from the Chapel Hill sitting group to visit for two weeks in 1989. “I felt like I never had to make a decision to move from San Francisco Zen Center; one morning during Rohatsu session I had a strong feeling I would be moving to North Carolina,” she says. “I just needed to convince my husband and my teacher [Sojun Mel Weitsman, from whom she received dharma transmission in 1995].”
Josho followed Suzuki Roshi’s example from when he arrived in San Francisco. “We started with one sitting period at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, plus twice-weekly programs. My idea was not to start a Zen center, but to make a place for people to sit zazen together and to let people know that Zen meditation is practiced here, for those who might be interested…” From a core group of about eight when she arrived, the Chapel Hill Zen Center has grown to an active community of about 50, with its own temple in a converted church, originally built as a home.
Michael Wenger envisions a day when the relationship between San Francisco Zen Center and the affiliate sanghas will become more of a two-way street, with the affiliates sending students and priests to San Francisco Zen Center’s training centers, some of whom could eventually assume leadership positions. He cites Steve Stucky as an example of someone who led an affiliate Branching Streams sangha who came back to become abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.
At the September 2013 meeting, there were many senior practitioners in attendance. Informed that it was a privilege to be in the presence of so much accumulated wisdom and experience, Al Tribe of Mill Valley’s Vimala Sangha, who began practicing with Suzuki Roshi in the late sixties, laughingly replied, “It’s delusion.”
Of course it is. Delusions are inexhaustible. But it’s inspiring to be able to share them sometimes.