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Newsette 9-11-2023

This morning at City Center’s work circle, Keith Baker, who gives an ASL lesson every morning, taught us to sign: “Let-us Remember 9-11; And Everyone’s Well-Being.” I remember that on 9/11/2001 I was on a break from Tassara, staying with a friend in Berkeley on my way to visit my parents in New York City, when the news was on TV. I volunteered to help the Buddhist Peace Fellowship organize a community meeting. That event impacted all of us, whether we were alive at that time or not, as our country and world have been changed by it.

Transitions are in the air! Last week I attended the Stepping Down Ceremony of Les Kaye, founding and guiding teacher of Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View. The Sangha rehearsed for the ceremony supported by Taiga Ito and other priests from the Soto Zen International Center based in San Francisco. Great appreciation was expressed for Les’s over fifty years of teaching.

There were also Stepping Down and Mountain Seat Ceremonies at Sonoma Zen Mountain Center when Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who founded SZMC in 1973, passed the leadership of the temple to his son, ­Nyoze Kwong. A local newspaper described the ceremony.

Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi and his son Shungo Suzuki attended the ceremonies at SZMC and Kannon Do and spent a night at City Center before returning to Japan. It was the weekend of our annual Suzuki Roshi memorial services on the 3rd and 4th of every month, and the connection to Shuryu Suzuki felt very strong.

Last week I also went to a joyful celebration of Kaz Tanahashi’s 90th birthday at Green Gulch Farm. Many of us have read Kaz’s translations of Dogen, studied calligraphy with him, or appreciated his brushwork and his activism. A tree was planted in his honor in the GGF Peace Garden.

I met with Anna Malo, San Francisco Zen Center’s Conference and Program Manager, this morning to talk about this summer’s Tassajara Sangha weeks and what SFZC is planning for summer 2024. This summer 25 Branching Streams Sanghas went to Tassajara for five-day Sangha Weeks! Anna expressed her gratitude to all the sanghas who participated. She said the sanghas “breathed life back into the Valley.” I’ve heard reports from many of you about how valuable your time at Tassjara was for bringing sangha members closer together and strengthening your practice.

The good news is that Anna will be inviting the sanghas that participated this summer to return for Sangha Weeks in 2024! It may be possible to organize some sangha weeks at Green Gulch Farm as well in 2024; please let me know if you are interested.

Many Branching Streams sanghas have not yet made an Annual Contribution for 2023. You can do so either electronically through the website, or by writing a check to San Francisco Zen Center, with the name of your sangha on the memo line, and send it to 300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, attn: Tova Green. I will be following up with sangha leaders individually later this month.

If there are ceremonies, celebrations or mournings, or programs your Sangha would like mentioned in a Newsette, please email the information to me at

Taigen Dan Leighton, guiding teacher at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago Il, will be offering an online Seminar on Dogen’s Extensive Record on October 21 from 1 to 4:30 p.m. CT. For more information, email A flyer is attached.

For those of us who love the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, her newest book, The Asking: New and Selected Poems, is being released this week. She is giving many readings this month in the SF Bay Area, Sonoma County, and Seattle.

Our Branching Streams Gathering begins next Monday, September 16th in Santa Cruz. Sixty people from thirty Branching Streams sanghas will be exploring the theme, Transitions. We will be sharing what we learn in future Newsettes and on the Branching Streams website.

Next week is the Autumn Equinox, as we transition from summer to autumn. Transitions are everywhere!

I will write my next Newsette after the Gathering.

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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.

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New Book: Clean Slate, by Marcia Lieberman

Clean Slate by Marcia Lieberman
Clean Slate by Marcia Lieberman

Marcia Lieberman has authored a new book, Clean Slate: Images from Dogen’s Garden. Here is a blurb from Dale Wright, author of The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character: It’s hard to imagine a more apt portal to the heart of Dogen’s Soto Zen sensibility than Marcia Lieberman’s Clean Slate. Her brilliant photographs isolate fragments of plants from Dogen’s Japanese gardens in various stages of life’s impermanence so vividly that the fragrance seeps through the medium. Breathe in: black pine, camelia, wisteria, magnolia. Responses from five lifelong Dogen affectionados and an introductory doorway to Dogen from Soto teacher Taigen Leighton let the extraordinary Zen master and these botanical sentient beings speak to us directly. Just breathe, savoring “mountains and waters”– no translation required.

See more on the book, including a letter from Marcia Lieberman introducing the book, here.