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Newsette 12-1-2022

I am writing this Newsette on the first day of December. It is raining this morning in the San Francisco Bay Area, the rain greatly welcomed, as our umbrellas and raincoats have not been used in many months. In a few days we’ll begin Rohatsu sesshin at City Center and offer our annual memorial service to Suzuki Roshi.

At this time of year, many Branching Streams groups are fundraising while they are preparing for Rohatsu Sesshin and Buddha’s enlightenment ceremonies. I am including excerpts from several fundraising appeals to illustrate a range of ways in which Branching Streams centers, small and large, are raising funds to support their teachers and care for their meeting spaces.

Taigen Leighton, the guiding teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago writes: “As we approach year’s end, Ancient Dragon is in transition. The next Sunday, December 4th, we will hold a Rohatsu all-day sitting and a temple dedication ceremony for our lovely new Lincoln Square interim zendo. However, the sitting is already full to capacity. Numbers of regular ADZG participants will not be able to attend….The great interest in our all-day sittings is heartening, and we will hold more all-day sittings early next year. This highlights our need for a larger full-time space. We are actively working to locate and finance a building for a long-term Chicago temple. We also are working to develop and enhance our hybrid zoom/ in-person technology to integrate our in-person sangha and our many fine remote practitioners.

Please consider giving to Ancient Dragon Zen Gate so that we may continue to provide our practice and teaching offerings. Your gift will help us in the search for a new practice location while continuing to make the Dharma available online.

Brooklyn Zen Center’s director, Ryan Wong, wrote in their December newsletter: “We are entering the final days of our Fall Practice Period, themed “Repose and Bliss, Engagement and Liberation.” We face the monumental challenges of racial and patriarchal violence, ecological catastrophe, eroding political systems, the global pandemic, and more. “Repose,” in this context, is no indulgent or self-interested activity. The Ancient Greek paúō means “cease, stop, hinder, halt”: repose is not passivity, but interrupting harmful systems.

“This requires us to move against the stream and can create a space for repose—to build sangha (community) in a society that makes us individuals, to offer practices based not in profit but in vow. In a capitalist system, robust finances are considered their own measure of organizational health. For us, they are only an outward manifestation of our deeper practice intentions. This flow of resources between the sangha and temple enables us to deliver our offerings to the entire community.

“Our End of Year fundraising goal is $100,000. We raised $88,074 last year and we are increasing our goal to build our new Equity-Based Model making our programs more accessible, stipend our teachers and hire staff, and meet the expanded activity at our two temples.”

Austin Zen Center’s Membership Committee member Todd Cornett writes: “I look forward to the season, but with a bit of unease from the demanding social rules of exchange. So I am thankful for our Rohatsu sesshin winter retreat, Dec.2nd – Dec.9th. During this time, before serving each meal, we say “…now we set out Buddha’s bowls. May we, with all beings, realize the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver, and gift.” That is, as Zen practitioners we remember at each meal that giving is life—that everything is giving, everything is given. There are no separate givers, receivers, or gifts. All of life is always giving and receiving at the same time. The three wheels empty into just the act of giving.”

Stacy Waymire, Co-Guiding Teacher and Board President of Ashland Zen Center (OR), penned a letter which ends with these words: “As we look around our world, it is clear that to live a life of value is difficult…It is only in this one moment, with this one life, that we have been given the opportunity to help bend the arch of existence toward loving kindness…To help and encourage us, spiritual communities come together and places of practice are established where we cultivate wisdom and compassion. A great bow of thanks to everyone who generously shared your financial, material, and physical donations that have maintained Ashland Zen Center this year. If Ashland Zen Center is important to you, please take the time now to renew your pledge, begin your pledge, or make a donation to sustain Soto Zen Buddhist practice and programs in the future.”

“This weekend marked my ten-year anniversary as a Zen priest,” writes Hakusho Ostlund, guiding teacher of Brattleboro Zen Center (VT). “I’ve been celebrating it by reflecting on the marvelous accompaniment I’ve enjoyed on this path…And, in the last 20 months, the members and supporters of Brattleboro Zen Center, contributing to the establishment of a thriving Zen community in our quaint little Vermont town. Your practice and generosity support me to engage in the most meaningful kind of work: to guide the practice and Sangha growth of a Zen community.

“Having grown beyond this beginning, I’m now thrilled to report that the BZC is seriously considering renting our own dedicated zendo space. Due to the generous support from local Sangha members, whose financial contributions have surpassed expectations set by our Board, renting our own space is, though a significant leap, imaginable! …Whether we’ll rent our own space or a shared space that will better meet our current and near future needs, we’re going to need to grow our current budget of $10,000 significantly. Your generosity now will help shape the direction of Brattleboro Zen Center in the new year.”

I find these words encouraging and inspiring and hope you will as well.

May the coming month and the celebrations from Buddha’s Enlightenment to solstice and to New Year’s be sustaining and enlivening for you.

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Newsette 11-15-2022

As I write, some of you will be in Los Angeles, and others on your way there, to participate in the five-day Precept Retreat (Jukai-e ceremony) celebrating 100 years since the founding of Zenshuji Soto Zen temple in Los Angeles.

The flyer for this event (attacjed) says: “During the last 100 years, Soto Zen Buddhism spread across North America and there are now over 200 temples and Zen centers and 800 Soto Zen priests. Though many of their dharma lineages share the same roots, they have become so diverse and complex that they are often unaware of the presence of their distant dharma relatives. On this occasion…we are going back to the root of our origin and once again share the Jukai-e ceremony with our dharma brothers and sisters.”

If you are attending the ceremony and would like to share some of your experiences, impressions, or photos on the Branching Streams website, please send them to me and I will compile and post them.

Thanksgiving is coming up next week for those of us in the U.S. and I will be taking some personal time. The next Newsette will be the week of November 28.

Here’s news from Branching Streams Zen teachers in Rome, Italy and Jalapa, Mexico, an update about the network of sitting groups in England called Dancing Mountains Zen Community, and a message from the Director of Tassajara.

Dario Girolami, Abbot of Centro Zen l’Arco in Rome

led a meditation and gave a dharma talk at the Forum, in the Temple of Venus and Rome, on November 4. The topics of his talk ranged “from the fire of Nero to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, from the cypress trees of the Sacred Way to Joshu’s Cypress in the Courtyard…in the place where Julius Caesar, Octavian Augustus and Marcus Aurelius walked.” Dario was joined by his sangha and his wife Annalisa. “It has been a very deep experience for me.” It clarified his living koan about “why I was born in Rome with a clear Buddhist vocation.”

The guiding teacher of Montana Despierta Zen in Jalapa, Mexico, Sergio Stern, recently published his book The empty bowl. Contributions of a psychoanalyst to the study of buddhadharma. His book expresses what Sergio has learned in 25 years of practicing as a psychoanalyst and a Zen student about the connections between these two disciplines.

The Secretary of Dancing Mountains Zen Sangha UK, Michael Elssmere, sent a document (attached) tracing the history and current status of a group of sanghas that organized under the umbrella of Dancing Mountains in 2012. This structure connected groups that formed after Tenshin Reb Anderson’s many visits to the UK . Dancing Mountains supports the various sanghas financially and by arranging UK wide retreats and the UK tours of SFZC teachers in various parts of England.

Please share the following with your sanghas: Tassajara is offering a full scholarship for the Winter 2023 practice period to anyone who has completed at least one Tassajara practice period and would be interested in working in the kitchen. An application will need to be submitted, but no payment or use of practice period credits will be required. There are five spaces available. Please contact the Tassajara director at zmcdirector@sfzc.org before November 21 for details.

I wish you safe travels if you are traveling and a nourishing time wherever you are.

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Newsette 11-7-2022

“The chilly, wet days of fall have arrived at last, the early is gratefully absorbing the needed rain,” write Kate McCandless and Michael Newton, the guiding teachers of Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver, BC. We’re also appreciating some rainy in the Bay Area after many dry months.

This Newsette includes two mournings, two literary launchings, and a request from Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

At City Center we rang the densho 108 times for Layla Smith Bockhorst, who died on Thursday, November 3 at home, supported by family and sangha members. Layla was the guiding teacher for Branching Streams groups Open Circle in Helena MT and Mountain Source in Bolinas and Larkspur CA. She and her husband Jim came to SFZC in the early 70’s.

Mid City Zen in New Orleans LA has been grieving the loss of their friend, former board chair, and long-time Mid City Zen sangha member, Billy Southern. They joined with Houston Zen Center, where he was also active, in holding a weekly memorial service for 49 days. The closing ceremony will be on November 17.

Celebrations:  David  Guy, a long-time student at Chapel Hill Zen Center in NC, is launching his sixth novel,  Hank Heals: A Novel of Miracles.  It’s about a Zen teacher who supposedly has healing powers. Norman Fischer wrote in a blurb about the book, “In the course of the story we learn a lot of real stuff about Zen practice, zazen, and why people need to do it—and, not incidentally, about healing: physically, psychically, spiritually.  You will enjoy and learn from this book.” It will be published by Monkfish on November 22.

Guiding teacher of Mill Valley Zen, Marc Lesser, writes:  “I’m so excited to announce the launch of my brand-new podcast, Zen Bones: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times. “Why Zen Bones? Our world is in crisis and ever-shifting, and now more than ever, more wisdom, clarity, and courage are essential, especially in the world of work, business, and leadership.” This weekly 30-minute podcast will alternate between interviews (including Leo Babauta, Peter Coyote, and Jane Hirshfield), and teachings from Marc.

Tassajara is looking for kitchen volunteers with practice experience either at Tassajara or other silent retreat settings to support a retreat for wildland firefighters from January 2 – 11. This retreat will provide firefighters with much needed refuge, rest and renewal, as well as training in mindfulness, meditation, and sensory awareness. Preference will be given to those who can commit for the entire retreat. Please contact Lauren at zmcdirector@sfzc.org.

Tension is in the air about tomorrow’s elections in the U.S. So much rests on this election. If you are eligible to vote, please vote.

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Rakusu Sewing with Hogetsu Laurie Belzer

The following is a guest feature shared from the Zen Center North Shore newsletter written by Joshua Archer.

Laurie Belzer Headshot
Dharma teacher Hogetsu Laurie Belzer

This past weekend (Oct 8-10, 2022), ZCNS had the honor of hosting dharma teacher Hogetsu Laurie Belzer, who was visiting from Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago. For three full days, Laurie offered rakusu robe sewing instruction to ZCNS students preparing to receive the precepts in a jukai (lay ordination) ceremony later this year.

With sangha members fully present to support them, the students preparing to receive the precepts each sewed Buddha’s robe in an exacting method and pattern that has been transmitted, warm hand to warm hand, for centuries. This is a deeply devotional practice that affirms their vows, connects them to our lineage, and brings us all together in community. During Laurie’s time with us, many sangha members came forward to offer food and support, and to help the students stitch. It was beautiful to share this practice together.

We were also honored to receive a dharma talk from Laurie during her visit. Her talk explored the importance of community in our collective awakening.

We were so grateful to once again have Laurie here as a guest teacher, sharing her wisdom and compassion and connecting us to this vital tradition of sewing.

Thank you, Laurie!

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Newsette – 11-1-2022

Election day in the U.S. is a week from today, November 8. Taigen Leighton, guiding teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, IL, wrote in his sangha newsletter:

“PLEASE VOTE, whether in person, in early voting, or by mail. People from many states receive this message. In all those states many key issues related to our bodhisattva values of benefiting all beings and expressing awakening and kindness will be on the ballot. This election will have major impacts for all of us. We value our deep interconnectedness with the natural landscape, now under threat. This election’s results may seriously hamper any appropriate measures to address world-wide climate breakdown…Further, this election will decide the situation of women’s healthcare, and whether local or national politicians will determine doctors’ and women patients’ health decisions… Moreover, amid massive voter suppression and an atmosphere of hate speech and violence, this election will decide whether our right to vote and our nation’s democracy will might continue. This is not hyperbole. This is not a drill. Please vote and support others to vote.”

Many Branching Streams Zen Centers and sanghas are opening to in-person events, including one-day sittings and longer sesshins. Looking ahead to Rohatsu sesshin, here are offerings from sanghas in several regions of the U.S. (this is not a complete list).

Hartford Street Zen Center’s SZC’s Winter Light Retreat is scheduled to begin the evening of Wednesday, November 30 and end mid-day on Sunday, December 4. HSZC is located in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. “Everyone is welcome to attend (all or in part) but please do let us know by emailing info@hszc.org. A more formal schedule will be posted as we near the start date.” This retreat will be in-person though it’s not residential.

Ashland Zen Center (OR) is offering Rohatsu Sesshin from December 5 to 11. Overnight accommodations are available. Guiding teachers Ramana and Stacey Waymire describe this retreat: “Sesshin means touching-uniting heart-mind.  Rohatsu (‘eighth day of the twelfth month’) is the day the Buddha, sitting upright under the Bodhi Tree, attained enlightenment together with all beings.  Rohatsu sesshin is the cornerstone of our year of practice…

Although we say that Rohatsu is a seven-day sesshin that begins on December 5, Rohatsu actually begins the moment we meet it and say yes. This is your invitation. Say yes and let Rohatsu begin.

Houston Zen Center is hosting an in-person residential Rohatsu Sesshin from December 7 to 12. “Deepen meditation practice and gather the mind during this 5-day intensive meditation practice being held at Auspicious Cloud Retreat Center and led by Abbot Gaelyn Godwin and Rev. Tim Schorre.
Rohatsu means “great cold” and sesshin means “gather the mind.” This is an annual meditation retreat in the cold time of the year, to gather the mind. Historically, it honors Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment.”

Austin Zen Center will end its Fall Practice Period with Rohatsu Sesshin from December 2 to 9. More information will be available on their website soon.

Brooklyn Zen Center offers an in-person non-residential Rohatsu retreat from December 7 to 11, co-led by Kosen Gregory Snyder, Shingetsu Laura O’Loughlin, Kidō Ian Case, Sarah Dōjin Emerson and Charlie Korin Pokorny, at their Boundless Mind Temple in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

An online sesshin is offered by Two Streams Zen Sanctuary, located in Western MA and Portugal,  “a dedicated practice space for People of Color where the Teachings of the Buddha are made accessible to all who come through our doors seeking Sanity, Community, Healing, and an End to Suffering.” Guiding teachers Ryumon and Anraku write in their newsletter: “Our Virtual Autumn Practice Period continues. We will intensify and deepen our practice with Rohatsu Sesshin starting on Wednesday, 30 November through Wednesday, 7 December. There is a place for you at the table.” To join, please send an email to: twostreamszen@gmail.com.

I will close with these words from Ryumon and Anraku:

May these days be blessed times
of contemplation and practice, together with all beings.

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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 emailchrisfortin@comcast.net or grindkaton@icloud.com. 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 Stand.earth, 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.

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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.

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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)

Instructions:

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.

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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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Newsette 9-19-2022

As we turn toward the Autumn Equinox later this week, I am preparing to venture out on a road trip to Vancouver. This is a trip I envisioned in 2020, before the Covid pandemic. I will be visiting Branching Streams sanghas, starting with Arcata Zen Group in Northern California, and ending with Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver. I look forward to doing a morning of practice with Ashland Zen Center and to seeing the new home of Red Cedar Zen Community in Bellingham, WA. I will also be visiting Shasta Abbey and Great Vow Monastery, places I’ve heard so much about and never seen.

When I began serving as the Branching Streams liaison in early 2019, my predecessor Steve Weintraub encouraged me to visit Branching Streams groups, and this has been one of the most rewarding parts of my role. I visited many of the Bay Area groups that first year, as well as Zen Centers in Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, New York, and Rome and Belfast in Europe . At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 I was visiting the three Branching Streams Zen Centers in Texas.

Now that many Zen groups who lost their practice places during the pandemic are finding new homes, and sanghas that were meeting entirely on Zoom are reopening to in-person practice, it is possible to visit again.

I will take to the road on Friday, September 23rd, in my Honda Fit. I am preparing for the many hours of driving by taking the AARP Driver Safety online class and pouring over maps to check distances between destinations and decide where to stop for rest breaks.

I look forward to connecting with the teachers, sangha members, and dharma friends I will meet on my journey. I’ll pack my watercolors and journal and hope to find a number of ways to report back. I’ll return on October 9thand will send my next Newsette soon after.