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Always Beginner's Mind
Zen Center at 50
Practice at San Francisco Zen Center
starts in the zendo and extends out to the farm, the kitchen, the
workplace, the human heart. COLLEEN MORTON BUSCH reports on one of
American Buddhism’s most important communities as it celebrates its
stand barefoot on the wooden walkway behind the zendo with the other
members of my serving crew, the hot breakfast pots set out on tables.
According to the thermometer, it’s 32 degrees. It’s the eighty-eighth
practice period in the history of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, but my
first. I’m one of sixty participants ranging in age from one and a half
(the head student’s toddler) to an 84-year-old recently ordained priest
who once served Shunryu Suzuki Roshi scrambled eggs at her home. I
shuffle my feet and tuck my hands inside my robes.
said that Zen is transmitted “warm hand to warm hand.” At this moment,
my frigid fingers are dubious. But the head server signals us, and we
bow and file into the zendo in choreographed order. As warm pots and the
motion of serving thaw my extremities, I forget about the cold. I merge
with the dance that is formal oryoki—literally, “just enough”—breakfast. The community raises their bowls in sync and takes the first bite in unison.
been in sync for hours, actually, since we settled into our seats,
facing the wall, for 4:20 a.m. zazen, or meditation. For the next hour,
coughs were muffled and bodies sat silent and still while the creek
outside the zendo splashed over rocks, the cook stirred cereal in the
kitchen, and an owl hooted nearby. The day began with zazen, and it
would end with zazen, but, as we were often reminded, even when the
schedule said something else—study or work or bath time—zazen continued.
Moving sandbags didn’t look like zazen. Oryoki didn’t look like zazen.
But both were an extension of zazen, simply other ways to practice being
Suzuki probably didn’t expect to teach oryoki when he came to America
in 1959 to lead a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist congregation in San
Francisco— and ended up inspiring a generation of young Americans. He
taught the curious how to sit facing a wall and settle body and mind on
the present moment so that when the bell rang signaling the end of the
meditation period, they could enter the rest of their lives with the
mind of zazen: awake, compassionate, open, connected. Together, Suzuki
Roshi and his students forged a path for Zen Buddhism in America— not as
a religion or a philosophy to be studied, for it had already been
introduced in that sense—but as a constant practice, an embodied way of
living, with zazen at its core. “When you become one with your practice,
whatever it is, not only zazen but drinking, eating...you are one
already—one with everything,” Suzuki Roshi told his students in a 1969
lecture. Everything, he added, meant “something greater than things
which you can figure out.”
Suzuki Roshi died in 1971, his students still had a lot to figure out.
They’d come a long way from the first early morning meditations at
Sokoji: incorporating as San Francisco Zen Center in 1962; buying
Tassajara, a monastic retreat in the wilderness near Big Sur in late
1966; and publishing Suzuki’s talks in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in
1970. Zen Center would expand further in the years following Suzuki’s
death, acquiring farmland in coastal Marin County and opening a variety
of businesses—a bakery, stitchery, grocery, restaurant, and “work
company” for odd construction jobs—during abbot Richard Baker’s tenure
as Suzuki’s chosen dharma heir. Then the sky came tumbling down. In
1984, Baker resigned as abbot after abuses of power surfaced, including
sexual indiscretions. For years, the organization struggled to right
itself. This took time, and some thought Zen Center would fail. But it
survived, arguably stronger for the growing pains.
days, San Francisco Zen Center is a thriving practice place—three
places, actually—with a diverse membership and affiliations across the
globe, offering a full schedule of daily practice, intensives, retreats,
and programs for residents and the wider community. In 2008, when
wildfire threatened Tassajara, expressions of concern and goodwill
streamed in from around the world.
August, Zen Center turns fifty, a natural time to look both backward
and forward, from inside and out. I asked the venerable religious
scholar Huston Smith, now ninety-two, for his thoughts on the
significance of the anniversary. “Meditation is a good word in America,”
he said, pointing to the same innocence that drew Suzuki Roshi to his
American students, who were free from the cultural and religious baggage
of Buddhism in the East. Smith characterized Zen Center’s endurance as
“a great boon.”
According to Professor Richard Seager, author of Buddhism in America,
the Center has “a certain historical preeminence. San Francisco Zen
Center was there before the others with a leadership crisis, developing
institutional responses,” he told me. “Those who made it through were
part of establishing a real live institution."
Chadwick, compiler of the Suzuki Roshi archives and tireless Zen Center
historian, thinks it’s a healthy sign that there are so many young
people at Zen Center. “It’s not a monoculture. It’s easy to criticize
institutions, but Zen Center gives individuals a place where they can
focus on having a life, or at least a period of time, to concentrate on
the way the seeds of Suzuki Roshi’s lineage have scattered and grown,
says Zen Center central abbot Steve Stücky. “People stay here for a
while, then go out and make the dharma accessible to others through
their own lives. It’s all valuable, and really, it’s immeasurable.”
And so I set out not so much to measure Zen Center’s influence as to witness its myriad forms.
Wood, Carry Water, Plant Seeds, Bake Bread.
A crew of twelve works in
pairs. One “drops” and the other “puts,” planting little gem lettuce
seedlings on an overcast but warm spring day at Green Gulch Farm, just
over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. A group of third graders
has just arrived for a tour with one of Green Gulch’s volunteer docents.
A farm apprentice shows a visiting group from a community college
around the fields.
a lot going on, but 33-year-old farm manager Sara Tashker is in good
spirits. While we talk, she sows dill and clover seeds, readjusts the
spacing on some lettuce plugs, periodically checks her clipboard, and
redirects her crew as they finish each task. Her cheeks are flecked and
fingertips smudged with dirt, or rather, soil, rich in nutrients from
forty years of tending by Zen students.
“You could work on rainbow chard,” Tashker tells an apprentice. “They’re puny, but I think their roots are good.”
crew comes from all over the country. Some have little or no experience
with farming or Zen. Most are in their twenties and thirties. “A lot of
people say, ‘I Googled Zen and farming, and this place came up,’”
Tashker tells me. (Out of curiosity, I test this later; Green Gulch Farm
is the first and second search result.)
calls herself a “Zen Center-grown farmer,” since she was relatively new
to farming when she arrived in 2003. She’s been the farm manager twice
since 2007, with breaks to have a baby and to be head student for the
2011 fall practice period at Tassajara. Tashker’s farm work and her
practice are deeply connected. In a talk she gave at Tassajara about
generosity, she spoke about soil: “At Tassajara, I go to all the zazen
periods. When I’m at Green Gulch, I farm,” she tells me. “But I feel
like I’m completely showing up for my life, trying to serve beings, take
care of the plants, people, the farm.” Both Zen and farming, she says,
are fundamentally about “observation and curiosity” and responding to
conditions as they are.
the crew is planting a half-acre of the farm’s total of about five and a
half acres. The farm generates between $160,000 and $180,000 in revenue
each year. About 20 percent of the produce— including leafy greens,
broccoli, beets, scallions, potatoes, and zucchini—goes directly to the
kitchens at Green Gulch and to Greens, the renowned San Francisco
vegetarian restaurant started by Zen Center in 1979. The remaining 80
percent is sold at farmers’ markets and to grocers and restaurants.
follows along behind Little O, a cultivating tractor, ensuring that the
beet seeds have dropped. With only seven minutes to go before lunch,
she looks at her watch and instructs her crew to finish up with three
flats of fennel. Though there’s still much to do, including watering and
covering the seedlings, this planting day is going smoothly. It isn’t
always so. Once, a plug blew out of the tractor oil pan on planting day,
and oil spewed everywhere. A resourceful apprentice whittled a
temporary replacement out of wood. Such occasions remind Tashker of the
quiet and continuous efforts that support Green Gulch, and by extension
Zen Center. “These places exist out of the generosity and goodness of
goodness ripples outward, but also inward, into the bellies of people
whose study of Zen may consist entirely of what they gleaned from the
whole-wheat-flour-dusted pages of their Tassajara Bread Book. Written by then-student Edward Espe Brown, the Bread Book taught
Zen while instructing how to make a flaky biscuit—and readers are still
eating it up. The book has sold 900,000 copies. The Bread Book and Brown’s subsequent books, including the recently released Complete Tassajara Cookbook,
changed how cooks relate to their work in the kitchen, to their
ingredients, and to their own minds. They helped put wholesome baked
goods and appetizing vegetarian meals on tables around the country.
Celebrity chef Mark Bittman credits the Bread Book with inspiring his first forays into bread baking.
Somerville, a sixty-year-old former Zen Center student and Tassajara
resident, has been executive chef of Greens Restaurant since 1985.
Greens is one of the few surviving businesses of the expansive Richard
Baker era. While the restaurant operates independently, it still
contributes financially to Zen Center and features what Somerville
calls the “stunning” Green Gulch Farm produce. Recently, Zen Center
welcomed longtime supporters of Tassajara to an appreciation dinner at
Greens. Somerville’s menu featured roasted dry-farmed potatoes speared
on rosemary stalks, artichoke and sunchoke gratin with fromage blanc
custard, and flourless chocolate torte.
customers are diverse—and mostly not vegetarian. Somerville believes
in helping customers open up to the possibilities within the vegetable
by presenting food that is not only pleasing to the eye but also
“recognizable—a celebration of ingredients.” The staff may no longer bow
at an altar in the kitchen before beginning their work, but the altar
is still there—one of the chefs tends it—and Somerville still
approaches her work from the ground of her Zen training. Like Tashker,
she’s always noticing, staying curious, encouraging others. “And for me
it’s global,” says Somerville. “It’s not just what’s on the plate.”
Giving and Receiving
partner and I try to roll a ball to one another across a piece of rope.
We’re not having much luck. We push it faster, then slower. We hold the
rope more or less taut but the ball, poorly inflated, just flops off.
We’re told to switch partners just as the ball somehow scoots across the
full length of the rope.
participating in an Honoring the Path of the Warrior (HPW) retreat,
held in the yurt at Green Gulch Farm on a wet, blustery Saturday in
March. Everyone except me and the two facilitators is a veteran. The
rope-and-ball exercise is one of a series of warm-ups that serve to
bring the vets back into a felt experience of their bodies and foster
the group camaraderie that vets miss when they leave active duty. Over
the course of the morning, we also spend time writing down and sharing
recollections of feeling safe. One veteran recalls lying in the sun on
the hot concrete after swimming in a cold pool as a kid; another talks
of sitting under a date tree in his grandfather’s yard. “I don’t have to
be at war here,” says one of the female vets who had attended a women
veterans’ retreat at Tassajara last year.
six men and six women participating don’t sit much zazen, nor do they
talk about combat experiences. “It comes up if it needs to,” says Chris
Fortin, but she and program co-founder Lee Klinger Lesser are more
concerned with creating a “safe space and “communal body” for the vets.
After lunch, Fortin gives a brief introduction to zazen in the
meditation hall—noting that Zen and the military both recognize the
“basic human dignity expressed in upright posture.” But more than
teaching the vets the particular forms of Zen practice, Fortin and
Lesser want to expose them to compassion and awareness, to encourage
them to drop the armor they no longer need and open to their true
vulnerability and resilience. To this end, other HPW retreats
incorporate qi gong, rock climbing, and river rafting.
daylong retreat would have included a hike to the ocean if it weren’t
for heavy wind and rain, so Fortin and Lesser lead us down to the Green
Gulch gardens when the skies clear after lunch. Fortin runs her hand
across the damp grass, lifts her palm to her face, and with a nod
invites the group to do the same. “Wild chamomile!” she says with a wide
smile. Later, she hands out mint and soft, downy leaves like rabbit
ears. The veterans walk around the flower beds in the garden, crinkled
leaves to their noses, stopping each time a bell rings to pause and take
in their surroundings. “Vets, especially those with PTSD,” Fortin tells
me, “have to come back to their senses.”
through mud and puddles, we reach the edge of the farm. The vets walk
in twos or threes, chatting easily. Holding it under his arm like a
football, one vet has a loaf of freshly baked bread he’s purchased from
the kitchen. The bell rings. We all stop, breathe in, consider our
surroundings, and erupt in laughter, for what we are taking in with deep
appreciation is the smell of rotting compost.
and Lesser, both former residents at Green Gulch and Tassajara, started
HPW in 2007 to help veterans returning home from wars abroad make a
positive and peaceful transition back to civilian life. The vibrant
program they’ve created, first through many hours of donated time and
now with Zen Center’s fiscal sponsorship, is a bright example of the
ways Zen practitioners respond to the suffering of the world they live
in. Zen Center has answered that call on an organizational level by
creating or supporting programs like HPW, addiction-and-recovery groups
and retreats, Prison Dharma at San Quentin, Queer Dharma, Young Urban
Zen, and the Zen Hospice Project, which helped launch the country’s
palliative care movement.
Roshi invited those he met to come sit with him each morning and look
inside their own minds. That simple gesture, combined with the ripeness
of a certain generation for meditation, marked the humble beginning of
San Francisco Zen Center. Now, roughly 10,000 people pass through the
three centers each year. In addition, the teachings are regularly
offered “outside the gate”—taking the sanctuary to the students rather
than bringing the students to the sanctuary. Sometimes the teachings are
in the form of a hot meal.
a Thursday afternoon in April, three volunteers meet in the Zen Center
kitchen at 300 Page Street in San Francisco, known as City Center. With
fresh ingredients on hand and leftovers from the residents’ meals, they
put together a menu of seasoned split peas with kale, brown rice, and a
green salad to serve to formerly homeless residents at a new
transitional housing complex, Richardson Apartments. “We don’t plan the
meals,” one of the regular weekly volunteers tells me. “We just show up
and see what’s available.”
we load the food into vehicles, a passing car stops in front of the
entrance to the grand brick Julia Morgan building that houses City
Center so the driver can snap a photograph. When we arrive at Richardson
Apartments, a few hungry residents are waiting. Watching us carry in
the trays of hot food, a woman asks, “Where’s the salad? Did you bring
salad?” Gradually, residents file into the lounge where we’re setting up
to serve. “I like this kale!” says one resident in her fifties, getting
seconds of the split peas in her own take-away container. A male
resident in a wheelchair returns for seconds, then thirds. His affect is
flat, but he always says thank you.
food offering at Richardson Apartments, which started in January, is
about more than nutrition. It is about generosity and fostering
connection among the residents, who were homeless when referred to
Richardson. Now, according to a social worker at the facility, “they are
building community together.” Plans are in the works for Zen Center to
assist Richardson Apartments residents with their rooftop garden and to
offer meditation classes.
of the volunteers serving the meal lives at City Center. This isn’t by
design, but the program presents an opportunity for non-resident
practitioners to be involved and have a positive effect. One volunteer
was introduced to Zen Center through its addiction-recovery programs.
For her, the lunch offering at Richardson Apartments is a chance to give
blurring of the boundary between giving and receiving takes a different
format at Google World Headquarters in Silicon Valley, where Marc
Lesser teaches a seven-week course on empathy. “It can be daunting
standing up in front of fifty Google engineers. I do it in part because
it stretches me. It’s my practice,” says Lesser, author of Accomplishing More by Doing Less.
Lesser (whose wife, Lee, runs the HPW veterans’ retreats) lived at City
Center and Tassajara from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. He’s an
ordained Zen priest with an MBA, which he pursued after leaving
Tassajara, and CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Initiative,
whose mission is to promote world peace by promoting wisdom in leaders.
asked Lesser what he takes from Zen into the corporate world, where
values of productivity reign, and how Zen at Google differs from Zen at
Zen Center. “I focus on being present and flexible, on listening,” he
said. “Zen is the study of our emotional lives. The business world just
puts our emotional lives into a place where we get stuff done.”
Google and other corporate and educational settings where Lesser
teaches, such as Social Venture Network, Technorati, and University of
California, his work is a combination of meditation training and
competency building. While he recognizes his own need to “drink from the
well” of zazen that isn’t about productivity, leadership, or even
happiness—and he leads a weekly sitting group to that end—he sees his
business coaching work and the heart of Zen practice as complementary.
he’s started working with senior staff at Zen Center on team building,
values identification, and intention setting. For Lesser, and for Zen
Center, the work is full circle. “I understand the culture at Zen Center
as much as anyone can—and I get to see how much I’ve learned and grown
by being out in the world.”
the Golden Gate Bridge from Zen Center, inside a majestic restored
Victorian on the campus of Dominican University, the chapel schedule
includes Buddhist, Muslim, Sufi, Quaker, and Catholic services. Every
Monday night, the space is reserved for a Zen sitting group called
Dharma Eye, led by Zen Center central abbot Steve Stücky and his
chapel is a former library in a private home, with massive wooden
doors, chandeliers with patterned glass bulbs, and lots of windows. The
practice in this inspiring yet nontraditional setting is less formal
than practice at City Center, Green Gulch, or Tassajara, but the
evening’s layout contains all the standard elements: We sit zazen, chant
and bow, drink tea, and hear a dharma talk followed by time for
discussion. On the April evening I attended Dharma Eye, about half of
the twelve people present wore lay robes called rakusus.
One newcomer was a Catholic college student on assignment from her
religion class to experience the rituals of another tradition.
half a century, Zen Center has helped ensure the continuation of Suzuki
Roshi’s lineage by ordaining priests—nearly 200 of them now—who then
start their own centers and sitting groups. Ninety of those priests have
received dharma transmission—full authority to teach and transmit to
other priests. There are many Dharma Eyes across the country, even the
globe, connected to San Francisco Zen Center by a teacher or the
teachings. Some groups meet in borrowed rooms. Others have more
permanent homes, whether with well worn zafus or freshly painted walls.
Zen Center is still around gives people confidence,” says Sojun Mel
Weitsman, who ordained with Suzuki Roshi in 1969 and has led his own
sangha at the Berkeley Zen Center continuously since 1967. Zen Center
calls these affiliated groups Branching Streams, after a line from a
poem by an eighth-century Chinese Zen ancestor: “The spiritual source
shines clear in the light; / the branching streams flow on in the dark.”
They also flow on in the pages of books. Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,
the first Zen Center book, is a modern spiritual classic. Zen Center
has overseen the publication of many essential translations of
traditional texts, perhaps most notably thirteenth-century Japanese Zen
master Eihei Dogen’s writings.
not directly through Suzuki Roshi then through the practice he helped
establish in America, Zen has touched the lives and work of numerous
artists and innovators. You can hear it in Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and
Laurie Anderson’s performances, feel it in the simple but elegant design
of Steve Jobs’ technological inventions. Well-read books by Zen
practitioners such as Natalie Goldberg, Peter Matthiessen, Norman
Fischer, Brad Warner, and the late Charlotte Joko Beck have brought the
dharma to readers in different voices. Every summer, Tassajara offers
retreats in creative expression, inviting participants to discover their
own voices through writing, visual arts, and improvisation.
and the art of fill-in-the-blank—that popular phrase from Robert M.
Pirsig’s best-selling novel that wasn’t really about motorcycles or
Zen—points to something real: American Zen’s spirit of creativity and
adaptability. That spirit has its roots in the early days of Zen Center,
when Shunryu Suzuki offered a way of practicing that included both men
and women and didn’t require them to enter a monastery. “Zen Center
seems to have found a middle ground between tradition and adaptation, by
allowing both of those instincts to flourish,” Professor Seager told
me. These days, Zen Center is embracing yet another branching stream—in
pixels. Through live-streamed events and other online offerings, it
hopes to create a “fourth practice place,” an online community with
those who directly knew Suzuki Roshi enter their seventies and
eighties, the question of transmission and succession is on people’s
minds. There are practical concerns, which Zen Center has addressed with
financial vesting for residents and plans for a senior living facility
with a dharma flavor. But there’s also the more intangible concern about
how to pass on the teachings the further that Zen Center gets from its
founder. Says Stücky: “We still are largely a one-generation
institution. All of the abbots, including myself, started when Zen
Center started. For people to feel confidence in their training and
authentic understanding in successive generations is a big challenge.”
Given this, given Zen’s wide dissemination, is he worried about dilution?
is actually wonderful. People get a little taste of Zen and it means
something to them. At the same time, we need rigorous, deep, challenging
practice, training that takes years, a lifetime. Zen Center has a role
in maintaining that, but also in making the dharma available in a
variety of forms. I don’t think the two are opposed. The Diamond Sutra says that if you take just one phrase and study it, the value of it is incalculable.”
Filling a Well with Snow
the end of the fall practice period at Tassajara, eighty-three-year-old
Mel Weitsman—former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, Stücky’s teacher
and my own—spoke about having an “affinity” for practice. Weitsman and
Stücky co-led that practice period, showing us directly how sometimes
the teacher is the student and sometimes the student is the teacher.
the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, the discussion veered
toward having faith in the dharma, or faith in practice, even as events
and forces in the world challenge that faith.
suggested that even when you feel overwhelmed with the problems in the
world, you do what you can to solve the problems. “You just work for
peace because that’s what you believe in,” he said cheerfully. “You do
it knowing that it will never happen.” Weitsman began to tell the story
of Hakuin’s koan about foolish wise men filling a well with snow.
Mid-sentence, his voice faltered. He paused, brought a fist to his
chest. The room stilled completely. Was it a heart attack? A stroke?
Should someone do something? As soon as Weitsman spoke again, though, it
became clear that this was not chest pain but the sudden upwelling of a
life’s love for and commitment to the pure effort of practice.
was an exquisitely intimate moment. An invisible cord stretched between
Weitsman and each person in the room. I don’t mean this
metaphorically—I actually felt a tug in my gut. This wasn’t just warm
hand to warm hand transmission—it was hara-to-hara.
Asked by a student a moment later to describe his unexpected emotional
response, Weitsman said, “It’s just beautiful. That’s the feeling. It’s
San Francisco Zen Center turns fifty and Zen flourishes in the zendo,
on the farm, in the kitchen, in the workplace, and in the human heart,
there’s much to celebrate. A lot of effort has gone into making Zen
Center what it is today. But the greatest treasure, the gift beneath it
all, expressed in a teacher’s tears, is the quiet but tremendous power
of the practice Zen Center has nurtured all along.
Colleen Morton Busch holds an MFA in poetry, but she also writes nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including literary magazines, the Huffington Post, and Yoga Journal, where she was a senior editor. She’s the author of Fire Monks, an acclaimed narrative account of the 2008 fire that threatened to destroy Tassajara monastery, and is currently working on a novel about the cruelty—and kindness—within the human heart.
PHOTO: Andrea Roth