Sunday, March 27, 2011

The lay person and the sangha--Can I be valued if I don't seek transmission?


As Diane (Musho) and I have opened our new City Center and welcomed an eclectic mix of visitors to the space, a question constantly stirring just below the surface is what should we build in this space?  What will be the culture of this sangha?  We have a space, but we have not in place a set of forms beyond simply lighting incense, sounding the gong, and sitting silently, with regular Dharma talks and occasional daisan.  In effect, we have a blank sheet of paper and have drawn very little on it at present.  There is a lot of open, white space.  What should go there?  What will the Dharma practice limned there look like?

In the three post-Ameland blogposts I put up in February, I sketched out what seems to me to be the imperatives for a healthy sangha.  Those posts are very conceptual.  They don't reflect any particularity.  But our new space, in which people are coming to sit and to interact, demands the particular.  So, how much should we emphasize ritual, what ritual, how much chanting, reciting and taking of vows, how important is it to offer Jukai, Shukke Tokudo, use Japanese language and terms, forms?  

My aspiration for our City Center is that it becomes a place that is comfortable for lay people, for house- holders with jobs and children who are seeking a refuge, a place where they can work with the causes of the stress of their lives and with their existential dissatisfactions through Zen practice, primarily zazen augmented by koans.  That refuge and workspace is what I sought when I came to the Kanzeon Zen Center as a widower and a single parent with a full lay life.  I suspect that this is what many coming to the City Center will be seeking.  It is not my aspiration that the City Center become a pale shadow of a monastery, a place oriented toward "monks" who have day jobs only to support their dharmic aspirations.  Rather, I envision a place for people whose lay lives are honored and valued, and who want support for a practice that enhances the totality of their lives.  I remain a lay person.  I am a priest, a "monk", but fundamentally a lay person, a lawyer with an active law practice, who spends hours a day in the zendo and loves making it available to others.  I know how Zen practice has enhanced my everyday life and has also softened, widened my sense of self so as to permit me to more honestly face my family, my life and my death.  I want to make that available to others, to people who are committedly lay people.

To develop the welcoming and yet deep culture we envision will require consciously addressing what seems to be a relatively common but unspoken Zen center model in which a pseudo-monastic hierarchy unreflectingly mimics the rituals and practice environment in which our Asian predecessors were trained, one that implicitly values most those who have dedicated their career lives to the Dharma, often while turning away from secular life and even family.  This may be an entirely natural model but I do not think it is one well-designed to accomodate most of the audience we seek at the City Center.  Such a sangha culture has a high potential to make the center a place that actually denies support for lay practice, that has a climate that can make lay practitioners feel valued only to the extent they manifest an aspiration to become what the sangha culture inherently values--the overtly religious, ultimately the teacher.  Instead of creating a psychological refuge, a place of safe questioning in the midst of a world of material and social wants, we create one more place where people feel somehow "not enough," judged, needing to adopt others preferences in order to be valued.  

The challenge of building a welcoming lay sangha is how to minimize the emphasis on individual spiritual attainment, which can manifest as monastic mimicry that implicitly demeans lay life, while stressing the ways that practice leads to an awakening that eases attachments and the suffering which inevitably follows, an awakening that ripens into an equanimity that can be deployed in a daily lay world filled with preferences and that ultimately leads to a profound peace.  This is our task and our opportunity.  

With palms together,



  1. There is an old chestnut tree in the park in Duesseldorf, Germany. He grows hundreds of chestnuts every year, to ensure there will be chestnut trees also in the future.

    He grows blossoms in spring to feed bees and butterflies, he grows chestnuts also to feed suirrels in winter and he grows leaves and branches to offer home for birds. And I enjoy to sit in his shadow or to lean against his stabile stock.

    All this would be not a chestnut tree, if it would not care for the future - nor if it would only care for the future.

    A Sangha is not a Sangha, if it only cares for the future, if the only reason for it's existance is the creation of future teachers. And it is not, if it only cares for feeding others, offering home, a safe and cosy rest after a hot summer business day or even enlightenment in a difficut personal life.

    Trees and sanghas can look very different and still have both intentions. It will be fun creating new forms of sangha (I live far away from SLC, so the Zendo is less my topic, I will be a rare visitor only). I appreciate Michael's approach and thinking a lot and feel very welcomed by this.
    Thank You

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  3. Thank you, Lieschen. A nice balancing point. Everything needs to be cared for. My question, the point of my take-off, was a subtle bias that I have perceived and want to air for examination.

  4. Having had the "pleasure" of sitting many years in many zendos (thanks to my still nomadic profession), I think the subtle bias you are illuminating is very revealing and unaddressed can lead to a distinctive culture. Not being Japanese or oriental, and instead being distinctly American and western, a sangha that earnestly reflects that uniqueness while allowing both of Lieschen's suggested paths is indeed a dynamically creative and exciting prospect. On a personal level, the forms (wherever I am) provide a nice introduction to the sit or training, sort of a welcoming or warming-up exercise that helps me to put my mind, body, self in a particular state. When these forms become ritualistic or overly burdensome, I feel overstretched and anxious.

    For example, when visiting, a simple hello from the host is enough, but if he were to be so gracious as to take my coat, polish my shoes and wash my feet, I don't think I could be at home in his home.

    For me, the essence or substance is the sit or training. It is there where my struggles occur. It is there that I need sangha.