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About the Book       

About Suzuki Roshi    

A Profile of the San Francisco Zen Center 

by David Chadwick

an edited version of this article was published in the April 2002 Shambala Sun


Half a century ago, if a person in America was interested in practicing Zen Buddhism, or any kind of Buddhism, there wasn't much they could do other than go to the other side of the world and learn a new language. A few did that with mixed results. There was a little zazen happening between these shores back then at the First Zen Institute in New York City and by 1957 at the Cambridge Buddhist Society. On the West Coast Nyogen Senzaki's floating zendo gathered in LA after he moved down from his San Francisco apartment/zendo on Bush Street a few bocks from Sokoji, a Soto Zen temple for Japanese Americans. There, in the mid fifties, a priest named Hodo Tobase taught calligraphy and had a weekly class on Zen where zazen at times was engaged in for ten minutes. Today there are surely many more places for aspiring Buddhists to study and practice in America than there were practitioners when John Kennedy was elected. One prime reason for this is the arrival in 1959 of Shunryu Suzuki who had come to be the new priest of Sokoji. Without denying a significant role to intellectual study, Suzuki's constant teaching was to sit for a while and follow the breath - to do zazen - and to bring this practice of awakening into one's daily life.

In 1962 Suzuki and his students incorporated their group as the San Francisco Zen Center. At the end of 1966 Zen Center bought an old resort near Carmel Valley named Tassajara Springs and turned it into Zen Mountain Center, the first Buddhist monastery in the Western world. In 1969 Suzuki and his assistant, Dainin Katagiri, left their duties at Sokoji with the Japanese American congregation and moved to a large residential building on Page Street. In 1971 Shunryu Suzuki died after having passed on the abbotship to his disciple, Richard Baker. In the last years of his life, even though he worried out loud that Zen Center was getting too big, Suzuki had been talking about the possibility of acquiring a farm. In 1972 Baker, who had been indispensable in the creation of Tassajara, founded, in Suzuki's name, Green Dragon Temple at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County.

Other independent affiliated Zen groups, led by teachers in Suzuki's lineage, have formed during and since his twelve years in America, but the San Francisco Zen Center itself has not expanded beyond the three large residential practice centers. This year, forty-two times around the sun since Suzuki's arrival, though much is the same, there has been a good deal of development in this organization and Buddhist community. The physical appearance of the centers is what reminds me most of the old days. The decentralization of the teaching responsibilities and the range of options available to the practitioners are the most striking changes. The good people at Shambala Sun have asked me to give their gentle readers a profile of what's happening at these three centers.

I've spent many years with the Zen Center, but in order to make sure my info was up to date I took a field trip, first driving to the City Center located in a residential neighborhood a short walk from San Francisco's City Hall. Originally designed by Julia Morgan, the architect of the Hearst Mansion, as a home for young Jewish women, this handsome, sturdy, red brick landmark building was perfectly suited for the growing urban needs of Suzuki's sangha. In the basement and on the first floor are large rooms for zazen, dining, and ceremonies and smaller rooms for offices, library, book store, shop, laundry, meetings, and lounging. The top two floors provide space for up to fifty students to live singly or doubly. While waiting for the door to be answered, I glanced at the posted daily schedule.

Weekday Mornings

5:25 a.m. Zazen (sitting meditation)

5:55 Kinhin (walking meditation)

6:05 Zazen

6:40 Service

7:05 Soji (temple cleaning)

Weekday Afternoons

5:40 p.m. Zazen

6:20 Service

Saturday Morning Program

6:30 a.m. Zazen

7:10 Service

7:40 Soji

7:55 Oryoki Breakfast

8:40 Meditation Instruction

9:25 Zazen

10:15 Public Lecture (hearing assistance available)

11:00 Tea and Discussion

12:00 Lunch ($6)

This schedule is the backbone of what's happening at the City Center and it's open to all. The core of the practice continues to be zazen - the periods offered in the daily schedule, the monthly one day sittings, and the less frequent five and seven day sesshins. The side door around the corner is unlocked prior to zazen. One thing I've always appreciated about the City Center is that someone can come in that door to join in the sitting without talking to anyone, having to join, or being asked to donate anything. You can do those things if you want to, but there's no come-on other than the occasional discreet sign or donation box (The same is true of Green Gulch).

A fellow in his fifties named Mark Lancaster answered the door. He's from the Midwest and has been around for more than a dozen years. I hung out and talked to him for a while between phone calls and other door-openings. There is a variety of printed information on a table in the front hall and while Mark answers a visitor's questions he may hand them a brochure on the schedule of events or one called "Getting Started with Zen Practice." If they want to talk to someone further he'll look for one of the teachers. He pointed out a list of practice leaders on a bulletin board with seventeen names. Sometimes no one's available at the moment and he ends up talking further with the person himself during a break. They may want to sit zazen that evening in which case he'll take them downstairs to the zendo for a quickie zazen instruction.

Newcomers tend to feel more comfortable starting off with the Saturday morning zazen instruction followed by a 40 minute period of Zazen for Beginners which is also attended by people who wish to sit before going to hear the lecture. Every six weeks or so there are Introductory Afternoons on Saturday which include a tour of the building, a demonstration of the bells and other ceremonial instruments, a little zazen, a short service, and time to talk. There is also a beginner's one day sitting with what's called a gentle schedule which includes five periods of zazen, lunch in the dining room, lecture, and a discussion at the end with tea and cookies. Zen Center's a great place to be a novice. After all, the City Center is Beginner's Mind Temple, founded by the man who gave a series of lectures back in the mid sixties that were published as Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

Some get their first taste of Buddhism by becoming guest students at the City Center. Often guest students have prior experience with other groups from all over America and the world - Zen, Vipassana, or the Tibetan tradition being the most common. Guest students can stay up to six weeks and have to follow the full schedule. They work in the morning and for an hour and a half in the afternoon and can join in on any classes that are happening in the evenings. Or they can read or go out on the town at night as long as they are up with the wake up bell at five the next morning.

I talked to a twenty-eight year old guest student from England named Mike. He was operating a Cuisinart in the kitchen. He'd first practiced Zen in Japan where he taught English. He arrived in September and already has received accolades, having been awarded the honor of "Most Middle Way" at Green Gulch on skit night. He said he liked the practice and the mix of people who he said were, in general, friendly. I said sometimes people find the City Center to be sort of cold - maybe because people are a little sleep deprived. He laughed and said that they get into some pretty surrealistic conversations at times. I was about to ask for an example but the head of the kitchen needed him back or the soup wouldn't be ready for lunch.

A newcomer at the City Center can join in on a practice period. There was one in progress at the time led by a kindly teacher named Paul Haller who hails from Ireland. This one runs from late September through early December. People in the practice period follow as much of the full schedule as they can. It includes one day sittings, lectures, classes, and ends with the early morning to late night seven day Rohatsu sesshin - sitting zazen, walking zazen, ceremonial oryoki meals, services and a lecture a day for one seamless week. Residents and non residents participate in the practice period - some will come to live and/or work in the building during this time while others work on the outside. Individual schedules are set up with one's practice leader. There is also a winter/spring practice period that goes for approximately three months. The cost is minimum - $45, which doesn't include sesshin or class fees. You don't have to be in the practice period to do most of these things - it is a commitment to a schedule with a group of people and a practice leader for a period of time. The only parts not open to others are a weekly tea and discussion and talks by participants where they share the history of their paths and what they've learned.

One of the best ways to participate in the practice is to work with others in the Buddhist community. Of the sixty or so residents of the City Center and their apartment building next door, about thirty have staff positions. Everyone who lives in the building helps to keep it clean and in order and, along with those who board there, join in on meal preparation and cleanup. Non resident volunteers can often be found among those working in the kitchen, doing special projects in the office or the shop, working in the bookstore or library. Where there's a need, scholarships are given. Volunteers join outreach programs to feed the homeless, give aid to women and children in a transitional shelter, correspond with or teach meditation to prisoners, and work with the Zen Hospice Project.

Back in the sixties there was no formal study - just Suzuki's and Katagiri's lectures. Now there is the Mountain Gate Study Center. Classes are almost all held on Saturdays or weekday evenings. There's a six week introductory class and others tailored to beginners. Some of the subjects available this fall are "Developing a Compassionate Heart," "Our Indian Ancestors," and "Money and the Vow of Poverty," with guest teacher Michael Phillips who wrote The Seven Laws of Money. There are workshops and seminars such as "Zen Practice in a High Tech World," "Chinese Qigong, and "The Lotus Sutra's Impact on Dogen's Teaching" with Taigen Dan Leighton."

There are ongoing groups at the City Center such as senior dharma teacher Reb Anderson's Sitting and Discussion Group on Tuesday evenings, the Coming of Age Program for children from 12 to 15 (done in conjunction with Spirit Rock Meditation Center), a Buddhist robe sewing class, and a sitting and discussion group for people in recovery. There is a sitting group for people of color. A Saturday Sangha for lay practitioners is available for those who don't live in the building. They run the whole Saturday morning program. It's lead by Teah Strozer, a priest originally from LA who is head of practice in the building. She joins participants for lunch and discussion, particularly concentrating on a subject they're studying together such as the four foundations of mindfulness. There's also an evening sangha aimed at those whose participation is limited mainly to the early evening sittings. They have dinner and discussion once a Month with the head of the meditation hall, currently a woman from Germany named Anna Thorn.

 

Driving north from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge and following Highway One back toward the coast, you have to keep your eye out for the sign that marks the sharp turn down a Eucalyptus-lined drive into Green Gulch Farm. Unlike the compact fortress City Center, the farm is a curious mix of elegant new and funky old buildings, of natural and cultivated vegetation, spread out over a beautiful valley and surrounded by National Park land. On a warm sun shiny day I snooped around the often foggy, windy, damp semi-monastic community farm, first making a pilgrimage to the herb, flower, and ornamental plant area and its cozy meditation garden, continuing beyond a Cypress windbreak to fields of lettuce, spinach, and potatoes, past greenhouses and ponds, through gates to horses grazing and wetlands to arrive at a low cliff overlooking Muir Beach and the wooded hillside bedroom community of the same name.

Back to the populated area, there's a large central lawn where a few children were playing and a student sat on the grass reading not far from the high-ceilinged barn zendo which holds three hundred people at Sunday lectures. The adjoining student quarters were once horse sheds and tack rooms. Off the lawn are an office with bookstore and a traditional Japanese tea house and garden. The former main home now serves as kitchen, dinning room, library, student lounge, and offices and connects by a second floor deck to the student-built Wheelwright Center for meetings and small conferences. Further up the valley are the octagonal Lindesfarne Guest house and a sizable yurt for workshops. Many residents live up a side valley. About fifty staff and family members live at Green Gulch and at any given time there may be a couple dozen practice period or guest students, twenty to thirty overnight guests, and twenty conference guests who have driven in for the day.

There was a practice period going on at Green Gulch with twenty students in attendance. One of them, Danny, born and raised in Berkeley, had sat zazen and heard lectures at the Berkeley Zen Center and the City Center a few times, done a little Vipassana, and been to the Berkeley Chan monastery. When he was looking for a place to take a retreat, someone suggested Green Gulch, he went to www.sfzc.org, and not long after that found himself in the six day New Year's retreat. He had just completed six months in the Farm and Garden Apprenticeship Program. Danny was in the first days of his first practice period and was bravely weathering the shift from lots of hard-working organic gardening and two zazen periods a day to five periods a day, less work and more study. He said with good humor that doing a lot of zazen is his worst nightmare because he has to sit and face his agitated, busy mind. This, he said, was brought home to him with particular emphasis during the initiatory one day tangaryo sitting in which the only time he stood was for brief breaks after the meals. He said he was continuing to enjoy life at Green Gulch and the company of his fellow students, mostly middle, upper-middle class white college grads in their early twenties to thirties. I asked if they had enough time for R & R and he said that Thursday afternoon through Friday is free though he can't leave. He added that before he was in practice period some of his cohorts and he had gone out dancing a few times, Green Gulch had had it's own harvest dance, and that he'd helped to organize a theater night.

Sheri is an Internet lawyer from North Carolina who's been in the Bay Area for six years. After the events of 9/11 she canceled a planned vacation and when a co-worker emailed her about Green Gulch she remembered having gone in once five years earlier and bought some tea in the office. She contacted the guest student manager via email and got the only space available for a guest student. At $15 a day, same as the City Center, she's spending a good deal less than her planned vacation. She'd found that following a demanding schedule of zazen, services, and work is invigorating and she appreciates the perks: lectures, use of the library, one on one contact with teachers, and close interaction with community members. She says that it took her time to fit in but that she thinks people there are basically friendly, and added she can't help but wonder what it would be like to live there longer.

Diana, the guest student manager, has been at the farm for seven years. Before coming to Zen Center she spent several years living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in her native Scotland. She took time off from the big Sunday lunch cleanup to speak with me for a few minutes in the head cook's office off the bustling kitchen converted from a carport. She told me there's usually only room for guest students between the practice periods - the two month fall and spring ones and the three week intensive one in January. She said that there's a six week limit for guest students though after two weeks they're eligible to sign up for the residential programs at Green Gulch. The Work Apprenticeship program has a three month commitment and pays for a practice period at any of the three centers. The Farm and Garden Apprenticeship program is a six month commitment and earns two practice periods. Participation in these programs covers room and board and includes a small stipend.

There's always so much to be done at Green Gulch. For the growing half of the year, once a week, all students leave the zendo after a period of zazen to help in the fields before breakfast. The guest rooms have to be cleaned and up to three conferences and meetings at a time must be attended to. Guests in the Practice Retreat Program and the non resident Volunteer Sangha come to the rescue from nine to noon during weekdays in the garden, fields, kitchen, and working with the maintenance staff.

Sunday is to the farm what Saturday is to Page Street and what's offered is about the same except about twice as many people go to Green Gulch. People stand around and drink tea after the lecture, catch up with old friends or make new ones, buy Green Gulch's organic produce, flowers, herbs and other plants, and occasionally bread fresh from the ovens. Some drive in early to make a class or the zazen before the lecture. The Right Livelihood Business Network may be meeting or the Elderhostel retreat for seniors gathering. Classes and seminars (which also meet on Monday or Tuesday evenings) are on more traditional Buddhist study, while subjects such as tea ceremony, organic gardening, wreath-making, and a sensory awareness workshop with centenarian human potential movement pioneer Charlotte Selver are usually offered on weekends.

 

Tassajara is Zen Center's heaven though it gets as hot and dry as hell. It's located in a remote narrow valley set deep in the steep, rugged mountains of Los Padres National Forest between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. It's long been famous for the hot springs used by the Esselen Indians going back to who knows when. Since a fourteen mile long treacherous, precipitous, winding dirt road was cut through the mountains to the springs in 1860, it's been a popular rustic resort. Before going to our cabin to read ourselves to sleep by kerosene light, Clay and I go down to the bath house, take showers, descend into the quite hot indoor men's plunge and join overnight guests in the warm outdoor pool where we look for meteors in the crystal clear star-studded, Milky Way-poured night sky.

In recent summers my ten year old son Clay and I have gone to Tassajara for ten days and for the last two years he's worked in the kitchen and helped me in the evenings with guest dishes. He loves being with all the young people who are there to study Zen and help run the guest season. During the afternoon break we cool off in the big old swimming pool and on a day off with bag lunches, we go down the creek to swim and slide over the falls into the pool at the popular spot called the Narrows. My twenty-eight year old son Kelly used to spend a good deal of his summers there doing the same thing and he says it's his favorite childhood memory.

Itís amazing how peaceful and uncrowded Tassajara seems in the summer considering there are usually about seventy students and eighty guests. Buildings recent and original, of stone and wood - the zendo, shops, library, kitchen, dining room, and student and guest cabins - run along the edge of the creek amidst stone walls and paths, sycamore and oak. Students who come for the summer work practice program can stay anywhere from five days to six months. The prerequisites are to be at least 18 and to have some prior practice experience such as having been a guest student at the farm or in the city. The basic rules are to follow the schedule (two morning and one evening zazen), no new sexual relations (the six month rule), and no drugs or alcohol. There are lectures by senior students and visiting teachers on some evenings and limited opportunities for students to join in on the many workshops that are held, as well as half day sittings that one can squeeze in. Before and after the guest season there are the April and September work periods to do necessary transitional tasks and to get projects done that thereís not much time for during the guest seasons or practice periods. Those who stay five months during this time earn two practice periods at any of the centers.

 

The three month fall and spring practice periods at Tassajara are the most concentrated training offered by the Zen Center with the least amount of work in the schedule. In the winter the creek swells and even roars with runoff and the sun hides low behind the mountains. It gets as cold as the summer is hot. The zendo, where a great deal of one's time is spent, is heated enough these days to eliminate the chill. It is not unusual for students to spend a few years at Tassajara, especially those who are working toward priest ordination.

 

Back in early days of Zen Center, even though we had the inspiring presence of Shunryu Suzuki and Dainin Katagiri, people tended to move on after a couple of years. Now there are so many ways to be engaged that a far greater percentage of students have a long term relationship with the community - whether they continue to live there or not, to formally practice Zen or not. Standing around the outdoor refreshment area at Tassajara during breaks this summer, I caught up with a priest who has lived at one or another of the centers for over thirty years and meet old friends who practice now with some of the many dharma groups around the country that sprouted out of the Zen Center or who are with unrelated groups. I meet guests who have been coming as guests for decades and others who were students for a summer in another decade. There are people who've taken many classes through the years and others who never took one. There are members at a distance who relate to Zen Center mainly through the Wind Bell and the mailings. I talked to former students who say they return now and then to the City Center or the Green Gulch just to visit or go for annual ceremonies, an occasional wedding or funeral, special events, or for a lecture and to enjoy the great vegetarian food. Some who wouldn't have been able to participate so easily before now can because of the handicap access, help for the blind and hearing impaired. I shared precious ice with a woman who has just sat at the City Center now and then through the years. To some it's a church, to others a community, to others a school where they learned something and kept going. People get close, keep a distance, stay and move on, but no one forgets their time at Zen Center and almost all are most grateful for what they have received.

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