still exploring honors thesis

Still Exploring: An Ethnographic Look at the Berkeley Zen Center and its Wednesday Night Drop-In Group

Academic, Anthropology, Religious Studies

The following was written as an Honors Thesis for the Anthropology program at the University of California, Berkeley in 2014.

Still Exploring:

An Ethnographic Look at the Berkeley Zen Center and its Wednesday Night Drop-In Group


Part I: Introduction and Historical Background of Zen in the United States


The ongoing transmission of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism to the Western context since World War II has been a product of the collective desires of Japanese Zen Buddhists as well as intrigued Americans. While Zen Buddhism is now recognized as a legitimate religious practice in the United States, its expansion outside of Asia has occurred relatively recently and with significant transformations to its original foundations in Japan. Its American development flourished with the movements of various Asian groups to all parts of the world in the post-World War II period as well as by the growing number of Westerners travelling east since the late 1960’s. Specific followers of Zen Buddhism during the Beat Generation have also served in promoting, popularizing, and morphing a religion to the spiritual demands of Americans. While the overall number of committed practitioners in the United States is still relatively small, the growth of interest in Buddhism—specifically Zen Buddhism—among the non-heritage population is a significant feature of the religious exploration of Americans and arose from a longing for spiritual fulfillment and personal development that began in the 1950’s[1] (Dumoulin, 1992, ix).

For the purposes of my thesis, I chose to integrate myself into a Zen center located in the Bay Area to understand their practices and the relevance of those practices to those who frequent the center. By immersing myself in the culture of the Berkeley Zen Center, located on Russell Street, I hoped to understand the significance of the practices at the center to the people here in Berkeley, while also noting the historical progression that made such a place and religious practice possible. With specific questions in mind, I interviewed a number of Berkeley Zen Center attendees who came to the Wednesday night drop-in group. This group, led by a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest—Priest Jonni[2]—consists of 5-15 attendees, some of whom have been coming for years while others are only just beginning to attend. The interviews were conducted in a conversational fashion to gather a sense of the significance of Zen practice and outlook in the lives of these Bay Area residents. From the personal conversations, I began to gather an understanding of the significance of Zen to them individually and to what extent their practices created or affected their personal lives in society.  Ultimately, I sought to understand why these Bay Area residents were attracted to Zen Buddhism, how they practice it, and how its transformations were critical to its appeal to Bay Area Zen practitioners. Further, through my ethnographic research, I became intrigued specifically by the attendees of the Wednesday night drop-in group as representative of a micro-niche of spiritual seekers and what it was they were after in their attendance of the Wednesday night group. Also, the quest of my research was a personal endeavor as well whereby I sought to observe the transformative properties of this specific religion within myself[3].

As the ethnographic account of the Berkeley Zen Center began to take shape, it became apparent that a significant feature of research into a particular element of society cannot necessarily be separated from the researcher. While the intention was—and is—to understand the practices of the Berkeley Zen Center and what these practices mean to other people, the nature of immersion diminishes the need for boundaries between observer and the observed. Further, through practicing Zen, it has been asserted that American ideals place emphasis on personal boundaries such that the need for an independent identity is more highly valued than it is within Zen. In practicing Zen, I have come to understand their conceptualization of the sense of self differs from the ideals that I had previously assumed to be factual. In Zen, there is more of an emphasis on continuity between all living creatures such that there is no separation between an individual and anyone else. This assertion of Zen thought affected my research in such a way that I began to see myself as one of the Berkeley Zen Center attendees and not as a researcher separate from the researched.

I paid attention to myself as a participant in addition to a researcher and was aware of the possibility that by asking certain questions, I was co-creating the answers. I did my best to let the conversations arise naturally and immerse myself in the environment of the center so that the experience of the Wednesday night drop-in group was no more different than the experience others would have had I not been there. While I could not account for the experience of the environment while I was not present, I attempted to position myself as a Zen attendee—rather than as an obvious researcher—so as to keep from altering the overall dynamics of the average interaction that would take place at the drop-in sessions. By immersing myself in the cultural practice of Soto Zen Buddhism—touching on its own unique history and presence in the United States—I hoped to understand its role in the personal development of individual people. To do this, I became an attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in group at the Berkeley Zen Center.

In addition to understanding the role of Soto Zen in their individual lives, I also intended to understand the significance of Zen in the wider American context. With the vast array of Zen practices permeating the Bay Area, not to mention the rest of the United States, it is not possible to generalize from one group in Berkeley, California to the rest of the United States. Yet, by using this one Zen Center as an example of Soto Zen Buddhist practices in the Bay Area, I hoped to understand how this center came to be the way it is—while keeping in mind other variations of Zen in America by touching on recent literature—and the role of this contemporary, Americanized Zen[4] within the broader American context and its underlying Christian elements[5]. Since the transmission of Buddhism—and specifically Zen Buddhism—to the West resulted in alterations in the formulations, ritualistic elements, and certain key focuses of this religion, a new kind of Zen arose[6]. While keeping the historical elements of Zen Buddhism in mind, I understood its American identity as a uniquely recent and distinct approach to Zen.

The American identity of Zen is represented in the structural and historical creation of the Wednesday night drop-in group at the Berkeley Zen Center. As I am interested in mature forms of Zen at convert centers, I have chosen to focus on a segment of the “congregation” that is historically new and distinct from the original orientation of Zen practice as understood by its Japanese roots. There are multiple groups and services that frequent the center, with the Saturday service existing as a more formal and ritualized focus on Zazen under the guidance of an authorized master. In contrast, the Wednesday night drop-in group is focused less on ritualistic elements of Zen and on moving through the ranks of prestigious ordination as a Zen master and more on the ideological conceptualization of Zen thought. With the multiple groups that meet at the Berkeley Zen Center, there are many conceptualizations of Zen. By nature of the historical innovation that led to the formation of this particular Zen center, the Berkeley Zen Center practices Zen in different ways within the center and in comparison to other Zen centers across the United States.

The Wednesday night drop-in group, my main ethnographic focus, is a Zen practice due to its orientation at this particular Zen center but it is not recognized as a traditional formation and understanding of Zen practice. In its origins, Zen refers to Zazen and its physical meditative practice. To the attendees of the Wednesday night sangha, however, Zen is understood as having the added element of verbal engagement and its ability to be understood between individuals in a communicative environment. Each group and service at the Berkeley Zen Center is not Zen by itself; rather, they are groups of people doing something at a Zen center.

Through my ethnographic research, discussions with individual attendees and the priest, and observations of the unique structure of the Wednesday night drop-in group, I concluded that the individuals involved in the Wednesday night drop-in group were after psychological and personal exploration. The unique spiritual niche created by the Wednesday night group is not representative of Zen’s original methodology, but is instead representative of the spiritual and psychological yearnings of those in attendance to gather a sense of understanding about their own personal, individual lives and how to live in the broader world. The practice of Zen, for them, is one of cognitive training wherein the ideological understanding of Zen helps them interpret how Zen can aid them personally,[7] rather than how they can become better Zen practitioners. In contrast to original Japanese Zen practice as one of ritual and of ongoing physical training, the individuals who attend the Wednesday night group are characterized by having an agnostic orientation of spiritual searching and psychological training, wherein their focus resides in personal development through the applicability of Zen ideology to their everyday life. This is Zen for this group, whereas the focus only on Zazen is Zen for other groups. While there are different reasons for individuals to attend the different groups at the Berkeley Zen Center, my ethnographic focus on the Wednesday night drop-in group exemplifies a niche of individuals who, in their searching for ideologies to coincide with their personal cognitive developments, found this particular center and this particular group as a community wherein the way Zen is focused and structured is beneficial to the cognitive and spiritual growth of those who attend.

This kind of transformation of a ritualistic tradition is not uncommon for the modern age and American culture. Since WWII, there has been a reorganization of religious thought in the United States that has contributed to the transformations of traditions and an influx of religious practices from other areas of the world. In the United States, there has been a transformation of religious ideology into something akin to “spiritual practice,” veiled in a secular framework. The Berkeley Zen Center is one such example of the reorganization of a traditional Japanese religion and practice into a place for spiritual growth. The Berkeley Zen Center established itself with a focus both on the ritualistic elements of its traditional Japanese roots and additionally created a space for a more ideologically-focused practice. This allows the more traditionally-minded population to have a space for continued practice while also creating an environment for those interested in Zen thought but opposed to perception of the oppressive nature of the religions present in the United States.

The Historical Context of Japan and Conditions of Change Within the U.S.

Although the first Japanese Buddhist priests arrived in Hawaii and the United States in the 1890s to encourage an immigrant Buddhist population, the Zen movement remained relatively small even up until World War II. By WWII’s end however, the number of Buddhist temples that had been established—mainly in California—grew significantly and functioned as both a religious reprieve and community center for the Japanese-American Buddhists. With the defeat of Japan in World War II, rapid innovations to Japan’s religious life began to take shape that enabled a desire for the mobilization of Zen outward and its inevitable transformations. One factor contributing to the nation’s religious reconstruction centered on the American occupation of Japan after the war.

With President Truman’s approval of the “U.S. Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan” in September 1945, the elimination of Japan’s military and the reformation of Japan into a more Western-oriented nation contributed to the disintegration of the heavy emphasis on Buddhism in Japan. The religious backbone of Japanese culture underwent serious innovations due to the pressures of the war.  Weakened by the emperor’s public denial of his divinity in 1946, religious emphasis in the form of Buddhist practices subsided in Japan with the destruction of numerous temples and the deaths of thousands of potential Buddhist leaders during the war (Kitagawa, 1987, 217). Additionally, the Western emergence of Christianity within Japan[8] and the “violent suppression” of Buddhism due to Neo-Confucian, Shinto, and nativist anti-Buddhist literature contributed to the shift in religious focus (Jaffe, 2002, 6). By 1947, a significant alteration from a Buddhist-focused nation occurred with the erosion of the family-affiliated Buddhist practices.

Before the war, there was a legal system that perpetuated the forced nature of religious practice within the home-life of Japanese families. This entailed dutiful worship in the form of meditation, recitation of Buddhist chants, and the overall expectation that Buddhist doctrine pervaded daily existence (Robinson and Johnson, 1997, 265). This traditional Japanese system of interlocking households, though, was dismantled by a new civil code in which the United States sought to create a secularized democratic nation within Japan (Robinson & Johnson, 1997, 264). Japanese Buddhism, thus, underwent changes in its traditional aspects, such that religious life in Japan grew to include new kinds of religions that claimed connection to Buddhism but were undeniably set apart from Buddhism.

The effects of the war joined with Japan’s defeat and their subservience to the Allied Forces created a frenzied environment in which urbanization and the devaluing of Patriarchal hierarchical systems of various Buddhist schools encouraged the yearning within traditional Buddhist priests for a new environment to instill Buddhist ideals (Kitagawa, 1987, 217). Although most Japanese Zen leaders in Japan “did not pursue meditative practices beyond what was required of them” after WWII, others began to view the United States as the land of opportunity to revitalize Zen Buddhism (Seager, 1999, 90). The United States existed as a place of hope for traditional Japanese Zen Buddhist priests to replant their roots in a territory and people open to a new kind of religious experience. Despite the Zen teachers’ formal instruction within Japan, their criticism of the institutional elements of Zen spoke directly to curious Americans who were seeking “authentic spiritual experience” without the constraints of “traditional religion” (Seager, 1999, 91). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, however, the population of Japanese-American Buddhist priests of all denominations in the United States were rounded up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) due to the erroneous belief of their “potentially subversive activity” (Prebish and Baumann, 2002, 191). The growing American desire for the cultivation of “Asian spirituality,” coupled with the distrust of Japanese-Americans assuaged the process of Americanizing Japanese Zen.

The FBI’s unsupported claims regarding the anti-American intentions of Japanese-American Buddhist priests led to the determination that the Buddhist population in the United States during and after WWII was dangerous. Due to the growing uncertainty and suspicion regarding their loyalty to the United States, the Wartime Relocation Authority (WRA) called for the removal of all Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 9066, issued February 1942, designated specific military zones for all people of Japanese ancestry with over sixty thousand Buddhists among them (Prebish and Baumann, 2002, 108). Since the vast majority of Buddhist priests at this time were still Japanese-American immigrants and were thus carted off to “enemy-alien camps,” this led to an attempt by the remaining members of the Buddhist temples to keep up with the religious services and perform the priests’ work (Prebish and Baumann, 2002, 193). Additionally, extensive effort within major American Buddhist organizations pervaded in the wake of Executive Order No 9066 to convey Japanese Buddhist loyalty to the United States. Thus, deep-rooted uncertainties and fear regarding the intentions of Japanese-Americans contributed to the growing understanding among the American Buddhist population that certain conditions of change were required if they were to be allowed to continue living in the United States.

In part, these conditions of hostility toward the Japanese-American Buddhist population and the WRA forced promotion of “Americanization” in attempts to prove Japanese-American loyalty to the United States helped to create a setting open to a new kind of American Buddhist religion. Essentially, Japanese Buddhist priests were looking for a new environment to revitalize their religion and find an environment accepting of new spiritual practices so long as ties to Japan were cut and they planted their feet firmly in American soil. The particular cultural environment of Japan that began to place less and less emphasis on its traditional Zen formations and the ‘spiritual awakening’ that ensued in the United States in the 1950’s[9] led to the transmission of certain Buddhist ideals to the United States with the aid of certain key figures.

Notable Figures in the Americanization of Japanese Zen

Within the United States, Zen Buddhism flourished due to certain cultural, legal, and political conditions that existed both in Japan and in the United States. While the conditions within Japan were geared toward diminishing emphasis on traditional religion, the end of WWII sparked a spiritual thirst for Americans wherein more doors were opened in the quest for spiritual pursuit (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 52). Despite the waning enthusiasm regarding practicing traditional Zen within Japan after WWII, certain key figures within Japan kept the spirit alive in their desire to see it with a new light. The collective desires of Japanese Zen Priests—with some seeking to practice Zen in its more traditional, doctrinal usage and others seeking a “less formal” version of Zen—were accepted within the United States. The modifications of Zen and the political turmoil in both nations encouraged a restructuring of religious life, such that there were certain individuals who contributed to the formation of Zen in America and who, without which, Zen would not be understood as it is today in the United States.

The popularization of Zen Buddhism in America was most notable with the work of D.T. Suzuki during the 1950’s Beat Era (Seager, 1999, 90). Born in Japan in 1870 to an impoverished family, Suzuki sought out Zen Buddhism from an early age and eventually became the disciple of Shaku Soen, an abbot[10] at a Rinzai Zen temple in Engakuji (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 40). Due to the transitional state of Buddhism in Japan in the late nineteenth century, it was being polarized between Shintoists and nationalists on one side and Western-oriented reformers on the other side. Buddhist leaders responded to this shift in theological understanding by creating a “new Buddhism,” wherein Soen participated in an 1890 Buddhist conference that sought to “unify the tradition’s different groups” (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 41). In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair and the World Parliament of Religions attracted representatives of the world’s major religions with Soen attending as a participant of the Japanese Buddhist community. This conference marked the first arrival of a Japanese Zen monk to the United States and opened the door for a discussion of Zen in America. Although there was some interest in Zen through literature publications and academic research due to this conference, significant pursuit of Zen in America was not ignited until the late 1950’s.

While at the Chicago World’s Fair, the introduction of the Japanese monk, Soen to Paul Carus—editor of The Open Court and a German-American philosopher interested in Buddhism—allowed for the first seeds of Zen to be planted in American soil. Despite the sporadic interest in Buddhism and the general collection of Asian philosophies in America throughout and before the 19th century, the intent to modernize Zen[11]—as influenced by certain individuals—marked the beginning of a budding new American Zen. Unsatisfied with the chasm between religion and science in the United States, Carus—and many other Americans—turned to Buddhism in search of answers that the spiritual, philosophical, and psychological American culture did not account for. Believing that Buddhism “held vital antidotes for…the splintering of matter and spirit,” Carus became a source of inspiration for Suzuki, who was similarly troubled by the philosophical nature of existence and the application of Zen to battle these questions (Prebish and Tanaka, 1998, 208). Eventually, Suzuki journeyed to Chicago in 1897 to study under Carus, who took in Suzuki as an intellectual protégé.

Suzuki’s 11 years studying under Carus and writing his own books in English served to solidify his perception of the compatible nature of religion and science and his international reputation as a Zen Buddhist interpreter for the West. Although he returned to Japan in 1908 and did not resume contact with the West until the post-WWII years, Suzuki’s prominence in the Western adaptation of Zen Buddhism was undeniable. His work as a professor of Buddhist philosophy and writings of countless books on general Buddhism, Zen, and Japanese culture became “bibles to eager American Zen students after World War II” (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 44). Hosting Western visitors, Suzuki made connections through his writing that propagated his position as a celebrity figure and instigated Western curiosity. His interviews on television and features in various magazines by 1953, coupled with his intellectual charm, contributed to the revelatory movement of Zen Buddhism as a spiritual awakening to most Americans (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 39).

Influenced by the more universal and rational approach to Buddhism, Suzuki never completed the formal training necessary to become a Buddhist priest but instead remained a Buddhist layman. Despite his perceived lack of religious authority, Suzuki taught at the University of Hawaii for a year and eventually moved to New York where he lectured at the Church Peace Union and taught a series of seminars at Columbia. It was these seminars that planted the seeds of the “Zen boom” of the 1950’s as auditors, including psychoanalysts, therapists, composers, and writers were permitted to attend (Seager, 1999, 196). Some of his listeners and fellow Zen enthusiasts who became significant figureheads in the transformative process of Zen to American soil included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Philip Kapleau, and Christmas Humphreys. Suzuki’s scholarly and confidently unique interpretation of Zen Buddhism made it easy to plant the roots of Zen in America in a way that transformed the traditional Asian understanding of what it meant to be “Buddhist” as well as the American understanding of what it meant to be religious.

The transmittance of Zen from Asian tradition to American curiosity with Suzuki as one of its main vessels was referred to as “Suzuki Zen” (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2010, 47). Placing particular emphasis on certain elements of Zen, Suzuki presented Zen through his writings and lectures in a manner such that traditional Zen masters and priests criticized Suzuki for his obvious aid in its transformation. Suzuki defended himself from such criticisms by emphasizing his assertion that Zen’s institutionalized form was too narrow. While placing emphasis on Zen’s more universalistic aspects, Suzuki not only made Zen Buddhism more appealing to Americans but also significantly widened the definition of Buddhism and played a substantial part in its adaptability. While certain traditional scholars and practitioners of Buddhism would criticize American Buddhism and more specifically, “Suzuki Zen,” as not following along with “real Buddhism,” the integration of this religion into American culture served as a response to a spiritual yearning by particular individuals looking beyond the options present within the United States.

Characterized by specific facets of traditional Japanese Zen, Suzuki Zen focused on certain practices and ideologies due to D.T. Suzuki’s belief in these elements as pertaining to the “essentials of Zen Buddhism” (Storhoff and Whalen-Bridge, 2012, 47). Suzuki Zen was most notably characterized by Rinzai Zen (as opposed to Soto and Obaku Zen), an emphasis on inner experience rather than on doctrines or institutionalized practices, an emphasis on activism, and finally on its function as a philosophy. The features that Suzuki emphasized and the combined nature of these elements into one practice is an example of the restructuring of traditional Japanese Zen into a new understanding. This recreation of Zen concepts and a reorganization of its function speak directly to the specific Zen that is uniquely American. Despite D.T. Suzuki’s significant influence in this reorganization and revitalization of Zen in America though, a number of other Zen teachers who were steeped in the Zen traditions of Japan also greatly affected the transmittance of Zen to the United States.

Although D.T. Suzuki had a voice that popularized Zen Buddhism in America, he was never formally trained. Shunryu Suzuki, on the other hand, was a trained Soto Zen Priest who arrived in San Francisco in May of 1959. Having no relation to D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki was the sixth priest to arrive from the Japanese Soto headquarters and was met by the congregation of Sokoji, a Soto Zen congregation formed in 1934 by Hosen Isobe, a Soto Zen missionary (Fields, 1992, 226). The majority of the congregation at the time of Shunryu’s arrival consisted of elderly middle class Japanese-Americans. Within a few years though, the number of native-born Americans who came to Sokoji had dramatically increased. While D. T. Suzuki popularized Zen for the Beatnik population in a post-WWII environment, Shunryu Suzuki provided a more formal understanding of Zen which is held in higher esteem among modern-day Zen practitioners.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1959, Suzuki-roshi[12] believed strongly that Buddhism needed new territory, “’some place where people’s minds weren’t made up about Buddhism’” (Fields, 1981, 228). Despite the distinctions in discipline and level of “traditional” elements that D. T. Suzuki and Suzuki-roshi employed in their understanding of and re-teaching of Zen, both felt drawn to the United States as a territory wherein Zen could grow. While D.T. Suzuki encouraged the practice of Rinzai Zen, Suzuki-roshi encouraged the practice of Soto Zen within the San Francisco Zen Center, which he founded. The intrigue of Zen, regardless of emphases on various practices, was partially popularized due to D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts[13], and spurred a movement within the Beatnik population who soon began crowding Suzuki-roshi’s temple.

As a prominent figure in the introduction of Zen to the United States and specifically for the Berkeley Zen Center, Suzuki-roshi’s teachings remain significant to the American conceptualization of Zen Buddhism. The fact that most of his interested students were Caucasian-American and knew very little about Zen but desired insight into the mysterious Asian spirituality proved to be a positive opportunity rather than a challenge to Suzuki-roshi. He considered this “beginner’s mind,” explaining that the only way to truly learn something is to see it for the first time without expectations of achievement of any kind (Fields, 1981, 230). Suzuki-roshi emphasized the reality that once an individual believes they understand something and feel as though he/she has expertise, the ability to be open and to continue learning and understanding fades away. Thus, the population of eager-to-learn, novice Caucasian-Americans constituted a landscape of possibility for Suzuki-roshi to impart his wisdom.

Emphasizing the practice of Zazen[14], Suzuki-roshi is one of the more influential teachers to the Berkeley Zen Center. As expressed by the members and priest at the Berkeley Zen Center, Suzuki-roshi instilled within the American Soto Zen population the idea that Zazen was the essential element of the Buddha nature. The practice of Zazen is the meditative practice wherein one simply sits. According to Suzuki-roshi, the practice of just sitting without desire to achieve anything—satori[15], for instance—is the essence of Zen. With continued practice, the body and mind are unified. Further, Suzuki-roshi initially lectured in English on certain koans[16] and texts but eventually began to add more traditional and “rigid” elements to his version of American Zen. In Zen’s transmission to the United States, its ideological elements were most emphasized by certain prominent figures—such as D.T. Suzuki—creating the belief that Zen was more of a “philosophy” or “spiritual practice” rather than a dogmatic religion constructed of rules and propagated through traditions. The traditional practice of Zen, though, exhibits the same level of rule-following as any other religion; the difference rests in the realization that there are different rules in the practice of Zen than there are in the practice of Christianity, for instance. Thus, the rules that persist in Zen and that Suzuki-roshi impressed upon willing Americans were not seen as rules—or as the restrictive qualities of religion—but rather as a method for achieving a certain kind of spiritual outcome that could not be attained in the religions already dominant in American culture.

Encouraging ritualistic formations with an emphasis on the structure of Zen practice, Suzuki-roshi believed that American Zen should be even stricter than Japanese Zen because the difficulty, he argued, proved its worthwhile nature (Fields, 1981). He established rules within the zendo[17] such that one must bow nine times (as opposed to three in Japan), and a particular etiquette existed regarding the courtesy of arriving on time. Suzuki-roshi’s extra emphasis on rigidity and bowing within America centered on his belief that “American culture lacked forms to show respect to a Buddha.” Thus, Suzuki-roshi felt the need to instill a form with which Americans could understand the Buddha nature (Fields, 1981, 231). Suzuki-roshi’s particular influence coupled with other prominent figures and their work—such as Hakuun Yasutani-roshi—perpetuated the American landscape of curiosity wherein the population of Americans seeking Zen remained open to the traditions brought to their doorstep.

A significant figurehead in the Zen reformation in the U.S., Hakuun Yasutani-roshi greatly influenced the modern Japanese Zen transmission up until his death in 1973 (Seager, 1999, 92). Educated by a Rinzai abbot and later becoming a Soto monk in his teen years, Yasutani-roshi was actively engaged in spreading Soto Zen throughout Japan. In 1927 he attained kensho[18], and was eventually granted with dharma transmission[19] in 1943 (Seager, 1999, 93). Paving the way with his own school called Sanbo Kyodan, and breaking away from both Soto and Rinzai Zen, Yasutani-roshi and his reforms—that incorporated both Soto and Rinzai traditions—were controversial in Japan but celebrated in America. Yasutani emphasized the laypeople[20]’s schedule, making Zen more accessible and amendable to the daily routine of modern life, and minimized the significance of ceremonial life as understood by the Japanese temples. Furthermore, he emphasized the attainment of kensho for laypeople which can be achieved with additional zazen practice and koan study. Believing that these reformations were more in line with Dogen’s[21] original teachings of Zen Buddhism, Yasutani-roshi was an important figurehead in Japan during the 20th century as he aided in the changing nature of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Yasutani-roshi attracted two important students—Philip Kapleau and Robert Aitken—who would help in the transmission of Zen Buddhism in America during the 1960’s era.

Students of Yasutani in the mid-1950’s, Kapleau and Aitken were both influential in the formation of American Zen. Studying under various Japanese Zen instructors during his 13-year stay in Japan, Kapleau finally trained with Yasutani-roshi who believed it was Kapleau’s destiny to bring Zen to the West (Fields, 1981, 240). Acting as a translator for the increasing number of Westerners who were coming to Japan to learn about Zen from Yasutani-roshi, Kapleau was ordained as a Zen priest after living as a lay monk for 3 years in Hosshinji (Fields, 1981, 240). With permission from Yasutani-roshi, Kapleau made detailed notes of dokusan—conversations between roshi and student—and kensho experiences which he compiled into a book, The Three Pillars of Zen, that was first published in Japan in 1965 as Kapleau prepared to return to America. The first book written by a Westerner from within the Zen tradition and with the unique detail of personal experiences, The Three Pillars of Zen “made it possible for people who had never met a Zen teacher to begin practicing on their own,” (Fields, 1981, 241).

Once back in America, Kapleau realized that he would have to appeal to a younger generation of students and make it accessible such that Zen was not seen as something foreign and exotic. Although Americans were willing to learn from Japanese teachers using Japanese words and customs, an American teacher—such as Kapleau—had to morph the religion to make it something new. Kapleau’s American students did not believe he had an authority in teaching this foreign religion; rather, the teaching of the traditional elements of the foreign religion should be left to the foreigner teachers. Kapleau’s rendition of Zen was accepted as long as he articulated that his understanding of Zen differed from the traditional Japanese Zen teachers’ understanding of Zen due to his cultural background. An American teacher discussing customs that were not part of his original culture garnered much less respect and carried less authority than an American teacher morphing a foreign religion into his native cultural framework. On a trip to Southeast Asia, Kapleau had noted Buddhism’s various forms and practices and understood the necessitation of the transformative nature of religions depending on location.

Thus, in 1966, Kapleau founded the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, New York, which was one of America’s earliest Zen centers (Seager, 1999, 93). With the establishment of this training institution, Kapleau was able to make further innovations to Americanize Zen. For instance, he encouraged his students to retain American dress, used English translations of sutras[22], and gave his students Anglicized dharma names (Seager, 1999, 94). These innovations, among others from various American and Japanese Zen Buddhist practitioners helped in establishing a “new Buddhism” with its own unique features and emphases. Robert and Anne Aitken were two other significant figures who contributed to the ongoing reformation and “grassroots developments in America Zen” beginning in the mid-1950’s (Seager, 1999, 95).

Practicing in Japanese monasteries after WWII, Aitken began his serious study under Yasutani-roshi in the 1950’s and eventually received dharma transmission the year after Yasutani-roshi’s death in 1974. The Aitkens co-founded a Zen group in Hawaii in 1959 called the Diamond Sangha[23] and began to lead various Zen groups at a time when Buddhism in America was nothing more than mystical fanaticism. The Diamond Sangha then branched into a network of affiliated centers throughout Hawaii, Australia, and California. With the help of Gary Snyder and Joanna Macy, Aitken also co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), which developed into an essential American Buddhist organization by the 1990’s. Focusing on integrating American Buddhist practice with social activism, BPF emerged as a crucial innovative organization that established a new kind of Buddhism in America such that American ideals[24] and traditional esoteric Asian practices were integrated to create social change in America.

While Yasutani, Kapleau, and the Aitkens all significantly contributed to the transmission of Zen Buddhism to America, the popularization of Zen Buddhism in America was most notable with D.T. Suzuki during the 1950’s Beat Era and Suzuki-roshi in the 1960’s (Seager, 1999, 90). Zen’s blossoming in the United States has sprouted from numerous prominent figures drawing from ideas and practices of different Buddhist lineages. Further, D.T. Suzuki may have popularized it for the mass with countless other influential Buddhist leaders affecting its reception, but Suzuki-roshi laid the physical foundations for Zen to be cultivated as a practice for those in the Bay Area. As expressed by the Priest at the Berkeley Zen Center, though, there is no representative practice of Zen.

The complexity of Buddhist practice is represented in that each Zen teacher has reorganized Zen ideals due to their own unique interpretations and the interpretations of their teacher. Similar to Christian churches throughout the United States, no two Zen centers follow exactly the same doctrine, rituals, and customs due to the wide range of Buddhist practice and the particular interests of the teachers at the center. Like Suzuki-roshi expresses as a child, “Buddhism was not what motivated him; he had only vague, simplistic ideas of what it was. It was So-on[25] who inspired him,” (Chadwick, 1999, 17). This understanding of the many facets of Zen in the United States is represented by the current literature.

Although Buddhist practice has increased significantly since WWII, the centers in the United States today cluster around large cities where there would be an influx of people open to various religious practices. While the Bay Area is rich with other Buddhist centers and literature pertaining to their practices, I chose to get a glimpse at Buddhist practices in other parts of the United States to represent the varied nature of American Buddhist practice. Further, understanding the historical framework and the involvement of a wide range of Buddhist priests, teachers, and laypeople in Zen’s transmission to the United States creates a complex web of Buddhist religious activity that can be touched upon through ethnographic accounts of Buddhist temples across America.

Current Literature

While the purposes of my thesis revolve around understanding the significance of a Soto Zen Buddhist temple to the people of Berkeley, California, there have been other accounts of Buddhist rituals and lineages and the importance of their practices to Americans. These other accounts by anthropologists and psychologists alike have contributed to the understanding of the broad spectrum of Buddhist practice that has fanned out across America and increased exponentially in the past century. Such ethnographic accounts focus on specific customs prevalent within particular Buddhist communities and serve to shed light on the meaning of these customs for the interested population. Despite the differences in methodology, focus of study, or location between my thesis and other Buddhist ethnographies, the general intention of all accounts reside in the attempts to understand the various populations from the perspective of what the practice does for the community and what it does for the individual. To garner a sense of the complexity of Buddhist practice that has flourished in the United States since WWII, I focused on two accounts by the same author, due to his clear presentation of various Buddhist sanghas and his rich analysis of the transformations of Buddhist practice in the United States. For instance, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America and Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, both by Jeff Wilson, are ethnographic descriptions of Buddhist practices in America that contribute to the growing landscape of Buddhist study and serve to provide a framework for understanding what Buddhist practice means to Americans.

In Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, Wilson follows a Japanese Zen Buddhist ritual to its new home in Zen temples across the United States, distinguishing its value for Buddhist Americans and comparing this to the traditional Japanese practice. Wilson explores the practice of mizuko kuyo[26] in various American Buddhist temples from multiple Buddhist traditions. Coming across the practice accidentally at the Rochester Zen Center, Wilson noted the incongruity between presence of statues representing the practice of mizuko kuyo and the absence of the practice’s significance in current literature. Thus, he set out to understand what significance—if any—this ritual served to various populations of Buddhist Americans and the reasons behind the ritual’s transmission. Prevalent in Japan where abortion is common and accepted, mizuko kuyo’s transmission to the United States has occurred over the past 40 years and has been incorporated into American Buddhist temples and accepted as a practice by non-Buddhists as well. Although this practice and Wilson’s research questions regarding this particular Buddhist ritual do not arise within my own fieldwork, his research provides a window into understanding the myriad of Buddhist practices and rituals that have travelled from Japan and replanted in the United States.

As expressed in the current literature[27] regarding Buddhist establishments within the United States, the usage of Buddhist practices have been reinvented to fit the needs of the American people. To understand the significance of this practice to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, Wilson begins his account by describing the mizuko kuyo practices of numerous temples from various Buddhist traditions within the Los Angeles neighborhoods. He focuses on this practice from the perspective of the European-American convert population as opposed to the Japanese-American Buddhist population and describes the importance of the tradition to the American-born Buddhist converts who sought out Buddhism and this practice while coming from an American background. Wilson ethnographically describes the practice of mizuko kuyo in detail as performed at a Zen monastery in Oregon, noting the distinctions of the ritual’s origins in Japan. From this detailed description, Wilson draws conclusions regarding generalized American Buddhist claims and their relation to the practice. Wilson further targets the wider American context in his attempt to understand how right-wing Christians and left-wing feminists have used the practice of mizuko kuyo to construct arguments for their own political agendas. Lastly, Wilson follows this ritual in its ability to provide a sense of cultural and personal healing for those who have suffered pregnancy loss. Through his quest to understand this specific Buddhist ritual from multiple perspectives and in various contexts, Wilson argued its significance to the wider American population differed from that of its significance to the Japanese population. Despite differences in its function to various groups of people though, the practice of mizuko kuyo was transmitted to the United States due to its ability to meet a demand that no other practice already present in the United States could satisfy.

Through his organized methodology, Wilson carefully articulated the significance of this Buddhist practice to the American community. Despite the lack of prevalence of this specific Buddhist ritual at the Berkeley Zen Center, the transmission of mizuko kuyo and the restructuring of its meaning for the American people are similar to the restructuring of other Zen practices that persists at the Berkeley Zen Center. For instance, the Berkeley Zen Center utilizes a combination of Zen practices and ideologies from both the Rinzai and the Soto school of Zen, intermixing them in a new way with Tibetan concepts as well that would not exist within the traditional Japanese Zen environment. The practices of Wilson’s account and at the Berkeley Zen Center serve as examples for the way in which Zen Buddhism has been redefined in the United States.  Similarly, in his account entitled Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, Wilson documents the unique practices of another Buddhist community, making note of its significance to its American population.

While Mourning the Unborn Dead focused on a specific ritual across multiple different Buddhist temples and attempts to understand the ritual’s significance as it pertains to the American population, Dixie Dharma singles in on one particular Buddhist temple located in Richmond, Virginia. The Buddhist temple in Dixie Dharma, however, contributes to the realization that Buddhism within the United States is still developing and addresses the uncertainty of what it means to be a Buddhist in the American context. The Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond, Virginia is a surprising home for Buddhism not only due to the strong evangelical dominance in that region but also due to its remarkable nature of housing five distinct Buddhist groups from separate lineages under one roof. These two characteristics are related, though, such that the dense population of Methodists and Southern Baptists dominated an environment which contributed to the surging desire for alternative religious practices, eventually resulting in the lumping together of various Buddhist lineages under one roof. This account more similarly resembles my own methodology as Wilson pays close attention to a single sangha and follows its evolution and prominence in the lives of this southern population.

Like my own research, Wilson begins Dixie Dharma with a historical overview of the nature of American Buddhism and progresses to argue that regionalism has been used to understand most religions within the United States with Buddhism as an exception. He targets this issue by discerning that local phenomena in any religion cannot be generalized, claiming that the practices of this sangha are not necessarily representative of “American Buddhism.” This finding is of particular relevance to my research, as the Berkeley Zen Center similarly cannot be generalized to be understood as representative of American Zen, or even Bay Area Zen.

Wilson describes through his regionalism thesis that American Buddhism—like any religion—varies across location, thus highlighting the unique characteristics of this specific temple. The individual Buddhist temple that he researched is no different from other Buddhist temples, such as the Berkeley Zen Center, in that it can only be understood as in the context of the region it is in.

While he focused on Buddhism in the American South, Wilson describes through his regionalism thesis that each Zen center has different characteristics due to its location, connection to Buddhist lineages, teachers at the center, and desires of the people in attendance. Posing similarities to my research, Wilson’s documentation expresses the necessary understanding that the practices of a single temple—whether mostly following one lineage like the Berkeley Zen Center or housing multiple like Ekoji—have their own distinctive practices far removed from the strict view of a single religion as cohesive across a nation. Even within the same school or lineage of Buddhism, “American Buddhist practice may differ from one part of the country to the next,” (Wilson, 2012, 143). There are certain characteristics of the Ekoji temple that are unique to this particular sangha and address the regional understanding of Buddhist practice in America.

Originally, there were no Zen masters resident in Richmond and so the sangha reorganized itself to “follow the guidelines of the Shunryu Suzuki lineage of Soto Zen as exemplified by the San Francisco Zen Center,” (Wilson, 2012, 144). While those in the Bay Area can pick and choose which Zen center they want to attend as there are various centers available with various schools of Buddhism represented, those in Richmond Virginia have one temple attended by people “who both like and dislike the Suzuki lineage, people who approve of and disapprove of the group’s guiding teacher, and people who accept and oppose the notion of Zen religious authority in the first place,” (Wilson, 2012, 144). Thus, this temple researched by Wilson is characterized partially by a sangha of individuals with grievances toward the teaching but who attend anyway, as it is the only available Zen center in the region. While Wilson characterizes the Ekoji center in this manner, he likewise characterizes American Zen as having many more options in terms of teachers, lineages, rituals, and ideological practices available. California Zen[28] is characterized by an abundance of options due to the regional demand of Buddhist practice, whereas Virginian Zen is characterized by its limitations. Additionally, both Wilson and I ethnographically analyze the unique conditions of the individual Buddhist temples and the significance of the temples’ practice to the interested population after first targeting a broader understanding of the American Buddhist context.

Unlike Wilson’s research in either Dixie Dharma or Mourning the Unborn Dead, my research focuses more specifically on the personal understanding of Zen for the people at the Berkeley Zen Center. While I intend to analyze the specific traditions like Wilson did in Mourning the Unborn Dead, I hope to provide an ethnographic account of the Wednesday night drop-in group as a practice that contributes something meaningful for the people of this sangha. Further, like Wilson in Dixie Dharma, a historical framework as an introductory basis for any cultural or religious practice is crucial to help conceptualize how this Zen center has evolved in an American context. The perception of Zen in a different light than the traditional Japanese formation of Zen is likewise expressed by a historical framework due to the unique conditions of American culture[29]. The Zen practiced at the Berkeley Zen Center, like the Zen practiced in any of the locations that Wilson studied, evolved in a manner that was beneficial to the people as a framework to garner understanding of the world they live in.


Part II: Ethnographic Account of the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC)

Ethnographic Research on the Unique Characteristics BZC

While D.T. Suzuki and his particular emphasis of certain Japanese Zen practices helped shape a new kind of Zen for Americans, American Zen has many more facets and cannot be understood as a static religious system unaffected by time, place, or particular key figures. In Japan, Zen was divided into Rinzai, which emphasized koans and Soto, which emphasized zazen. Despite the geographical distinctions and institutional framework of Zen in East Asian countries, American Zen was an innovative movement of laypeople who took on the practices of monastic disciples. Founded through the collective effort of Japanese teachers and their American students beginning mainly in the 1950’s, the American Zen trend sought to “balance rigorous practice with the demands of the workplace and family” (Seager, 1999, 91).

While the number of Zen centers and Zen practitioners has grown significantly since the 1950’s, each center within the United States has its own unique take on Zen practice depending on the intermixing of lineages and the abbot of the specific center. In this way, American Buddhist practice is unified in its propensity for diversity with no two centers utilizing exactly the same doctrines, rituals, practices, and ideology. Each Buddhist center and specifically, each Zen center within the United States has had a hand in the reconstructing of Buddhism from its Asian roots into its uniquely Americanized version, characterized by an interweaving of practices and beliefs from different Buddhist lineages as well as by the American yearning for ‘Asian spirituality’ to fill the void that other religions could not. This recognition of American Buddhist practice is represented in current literature of other Buddhist sanghas as well as in this ethnographic description of the Berkeley Zen Center. The Berkeley Zen Center, with its own unique set of practices and beliefs assembled from Asian roots, has blossomed into its American creation, where it has established an environment in which individuals seek an intellectually stimulating practice that cultivates a sense of calm within the physical body that they intend to let resonate outward to the rest of the world.

Established in 1967 on Dwight Way by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his disciple Sojun Weitsman Roshi, the Berkeley Zen Center eventually moved to its present location on Russell Street in 1979. This new Zendo was officially named Shogakuji to honor Shogaku Suzuki Roshi[30]. It is located on a residential street amongst houses and tree-lined sidewalks. Although the neighborhood used to be characterized as dangerous, the reopening of the MLK library right next door, the close proximity to Berkeley Bowl, and the opening of the Thai temple, Wat Mongkolratanaram, on the same street, has created a more accessible environment. Despite the creation of a friendlier neighborhood, a member of the Berkeley Zen Center was assaulted and carjacked in broad daylight directly outside the center during the months I was attending. While this is discussed in more detail in a later section, it is important to note the danger still prevalent in the environment surrounding the Berkeley Zen Center.

The organization of the facilities of the Berkeley Zen Center is important in drawing distinctions between the ways in which this organization practices their religious traditions, as compared to the way other religions practice theirs. While Christian religious practice, for instance, is carried out in churches usually in business-populated areas, it is not uncommon for Zen centers to be in a residential neighborhood. There are four buildings at this particular Zen center, with the front building appearing from the outside as a house. A black gate with a sign that reads “Berkeley Zen Center” and a cobblestone pathway lead back to a patio behind the house—wherein the community room resides. There is a building for a bathroom, the Zendo, and another building in the back where the abbot lives. A bulletin board on the patio keeps attendees up-to-date on various activities at the center, including the current reading for the Wednesday night drop-in group. With the passing of Suzuki Roshi in 1971, the Berkeley Zen Center still remains heavily influenced by his teachings and draws from his work—especially Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—as the cornerstone of its doctrinal elements as well as for its guidelines of practice.

The main gatherings at the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) consist of the Wednesday night drop-in group, the Saturday service, and a monthly gathering for those in their 20’s and 30’s called the 20’s and 30’s Dharma Group. Additionally, BZC offers Zazen for 30 minutes at 5:40am and 5:40pm Monday thru Friday. To get a first-hand experience into the nature of Zen in terms of how it is understood and carried out in the daily lives of people in Berkeley, I attended the Wednesday night drop-in group, the Saturday service, and the 20’s and 30’s Dharma group. While these groups differ in their demographic, catering to different populations of people, the presence of these differences positively impacts the center as they exemplify the demands of the larger community.

Understanding the sangha as a whole is essential to effectively establish the significance of the Wednesday night drop-in group. Consisting of a larger number of people, the Saturday service was described by one of the priests at the center (Priest Jonni) as having less of a community-oriented atmosphere. Further, Priest Jonni articulated that the Saturday service functions similarly to the weekly Sunday service for Christian Americans such that it exists as a routine, or a scheduled weekly meeting wherein the individual goes through the motions of a religious activity. This is not necessarily to argue that the people who attend the Saturday service on a regular basis do not acquire the same kind of spiritual or religious fulfillment than the people of the Wednesday night drop-in group. Rather, the community atmosphere of the study session at the drop-in group makes it easier to get an understanding of the integration of Zen practice, doctrine, and ideology that the Saturday service does not provide due to its structure.

The Saturday service acts as a traditional and necessary aspect of most Zen centers with approximately 6 hours of various elements of Zen practice. Including periods of Zazen, kinhin[31], work, and a lecture, the form of the Saturday service appeals to an older generation of people who are more comfortable with the more formalized traditions. Similar to the Wednesday night drop-in group, the 20’s and 30’s Dharma group focuses on how Zen is incorporated into the daily routines of individuals, but it focuses on certain issues that are relevant to the 20’s and 30’s age group, and thus exists as an even smaller niche of Zen application. This group also only meets once a month, limiting my opportunities for involvement.

The Wednesday night drop-in group creates an environment for those looking to study Zen and analyze how it can be applied outside of the Zen center. Therefore, my focus on the drop-in group serves as an ethnographic account of a specific subset of the Berkeley Zen Center but also functions as a psychological or spiritual analysis of Zen. The individual people who attend this group attracted my attention with their immersion in doctrine and practice. In comparison to the other groups my research could have focused on, the Wednesday night drop-in group was the most frequently met group that most aided my understanding of the utilization of Zen within individual lives with the combined aspects of Zen doctrine, ideology, and practice, and thus persisted as the main source of insight.

As the different groups of the Berkeley Zen Center each offer something unique, the methodologies and focus of the Wednesday night drop-in group, the 20s and 30s dharma group, and the Saturday service differ. It became apparent through integration and participation at BZC that there is overlap between the communities of the Saturday service and the Wednesday night drop-in group but the focus and intentions of each group vary drastically. The Wednesday night drop-in group and the 20s and 30s dharma group understand Zen as a more verbal practice wherein there is more of a discussion element and interaction with the Priest and the other members. The Saturday service, on the other hand, focuses more on the ritualistic elements of the physical practice of Zen: Zazen. Where the Wednesday drop-in group’s understanding of Zen is one of its applicability to everyday life, the Saturday’s understanding of Zen is on the ongoing training of meditation. The individuals who attend the Saturday service, though, are no more committed than the Wednesday night drop-in group, as the group varies in the dependability of its membership. Just as there are members who attend almost every Saturday service, there are members who attend almost every Wednesday night drop-in group. Thus, one group is not necessarily more “committed;” rather, these two groups are two variations on the way Zen is understood and speaks to the different ways Zen can be made accessible. While some seek its origins in the physical elemental nature of meditation, others seek its ideological conceptualization.

Although the center as a whole offers a wide range of services, I chose to focus mainly on the Wednesday night drop-in group since this group provided me with the most comprehensive view as to how Zen is understood and utilized by the attendees. The two components of the drop-in session, practice and discussion, provided me with an easy access to understanding what the people do, how they understand what they do, and how certain Zen practices and ideas are transferred to their daily routines. Further, the individuals who attend the drop-in group have more ability to express their spiritual concerns than the more ritualized gathering of the Saturday service, for instance. Through the organization of the drop-in sessions and personal discussions with attendees, I was able to assess the significance of Zen in the private lives of the attendees in a way that I would not have been able to do had I not focused on this particular group.[32]

While similar research and current Buddhist literature has focused on the organization, or specific practices, of a Buddhist center—or on the translation of traditional Japanese Zen to America and how the American context has effected its practice for the immigrant population[33]—I was drawn to the people of the drop-in group as a fluid community of people with tangible personal goals. The spiritual demographic of the Wednesday night drop-in group is representative of more than Zen. The discussions and engagement with public discourse regarding Zen ideology speaks more to the spiritual and psychological elements of the individual people and their reorganization of Zen as something that can be applied to their daily lives than it does to the original creation and usage of Zen. As opposed to assessing the practices or comparing the doctrines of the Berkeley Zen Center to other Zen communities, my research centered on the specific people at this Zen center to understand how Zen is employed in the world with these individuals as its vehicle.


Beginning my research as an ethnographic account of the Berkeley Zen Center, the reorientation of focus to the individuals of the Wednesday night drop-in group geared my research to be more personal and psychologically-focused. Like any religious organization, the members who attend the Wednesday night drop-in group are after a certain kind of fulfillment that has led them to this particular center. Though most individuals do not discuss this in any sort of direct manner, the realization that each individual is there for a reason is prevalent in their submission to the customs of the Zendo and in their dutiful practice and participation. I found myself drawn to the individual natures of those who attended the drop-in group and sought to garner a sense of understanding as to what it was about them specifically that led them to this practice. From discussions and through careful observation, I began to recognize others’ reasoning to become part of a sangha—and this one in particular—was in no way unique to this group of people. Desires for connection to something outside of oneself—whether it be to other people or something ‘greater’—cravings to understand others and oneself, and yearnings for direction and purpose are foundational elements of the human condition[34] that cannot be escaped from and persist as underlying reasons for individuals’ involvement in the Berkeley Zen Center and the drop-in group.

Though I focused on the Wednesday night drop-in group and also on the 20s and 30s dharma group, everyone who attends the center is not there for the same reason. Those who attend the Saturday service and not the Wednesday night group are in attendance for reasons distinct from those who attend the Wednesday night group. Further, the individuals who routinely frequent the Wednesday group are not all there for the same reason either. The Wednesday night drop-in group specifically served the particular function of creating an even closer-knit sense of community than the Saturday morning service. Through the distribution of food and organized but free-flowing conversation after the individually shared experience of Zazen, the members come not as an escape from their daily lives, but in hopes of creating a structure through which they can better understand the turmoil and chaos of average daily existence.

Saturday Service and Orientation

I went to a Saturday service beginning at 8:45am to get Zazen instruction and have a better understanding of body posture and the appropriate behavior within the Zendo. Additionally, I wanted to get a sense of what the Saturday service was like. As I arrived slightly early, I waited around in the patio area where a few other people had congregated and who were also waiting for the Zazen instruction. For those who do not need Zazen instruction or who are longtime members/attendees, the service starts as early as 6am and goes until around 12pm. On this particular day, a sesshin[35] was occurring alongside the regular 6-12 service. This particular sesshin was a day-long sesshin that began at 5am and went until 9pm.

As I walked in to the patio to wait for the Zazen instruction, I noticed Stacey—a long-time member of the Berkeley Zen Center—sipping a mug of tea and bundled in layers of warm clothing. It was very quiet in the patio as the sesshin was taking place but we chatted for a few minutes. I asked her if she was here for the service and she said that she does not normally come for the service but is here instead for the day-long sesshin. Although it began at 5am, she could not make herself get up that early and she instead began her practice around 6am. She had invited a friend from work but she had a feeling he would not make it to the day-long practice as it can be rather intense for a newcomer. She said she had done a few sesshins before and likes to do them on occasion to strengthen her practice. Stacey claimed she found them useful to solidify her understanding and to keep her feeling strong in her practice. Having just returned from a trip to Japan, Stacey mentioned that while there, she participated in a 5-day long sesshin.

Sesshins are particularly beneficial to the committed practitioner[36] as they serve as extended periods of intense focus with the main goal to strengthen one’s practice of Zazen, which ultimately strengthens one’s ultimate awareness. The setting of a sesshin is also of particular importance as they are carried out in almost consistent silence, yet a group of approximately 5-20 people could participate. Those who partake in sesshins are seen as more committed to Zen practice due to the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that ensues from the extensive prolonged periods of meditation.[37] Stacey, a regular attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in group but not a regular attendee of the Saturday service, mentioned she has practiced various sesshins as she finds them helpful in her individual understanding of Zen. While the attendees of the Saturday service who do not attend the Wednesday night drop-in group understand Zen as its ritualistic element, they do not partake in sesshins any more than other members/attendees[38] of the sangha. As described by another attendee, the silent aspect of the sesshin is significant as its purpose is to allow for the quiet introspection needed for intense focus while practicing within a community. Its paradoxical elements contribute to its functionality such that people feel a certain level of support as they are surrounded by others in a similar state of quiet contemplation.

Entering the community room for Zazen instruction, I was met by a group of about 8 other people, some of whom had had instruction before and others who had not. The individuals who had had instruction before mentioned they came to reassess their posture, protocol, and the specific appropriate mannerisms employed at this particular Zen center, as there are different specific positions at different centers. We were instructed to pretend we were walking in to the Zendo, such that we would take a step in, bow to the alter with hands pressed together just below the nose, and find a seat. There, we would bow to our seat, “as if you were bowing to yourself” said the instructor, and then bow outward “as if you were bowing to Buddha and the external world.” Next, we were instructed to sit on the cushion, the zafus, and were told we could use more supporting cushions if needed. The supporting cushions were helpful for elevation since the positioning of the knees on the ground and erect spine is crucial. The hands are held in the cosmic mudra[39], with the left hand cupping the right and thumbs pressed together.

The instructor went through the 3 main sitting positions, beginning with Burmese, or quarter-lotus position, in which the legs are crossed and the tops of both feet are on the ground. Although this is the easiest position, with knees bent and touching the rectangular black mat, the quarter-lotus position increases in difficulty with increased height of the cushion one is sitting on. The instructor described the half-lotus position, which has one foot (either, depending on comfort for the individual) placed on the thigh of the opposite leg, and full-lotus position which has both feet placed high atop the opposing thighs. The instructor did not herself get into the half- or full-lotus positions because they were too difficult for her. The goal is to work one’s way to the full-lotus position by switching off which foot is crossed during the half-lotus position. While full-lotus position is the most difficult position and results in pain and loss of feeling in the knees and lower back when first beginning, it is understand that if it was not difficult it would not be worth it. She said the point is to do what is comfortable for you but to also push yourself as this is the practice.

With the intention to be aware of your body and your breathing, she said, the point of Zazen is “to be in your body.” We have thoughts and feelings, perceptions and sensations that come and disrupt our flow but the point is to remain in the moment and not “run away with all these thoughts.” While it can be easy and second-nature to want to follow a thought and see where it goes, or try to figure it out, the instructor articulated that that is what we must refrain from doing in Zazen. Similarly, the point is not to suppress thoughts or to avoid them, but not to get trapped in them and have them take us away from the present situation. With awareness of our posture and body position, continuously returning to breathe, we keep ourselves in the present moment and do not have to run away without whatever discourse is carrying out in our heads.

The eyes, the instructor said, remain open and focusing on a point in front with the head tilted at about a 45-degree angle down. While some practices keep their eyes closed, the eyes are kept open in Zazen because the intention is not to shut out the world but not to focus too intently on it either. The focus should be glossed such that one can see but are not so absorbed with every minute detail of the object that one is focusing on. Similarly, we could have had the doors closed so that we would not hear the sounds of cooking coming from the kitchen but we do not want to be shut out from hearing the world either. After the instructor tolled the bell 3 times, we practiced meditating for about 5 minutes and then the floor was open to questions.

An older gentleman who had not had much training asked how much shifting and moving was too much. The instructor responded by emphasizing that one should try to refrain from moving as much as possible. “If it is just a scratch,” she said, “then sit with it. Focus on it and relieve it mentally and if it continues to persist then maybe think about moving.” The point, though, is to keep from shifting too much because any little shift is not really going to relieve anything and there will always be another little itch or irritation one would have to tend to. She discussed this as a metaphor for other psychological itches that we have the desire to “pick at” in an attempt to alleviate the irritation. If a persistent physical ache or pain occurs, though, it can be acceptable to reposition and shift with a small bow so that others know of your consideration. Another person raised her hand and asked the significance of the smock that the instructor wore around her neck. It was blue and in a rectangular form, held around her neck by thin blue fabric. The instructor explained that it was stitched together after the completion of her dharma transmission and it signifies that she is “on the path.” Called a rakusu, the cloth was given to her after studying with Abbot Sojun Weitsman, the leader at the Berkeley Zen Center.

After bowing to signify the end of the instruction period, we fluffed our zafus and put them back on the rack. Shoes were laced up and slipped on and we filed out of the community room to return to the Berkeley Zen Center another day.

Structure of the Wednesday Night Drop-In Group

The Wednesday night drop-in group begins relatively the same each night. Arriving around 7:20, I place my shoes on the rack outside, making sure to have “clean feet” as I take the first step onto the platform outside the door to the Zendo. Carrying my bag inside with me, as we have been warned not to leave any belongings out that could be stolen, I take a step inside the Zendo, turn toward the altar up at the front and bow low with palms pressed together and fingers to the tip of my nose. I gather one small square support cushion located in a pile close to the door and find a seat. After placing my bag underneath my seat and arranging my support cushion underneath the zafu, I bow once to my seat and, turning clockwise, once outward. Others around and already seated bow in response, signaling a recognition of Buddha nature. I crawl backwards on to the zafu, turning counterclockwise and settle into position.

Legs crossed in Burmese position and hands resting in cosmic-mudra, I straighten my spine, relax my shoulders, and let my eyes glaze over the wall of fading light in front of me. I position my head so that it remains straight and imagine that a string is attached to my spine, pulled upward toward the sky. Movements and shifting persist for a few minutes or so while others are still arriving and settling into Zazen. The lights are dim and the temperature is kept steady after the door is closed to keep out the cold of the night air. Three bells signal the beginning of Zazen and a silence brimming with the sounds of other’s bodily functions persists for 40 minutes.

While letting thoughts arise and go in my own individual Zazen experience, the Zendo atmosphere is a chorus of bodily functions. Gulping, shifting, sneezing, coughing, stomach gurgling, and heavy breathing ebb and flow in the silent current. We are silent but we are loud. We sit in individual focused concentration, in our own private practice, surrounded by the reminder that we are with others in a sangha, a community. Some breathe loud, consistent breaths. Others can be heard taking in one deep thorough breath, holding it, and releasing it in a long steady exhale every so often. While some cough loudly and without shame, others attempt to keep their bodily noises to a minimum—the ones that can be controlled—of course it is rather difficult to cough softly in a room full of silence.

Individually, the practice of Zazen occurs wherein all beings focus on their breathing and positioning of their body as an anecdote for the mental discourse of unruly thoughts that pervades daily life. I sit and I let thoughts arise and I notice the feelings and emotions that accompany them and, instead of following that thought or emotion and attempting to discern where it came from or why, I take a deep breathe, release the breath, and with it, that thought. This is the practice we are taught; as a practitioner, this is what I do but I must remain aware that others experience Zazen differently and have different personal histories (psychological and spiritual) that may affect their individual understanding and practice of Zazen.

One bell tolls to signal the end of Zazen and a few minutes of readjusting and waking up body parts that had fallen asleep occur before mats are placed on the ground in anticipation for a period of bowing. Once everyone is prepared, mats angled toward the alter at the front and hands resting in shashu,[40] Priest Jonni makes an offering to the alter. The individual on bells tolls a bell signaling the time to bow. Palms initially pressed together and to our chest, we bow on our mat, forehead to the ground, hands resting beside our heads with upturned palms. The bell reverberates throughout the Zendo for a second as we bow. The cessation of the reverberation signals it is time to stand, hands pressed together again. We bow with each strike on the bell, totaling 10 bows. Angling our mats toward the center of the Zendo, Sutra books are passed out with a bow from individual to individual.

Recited in a continuous, monotonous fashion, the words of the Heart Sutra[41][42] are strung together in a chant-like rhythm, with some members carrying the weight of the cadence and others mumbling along. For the most part, the recitation of the Heart Sutra is strong such that the individual voices are not heard. It is the collected unity, the forceful continuity of the voices and the words that articulates the meaning and significance of the Heart Sutra.

After we recite the Heart Sutra, the Sutra booklets are collected and placed back at the front of the Zendo. We wait while the Priest moves around her mat and for everyone to have finished shuffling around. Palms pressed together, we bow once to the front and once to each other. The person on bells then stands and bows and we bow a second time to each other. We reposition our mats so that they look the same way they did when we entered the Zendo and file out of the room, taking a small bow on the way out the door. We place our shoes on the steps to the Zendo and wait for the Priest to lock up so that we can shuffle in to the community room, where we remove our shoes again and boil tea for discussion.

Posture and Zazen

Described by Stacey, Zazen is a practice that takes patience and training, and the correct positioning of the body is crucial to its productivity within the individual. The position of the body, she said one Wednesday night, is significant as it correlates with internal feelings that radiates from the individual and is essentially an outward perception of the internal being. For Zazen to be effective, an individual must become fully attuned to the practice of breathing and be in full awareness of the body position. Body posture is a significant part of Zazen, and Zen practice in general, since the awareness of the congruity between mind and body allow the individual to process internal states. With continued practice, the posture becomes easy to achieve and eventually begins to subside in pain. The function of the Zen emphasis on posture centers on the belief that enlightenment comes from a positioning of oneself in the present moment. Characterized not by a state that one eventually achieves and remains in for the rest of this lifetime, enlightenment is understood to be the continued practice of remaining in the present moment in each moment that ensues (Gethin 1998). Thus, the focus on posture centers one in the present moment, such that the individual is aware of his/her unique position and the effects of his/her position in a broader sense. In Zazen, there is also a heavy emphasis on the awareness and letting go of internal emotional states through the noticing of breath.

The root of Zen practice is Zazen, or sitting meditation, in which an individual sits with one’s internal manifestations of thought and attunes to its relation to the physical body (Kapleau 1965). Zazen is distinct from other Buddhist practices of meditation, such as Mindfulness Meditation, in that it focuses on awareness of one’s internal state and the letting go of such emotion. For instance, when sitting in meditation, an individual focuses on breathing; the arising of thought and accompanying emotions are inevitable though—regardless of the amount of time spent practicing. Thus, the idea is that when a thought arises—whether it is regarding a person or the events of the day or the expectations for tomorrow—the individual will notice the accompanying emotion—such as annoyance or anger or anxiety—and then take a deep breath and let it go. In this way, and with continued practice, an individual learns to become aware of what affects them in certain ways. During the practice of Zazen, though, awareness of and letting go of certain emotional states means that the individual does not attempt to discern why a certain emotional state arouse, just simply recognize that it did. Thus, the intention is not to engage in what is called a ‘mental discourse’ regarding where the emotion came from and its meaning, but rather only to be aware of its existence. Once aware of the feeling of anger, for instance, an individual will then take a deep breath, keeping the posture erect, and let it go with the release of breath. The period of Zazen will continue in this fashion, such that emotions arise, made aware to the individual, and then let go of with an exhale. This practice and the idea behind it is one that is intended to pervade in daily life with one of Zen’s main foundations. That is, the concept of non-attachment as a cornerstone of Zen Buddhism is seen in practice in Zazen with the allowance of emotional states to arise and the allowance to let it go and not let it absorb one’s mental awareness.

A Note on the Readings

For a significant portion of my time spent at the Berkeley Zen Center, we read Training in Compassion by Norm Fischer, an American Soto Zen roshi practicing in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Fischer served as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995-2000 and then founded the Everyday Zen Foundation in 2000 that extended throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Training in Compassion emphasizes Lojong, which is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that promotes the use of slogans[43] to achieve what is known as bodhichitta[44]. This book, the teachings it provides, and the use of it within the Berkeley Zen Center—a Soto Zen practice branching from the Mahayana school of Buddhism rather than the Tibetan school of Buddhism—is a perfect example of the American integration and compilation of various forms and practices of traditional Japanese Zen in order to meet the demands of Americans looking to involve themselves in Buddhism.

In his book, Fischer popularizes the use of this traditional aspect of Tibetan Zen in simple explanations and a style that makes it accessible for Zen practitioners as well as for the less “religious” individuals but who are searching for methods of “personal betterment.[45]” While the practice of Lojong has been around since the 12th century, its recent popularization in the United States emerged around 20 years ago with the influence of Pema Chodron, who was one of the first American Buddhist teachers to teach Lojong extensively. Most likely the first American woman to become an ordained Buddhist nun, Chodron is a significant figure in the new American Buddhism with an emphasis on Tibetan practice (Haas 2013). Mentioned in one of the drop-in group meetings, Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart discusses the nature of dealing with difficult life situations with the help of Buddhist practice. With Chodron’s popularization of the practice of Lojong through publications and her own personal teachings, Zen practitioners have adopted practices that were previously sanctioned to a particular corner of Buddhist discipline (Haas 2013). The interweaving of traditional Buddhist practices into a new kind of Buddhism is prevalent with Chodron’s and Fischer’s Tibetan emphasis and its popularization in Zen centers such as the Berkeley Zen Center. Additionally, the discussion of slogans and its roots in Tibetan practice has been indoctrinated in American Zen in such a way that encourages its accessibility for those not steeped in the traditional doctrine to apply it to their daily routines.

Discussing Self and Non-Attachment

On one night the Tibetan Lojong slogans “See Everything as a Dream” and “Rest in the Openness of Mind,” in Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion. It generated a long discussion regarding the Zen concept of letting any and all events in life happen and not getting bogged down with the particulars. The notion of life being like a dream pertains to the idea that it is not crucial to take anything so seriously essentially because there is no certainty that anyone is right about anything. There is no objective reality because we are all experiencing the world through our own unique lens with our own individual and personal issues and characteristics. Thus, there is essentially no one right way to be and therefore no need to feel as if whatever way in which we are feeling is wrong. If this concept is taken too seriously, however, it can prove to be dangerous as well because its intent is not to assume that nothing matters. Additionally, it can be easy to understand this slogan as emphasizing that one must only feel positive emotion since we should not over-concern ourselves with the negativity. The next slogan titled “Resting in the Openness of Mind” countered this last point of the last slogan, however, by explaining that we must leave ourselves open to feeling anything, whether it is negative or positive. The nature of the individual self was examined as something understood in relation to events and experiences rather than as something uniquely distinct from the present situation.

The reading of these two slogans highlighted the nature of the self as understood to be something without an essence and that is in constant flux. With the assertion that an individual must let the events of life come and go without becoming too attached to the particular emotion of a given situation, the understanding of the self is much the same. The reading of these slogans brought up the distinction between the “little self” and the “big self” as two forms of understanding one’s relation to the world. While the “little self” pertains to the preoccupation with the stream of individual powerful emotions, the “big self” deals with the connected experience of seeing yourself in harmony with a group of other individuals. The intention of Zen practice and the readings of these slogans are to emphasize the importance of the “big self” and deemphasize the American preoccupation with and attachment to our individual emotional turmoil. While it can be tempting to get swept away by the stream of emotion and to understand ourselves as something with boundaries, these slogans teach us that we are an ever-changing, never-constant assortment of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Thus, it is better to not get attached to perceiving ourselves as a certain way because the way in which an individual would respond to a given situation, for instance, varies depending on any number of factors.

The idea of a “self” was further articulated in the slogan entitled “Examine the Nature of Awareness” which posited the distinction between the Zen Buddhist conceptualization of self from the modern American perception of self. In this slogan, Fischer explains that if the last slogan is true and “everything is just a passing memory,” then there must be somebody to prove that this is true (Fischer, 2013, 20). The presumption is that there is a person—you—who is aware and can thus give certain things meaning by paying attention to them. Fischer argues, however, that it is easy to find emotions and sensations inside of an individual but that there is no locus of “I,” there is no distinct place where a “you” exists. Touching on current psychological research, Fischer mentions the notion of consciousness as simply a word we use to “cover over our confusion” of the reality that we do not know why or how we exist or what we are (Fischer, 2013, 21). Furthermore, Fischer examines current research that posits there is no brain area or collection of areas that corresponds to an individual’s sense of self.[46] While there are areas that correspond to specific emotions and sensations, there is no centralized location in which an individual can say: “This is where my self resides and originates from.” Although modern America places emphasis on the concept of the self as something with boundaries and borders, something in which an individual person exists inside of and does not extend outside of, the Zen Buddhist conceptualization is rather different[47][48][49].

The Zen self is understood as a collection of items called aggregates that presume the illusion of a whole connected sense of self that is further propagated by the language we use to discuss ourselves (Ross, 1981). An individual in the Zen Buddhist conceptualization is understood not as a separate entity, but rather as an expression of the universe during a given moment with specific parameters and conditions that qualify the exchange (Gethin, 1998, 134). Although this is drawn from the more general Buddhist discipline of anatta, or no self, this conceptualization of the self was presented, discussed, and encouraged at the Berkeley Zen Center. The aggregates, or skandhas, described by Buddhist doctrine are listed as bodily phenomena, feelings, labelling/recognizing, volitional activities, and conscious awareness (Gethin, 1998, 136). Bodily phenomena represents all sensations, or how the individual comes in to contact with the physical world through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The feelings skandha represents the variety of mental activities and their interaction with various physical stimuli in continuous repetition to produce the experience of feeling states, or vedana (Davids, 1896). Through the process of sorting the confrontation of various stimuli, there is the recognition of experience, known as samjna/sanna. Once sorted, these experiences can then produce certain desires, wishes, or tendencies, called volitional ‘forces,’ or samskara/samkhara. Lastly, there is recognized to be a basic level of self-awareness (vijnana/vinnana), such that we understand ourselves as “thinking subjects having a series of perceptions and thoughts” (Gethin, 1998, 136). The collection of these aggregates constitutes the illusion of a collected being, yet Buddhist thought argues there is no location of a ‘self.’ Rather than the self existing as something separate from experience or as the same as experience, the Buddhist self is “different from experience, yet not without experience” (Gethin, 1998, 138).

As expressed in the readings from the Berkeley Zen Center and discussed in the weekly drop-in group, the Buddhist idea of dependent co-arising is conceptualized to contain continuity and diversity such that actions are understood to be not the work of an autonomous self, but rather as “the outcome of the complex interaction of diverse impersonal conditions” (Gethin, 1998, 156). Thus, the self is propagated by the continuous ability of events to arise, yet juxtaposed with the inevitability of the uncertain nature of experience. This creates a teetering dichotomy whereby the self is neither autonomous nor wholly understood to be subjective experience, but rather understood to be the integration of experience and the subjective unique lens of an individual. This conceptualization of self differs drastically from the modern psychologically-oriented idea of what it means to have an identity, which encourages Buddhist doctrine in America as a specialized niche to cultivate a sense of self devoid of the pressures that American culture imposes on the individual.

The modern American and psychologically-oriented formulation of the self is one that is unchanging and something distinct from experience. It is in this way that psychologists can pinpoint issues by labeling them as unique to an individual. Although modern psychology does not limit an issue to being purely the product of an individual person, there remains an emphasis on a sense of identity as a factor in the equation of personhood.

Side note: An Attack on a Member of the Zen Sangha and the Zen Approach to Understanding

Sometime during the months I attended the Berkeley Zen Center, there was an attack on a member of the sangha in broad daylight right outside the Zen Center. In an attempt to steal her car, the young offender cut her carotid artery, resulting in a significant amount of blood loss, hospitalization, and her eventual death. Nancy McClellan, the gardener and longtime resident at the Berkeley Zen Center, was elderly and posed little threat to the high school-aged boy who attacked her. Despite the trauma, shock, and mourning that ensued, the attack instigated conversations during the Wednesday drop-in group that dealt with how to approach this situation from a Zen perspective. Simultaneously, the drop-in group was discussing the distinctions between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Although it can be difficult to treat the offender as a victim and have compassion for him and the horror that he created, that is exactly what the drop-in group served to do. The attack was a horrific experience for all who knew her and for the community as a whole. While this neighborhood is not known for its prestige, the shock and sadness that precipitated from this unsettling event sparked an opportunity for the members of the Zen sangha to practice the doctrine dutifully studied on a weekly basis.

In a Wednesday night drop-in session, the discussion centered on how to deal with the effects of the attack in an empathetic, sympathetic, and compassionate manner. Understood to be the ability to understand another person’s emotional state or perspective, empathy was additionally described to be something that can be used to help or hurt an individual. As elaborated in the drop-in group, extremely empathetic people can utilize their skills to manipulate the emotions of others. A sympathetic person, however, was articulated to both be able to understand the emotional state of an individual and to also care about their emotional state. Compassion was expressed not only to understand and to care about another’s emotional state (combination of empathy and sympathy), but also the element of action is implied; a compassionate person serves to act out of this  empathetic and sympathetic concern. Thus, this horrific event culminating in the death of the Berkeley Zen Center’s gardener encouraged a discussion of how to remain compassionate to the offender whose intentions were unknown to us.

While it was clear that the offender intended to highjack Ms. McClellan’s vehicle, his intent to harm her in the process is not something that we can readily discern. Keeping in mind that this individual is still in high school and most likely came from a troubled background with issues that we cannot pretend to understand, the group held a 30 minute discussion regarding the nature of caring for the trauma that this individual went through that led him to make the decision he made. We landed on the conclusion that it is impossible to understand whether or not he intended to harm and kill Ms. McClellan and that if we understood his intentions, we could better understand what kind of person he is. This was all discussed within a Zen context such that there was less emphasis on who this person is and rather on the nature of his decisions and the unfortunate permanence of his actions.

As mentioned previously, the person is not understood in any permanent fashion but rather exists as a collection of events in karmic co-arising. The idea that you do not have to remain tied to any particular conceptualization of identity grants the individual a sense of freedom from themselves such that each moment is a new opportunity to be a new self. In relation to the attack on Ms. McClellan, this concept of self—or non-self—was employed to better understand why and how an individual could attack with such violence. The attack was not a reflection of the individual, and, in the Zen perspective, he was not bound by his actions. Within the American context however, his actions landed him in jail where he will most likely remain for a significant portion of his life to rectify his behavior. From the Zen perspective, the individual who made the attack is not someone defined by his action since every moment is new and arising. Although it is not considered acceptable to hurt someone in the way that he did, the Zen understanding grants a sense of recognition that we as humans are not tied to a definition[50]. We are consistently inconsistent and this garners a release from having to act within a certain set of parameters. For example, in an American perspective, this individual will go through the rest of his life understood to be a criminal and no matter what he does he will be seen in the eyes of the government, and thus the eyes of society, as a criminal. Therefore, he will behave in ways that will propagate his selfhood as a criminal. In the Zen community, however, this individual has made a mistake during a particularly high-intensity emotional state in which he got swept away by emotional turmoil. Zen perspective grants acceptance for being swept away and acceptance for what arises. Zen perspective does not condone violent behavior, but recognizes that it happened and that each moment is a new moment wherein an individual gets the opportunity to reinvent him/herself. As explained by Priest Jonni, “each moment is just picking up the pieces of the mistakes of the last moment.”

A Typical Wednesday Night Drop-in Group

On November 12th, during a Wednesday night drop-in session, there were 13 attendees who all contributed to a particularly lively discussion of the purpose and practice of Zen and how it can be utilized in daily life as a method to deal with the Buddhist understanding of the human condition. I arrived early that night, around 7pm, before Priest Jonni had opened the Zendo for the early-birds to settle in to Zazen and early enough to overhear a conversation between a semi-regular attendee and an individual who was attending for the first time. Since they were acquaintances through work, the two individuals made small talk regarding their relation to one another with the semi-regular attendee, Shawn, surprised that his acquaintance, Jill, actually made it out to the center. Jill remarked that Shawn had made it sound so interesting and revitalizing for the soul that she wanted to come check it out. Shawn then proceeded to walk her through the steps, claiming that he was himself still relatively new and was in no way an expert on Zazen methods but that he would guide her as much as he could. Upon entering the Zendo, Shawn first directed Jill to take off her shoes and place them on the shoe rack and then to bow to the altar upon taking one step in to the Zendo. I followed them in and found a seat and listened to Shawn softly dissect the different hand positions and body postures she could utilize if she found them comfortable. “What’s important for now,” he said, “is the breathing. For now, just focus on the breathing. On breathe. Be aware of everything. Be aware of your body—that you are in your body—and be aware of everything around you too. That is Zazen: awareness of your body and of everything around you. Thoughts arise and let them arise but come back to your breathing.” And with that, they settled in to their meditative state as the bell was rung to signal the beginning of Zazen.

With the end of Zazen, 13 people filed in to the discussion room, crowding around the wooden table that usually feels too large. Thirteen zafus made their way around the table, with the three newcomers seated around Priest Jonni at the head of the table. Introductions were made, wherein the newcomers explained their reason for attending. Jill came due to Shawn’s encouragement, Mary has practiced Zazen of her own accord for a while but wanted to be a part of a sangha, and Kay has had no introduction to Zen at all but had a desire to see what it was about.

As we were still reading Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion, we went around the circle, each reading a paragraph from chapter 4: Transform the Bad Circumstances into the Path. Jokingly, Priest Jonni said before we began, “A.K.A. mistakes are inevitable.” This chapter focused on the practice of patience, Fischer’s “all-time favorite spiritual quality,” as he explained it involves the ability to accept and deal with difficulty. Beginning with the argument that life’s difficulties are unavoidable, Fischer skillfully captured attention by clearly stating how to create a meaningful and happy life. Shawn, who was reading Fischer’s introductory argument, chuckled slightly as he read Fischer’s words stating we “have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it” (Fischer, 2013, 46). Jay, a 40-year-old teacher of elementary-aged children, spoke in a deep soothing resonance as he read over Fischer’s assertion that the general tendency is to run away from the negative life events and that the path is not the mishaps, rather it is “love and light, compassion, joy, and so on, we think” (Fischer, 2013, 48). His simple calm tone coated in a thin layer of sarcasm elicited grins and knowing glances from other attendees while Priest Jonni pointed out that the key words were “we think.”

Although the reading and discussion was slow at first with Priest Jonni occasionally making remarks after each paragraph and no one else chiming in, the conclusion of this last paragraph sparked a question within Jake, the E.M.T. trainee which opened up the floodgates, leading to a long winding inquisition regarding the nature of dealing with negative emotions. Intrigued by the argument that negative emotions are not necessarily bad but rather part of the path, Jake wanted to know if we are supposed to let the negative emotions go or if they can be used, or channeled, in a way to produce positive results. He brought up the example of extreme negative emotion, when channeled into art, can produce beautiful creations. If the end result is something positive, Jake argued, “Can we channel these negative emotions to produce something we would otherwise potentially miss out on creating?” This question sparked two different trailing discussions, the first of which dealt directly with the question.

Priest Jonni responded to this question by articulating that within Zen practice, it is not the custom to channel negative emotions regardless of the potential beauty of their end result. Rhetorically, Jake then mused what we are supposed to do with these negative emotions when they arise, “do we let them come in full-force or do we try to assuage their deafening effect?” This musing spiraled into another discussion regarding the nature of “negativity” in general. Jay commented, “Well, what is negative?” Jake responded by listing what Fischer had remarked as the negative attitudes that make our lives ‘unhappy:’ anxiety, fear, narrow-mindedness, and avoidance. Jay stated that having worked with children for a significant portion of his life, he had been accustomed to experiencing high levels of anxiety on a daily basis when dealing with complaining parents. Upon discussing his feelings to a fellow teacher who asked him, “well what is it exactly? What is anxiety,” Jay said that that had really helped him. Opening his eyes wide and letting this thought sink in, Jay spoke calmly and openly, recounting his revelation that once he began to sit with the ‘anxiety’ and attempt to understand what it actually was, it no longer ailed him. The act of fighting himself was what caused him pain, and once he realized he did not have to fight himself but instead allowed himself to attempt to understand what precisely he was feeling, his ‘anxiety’ miraculously began to dissipate.

Phil, a long-time attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in, a paying member of the Berkeley Zen Center, and a trained Doan[51] spoke up on this note regarding his own personal encounter with negative emotions. A litigator for many years, Phil articulated that he had also experienced extreme levels of anxiety and anger on a daily basis when dealing with people who asserted unfair amounts of control over him. Addressing Jake’s concern regarding what we do when the wave of negative emotion ensues, Phil said that he found it impossible to avoid the negativity, that it must be expressed but that it should not necessarily be targeted at another individual. Thus, he concluded that he used to write an email filled with paragraphs of unedited anger but that it was important not to press ‘send.’ Laughter ensued wherein most everyone seated around the table undoubtedly empathized with this unavoidable fact of the “human condition:” the existence of emotions and our ability to be swept away by their force.

Although we did not make it to every individual to read a paragraph on that night, the discussion that culminated from Fischer’s assertions included the wonderings of attendees searching for answers and guidance in regards to how to deal with inevitable hardship. “That is what we do here,” said Priest Jonni, “this is a practice for how to deal with the ‘human condition.’ This is the root of Zen: Zazen.” In Zazen, she said, we just sit, because it is Suzuki Roshi’s teaching that we are all already in Buddha-nature, yet we do all these things and there are all these expectations for what we are ‘supposed’ to do. Zazen, asserted Priest Jonni, is the practice of being with everything that arises in complete acceptance of them and also in patience of them. When simply sitting, we are not running from our negative affect nor are we running toward our hopes and desires. We are sitting with what is and dealing with anything that comes our way. Upon this point, Stacey commented that she feels at times like she does this successfully but she then gets caught in this thought, such that she congratulates herself and feels pride for how “Zen” she is being. Knowing laughter ensued wherein most everyone in the group met her comment with looks that articulated they had experienced the same hurdle. Priest Jonni commented that it is important to reign oneself in when this happens and not get too wrapped up in feeling prideful. Although, since Zen is the practice of allowing what is, the appropriate response would be to be aware of the prideful feelings and to not get too attached to them. To clarify, Priest Jonni said to acknowledge that you are feeling prideful and in the acceptance of these feelings, you do not have to identify with them.

Bowing out of the weekly discussion, we all helped in putting away the zafus, taking the tea and trays of cookies into the kitchen, and some even helped to wash out the tea pots. As I was putting my shoes back on, Jim came up to me and started talking. Jim had started coming around the same time I did but has been practicing meditation and his own personal ‘brand’ of Zen and ‘spiritual’ practices since his teen years. Going through an extensive period of drug abuse and eventually recovering from his various addictions, Jim had planted himself firmly in his spiritual seekings as his main point of existence. He said he had been to other Zen centers and had even tried out the San Francisco Zen Center but lived only a few blocks from this center and so, he enjoyed the proximity, ‘comfortable atmosphere,’ and ‘cozy community’ that the Berkeley Zen Center offered.

In previous meetings he claimed he had spent a few years living in the mountains near San Diego County tending to the needs of a dying old lady and spending a lot of his time “doing nothing.” Asserting this with much pride, Jim comes across as though considers himself something of a ‘spiritual guru’ and has no problem voicing his often ignored opinions. From various meetings, Jim has discussed his past regarding very serious personal issues with his father—issues he assures us he has worked through—but speaks in a tone and bravado that almost demands respect for his accomplishments. He has a comment for everyone else’s comment and never misses an opportunity to discuss his past or his current project, a website wherein he discusses ‘The Way.’ He has gone through years of wandering and spiritual endeavors and speaks with an authority that not only would make someone not practicing Zen uncomfortable, but seems to personify a lot of the qualities that Zen turns away from.

In just about every meeting, I conspicuously observe how other people react when Jim begins his weekly ramblings. Jim often raises his hand in an attempt to exemplify a certain level of shyness that he presumes would be respected in the Zen environment, and often begins with an “If I may…” as if his asking permission makes his forthcoming self-righteousness acceptable. Regardless of who is attending, most everyone averts his/her eyes and remains very still until he relents and relinquishes his asserted stance of presumptuous austerity. Priest Jonni’s reactions are by far the most interesting as it is she who guides us in the Zen practice of how to live. In theory, it is one thing, but in practice it is oftentimes another. We cannot always practice what we preach, and this is evident in Priest Jonni’s simple avoidance of Jim’s scream for approval.

Priest Jonni will often sit, hands folded on the table in front, head cocked to the side, lips pressed, and watch Jim speak for a few seconds. Jim’s repetitive head nods, practiced quite possibly to give himself a sense of approval—since not many other people grant him this—and unabashed splaying of emotion eventually contribute to Priest Jonni’s wary glance away, her scrunched eyebrows, even her obvious grimaces. It is not so much Jim’s forthcoming of emotion that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere though—since most people within this group frequently express experiencing strong emotions—but the level of pride and lack of humbleness that tags along with his remarks, which are directly counter to the lessons we are learning. For example, during this session when Jay discussed how he observed through his teaching that American children require a lot of approval, Jim recounted that he often experiences other people who get caught up in needing approval and that he himself “does his best” to stay away from getting “wrapped up in all that.” Jay continued to explain how it seems to be integral to the American identity to be in constant need of approval, to know that we are doing things appropriately and that it is ingrained in us from a very young age with the way the school system is set up as part of this accepted national identity. While nothing was said to point out the contradiction between Jim’s words and his actions, though, a silence of averted eyes ensued, and often ensues after his pointed remarks.

After lacing my feet firmly in my shoes and nodding at Jim’s claims that he was “already a teacher” of his own spiritual creation, I noted Priest Jonni’s downcast eyes and angled body posture as she walked past. The avoidance of Jim by most of the attendees, the Priest included, is never directly addressed and as it was stated in a drop-in group, we can never escape from the “human condition.” Thus, while we attempt to live in accordance with Zen ideals and do our best to bring theory into practice, certain situations and either the clarity that we cannot change a particular person or the lack of clarity with how to deal with a particular person leads us to avoidance in that characteristically undeniable expression of humanity we cannot shed. While some could argue Priest Jonni is not necessarily acting in-line with Zen thought, others might articulate her behavior is not wrong but merely a protective shield to keep herself from acting in a more direct and obvious contradiction to Zen when communicating with Jim.

Before leaving for the night, I was able to help Priest Jonni put away items in the kitchen and discuss with her some questions I had regarding the readings and general nature of this particular Zen center. First, I inquired what other materials she might recommend to someone wanting to learn Zen and who was new to the practice. She mentioned a few names, such as Norman Fischer, but heavily emphasized Suzuki Roshi as the place to start. She explained that Suzuki Roshi was really the one to start the main Zen centers in the Bay Area: San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and the Berkeley Zen Center. While Suzuki Roshi did not open the Berkeley Zen Center directly, he trained the leader of the Berkeley Zen Center, Sojun Weitsman Roshi. Priest Jonni emphasized that our practices are in direct accordance with Suzuki Roshi’s teachings and the best place to start for someone seeking Zen understanding would be his books, particularly Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Regarding the book we are currently reading by Norman Fischer, I had been intrigued by the general acceptance of his teachings by the attendees and by Priest Jonni, as the particular book we are reading delves into the practice of Lojong, a Tibetan practice. As I brought this to Priest Jonni’s attention, she stated that Fischer is a Soto Zen teacher trained by one of the teachers at the Berkeley Zen Center and his teachings and ideology are in the same lineage as Suzuki Roshi. The only difference though, is his emphasis on Lojong, which, Priest Jonni said, he uses in combination with Zen theory to produce a new result. Priest Jonni explained that while he is trained in theory in Suzuki Roshi Zen, Fischer utilizes the Tibetan practice of Lojong because he personally believes that the combination of a myriad of Buddhist practices creates a better understanding. While some Buddhist practitioners—traditional priests from Japan in particular—would frown upon this, the assertion of melting the barriers between various schools of Buddhism and using concepts from different lineages is looked upon as a strength for those seeking Buddhism in America. Priest Jonni discussed this phenomenon as particularly beneficial to those searching for a Buddhist understanding, as the combined use of various methods can create a clearer view of how to be a Buddhist in the modern world. The division of Zen and Tibetan, Priest Jonni claimed is really not as important as understanding how the practices and concepts of each can be used together.

I asked Priest Jonni if she thought that this Wednesday night drop-in group was representative of Zen practice. She chuckled and said “Oh I don’t know if I can answer that, Zen is different everywhere.” She articulated that regardless of if you come to the drop-in group or the Saturday service or to another Zen center, there is no real representative understanding of Zen. She compared the Saturday service for Zen practitioners to the weekly Sunday service to Christians in America, with the Wednesday night drop-in group as comparative to Bible Study for Christians. “What we do on Wednesday night is understand how to be Zen practitioners just like how in Christian Bible Study, they understand how to be Christian,” she said. The people who come on Saturday, she continued, are not necessarily anymore invested in understanding how to practice Zen and often, she observes, they come mainly for the lecture and participate very little. Additionally, there are quite a few newcomers every week who come just to check it out and see what “Zen is all about.” In this way, the Saturday sangha is no more invested in understanding the purpose of Zen than those who attend the Wednesday night drop-in group.[52]

After this long discussion with Priest Jonni, I was on my way out when I noticed Jill was still around. She had been talking to another member but their conversation was coming to a close as well and she was making her way to leave. Catching my eye, she waited for me on the steps outside of the community room. I asked her how she liked it, as this was her first time. She said she really enjoyed it, she felt very connected. “I was surprised, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting,” Jill said. When I asked her what she was expecting she said she did not know but that she really felt like she walked in to something important. “I came for anxiety,” she said, “Shawn recommended this would help with anxiety, so I thought I’d try it out.” The community atmosphere was new and intriguing to her and she said she wanted to see where this would go.

Another drop-in session some weeks later was particularly interesting due to two newcomers who were overcome with emotion. Having practiced meditation before in various contexts and within their personal daily routines, Sarah and Jasmine stated they felt an extra push to attend on this particular night due to certain life events that left them feeling vulnerable. Sarah was particularly vocal and voiced how she had been practicing on her own every day with meditation and t’ai chi but had stopped recently due to the feeling that she “didn’t need it.” She explained she felt as though she had gotten into a habit such that the practice became second-nature in a way that was no longer beneficial. Thus, she grabbed a friend and decided to explore new possibilities for how to combat the constant stream of overwhelming emotions she had been experiencing.

The drop-in group session served a specific purpose for Sarah that was recognized in its ability to give her a sense of peace as she battled the uncertain nature of her individual conflict. Without giving away too many details, Sarah expressed she felt overwhelmed by life and its demands; she was uncertain and scared. Ramon, a semi-regular attendee, tried to console Sarah by explaining that when he feels overwhelmed by a particular emotion or emotions, he lets them come. “There is nothing you can do about it,” Priest Jonni said, “just let it happen and eventually you’ll feel the emotion come and go, like a wave passing by you that you don’t have to take.” Near to tears, Sarah choked down a sob and, laughing, said “That sounds lovely, but how do I get there?”

Sammi, a-semi regular attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in group, said rhetorically “Well what is it that you feel exactly?” Ask yourself, Sammi continued, what you feel and instead of feeling scared of your own emotions, allow yourself to be curious about it. “So you feel uncertain,” Sammi said. “What is uncertainty? This is what I do when I feel something. I become curious about it and try to figure out what exactly is this feeling I am feeling.” As soon as she does this, Sammi explains that she no longer feels chaotic or out of control. The aversion to the emotion, Sammi says, comes from the fear of allowing yourself to experience whatever it is you are experiencing. “Be curious,” Sammi continued “about why you feel so against letting yourself feel.”

Nodding in agreement, Priest Jonni added that the only thing we can do is be where we are. “We must start where we are. If we are feeling sad, then we start with that sadness.” We cannot run or avoid but we additionally cannot dwell. We sit and we acknowledge, we let it happen and then we move on.

After this Wednesday night drop-in session, I talked with Ramon who had started coming to this Zen center around the same time I had. In his twenties and Hindu from birth, Ramon explained that he started coming to this center out of a need he felt to understand himself in a way that nothing else was helping him to achieve. Although he lived about 20 minutes away, he was attracted to this Zen center as it was the closest and most convenient to his house. More importantly, he confided he enjoyed this center due to the relaxed nature of the gatherings and the talks by Sojun on Saturdays, where the center has service all morning with a lecture from the priest. Despite his recent introduction to Zen and his inconsistencies in attending the drop-in group, Ramon discussed a feeling of change in himself since his presence at this center. Before coming to this center and opening himself up to Zen, he articulated he would feel a pressure to go out and party on the weekends despite the emptiness, lack of clarity, and perpetuation of dissatisfaction it would have left with him. Now, however, he felt a release from that pressure, an acceptance to not be forced to act in a way that did less than nothing for him. Our conversation, lasting no more than 10 minutes, was filled with the kind of genuine connection with a lack of boundaries so common among American dialogue. He continued by saying that this center, and Zen in general, gave him a freedom he had not experienced before. Whereas in other religions, he argued there are rules and expectations and models for how or who to be, Zen grants the individual a release. Zen, as understood by Ramon, is a practice that does not have expectations but instead gives him an allowance to be without expectations to be anything.

The 20s and 30s Dharma Group

During a particular discussion with the 20s and 30s Berkeley Zen Center group, Jake mentioned that although he understood the significance of allowing thoughts and emotions to arise and fall during Zazen meditation, it was unclear as to how this pervades in an individual’s daily life. Relatively new to the Berkeley Zen Center, Jake had mentioned he was looking to practice Zen as a method of finding calm, as he is an E.M.T. trainee and has expectations of experiencing high levels of stress in his occupational field. Regardless of occupation or even of the individual characteristics of the person, there is the assumption—rooted in American ideals—that Zen provides a sense of calm and clarity. In response to his question, Stacey described her experience with Zen in daily life such that she employs the same technique of Zazen in her daily activities. For instance, if something happens that makes her feel a particular emotion very strongly, such as anger, she will notice that she is angry, much in the same way that one notices his/her emotional state during Zazen. Simply by bringing it to her attention that she is feeling particularly strongly about something will allow her to digest or process the situation in the heat of the moment so that she can react in a calmer fashion. Before her introduction to Zen, she noted that she would not necessarily acknowledge, or label, her emotional state during a particularly emotional time and would instead react. The practice of labeling her emotion gave her the awareness to recognize how she was feeling in a manner that she had otherwise been unaware of.

During this discussion, the priest also spoke up to say that Zazen provides us the ability to acknowledge our emotional states without becoming invested in them, allowing us the freedom to not become absorbed by things that are difficult to deal with. The practice of intentionally not dealing with or trying to figure out why an individual feels a certain way but simply acknowledging the presence of the emotion allows the individual to deal with it more effectively outside of Zazen practice. Essentially, Zazen meditation is a way of breaking down events and the emotions and thoughts that accompany them into smaller segments to be able to deal with them.

A month later, as I was waiting for the next meeting of the 20s and 30s dharma group, I talked with Eric, a long-time attendee of the Berkeley Zen Center. He said he had been preoccupied with the turmoil that was spiraling throughout the Bay Area with the Ferguson Case, the rioting in the streets of Oakland, and the protests on U.C. Berkeley’s campus. He was tense, overwhelmed, and shifty-eyed. He said he had been upset by the unrest and he felt a great sadness with all that was occurring in the world; he felt as though he needed to come to the meeting tonight, that it would do him some good. “You can only do so much,” he said, “there’s just only so much you can do in the world and there’s always something else that explodes or causes havoc. I’m only one person, but what can I do to fix it?”

We sat outside Café Roma on Ashby and College in Berkeley. The traffic of the evening persisted, allowing Eric and I to sit and talk freely for 30 minutes, waiting for others to arrive for the meeting.  He said he missed his college days when he felt like he was making an impact in the world. He liked his job now but he did not feel as though he was really contributing in the way that he wanted to. A park manager for a nearby national park, Eric mentioned that most of his work revolved around a desk of filing paperwork and approving documents. He enjoyed working with kids when they came for tours of the park but the rest of his job oozed in dissatisfaction. He longed for the days when he slept in the forest surrounding U.C. Santa Cruz, cozy in a tree, and would wake in time for class, bright-eyed and hopeful. “It was the best sleep I ever got,” Eric reminisced, a grin curling across his face, “I just wish I could go back there, feel like I’m making a difference.”

Raised in Berkeley and brought up Christian, Eric delved into discussing his religious background. He discussed his upbringing and religious home-life as if it was forced on him, saying he never really questioned it until he was a teenager. Once he began to think critically about the Bible and the stories he felt were shoved down his throat, he took a step back and began perusing other options. “It just didn’t make sense,” he said, “all those stories. What they are actually saying. It’s crazy.” Confirmed in an Episcopal church not far from where we sat, Eric sneered as he remembered that in order to get his weekly allowance growing up, him and his siblings were required to recite the 10 commandments. The strict atmosphere and the empty words led Eric to wander elsewhere in search of some semblance of truth. He did not understand the forced nature of Christianity, the doctrines, the Bible.

Around 15 years old, Eric began attending the Berkeley Zen Center, sneaking out at nights to meditate. Close to his house, the Berkeley Zen Center was convenient for him to explore and allowed him to discover other religious and spiritual possibilities and be home in time for dinner. He began collecting books about Zen masters and practices, hiding them from his parents. For four years, he hid his interest and immersion in Zen practice from his parents until he went away to college, where he began attending the Santa Cruz Zen Center. “I just didn’t want to hurt them,” Eric said about his parents, “they raised me one way and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” Although he no longer felt tied to the Christian church, Eric explained he does not necessarily reject Christianity as he feels there is something underlying all religions that connects them. “It’s the Golden Rule, really that’s what it is: Don’t be an asshole,” he chuckled and warily glanced at the mob of vehicles inching by with their steaming passengers.

As Matt, another member of the 20s and 30s dharma group, showed up, we decided to take our discussion inside where we could order coffee and wait in warmth. A behavioral analysis at an elementary school, Matt was one of the quieter participants who offered the occasional inspiring insight in a voice so mild the rest of the group visibly shifted, leaning in to hear his calm words. The priest, Ramon, Shawn, and Stacey arrived, crowding around a table of food and drink where we bowed in[53] in silent unison.

The meeting focused on the chaos that permeated the atmosphere. The Ferguson case, the riots in the streets, and the protests on U.C. Berkeley campus[54] vibrated through the air and the uncertain minds of those in attendance. Tension and desire for answers trickled through the barriers of this social setting and settled in the discussion of what we can do, as Zen practitioners, in the midst of this world. Although Stacey articulated that she feels as though she understands how to “remain Zen” at times, she posed the question that led the majority of the discussion. She wondered how we, as Zen practitioners, can keep ourselves from getting carried away by the unfolding events and how we can be a part of the ensuing action while keeping in-line with Zen ideals. “How can we care about what is happening” Stacey mused, “and not engage with the protests?”

While we sat in collective bubble of doubt, Matt offered his observation that no matter what an individual does or the conditions of the particularities of existence, there will always be fear and unhappiness and dissatisfaction. “There will always be depressed rich kids,” he said, despite all they could have. Priest Jonni agreed, commenting that the world has always been the world and will always be the world; although changes have been made and will continue to be made, there is no permanent end to suffering. The state we are in, in regards to the political uncertainty and destruction that is leaking throughout the Bay Area “is no different from any state we’ve ever been in and any state we will ever be in.” Placing her hand on the table and looking each of us squarely in the eye, Priest Jonni emphasized in her collected sense of assertion, that the world—as articulated by general Buddhist doctrine—is suffering. While positive change is possible, and we should continue to work toward what we believe in, Priest Jonni sternly stated that there is no end to suffering and we should not hope to achieve this.

“What, then, is the point of Zen,” I asked, “what are we doing here if we are stuck in this state and cannot affect change?” While I understood the weight of her words, the reality that nothing will ever be “fixed,” and the broader picture of the world as being a perpetual game of tug-of-war, it seemed ludicrous and impossible to not become absorbed in the anguish of our neighbors in hopes of alleviation.

“It is not about achieving anything,” Priest Jonni said, “it is a way to live with it, with life.” This is not to say, she continued, that we do not care about the particular state of sadness or unhappiness that is present. Rather, “Zen, and Zazen as the practice, is the method we use to deal with the fact that there will always be sadness and suffering.”

Shawn spoke up and expressed that during a previous protest some years back, he attempted to merge his Zen beliefs with his engagement in the protest by sitting Zazen in the middle of a protest. With shame and despair dripping from his voice, he recounted that members of the crowd responded to his action by burning an American flag over his head while he sat. Shawn explained he meant it as an action that would show his approval for the meaning of the protest while acting nonviolently, in quiet support with all other beings. The violence of the flag burning, though, scared him enough to never sit Zazen at a protest again, especially because it did not seem fair that the way he supported the ideals of the protest were seen by other protesters as an inadequate and counterproductive response to deal with the issues at hand. From Shawn’s perspective, though, his nonviolent stance in support of the efforts were not what others had in mind in terms of creating change and thus contributed to an unnecessary act of violence against an individual who only meant well.

Having mentioned this in previous Wednesday night drop-in meetings, Shawn continued to discuss his belief that people are ultimately untied through their vulnerabilities. He felt as though, although people can be united through all forms of experiences, activities, and positive emotions, he felt strongly that what bonds us as humans is not only our ability to feel vulnerable, but our ability to recognize vulnerability in others and our desire to relate to others due to the expression of what is perceived as weakness. Shawn described how, when he was much younger, he went through a period of aphasia wherein he lost the ability to verbally communicate with others. Lasting for a few months, this period of aphasia affected Shawn such that he could speak very little, if at all. Essentially, Shawn lived in silence; although he could understand and communicate through written word, he was “verbally paralyzed.” Eric asked if this was frustrating for Shawn. “Actually,” Shawn said, “it was a relief.” The ability to sit and listen and observe was a skill that, retroactively, he felt he needed to learn. He appreciates words much more now and values their use.

After regaining his ability to talk, Shawn described how he met an older man who had just had a stroke and was suffering from aphasia as well. The realization and empathetic understanding of what this man was going through allowed Shawn to feel a sense of connection to this man that he otherwise would not have felt. Shawn said he knew what this man was going through because he himself had gone through it. It was this vulnerability that led Shawn to believe that it is when we see what is perceived as a weakness or failure in another that connections are made between people. Like life is suffering, people are vulnerabilities; it is only through the recognition of this truth and empathetic concern for others that we can connect in the turmoil—internal and external—and see others as ourselves.

Transitioning back in to discussing the protests, Priest Jonni related Shawn’s understanding of vulnerability to the realization that there are different ways to behave and that we, as Zen practitioners, can learn through empathetic understanding, how to behave in regards to the violence and sadness that washes over the world. This juxtaposition between the more aggressive response to situations we wish we could change and the practice of Zazen not only creates a void between people who ultimately want the same thing, but also adds to the uncertainty of what Zen practitioners should do to remain engaged in the world without adding to the exponentially increasing pile of violence.

“Sometimes,” Priest Jonni continued, “the only thing we can do, the only thing that makes sense to do, is to sit Zazen. Because we are not here to achieve anything. We must sit and be with whatever arises and realize the dependent co-arising nature of everything.” Sitting Zazen is, thus, a response to the chaos and turmoil in the world, in a manner of quiet reflection that does not attempt to change the situation. We do this, Priest Jonni explained, because we often do not get the response we are looking for when we let ourselves get carried away by our emotions and we act out in anger or desperation. The unpredictable tumult of the “human condition” and its messy emotion-driven steering wheel leads us not to the place of calm and clarity that we so longingly scream for, but rather to the dangerous waters of additional storms. To break the cycle of lunging after results that are ultimately pushed away, the practice of Zazen is a reflective awareness of all that is occurring within and outside the individual. As Zen practitioners, Priest Jonni concluded for the night, “Perhaps we can mobilize individuals and respond to the present situations through collective movements of nonviolent Zazen practice.” For it is through unification of ideals, agreement on nonviolent means, and the necessitation of individual revelatory experience behind the shield of a collective that Zen practitioners can serve to be a part of a movement in awareness of the entirety of the situation. In this way, Zen practitioners can keep themselves from getting absorbed in what they can’t change. Zen and Zazen are used to help individuals see the situation for what it is, rather than for what it could be.

After this meeting with the 20s and 30s dharma group, I walked out with Ramon. Having already talked with him before concerning his enjoyment at finding this Zen center, I walked the few blocks to his car. We picked up right where we left off, with him discussing the nature of his job and the dissatisfaction he felt and had been feeling about it for some time. Working from home as an I.T. assistant at an insurance company, Ramon talked freely concerning the immense annoyance that he had felt with his job. Although he enjoyed it in the beginning and felt as though he was doing what he wanted to be doing, Ramon said that over 10 years’ time working at the same job had left him feeling annoyed and hopeless. He could not seem to find a job that would be satisfactory but he ultimately did not want to leave the security he had with this job. Moving around in the company and holding different roles over the 10-year period, Ramon said that he still felt dissatisfied with the company and grew tired of it.

“I was looking for something more,” he said, “I was tired of where I was.” Stopped on a street corner, Ramon and I stood facing each other and discussed the pathways that led us here. After years of trying to figure out what he could do to find happiness in his life, Ramon found himself wandering through Netflix and came across a movie called Crazy Wisdom. The movie follows Chogyam Trungpa’s belief—and other Tibetan Buddhists’ beliefs—pertaining to the idea that Buddha nature and spiritual teaching is found even in unconventional and outrageous behavior. While there is an expectation, Ramon said, that people behave in a certain way—for instance, Buddhist monks must appear respectful, humble, and wear robes—Chogyam Trungpa’s story shatters this assumption and forcefully asserts that wisdom, insight, and spiritual depth can come from all people, regardless of appearance, expectation, dress, or place of origin. A few months ago and after viewing this film, Ramon said that he began investigating Buddhism more and became very involved in the life of Chogyam Trungpa. He began reading more about ‘Crazy Buddhism’ and was attracted to Zen through this introduction. Although he lives out in Morago where he claims “nothing ever happens,” Ramon said he visited the Berkeley Zen Center one weekend in summer 2014 and felt so revitalized by the lecture given on a Saturday service by Sojun Weitsman that he kept returning to the center.

As this was the first Zen center he has attended, Ramon talked for a while concerning how inspired he has felt since he first started coming to the Berkeley Zen Center. Before coming to this center, Ramon said that he had been trying to figure out what he was supposed to do, worried that he was not in the right profession or right place in his life. He was searching for the right place, profession, state and he did not know where to look. The light of the full moon illuminated his face as he said “I realized it’s not about finding the ‘right’ thing, but about being where you are in every moment.” There is no right place, he continued, and it is not about searching for the next thing. Ramon said he had felt his life was lived in a series of waiting periods; each week was lived in anticipation for the weekend, each vacation lived in anticipation for the next vacation. He could not enjoy where he was and his life was an emotional roller coaster of extreme highs on the weekends and lows during the drudgery of daily work during the week.

“I was all over the place,” Ramon said, “but now coming to the Berkeley Zen Center has provided me with emotional consistency.” Whereas, before his introduction to Buddhism, Ramon struggled with his feelings of extreme elation and then the ensuing depression, his practice of Zen has led him to feel a consistent level of “ok-ness” in each moment. Although he only began practicing a few months ago, Ramon has begun to practice Zazen additionally in the mornings before he begins his work. Before, Ramon said there were a myriad of minute details that were relatively easy to deal with at work but so tedious that he would put them off; even the simplest tasks, he found himself skillfully avoiding. Now, though, he says he feels his daily practice of meditation in the mornings and evenings has made it easier for him to deal with the tasks he had previously found cumbersome. He has more patience and expressed feeling calm, able to focus more, and accepting of the nuisance that had been his daily life.

Transitioning back into discussing Chogyam Trungpa, Ramon became really interested in Tibetan Buddhism and eventually Zen Buddhism because of Trungpa’s “Crazy Buddhism.” Ramon valued Trungpa’s assertion that it did not matter what an individual dressed or looked like, that the only thing that mattered was the truth underneath the layers of outward physical appearance. In this way, Ramon described how Trungpa broke down prejudice stereotypes and it was for this reason that Ramon began to feel as though some semblance of truth could be found, recognized, and transcribed between individuals. Further, Trungpa served as another figure of Buddhist transmission to the West. Ramon enthusiastically explained how Trungpa transferred Buddhist ideals to the United States and how this provided Ramon with a sense of hope. Ramon felt as though the ability of Buddhism to be adapted to different contexts speaks to the underlying truth. Like Chogyam Trungpa’s discussion of the way people can appear differently, Buddhism had to be dressed up differently in different contexts to fit the lifestyles of the people and the history of the place but the message transcends geographical, racial boundaries. Ramon said for many reasons, he felt encouraged by his introduction to Zen in comparison to other religions he had been introduced to before.

In contrast to other religions, Ramon enjoyed how the practice of Zazen is essentially individual and there is no higher power or religious authority “telling you what to do.” Ramon felt overwhelmed by the assertion of other religions and their authority figures asserting distinctions between “right” and “wrong” and the pressure to follow along with guidelines laid out for you by individuals long dead or possibly fabricated. It did not make sense to him and he values the individual experience of Zazen such that “you are figuring it out on your own.” A place for an individual to sit with him/herself and allow thoughts and emotions to arise as they will, Zazen, Ramon felt, was an understandable practice that provided individual skill for dealing with life. Though he valued the individual nature of Zazen, Ramon said there was something about the community atmosphere of the Wednesday night drop-in group that not only made him increasingly enjoy coming to that particular element of the Berkeley Zen Center, but it also contributed to his sense of clarification of the practice of Zen. Ramon felt that the community feel allowed individual validation wherein individuals could go about their individual Zen experience but the freedom then to discuss their experiences allowed a validation and human connection. Sometimes, Ramon said, he felt as though he was not sure if how he is feeling or what he is thinking makes sense and that the ability to express those thoughts with others provides his ego with recognition that he is not, in fact, delusional. Although he said that maybe this does not fall in accordance with Zen ideals, he feels his ego needs to be recognized by others to know that he is not just making it all up in his head, that other people could feel the same way he does, and that essentially, we are in this together.

Part III: Conclusion

Personal Observations

Although I began my research as an ethnographic account of the Berkeley Zen Center, noting its formations as a product of both the modern American society as well as the traditional doctrine of Japanese Zen, my participation at the Wednesday night drop-in group led me to become invested in this practice as a religious and spiritual community for individual cultivation. Like any religious center, the Berkeley Zen Center is a place of spiritual longing, individual yearning for understanding of self and others, and placement of individual persons in the broader picture of existence. These elements are most representative at the Wednesday night drop-in group, however, as opposed to the Saturday service and other traditional features of the center. Additionally, in contrast to other religious practices within the United States, Zazen practice establishes a community of individuals dealing with the ebb and flow of internal and external life. The distinction between the Saturday sangha and the Wednesday sangha remains significant in that the Saturday sangha is not necessarily concerned with the ideological communicative practice of Zen as it pertains to dealing with the “human condition.” Rather, the Saturday sangha focuses more on the traditional, ritual practice of Zazen with less emphasis on the ideological nature of Zen. While the historical formation of a cultural practice is crucial in understanding how it came to exist in its contemporary state, the Wednesday night drop-in group is most intriguing due to the individual lives of the people who are attracted to this feature of the Zen center. What I find most interesting is the unique micro-niche of the Wednesday night drop-in group that exists within, because of, and in contrast to modern American culture.

The individuals who attend the Berkeley Zen Center’s drop-in group all seem to come out of an internal drive for understanding, a quest for something they previously had not had in their lives. Whether introduced to the center or Zen by others or stumbling upon it themselves, the thread of connection for all individuals I talked to and those who vocalized concerns openly at the drop-in group revolved around a personal need to deal with themselves. Most individuals expressed experiencing extreme levels of emotion such as anxiety, anger, or sadness that led them in search of a place that would help them in understanding. While experiencing extreme levels of emotion is not uncommon for a reason for an individual to pursue any religious organization or practice, most of these individuals were led here, to a Zen center, out of dissatisfaction with other religious organizations, doctrines, and practices they had experienced previously in their lives. Further, their choice in attending this specific Zen center, BZC, was mostly out of convenience, since most attendees lived nearby in Berkeley. While some, such as Ramon, did not live particularly close by, this center was still the closest to his residence. Additionally, individuals are drawn to the drop-in group, in comparison to the Saturday service, as it allows an ideological organization of dealings with the “human condition” and how perceptions of Zen can be utilized within their individual lives.

The micro-niche culture of the Zen sangha at the drop-in group pertains to a rejection of the other more common religious practices in the United States.[55] Additionally, while the attendees are not in direct opposition to psychological and scientific explanations for existence or personhood, the way life is understood by general Buddhist doctrine, Dogen’s teachings, Suzuki-roshi’s teachings, and followers of Suzuki-roshi—such as Norman Fischer—provides a path of clarity for those at the Wednesday night drop-in group. The experience of Zazen—much like life—is an individual practice or method for dealing with the flow of existence outside our individual minds and its effect on our internal manifestations of thought. Carried out in a community, Zazen and the Wednesday night drop-in group provide a fabric of support for individual efforts in recognition that life is a sangha of individuals, a fluid, thriving organism constantly changing. This is unique to the Wednesday group and characterizes a niche of individuals who are Zen by affiliation with the Zen center, but whose conversations at the drop-in group lend themselves to being representative of a wider spiritual demographic and of those seeking spiritual and psychological understanding.

While existing within the American religious landscape, this population is formed in opposition to the common religions pervading and underlying American culture[56] as the individuals in attendance of the drop-in group often come from various religious backgrounds they chose to reject. Thus, the organization and structure of the Wednesday group exists because of a need in the community for a place of spiritual seeking. The Wednesday group filled a void in the greater Berkeley community and specifically at this center, as its focus on the ideological understanding of Zen and verbalization of its applicability to everyday life in a community atmosphere created a special niche for a demographic of people seeking something akin to spirituality and cognitive training.

The first night I attended the Wednesday night drop-in group, there were 10 or so of us seated around the big wooden table in the community room, zafus beneath us and tea and cookies passing between us. Starting with Priest Jonni, we introduced ourselves clockwise around the circle. When it was my turn, I said this was my first time to any Zen Center and that I was just exploring. Around the table we went and finally the attention landed on a guy in his mid-twenties. Calm and soft-spoken and absorbed in an air of careful questionings, he shifted on his cushion and said “I’m Eric.” Looking up from the cup of tea steaming before him, he looked at me and said “I’ve been coming here for years and I’m still exploring too. We’re all still exploring. That is the point.”

Priest Jonni nodded and said “We are all continuously arriving.” This is a practice, she said, of climbing up a totem pole; the point is not to reach the top of the totem pole, “and if we think we’ve reached the top that is a sure way to get stuck in our egos and to lose our footing. One minute we may think we’ve experienced something profound, we may think we’ve reached enlightenment.” And the next minute we’re wallowing in self-pity and doubt and anguished with the impermanent nature of that previous insightful experience. “How can we get it back,” she said rhetorically. “Sit with yourself. And don’t ever let yourself think you’ve reached the top of the totem pole,” because there is no top. Zen is different for everyone who practices it. For some, it means Zazen; for others, it means talking. For the niche of seekers at the Wednesday night drop-in group, it means exploring, still exploring, continuously arriving.

Appendix A: Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

when practicing deeply the prajna paramita,

perceived that all five skandhas in their own being

are empty and was saved from all suffering.

“O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness,

emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness,

that which is emptiness form.

The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness.

O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

they do not appear nor disappear,

are not tainted nor pure,

do not increase nor decrease.

Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feelings,

no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness;

no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;

no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind;

no realm of eyes until no realm of mind-consciousness;

no ignorance and also no extinction of it

until no old-age-and-death and also no extinction of it;

no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path;

no cognition, also no attainment.

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva depends on prajna paramita

and the mind is no hindrance.

Without any hindrance no fears exist.

Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana.

In the three worlds all buddhas depend on prajna paramita

and attain unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know the prajna paramita

is the great transcendent mantra,

is the great bright mantra,

is the utmost mantra,

is the supreme mantra,

which is able to relieve all suffering

and is true, not false.

So proclaim the prajna paramita mantra,

proclaim the mantra that says:

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate! Bodhi! Svaha!”

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[1] For other literature regarding the seeking of spiritual endeavors within the American landscape around the 1950’s, see Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination.

[2] All the names of people at the Berkeley Zen Center have been changed to protect their identity.

[3] In Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, Karen McCarthy Brown discusses the issue of blurred boundaries between observer and participant. She places particular emphasis on the nature of practice, explaining her own research as part of a practice in which the researcher becomes someone who participates.

[4] For a better understanding of facets of American Zen, see Joanna Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self and Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems. Additionally, see Socially Engaged Buddhism, by Sallie B. King.

[5] For an understanding of the integration between Buddhism and Christianity see Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland.

[6] For scholars focusing on Zen in the United States, see Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann and How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America by Rick Fields.

[7] For another understanding of how theology can be used to understand identity, see Difference and Identity, a Theological Anthropology by Ian A. McFarland.

[8] For a Christian perspective on Buddhism, see Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland.

[9] For more literature on the explosion of spiritual yearning in the 1950’s in the United States, see Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination.

[10] Buddhist teacher.

[11] For insight into the attempts to understand modern Zen in its relation to other religious practices or spiritual endeavors, such as Christianity and Existentialism, see Beyond Existentialism and Zen: Religion in a Pluralistic World by George Rupp.

[12] “roshi” is the Japanese title for “teacher;” Shunryu Suzuki is referred to as Suzuki-roshi due to his ordination as a Japanese Zen Priest.

[13] See his book Zen and the Beat Way (1997) for more insight into his popularization of Zen in America during the 1950’s. For other popular accounts of Zen’s effect on individual lives of prominent American figures, see Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber, and David Schneider’s Street Zen: The Life and Works of Issan Dorsey.

[14] Literally translated: “seated meditation;” this is the practice of meditation within Zen; it is the root of Zen.

[15] Achieving the state of enlightenment.

[16] A Zen story, dialogue, question, statement, or paradoxical riddle. Often used in combination with Zazen, such that through the practice of meditation, the student will understand the answer to a koan that often has no answer.

[17] temple used for Zazen

[18] A breakthrough insight into the nature of Buddha mind

[19] A seal of approval given to the student from the teacher

[20] A nonordained member of a sangha; those practicing Buddhism without any formal training.

[21] Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher who founded the Soto Zen school of Buddhism in the 13th century.

[22] sacred Buddhist scriptures and texts

[23] A “sangha” pertains to a Buddhist community.

[24] Emphasis on individualization, social activism, environmental change

[25] Toshi’s (Suzuki-roshi’s name as a child) first master at age eleven, Gyukujun Son-on.

[26] A ceremonial ritual performed for the aborted and miscarried fetuses.

[27] For other current literature regarding ethnographic accounts of Buddhism in the United States, see Nancy Eberhardt’s Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Transformation in a Shan Buddhist Community and Buddhist, Hindus, and Sikhs in America: A Short History by Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul Numrich, and Raymond Williams.

[28] For another account of Californian Zen, see Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism by Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin.

[29] The prevalence of recent psychological advancements in the United States serves as a significant element of the culture that the American population has utilized as a method to sometimes replace or use in combination with various religious practices (such as Zen) as a tool for self-understanding and awareness of purpose. For more literature regarding the interaction between American Zen and the American psychological paradigm, see Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, M.D. and Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation by Joseph Bobrow. For more literature regarding the prevalence of the psychological framework within the United States and its relation to and effect on the culture of American people, see Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, edited by Roy Porter, Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood by Nikolas Rose, and The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking.

[30] Information collected from pamphlets, newsletters, and discussions with the Priest at the Berkeley Zen Center.

[31] walking meditation.

[32] This group does not necessarily provide more of the “heart of Zen” but rather makes its ideology more accessible. For traditional Zen practitioners, Zen means Zazen and there is not an emphasis on ideology or discussion with others about how to apply Zen to their individual lives. Thus, there is a Protestant bias in understanding Zen through this communicative process, in contrast to understanding it through its actual practice (Zazen).

[33] For more literature regarding the translation of traditional Japanese Zen and its reformulations in the United States, see Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America: A Short History by Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul Numrich, and Raymond Williams.

[34] The “human condition” is a phrase often discussed and mentioned at the drop-in group. It pertains to the unorthodox Buddhist version of the human condition, which are feelings, thoughts, and behaviors deemed “negative” that are met with avoidance or denial in American society. While the” human condition” can be a term used in any religion, the Buddhist valiance of this term refers specifically to mental afflictions, as the Buddhist religion explains most everything in terms of mental states (usually negative). Additionally, this represents the use of secular language in a religious setting; the Buddhist term for the “human condition” is samsara, or the repeating cycle of life and death. “Samsara” has metaphysical baggage, however, in its relation to traditional Buddhist doctrine, and is not often employed in the context of the Wednesday night drop-in group. The use of the phrase the “human condition” as opposed to “samsara” highlights the American expectation that Zen does not have metaphysical baggage and can be abstracted from its religious origins and seen as a philosophical and psychological cure for humanity. Further, this relates to the idea that Zen—and more specifically, this Wednesday night drop-in group—serves as cognitive training of emotions and perceptions which differs drastically from the original function of Zen as a physical practice of meditation, wherein the focus is not on cognitive development per se. The “human condition” will be referred to in quotes to indicate its meaning within this thesis as pertaining to the unorthodox Buddhist version of the human condition.

[35] A sesshin is a period of time—anywhere from a half day to 5 days—of intensive study and Zazen practice. They are carried out in silence and consist of extended periods of Zazen and kinhin with breaks for meals or sometimes work periods.

[36] The term “committed practitioner” is not reserved for those who attend the Saturday service as the level of commitment between the Saturday sangha and the Wednesday sangha is relatively the same. Despite the distinctions between the two groups and the differences in focus on what Zen means and how it is understood to the two groups, there are committed practitioners in each group. They are committed to different things, but one group is no less committed than the other.

[37] For other accounts and more understanding of intense Zen training, see Zen action, Zen person by T.P. Kasulis and Zen Training, Methods, and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida.

[38] Paying members are those who contribute financial support to BZC and who are potentially more invested in the practices of the community as a whole. Attendees could be committed practitioners who attend almost every Saturday service or Wednesday night drop-in group or they could come rather infrequently.

[39] Also known as dharmadhatu-mudra.

[40] Hand position wherein the left fist cups the right fist and the right thumb is tucked inside. Described by one instructor as “what we do with our hands when we don’t know what else to do with them.”

[41] See Appendix A.

[42] The Heart Sutra is the only Sutra chanted at the Berkeley Zen Center and is recited every Wednesday night in English. It is deemed the Sutra “of all wisdom.” Other Zen centers may chant other sutras in various languages.

[43] Tibetan Buddhist statements that provide teachings on wisdom, compassion, and kindness as a mind-training practice. There are 59 traditional slogans.

[44] “enlightenment-mind;” the mind that strives toward compassion for all sentient beings.

[45] Geared toward the American audience who stray away from the more common religions in the U.S. (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism) but who are searching for something more closely related to a “connection to the universe.”

[46] For more information regarding the representation of the personal identity in current research, see Personal Identity and Fractured Selves: Perspectives from Philosophy, Ethics, and Neuroscience by Debra J. H. Mathews, Hilary Bok, and Peter V. Rabins and Spiritual Transformation and Healing: Anthropological, Theological, Neuroscientific, and Clinical perspectives by Joan D. Koss-Chioino and Philip Hefner.

[47] For more literature regarding the modern American concept of self, see In Search of Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood edited by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen and Erik P. Wiebe, Theories of the Self by Jerome D. Levine, Soul, Psyche, Brain: New Directions in the Study of Religion and Brain-Mind Science edited by Kelly Bulkeley, and The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood.

[48] For more literature regarding the Buddhist conceptualization of self, see Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki and Buddhism: A Way of Life and Thought by Nancy Wilson Ross.

[49] For more literature regarding the integration of the modern American concept of self and the Buddhist concept of self, see Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, M.D., The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Courage to be Present: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Awakening of Natural Wisdom by Karen Kissel Wegela.

[50] This idea is in contrast to the psychological framework—that leaks in to the common understanding of personhood and identity within the United States—that claims a scientific analysis and organization of personality features that remain relatively consistent throughout an individual’s lifetime. In this way, psychological science has created doctrines for understanding individual people and additionally for understanding the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” behavior. The subtle pervasiveness of this ideology permeates mainstream American thought.

[51] Individual who rings the bells during Zazen.

[52] Priest Jonni’s discussion of the Saturday sangha and the Wednesday sangha highlights the differences in focus of the two groups. Neither group has more claim to the understanding of Zen as they focus on different methodologies. The structure of the Saturday service focuses on the physical ritual of meditation while the Wednesday night service focuses on the ideological elements of Zen in a community discussion. Those at the Wednesday night group are no more invested in understanding Zen than the Saturday service, but simply understand it through a more Protestant bias, due to the Wednesday night drop-in group’s emphasis on communication of what Zen means and how it can be applied to their lives. A Japanese bias more prevalent at the Saturday service pertains to the Zen emphasis of practice and ritual, rather than discussion of the practice and ritual.

[53] Before any discussion, we bow in as a recognition of each other’s Buddha natures.

[54] The protests on the U.C. Berkeley campus revolved around the tuition hikes encouraged by Janet Napolitano. Additionally protesting and rioting in the streets of Berkeley and Oakland resulted from the unrest and pent-up anger regarding the unjust issues in the Ferguson case.

[55] Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism

[56] Christianity, Judaism, Islam.

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