Inspiring the Discovery of a Wiser World

Passing the Torch at Empty Hand Zen Center

Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

There are many ways to be a sangha, and many ways to lead one. It is, in some ways, a delicate balance of giving and receiving. Recently, the Board of the sangha where I had been living and teaching for the past two years came together to address a problem of financial sustainability. At that time, I made my recommendations, which included a shift to part-time teaching, rather than full-time residential teaching in New Rochelle. Together the Board and I decided that this was the course of action that would be most likely to enable Empty Hand to continue, and to support my desire to pursue more monastic practice. I wrote to the larger group, letting them know about my decision and the context for it, as well as describing basic next steps. That letter is included below, so that you, the sangha of Ekan Zen Study Center, might have a better sense of the events that transpired. This is a new beginning for everyone involved, one that affirms each of our practice visions as valid, and yet different. I hope to share more about the vision for our Ekan Zen Study Center sangha in the coming days, as well as some musings on my travel visiting various sanghas across the country. In the meantime, please remember that I value our practice together as the Ekan ZSC sangha, no matter where we are.

Provision by W. S. Merwin
All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
Of rain
From memory
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere

August 29th, 2017 (date this letter was sent to the Empty Hand Zen Center sangha)

Dear Empty Hand Zen Center sangha (the sangha in New Rochelle, NY where I have been living),

First, I offer my sincere gratitude for your generosity and for your practice. Recently you organized a gathering in recognition of my leaving, and it was a joyous event, full of giving and laughter and warmth. Thank you.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since my arrival from California. Together we have sat, walked, bowed, and chanted. We have spoken to each other and listened to each other. We have welcomed new babies into the world, and we have remembered loved ones who have passed. We have conducted the study of the Way with one body and mind, with many bodies and minds. For this, I am truly, truly grateful.
As a teacher, I view my role as one of strengthening and inspiring your practice. During my stay at Empty Hand, I have done my utmost to fulfill that role, no matter how it was received. I have tried to be of service and to lead skillfully. Zen asks a lot of us, that we might give up our limits and be as vast as all things. This time has been no exception.

Now that time is complete, and we can see the results of our practice together. They must be accepted for what they are. At this moment, the Empty Hand sangha has some wonderful attributes, including a group of committed practitioners and a place of its own in which to practice. However, this sangha has been unable to provide the financial and energetic support necessary to keep offering the Dharma as fully as we are presently. Though many people would like it to continue as it is, that is simply not possible.
Thus, although I will continue to support you, it is time for me to relieve you of the responsibility of supporting a full-time monastic teacher. This should ease a bit of the financial pressure that is now on the sangha, and open up new possibilities for use of the space. I believe I've fully met the expectations that the Board and I had two years ago. Even so, I hope you will forgive any mistakes I have made. Also, it's important to know that there has not been any abuse or failure by anyone within the sangha or by me. It is simply a matter of having to change the way things are done, so that they can be more appropriate to this sangha's particular practice.

Beyond the basics of having completed my commitment, I feel a deep sense of connection to and hope for all of you, one that is based in the certainty that you can realize the Way. Therefore, my leaving is with the sincere aspiration that it will cause a deep movement in the hearts of you who comprise this sangha. Please let it generate a resounding response, one of greater stability and generosity toward each other. 
Will you say, "Yes, I will"?
With nine bows,


Stepping Onto the Bodhisattva Path

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment
Deborah Silver jukai.jpg

Yesterday was the culmination of months of study and sewing, practice discussion and personal exploration by Deborah Silver. She received her new Dharma name and Buddha's robe in a ceremony called "jukai." It's a joyful event for her, and for me, and the entire sangha.

Deborah's new name is 切 炎 眼 珠 Setsuen Genju, which means Sharp Flame Jewel Eyes.

Of the ceremony someone once said, "It feels very big. Things are the same, and not the same." Indeed.

Congratulations Deborah!

Pedestal Practice: Harmful Student-Teacher Relationships

Sangha & InclusionGuiding Teacher5 Comments

In recent weeks, a very painful situation has come to light in the greater Buddhist sangha. Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are upset at allegations of harmful behavior by a very well-known teacher. Similarly, the Abbot of a very large and prestigious Thai Buddhist temple has been accused of breaking the ethical vows of his tradition and of breaking the law. A year ago, a very painful scandal emerged at one of the larger Soto Zen centers in the US. Unfortunately, these are not the first instances of abuse of the relationship between Buddhist teachers and students. These kinds of situations have occurred time and time again, across various traditions and geographic locations.

As I am not personally familiar with any of the situations mentioned above, I don't feel qualified to discuss the details. However, I do want to share my thoughts on possible reasons for how and why these kinds of abuses happen, why they seem to go unaddressed for long periods of time, and how they might be prevented. Each situation is different and complex, but there may be discernable patterns at work.

Some people come to Buddhism in search of a more positive sense of self. While a bit ironic, this is natural, since one of the most fundamental messages of Buddhism is each person's innate capacity for and expression of wisdom. People like the idea that Buddhism says, "You can be a kinder, calmer, happier, wiser person, if you just work on discovering your own goodness, your own true nature." In Zen this shows up as the teaching, "All beings are fully endowed with buddhanature." It's a very positive message about the basic goodness of a human being.

However, in the search for a better self, problems sometimes develop as students look for and encounter a teacher. They look up to that person, and begin to see that person as someone special. Of course, if they didn't do a bit of that, that person could not be a teacher to them. Yet, one consequence of this admiration may be that seeing the teacher as special makes the student feel special by association with the special teacher. Whether or not this sentiment is spoken aloud, it also makes the teacher feel special because of the positive messages coming their way. This set of beliefs tends to feel good to both parties, and therefore tends to be reinforced.

Thus, the student feels that the teacher can help them be a better person. And it seems to be true because the teacher expresses confidence in the student, and the student seems to feel better about him or herself. It also seems to be true because usually more than one student is saying these things about the teacher. As for the teacher, he or she begins to believe these positive things students are saying about them, and begins to believe that they are the special person who can help the students to be better people.

If all of this belief and counter-belief is turned toward the goal of keeping teacher and students on the path of wisdom and compassion, then it can be helpful. Students feel motivated to really practice hard, support the teacher and the sangha, and work on discovering self and other. And the teacher works hard to support them to do this for themselves and for all beings. Then they are all working at living the practice, and at fulfilling this idealized vision of themselves.

However, a problem can very easily develop with this kind of scenario. If this kind of behavior gets stronger and persists for a while, the student or many students may put the teacher on a pedestal, holding them up much higher than other human beings because of the great respect and appreciation they have for their teacher's teachings. Again, it's important to recognize that one underlying motivation, whether conscious or unconscious, is that the student gains status in their own eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of others, by being associated with the person who is on the pedestal. And the person on the pedestal enjoys a lot of attention, authority, prestige and, often, material comforts because they have been elevated in this way. However, if the teacher begins to believe that they are so special that they stand above the rest of humanity, then naturally problems will arise. I call this “pedestal practice.”

A teacher who has been convinced of the positive beliefs their students have about them may begin to think that they can do no wrong. They may think that no matter how they use their authority, or how they use the teachings and training, it will be beneficial for the students. They may think that they cannot make a mistake, and they may actually convince themselves that to admit a mistake would be harmful to the students.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who is a psychotherapist and long-time Zen practitioner about her teacher, a Rinzai Buddhist with a long history of abuses. She said, "It would crush him to have to admit that he was wrong." This she offered as an explanation for his inability to stop harmful behavior or to apologize to the community. It was then that I realized that when a person sincerely believes that they are so spiritual they cannot possibly make a mistake, harm to other beings in inevitable. The teacher's delusion about self has gotten so big that it blocks out any compassion for the experience of the students. In this teacher's case, pedestal practice cannot be acknowledged even when it has hurt many, many people.
This is truly ironic, and a clear indicator that the teacher's practice is lacking in compassion and wisdom. In Zen there is the practice of reciting the verse of repentance, which is part of the monthly precepts renewal ceremony called the Full Moon Ceremony, or "Ryaku Fusatsu" in Japanese. The repentance vow is this:

All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

This vow is key to Zen practice, because it begins with the acknowledgment that one has taken intentional action, “karma,” based on the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Reciting the vow is only possible if one has the humility to admit to oneself and others that one is still impacted by the poisons, and by the workings of karma and its results, called “vipāka.” The power of the vow comes from the fact that being able to clearly discern the harmful or less skillful ways in which one has acted, means being able to more skillfully deal with the consequences of those actions and with future conditions. It is a powerful practice. Any teacher who is truly wise and compassionate will be able to admit that they too are subject to karma.


What about when students know that their teacher has been abusing their power or breaking their ethical vows, but they choose not to address it? This is actually a very complex question. It may be that the student cannot take the teacher off the pedestal because then they would have to take themselves down a notch as well, and they are not willing to do that. Or it may be that the student believes that the teacher is someone who is leading them on a special journey that does not fit within the boundaries of normal ethical and practice standards. Sometimes students simply feel ashamed of having broken their own vows, or of having believed in someone who turns out to be flawed. For all of these reasons, and more, students may be very reluctant to speak out against a teacher of high standing.

Supported by these inter- and intra-personal dynamics, pedestal practice can go on for a long time. In fact, students who have not yet experienced any harmful behavior may pressure the students who have to keep quiet, because they do not want to see the problem or deal with its repercussions. Teachers have been known to get angry, and to threaten or to abandon students who question their authority or their wisdom. Whole communities have kept secrets about harmful behavior for decades rather than go through the painful process of bringing them to light and addressing them.

Fortunately, there are things can be done to prevent this situation from reaching such a harmful state. First, it is critically important for Buddhist communities to structure opportunities for teachers to have input from their peers. Ideally this can happen among teachers, away from a public setting, so that there is no need to keep up appearances for the students’ sake. Often teachers can be seen more objectively by other teachers. This helps to keep a teacher from getting put on such a high pedestal that they fall off their practice of wisdom and compassion. It also provides a place and time for sharing the joys and challenges of the teaching role, helping the teacher feel more connected to, and more identified with other teachers. These kinds of relationships can remind the teachers that their situation is not one of a special being above humanity, but of a human being devoting their entire life to the well-being of their students.

Second, students need to be aware of and take responsibility for the ways they relate to their teacher. They must deeply study their motivations. They must hold their behavior and their teacher's behavior to a high ethical standard. This is simply an expression of the Dharma, which has always been based on a foundation of compassion as ethical action. Students need to investigate their views of self. If they feel that they are leaning on a relationship with a teacher to bolster themselves, they can turn toward the teaching that practice is something only you can do for yourself. Practicing with a recognized teacher can be a great support, but ultimately the student is responsible for their own ethics. Choosing to practice in an upright manner is always in accord with the Dharma. That is true fearlessness.

Lastly, teachers would also do well to study their motivations regarding students. If a teacher's motivation is to use students to satisfy their own physical or emotional needs, or to keep students perpetually in a position of subservience, this is a sign that the teacher is using their position to bolster their self-esteem. Any teacher with a deep understanding and practice of the Dharma wants their students to discover their own deep expression of compassion and wisdom. When teachers acknowledge students' capacity, ability, and expression, this is expounding the Dharma of “endowed with buddhanature.”

The Way of Buddhism has brought forth many, many wonderful teachers. Still, any teaching, any practice, no matter how profound, can be twisted into something harmful by delusion and the frailties of human beings. When students and teachers build up each other’s self-esteem at the expense of ethics and compassion, deep harm is the natural result. Complex relational dynamics are at play, and can perpetuate even harmful relationships. Yet, working together toward the manifestation of the Way of compassion and ethics, teachers and students can support each other to move beyond pedestal practice and be an embodiment of the fearless Dharma.

Walking the Path of the Bodhisattva

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Today was a very joyful day for Ekan Zen Study Center sangha! Paula Borsody, a sangha member and Board member of Empty Hand ZC, took the 16 bodhisattva vows today. By doing so, she sets off on the bodhisattva path, receiving Buddha's robe, a new name, and publicly affirming her commitment to the refuges and the precepts of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. Paula's new name is 琢 園 明声 Takuen Meisho, which means Refined Garden Clear Voice.

It was a particularly tender moment when she was moved to tears by the chant, "Oh Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas, please concentrate your hearts on me..." As the Guiding Teacher conferring the precepts, I have to say that this is one of the best parts of my role, supporting students to commit to a lifelong path of bodhisattva practice. May her joy and sincerity of practice continue endlessly. Congratulations Paula!

The Family Way

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

June 15,  2017

After staying at Sojiji, I paid a visit to Rinso-in, a fairly large and busy rural temple by Japanese standards. As karma would have it, I ran into Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi at the Yaizu train station on the way there. Although he is a highly respected teacher, having held one of the key positions at Eiheiji, he eschewed all Japanese customs by giving me a big smile and a bear hug before running to catch his train to Tokyo. This is unusual, especially considering that we have only met a couple of times in rather crowded settings. However, he has such great generosity toward anyone associated with San Francisco Zen Center, the temple that was founded by his father. I felt so grateful to be a part of that family lineage. 

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Hoitsu Roshi's son Shungo-san and his wife were very warm as well, offering all sorts of help, and including me in family meals and as an observer of the bell ringing class. It's called "baika" and there were some 80 women performing it. I noticed that they had their own chant leaders, women who participated in a ceremony alongside the priests, but then the classes were all led by the men. Though I was fortunate to have experienced a largely egalitarian form of training at Hosshinji with Sekkei Harada Roshi, and with my Preceptor Shosan Vicki Austin at San Francisco Zen Center, I recognize that this is the usual way in Japan. Social norms of gender hierarchy are experienced by women in Zen practice settings as well.

The hydrangea virtually covered the temple grounds, and they were flourishing, in full bloom blue, white, and pink. They were planted by Chitosei-san, Hoitsu Roshi's wife. It was such a lovely gift to the world. I mused about what would make Shunryu Suzuki want to leave this place in favor of the clashing culture in the US, a place he could not possibly have imagined. Still, his open heart and optimism for starting anew enabled him to develop SFZC, a sangha with strong roots. As for my own reasons for coming to practice in Japan 11 years ago, at this moment I can only say that it had something to do with leaving behind that newness of American Zen, and reaching back much further to a Zen that I thought would be free of my identities.

June 17, 2017

Having arrived at Kogestu-an, I was again the grateful beneficiary of generous hospitality. After lunch with his wife Madoka and their 5 year-old Junsei, the Head Priest Kensho Miyamae invited me to come along with them to the onsen (hot baths). This was another first for me. I accepted the invitation, but feared that we might all be expected to bathe together. Thankfully, only the little boy bathed with the women, and the men were in another room. Sitting together in the outdoor tub, we enjoyed a cool evening breeze amidst the bamboo. The temple and this family are so cozy, the antithesis of Sojiji, though that is where Kensho-san trained. 

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Family temples are unique to Japanese Buddhism, I believe. The system developed over time after the "Nikujiku Saitai" (肉食妻帯)  law was passed during the mid-1800s, allowing Buddhist monks and nuns to marry and have sex. It stands in contrast to most other Buddhist traditions in which monks and nuns are strictly celibate. The change meant that the children of Japanese priests could become the next generation of monks and nuns, and inherit the temples where their parents lived. This has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the priests might become more appreciative of, and integrated with lay life, and more involved in community at places like schools and playgrounds. On the other hand, it might mean that the people running the temples consider it a vocation, rather than a personal calling. When I asked Kensho-san whether he would ask his son to take over the temple, he said, "Probably not. I want him to be whatever he wants to be."  Only time will tell what Junsei-chan would like to be.

For now, Kensho-san has made Kogetsu-an into a place that welcomes Western practitioners who seek a taste of the tradition as it is expressed more intimately than at the big training temples. The names of those who have come to sit are displayed about the temple, and they include people I know and with whom I have practiced. One day I went with the family to do a bit of weeding together with the community group on their block. Little Junsei came with us too. Since we finished up early, I invited him to the small garden at the back of the temple to continue, weeding a patch together, marveling at bugs and the lotus in the tiny pond. Now that was a traditional Japanese temple moment. 

How Could I Have Known?

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

June 19, 2017

How could I have known that I belong to this place I had never been before?

Eiheiji feels so familiar. It has a sense of being closely held, and it has a very human scale, belying it's capacity to train hundreds of monks.

Walking very slowly through the corridors, my new Japanese colleague and I were led by the Jisha (Attendant), who carried a paper lantern, lit only by a single candle. He took care to point out the places where one might misstep, and he spoke so politely that I had difficulty with some of the conjugations that were then translated by my Anja (Assistant). We were shown each place of practice. Walking in the outer corridor of the dimly lit zendo, I had a deep sense of Dogen's presence, his profound sincerity and resolve. I feel very at home in Eiheiji, and I felt Dogen's teachings about attention to detail, generosity, and grandmotherly mind come to life.

The head of the International office, Rev. Taiken Yokoyama, also accompanied us for part of the preparations. His ease and willingness to help were evident. Later, after the ceremonies had all been performed, he invited me to his office. We spoke for a long time about American Zen, where he'd practiced for a number of years, and about the difficulties of leaving one's training temple. We exchanged cards, and he welcomed me back. I look forward to being in touch with him again before too long.

The ceremonies went very smoothly, though I made note of how nervous my Sojiji colleague was.  It must have felt very awkward for him, just as it had for me at the other Head Temple. After breakfast I spent the rest of the morning enjoying the tall, tall pines and the pools on the Eiheiji temple grounds. There are so many lovely places tucked into the greenery of that hillside, including a pond with a huge frog. This, of course, reminded me of Suzuki Roshi who loved frogs. I also made an offering at the lay sangha memorial hall, acknowledging their crucial role in making this Way possible for everyone. Their contributions and Dogen's remind me that I can take the bodhisattva vow only because I am held within the vows of other bodhisattvas.

Daihonzan Eiheiji Zuise-shi photo

Daihonzan Eiheiji Zuise-shi photo

Concluding with Zuise at Eiheiji was just right. It feels like the perfect end to the long road of Dharma Transmission, each step a place of practice and awakening to the Way of Zen.

Not Sneaking Up On Zen

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

I have recently returned from a trip to Asia, where I completed a series of ceremonies that acknowledge my Zen Dharma Transmission. They are collectively called "Zuise" and they grant me various titles including Resident Head Priest (Jūshoku) and Teacher, Reverend, or Venerable (Oshō).  Practically speaking, this means that the Dharma Transmission I received in the United States with Shosan Gigen Victoria Austin is now also recorded in the official records of the Soto Zen Buddhist administrative body in Japan. I believe that there are only about 40 individuals in the US who have completed this practice, all of whom have trained with teachers who practiced in Japan, but not all of whom have actually practiced in Japan as I did. Even so, I am not particularly concerned about titles or about status within the American or Japanese systems. So why go? What does it mean?

Eiheiji crest

Eiheiji crest


Naturally, some have asked about the purpose of this trip, given that it is not necessary to have any certification in order to lead a Zen sangha or teach Zen in America, things I am already doing. There are many reasons and many implications. I hope to express some of them in my travel logs from the trip. My plan is to post to this blog about the trip over the course of several days.

To respond a bit to the question, I feel that, in a way, this process is following through on my initial ordination as a priest with Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot at Hosshinji in Obama, Japan. That ordination, which occurred in early 2007, and the three subsequent practice periods (ango) that I completed in Japan were all recorded in the official records at the time. That is, I had already received the standard basic training of a Zen priest as it is currently offered in the home of the tradition, and the guidance of a respected Zen Master. My early priest training included a wide range of practical matters, such as how to wear the robes properly, eat formal meals, and perform basic ceremonial functions. When returning from Japan in 2008, I continued my relationship with Vicki and followed through with further training here in America.

More importantly though, all of Soto Zen is the passing down of Eihei Dogen's style of Buddhist practice, his intimacy, vigor, and embodied expression. In my years in Japan I had never visited the Head Temples of Soto Zen, preferring instead to travel directly to my home temple. Still, my life is dedicated to the way of practice that was developed by these men, Dogen and Keizan. By visiting their temples, I sensed so much more about them and what they deemed important enough to pass on. And I reflected upon myself as an instrument of that Dharma and as a teacher leaving a legacy. What is this ancient Way, and what will it become? Since American Zen is less than 70 years old we, its practitioners, will have a strong influence on the direction it will take. I hope that we can do so thoughtfully, informed by the depth and breadth of our teachers.

Sojiji crest

Sojiji crest


June 11, 2017

At LaGuardia airport, as I was leaving New York, the TSA staffer was going to sort through my bag, to look for something that shouldn't be there. I was carrying my breakfast in a paper bag. As I was standing in the area awaiting my bag's review, there was a Japanese couple undergoing the same process. They had a yogurt with them that might have to be thrown away. They seemed to be having trouble understanding what the TSA staffer was trying to tell them, so I added a bit of my broken Japanese to help make it clear. They were grateful. Seeing their situation, I realized that it was the yogurt in my breakfast that was likely to be the problem too.

It was a different person who was going to review my bag, so I mentioned to him that I thought it might be the yogurt. The young man agreed that as probably the issue. He explained that I could go back out of the TSA area and eat the yogurt, or he could throw it away. I said that I'd prefer not to have to go through the line again, and would be okay with losing the yogurt. It was then that things turned.

The TSA staffer inspected it to make sure that it was sealed and then seemed to pause, not putting it directly into the trash. He seemed to hesitate. I watched silently, without moving to take my things, and then saw him gently tuck the yogurt back into the paper bag and start to turn away. I quietly thanked him and slowly picked up my things to go. It seemed that he felt enough kindness to tuck the yogurt back into my breakfast bag, rather than confiscate it. This created a tickle of joy, hopefully for both of us. Maybe this happened because I initiated with a "good morning?" I don't know, but it was pleasant to think about sneaky compassion as I boarded the plane. 

June 12

Upon arriving at Narita airport, I was approached by a group of people from a Japanese television station. I guess I wasn't sneaking compassion into Japan after all; it was going to be plainly visible. They were doing "man on the street" interviews, or in my case American nun on the street. The journalist asked all sorts of questions about how I came to be practicing in Japan, and ended by asking for my teaching in a nutshell. Saying one word, on camera, before even leaving the airport, I guess it is all in a day's practice.

He seemed not to know anything about Zen Buddhism, and he was more interested in the places that I would be visiting. At the end of the interview, though, he admitted to feeling anxiety about approaching people to interview. He asked what to do about this. I spoke about checking in with the body and returning to an acceptance of whatever might be there. The reporter nodded his head, as though it made sense.

June 13

The grey sky is now clearing in Yokohama, and I am having a leisurely breakfast before the plunge into Sojiji. The brightly lit restaurant, with its low stools and straight counter, runs on the basis of meal tickets. The machine is impatient. Because I take a little extra time to look at the images and try to guess at the food that is offered, it keeps reverting back to the lock screen, asking me to start over again and again. Typical. On the third try I am finally able to buy a ticket. All the while a man at the counter has been watching and making understanding noises, and he is happy to see that I have managed to purchase the ticket. I sit down one seat over from him and we smile at each other. Later, I ask him to take my picture and, finally, he waves and smiles again before leaving to catch his train.

The sign says "Daihonzan Sojiji"

The sign says "Daihonzan Sojiji"

The monastery sits just behind the train station, out the window of my hotel room, a crouching dragon in the city. It was rebuilt here after a fire tore into the original location in Ishikawa on the Noto peninsula. There are remains of the first Sojiji there, and the area is said to be beautiful. I don't know, having never been there. The new Sojiji, built in the late 1800s, is massive but it is tucked among the streets and buildings of the bustling sea port of Yokohama. Even from the street entrance there is little hint of the swooping roofs and the stalwart gate. Riding this dragon is sure to be interesting.