Zen Cowboys: Teacherless Sanghas in Middle America

Practitioners at two Ohio sanghas learn how to be one another's teachers

After he sits zazen on Tuesday evenings, Gordon MacKenzie of Kettering, Ohio, gets up from his zafu cushion, dials California, and dons a headset connected to his phone. He then returns to his cushion, resumes a cross-legged position, and speaks with his teacher in a ritual that has become modern America’s variation on an ancient Zen tradition: dokuphone.

That is the name some practitioners give to long-distance forms of dokusan, the teacher-student interview session. MacKenzie spends fifteen to thirty minutes speaking with Sensei Daniel Terragno (a teacher at Rocks and Clouds Zendo in Sebastopol, California) in much the same way Zen teachers and students have for centuries. The only difference is that MacKenzie cannot see his teacher, and the bows, bells, and other accoutrements of a formal dokusan session are absent. “I’ve told him I need a cardboard cutout of him to put in front of me,” he joked.

For practitioners like MacKenzie, who belong to sanghas without resident teachers, receiving guidance isn’t as simple as consulting a teacher in the next room during a sitting period. In addition to dokuphone, it sometimes involves making long trips to Zen centers, or meeting with teachers during retreats. These options are not ideal for practitioners who crave the immediate teacher-student contact that brought awakening to ancient Zen masters and still brings confidence, clarity, challenge, and encouragement to Zen students today. But these practitioners have adapted to counter a modern-day situation that is the consequence of a transient society and an insufficient number of dharma teachers to serve it.

Although many options for teacher-led practice exist on the West and East coasts, where American Buddhism has flourished, many practitioners in Middle America must make do with a teacherless practice.

Every Sunday at the Buddhist Dharma Center of Cincinnati, the wisdom of a great Zen master is channeled through the voice of an ordinary practitioner reading a classic Zen text. The center is unaffiliated with a teacher and proud of it. It lays no claim, either, to a particular Zen tradition, simply offering basic Zen “services” such as weekly sittings, a lending library, and a beginners’ instruction night.

Its founders—Michael Atkinson, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, and Bonnie Beverage, a high school teacher—have received authorization to teach in the Zen and Theravada traditions, respectively, but they resist promoting themselves as teachers. On Tuesdays, Atkinson, Beverage, and a few other members give dharma talks. “But our best discussions are in the hallway,” Beverage insists, indicating that members of the Cincinnati sangha have, in some ways, become one another’s teachers. At the back of the sangha’s hall is a small room that has all the trappings of a dokusan room: two mats and cushions laid out on the floor. But instead, the room is for private discussions between sangha members about dharma issues or problems that exist between them.

“A teacherless sangha just works for my personality,” remarked Laura Schaber, who admits to being an independent spirit. “While I respect tradition, I work well without it. If I want to participate very little, I can.” Some sangha members maintain that books provide them with sufficient guidance; the proliferation of Buddhist books over the past decade may in part be the result—or the cause—of the increasing number of teacherless sanghas around the country.

Many teachers, however, contend that sitting without a teacher present denies practitioners the opportunity to deepen their practice. “Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, and if our life is to be truly transformed, we need someone to point that out to us,” said Reverend Kyoki Roberts, founder of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh.

Stephan Bodian, a San Francisco–area psychotherapist and Zen teacher, finds it no surprise that Americans, who live in such an informal culture, might be uncomfortable with practice forms imposed by a teacher. Still, he insists, “A teacher transmits the truth through his or her movements and gestures and ways of being.”

A year ago, the members of the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, decided they wanted to do more to deepen their practice than just hold sittings in the small house that accommodates their sangha. So the group asked Sensei Daniel Terragno to be their guiding teacher. Terragno had made a deep impression on the Yellow Springs students during the few retreats he’d led with them as a visiting teacher. But after he became guiding teacher, the sangha made it a point not to pressure anyone to be Terragno’s student. “We wanted to make it really clear that we weren’t telling people who their teacher had to be, but that we were simply making one available to them,” says Donna Demna, the group’s de facto leader.

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