Zen Cowboys: Teacherless Sanghas in Middle America

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

Terragno now speaks regularly at the Yellow Springs sangha and advises the group on books they can read for their joint discussions with a sangha in Columbus that also works with Terragno. “It’s important to have a certain edge in your spiritual practice,” he said. “When you’re committed to working with a teacher, you permit yourself to be kicked in the butt once in a while.”

Gordon MacKenzie practiced Zen for seven years before committing to Terragno. After he did, he realized he was making a commitment not just to a teacher but also to the Zen path. “Teachers can’t take you on the journey, but they can constantly look over your shoulder,” MacKenzie said.

Ruth Fullmer, however, has decided not to take on Terragno as her teacher at Yellow Springs but to rely on books, fellow sangha members, and loved ones to show her the way. “Right now, my eighteen-month-old grandson is my biggest teacher.”

Practicing with a teacherless sangha doesn’t just have implications for one’s spiritual state. It also affects the day-to-day administration of the sangha: recruiting new practitioners, cultivating leadership, instructing beginners, and deciding which practice forms to adopt. Lay members must hammer out these issues among themselves, taking care not to alienate anyone if changes must be made. “It means having a common goal, common values, and those can’t be assumed,” said Sensei Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of Zen Center of Los Angeles. “'How do we practice together?’ That’s always the question, whether you have a teacher or not.”

In South Bend, Indiana, Tom Brown spent fourteen years overseeing the South Bend Zen Group, which he founded, and which met at a local church. But last spring he suspended the group, in part because the core of people who’d been keeping the sangha strong moved away, and Brown didn’t have time to recruit new members. Brown doesn’t believe time constraints are what caused people to shy away from leadership roles but feels rather that they equated those roles with a greater commitment to Zen.

To help laypeople with the challenges of running a sangha, San Francisco Zen Center recently appointed priest Michael Wenger to the new position of liaison between the center and its growing number of affiliated sanghas, some of which do not have teachers. “It’s true there are some groups that want to figure it all out for themselves, but they usually don’t last very long,” Wenger said.

Zen Mountain Monastery, in Mount Tremper, New York, has begun responding to teacherless practitioners by running a website feature called “Cybermonk” (www.mro.org). Practitioners send an e-mail question to the Cybermonk and get an email response from a senior monastic. The five-to-ten e-mails a day that come in from around the world are mostly from people without teachers, according to senior monastic Konrad Ryushin Marchaj. Cybermonk will not respond to questions about koans, psychological issues, “or to someone who says, 'I’ve got my senior thesis on Mahayana Buddhism due tomorrow and I need help.’” Instead, those people will be referred to other resources, including teachers who do koan work by phone.

Marchaj said Roshi John Daido Loori, abbot of the monastery, does not believe in the use of e-mail or the phone to engage in koan work. Although he is considering experimenting with live visual contact via computers, Daido Roshi still believes that nothing substitutes for a face-to-face connection. “He says he needs to smell the sweat of the student.”

As Zen continues to unfold in America, sanghas without resident teachers will continue to spring up, and each one will, like the Buddhist Dharma Center of Cincinnati and the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, make unique choices that depend as much on sangha dynamics as on the practice needs of members. Perhaps in the near future, more teacherless sanghas will share information about their experiences, to help each other avoid pitfalls. Perhaps more newly ordained teachers will move to areas underserved by Zen teachers, or experiment with new ways to provide guidance from afar.

For now, it appears that practitioners without a teacher are engaging in the very American endeavor of making up their own minds on how to further their practice and how they should maintain the sanghas that give them strength. As John Atkinson of Norman, Oklahoma—who used to practice with Tom Brown in South Bend but found no local sangha when he moved to Norman—quips, “You could call us Zen cowboys.”

Caroline Abels, a writer in Tucson, Arizona, used to sit with Stillpoint, a Soto Zen sangha in Pittsburgh that does not have a resident teacher.

Image 1: © Dora Handel
Image 2: © Dora Handel

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