Filed in Zen (Chan)

Zen and Then

A Zen priest looks at the growing pains of Zen after a half-century of evolution in the West. Sallie Jiko Tisdale

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The American Zen community is manifold—in some ways a community of divisions. Any consideration of the future must begin with that. A few prominent Zen centers offer monastic-style training for both monks and laypeople. Scattered across the country are many ethnic temples with rapidly changing congregations, striving to blend dharma and heritage. In between, in every state, are countless sitting groups serving almost entirely lay sanghas, most with no resident teacher. (I use the word "teacher" to refer to both lay and monastic leaders.) The few large training centers are past wondering how to survive and now must address the questions of the institution—hierarchy and roles, how to serve divergent needs and avoid stagnation and rigidity. Newer, small temples struggle with isolation, lack of direction, and the parched thirst for teaching.

Certain concerns for the future are voiced across these superficial differences. How can we best instruct our children? How can we plan for the retirement and health needs of elderly members and impoverished teachers? Daunting real estate prices and troublesome zoning laws even restrict where we will practice. Will there be a collective face of Buddhists to stand beside other religious collectives in the political sphere? As Zen Buddhist ideas blend in the mainstream culture with New Age eclecticism, its terms and concepts are twisted into commercials and catchwords. The religious practice, in turn, is infiltrated—for better or worse-by psychotherapeutic terms and methods. Tonen Sara O'Connor, priest at Milwaukee Zen Center, says, "My concern is not whether we will have an American Zen, but that we will Americanize, popularize, media-ize and celebrity-ize Zen."

Entwined in all these concerns are the questions of leadership. How will we train teachers? Who will our teachers be? Every religion asks this question, bur the centrality of the teacher-student relationships in Zen and the importance of a living transmission of dharma to all of Buddhism lend the questions particular power in the Zen community . . .

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