206 - Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha: Buddhist Community in the Digital Age – Part 1
237 - Eco-Anxiety and Buddhism – Part 1

In the last episode I described the physical and virtual practice spaces at Bright Way Zen – our “Dirt Zendo” and our “Cloud Zendo” – including how we think of them, and how we use them. Then I talked about the merits and benefits of the virtual practice space. In this episode, I’ll talk about the merits of practicing in a physical practice space, in-the-flesh. I’ll end by talking about how, at least at Bright Way Zen, we are attempting to create a sense of Sangha that connects and includes anyone who practices with us, regardless of whether they participate in-the-flesh, online, or both.

Read/listen to Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha: Buddhist Community in the Digital Age – Part 1


Quicklinks to Article Content:
Merits of Practicing in the Dirt Zendo
Cultivating Sangha in the Dirt and Cloud Zendo Spaces


This is part two of my discussion “Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha: Buddhist Community in the Digital Age.” As I discussed in the last episode, most Zen centers made it possible to participate in their activities online during COVID lockdown. As lockdown eases, centers have had to decide whether to continue offering virtual participation. At Bright Way Zen, my Zen center, we have ended up with so many new, wonderful members from across the globe – in part because they discover this podcast – that we are committed not just to continuing to offer online participation, but to doing our best to make those in what we call our “Cloud Zendo” feel like full and equal members of our Sangha. We want to avoid a scenario where it feels like our practice events happen in our Dirt Zendo – our physical space – while Cloud Zendo people get to watch. Instead, we’re trying to think of ourselves as being one Sangha with two practice spaces.

Merits of Practicing in the Dirt Zendo

Talking about the benefits of practicing in a Dirt Zendo is tricky, because many of our Sangha members do not have this option, while all of us have the option of participating in the Cloud Zendo – and most people do. (I estimate that we currently have about 5 people who participate only in the Dirt Zendo; most Dirt Zendo folks make a regular habit of staying home and joining the Cloud Zendo instead on occasion.)

I don’t want my description of Dirt Zendo benefits to make anyone feel like their practice is lesser, or incomplete. I don’t want anyone in the Sangha to feel excluded or permanently left out of the club. One of the most important things we can do to create a sense of Dirt Zendo and Cloud Zendo being one Sangha is to carefully avoid implying that our in-person practice is special, better, or somehow the “real” thing. I will do my best to model this, but it will take all Sangha members – particularly those who primarily participate in the Dirt Zendo – to be conscientious about this. Any Dirt-Zendo-only offering or experience (such as a Sangha picnic in a local park, or the experience of participating in a ceremony in the physical Zendo) is something a good 1/3 of our Sangha can’t participate in, so we should always keep this in mind and be considerate.

That said, Zen is about facing the truth. If I were to say there is no difference between the Dirt Zendo and the Cloud Zendo, I would be lying. There are profound benefits from participating in practice in-the-flesh, in the same physical space with others, which can’t be fully replicated in the Cloud. I want to talk about these benefits not in order to make our Cloud Zendo members feel sad about what they’re missing, but for three reasons:

  1. To encourage those who have the option to spend some time in a Dirt Zendo – ours, or that of another Sangha – even though it may be easier or more attractive in some ways to stick to the Cloud Zendo.
  2. To make it clear to those of people who participate exclusively in a Cloud Zendo why it’s important for a community like Bright Way Zen to maintain a Dirt Zendo.
  3. To get us all thinking creatively about ways we might be able to create some of the traditional benefits of in-the-flesh Zen practice in our virtual space.

The Bright Way Zen Dirt Zendo

In a Dirt Zendo, practice is a full-body experience. This is important because, ideally, Zen practice is something we manifest is every detail of our behavior. When you walk through the door of our Dirt Zendo, you will notice our space is well-cared for but quite humble. It’s kind of funky, an old building, not fancy. But we love it. The small foyer is filled with live plants. People’s shoes are taken off and neatly lined up. When people put their shoes in the hall outside the Zendo door, a small space nearest the door is left open for the teacher’s shoes, out of respect.

There are space heaters throughout the building because the only central heat is in the Zendo space itself. These heaters have handwritten instructions on them about what level they should be set at during practice events and when we’re away from the building. Volunteers called “openers” arrive early and go through a long list of things to prepare for people, including turning on lights and heaters and air purifiers. A greeter parks him or herself in the foyer to be able to greet anyone who comes and check them off on our all-clear vaccination list, and this is sacrificial bodhisattva practice because in the winter the foyer is very cold when we first arrive.

The Bright Way Zen Dirt Zendo

The Zendo space, like all meditation and sacred spaces, has a positive energy. Even though, again, it’s not fancy, it is well cared for. The cushions are lined up neatly. There are three altars at the front of the room – the central one has Shakyamuni Buddha on it, and then we have a tall, beautiful Kanzeon statue (bodhisattva of compassion), and a Manjushri altar (bodhisattva of wisdom). A Sangha member tends live flowering plants (e.g. orchids), which live in our tea room next to a south-facing window when we’re not here. The opener carefully carries these live plants and puts them on the altars for our practice events.

A large part of teaching in my lineage, Soto Zen, is conveyed without words, by how we create communal spaces and move together. Our communally held ways of doing things are called the “forms.” (See Episode 18 – Zen Forms (Customs and Rituals) and Why They Matter.) When I first got involved in Zen, I remember watching my teacher carefully placing her shoes side by side, lined up with those of others and out of the way of where people needed to walk. I marveled that anyone would be so thoughtful about such a small detail. I wanted that – I wanted to have that same attentiveness, that same appreciation for life.

We also have several ceremonies throughout the course of the year which were carefully designed by our Dharma ancestors to engage your whole body and mind. In the Dirt Zendo, these ceremonies involve sights, sounds, smells, and physical participation. I’ve described a couple of these ceremonies and their meaning on the podcast (e.g. Episode 166 – The Wesak Ceremony: Celebrating and Expressing Gratitude for Our Teachers). Participation in them can sometimes touch you in a surprising, non-intellectual way. For example, whenever I pour a ladle full of sweet tea over the baby Buddha’s head, even though I’ve done it many times before and it’s just a statue, I feel my heart swell with affection and gratitude.

Another benefit of a dirt Zendo is how it allows others to get to know us. As a teacher, I learn an immense amount about people by watching them – how they move, and speak, and particularly how they enact our traditional practice roles (like chant leader, greeter, opener, closer, etc.) I don’t mean to imply I’m consciously observing and internally critiquing people, I’m talking about the very natural familiarity that arises from in-person interactions. The rest of the Sangha gets to know us as well – not in order to judge us, but to have context for our practice, and to be able to witness the growth we undergo over the years. We’re doing our best to create opportunities to fill practice roles in the Cloud Zendo, and these are very valuable. However, the data we can receive via the Cloud Zendo is limited to our two senses of hearing and sight – with the sight limited to two dimensions, within the camera frame, and usually with you sitting, facing forward, and relatively still.

Sometimes people hope for guidance from me about their spiritual practice, but I often feel at something of a loss. In many cases, I only know you from what you deliberately present during our Sangha meetings, whether that’s in the Dirt or the Cloud Zendo. Sometimes that’s a lot, but we all present in certain ways, and tend to avoid situations that reveal our weaknesses or sides of ourselves we’re less comfortable with.

I got my first real understanding of the value of in-the-flesh participation in practice roles when we once did full formal oryoki service at Bright Way, during a one-day retreat. This involves everyone sitting in the Zendo at their meditation seat, unwrapping and eating from a set of bowls. Servers come around with food in a formal way, bowing to people and then kneeling down to put food in their bowls. So much was revealed in the way each of the servers embodied the role. Some did it very, very carefully, trying really hard to do it right. Those who succeeded in this attempt tended to exude a subtle pride. Some tried hard but made mistakes, leading to anxiety which led to even more mistakes. Others, determined not to strive, filled the role kind of lackadaisically, careful not to be seen caring too much. Still others were so preoccupied with their own suffering that their minds were elsewhere, and they were just going through the motions. Karma that tended to remain well-hidden much of the time was suddenly, miraculously, clear.

I don’t share these observations to make anyone feel self-conscious! As a teacher, and as mature and supportive Sangha members, we don’t judge. At the same time, it is good to see the truth of one another. I know better how to respond and guide when I see so vividly where your issues are – and everyone has issues. I can learn some of this in the Cloud Zendo, certainly. The more you show up, the more open and honest you are, the better Sangha – teacher and other Sangha members – will be able to support you. But getting to know someone in-the-flesh, sharing space, perceiving with all of our senses, not being able to hide from one another… there’s no substitute for this if we want to know and be known.

There’s one more aspect of Sangha which tends, for better or worse, to be much easier to experience in a Dirt Zendo: Learning about ourselves through challenging relationships with others. (I talk at length about this in Episode 16 – Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community). Sangha practice has been likened to a rock tumbler, where our sharp edges get worn down to a smooth polish by bumping up against each other. We can certainly experience some of this in the Cloud Zendo, especially if you get involved in service roles and interact with Sangha member outside of formal meetings, but interacting in the Dirt Zendo brings it to another level. This is why some of us might prefer to stick to Cloud Zendos, frankly! People are complicated, and annoying. They trigger reactions in us, or they react to us. They arouse our preferences. A Zen teacher I know said, “Relationships bring out the worst in us.” From the Zen point of view, this is a very good thing. Once you become aware of your karma, you can start working on it.

Cultivating Sangha in the Physical and Virtual Zendo Spaces

So, now that Bright Way Zen has a Cloud Zendo and a Dirt Zendo, how do we build Sangha – community – in a way that includes and enriches all of our members, no matter which Zendo they participate in? This is extremely important, because Sangha is the primary reason people join us for practice, online or in-person. Sure, sometimes people might learn some Dharma from a class or talk, but frankly, you can just listen to my podcast if that’s all you’re looking for.

Sangha is one of the three treasures, considered absolutely essential for practice. I discussed this at length in Episode 2 – The Three Treasures of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and Episode 16 – Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community. Sangha keeps us motivated. We learn from others. We feel supported, and we know we’re not alone in our struggles. Within Sangha we make this practice real… and it starts within our formal Buddhist Sangha, but then we can extend our sense of community outwards into all of our relationships, into what we call “the Sangha of the ten quarters.”

There are several ways Bright Way Zen is seeking to create a Sangha that includes our local and physically distant members.

1. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re making an effort to change our thinking and language to reflect the idea of being one Sangha with two practice spaces. This is now the language on our website and in our email newsletters. When we find ourselves slipping back into referring to our physical practice space as the Zendo, we correct ourselves and say the Dirt Zendo, and we say “Cloud Zendo” instead of “online” or “Zoom.” We make almost all of our offerings accessible in the Cloud Zendo.

2. We recently translated the schedules for our two main weekly practice events into eight different time zones, so you can print them out for easy reference.

3. We’re working on improving our audio-visual technology so Cloud and Dirt Zendo participants can see and hear one another well. This is a challenge, but we’ll work it out over time. We’re also creating new ways to set up cameras during our ceremonies, so the Cloud Zendo has a view not just of the Dirt Zendo as a whole, but also a close-up of the ceremonial altar where much of the action takes place.

4. Once they have completed a course of study on our Zen precepts, people have the option of receiving the precepts in a Jukai ceremony and formally becoming a Buddhist, and they can do this in either the Dirt or Cloud Zendo. If someone receives Jukai in the Cloud Zendo, another person must be physically present with them to witness, and to place a wagesa over the preceptee’s head as my proxy.

5. In order to build connections in the Cloud Zendo and help Sangha members get to know one another, we assign Cloud Zendo participants to breakout rooms of 4-5 people during the 15-minute social break in our practice schedule, between zazen and class. We also have an hour-long Sangha check-in on Saturdays that happens only in the Cloud Zendo and has ended up being very intimate and rewarding.

In the future, we hope that our annual silent retreat, or sesshin, will become an event attended in-person by people live at a distance and usually participate only in the Cloud Zendo, giving us one time a year to share a single space and practice intensively together for several days. The sesshin will have a Cloud Zendo component, but it is difficult to share all aspects of a retreat virtually, such eating the same food together, silent work practice, and experiencing a common environment.

We also want to get creative and innovative about recreating some of the benefits of practicing in a Dirt Zendo in the Cloud Zendo. One idea is to design an at-home version of each of our ceremonies, so those in the Cloud Zendo can physically participate in some way and share a ceremonial form in common. We also need more explicit instructions for people on how to set up a home practice, including an altar and/or sitting space, and suggested chanting services.

The Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha experiment continues!


206 - Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha: Buddhist Community in the Digital Age – Part 1
237 - Eco-Anxiety and Buddhism – Part 1