75 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 2
77 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2

Western Zen Grows Up: I tell you the story of my lineage of Zen over the last 100 years or so – its birth in America, its growth, its rocky adolescence, and how it’s coming into an adulthood of sorts that gives it the strength to face the koan of race – particularly its own extreme lack of racial diversity. In the next episode, I’ll go into more detail about what’s involved in facing that koan and what a tremendous growth opportunity it is to do so, sharing with you some of the highlights from my recent priests’ conference.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Birth: Beginnings of Soto Zen in America
Growth: Non-Japanese Convert Communities Take Off
Adolescence: The Japanese Wonder How to Deal with Unruly American Zen
Coming into Adulthood? Soto Zen Develops Some Sense of Itself
Racial Diversity as American Soto Zen’s Koan


Today’s episode is the first part of a two-part series I’m calling “Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race.” I was inspired to write it based on my experience at the Soto Zen priest’s conference I attended at the beginning of October, but it addresses a bigger question than what 70 priests got up to for 3 days. To summarize: The evolution of Zen Buddhism in North America over the last century has been fascinating and not without many challenges and problems. It has taken a long time for my particular school of Zen, Soto, to grow and form a self-identity in North America – particularly in the United States – as a school or sect, as opposed to an extremely loose collection of defiantly independent lineages. (This contrasts significantly with many other forms of Buddhism, by the way, which have kept stronger formal ties to religious institutions or authorities in their countries of origin, such as some forms of Tibetan Buddhism, and Japanese Jodo Shin, or Pure Land, Buddhism.)

Participants in the 2018 Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference (Sept 19-23)

Participants in the 2018 Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference (Sept 19-23)

Now that Zen, or at least Soto Zen, in North America has a little more of a sense of itself, what are some of its conclusions about itself? Well, we have to admit our Sanghas, or communities, are overwhelmingly white, and middle-to-upper class. (One out of 70 priests at this year’s SZBA conference was African American, and even including a few people of Japanese descent, there were probably fewer than 5 who would call themselves people of color). This raises several important questions: Should this matter to us, or is it just the way things turned out and we have nothing to apologize for? If it does matter to us, can we do anything about it without compromising what’s essential to our practice? And if we can do something to address our lack of diversity while maintaining what’s so valuable to our existing communities, what is it we can do?

It might seem that a story about a particular sect of Buddhism wrestling with questions of racial diversity is a little…  specific, focused on current events, or peripheral to a podcast that usually focuses on classic Buddhist history, teachings, and practice. However, this story can only be seen as peripheral to Buddhism if you maintain a conceptual dualism – with some kind of pure “essence” of Buddhism on one side, and on the other side the complicated and imperfect people who actually practice and teach it, along with the culture and society within which it’s practiced. In reality, of course, Buddhism has always been influenced by culture and has had to respond to culture in order to stay vital.

Rather than seeing the evolution of Buddhism in the West and questions of diversity as outside the realm of practice, I’m going to present this story in Zen terms: First, my school of Soto Zen develops and grows in the West and eventually starts to form a sense of itself. Second, given a strong enough sense of self, this modern branch of Buddhism has the wherewithal to examine itself critically and question its own assumptions. Third, like an individual, Soto Zen faces a profound growth opportunity in seeing through and transcending its sense of self – in this particular case, by wrestling with how we, and our Zen culture and institutions, are contributing to racism, and how we are unwittingly creating unnecessary obstacles to participation in our Sanghas for people of color.

In this episode I’ll tell you the story of my lineage of Zen over the last 100 years or so – its birth in America, its growth, its rocky adolescence, and how it’s coming into an adulthood of sorts that gives it the strength to face the koan of race. In the next episode, I’ll go into more detail about what’s involved in facing that koan and what a tremendous growth opportunity it is to do so, sharing with you some of the highlights from my recent priests’ conference.

Birth: Beginnings of Soto Zen in America

First, then, let me tell you a little about how my school of Zen Buddhism came to the West and developed some sense of itself over the last century. Even if you’re not into Soto Zen in particular, I hope you’ll find this interesting as an example of how Buddhism has taken root in yet another country since its birth in India 2500 years ago.

Soto Zen is the Japanese term for a school of Buddhism that arose in China around the 9th century. In China, of course, the word for “Zen” is “Chan,” which basically means meditation or concentration. Soto’s precursor was known as the Caodong school, and was characterized (perhaps oversimplistically) by its emphasis on the practice of silent illumination – a style of objectless meditation. In the 13th century, a Zen monk named Dogen traveled from Japan to China and received Dharma Transmission in a Caodong lineage. Although there were many forms of Buddhism already established in Japan at the time, including Rinzai Zen, Dogen returned to Japan and began teaching Caodong/Soto.

Soto eventually became one of the largest sects of Buddhism in Japan, for many complicated reasons I’ll go into in a future Buddhist history episode. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Soto School of Buddhism in Japan, called “Sotoshu” (“shu” meaning “school”) was highly organized and institutionalized. It remains such to this day, with a large bureaucracy centered at its headquarters in Tokyo, a constitution and a parliament, a system of training monasteries and established levels of professional development and empowerment for priests, and 15,000 associated temples.[i]

Soto Zen arrived in the Americas with Japanese immigrants who identified with the sect. Eventually these immigrants needed their own priests and communities, and the first official Soto Zen temple, Zenshuji, was established in Los Angeles in 1922. Other Soto Zen temples followed, but, as the Sotoshu website says, “history had to wait for about forty more years to see Soto Zen being practiced by non-Japanese Americans.”[ii] In 1959, a priest named Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco as a Sotoshu “missionary,” and he eventually attracted non-Japanese students who where primarily interested in zazen. By 1962, Suzuki Roshi and his students founded San Francisco Zen Center, separate from the Sotoshu organization.

Growth: Non-Japanese Convert Communities Take Off

And so it began – a flurry of Soto Zen activity in the 60’s and 70’s during which many different major Zen centers and lineages were established, populated largely by non-Japanese converts to the religion. Taizan Maezumi established the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967, and the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center was formed with Dainin Katagiri as teacher in 1972. Standing out among these male Japanese teachers was my Dharma grandmother, Peggy Jiyu Kennett, a remarkable Englishwoman who endured strict Soto Zen monastic training in Japan (the only westerner and only woman at Sojiji monastery at the time). After completing her training, Kennett then established Shasta Abbey in northern California in 1970.

Many of today’s Soto Zen centers and monasteries trace their roots back to these four organizations, but of course there are many that do not. Westerners have continued to go to Japan for training and then return and teach, and additional Japanese teachers have had an impact in the West.

What’s important about this scenario for today’s discussion is this: Most Soto Zen centers (“center” is the word many of us use instead of the traditional term “temple”) have functioned more or less independently since their establishment. A small fraction of North American Zen centers – I’m not sure exactly what that fraction is, but I’d guess less than 10% – have maintained a formal relationship with the Japanese Sotoshu. (Note: a friend recently corrected me on this; there are an estimated 50 or so “temples” in North America registered in Japan, and although the total number of Soto Zen centers/temples is unknown it’s probably around 250, which makes the percentage more like 20%.) To maintain such a relationship can be very difficult, complicated, and expensive – there are many bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through regarding almost all aspects of temple function and priest training, and many of those hoops are almost impossible to jump through unless you’re actually in Japan. Which may be a large part of the reason so many western Zen communities have struck out on their own.

I’ve heard Zen in America described as being like the “wild west” (referring to the more or less lawless era of American history when white settlers were first colonizing the western part of the continent). I’ve heard people describe trying to organize western Zen priests and teachers as being like “herding cats.” Each lineage has more or less created and maintained its own version of Soto Zen, including its own preferred set of translations of liturgical texts, its own styles of teaching and practice, and its own standards for ordaining priests and empowering teachers.

Adolescence: The Japanese Wonder How to Deal with Unruly American Zen

The Japanese Sotoshu established a Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office in 1937 and later a Soto Zen Buddhism International Center – primarily, at least at first, to support temples, priests, and communities of Japanese descent. As Soto Zen took off among non-Japanese in the 1960’s, though, the Sotoshu also took interest in supporting these new developments, but the highly formal and organized Japanese Sotoshu has had little idea how to relate to most manifestations of Soto Zen in North America. For Japanese priests, their experience of Soto Zen is intimately tied – for better or worse – to the structure, standards, and regulations of the Sotoshu (and while we may dismiss this all as needless bureaucracy, some of it’s actually quite valuable). In the west, it’s like the cat jumped out of the bag and then multiplied 100-fold, and the only thing the Sotoshu can imagine is all the cats somehow getting back in the bag. This is obviously impossible.

For example, what are the Japanese supposed to do with a priest like me, who comes from a lineage that hasn’t been on the Japanese books for almost 50 years? My Dharma grandmother, Roshi Kennett, refused to register any of her priests with Japan or participate in any way with the Sotoshu. Kennett has passed away, and so none of her Dharma descendants can have proper standing with Japan unless we jump through an elaborate series of hoops and register as part of a different lineage. Ironically, for the most part Japanese priests admire Jiyu Kennett’s lineage because of its rigorous monastic training.

Over the decades, the Sotoshu has, for the most part, managed to overcome the idea that non-conforming westerners were just “doing it wrong.” The Japanese are actually gaining respect for the vitality, resiliency, and growth of Zen communities in the west, especially because Japanese Soto temple membership is declining and aging.

The biggest obstacle the Sotoshu faces in relating to Zen in the west is probably our inability – or unwillingness – to work and compromise with each other across lineages. My Dharma “family,” if you will, has its own way we’re fiercely proud of and committed to. To us, our way represents the essence of Zen, or at least a manifestion we’re highly identified with. Why should we change the way we do things based on the rather arbitrary choices made by some other lineage of Zen? Although there’s a degree of conformity within particular temples or lineages, each lineage or temple could be seen as being very individualistic within the larger context of Soto Zen. Heck, that’s the way we Americans like it! No one can tell us what to do!

Let me once again compare the development of Zen in the west to the development of an individual. You might say the Japanese who taught westerners are like parents, and the last 50 years or so has been Soto Zen growing up and then going through its adolescence. We’ve been individuating and discovering who we are, and in the process have perhaps become, at times, rather self-absorbed, defensive, and focused on differentiating ourselves rather than cooperating.

In 1995, Sotoshu representatives in America recognized they were never going to get all the cats back in the bag, and in fact the feral cats now vastly outnumbered the domesticated ones (my words, not theirs!). The Sotoshu suggested to a group of non-Japanese American Soto Zen priests that they form their own organization. Maybe, the Sotoshu thought, the Americans will figure things out for themselves and then we can talk to them through their organization. Thus, the idea of an American-run “Soto Zen Buddhist Association” was born, although it wouldn’t actually take shape until 2001.

Western Zen Grows Up… Comes into Adulthood?

On to the next chapter, then – this quirky branch of modern Buddhism exploring itself as a thing: What do we have in common? What’s the essence of Soto Zen, and what are lineage or cultural differences we can hold more lightly? Should we agree on anything, or come up with any commonly held agreements, translations, or standards?

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say the first 17 years of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (or SZBA) have been exciting but also tough. It took us quite a while even to agree on what our organization should be at the most basic level: Should we just be a friendly, collegial group of priests gathering for mutual support, or – god forbid – an organization aiming to tell its members what to do, or even create standards that might end up excluding some people? Central to our identity was the question of what it even means to be a Soto Zen priest, because only priests can be part of the organization – but even the topic of priest versus lay practitioner is highly divisive (and remains so to this day). Nevertheless, many of us have endured years’ worth of excruciatingly charged and repetitive discussions in order to establish an SZBA Ethics Policy, a process allowing members to have input into organizational leadership, a major-decision-making process, and basic standards for membership.

Based on my experience at the recent SZBA conference, it seems like our organization is at long last ready to look outwards – to how we serve the Dharma in the greater world – rather than spending so much time getting our own affairs in order. From the standpoint of human development, modern Buddhist practitioners are increasingly calling attention to the fact that a strong and healthy sense of self is necessary for Buddhist practice – that seeing the emptiness of self or the truth of anatta (not-self) isn’t about destroying or denying the self but transcending it. You could say, then, that the members of the SZBA have finally developed a good enough idea of who we are as Soto Zen practitioners, priests, teachers, and communities that we can bear the process of wrestling with questions that challenge those ideas.

We’ve definitely begun wrestling with challenging issues. At this year’s SZBA conference, we created safe spaces for #MeToo discussions – men and women separately – in order to acknowledge and begin addressing the reality of sexism, sexual abuse, harassment, and assault within Zen communities and in the lives of those attending the conference. It was surprisingly and incredibly powerful for all. The SZBA board identified as a priority having an honest and informed discussion about the inclusion of lay Zen teachers in our organization – a conversation the SZBA has essentially postponed for 17 years, even while growing numbers of respected and active non-ordained Zen teachers have formed their own organization (the Lay Zen Teacher’s Association, or LZTA). At the conference we had our second workshop on the Right Use of Power, which critically examines and challenges the many ways power is assumed, wielded, denied, and abused within groups. We also opened up what many of us have long felt perceived as a Pandora’s box best left far in the back of the closet: The issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Zen, particularly with respect to race.

Racial Diversity as American Soto Zen’s Koan

It’s very difficult, nearly impossible, for me to imagine the SZBA talking at length about racial diversity, equity, and inclusion ten, or even five, years ago. Part of what’s allowed the conversation to begin is the changing cultural and political landscape in the United States, and the other part is probably the shift in leadership of the SZBA to a new generation. Of course, to some extent “generations” are just conceptual constructs with limited basis in reality, but for a long time the SZBA was led by priests you could call our “founders” – they completed their training and became independent teachers in the 1960’s, 70’s, and early 80’s, and were therefore pivotal in the early, foundational years of the major convert Zen centers and lineages in America. These priests, bless their hearts, gave their lives to the Dharma and forged lasting Zen organizations, including the SZBA, out of nothing. They also presented something of a unified cohort that had a strong presence and impact. Of course, they didn’t perceive themselves as unified – they disagreed on plenty of things – but there were certain basic assumptions they tended to hold in common, perhaps without even realizing it.

One of those assumptions was that Zen practice was about letting go of all the various aspects of self-identity, including race, gender, and difficult personal experiences like trauma, injustice, physical or mental illness, poverty, etc. The world was an unfair place, but the sooner you got over dwelling on the past or whining about current injustice, the sooner you’d be able to taste the rewards of Buddhism and be liberated from your suffering. After all, dukkha – dissatisfactoriness, dis-ease, or suffering – is caused by your own desire for things to be other than what they are.

I’m not saying my beloved teachers and their peers were insensitive or without compassion. I don’t mean to blame any individuals, actually, but simply to point out a more or less unsaid assumption that was common in Zen until fairly recently, and to a fair extent still is: Social justice or personal healing might be important, but they’re more or less outside the purview of Zen. (I don’t think this outlook had been uncommon in other forms of Buddhism, either, so I probably could just say “the Dharma” instead of “Zen.”) Dharma practice is about finding liberation within, regardless of what the world is like. Go ahead and get therapy, do your mourning or healing, be an activist, or work for social or environmental justice, and then come to the Zen center for the inner work. The Zen center’s not the place for getting bogged down in the particularities of race, gender, socio-economic background, politics, or injustice.

Another assumption that’s been a strong part of the recent history of Zen in the west is the sense that Zen isn’t for everybody, so the fact that we’re almost entirely white is just the way it is. We recognize that a teacher of color or a Sangha led by people of color might do things differently than we do, but we are who we are. We can’t pretend to be anyone else. We like silent meditation, intellectual study, and talking about our feelings and experiences in calm and measured tones. For the most part, the quiet meditative environment we seek to create together is incompatible with the raucousness of children, music, dancing, unrestrained celebration or hilarity, expressions of anger, or passionate debate. We like to meet at the Zen center, but for the most part the rest of lives are busy, separate, and private. At least some of us are attracted to the austere and strict aspects of traditional monastic Zen, and in our efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water, many of us have retained a fair amount of Japanese or Pali terminology and imagery. This is just what Zen is, at least the way we’ve created it, and we like it. We don’t expect people of color to like it. If we changed things to make Zen more widely accessible or popular, it would make it less meaningful and supportive for us.

Or so the thinking goes. I put these thoughts into words not because I believe they’re true, or because you could find more than a handful of Zen folks who would admit to thinking like this, but because I suspect most of us white Zennies have thought like this, or secretly still do. We’re also conscious of the fact that simply worrying about the “diversity” of our communities – how many people of color, or people with low incomes, or immigrants, or LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities we have – can actually be a self-centered concern, as if the issue at hand was being able to demonstrate our enlightened lack of prejudice.

So, even though I’m part of the “next” generation of Zen teachers – who became teachers after the turn of the millennium – I’ve still had plenty of mind-expanding work to do. It’s only recently I’ve been able to start having discussions about diversity, equity, inclusion, and race without feeling a vague sense of panic, like I’m wandering out on very thin ice and will soon crash through it, much to my discomfort and embarrassment.

I’ll explain more about my ongoing process of engaging the koan of race in the next episode, because it’s a process I see unfolding for other Soto Zen leaders as well as for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association as a whole. I call this issue the “koan of race” because I have a strong sense that, like a Zen koan, race is a seemingly impenetrable, frustrating, befuddling, charged, uncomfortable, and troubling topic. How do you even begin to approach it? Race as a koan is intimidating and intriguing at the same time, and points out – to many of us – an underdeveloped area of our spiritual life. Therefore, exploring the issue of race also presents an opportunity to grow, explore, shed delusions, and open up to new and more liberated reality.

Read Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2


[i] https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/what/history/index.html
[ii] https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/activity/temples/sfzc_1.html


75 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 2
77 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2