I've been up at the farm all week on summer vacation, but I really wanted to catch up with Shundo after all the back and forth on our respective blogs after attending Sesshin last week so I drove down to City Center for the evening sit, dinner and an interesting discussion.
We talked about a lot, including our practice histories, some of the details of Zendo management, even a little about our aspirations with respect to Zen. One interesting thing I brought up is the rather odd contrast between the two defining characteristics of Suzuki Roshi's lineage: orthodoxy and reformation.
The practice of Soto Zen at Zen Center is impressively orthodox, the forms are maintained with as much fidelity to the japanese practice as possible and the establishment of the first Zen monastery and training temple was a major accomplishment. Suzuki Roshi is in a very real sense as important a figure as Bodhidarma or Dogen in the history of Buddhism. Some things have changed, to be sure, but we chant in japanese at services, the monks wear traditional robes and if there are differences it's certainly not from a lack of earnest effort on the part of the residents and staff. As Shundo pointed out, Zen Center is 'the Vatican' of western Zen.
The degree to which the Japanese forms are emulated was, to be honest, a little strange at first. I would occasionally shake my head at something I didn't understand or recognize and write it off as an attempt to be 'more zen than the zen masters'. Sometimes it struck me as a little silly or maybe just foreign, which it is, and I've found the forms to be both challenging and comforting as I'm learning them.
However, this experience of strangeness points directly to the second important legacy of Suzuki Roshi; something I think it's fair to call the Soto Reformation. Suzuki Roshi didn't just bring Zen practice to the West, he also brought it to anyone who was willing to come and sit. In Japan, Zazen is almost entirely a monastic practice, lay members of the Sanga might come to see and participate in services and listen to dharma talks but they don't typically sit in meditation. Zen Center, by contrast, was started by lay practitioners who wanted to engage in Zen but who would not or could not retire from the world and enter the monastic life.
Zen Center provides a truly unique opportunity to learn and practice alongside of some wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to intimately transmitting the dharma from West to East, for the benefit of all beings. Being able to sit down and share a meal with one of them is more than a treat, it's a great privilege and I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity and for the continuous effort of everyone who makes it possible.