The Little Sangha That Could

I was talking with Dave Cuomo, who manages Angel City Zen Center, about sangha membership and how to attract more people. This question came up:

How is that some American Buddhist organizations have hundreds of members (and thousands more followers online)?

ACZC is a misfit when it comes to your typical sangha. It’s “Zen Casual” compared to more formal and ritualized places like Zen Center Los Angeles, Zenshuji Soto Mission, and Hazy Moon Zen Center, to name a few Los Angeles-based Zen institutions. Outside of Zen, there are more organizations, like InSigntLA and Shambala (and the soon to close down Against the Stream), for example, that have large memberships and are well funded.

That’s not to say that ACZC has any less to offer. In fact, from Koan Night to weekly dharma talks, Q&As, podcasts, yoga, writing workshops, and monthly day-longs, ACZC offers a full schedule, in addition to daily zazen sits. The atmosphere is welcoming and the discussions are lively. The members that attend also have demonstrated competent knowledge of Buddhist concepts, so the sangha is clearly doing something right.

However, membership has been wanting. So what is everyone else doing that ACZC isn’t?

For one, ACZC isn’t promising any enlightenment. Aside from the fact that enlightenment isn’t the point, that’s just something that would be irresponsible for anyone to offer, let alone promise. ACZC isn’t offering to make you feel better or give you answers to pressing questions. That’s not what the practice is for, though those things may happen in the course of your practice. There are no robes, strict rules, or formal hierarchies.

What ACZC does offer is a rigorous adherence to core Buddhist principles, a no frills approach to Truth, and a non-ritualistic but still respectful acknowledgement of customs and history. It’s not traditional, but it still embodies the spirit of a temple. It’s not formal, but still full of heart. It’s Zen Casual, not Zen Anarchy, and no less Zen.

So, what are the other places doing that gets them so many members? I would say the real question isn’t what they’re offering, or what ACZC isn’t, but rather what are people looking for? It seems—and this is a very generalized observation—many people are looking for a support group type of environment. They are seeking places with like-minded people, where they feel safe and not alone. They want sanctuary for their feelings. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course.

There is a cerebralness at ACZC that at the surface may seem to be contrary to those things. For newcomers, ACZC may seem too heady and not enough metta, or heart. That would be the wrong conclusion. You get out what you put in. That’s especially true of ACZC, where there is zero upselling. Like Zen Buddhism, this sangha emphasizes sustained, sincere practice and with it comes practical realization and inner peace.

Moreover, there is sanctuary at ACZC, just minus the cliquish vibes of some of the other places. One of the things that really appeals to me about ACZC is that it never touts its brand as “authentic” (though it is) by advertising its lineage (even though there is one). That stuff is superficial anyway. It’s the teachings and what it espouses and the sincerity of intentions that are truly valuable. That’s where ACZC shines. Gleaning value in membership numbers is foolhardy. After all, Master Dogen himself probably had at most 50 students at his temple.

Angel City Zen Center Monthly Writing Workshop

Angel City Zen Center has a monthly writing workshop, usually on the 3rd Saturday each month. Today, on the 4th Saturday of the month (ha!), ACZC held the workshop after its weekly zazen, discussion, and community lunch.

The writing workshop, while a platform for exploring and flexing creative muscles, also serves as an exercise to build communal understanding, compassion, symbiosis, and empathy. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.

I attended the workshop for the first time, without prior conception and certainly with a degree of apprehension. I’ve never done anything like this before and was nervous about embarrassing myself. There were, indeed, very creative writers in this group. But they were also extremely supportive. The format of nonjudgmental analysis and sharing of present impact cultivates a safe and lighthearted atmosphere that makes you forget that you’re living in Los Angeles, a city that can be lonely and superficial, if not downright merciless and cruel.

The workshop started with a 20 minute zazen that ends with a topic prompt, from which we free-write for thirty minutes. Then we go around the room reading our respective writeups. Each reading is followed by everyone taking turn to share what impact it had on them and what their impressions were, all with zero judgmental and personal preferences.

The second part of the workshop had us use anything we heard and took notes on in the first part of the workshop to synthesize another writeup. This is where I mentioned about this being an exercise in building communal symbiosis. Because to write up the second piece, we had to listen to what everyone else had to say. Whether or not we agree or liked or disliked what we heard, we had to hear them. As we compose a writeup using their words and ideas, we essentially enter their mindspace, which is how understanding, compassion, and empathy starts. The result is a deep connection with everyone involved, even if we don’t know each other’s personal histories.

I tell you, everyone’s writeup was amazingly creative and great. This entire group has legitimate writers, even if they don’t do it for a living. Everyone’s writeup had me shaking my head in awe over how good it was. There was prose, stream-of-consciousness, poetry, creative fiction, social commentary. Everyone in this group is truly talented, creative, and most importantly, good-hearted.

I really did think what I wrote didn’t come close to everyone else’s in terms of quality and originality. I’m not being modest, just cognizant that it was my first time and I did my best, which is fine with me. I look forward to continuing this writing process with the group in the future. I know I could learn a thing or two from everyone there.

Anyway, here is what I wrote in the first part of the workshop, followed by the second part. Be nice. (The topic prompt, by the way, had a political bent. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it’s not important because no one really used it as a basis for what they wrote.)

• • • •

Clever people think they are clever. That is their nature. They identify with that label. Little Johnny was told he was a clever little boy and he grew up liking that. The problem is that everybody is clever, too. Little Johnny knows this deep down, though he may not know it truly, only that there is some nagging sensation that points to this. So he devises ways to show off his cleverness, but in a way that really illustrates how unclever other people are. In short, Johnny is an asshole.

A whole generation—maybe several generations—of Johnnys have been fostered in this country and as a result we have a clever country on our hands. A prevailing character trait for Johnny is that he doesn’t want to be just like everyone else. The urge for different, i.e. superior, is strong. Everything then becomes a measuring stick. There has to be results! Society has been built with this mentality, where metrics means more than right. Never underestimate the power of self deception. Whole industries are built on this: advertising, marketing, sports, Hollywood, award shows, the list goes on.

How do we break this cycle of self-destruction? I have no idea. The only thing I know is that we created this problem in the first place by doing things. Doing more things does not seem like the solution. Nor does looking into the past. People like to say that history repeats itself. That seems silly and wrong. Everything happening now is new. If anything is real, and that’s debatable, it is the cosmic law of cause and effect. Don’t believe that at your own risk.

• • • •

(This piece is based on what the others in the group wrote and on notes that I took throughout the workshop.)

Who are you?
Confusion is the flavor of the month,
Like the fleeting nature of hellos and goodbyes.
Still, we have
Desires so viscous, sheets can be erected
And spun into a
Rope called hope,
Which can lift the
Embarrassment that has become customary
Ointment for our narratives.
After all, the rebound is the reason.
Everything happening now is new.

Against the Stream to shut down

Against the Stream announced today it will be closing its operations as of September 30. This is a shame, because the organization benefited a lot of people.

ATS leadership sent a letter to its membership detailing the conclusion of a lengthy internal investigation of sexual assault by ATS’s founder, Noah Levine. The letter stated that they explored ways to keep the organization viable, but were unable to find a solution.

Read the letter in its entirety from lionsroar.com.

Sit Down and Shut Up

The subtitle of Brad Warner’s book, “Sit Down and Shut Up,” is “Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye.”

It’s a mouthful, but the book really does encapsulate all that. And more. Overall, it was an easy read, entertaining, and doesn’t take itself very seriously.

Warner weaves his experience with Buddhism and its teachings into a travelogue of his return to Ohio to play in a reunion concert featuring Akron’s punk rock bands. You get a sense that he’s somewhat reticent to preach about the virtues of Zen, lest he comes off sounding woo-woo for proselytizing this ancient mystical religion (it’s really a philosophy). It was the mid-2000s when he wrote this book, so his outlook could have changed by now (it probably has).

In any case, Warner frames Zen through his own particular lens and we get an irreverent, humorous, plain-speaking take on a not-so-easy topic. With the book at 250 pages, he neither deludes us nor himself in presenting “Sit Down and Shut Up” as a comprehensive tome about Zen in general and Dogen and Shobogenzo in particular. In his own words, Warner knows that his book is “just the tip of the left big toe in the kiddy pool” about a subject with the “depths of the mid-Atlantic.”

The best part of the book is that nowhere does Warner try to upsell you on anything. Not on Zen, not on meditation, and not even on punk rock. Those are the things that he’s into and he’s open to sharing his experiences with us. But similar to his take on teaching Zen, he’s not willing to bear responsibility for anyone’s actions.

In short, “Sit Down and Shut Up” is a lighthearted, playful, honest, and enjoyable peek into Warner’s experiences with Zen and punk rock and how they both makes sense to him.

Are Buddhists type A’s?

After last night’s meditation group, one of the members stated that Buddhists are type A personalities. Immediately I felt I needed to refute that (being the type A that I am!). Pressed further, she said that’s because Buddhists are perfectionists. I didn’t quite understand this conclusion and said that they wouldn’t be good Buddhists if they didn’t accept reality. The subject ended there.

However, this still bothered me. So I thought about it. What I imagine is that, as with many misconceptions about Buddhism, this person thinks the point of Buddhism is to strive for a state of perfection, i.e. Nirvana. There is the belief that according to Buddhism a person is stuck in the cycle of reincarnation until one lives a devout, sinless, “perfect,” or whatever description you want to use, life. Hence, you are striving for “perfection.”

Of course, that’s at best a very simplistic viewpoint. (At worse, it’s just plain wrong.) Without getting into karma and dharma, Buddhism is a philosophy of seeing things for what they are. It is a vehicle to understand the nature of the reality by deep examination of ourselves. At its core, it’s very simple.

But, not easy.

Q&A with Brad Warner

Tonight I attended Angel City Zen Center’s Q&A with Brad Warner. Of course, Brad likes to say that the Q&A is only as good as the questions. I thought there were some good ones tonight. Here are quick notes on some of them.

Words: Are they frenemies?
Brad had a good comment that the words spoken by people are only approximations of what people really mean. As such, he tries to not use words that people say against them. That’s an admirable amount of compassion and understanding there.

Is Zen Buddhism what our society needs right now, or does Zen not care about society?
My take on this is, “How does Zen address capitalism?” The concept of ownership has never sit well with me. We were born without owning anything, literally. Then we die without being able to take anything with us. In between those two events, we are supposed to amass as much materialistic belongings as possible? I don’t recall so much what Brad had to say…

What’s the difference between desire and attachment? (This was my question.)
This part of Brad’s answer was most memorable for me: he said that desire arises, like emotions and thoughts, whereas attachment is the refusal to accept what is. Brad also shared that his teacher, Gudo Nishijima, used to disagree with one of the Four Noble Truths that eliminating desire will end suffering. It’s such a fundamental part of Buddhism to disagree on. I thought that was interesting.

After the talk, I purchased three of Brad’s books: Sit Down and Shut Up, Don’t Be a Jerk, and It Came from Beyond Zen. Just some light reading.

#MeToo hits everyone

Since the #MeToo movement went global, almost no one is immune to the shining light of its fury. Not even Buddhists.

Jezebel’s article on the sexual allegations against popular Los Angeles-based Buddhist teach, Noah Levine (Against the Stream), is a worthwhile read. It gets into the difficult and convoluted politics that has permeated mainstream Buddhist organizations in America. (China has its fair share of problems, too.)

The author of the article, Anna Merlan, does a fine job of parsing through the intertwined connections that Levine apparently has fostered in his career. Many institutions and organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, conspicuously promote him and benefit from his involvement. The issue of money is like a sticky goo that is hard to wash off.

I realize that large organizations inevitably cannot avoid political strife. The world functions in many ways that is incongruent with Buddhist values. While this isn’t the primary reason that makes me seek smaller, grass root, and less complicated groups like the Eastside Mindfulness Collective and Angel City Zen Center for my own spiritual studies, what’s happening at Against the Stream substantiates some of my intuitions.

Nicole Krauss’s Letter to Van Gogh

The following is an excerpt from Maria Popova’s awesome Brain Pickings posting about Nicole Krauss’s letter in response to Van Gogh’s heartbreaking letter to his brother about fear:

“It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our ‘nature’ and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to ‘violate’ what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.”

Disposable America

This article by Alexis Madrigal is an intriguing look at how the disposable straw explains modern capitalism, from its modern conception in the mid-1850s as a hygienic savior to its role in today’s culture wars as an ecological disaster.

“…the straw has always been dragged along by the currents of history, soaking up the era, shaping not its direction, but its texture.”

The straw is in the middle of it all: urbanism, McDonald’s, the Koch Brothers, corporatization, leverage buyouts, environmentalism.