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.