From a talk delivered at the Zen Center of Denver Oct. 16, 2022. Listen to the talk on the ZCD’s website at https://zencenterofdenver.org/a-cadre-of-change/.
What is the Sangha? I find myself returning to this question over and over. Some people say the Sangha is everything and every person in the whole universe. This idea is correct, but it can be misused – just as Hakuin’s words, ‘This very body is the Buddha,’ can be misused. Personal practice must implement the universal view of Sangha. Actualizing is our work, individually and socially.
Some people say that Sangha is sanctuary. This idea is correct, but it too can be misused. We need a sanctuary for our zazen, just as we need peace in our hearts individually. But ultimately sanctuary is isolation. I am coming to feel that Buddha Sangha, and by that I mean zendo membership, is a cadre of change. It is a community of people secure in their vision of universal Sangha, grounded in their personal sanctuary, who seek to transmute the poisons of the world in organized and coherent ways. (Robert Aitken, Encouraging Words 109.)
These are Robert Aitken’s words, found in his book Encouraging Words, and like the old roshi I find myself returning to this question over and over. What is the sangha? What is its purpose? What, after all, are we doing here together?
For anyone new to Zen who may be unfamiliar with the term, Sangha is one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism, alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddha can refer to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or to the many buddhas we meet every day—everyone sitting here and you yourself—and to the irreducible fact of existence, the boundless Buddha-nature of all things. Dharma is the teaching: the Buddhist canon of sutras, koans and commentaries, and the great teaching of the cosmos, the truth of how things actually are. And Sangha is the community: religious communities like this one, and the great network of all beings extending to the further reaches of time and space, bound together in an infinite web of interdependence.
As humans we are social animals, living our whole lives within extensive networks of social relationships. Social networks shape virtually everything we do and are, from our most basic motivations to the languages that form our conscious thoughts. In a real sense, we are our communities, and they are us: like fingers of the same hand, or ants in a hive. We are never separate; we are always connected. You are your mother, your father, your siblings and children; you are your friends, your coworkers, the grocery store clerk and the man begging on the side of the road. You are your city, your nation, and the whole human species, present in every cell and neuron, every word and gesture. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Our communities provide countless benefits, providing us not only companionship but the fundamentals of life—food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and everything else. Wendell Berry wrote, “Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.” This is the virtuous action of sangha: “teaching us to preserve all things needful to make us glad to live.”
But if we reap the benefits of social networks, we also share their dysfunctions. War, violence, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, exploitation and oppression of all kinds are the ever-present shadow of human culture, as extent today as in ancient Egypt.
I have heard some make the argument that this is not really the case; that in many respects, humanity has indeed made moral as well as technological advancement. Few today, for instance, would argue for the rightness of outright slavery, regardless of what corner of the world they live in; and with huge advances in medicine and food production, humans on average live longer and healthier lives than at any point in history.
On the other hand, the modern era has seen excesses of violence that were unimaginable to previous generations. It’s estimated that twenty million people died during World War I, and forty to fifty million during WWII; but the truth is, wars around the world have been nearly continuous for the last century and more, fueled by ever-more powerful weapons and the continuing ambitions of the great imperial powers, right down to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.
While it’s really beyond the scope of this talk, it seems to me even most Buddhists misunderstand the causes and effects of wars, regarding WWII, for instance, as a “good war,” a necessary and just struggle that resulted in lasting peace. This is, in my view, mistaken in all kinds of ways, but for now I’ll just point out that one indisputable result of WWII was global nuclear armament, the world’s empires each threatening retaliatory genocide in a kind of Mexican standoff writ large. Incredibly, this remains the intensely dangerous state of affairs more than seventy years later, with many observers increasingly concerned that Vladimir Putin will order the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, triggering terrifying consequences.
But nuclear weapons are not the only danger the human species currently faces. While again many have sought to deny it (whether out of short-sighted self-interest or mere self-delusion), the huge amounts of carbon released by burning petroleum and coal in the last century are warming the Earth’s atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, even now causing wild shifts in global temperatures and an increasing number of storms, floods and other unusual meteorological events. If it continues, increasing temperatures may trigger even greater knock-on effects, changing the atmosphere so profoundly the Earth could be rendered literally uninhabitable.
Nor is this all. Rapid advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering vastly increase the chance that some group, whether intentionally or otherwise, could someday release a “superbug,” a virus specifically designed for maximum lethality. And unlike nuclear weapons, creating such a virus won’t require huge industrial infrastructure, but could be accomplished in a lab in an ordinary garage. Many experts are also increasingly concerned about the power of artificial intelligence, which offers a potential for harm literally beyond human comprehension.
The fact is, ever more powerful technology presents a concomitant level of ever more powerful threat, and this period of history is fundamentally dissimilar from all prior periods. The philosopher Toby Ord calls it “The Precipice” in his book of the same title, describing the coming decades as the most dangerous in human history—and possibly of all eras to come.
In the famous Fire Sermon, the Buddha described the world as being on fire with greed, hatred and ignorance. Referring to this sutra and to the ever-deepening crisis of the modern world, Nelson Foster wrote in an open letter to the Diamond Sangha:
Like many sangha members, I see this as a time of political crisis in the United States and of dangerous trends in the politics of numerous other countries. But I’ve come to see the fire this time as much bigger than that, as a total cultural and ecological phenomenon that puts the Earth household as a whole in jeopardy. Of course, if our planet’s sixth great extinction goes forward, taking our species with it, some stout forms of life will survive and eventually evolve into a new assembly of beings perhaps just as wondrous as the set that we’ve been privileged to know, a set itself the result, after all, of the fifth extinction. But I find that cold comfort.
If the world as we know it is going to hell in a handbasket, I feel obliged by my love for it, and by membership in it, to impede that process. This sense of obligation persists despite very reasonable doubts about the usefulness of such efforts as I can make; considering the magnitude of the destructive forces now in play, my capacity to affect the outcome seems puny indeed. But concern for effectiveness, at least my concern for effectiveness, pales next to the urgings I feel to protect what remains. Or to state the point in patently Buddhist terms, neither the vows we make explicitly nor the values implicit in practice and realization have much to do with feasibility and “realism.” How realistic or quantifiable is a bodhisattva’s commitment to forgo final awakening until other beings have all awakened?
The question I’m asking myself now, and want to ask you, too, is whether we’ve reached a point where changing our ways—discontinuing the ‘automatic continuation of ordinary life’—has become imperative. You and I may have different perceptions of the conflagration licking at the foundations of the house, how far it’s progressed, how swiftly it’s growing, what chances our current countermeasures have of extinguishing it, and so forth. But do we agree that the time has come to accept full responsibility for it and to revise our behavior in correspondingly urgent and far-reaching ways?
Nelson is of course teacher at Ring of Bone Zendo in California and a Dharma heir of Robert Aitken, who was one of my own teachers, along with being our Dharma grandfather, founder of the Diamond Sangha and of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Aitken Roshi had a lifelong passion for social and political activism, at the forefront of what has become known as socially engaged Buddhism or simply engaged Buddhism.
Of course, the very term “engaged Buddhism” begs the question of whether Buddhism generally was or is disengaged; and seeking an answer means diving into the brambles. After all, to free all beings from suffering is the first of our Mahayana vows. Have centuries of Buddhists just been staring at their navels?
We have to start by admitting that the track record here is uneven, to say the least. In my last talk I discussed the support of Japanese Zen teachers for wartime imperialism, including overtly racist and fascist statements. We should understand that they were not the exception but the rule; that what we would call extremely harmful views were usual among Buddhist clergy not only in Japan but throughout Asia. Just consider the sexist views of male Buddhist monastics for millenia, who commonly regarded women as essentially impure and inferior, with an accordingly inferior social position in the monastic hierarchy.
The conundrum of how supposedly enlightened teachers can hold intensely discriminatory views has many facets, but for now I’ll focus on a certain understanding of what it means to save or liberate all beings, of how it is that practice frees us from suffering.
While in the modern world we often seem to regard pain and discomfort as being largely avoidable, ultimately this simply isn’t true. Each of us will, sooner or later, face one degree or another not only of physical pain but the anguish of loss—loss of our loved ones, of property and position, of our own abilities, and ultimately our lives. But we need not suffer the still greater anguish of our resistance to these misfortunes.
In Buddhism this dynamic is described in the parable of the second arrow. The first arrow is the misfortune we suffer; the second arrow is our reaction to it, which amplifies the discomfort we feel. We have no control over the first arrow, but the second is the needless result of our resistance to reality, the self-centered narrative that insists things should be some other way than they actually are.
The remedy for this mental clinging is selflessness, not only in the sense of fostering virtue—greater compassion, generosity and clarity—but in the ultimate sense of forgetting ourselves entirely, dropping away body and mind to realize the boundless joy and understanding of samadhi. Freed of concepts and preoccupations, we see the world as it is, vast and intimate, an understanding that ultimately permeates every moment of our lives.
This parable describes a timeless truth, but I suspect the second arrow is more painful than ever. In a modern American culture that is both extremely individualistic and pain-avoidant, we’re often told that all our problems can be solved if we just apply ourselves a little harder and lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. Ultimately this is just ego, and that fact must have been even more apparent to our predecessors. In a world where any cough or fever might end in death, they knew well that we are, however we struggle, subject to karmic conditions, which is to say, to cause and effect. If a car hits you, you’ll be injured. Plant seeds in the garden, and you may enjoy some beautiful tomatoes in the summer. One thing follows the other.
The law of karma gets rather trickier when expressed as a moral principle, the idea that if you do evil, you may suffer punishment, and if you do good, you may be rewarded.
On one level this seems obvious enough, although I’m not so sure it reflects reality so much as a wish for justice in the cosmic order; but historically, the doctrine of karma as a moral force operated within a broader Asian metaphysics of reincarnation, the belief that individuals could be and were reborn again and again, carrying their karmic impetus from life to life—and it was applied specifically to justify and uphold exploitative class systems in country after country. If you were born as a noble, it was because of your virtuous deeds in a past life; if you were an untouchable, it was because you were evil prior to ever being born. This doctrine aligned too well with the clergy’s need for the support of the nobility—and the need to avoid having one’s head removed for challenging the ruling class.
The result was a Buddhism that focused almost exclusively on individual religious realization (as in the case of Zen) or on earning a meritorious rebirth through good deeds (as in Pure Land Buddhism), while turning a blind eye to the secular causes of suffering.
To this end, the concerns of monastic and secular life were kept sharply separate. To become a monk was to literally and metaphorically leave home, to leave behind all one’s prior relationships, one’s family, work, and property, and devote oneself solely to religious practice. This allowed for a profound level of dedication and focus; but it also deepened the apparent divide between monk and lay person, between spiritual and secular, between Dharma practice and the messy world outside the monastery walls.
In moving from the monastic model to lay practice, it seems to me we have unfortunately preserved much of the exclusive focus on individual realization, a focus that aligned with our individualistic Western culture. In terms of its wider effects, you might call this “trickle-down” practice: the idea that each of us, attending zazen practice at the temple once or twice a week and sesshin once or twice a year, will steadily gain in insight and understanding, and then carry that understanding outside the temple to benefit the wider community.
But in this regard, note what we consider the temple not to be. I’m the obvious exception here (as the ZCD’s office manager and resident caretaker), but in general it is not a residence. It is not a workplace. It is not a place to organize politically.
Of course, for many lay people, this “twice a week” model is the only realistic model, and it can produce real personal transformation— provided the practitioner takes their practice outside the temple seriously, which is to say, provided they shine the light of their inquiry into every aspect of their lives.
But this approach presents a dangerous corollary. By keeping the two spheres apart, we leave open the possibility that one never touches the other. It’s perfectly possible—and anyone who’s practiced long enough can cite numerous examples—to reach a high degree of insight into essential nature, and yet change nearly nothing of substance in one’s life outside the zendo. The result is a toothless Dharma, an insight into form and emptiness that is itself empty and without form. This is the blind spot that ends with Dharma teachers espousing racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, chasing after money and fame, becoming alcoholics and sexually abusing their students.
The insistence on a narrow practice model also has another cost, namely that it may not work for those outside the middle-aged, middle-class strata that the model was largely created by and for. For young people and poor people in particular, residential and work practice may be appealing in a way that weekly attendance is not, and afford them desperately needed opportunities. And for those suffering political oppression, a refusal to organize politically may amount to a tacit endorsement of an unacceptable status quo.
Aitken Roshi said that “Without the Precepts as guidelines, Zen tends to become a hobby, made to fit the needs of the ego.” But it seems to me that this is the danger of lay Zen practice generally: that surrounded by every comfort, ensconced in our privilege, property and position, it’s all too easy to adopt an inquiry that questions everything and anything except those comforts. Faced with a world on fire, we retreat to our well-appointed houses, our screens, fine food, expensive cars and vacations, never allowing ourselves to look squarely at the flames at our doorsteps—or the profound connection between our self-indulgent habits and the destruction they wreak.
Our founding teacher, Danan Henry, proposed by way of solution the Monastery Without Walls training program, which sought to apply a commitment to meticulous Zen training at the temple as a solid foundation for lay practice. But many found the specific requirements too inflexible for their ever-changing circumstances outside the temple. Personally it seems to me it did not go far enough. The separation between lay life and monastic practice is not so easily surmounted. We must unify them in a more material sense.
In an essay titled “Envisioning the Future” in his book Original Dwelling Place, Aitken Roshi wrote:
The time has surely come when we must speak out as Buddhists, with firm views of harmony as the Tao. I suggest that it is also time for us to take ourselves in hand. We ourselves can establish and engage in the very policies and programs of social and ecological protection and respect that we have heretofore so futilely demanded from authorities. This would be engaged Buddhism, where the sangha is not merely parallel to the forms of conventional society and not merely metaphysical in its universality.
What does this actually look like in practice? The answer is, like the broadest possible application of our programs and resources, with a particular eye toward economic and political engagement, which is to say, understanding the sangha not just as a spiritual refuge, but as a engine for economic and political transformation.
To put this in concrete proposals, as a first step, we should take seriously the possibilities offered by a well-designed web-based platform. We have been steadily adding features to our website, but a great deal more is possible, and in particular we should look at adding features for effective group management and communication between members.
Second, we can continue to expand our schedule of classes, workshops and other events, with an eye toward the development of a true School of Zen Arts and Studies, another dream of our founding teacher, Danan Henry. We might consider classes and workshops, for instance, in yoga, tai chi, painting, calligraphy, ikebana, music, sewing, cooking, and woodworking, with our committees offering classes and workshops alongside their other work, and the instructors compensated financially as well as spiritually. We can also quite easily add web features for managing those classes, such as online schedules, curricula and forums.
Among other near-term proposals, we might consider selling meditation supplies and other items, creating a guest program, and working on improvements to the building (with a particular eye toward improving energy efficiency).
In the long term, we might consider undertaking larger sangha enterprises. Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers and a teacher in the White Plum lineage, founded Greyston Bakery in Riverston, New York, which aims to hire the hard-to-employ and generates funds for low-income housing, community day care, an AIDS hospice, and more. Zen Mountain Monastery, also in New York, runs the Monastery Store, selling meditation supplies, Buddha figures and the like. And in perhaps the most prominent example, throughout the 1960s and ’70s San Francisco Zen Center embarked on a host of projects and expansions, including a bakery, Greens Restaurant, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Green Gulch Farm, and a great deal more. These all provide valuable models for us now.
For our sangha, I might particularly point out the great advantages that could be afforded by a mountain retreat center associated with the ZCD, which would allow us to hold sesshin and other retreats in a setting built for that purpose without disrupting our schedule of classes and daily events.
Of course, undertaking this kind of work isn’t easy; in fact, it’s extraordinarily difficult, because it often means directly addressing our deep-seated beliefs about governance and power, not in the abstract but in our immediate relationships. In the first place, it means ensuring that we are capable of making effective decisions and committing ourselves to a course of action. This in itself can pose considerable challenges with governance structures more designed for inclusion than efficacy. There can be a kind of inertia that grips organizations over time, as rules and policies, committees and positions accumulate and multiply, rendering meaningful action increasingly difficult. Perhaps this is due to a perceptual error, the belief that the status quo is innately safer than an unknown future, but in any case it’s easy to see again and again, and it is marked in particular by an extreme aversion to risk.
But risk is an inherent factor in many worthwhile endeavors, and acceptance of risk in pursuit of a goal or defense of an ideal is the very definition of courage. Shakyamuni Buddha went to the edge of death to find the Middle Way. Bodhidharma crossed the Himalayas to bring Buddhism to China. Dogen left Japan and crossed the sea to find a true teacher, leaving behind everything he knew to drop off body and mind. Just consider Dogen’s words:
After hearing the truth of the sole importance of zazen from the instruction of my teacher, I practiced zazen day and night. When the other monastics gave up zazen temporarily for fear that they might fall ill at times of extreme heat or cold, I thought to myself then, “I should still devote myself to zazen, even to the point of death from the attack of disease. If I do not practice zazen, even without illness, what is the use of taking care of my body? I shall be quite satisfied to die from a disease. What good fortune it is to practice zazen under such a great teacher of a great country of Sung, so to end my life and be disposed of by good monastics. Thinking thus continuously, I resolutely sat zazen day and night, and no illness came at all. (Hee Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 36)
Of course, Dogen lived in a pre-scientific era. He and his fellow monks had zero understanding of the real causes of disease, much less modern epidemiology. For that matter, I might question the costs of such a samurai approach, as though the body-mind were something to be conquered rather than our most precious treasure.
But I raise this quote to underline one point: We don’t practice zazen as one more way of getting comfortable. We practice to find the courage to lay it all on the line, to give this life everything we have, to do whatever is needed to liberate all beings.
I hope no one here believes that having built this temple, we can now rest on our laurels. To the contrary: This temple lays upon us an onus. Just consider the economic opportunity represented by the building itself. The classrooms and dormitories we have available could be used in all kinds of ways to support our community. Now consider the economic leverage it represents: millions of dollars in equity, wealth such as countless people will never see in their lifetimes. In a country plagued by the most vicious inequality, with resources ready at hand, how will we use this power? If we allow fear of risk or a reluctance to commit or mere lack of imagination to stay our hand, how does that fulfill our vow not to withhold spiritual or material aid?
None of this is just theoretical. Not so long ago in our old temple on 31st Avenue, this very sangha faced a long period of stagnation and gridlock, with our membership steadily diminishing, our finances in free fall, and the building itself in increasing disrepair. We seemed to have no clear plan for the future and at the same time seemed unable to let go of the mistakes of the past, in particular the purchase of a building fundamentally unsuited for Zen practice.
Now we’re in a literally different place, with a new temple, new leadership and extraordinary interest from the wider community. I hope and expect that we are entering a period of joyful growth and abundance. But consider this a warning at the outset: stagnation, gridlock and complacency are ever-present dangers, and to requite our obligations in the face of what may be the very great challenges of the coming decades will require courage, creativity and adaptability, qualities we should embrace now as essential to our sangha’s well-being.
Some of you may remember a quote that Danan Roshi posted on a pillar in the basement of the old temple, a very free translation of a verse by Goethe:
Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Together with all beings we realize the Way.