In the early days of my practice, whenever someone would discover my involvement or interest in Zen, which I was not eager to make known to any and all, they would commonly ask, "Have you been to Japan?" or a similar question. At first, I felt it a natural reaction, and a reasonable question to pose. But after giving it some thought, as we say (as if thought were some precious commodity not to be wasted on trivial matters), and in the light of the intervening emergence of the organization of Zen in the USA, with its complement of training centers, priests, and even a professional organization, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, it seems curiouser and curiouser, with apologies to Lewis Carroll.

The question begs the question, that if you have not gone to Japan, then your practice of Zen may itself be questionable. Or if you have gone to Japan, the follow-on question would be regarding where and when, and whether you were exposed to Zen there. Or if you were merely a tourist, your claiming to be "into Zen" would be subject to dismissal, as not being the real thing. It is as if Japan and Zen are joined at the hip.

And it is true that there were, and are, many claimants to Zen whose experience is questionable, either as to its depth, its breadth, or whether it consists of a mere intellectual dalliance. But the other side of the implication is that unless you train in Japan, under a genuine Master (J. zenji), your claim to authentication is suspect. This has been a sticking point in some circles, and may color the public perception, as well as that of the cognoscenti, to a degree that is perhaps unwarranted. While we hold dear our immediate Ancestors, who mostly hail from Japan, we do not want to go so far as to hold that, therefore, unless you have the luxury, and can commit to the time and expense, of spending considerable time in Japan, your practice, and credentials, cannot be very genuine.

Why not ask the same thing of Japanese priests, "Have you been to China?" Or of Ch'an priests, "Have you been to India?" For Zen does not claim to transmit a cultural treasure that may be had only by pilgrimage to the holy places of origin. In fact, it is widely understood that the buddha-dharma is accessible to all, regardless of race or national origin. Zen cannot be captured in a cultural bottle.

Nonetheless, we recommend training in Japan. Or in China, or India, for that matter. But there is nothing magical, other than the exotic locales and lifestyle differences, to be found there. As Dogen Zenji pointed out in Fukanzazengi, there is no need to pursue enlightenment in foreign lands, since "the Way is completely present where you are."

This brings me to the point of this monthly message, which is to provide context for our upcoming voyage to Japan this October. In a way, it is connected to our credentialing in the Silent Thunder Order, insomuch as we are tracing the tracks of Matsuoka Roshi in his home country, visiting his home temple, as well as his training monastery, Sojiji, founded by Keizan Zenji, and Komazawa University, where he was educated. We will also visit other sites of general interest and importance to our Soto Zen legacy, such as Master Dogen's great monastery in the northern mountains, Eiheiji. For me, this will comprise a second visit to that magical place, as I first traveled there in 1989, if memory serves.

But no one should misunderstand the purpose of this venture to imbue those of us fortunate enough to make the trip, myself or the other half-dozen in the cohort, with a greater grasp of Zen than is available here, within our humble homes. I for one am looking forward to the journey with a mixture of intrigue, resignation and trepidation. Intrigue that we may find answers to some interesting voids in Sensei's biography; resignation that this is something I really must do, in order to help complete the archive on Sensei's historical legacy; and trepidation that many aspects may go awry, in that endeavor. Two of the members of the group are indie film makers, who are dedicated to documenting the experience in video. So we are not traveling as ugly Americans, seeing the sights, or even as tourists.

The importance of Sensei's place in history, largely unknown to the burgeoning body of Zen practitioners in the USA, is part of the driving force for this initiative. It is also, of course, central to the credentialing of STO, as unique and legitimate heirs to this legacy of one of the pioneers of Zen in America.

Sensei came to the US in 1939, at the tender age of 27 years old, about the same age I was when I met him for the first time. He was one of the first to come to America for the express purpose of propagating Zen, and in particular Dogen Zen, which stresses zazen for all. Many early teachers, I understand, did not think Westerners were ready for Zen's rigorous meditation. The proof of their assessment is that most Americans are still not.

We are now approaching what may be the adolescent period of maturity for Zen in America, roughly three generations after its importation from WWII. Members of our occupying forces, and others who were in Japan, may not have been looking for Zen, but they found it. I am not a historian, but I think we can regard such luminaries as Phillip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, and John Daido Loori, as first generation Americans, who were bitten by the bug in the 1940s and 1950s. My teacher, being Japanese, and pre-war, is an earlier ancestor, but I myself was not exposed to actual training until the 1960s, so I may qualify as second generation. Or third generation at least. We are just now beginning to see the "second generation" of American newcomers to Zen, whose parents were involved in it to a considerable degree, even formalizing their practice.

Just as Japanese-Americans, African-Americans or others of mixed derivation refer to themselves as first-, second-, or third-generation, it seems reasonable that we would regard the assimilation of Zen into the culture in a similar fashion. And just as there came a point in China, after Bodhidharma's advent there, when the Chinese Zen leadership did not feel the need to report back to India; and likewise in Japan, the Japanese did not have to continue pilgrimage to China; we are at the point where American Zen is branching out on its own.

This does not imply any disrespect to our forebears, whether in Japan, Korea, China, or India, or any other country of origin where Buddhism appeared long before this continent was "discovered" by the Western cultures of Europe.

But it should be crystal-clear that anyone claiming greater depth or breadth of understanding and practice in Zen, simply because they have trained in Japan, presumes too much. Our practice does not, and cannot, depend forever upon the blessing of foreign teachers, any more than we can endorse the idea that the real Zen is to be found only in foreign countries. If you harbor such a belief, you are bound to be disappointed by the reality you find there. It is a bit like climbing Mount Everest, expecting a pristine brush with brute nature, but finding the madding crowd, and appalling mounds of discarded trash, along the ascent.

So let us turn our attention to our own practice that is always in front of our face, and turn away from fantasies of genuine Zen residing in special places. What is true for places holds true for people. Many Asian teachers have expressed dismay over our predilection to look for Buddha in a Japanese, Chinese, or Indian face. They want to see the Western face of Buddha. Just look in the mirror.

But the last thing I want to do, and the last impression I ever wish to leave, is that the face of Buddha is not also Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Afghanistani, Kenyan, Inuit, or... fill in the blank. And while we are at it, chicken, cat, dog, cow, tree, grass, tile, pebble... Zen is not exclusively, or exclusionarily, human. This is a point about which we must be most careful. Our god is not created in our image. Buddha is not a god, of course, but the essential nature or all beings, whether sentient or insentient. This is not, however, worth arguing about.

This point about the real Zen being at our fingertips is worth defending, however. Do not let anyone lead you astray in this regard. Those who claim special insight owing to the severe deprivations and sacrifices they had to make to gain the approval of their teacher in some foreign land are either woefully unaware of what it takes to practice and propagate Zen in this culture, as a lay person with a household to maintain, children to put through school, a job to secure the bills, and a vehicle or two to keep on the road or have an exaggerated opinion of whatever austerities they endured in Japan. For most of us, extended training in a monastery would amount to an extended vacation from the trials and travails of daily life in the USA. Make no mistake, lay practice is the real challenge, the real Zen.

And those accompanying me on the trip are exemplars of this more difficult Path. They each have careers, families, and a host of other demands on their time and resources, yet are dedicated enough to make the sacrifices necessary to this important and worthy cause. Others of you have contributed financially. So to you and them I wish to extend a heartfelt thank you, the Three Treasures thank you, I am sure. And personally, for affording me this opportunity, which I could never have managed on my own. Special thanks to those who have done the hard work of organizing the excursion down to the last detail. You know who you are.

Next month, if all goes well, and we complete the journey and return as planned, I will report on our experience in my Dharma Byte, "Returning from Japan."

During the three weeks there, I will endeavor to continue to respond to your comments and questions on the Tuesday night Skype conferences (8 pm ET will be 9 am in Japan) if I am not in transit, able to make the connection. Otherwise, Tesshin Jim Smith will lead the discussion, which will be based on reading my revised manuscript on Zen as the middle way between science and religion.

Upon our return, we will also commence doing the post-production work on the video, which will take some time, but we hope to be able to complete and broadcast it by year's end, or in the Spring of next year.

Meanwhile, please keep practicing and "keep contact to each other," as Sensei used do say. If you are in Atlanta, please attend ASZC and lend your support to your Sangha.