January 2017 Dharma Byte
by Taiun Michael Elliston-roshi

May you live in interesting times!” — Ancient Chinese Curse

Well, we certainly live in interesting times. In the midst of the chaos of local, national and global imperfect storms, we turn to Zen as respite, sanctuary and dependable source of succor. As our lineage Founder, Matuoka Roshi would often say, “When you do zazen, you always have a place to go.” He did not mean that we can escape reality, but that we can do something about it that always helps. Zazen always works, even though it is not a panacea, and not a substitute for action. If you believe, as I do, that Zen has the power and potential to change our lives, and thereby to change our society, you will want to know what you can do in the new year to enhance Zen training, both on the personal level, and on behalf of your community, the STO Sangha.

We would like to share with you just some of the highlights of the past year as we move into 2017, the 40th Anniversary of the founding of Atlanta Soto Zen Center (ASZC) in 1977. What a long, strange trip it’s been. And I would like to suggest some of the many ways you can contribute to our efforts to propagate genuine Zen practice for the sake of others, and for future generations. It is truly a mission, and now more important than ever that people be exposed to Zen. This installment will necessarily be longer than our usual Dharma Byte.

This year we saw a great deal of consolidation of our efforts, throughout the STO network of Affiliates, to bring Zen practice to our existing members and newcomers. This monthly newsletter has been refined to provide consistent updates to our programs, and to acquaint and familiarize our readers with the various affiliated centers operating around the United States and in Canada.

Attendance and pre-registration for our retreats and other events has been refined through the most accessible of online media, allowing us to plan and execute these important programs with much greater efficiency and dependability than ever before.

These things do not happen automatically, but are the result of a lot of behind-the-scenes activity, diligent administration, which I believe to represent the highest level of service to the Sangha. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the many members, Disciples and Priests who make Zen happen, too numerous to name here. They know who they are, and I am bowing in their direction.

What You Can Do to Help
If you would like to join the cause, please contact myself, or the Practice Leaders of your local center, and volunteer your skills to join the team. Many hands make light work. Several activities and projects for 2017 that you might want to join follow.

In preparation for observing the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Atlanta Soto Zen Center as a 501c3 not-for-profit (NFP) Corporation chartered in the State of Georgia in 1977, and in continuous operation since (OK, near-continuous), the STO Board of Directors has been planning various ways in which we could and should observe this remarkable benchmark. At the same time, we must consider undertaking a more strategic fund raising effort tied to our facility needs, and the Abbot’s support in the future. The 40th Anniversary celebration is an auspicious turning point.

What You Can Do to Celebrate ASZC’s 40th
Please stay tuned for announcements of specific activities, fundraising and celebratory events as they unfold in 2017. We particularly encourage you to help us in 2017, by becoming a supporting member to further stabilize our organization for future generations of Zen seekers and practitioners. And you are invited to make a special, one-time donation online.

2017 will also mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of our lineage Founder, Rev. Soyu Matsuoka Roshi. He came to America in 1939 to bring the genuine practice of Zen, and especially Zazen, to the West, much as Bodhidharma brought it to China, and Dogen to Japan, before him. We are standing on the shoulders of these giants, in continuing the transmission of Zen to the West.

In October of 2015, a crew of seven Members and Practice Leaders, Disciples and Priests journeyed to Japan to trace the source of the Way that Matsuoka Roshi brought to us. We visited Eiheiji and Sojiji, where O-Sensei trained, as well as Komazawa University (Zen U), where he studied, and his home temple as well. We interviewed on video several Priests and officials of Soto Shu Shumucho (Zen headquarters in Japan), and in November of 2016 traveled to Chicago to interview members who knew and remember Matsuoka Roshi, as well as his successor, and my senior dharma brother, Kongo Richard Langlois, Roshi. We hope to wrap up the filming and finish post-production of the documentary by November of 2017, the anniversary of Sensei’s birth in 1912, and his death in 1977.

What You Can Do to Facilitate the Documentary
To view the latest trailers, search for Soyu Matsuoka Roshi online. To make a donation toward finishing the final few interviews, and for post-production costs, please go to the STO website and make a “restricted” donation, specifying that it is meant for this project. 

STO and ASZC provide opportunities for students around the globe to interact with transmitted priests and others on the Soto Zen practice path. ASZC dharma talks given during our weekly practice schedule and dharma talks as part of STO and ASZC retreats are available to students via Mixlr. Mixlr is a free platform to those wishing to participate in our dharma talks. When talks are given, students can listen to the talks on the web or through the Mixlr app for your phone or tablet.

What You Can Do to Join “Zen Radio” on Mixlr
Please check our ASZC website for more information on how you can participate in Dharma talks via Mixlr. Sign up with Mixlr and search “Atlanta Soto Zen Center Live”. You will even receive a message letting you know when ASZC goes live. Mixlr has a messaging feature that allows for questions to be asked and then addressed during the talk.  If you miss a talk, past recordings are available on Mixlr and can be listened to at your convenience.

Cloud Dharma Study Teleconferences via Skype meets weekly every 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tuesdays of the month (5th Tuesdays we take a break). The online curriculum committee develops a study outline featuring contemporary teachers, as well as Zen Masters of the past. A moderator facilitates the discussion among participants and an STO transmitted priest. The commentaries are recorded, providing STO with a rich, archival library of dynamic teachings. Volunteers transcribe the recordings for posting online, and we are making the audio recordings available as podcasts.

What You Can Do to Support Our Online Sangha
Those affiliated with STO and ASZC, as well as anyone else interested Soto Zen, are welcome to participate. Please check our STO website for updates to the Cloud Dharma Study Teleconferences. If you are interested in serving on the Cloud Dharma Study Committee, or helping with transcribing the recordings, please contact a Board Member. Transcribing is a wonderful way to deepen your practice. Your help is essential in assisting us to continue Matsuoka-roshi’s mission: establishing an authentic Zen practice in the West.

When we first began considering a residency program, I regarded the idea with great trepidation, as perhaps a necessary evil. Several of our first attempts at recruiting and accommodating residents bore me out. Fortunately, we have evolved to attract and serve a stable and stabilizing group of residents in the years since, mostly by trial and error, and depending on the patience of our residents. ASZC can accommodate up to four residents, each of whom pays monthly tuition for their own, private room (seniority applies to who has first choice). Others can cohabit for less if they are willing to share with a roommate. You must be what our venerable Founder, Matsuoka Roshi, called a serious student of Zen, and not a “wishy-washy” or “come-and-go type.” In other words, you are expected to follow the zazen schedule, and do your part to “take good care of the practice place.”

What You Can Do to Become a Resident
Please contact any current Resident or Board Member if you think you might be interested in residency. You will interview for the opportunity, and move in for a test Practice Period (S. ango) of three months (90 days) based on a calendar quarter, with exceptions as needed. If all works out, you may re-up for another ango, and another, and another. Until you are enlightened. Then you’re out.

Seriously, we can all help the Residency Program by helping to clean on Sundays, “leaving no traces” as we leave the zendo by dusting and plumping cushions, putting everything back where we found it. It will also help to express some appreciation from time to time for all the residents do to keep our Zen center clean and uncluttered. They are our eyes and ears, and we should take good care of them, as they take good care of us.

In 2016 we were fortunate to expand leadership with the introduction of two Associate Abbot positions, one for Practice Path and the other for Organizational Development. This has allowed me to step back from many of the day-to-day responsibilities, and focus on teaching and community engagement. It is but one example of a welcome integration of newly ordained Disciples, Novice Priests and Transmitted Priests into on-going and strategic functions necessary for future service to the growing STO Sangha.  

Our annual Precepts Retreat and STO Conference has been held each year for over a half-dozen years, if memory serves. In 2017 we expect to reach or exceed 20 affiliated groups offering Zen practice, with regular weekly practice sessions and retreat programs. Most have a Disciple or novice (black robe) Priest as Practice leader. Two have been given the Transmission Ceremony (J. Shiho), with a third candidate in line. The formal side of the lineage may in some wise be less important than the informal, face-to-face transmission of buddhadharma, but without it, it is difficult to imagine how Zen would be propagated on a practical level. Let us not be confused about this, and show our respect to our Ancestors. Growth is not an end, or virtue, in itself, but we want to allow for expansion of our model, to meet the demand for Zen practice, which we see increasing.

What You Can Do to Participate
Please plan to attend the next conference, typically held on a Saturday in July, following a week-long Precepts Retreat, with out-of-town Practice Leaders sharing their view of the Precepts; followed by Initiation ceremonies (J. jukai) that Sunday. If you are ready to receive the First Five Precepts, let us know. We will prepare for your ceremony, in which you receive your Dharma Name as well.  

A long-time member, former resident of ASZC, active on our Board of Directors as Co-Practice Leader for Community (S. sangha), owns about 100 acres of bucolic farmland near Hayesville, NC. He has generously offered the use of the farm, called Watershed (because it is one), with its house, cabin, barn, and other buildings planned for future. Access to and utilization of the Watershed Retreat Center fulfils my vision of the American Zen Center of the Future, which has always included a rural retreat center as well as an urban location. We have the best of both, and they support each other in synergy.

What You Can Do to Attend
Please keep an eye out for the retreat announcements. The current plan for 2017 is to hold up to four retreats per year at the country center, to complement the four major retreats at Zonolite Place in Atlanta: our annual Sewing Retreat; Spring Break; Midsummer Precepts Retreat & Conference; and Buddha’s Enlightenment (Rohatsu) eight-day retreat. A calendar of the specific dates will be forthcoming.

The function of buildings is to fall down; ours is to prop them up. ASZC at Zonolite is no exception to the rule, and we have devoted a great deal of effort to that project. You may remember the leaking of the meditation hall (J. zendo) during the Fall rains last year. We were forced to shut down for a couple of months, to redo the ceiling and floor. We maintained continuity for our dedicated members by sitting in the conference room of the east bungalow. Its ceiling, and that of the kitchen, had been redone in a prior spurt of energy by residents and members of the Board. We anticipate other improvements in 2017, but many of these projects depend upon support from our landlord, and coordination with her team of workers. Please practice patience with the deficiencies of the facility, and focus on sitting.

What You Can Do to Help Maintain Your Zen Center
If you are interested in offering help in this regard, please contact any Board Member or our Facilities Director. Please keep an eye out for announcements of periodic weekend work parties as they are scheduled, and plan to attend and bring your skills and tools with you. We usually share a brown bag lunch, camaraderie and discussion. Work (J. samu) and cleaning (J. soji) are traditional, shared forms of training for Zen communities. We welcome your help.

Another dimension of our vision for the Zen Center of the Future has been the redesign and rebuild, entailing a teardown of the existing facility and slab-up construction of a brand-spanking new one. This pie-in-the-sky idea has been floating around in discussions for years (in my mind, decades), including the proposal to engage an architecture school, such as Georgia Tech, to develop the project (part of my professional/academic background from training at Illinois Tech).

One day in September 2016, a professor of architecture from Georgia Tech contacted us with much the same idea. Only she had a class that was ready to actually do it. The results were outstanding, and we plan to display the project at ASZC in the near future. It is just within the realm of possibility that we may actually get something done. Don’t hold your breath. Unless you need to, in zazen. The same delightful lady is going to take a look at Watershed next. Her commentary:

Led by Associate Professor Julie Ju-Youn Kim, Georgia Tech School of Architecture students developed creative and visionary design proposals for a new Atlanta Soto Zen Center. The studio’s efforts culminated in a range of design solutions that celebrate the figurative and literal heart of the project, the Zendo, while also amplifying the opportunities for community engagement in the daily life of the retreat.

What You Can Do to Follow the Zen Center of the Future
Please look for announcements of presentations and reports on these fascinating and creative projects. We all need to think creatively about how to realize Master Dogen’s mission in the West.

The original idea behind having STO as a separate 501c3 corporation (est. 2011) was to guard against the kind of instability that we might experience in any of our local Affiliate Centers, including most especially ASZC, which functions as our Training Center; and to provide a network of Practice Leaders, Disciples and Priests to help facilitate startups of new Affiliates, as well as to provide faculty for training new Practice Leaders and Members thereof, along with dissemination of Best Practices and Soto standards of protocol. We are continuing in this tradition, as stewards of STO.

What You Can Do to Support STO
To join as a formal, voting member of STO, or to serve as an officer on the BOD, you must have undergone the Discipleship ceremony (J. zaike tokudo). However, anyone is invited to join as a supporting member. If you have not done so already, go online to our web site and join as a supporting member of STO.

Contact any BOD member to volunteer to participate. The BOD meets via online conference each month, and invites you to volunteer to sit on, or co-chair, one of several committees, depending on your particular interests and skill sets.

We have developed more interactive, relational decision-making between the STO and ASZC Boards. Our Associate Abbots are now on both BODs, and the Chair of the ASZC Board serves on the STO Board.

The network of STO Affiliates welcomes you to attend your nearest center, and to visit others on your travels. Most have an online presence, and can be contacted through links provided in our monthly newsletter. If we continue to grow the number of STO members and affiliate Sanghas as we have in the past five years we will have twenty affiliates and at least one hundred of new members by 2020. We will continue to look at ways STO can provide services in the years ahead. This may include regional conferences and sesshins, as well as credit-based courses in Zen, and expanding our very useful Online Dharma Studies Program.

sto affiliates

The SZBA has a similar oversight function to STO, developing teachers and administration for the larger community of Soto Zen centers in the USA. Any Novice or Transmitted Priest of STO is eligible to join the SZBA, which several of us have done. We have been active on committees, and attending bi-annual conferences.

We are currently recommending development of a SZBA policy concerning the forthright sharing between teachers, and archiving of, pertinent information concerning individuals with a background of disrupting Sangha harmony, and repeatedly failing to meet our Ethics Guideline policies. This grew out of a complaint filed against ASZC that has been resolved in our favor, regarding a person recommended to us to be part of our residency program who was highly disruptive. We feel that STO needs to be proactive in the SZBA to help direct Practice Path development and relationships among Sanghas.