Changing methods for changing times

In a recent Practice Leader Forum meeting we discussed various methods for offering zen practice and teaching that affiliates of the Silent Thunder Order have undertaken over the years. As this discussion took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the major topics of discussion was that as more people have become familiar with virtual participation of all sorts, some affiliates have seen an increase in participation by a wider audience in our online offerings, including some folks new to and unfamiliar with zen practice.

This, in turn, led to discussion about how to welcome and introduce new participants and even what kind of practice to offer in various forms of online practice. One particular aspect that I would like to focus on here, was how to ‘secularize’ the practice so as to not ‘scare away’ people who would not be familiar with and perhaps put off by a non-western tradition they might find strange and uncomfortable. In fact, that topic resonated with a few practice leaders in different contexts; I would like to discuss two in particular that have had a direct impact on my efforts to promote zen to those who wish to learn.

Secular meditation

My first experience along these lines came when I served as a volunteer chaplain with North Carolina State University. For four years I led meditation instruction, gave dharma talks, and led retreats for college students. While I focused on Soto Zen in terms of practice method and basic teachings, we encouraged a broad view such as inviting guest speakers from other Buddhist schools and visiting other Buddhist groups. At this point I should make clear that I was supporting a campus activity and served at the pleasure of the university administration; thus I saw my role as supporting anyone looking for Buddhist practice, rather than strictly adhering to one school, being as inclusive as possible while maintaining enough definition to have meaning.

dharma talk lake retreat 2014

Elliston-roshi giving dharma talk on Spring Break Retreat 2014

However, even that broad approach was perhaps not broad enough, as some students were clearly interested in meditation, but not on the ‘religious’ aspects. As a result, we split activities into two types: secularized meditation instruction and sitting sessions on weeknights, with more traditional teachings and meditation on Sundays and retreats. While some participants did migrate from the secular sitting sessions to the more traditional zen sessions, we also saw a reverse migration as well - which turned out to be highly relevant to the continued existence of the group.

In short, during my tenure the rise of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and new offerings of yoga and meditation on campus drew enough participants from the zen group that we could no longer meet the minimum size requirement to be an officially sanctioned campus group. Between the logistics limitations that imposed, the continual turnover of a student-based group, and secular competition, the group dissolved.

Yet, the need is there
Does that mean I suggest there is no value to Dogen Zen and the Soto tradition? Definitely not! There is absolutely a need, a hunger for the Buddha Dharma and what the Silent Thunder Order has to offer. This leads me to the second example I alluded to above.

I work for a small tech firm of about 40 people. As with so many businesses currently, we are struggling with how to respond to the current pandemic environment; both externally in terms of customers and the economy, and internally with our team-mates and their family lives.

Fortunately, we have a highly creative team who are actively looking for ways to re-imagine how we work. Just last week, one of those self-directed efforts was brainstorming ways to help with mental health from many directions. In the resulting mind-map below, note one of the major categories they identified was Meditation (yellow cards) - they asked if I would give an introductory talk and offer morning meditation twice per week.

BaU Brainstorming small

Culture Club mental health brainstorming mind-map

“you should just wholeheartedly sit”
So I come once again to the question of “what do I offer”? When I look at the cards in mind-map above, I see terms like “meditation”, “awareness”, “mental health”, and “safety” - all of these are clearly addressed in Buddhist teachings. There are lots of sutras and teachings that cover these topics, but they also bear “religious” labels and dressing that could be off-putting in the secular workplace.

However, I don’t see this as a problem; our teachings also address this. We have to go no further than the liturgy book, where Jijuyu Zammai (Self-Fulfilling Samadhi) tells us that the most important thing we can do is “you should just wholeheartedly sit”. Further, Fukanzazengi tells us precisely what instructions to give for sitting meditation.

That is exactly what I have offered at the workplace in the past; I came to the office early two days a week and set up cushions - I meditated whether anyone else came in to join me or not. Many tried a few times and didn’t come back, a few others came and kept coming such that I had some regulars. I feel this - the offer of simple presence and practicing together - is an incredibly valuable gift we have to offer. However, my experience from the university was repeated - I was able to offer this when there was a space available, then had to discontinue it when that space was no longer available. However, now we are seeing that space is not necessarily the limitation it used to be, so I will investigate how to offer it another way, within my circumstances, to my audience.

Zen by any other name...
Of course, we should offer meditation instruction to newcomers - at my workplace we have a strong tradition of offering and attending “lunch-n-learns” on many topics. I have in the past and will again offer such an introduction to meditation. In 2016 I published a slide deck, called “Meditation - the subtle art of being”; you can find the slide deck here and you are welcome to use any or all of it:

You will see that while I did not hide my zen background and influence, I tried to make it clear that one could approach the practice from a purely secular perspective if desired, and I did not do any chanting or dharma talks in the office environment. However, I did employ one little trick I will share with you.

I remember Elliston-roshi telling me that Matsuoka-roshi encouraged him to take ordination because the modern West is a credentialed society, so he needed to be properly credentialed to serve his growing sangha. I included those credentials in my presentation, but I also looked to credential the practice in another way as well, one that is respected in the tech industry - I borrowed from the reputation of one of the tech giants. I used and pointed to the book Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan. This is a New York Times best-seller was written by an early employee of Google who developed and ran mindfulness and mediation programs for Google. The teachings inside were thoroughly Buddhist, but the imprimatur of such a book in the tech world gave my offering a boost of legitimacy, as opposed to me just promoting my brand of religion.

Even though credentials are important, they are also just labels, “fingers pointing at the moon”. As long as we are doing our best to share our wholehearted practice with others, we are fulfilling our Bodhisattva vow. My hope is that my examples may be of use to others in finding their path.