Sangha practice at ASZC - The Collaborative Community

In order to establish the real-world context for my comments on the Atlanta Soto Zen Center (ASZC), rather than delve into the history, I would like to set the stage in the present, and work around to the relevance, reason-for-being, and import of this corporate entity. In order to see what is an intentional, collaborative community for what it is, it must be placed against a background of its cultural times. So let me begin as recently as last week.

After a day of driving on the highway, in relative, blessed isolation from the 24-hour news cycle, when I tuned into the television at the hotel in Oxford, visiting to help launch a new affiliate of ASZC, I learned of the most recent “suicide” bombing following a concert by Ariana Grande in Manchester, England. I put suicide in quotes to honor those who point out that these are primarily acts of homicide, or even genocide—not merely suicide—which does not necessitate taking the lives of others along with one’s own.


Switching channels, I found that, ironically, a program called Year Million, which features a sound track composed and produced by my nephew, was being broadcast at the same time. The content of YM is not exactly sci-fi (of which I happen to be a fan, incidentally, for reasons beyond mere entertainment, and which I will not go into here), but a kind of futuristic speculation on what the Year of Our Lord One Million might look like, granted that the human species survives even beyond the next millennium.


A couple of things came to mind as I witnessed, in the former, what is only the latest in a series of ongoing atrocities of humanity’s willful cruelty to humanity. One is that the need for the news channels to have some daily outrage to exploit for the sake of ratings, dependably provided by the current administration (anti-administration as some would have it), was experiencing a terrible void, in the absence of POTUS and his minions in DC, engaged in a far-flung fantasy of bringing peace to the Middle East, disenfranchising NATO, and rapprochement with the Vatican, all in one fell swoop, no pun intended.


It is as if the disaster-du-jour character of living in interesting times has taken on a life of its own, like a Frankenstein monster stumbling off the operating room table, composed of stitched-together parts: media broadcasters and eager actors, unable to resist a compulsively insane, self-fulfilling prophecy of filling in any blanks with yet another attention-grabbing tragedy of ever-greater proportions, or at least substantial enough to overcome the fatigue the intended audience is experiencing, regarding the ongoing melodrama of the human quagmire. It is the latest installment of the full-time reality show, wherein contestants compete to outdo the last feat of unimaginable mayhem and incomprehensible level of self-defeating activity.


It also occurred to me that there was something troubling and true in the coincidence of these two programs being aired the same evening, at the same time. For the driving forces behind some of the science and technology advances, contemplated as coming to fruition in the distant future, seem fundamentally connected to those driving the mad bomber’s actions, and the resultant analysis of the chatting class.


What is sometimes referred to in the media as the “face of absolute evil”—meaning the person or persons who commit these atrocities—suggests that they are not really human, but the spawn of the devil. Having sunk to such an extreme level of animus and the urge to kill, they no longer deserve the vaunted position in the scheme of things that we human beings like to reserve to our kind—at the top of the spiritual, as well as the food, chain.
But it seems plain to me that these actions are not the result of evil, which for the public exists in some kind of Hollywood-melodramatic relationship to absolute good; but something that resides four whole letter positions down the alphabet, namely: ignorance.

Now, to attribute anything to absolute ignorance, rather than willful ignorance, enters onto that same slope—and all slopes are slippery, to quote a recent cogent comment in the news—whereupon we find ourselves imputing absolutes to what are, after all, only relative sins of a tawdry level of willful ignorance. And that not even genuine, but taught to the perp by others.


Buddhism holds that everything arises from a kind of primordial ignorance, the first link in the Twelvefold Chain of Interdependent arising. This idea of ignorance, however, is not of the willful sort, but fundamentally innocent, simply a state of not-knowing. Which, we must admit, is how we enter into this world in the first place, as an innocent newborn.


But even a newborn is not wholly innocent. We all want to exist, or we would not, according to Zen’s understanding. This undeniable desire to be points out where the responsibility for our personal existence comes home to roost. Not that we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives, let alone everything that happens in our world. We are not God, after all. But we are called to stand up, and own up to our own culpability, in terms of our own place in the world order.
Willful ignorance is what we might offer as synonymous with evil. But it still amounts only to relative evil, in the sense that it does not do anyone, including ourselves, any good. Absolute evil is in the eye of the beholder.


This latest disruption to what we would hope to be the prevailing world order—where one might expect to attend a concert, for example, without the threat of being blown to kingdom come—is not, unfortunately, to be unexpected, in the kind of world that we have created.

To be clear, and with all humility, we do not shape the natural world to anywhere near the degree that we shape the world of humanity—usually referred to without irony as society, or even more euphemistically, civilization—though some would argue that we are on a path to irretrievable ruin in that regard, as well. Plenty of willful ignorance condenses around the issue of climate change, like gas rising from a sewer, to name one of many. The difference is that the planet will probably survive the species, whereas so-called human society may not. Matsuoka Roshi would often remind us that “Civilization conquers us.”


Along with associating ignorance of a lamentable level with atrocity, we cannot ignore ideology, ironically another term with the same initial letter, as is irony itself. (Don’t worry, I am not going to descend into snake-biting-tail obfuscation, the downward spiral of a prior POTUS, ending with “depending on what the definition of is is.” Please bear with me.)


Another word that is hurled at the stars of our daily destruction derby is coward, which is a bit mild and on the side of relativism, if you ask me. These folks are blowing themselves to smithereens! Bill Maher famously put his foot in it by pointing out that those Saudi Arabians, if memory serves, who sent three airliners plummeting into fiery death and destruction on 9/11 were a lot of distasteful things, but to call them cowards was one of the least appropriate of the pejoratives. Insane? yes. Brainwashed? of course. But cowardly?


This is not the main point of this essay, but I think worth considering in the context of the way language us used to package propaganda. Another “I” word may help: Imagination. Yes, in John Lennon’s sense as well, but imagine strapping on a vest that will blow you apart. Terrified out of your mind; maybe high on drugs; non compos mentis, for sure. Many modifiers apply, but cowardly would not be first on the list.


Another aspect of the reporting of the chattering class around these horrific events, which may illustrate a concern shared with the perpetrators, is comparing numbers. In this case, there were 22 killed, 57 injured. It is as if the numbers constitute a kind of scorecard, suggesting an index of just how important this event really is, compared to others that we have witnessed. And thus and so, we should feel this level of anger, grief, or outrage, based on measurable. Like statistics in baseball, we wonder when the world record will finally be surpassed.


This may sound a tad cynical on my part, but I mean to point out what I feel is a weird obsession with numbers around these events. It is as if we get a certain comfort out of the comparison, finding some way of quantifying horror, so that it seems manageable, perhaps. Oh, this one was not so bad - only a couple dozen victims. Awful, though, that they were so young. But remember that one last year? Now, that was really terrible, much worse than this.


So I am gobsmacked, not only by the event under scrutiny at the moment, but the very phenomenon of reactionary coverage that follows it. Lots if “i” terms leap to mind: the very idea; idiocy; inhumane; illness; idolatry (attacking what one believes to be idolatry is itself idolatry). Not to mention ISIS, or ISIL, another curious anomaly. In trying to make it look like some of us know what we are talking about, at least, we can debate the correct term for the enemy.


Other i-words are often floated, again like the numbers, seemingly in an attempt to restore at least the appearance of normalcy, that we are on top of it and in control, such as intel, the short form indicating that the speaker is in the calm and collected inner circle. We need to know whether this was the act of an individual, or was s/he part of a group? Suddenly we are parading her/his family members on camera, absolving them of guilt and airing their regrets and sympathy for the victims, or accusing them of collusion.


Above all, we want to understand the intent, the motive of the perpetrator: Why did this happen? As if the reasoning behind this event is somehow going to turn out to be different from all the others, and we will at long last understand why this kind of thing is happening. And, hopefully—the newscast always has to end with hope—how to prevent another recurrence. To make sure that this can never happen again. Until the next dip in the news cycle, that is.


All these questions arise, predictably, on cue. They are the same questions as the last time. It is as if the news teams on every channel are reading from the same script. But they never get to the underlying question.

Back to Year Million. The hopeful technologies most under discussion display the same fear and non-acceptance of mortality that seems part and parcel of the “terrorist” mentality, with its myth of awaiting virgins. Cryogenics and uploading the mind into computers for longevity or immortality appear as hopeful, pathetic grasping for straws in the face of inexorable reality. If we have to die, we can at least hope for resurrection, by grace of the savior of technology.

How does all this relate to our community at ASZC, you might reasonable ask? We are a community of individuals focused on the practice and propagation of Zen, particularly its meditation, zazen. The kind of insanity we witness in the world around us on a daily basis is, I think, partly the result of most people not having recourse to Zen and its meditation. This is not to claim magical powers for Zen, or to suggest that if only people would meditate, their lives would be turned around to such an extent that the current warring factions and refuges from starvation and genocide would marvelously be saved from suffering.


But Zen prepares us to live in this world, and to at least not add to the chaos and turmoil. And I do believe that if all peoples of the world came to adapt its viewpoint—that this life is more important than the next, fantasized as in heaven, or feared as in hell, it might go a long way to mitigating the worst excesses of religious zealotry. And if those manipulating the beliefs and fears of would-be martyrs came to the appreciation that whatever they think they gain from the losses of others, the identified enemy of the day, those gains are painfully temporary. And there will be karmic hell to pay.


We are not exempt from some of the proclivities and tendencies that drive this kind of extremism. We study the teachings of Buddhism in order to learn Zen’s Ancestral way of living in the real world, without indulging hopeful but hopeless fantasies about it. We look to each other as examples of sanity in the midst of madness, of compassion in the context of unimaginable cruelty. And we do not have to look overseas.


The ASZC community’s greatest asset is its people—past, future and present—including especially those who have stepped up and served, are presently serving, and will continue to serve the larger community in the future. We have had the good fortune not only to be born with a precious human body, as Master Dogen reminds us, but also to have attracted a large body of likeminded people, both in Atlanta and our far-flung STO Affiliate network, who manage to maintain an inspiring commitment to Zen, in the midst of the demands of daily family and professional life, and in spite of the discouraging examples and influences around us. ASZC provides a sanctuary, an island of sanity in a sea of self-destructive and self-protective neurosis, to put it mildly.


Something that I have been emphasizing lately, that I think is unique to our approach, and probably characteristic of our affiliates as well, is that we are a lay practice lineage. We strive to establish collaborative, not authoritative, communities. This means less pretend monasticism and more integration of practice with normal daily life. Matsuoka Roshi declared that the future of Zen is in America, that it would find its rebirth in ordinary Americans taking up the natural way of practice that Soto Zen promotes. In providing facilities where folks can come and engage in this ancient wisdom of simply sitting still enough for long enough, we are standing on the shoulders of giants in India, China, Korea and Japan, and the Far East. We collaborate in this grand enterprise, and “teach each other Buddhism,” as Matsuoka Roshi would say.


We also encourage you to engage with your dharma family at ASZC. Participate in whatever level of the program you find most comfortable, whether in helping maintain the practice place by doing cleaning (J. soji) on Sunday mornings, or joining work parties (J. samu) as they are announced from time to time, or helping host newcomers, cooking for retreats, or formalizing your own practice path by undergoing Initiation (J. jukai).


Please continue to join in this communal endeavor as suits your personality. Step up and do your part. We not only invite you to contribute financially, but to become a sustaining member, and enjoy the benefits of traveling to and practicing with our Affiliate communities in the USA and Canada. You will be as welcome everywhere you go, as you are at ASZC. You are also welcome to apply for residency in Atlanta.


Meanwhile, we suggest you maintain your home practice to complement your time at ASZC. Practicing zazen at home, at the training center, and at the retreat center at Watershed, or any of our Affiliates, you will develop the kind of hearty practice that will go with you, wherever you go, just as the full moon goes with you when driving on the highway at night. Once Zen becomes real for you, it will never abandon you.


And we at ASZC and Affiliates will do our best not to abandon you as well. Within the constraints of our daily lives, we are available to you as your dharma brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles, aunt, grandmothers and grandfathers. Come visit.