WHAT IS THE SILENT THUNDER ORDER?

Abraham Lincoln O 77 matte collodion printIn anticipation of our upcoming annual Silent Thunder Order (STO) conference this July 15th, and under the influence of the inordinate amount of attention being consumed around the ongoing debate about our country’s founding and the state of the union, it occurred to me to attempt a gloss on Abraham Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg, delivered at a turning point in the Civil War. Please read lightheartedly:

Three score and eighteen years ago our founding Dharma Father brought forth on this continent the Great Way, conceived in Zen meditation, and dedicated to the proposition that all humankind are equally capable of spiritual Awakening.

Now we are engaged in a great cultural transition, testing whether that Way, or any way so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met at a turning-point of that transition. We have come to rededicate ourselves at a practice place for those who commit their lives that that Way of living might live on. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this Way. The Ancestors, who transmitted this practice of Zen, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say -- but it can never forget what they did.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who came before us have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored Ancestors we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that they shall not have transmitted the buddha-dharma in vain -- that this Way, initiated by Buddha, shall have a new birth of vitality -- and that Zen of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With apologies to Honest Abe, we look back at the beginning of the emigration of Zen to our shores while simultaneously looking to the future of its propagation here. We are reaching a turning point in that history, I believe, one which calls for contemplating where we are coming from and where we (hope we) are going. This calls to mind another historic turning point from another foundational document, the Declaration of Independence:

…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…

Not that we countenance any kind of dramatic separation within our community as that occasioned by the estrangement of the Founding Fathers from the despotic rule of Crazy King George. But I feel it necessary and timely to attempt a decent clarification of what the Silent Thunder Order is all about, with the caveat that it will change with time and circumstance, as everything does. In fact, our organization is designed for change; that is, to allow natural change over time.

The thread connecting the raison d’etre of STO and that of the United States is captured in the title of a speech given by Barack Obama in 2008: A More Perfect Union; and earlier, by 150 years, in Lincoln’s A House Divided speech, also just before he was elected President. The union that they, as well as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, found so precious and necessary to the wellbeing of the members of that union is still not secure today, as witness factions forming on state and federal levels that threaten to shred the fabric of a society promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In a related, but far less momentous way, the union of the members of STO is made stronger — more perfect — by our joining together in a cooperative, collaborative union dedicated to bringing the calming and clarifying influence of Zen meditation to our fellow citizens of the good old USA. Our joining the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) of American lineages is a logical extension of that strategy.  

We established the Atlanta Soto Zen Center (ASZC) as a not-for-profit corporation in 1977, making this our 40th anniversary year, and founded STO in 20ll. Some may still wonder why we found it necessary or advisable to incorporate an umbrella organization, when each of our Affiliate Centers are free to incorporate themselves.

We certainly want to encourage all Affiliates to incorporate eventually, but in the meantime they can operate under the umbrella of STO, accepting donations and benefiting from best practices as developed in the network. But the main reason we formed the STO is that the ASZC, the mother temple, had become unmanageable under its prior structure.

This was evidenced by the defection of members of the board of directors in early 2011, precipitated by some who were not satisfied with the direction of our program, which had expanded to increasingly serve the needs of the greater STO membership, both as a training center and authenticating body for the formal path of Zen priesthood. The local members of the ASZC board — all unpaid volunteers, with myself as the sole exception; ASZC provides a modest minister’s household expense— were becoming overburdened with the demands of fiscal oversight, and the governance of an ever-growing membership, with an ever-expanding program serving that membership.

This kind of kerfuffle is nothing new in the history of Zen, and ASZC had experienced something similar before, around the year 2000, just before we moved to our present location from a much smaller facility. These were not just normal growing pains, but the actions and reactions of the monkey mind in a stressful communal environment. We have witnessed such disruptions in our brother and sister Sanghas around the country, as well.

But attempting to put the best face on it, attributing such behavior to a positive manifestation of the American spirit of independence, would be to ignore contentious attributes of human nature found in all societies and throughout history. This is one of many reasons why, in Zen, we aspire to Buddha-nature, not human nature. If you were to read the Federalist Papers, particularly those attributed to Alexander Hamilton, you would find that this disputatious aspect of humanity was very much a part of the original design intent of the union, recognized as ingrained temperament and character traits to be managed: i.e., monkey-mind business.

As an aside, I am writing this Dharma Byte as my chosen subject during our first Writers’ Retreat, an experimental approach to combining Zen meditation with a focused activity: intentional writing. This is one of many such experiments we have conducted in the past and are contemplating for the future, as an expanded invitation to assimilate meditation practice in context with the multiple creative endeavors of our collaborative culture.

As part of the approach to this prototype, our retreat leader has been suggesting a “prompt” at the beginning of each writing period, interspersed with sitting and walking periods. The first prompt he offered was the “passage of time.” At first, I thought I would find the prompts disruptive, not knowing what they might be. But it is as if we are on some sort of common wavelength; after all, the above paragraphs are precisely about the passage of time.

But I prefer not to pay too much obeisance to that idea, the passage of time, especially in regards to a linear construct of time. As I get it, Zen does not interpret time in strictly linear fashion, and I do not believe it particularly helpful to do so, even in regards to our own history. As Matsuoka-Roshi says, in the collection of his later talks, Mokurai; Dhyanayana, history — as we think we know it — is one of the great deceivers. We tend to harbor certain myths about the origins of Zen Buddhism, for example. But when we look more deeply into the historical context in India, China, Korea and Japan, we can see that many of those misconceptions come from attempting to back-plot the conditions of our existence to those of earlier times. Thus we miss the underlying reality that informed the lives of our Ancestors, even as close as our own parents’ generation — let along Master Dogen’s time, or Matsuoka’s in prewar Japan.  

A second prompt, “sacred space,” turns out to be prescient as well. We are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of a practice place, open and operating nearly continuously. As Master Dogen reminds us, “by virtue of zazen it is possible to transcend the difference between common and sacred,” from Fukanzazengi, his tract on seated meditation. So we do not want to over-emphasize the sacredness of this space, this hallowed ground on which the transmission of buddha-dharma transpires. Because in fact, there is no space upon which that does not, or cannot, happen. While it is true that all of us can practice Zen at home — in our bedrooms, basements, or backyards — it is also true that we cannot do there what we can do here, at the Zen center. That is, engage in a group practice, one that is capable of scaling up.

While the number of people practicing is not necessarily a metric we would want to apply (and indeed Zen regards popular teachers with a healthy dose of suspicion or skepticism), it is true that the greatest good for the greatest number — a principle theoretically underpinning the governance of all societies, from the earliest to the latest — certainly may be said to apply to the propagation of Zen. It is a true community, which is increasingly difficult to find.

But Zen is not an insiders’ club, an elite group that finds its true character through exclusivity rather than inclusivity. It is scalable because it is so simple in concept and design. One or two leaders, such as we have at this retreat, can conveniently and efficiently host a group of a half-dozen, twice, or even ten times that number. The restraining resource is mainly the space, not the staff. Of course, as the size of the group participating scales up, and as the time allotted expands, some social constraints come into play, such as access to facilities for bathing and toilets; food service and overnight lodging becomes more of an issue.

But these are the kinds of problems we want, and with due diligence and consideration, will finally resolve themselves, as design and planning issues. Watershed, our affiliated retreat center in North Carolina, represents the logical extension of this rationale, promising to provide communal practice opportunities for many more participants in the future.

STO was formed to provide an umbrella organization of committed practice leaders as well as board officers, co-chairs and committee members, to spread the burden of the demands of growth over as large and diverse a group of trained and experienced members as possible. As such, the STO leadership is in a position to act as overseer, faculty and administration; and as necessary, ombudsman to the affiliate centers, including ASZC. This design should relieve our local practice leaders of the necessity to reinvent wheels, or to deal with issues larger and more complex than the local members of the community are ready and able to handle.

It should be stated that growth itself is not a goal or objective of our mission. But, in Taoist-like manner, we want to allow for growth should it occur naturally. And the demand does seem to be increasing, as meditation and Zen become more mainstream in America. STO and its affiliates may need to adapt certain business-like attitudes and approaches, in order to serve their growing members and the public, but we should never forget that we are on a mission. We are not saving lives or souls, of course, but fostering the potential of others saving themselves from their own ignorance, and related self-and-other-destructive tendencies.

In common with many other kinds of non-profit organizations, we measure our success more by the number of people we serve, than by our prosperity. The two should go hand-in-hand, but the former takes priority and precedence over the latter. And we are not afraid to fail. As Taoism asks us to consider:

Which is more destructive — success or failure?       

So we approach our collaborative endeavor with this spirit, knowing that success is not possible without failure. As Master Dogen reminds us, “Fall down seven times; get up eight.”

A third prompt, prompted in turn by our doing an outdoor walking period through the wooded park adjacent to ASZC, was expressed as “inner-outer” or “inside-outside.” This recalls a rather well-known comment by Hakuin Zenji, that there is no inner and outer.

As mentioned, Zen is not an insider’s club. So we do not want to create even the appearance of an inside group and an outside group. Factions in the sangha are just as undesirable as they were in unifying the original Thirteen Colonies. However, in designing a program for practice, we necessarily must include provision for training the trainers. Thus we have aligned our approach to formal training largely to parallel that of the larger Soto Zen community in America, as represented by members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA), of which our senior teachers are qualified to be members.

We have developed a practice path for any person who finds herself or himself drawn to the life of Zen, and beyond that, to the aspiration to share it with others. Thus those who are willing to train diligently can undergo what we refer to as Discipleship, Novice Priest ordination, and finally Transmission ceremony as a fully-ordained Zen Priest. This is not something we recommend, and are quite reticent about making a big deal of it. We wear the robes not for ourselves, but for others. But the robes send a signal, as does any costume. And in communications design, we recognize that communication is the message received, not necessarily the message sent. So we want to be careful about staging, and playing the roles.

As in many or most affairs, striking a balance between the formal protocols, rituals and other ancillary practices, with the most central emphasis on Zen’s meditation, is the watchword for us. We claim that Zen is for everyone, recognizing that not everyone is ready for Zen. But we want to err on the side of inclusiveness, rather than sending signals — that unless you enter upon the formal path, your practice is not genuine. We are a lay-practice Sangha, offering Zen of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Our style of Zen includes certain monastic practices, but it is a Zen that is of the people — down-to-earth and pragmatic. It is practiced by the people — not the clergy, monks and nuns only, or a special class. And it is for the people — as it promises to aid and assist them in meeting the demands of everyday lay life in this time of increasing uncertainty and insecurity.

Matsuoka Roshi used many words in trying to help Americans understand and embrace Zen, but one that he mentioned probably more than any other was encourage. He urged us to encourage ourselves and others, in our Zen practice. We want to encourage all of the people of America to try Zen meditation, to give it a fair chance to enter into their lives.   

Owing to this mission, and its multifaceted target audience, we are experimenting with such approaches as this present Zen retreat for serious writers, in which they combine meditation with their urge to write, alternating from one to the other. Other approaches are under consideration, designed to reach into all areas of society at all levels, such as education; the bailiwick of business; medicine; even sports.

Along with our regular programs for everyday practice and formal training, we are looking at developing programs of certification for teachers of Zen meditation. School teachers, for example, who themselves practice Zen, and see the need for their students to practice meditation, but are not qualified or credentialed to offer it, even if their school is accepting. Ditto for people who are in business, or other organizations where meditation would be welcome if introduced in a manner that does not disrupt, or violate the precepts of the group.  

The last prompt suggested, “Teachers and Teaching,” persuades me to say something about the role of teaching in Zen. Master Dogen admonishes us that we should never think of ourselves as someone else’s teacher, paraphrasing. But this does not mean that we are free to sidestep that designation, particularly on the formal path, where we have a responsibility to meet the needs — and, to a lesser degree, the expectations — of those who train under our supervision.

Some would hold that even though I am the one who opens the door and invites you into the Zen center, I can claim that I am not your teacher; that in fact everything is your teacher. This is a cop-out, and probably one sure sign that you are dealing with confusion, or an outright charlatan. While what they say is true in principle, unless we are willing to accept the downside of the role, we should simply keep our light under a basket, and not mislead people.

In Zen, we revere, and learn from, the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Most of our questions are answered, and any genuine insight discovered, on the cushion in zazen — the seat, and seal, of Buddha, both in the sense of Shakyamuni’s legacy, and our innate Original Nature. We also benefit, and augment our direct experience in meditation, from the written and spoken teachings, both of the Ancestors and any true teachers we are fortunate enough to encounter in daily life. And it is true that we learn from each other, regardless of the level of experience and training, in the context of community. The Sangha, or Buddhist community, is distinguished by its emphasis on harmony, a characteristic that stands out in the public display of disharmony to which we are increasingly subject.

But even those who are not in the community of good friends (S. kalyanamitra; J. chishiki) are also capable of teaching us the dharma, if we have the eyes and ears and heart to register it. They are often referred to as negative bodhisattvas — people who, against your will and without so much as a “by your leave,” teach you the dharma, some aspect of the truth, in ways that you do not appreciate. Even Buddha was said to have not suffered fools gladly. Our reaction to these adverse circumstances, in the form of our extended community, is perhaps the sharpest edge of Zen practice. In managing it, we are encouraged to keep our doubt at a keen edge. As the great Zen Master, Albert the Alligator of Pogo comic strip fame declared, sometimes we do not want to teach someone — we want to learn them. Unfortunately, the lessons we want to impose upon others are not usually the lessons they actually learn from our efforts.

So please practice patience with yourself, and with others. The patience practiced in Zen, however, is not dependent upon outcomes. We have to give up our version of perfection, to be “without anxiety about non-perfection” as the great Ch’an Master has it (C. Hsinhsinming).

Meanwhile, please join with your STO and ASZC communities in collaboration on this great work, this mission we are about. If you do not overcommit, looking for how your special abilities and affinities fit into the group, and complement efforts by others, you will find the way to greater harmony within your Sangha. In doing so, you may begin to experience a halo effect on your daily life — coming into greater balance and harmony with all the various communities of which you are a member — in your personal, home and family, and work life.

This is the mission of a collaborative, lay-practice Zen community. Which is the ideal of STO.