The Jacksonville Soto Zen Meditation Group began in Fall of 2013 with explorations of interest from the philosophy departments at Jacksonville University and North Florida University. Both of these resulted in talks to the university student philosophy groups, but neither resulted in any ongoing interest. On the basis of these initial contacts a conversation with the local Unitarian Universalist Church arose. The minister was very interested in the possibility of establishing a Zen sitting group at the church, and, since both Dorothy Merrick and I had become members of the UU Church, it was easy to talk about a sitting group as part of the adult religious education program. Further there were a half-dozen UU members who also expressed interest in Buddhism and meditation. On November 7, 2013 the first sitting was held in a classroom at the church. About 12 persons participated in that first sitting. It took 2 years to reach that high point again!JSZMG Buddha

We began holding weekly sittings on Thursday evenings and quickly stabilized at 3 or 4 participants. Finding a sitting day that more participants could attend resulted in trying out several days and finally settling on Mondays. Our schedule and participation grew with the help of others. One who joined us had experience sitting with various Soto groups including with Shinryu Suzuki in the early 6o's.

By the start of 2016 we had established a regular group of participants including: someone with long time interest in Buddhism, but no place to practice; a Korean Zen Buddhist practitioner; a Rinzai Zen practitioner; 3 long time Soto Practitioners; a spiritual studies follower of Ken Wilbur; a Vedanta practitioner and a small, but regular (and important) group of participants who are new to Zen. These new practitioners raise substantial questions for all of us to consider.

Our Zendo has to be set up and taken down for each sitting since we use a classroom at the UU Church of Jacksonville. While we make sure that zafus, zabutons, moktok, gongs and a small altar are set up before people arrive, we also make sure that participants are incorporated in the ritual of packing everything away in a closet for the next sitting. It turns out that this taking down and packing away has become an important part since it allows time for participants to talk with each other in an unstructured manner.

This Spring we were able to put together and host a half day Zazenkai which was attended by Elliston-Roshi. We had 19 participants including a half dozen who had never sat with us previously. Following this Zazenkai our sitting group has become slightly larger, sometimes reaching 14 people. The Zazenkai also allowed Sensei to critique our "liturgy" and altar set up so that our affiliate is now moving toward a structure more in keeping with that of other members of The Silent Thunder Order.
JSZMG Zazenkai
Here are a few comments about their path to Zen and to the Jacksonville Zen Group from regular participants.

Avik
The Jacksonville Soto Zen Sangha is a great group. Its members are very committed and serious about the practice, and I can feel that energy among the group. The discussions are very wide-ranging, from the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold path, to the deep meanings of the Heart Sutra. Topics are shared not only at the center, but outside of it as well. I feel that all the participants of the group are open and receptive for discussion. Opinions vary, and are shared without unnecessary friction. I feel very fortunate to have joined this sangha. I highly recommend this group to anyone interested in Zen, and Buddhism as a whole.

Peter
This is how I got my Zen. I was in college in New York in 1970 during the great youth awaking and Zen started to appear, the core truth of which I immediately understood and recognized as my destiny, but with no Zendos or even sitting groups available nearby, I made do with my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps, which I then took along with me to Kentucky to start graduate school in psychology, which I was about to conclude was a huge mistake as no one there seemed to know how to actually help patients, that is, until a new professor was hired who began teaching us how to do this and even more radical, dared to have us students practice it on one another in class and as time when by and I graduated, I kept in touch with him, first predicting (successfully) he would gravitate to the immediacy of Gestalt Therapy and then predicting (successfully) that he would have no choice but to take on Zen, although this took him to Korea for years of rigorous practice under Zen Master Seung Sahn, and on to eventual Dharma transmission, and the personal transition into Zen Master Dae Gak, which converged into my helping( well...a little) build the great temple on Furnace Mountain in Eastern Kentucky, which all seems an exhausting and farfetched journey for me just to find a Zendo and a Sangha Or maybe not.

Phillip
I became connected to both Zen and Buddhism from watching a music video performed by a band called 311.The imagery of the band meditating in front of a Samoan type Buddha (kinda far fetched) left an impact on my conflicted 19 year old mind. After watching the music video, I found myself buying books on both Zen and Buddhism and 311 albums.

Roger
I've been studying with Sensei since sometime in the mid 80's. Sometimes very intensively, and sometimes going for years without contact. It is interesting that the 7 lean years provide fuel for deeper participation. Here in Jacksonville sometimes there is a "full house" of 12-14 people, and other times no one else shows up. The important thing is that the Zendo and sitting are always available. Having been encouraged by Sensei to set up this Affiliate, it has become an important part of my practice.

Dorothy
I began meditating in the late 1970's. At that time, it was tied in with my Yoga and I was not a part of a Sangha. That changed in the 90's with my experience in Zen. Since opening the Jacksonville Soto Zen Sangha in 2013, I have found common ground with others who come together once a week to this designated area that we share with the purpose to "sit quietly, walk slowly and sit quiet again." To study the Buddha's way is to "study the self and to forget the self." This weekly practice is my teacher. It reminds me that I am a small part of a group of people that believe we can find a wholesome way to understand others, and thus ourselves, in a more compassionate way and engage in living a deeper life.