The following article about SPOT by Lewis Richmond and Grace Schireson was published in The Buddhadharma magazine in August, 2009
Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery, once wrote, “Here in America we cannot define Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not exactly priests and not exactly laypeople…[so] I think we must establish an American way of Zen life.”
What did he mean by this? Who and what did he hope we might become?
Suzuki Roshi had a vision for America—a courageous and creative call for a universal Buddhism based on tradition, but not limited by it. From the time he arrived here in the late 1950’s, Suzuki realized that for Zen to truly take root in America, it could not just be an imitation or extension of the Japanese style of practice in which he himself was trained, but would have to be transformed by his American successors into something indigenous to our country and culture. It’s been fifty years since Suzuki Roshi’s arrival, so we might ask: What is the state of Suzuki Roshi’s vision? Does it hold relevance for other Buddhist traditions in the West? Are we truly making the Asian traditions our own, or are we still imitating Asian ways?
A Meeting of Zen Minds
Three years ago, a group of about fifteen American Zen teachers in the Suzuki Roshi lineage came together to take up this and other questions. We had a lot in common. We had been trained in one or more of the residential practice places of the San Francisco Zen Center; we wore the priest robes of Soto Zen; we had received Dharma transmission, giving us authorization to teach; and we had struck out on our own to start our own Zen sitting groups just as Suzuki Roshi had done. Yet we were still wondering about Suzuki Roshi’s vision and were brimming with questions.
What were we actually teaching our students? What new ways had we found to teach Zen meditation to Americans raised in a Judeo-Christian society? In practicing outside of formal centers or temples, how had we changed the Asian forms of practice in which we were trained, and what were the implications of those changes? How were we leading our emerging practice communities, and helping them deal with conflict and difficulty? How were we addressing, for ourselves and for our Sangha members, the questions that deeply mattered to all of us—questions about emotions, relationships, psychological problems, life crises, money, health, family and children? How well were we taking care of our own emotional, psychological and physical needs? What was inspiring our Sangha members to practice Zen and keep at it? Were we actually creating that “American Zen way of life” that Suzuki Roshi spoke of? We each seemed to be inching our way along by feeling and intuition, but without, as yet, a shared systematic approach.
As we continued meeting, we agreed that all of our years of Zen training—leading a regimented life, keeping a strenuous meditation schedule, ringing bells, and bowing at altars-- had given us understanding of Dharma, and improved our focus, concentration and sense of Buddhist ritual, but it did not seem to have prepared us very well for what we were actually doing as American Zen teachers. We were not in a monastery or retreat center any more, but were helping ordinary people with jobs and families find their Buddhist way. What was the connection between our own training and this emerging vocation to share Buddhist practice with our lay Sanghas?
These early peer group sessions were the first time that most of us had ever given public voice to these concerns. Each of us had gone off on our own to teach Zen—the first generation of graduates from the training centers that Suzuki Roshi had founded—and now, coming together after so long on our own, it was comforting and a bit surprising to find ourselves all in the same boat. The role of Zen priest can be isolating and lonely, and we cherished our new companionship.
As our discussions evolved, we realized that perhaps it was unrealistic to think that our own training—based on Asian models of practice and pedagogy—could actually have prepared us fully for the work we were now doing. On reflection, our residential training at Zen Center and Tassajara were not really representative of the many ways that Zen priests in Japan receive training. First of all, every Japanese person is reared and nurtured in a society and family that is deeply infused with Buddhist imagery, attitudes, and values. In that way the training of a priest-to-be in Japan—particularly in the realm of feelings and emotions—begins at birth. Second, the monastic training of Japanese Zen priests is not the whole of it. Most of them also continue a long apprenticeship with their primary teacher, assisting in the care of the home temple and performing the myriad tasks of a temple priest. And last, most Japanese Zen priests attend a Buddhist university, and receive an academic degree.
In the light of all this, why should we have assumed that we had received the whole package? Suzuki Roshi only had time during his twelve years in America to give us the essentials of Zen practice; the rest, as he exhorted, was up to us.
The Birth of SPOT
These very discussions became the next step in our teacher training, and the next chapter in Suzuki Roshi’s invitation to “establish an American Zen way of life.” We also recognized our dialogue as having a more compelling and immediate purpose—training the next generation of priests and teachers. Not only were we training lay practitioners, but many of us were already preparing to ordain our own priest disciples, who would take vows to make Buddhist practice the center of their lives. What were we going to teach them about keeping these vows? How were we going to train them? Here was a chance to figure that out together.
Until these discussions, we had not given a whole lot of thought to disciple training, except to assume that it would be much like our own. But in most cases that was not really practical. We had done our residential training while relatively young and unencumbered. In contrast, our own students were older--with partners, families, professions or careers. Long residential training at a Buddhist monastery like Tassajara was impractical for them. In most cases, their aspiration was to be like us, out in the world as hospice workers and chaplains, meditation teachers and Sangha leaders. They needed focused and comprehensive preparation aimed at helping them teach Buddhism without the enhancements of Zen centers, altars, priest’s robes and residential schedules. In short, they needed to know how do the work of a Buddhist priest without depending on the trappings of formal practice.
From these peer group meetings, the S.P.O.T. training program was born. S.P.O.T. stands for Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training (Shogaku is one of Suzuki Roshi’s Buddhist names). Six of us invited our own priest trainees to join, and a few other teachers in our lineage sent some of their own disciples. By the time we began, our program had six faculty and thirty trainees.
At our first SPOT meeting, one of the trainees, recently ordained, began to tell of his new life as a priest. “As soon as people found out I was a priest, they began to share all their troubles with me. They began to ask me all sorts of questions. They poured their hearts out to me. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say.” And he began to cry.
We were all moved by his story, and found it sobering to realize what we had all taken on. That emotional moment was, in a way, the birth cry of the baby SPOT.
Addressing Misunderstandings and Challenges
Early on in our curriculum planning, SPOT faculty honed in on three common distortions of Zen practice in America: Idealization of the exotic, imitation of Asian models, and repression of emotions.
“Idealization of the exotic” means the assumption that Asian teachers are naturally spiritually superior to us, and that their mere otherness makes them wiser. In fact, Zen practitioners in America often have considerably more experience of meditation than Zen priests in Japan. Suzuki Roshi did not encourage our idealized notions of Japan, or even of him. Once when asked what honorific title we should call him after his death, he responded forcefully, “No! It is not a question of what I should be called, but what you should be called. You are the ones! Give me five or ten more years and you will be strong teachers yourselves!” Sadly, he made this remark only a year before his death.
In the last few decades we have learned—sometimes painfully--that Asian teachers come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of realization, just like human beings everywhere. Our idealized sense of their superiority may be partly due to our own lack of confidence, and partly to a need for an idealized parent or authority figure in whom we can invest our trust. The best Asian teachers, like Suzuki Roshi, avoided taking on our unrealistic projections. He kept insisting on being ordinary.
“Imitation of Asian models” can be found frequently at Zen and other Buddhist practice centers. The robes, the rituals, the special way people move and hold their bodies--even the way they talk—can often convey a distorted picture of the essence of practice, and of what really matters. We must remind ourselves that Buddhism and Zen are not just Japanese, Chinese or Indian, but universally human pursuits to relieve suffering. Of course, we need to honor the forms and rituals of our tradition, which have deep practice meaning. But we must stop believing that simply imitating the Asian way will automatically produce deep understanding. Performing rituals alone will not be sufficient to transform our suffering. The essence of Buddhist practice will not come through imitating Asians, but by finding our own way and truly becoming our American selves. That is what Suzuki Roshi clearly wanted us to do.
“Repression of the emotions” means that our Western psyches can use the meditation experience to override our own emotional perceptions and needs. In the absence of familiar interpersonal cues, the environment of the meditation hall—no eye contact, no talking, a constant effort to remain focused on our own inner state—can be used to create a sense of emotional disconnection. This can lead to repressed emotions in meditation and elsewhere in practice. The actual process of Buddhist meditation is the opposite of repressed; true meditation is totally exposed, completely in touch and connected. There should be a warning label attached to Buddhist practice: “Living and practicing in a Buddhist community could be harmful to your emotional health if improperly used. Avoid repression and mind numbing.”
The SPOT Methodology
In explaining all of this to our trainees, we found it helpful to speak of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal levels of training. Meditation experience opens us to the transpersonal core of Buddhism—the realization of the empty nature of our ego-selves and all phenomena. But the personal and interpersonal realm of relationships, afflictive emotions, group dynamics, projection and idealization that arise in the authority role of priest or teacher and in belonging to a spiritual community cannot be bypassed or ignored. In other words, we have to reach the stage of a mature adult in the personal and interpersonal realm before we can fully internalize and integrate the transpersonal level of emptiness-awareness realization.
We took heart in the similar efforts being made at Spirit Rock. Jack Kornfield, Spirit Rock’s founder, has pioneered a teacher training program that in the last twenty years has produced over a hundred Vipassana teachers and practice leaders. Once, when asked what kind of people his training program was designed to produce, Jack answered, “Mature adults!” He meant “mature” in all senses of the word—emotionally, psychologically, and socially as well as spiritually. Author John Welwood has coined the term “spiritual bypass” to describe the way meditators try to achieve spiritual maturity while ignoring, or “bypassing,” their personal and emotional problems.
Welwood and Kornfield are saying much the same thing. Real spiritual maturity cannot happen on the superhighway of spiritual bypass without first wending its way through all the local roads of emotion and ego, transforming each obstacle as it goes. We cannot skip pain or conflict by spiritual workarounds that bump us to a higher plane while repressing or bypassing our human condition. We must instead use our carefully honed attention to honestly encounter our vulnerability and suffering, one breath at a time.
So we designed the curriculum of the SPOT training to address Westerners’ tendencies to try to escape suffering by wrapping themselves in the exotic, imitating their naïve impressions of the Asian way, or repressing feelings through spiritual bypassing.
The SPOT Curriculum: Where East meets West
Rather than refine the core skills of meditation and ritual (which trainees already study with their own teacher and within their Sangha or residential community), SPOT faculty decided to focus on the trainable and measurable skills that a Zen priest or teacher needs to minister to his/her group. These skills include: providing spiritual counseling in one-to-one situations; learning to give a Dharma talk or sermon that teaches lay people the benefits of Zen practice in everyday life; and group leadership skills that enable the priest or teacher-in-training to guide their Sangha or group to become a cohesive whole. In addition, we include knowing how to prepare and lead effective Zen rituals and offer spiritual solace in times of human need, how to take care of our own emotional and physical needs in intimate relationships, and to share and teach those self-care skills to Sangha members.
The most basic skill of all is how to talk and listen to another human being; during SPOT training this is practiced in dyads to create the actual experience of the intimacy and tenderness that arises between two people. There is a saying in Zen: “You cannot eat a painted rice cake.” To fully appreciate the vulnerability of being with another human being, balancing wisdom and compassion, we need to actually be present in the doing of it. The SPOT faculty models this willingness to be present through their own frank discussions and interactions with each other—much of which is shared openly with trainees.
In teaching how to prepare and deliver a Dharma talk, we bring out the importance of knowing the needs of an audience in a variety of settings including prisons, hospitals, schools and retreats for beginners—in other words, how to match the talk to the needs of the audience.
Zen master Yunmen was once asked: “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?”
Yunmen answered “An appropriate response.”
The Buddha himself always tried to offer the best medicine to his followers, discerning what was needed in each particular moment. We teach that effective Zen talks do not need to be inscrutable, clever or full of Zen-speak. Zen talks most of all need to be helpful. Each SPOT teacher goes into some detail about how he/she prepares for a talk, and each trainee is required to give his/her own talk. Trainee Dharma talks are followed by audience participation and then by teacher feedback. It is a powerful experience for each trainee to hear feedback from their peers and then from each faculty member. Style, organization, delivery and Dharma relevance are all grist for the mill in the feedback process.
Perhaps the most complex task SPOT addresses is understanding the interpersonal, psychological and spiritual aspects of the priest’s role. We especially concentrate on issues of power, transference, projection, idealization, and conflict. Suzuki Roshi taught that Sangha in and of itself is the full expression of Buddha nature, and in working with our own Sanghas, we have found this to be so. Within the intimacy of Sangha, our understanding or lack of it is fully exposed. In Sangha relationships we can see what we have aimed for, what the results have actually been, and everything in between. We can get caught up in our self-centered dream even as we struggle to articulate the Buddha Way. We note our preferences and aversions and trace them back to self-centeredness. We confront what we are afraid of, and what we are attached to. All of these things are clearly revealed in the healthy functioning of Sangha. In our SPOT trainings, we bring this understanding of group dynamics into the center of the training and work on it explicitly.
SPOT training is not a substitute for the one-on-one relationship of teacher and disciple. All participants must have their teacher’s permission to join, and that relationship is honored. It is also not a replacement for monastic experience; trainees who can manage a training period are encouraged do so. Instead, our intention is to supplement and support those traditional training methods with new ones that embody Suzuki Roshi’s vision for our practice in our own Western style.
Putting it all together: A Typical Day of SPOT Training
During a recent day-long SPOT training, our theme was working with conflict in the Sangha. Trainees had previously read a lecture by Suzuki Roshi in which he portrayed the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as different aspects of one truth. Sangha, he said, was not just a group of people practicing together, it was itself an expression of ultimate reality--as much as zazen, sutras, and rituals. The thrust of the day’s work was to connect our Western understanding of the power of group dynamics with this teaching of Suzuki Roshi’s.
While Buddhism doesn’t explicitly describe how groups work, Western specialists in group dynamics do. We believe that understanding group dynamics in Western terms is essential for priests to know and understand. So we created an exercise to allow trainees to feel the pull of the group in the context of conflict.
We constituted groups of six or seven trainees as a “practice committee” of a fictitious Sangha. The committee’s job was to deal with the following conflict: Most members of the Sangha, including its teacher, wanted to start formal chanting practice (e.g.the Heart Sutra), but one member (who claimed to represent a constituency in the Sangha) felt that chanting was too sectarian and would exclude potential new Sangha members. The practice committee was to take up this issue and deal with it however they could.
Each trainee received a pre-assigned role; in most cases the role was secret. One was to be the dissenter, the member most resistant to the chanting idea. Another was to be someone who personally disliked the dissenter, yet agreed with the dissenter’s position about chanting. Another was to be someone who personally liked the dissenter, but disagreed with the dissenter’s position. One trainee was to play the public role of Sangha president and meeting facilitator. A SPOT faculty member played the role of Sangha teacher—though he/she was not to be involved in resolving the conflict. If the group members were faithful to their roles, it would be difficult to resolve the conflict without hurt feelings. The trainees’ task was to concentrate mostly on what their feelings and body sensations were in the midst of conflict, rather than to resolve it.
Groups alternated between time “in role,” acting out the conflict, and time “out of role,” where they could reflect on their experience. In role, people got upset at each other, offended each other, and became impatient with one another. Out of role, people expressed surprise at how much their nervous systems had become engaged and reactive, even though the situation was “pretend.” In the plenary session that followed, we discussed this at length. What is real, what is pretend?
The poet Robert Creeley entitled one of his books, “Was that a real poem or did you just make it up?” Is our personality a real identity or is it just another role? Is there a difference? What is the difference? What is the relationship to that question and that experience to the core teaching of the Buddha about anatman--no abiding, continuously existing self? Who are we really? Who is the other person really? What is our role and responsibility as vow-takers and priest professionals to enact and express the dharma in each circumstance? It is one thing to read Buddhist scripture on the topic of no fixed self; it’s quite another to experience it in such a potent role-playing exercise. Our purpose in constructing the exercise was to make a vivid connection between the Buddhist teaching of no fixed self, and our actual experience in the moment—in our emotions, in our bodies.
SPOT and the Shogaku Zen Institute
SPOT is an ongoing exploration of the interplay between Buddhist tradition, lineage teaching, and our own experience as Americans trying to understand Buddhist teaching and put it into practice on our own ground. What we have discovered repeatedly in role-plays and other experiential exercises is the intersection of the personal, the interpersonal, and the transpersonal, and how that nexus re-enacts the basic teachings of Dharma “on the spot” in the here and now.
We have now formed the Shogaku Zen Institute (S.Z.I.) as a religious non-profit umbrella for SPOT. The Institute has been working with an accrediting body familiar with religious training such as ours in order to receive outside accreditation for the professional training we offer. Several faculty members do have advanced degrees, either at the doctorate or masters level, which has helped in the accrediting process. We hope that accreditation will help Zen priests in professions such as Chaplaincy to find employment as other religious professionals do. In the meantime, we will give a Certificate of Zen Studies to help our trainees make use of their Zen training in working in the world—though this is not a substitute or replacement for the traditional initiations in Zen that occur between teacher and student and eventually lead to dharma transmission and empowerment as a teacher. Over time, we hope that Zen’s further integration into the American religious mainstream will pay dividends for future generations of Zen practitioners, Sangha leaders, and teachers.
Word of SPOT is getting around. Committed practitioners in our lineage, and increasingly in other Zen lineages, are hearing about it, and applications for the next SPOT--which will begin in January, 2010--are starting to arrive. We didn’t know when we started quite what we were doing or what would happen; it’s been an adventure in friendship and a risk. We have changed our teaching styles, and expanded the rules of engagement in our tradition. We believe that coming together as SPOT, we are on the way to embodying Suzuki Roshi’s vision for Zen in America. But it is not just for Suzuki Roshi that we fulfill this vision—his vision is in fact what the Buddha had in mind for his teaching. Suzuki Roshi insisted we were not the Zen school, but just people who were following the Buddha’s Way. The Buddha encouraged practitioners not to cling to his words, but to translate his teachings into their own native language, to illuminate their own lives. We need to remember this as our primary practice and not get caught in just following a formula or a recipe. Understanding ourselves intimately, we must become familiar with all of the ingredients and the intricacies of our specific kitchen, and then we must cook from our whole heart.
Grace Schireson and Lewis Richmond are both Dharma teachers and President and Provost, respectively, of Shokagu Zen Institute. They are co-authors of a book about Buddhist training to be published by Wisdom Publications. Other SPOT faculty members are Darlene Cohen, Gary McNabb, Alan Senauke, and Steve Stucky. For further information about the SPOT program, or to apply as a SPOT trainee, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.