The "Zen Center Model" is Broken: Excerpt from "Further Zen Conversations"

The "Zen Center Model" is Broken: Excerpt from "Further Zen Conversations"

In the fall, I met with Rick McDaniel for an interview for his new book, Further Zen Conversations. Rick has published a bunch of really good books about Zen in recent years (click here for more). He's such a skilled interviewer that I encouraged him to start a podcast (but that's not his thing).

His reason for wanting to talk with me this time was what we're doing with the Vine of Obstacles Zen, but to get warmed up, I opened up about my views on what I call the "Zen Center Model" - in short, how it does not generally fulfill it's promise of offering awakening to householders and so there is a great need for alternatives.

There are monasteries in the US like Korinji that offer serious training, of course. However, what we're doing with the Vine of Obstacles Zen is focussed on offering serious Zen training for householders. I'll soon be offering more about that here - another excerpt from later in this interview with Rick.

Below, however, you'll find a slightly different version, a bit spicier, of the excerpt that appears in Further Zen Conversations, "Chapter 7: Looking Forward." This is the "less polished" version and I've expanded on a few points too. In what follows, Rick's voice is in the narrator role and my voice is in quotes.

Chapter Excerpt

The pioneers who brought Zen to North America were familiar with essentially two models, the temple and the monastery. Monasteries were training institutions for people seeking formation as monks and nuns. Temples served the spiritual needs of “householders.” The most common form of Zen institution in North America today is neither of these; it is the Zen Center, a uniquely Western construct, a place for lay practice – whether Soto, Rinzai, or Sanbo Zen – with or without a focus on awakening and the integration of awakening in one’s life.

Once again Dosho puts the matter in a historical perspective.

“As far as I know, in all the cultures in Asia before the 20th century there was a two-track system where the monastics – men and women living in monasteries – were the specialists, some sub-group of those were really focused on awakening in this lifetime. And then householders, who maybe attended temple services, were generally considered either not interested or not able put the kind of time and energy into waking up that was necessary. Their contribution was to support the specialists and receive merit for doing so.

“Then with the 20th century, a number of things were happening worldwide, some of them specific to Buddhism, but one is the collapse of monasticism for various reasons. And at the same time, fortunately, lots of householders became interested in contemplative traditions including Zen. And then this new iteration on an old thing developed – the idea of ‘neither monk nor householder,’ which went back twelve hundred years to Saicho, but hadn’t ever really fully taken off.

“When people like Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi came to California in the mid-20th century, what they started with at Sokoji was a traditional kind of Japanese temple. And then all these hippies started coming in who actually wanted to sit. And Suzuki Roshi was, like, ‘Yeah. This is it. These are the people who are actually neither monk nor householders.’ And so they created this new model for rigorously training lay people.

"The model caught on. Every place it spread did it a little bit differently, but they all basically did the same thing – serious Zen training for householders. There were few antecedents for this in Asia. Meanwhile, growth of monastic practice in the West has been much slower. Today, after 60 years or so of Zen in the West, there are fewer than ten monasteries and most are experiencing declining participation."

But back to the ‘60’s. Young Americans were taking up what had been essentially a monastic practice, but doing so as what in Buddhist parlance is called “householders.” It was a way, in Dosho’s view, “to resolve the contradiction between the promise of awakening and the difficulty of it. So the early Zen pioneers came up with this new model, the Zen Center model for householders – primarily – who wanted to wake up and who were interested in and able to devote a lot of time and energy to the project. That was the Zen Center model. San Francisco, Rochester, ZCLA, Minnesota – Katagiri Roshi’s Minnesota Zen Center – all monastic or quasi-monastic. So, you know, through the late ’70s and ’80s, when I was at the Minnesota Zen Center before Katagiri Roshi died, we were doing something like three or four hours a day of practice plus having jobs. Plus ten hours on Saturdays. Plus monthly sesshin. And this was not unusual. This was the standard for Zen Centers at the time.

“Of course there were some problems with the model. Marriages. Kids. Careers. So it really pushed what was possible for householders, sometimes too far. In most groups today there’s a general kind of gentling due to cultural influences and new cultural values about balance and success in the contemporary economy. So Zen Centers have become less like training centers and more like churches where people come once or twice a week for an hour or two, and that’s often all the practice they do. They are still called “Zen Centers,” premised on the capacity for awakening, and often with a backstory that includes the great awakenings of many of our great ancestors, but almost no Zen Center in the country – there are exceptions – now offers a realistic program where great awakening can happen. Most Zen Centers simply do not offer a program with sufficient intensity for householders to experience the kind of absorption necessary for a kensho as clear as the palm of one’s hand, as Hakuin liked to put it.

“Take my old training center, the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, for example. When Katagiri Roshi was alive, we had about 45 days of sesshin each year, plus two 100-day nonresidential practice periods with practice starting at 4:30am, Monday-Friday, plus two or three months of ango at Hokyoji, the country place we were developing as a monastery. Now, according to their calendar for 2022, I count nine days of sesshin and a few one-day retreats.

"Generally speaking, it’s going to take many Zen students at least 100 days of sesshin for a first kensho and then another 400 or so (a low estimate for the “best horses”) to really integrating that awakening. This assumes weekly sanzen/dokusan with a clear-eyed teacher. There are other ways of doing intensive practice, of course, and sesshin days are just one convenient indicator.

“Still, at the Minnesota Zen Center now, even if you participated in all their days of sesshin, you’d be looking at fifty years before you could get that kind of time in. Meanwhile, the by-line on their web page says that they’re 'celebrating 50 years of awakening together.' And they are not alone in offering this low level of intensity while continuing the narrative about awakening. Indeed, from what I’m seeing, this is now the norm. By the way, to their credit, the Minnesota Zen Center recently raised almost $600,000 for building renovations, including to their zendo – so this model is being financially supported.” (1)

Speaking more generally about the Soto tradition, one of the traditions to which he belongs, he tells me: “What they’re often doing is serving as community centers for progressive people that want to come and do a little meditation, and occasionally to hear a talk about something that they can use in their lives. If there’s a children’s program that the kids can attend while they’re doing their weekly Zen thing, all the better. There’s nothing wrong all with that, of course. But it’s not Zen training, and there’s nothing in the history of Zen that indicates that kind of limited practice can actually lead anywhere, except maybe to being a nicer person and a better life next time. Zen in the West has become mostly about well-being rather than the Bodhisattva vow to get to the ground of being to benefit all beings.

“As I’ve said, most centers now are church-like progressive community centers. You know, there was this idea 50 years ago that Zen was going to convert the West. No! The West has converted Zen. And it’s made Zen – with some exceptions – into a progressive belief system, a condiment for progressive living. Meanwhile, it requires an enormous commitment of time and energy from both the teachers and committed members to support this model. Is the outpouring of so much energy worth the results that are generated? I don't think so.

"In addition, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) now is focussed on training priests in progressive political causes. I'm a progressive, so don't disagree with the politics, generally, but with such a nearly exclusive focus, the SZBA has abandoned their duty of care to support Zen priests offering the buddhadharma and instead has become a support for people in Zen priest robes doing progressive Buddhist community organizing. After twenty-years membership and financial support, I resigned from the organization in September.”

“Well, they do teach meditation,” I suggest.

“A lot of Zen Centers now teach a fuzzy form of mindfulness. They’re teaching a version of meditation that’s only distinguishable from secular mindfulness in its lack of clear outcomes.”

“Are there not other schools which still emphasize awakening and the post-awakening process? The Rinzai people, the Sanbo Zen people.”

“To some extent. And they are all facing the same pressures. Levelling downwards and accommodating individual preferences rather than strong group practice. That is Western culture. To find the easiest way through. And then there's the commodification of the dharma. So you have kenshos being verified that often are only feint intimations or not even that. I’ve met with people that are deep into the koan systems in various traditions, one who had completed a 500 koan system, and for many of them it’s all intimation but not what would be called a classical kensho.”

There needs to be, in his view, a re-visioning of methods to present Zen in the West.

(1) The preceding three paragraphs will not be included in the version of this interview that will appear in Rick’s book.