Monday, November 03, 2008

SZBA Conference October 1-4

More than a month later, I’m finally sitting down to write about this packed six days.

There were two conferences happening simultaneously October 1-4. The regular biennial SZBA conference, for full members: recognized transmitted priests/teachers in the Soto Zen school, was held at San Francisco Zen Center (locally known as City Center). The associates conference was a first-time event, for ordained novice priests who have not been transmitted, and that was held at Green Gulch Farm, which is across the bay near the coast. This is a Zen Center and working organic farm that supplies produce to City Center and I believe also to Tassajara. The food, as you might imagine, was wonderful -- lots of fresh organic produce at the center of everything.

The time outside of the actual conference was just as full as the time of the conference itself.

Jikan, Jogen, and I drove down to San Francisco in the Great Vow Zen Monastery van. Domyo, the other associate member from DRZC, was part of organizing the associates conference, and travelled separately by air. The teachers from DRZC and GVZM all flew. The three of us going by van had made arrangements to stay overnight at Shasta Abbey, about half way to SF. My thought was to make a fairly leisurely drive there on Tuesday, stay overnight, do their morning program and have breakfast with them, and then drive to Green Gulch to be there in plenty of time for the conference which started Wednesday evening. I like to have spaces around my traveling, especially driving.

However, I was traveling with others, and they had other ideas. It seems that Jogen had never been to San Francisco, and was keen to do some sightseeing. He and Jikan said they would rather leave Shasta early on Wednesday morning and be able to spend a few hours in the city before going to Green Gulch. Okay, let’s be flexible here.

We got to Shasta a bit later than I had anticipated, having stopped in Ashland for a wonderful dinner and a little window shopping. We had been watching Mt Shasta as we drove south on I-5, but by the time we actually reached the Abbey (which is right next to the freeway, pretty much on the mountain), it was dark.

Nevertheless, we were greeted graciously by the guestmaster, and then were given a grand tour of the place, which even in the dark is impressive. Reverend Master Eko and a couple of his assistants took us around. We did bows and made incense offerings at various altars, and for me it was especially moving to be able to do this at Roshi Kennett’s stupa, a large granite monument in the center of the circle formed by the Abbey’s buildings. She is, after all, my dharma grandmother, having been my teacher’s teacher.

They have built covered walkways to connect the many buildings, since they have a lot of snow in the winter, as you might imagine. The weather when we were there (the end of September), however, was pleasant and balmy. We each got a guest room to stay overnight in, and settled in.

The Abbey’s schedule was a bit relaxed that Wednesday, as it happened, and the wake-up bell wasn’t until 6am. We made arrangements to leave at 6:15, and they had someone to see us off. We told them that we probably wouldn’t stop there on our way back as we (I) had originally planned. They assured us that we could do so if we wished. They kept wanting to give us breakfast, but we told them we were fine, and would get breakfast on the road. Unfortunately, it was still dark as we left, so we didn’t ever quite get the full visual effect of the mountain on the Abbey. We stopped at Redding to eat breakfast, and then continued to San Francisco.

Once in San Francisco, we weren’t exactly sure how to get where we were going, even though Jikan and I had been there the previous year. We wanted to go to this shopping mall in Japantown where we had enjoyed going before. Jikan I think had something in mind that she wanted to get there. We had a vague idea of where it was, and kept trying to find things that looked familiar, but we didn’t have an actual map of the city, and finally asked people for directions (more than once, because things weren’t all that clear). We found the place, gave ourselves a couple of hours there, and had also determined we wented to go to the Asian Art Museum. Jikan and Jogen both spent a fair amount of money in a shop that had a lot of very nice incense. I bought a few cards in a stationery store, but otherwise just looked around a lot.

We had asked about directions to the Asian Art Museum, but people in the shops weren’t exactly sure where it was, or whether there might be more than one? We had heard that it was near the library, but again there are several. So we headed for downtown and looked. At some point Jikan, who was driving, pointed to her left and said she had a feeling it was kind of over there. I spotted an underground parking garage and told her to turn left toward it, and as I looked up, there was this large granite building with the inscription “Asian Art Museum.” We high-fived, parked, and spent another enjoyable hour and half or so in the museum.

I spent my entire time on the top floor, where there were a lot of ancient statues, many of which were Buddhist (and many other statues as well, of course). The person when we went in said it was fine to take photos, as long as we didn’t use flash. One photo I took ended up on the front cover of our newsletter this time, and you can see it at our web site ( In the process, though, my camera’s battery ran out, and I hadn’t thought to bring the charger for that (I did bring the one for the cell phone, which I never used), so those were my only photos of the trip.

After this, we headed to Green Gulch, getting there in plenty of time to get our packets of information and directions for where we were going to be. Jikan had arranged to stay in a guest room, but Jogen and I opted for the Zendo, which was free. It turns out that most associates had chosen to stay in guest rooms, for which they had to pay extra, and there were only five or so of us in the Zendo.

I had brought my sleeping bag and therm-a-rest pad, and once I put those on top of the zabuton (futon) pads they supplied us with, I was quite comfortable. They have a system where you roll up your futon in the morning and store all the rest of your bedding in a large plastic bin. These fit neatly under the tan, a raised platform around the edge of the zendo where people sit meditation. We had a room downstairs from the zendo where we could hang our robes and store some things and change clothes as we needed. Although there were both men and women, we didn’t find this to be a problem. Monks learn to make do (putting on and taking off clothing under a kimono is not all that difficult). They did say that men should sleep on one side of the zendo and women on the other, which I suppose made a bit of sense, and of course we did so.

We got a great dinner in the cafeteria, and then all met together in the yurt they provided for us for meeting space. There were 30 of us, a surprisingly large number to the organizers (I believe there were something like 60-70 full members meeting at the downtown conference). A lot of the value of our meeting had to do simply with getting to know each other and gaining a sense of where each of us was from, what kinds of temples or centers or groups we were working with, etc. We did introductions and some orientation, and went to bed.

The wakeup bell on Thursday morning was at 4:35am, and we were sitting zazen by 5am. Morning service was 6:30, and then Soji [temple cleanup] was at 7am. The director of Green Gulch was having fun figuring out tasks for all of these priests to do, and I ended up doing some sweeping in the walkway in front of the cafeteria. We did breakfast, KP, and then attended their work circle to hear announcements.

Domyo and Sanshin (the other organizer, whom I knew from the training ango in Jikoji last year) had divided our time into four discussion sessions, morning and afternoon of Thursday and Friday. We talked about the American Lay-priest Hybrid on Thursday morning, addressing the reality that what a priest looks like in America is pretty variable. Many are married, some with families. Many are working full- or part-time at outside jobs. Some are running a center or group with very little support, and others are part of a large organization. There were several people my age relatively recently ordained. Certainly for women, there opens up some space in our 50s to pursue something we’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t because of various family responsibilities.

Thursday afternoon we discussed monastic practice. Ironically, the two people who are training in an actual monastery, Jogen and Jikan, were at City Center helping their teachers put on a Jizo ceremony, and so weren’t able to participate in this discussion. Still, we talked about whether there is value in doing monastic practice, what that might be, how it might fit into the lay-priest hybrid we talked about, etc. Pretty interesting.

That evening we did a Ryaku Fusatsu ceremony, which was similar to one I participated in last year at Jikoji at the SZBA training ango.

Friday morning was a day off for Green Gulch, so no formal wakeup bell or zazen. I did zazen anyway, which I always do, simply sitting at my place where I had slept on the tan. Breakfast was informal, and we pretty much got it for ourselves. Friday’s discussions were What is a Teacher? and Establishing Dharma Centers. The Teacher discussion was my favorite of the four. We talked about the various ways that we do and don’t teach, and how we get or don’t get authorization for that. What requires transmission to do (giving the Precepts, doing sanzen/dokusan, ordaining priests) and what doesn’t. Ways that leadership happens in temples, centers, and sitting groups. Formal authority vs informal authority. Much sharing of how things work in our various places.

The discussion about establishing centers quickly turned into how centers grow and develop, how once they are started they go through a lot of changes and managing that and following that skillfully takes some doing. Again, much sharing of how various centers have developed, sometimes in strikingly different ways.

On Saturday, we were scheduled to join the full members at City Center. Again, my travelling companions decided to leave before breakfast in order to get there a bit early. So I did one period of zazen, while they did two and left the hall before service. I changed clothes and sat zazen for a bit in the room waiting for Jogen to come down. Then we hauled our stuff to the van and headed back across the bay to City Center.

Somehow we lucked out and got a perfect parking place directly across the street, went in and had breakfast with the big kids. We found places to sit in the cafeteria where they were meeting, and listened to discussions about the development of an Ethics Statement. Then they moved to talking about priest training, which of course was of great interest to all of us novice priests. The five of us there who had attended the training ango the year before all got up to do brief reports about it, and then there was a lot of discussion about whether to do it again (especially since the one planned for this last summer was cancelled for lack of signups and because two of the four teachers had to withdraw for health reasons) and if so how, for how long, what time of year, etc. Also heard something about a priest training program being done in connection with Tassajara on a different model, more like the distance learning program I did for my masters degree. The ango model is more like monastic training, and ideally should be at least three months (though the one-month session we did last year was valuable). This is tough for most novices to arrange for, and also pretty tough on the temples who have to do without them for that time. And yet, there is a lot of value in it. Formed a committee to work on it, with both full members and associates, to do needs assessment and plan for something more. I managed to keep my hand down and not volunteer to be on the committee.

In the afternoon they had a business meeting and then a Dharma Heritage ceremony for 12 Dharma Heirs. The associates all sat around the edge of the Buddha Hall on chairs for that ceremony, basically watching as the big kids processed, bowed, etc., but of course joining in for the chanting. I was right next to the chant leader, who was ringing a huge gong, and it was cool to watch how he was working the bells, chants, etc.

In the evening, we went to the banquet, which was held at a restaurant in Chinatown. We drove the van and followed Myosho, another associate, who had arranged for us to go to a jazz club after the banquet. When I first heard about going out to a jazz club, I was skeptical. I mean, our plan (again changed from how I had originally envisioned it) was to get up early on Sunday morning and drive straight through to Portland. Going out to a jazz club, no matter how cool, seemed like not such a great idea to me. But I finally shrugged, hey, I’m in San Francisco, take advantage of it. Anyway, technically I’m junior to both Jogen and Jikan (Jogen was ordained 3 weeks before I was, so he’s senior to me, even though he’s young enough to be my son), and it’s their van.

In the mean time, the banquet was interesting. We walked into this Chinese restaurant, and they were doing line dancing to Chinese music. We ended up being upstairs on a mezzanine of sorts, able to look down on the dance floor. They did a tango and a cha-cha, all to Chinese music. The dancers had obviously taken lessons in ballroom dancing, and were really pretty good, but it just seemed kind of surreal. At some point the dancing ended and karaoke started, all of it in Chinese, of course, so I didn’t know any of the music. I take that back, there were a few snippets in English, but it almost still sounded like Chinese. Then later they went back to dance music.

The food was good, but some of it was not vegetarian, which evidently upset some of the people in attendance. I’m not a purist, so I ate some shrimp and some chicken. Not all that much, as I don’t really care that much for shrimp, and I tend to eat very small amounts of these things when I encounter them. Most people at our table did the same. I heard later that a few others were upset. There was also alcohol available for purchase, and several people took advantage of that. At one point, a few senior priests got up and were dancing to the music. Just generally having a great time. Along about 8:30pm, our little group headed out to go to Oakland to the jazz club.

The club in question was Yoshi’s, which I had never heard of, but which is well-known in the city. There are actually two of them, one not far from City Center, and the other in Oakland. Yoshi is the wife of Bishop Akiba, a Zen teacher. They are both Japanese, and have been in the US for many years, I believe. Myosho is Bishop Akiba’s student, and in addition her son works at the Oakland jazz club, so she totally has an in there. She said we could go to this club for free (we later found out that tickets for the first show went for $75, and the second for $50). We got separated from Myosho in the parking garage, so went on to the club. We walked in and the host asked us what we were wishing, to see a show or go to the restaurant (there’s a very good sushi restaurant attached to the club). We said we were with Myosho, at which he looked blank, and we all frantically tried to remember her other name, but none of us knew it. So he went to ask Yoshi herself, and she knew we were coming. He came back and said that she had said to put us upstairs in what he called the “VIP box.” We nodded and followed him.

He went into the kitchen, and opened this very small door, about the size of a broom closet, and indicated we were to go in there. It was dark, and I looked a question at him, but he was still pointing to the closet. I looked in and there was a ladder leaning steeply against the wall. He asked whether I could fit in there, and I stepped in and said yes, going up the ladder. At the top of the ladder, still in the dark, I reached out with my foot and found floor to stand on, and found myself in a kind of balcony overlooking the club. There were some chairs, and a kind of ledge forming a small table at the edge of the box. I sat down as the others came up, and there we were in the dark, listening to Wayne Shorter’s band.

Oh, yes, Jogen had earlier discovered that Wayne Shorter was playing, and was incredibly excited -- a jazz legend, he called him. I had never heard of Wayne Shorter, but of course I don’t particularly follow jazz. We got to hear the end of the first show, and it was pretty good, but I think we were all still kind of adjusting to the unexpected circumstances when the show ended.

People left the floor, and we went back downstairs. We ended up in the middle of the club talking with Yoshi herself, and the host, who turns out to be a monk practicing at City Center. There were many people cleaning up all around us to prepare for the second show. The conversation was interesting -- she seems like a fascinating person, obviously with a lot of energy, and maybe a little surprised at how she seems to be running two very successful jazz clubs. “I’ve created two monsters,” is how she started the conversation. She is obviously dedicated to supporting artists, and interested in fusion, combining different art forms from different cultural traditions, etc.

She asked if we wanted to stay for the second show. It was getting late, but we all felt that we would like to hear more. So she gave instructions that we were to be given the best table in the house, right in the center of the club. The host mentioned that they had 60 or 70 paid tickets already and people lined up out the sidewalk. Yoshi just shrugged and said, “they were here first,” and so we sat down as people were coming in.

Myosho treated us to dessert and a small plate of sushi -- we weren’t particularly hungry, of course, having just had a banquet, but we did want to sample the food a little bit at least. I enjoyed the second show much more than the first, probably because I finally was able to settle down and listen to the music. Jogen was captivated by the drummer, who was quite a maniac -- evidently Jogen used to play drums. I found myself finally keying in (so to speak) to the piano player, who was incredible. I told Jogen that I grew up playing piano, and so I suppose it is logical. A very good string bass player joined Wayne Shorter himself on saxophone to round out the band. Each of the musicians was exceptional, and I began to be able to appreciate the ways that their individual sounds wove together to create various shapes, many quite intricate.

At one point Jogen looked at us and said it was past 11pm, and did we want to go. I said, I can’t leave in the middle of this song, I love this song. He just smiled. We did leave once that piece ended, resolutely not listening to the enticing strains of a new piece starting.

We got directions for how to get back on the freeway to go back across the bridge to City Center, but because there were two on ramps right together, got on to the wrong one and went the wrong way. We got off that freeway (I still couldn’t tell you where we were) and how to get back on that one going back the other way was not clear. We finally again asked directions, circled around in a way we never would have figured out except for those directions, and managed to get going the right way back to the city.

We got to City Center around midnight, and of course could find no place to park. We drove around for a half hour before finally finding something about 4-5 blocks away. Not all that bad, really, but it took a long time to find. I had asked about how we would get into the center that late, and was told that all we had to do was ring the bell and someone would let us in. So we got there about 12:30, and rang the bell. Nothing happened. We rang again. Nothing. Looked in the window to the hall way. Nothing. Rang again three times. Nothing. It was a full ten minutes and many ringings of the bell before a sleepy-looking woman (who I assume was a monk) finally answered the door and let us in. Evidently they assign someone to sleep in the Buddha hall, which is near the front door, to take care of night arrivals. And she was just sound asleep and didn’t hear the bell for quite a while.

We headed down to the zendo to catch a few hours sleep before getting up in the morning. Our plan as I understood it was to get up at 5am, leaving by 6am. We had arranged to find breakfast (bagels and cheese and tomatoes) to take with us. I had again brought my sleeping bag and therm-a-rest pad in with me, and was able to make quite a comfortable bed on the tan in the zendo, simply by stacking up zabutons. My two fellow travelers weren’t as fortunate, not having brought in any bedding, evidently. They had been told that there were blankets, but hadn’t found out where, and of course we didn’t have the heart to ask any questions of the monk who let us in. I gave Jogen my alpaca shawl, which he graciously accepted, but I later learned that Jikan slept very little, and wandered around trying to find some spaces that were warmer.

I had set my alarm for 5am, and it went off. Jogen went to wake Jikan, who was at this point on the other side of the zendo, and came back telling me that it was only 5am, and they had decided to sleep until 6am. Well, I was awake, so I got up and went to the bathroom, finally brushing my teeth and washing up and getting ready for the day. Packed everything up to get ready to go, and went upstairs to breakfast. Although there was no formal breakfast, things were set out, as several people were up getting ready to catch planes, etc., including my teachers. We got bagels, cheese, tomatoes, bananas, and headed out the door with all our stuff, finally leaving the city at about 7am.

We really did drive straight through. Stopped at a grocery store to get food to munch on in the car (deli salads, donuts, etc.), no more restaurants. Stopped maybe twice at rest stops along the way. Jikan started out driving, but at some point Jogen took over and I found it prudent to stop looking at the speedometer (though I glanced over once in a while, quickly glancing away again). He drove the rest of the way, even though I offered to take a stint. We drove up to the Zen Center in Portland at 5pm.

This has ended up being very long. I’ve probably left things out even so, but I wanted to record what I could at least.


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