American Zen: Where the boss meets Buddha

by Joe Orso, Columbia News Service, Mar. 4, 2005

NEW YORK, USA -- Though he learned to meditate in the mountains of Nepal, 26-year-old Noah Buschel discovered that silent contemplation felt more natural in New York City, where he grew up. Six years ago, the screenwriter was meditating in a zendo, or meditation hall, with Rev. Pat Enkyo O'Hara.

After Buschel and about 15 others sat on cushions for an hour, O'Hara talked about Buddhist teachings. But instead of focusing on Buddhist texts, she talked about a song Bruce Springsteen had written about Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was shot and killed by New York City police. Buschel, who had been searching for a way to practice Zen amid everyday life, had found a home.

"I never thought I'd hear about Bruce Springsteen in a Dharma talk," said Buschel, who is now a Zen priest. "It showed me that Buddhism was not about pushing away the culture that you grew up in. It's not about not being American."

Buschel's experience is part of a uniquely American brand of Zen that has been growing in popularity. While the 1960s saw Zen emerge in the United States as a countercultural religion under the guidance of Japanese teachers, today American Zen practitioners are a growing influence in religious life. Although no hard numbers exist, many Zen centers report seeing their membership increase substantially in the last decade, and new centers are popping up across the country. Much different from the male-dominated, hierarchical and highly monastic zendos in Japan, these centers have blended elements like lay participation, female leadership and social activism to create an American form of an ancient practice.

Buddhism, of which Zen is a school, has a tradition of adapting to new cultures. Just as it did in Tibet, China and Japan, the religion is now blending into an American environment. As students and teachers gather in rooms across the country to sit on cushions and still their minds, some have begun to discuss how to structure Zen as it matures in the United States.

O'Hara, who has run the Village Zendo in Manhattan for 20 years, incorporates social justice into her Zen practice. She runs weeklong urban retreats in which students meditate during the morning and evenings but spend the afternoons at soup kitchens or cleaning streets.

Zen groups also meditate with inmates at local prisons. Three years ago, when Ken Rivard was about to turn 50, his wife and friends gave him the gift of a weeklong Zen retreat. Rivard, a writer who lives just outside of Boston, had been meditating regularly for 20 years, but had not been on a retreat for 11 years. When the participants went to a prison to meditate with inmates for a day, Rivard met a young man serving a sentence of 40 years to life. The encounter overwhelmed Rivard and stayed with him during the rest of the retreat.

"Whenever I found my energy flagging, I'd go back to this kid's face," he said.

Rivard, who is married with two children, is like many Zen practitioners who fit in daily meditation at home between carpool and a career. Recently, his 15-year-old son decided to join him in morning meditation before he goes to high school.

Lay practitioners like Rivard are a source of momentum for Zen in the United States. In Japan, most of the unordained play a supporting role to monks rather than entering deeply into practice. But in America, many point to the increasing influence and the steady growth of the laity. Some lay practitioners have even gone through a ceremony that officially recognizes them as teachers, a phenomenon that is unusual in Asia.

Rod Meade Sperry, 34, enjoys horror films and "South Park" and has been practicing Zen for five years. A lay practitioner, he works as the media and publicity director for Wisdom Publications, a Buddhist-oriented publisher near Boston that has produced such books as "The Dharma of Star Wars" and "Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality."

"I'm not a quiet, gentle monk," he said. "A constant problem for me is I like hardcore rap. Can I like this and be a Buddhist?"

His answer to that is yes, he can. For Sperry, practicing Zen is not about hiding from life but engaging in everything with a deeper awareness.

Experienced teachers are seen as key to the future of Zen in the United States. The Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a community of ordained Zen teachers that held its first national conference last fall, is planning a workshop for priests-in- training. One of the aims of the workshop is to improve communication between zendos, which usually exist independently of one another.

Some are concerned that, so far, only ordained Zen priests can be members of the association. But Rev. James Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, heads a committee dedicated to finding a role for lay people. He disagrees with those who think that institutionalizing Zen in the United States will cause the community to become rigid and hierarchical.

"It's time for institutions, and if we don't have them we are in danger of becoming irrelevant," Ford said.

As leaders reflect on the future of Zen in the United States, practitioners keep filling up the zendos. After an hour and a half of meditation at the Village Zendo one Sunday, O'Hara's students moved their meditation cushions into a circle. They were holding a council, which is a blend of Japanese and Native American traditions. Some incense and a candle were placed in the middle of the circle. A student asked people to share their experiences of generosity with each other. She then passed a stick to her left, and whoever held the stick had the chance to speak. O'Hara sat in the group like everyone else.

The council "democratizes the wisdom," O'Hara said afterward.

"When people who are not ordained are taking positions of leadership in the community," she said, "things are going to change."