Spiritual Practice at Kannon Do

Annual Meeting Closing Statement, March 2014
Les Kaye

Zen practice came to the San Francisco peninsula fifty years ago. A Stanford graduate student arranged to have Suzuki-roshi driven to Palo Alto one evening a week for meditation, lecture, and discussion. These meetings rotated between different homes each week. In 1964, Marian Derby decided to build a zendo in the garage of her home in Los Altos. The group of budding Zen students did the construction, plumbing, and electrical work, with Suzuki-roshi joining in.

Haiku Zendo, as it was known, offered the opportunity for the group to join together in meditation every day. Although few came to sit in the early mornings, symbolically Haiku Zendo represented the spirit of traditional Zen practice: everyday, not just once a week.

In the U.S. today, there are primarily two kinds of Zen centers. First are residential, such as found in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Portland. In these centers, the residents maintain a daily meditation schedule, as well as take care of the administrative needs and maintenance of the temple.

The second, more numerous, are the groups that can only meet once a week for meditation, either in someone’s home, or often in a room rented in a church or school. These latter groups do not have the opportunity to practice together on a daily basis and they do not share responsibility to maintain their borrowed space.

Kannon Do is fortunate to have features of both. We have regularly scheduled zazen every day, just as at a large center. However, the temple is maintained and supported by volunteers, rather than residents. In our volunteer-only organization, Sangha members help out – either as a steward or officer with a one year term – or by taking on a one-time task – based on their sense of commitment. This approach to practice and community encourages self-exploration. With busy Silicon Valley lives and the need to drive to the center, individuals must continually ask of themselves, “Should I go to the zendo to sit this morning?” “Should I volunteer?”

Fifty years ago, residential centers in the U.S. thrived because of two phenomenon of the 1960’s. First was the arrival of Zen teachers from Japan and other Asian countries. They represented authenticity, and to us neophytes, their presence promised wisdom and enlightenment. And they held a certain charisma, because of their training, their Zen stories, their robes, their gestures, and the aroma of incense that surrounded them.

Second was what we can call the “Hippie” movement – the desire for an alternate lifestyle and a different set of values – most famously in San Francisco.  Many students lived across Bush Street from San Francisco Zen Center so as to be close to Suzuki-roshi. His presence was an inspiration and created a great deal of energy among the young people.

Today the Zen environment in the U.S. is much different than it was fifty years ago. We can no longer rely on someone elses “charisma.” Instead, we have to discover other ways to feel inspiration and encouragement, to rely on our own efforts and practice to make the most important discoveries.

In a 1970 unpublished lecture, Suzuki-roshi said:

When you see our human life carefully, you will find out how important it is to become a trustworthy person. It is not necessary to be a great man, but we should be good enough to help our neighbors.

Each one of us can hold and live that vision of being a trustworthy person. It is not necessary to live like a monk to have monk’s practice and keep Suzuki-roshi’s world view. No need to be ascetic or celibate to live the spiritual life.

Everyone here today can put Suzuki-roshi’s practice into their own lives and can encourage and inspire others with their practice. The Bodhisattva’s vow includes “Saving all beings.” When we chant it, we may think, “That’s impossible. It is too big a job; somebody else has to do it.” From the standpoint of spiritual practice, thinking that way is a big misunderstanding. And thinking that “My not being at Kannon Do for morning zazen won’t make a difference” is also a misunderstanding.

Coming to sit with others affirms their worthiness. If you keep yourself away from others, who will affirm them? And sitting with others affirms your own worthiness. This is why people say they feel better when they sit with others, instead of sitting alone. So if you can’t come to morning zazen every day, come once a week. If that is not possible, then come once a month, for your self and for others. This is how you affirm the worthiness of all things, the greatest gift to others and to your self.

Try not to think of Kannon Do as simply a room to meditate or to listen to a lecture. Try to envision Kannon Do and your practice as the opportunity to discover your spiritual nature and to inspire others to make their own discoveries.