Update from the Board President

November 28, 2023

To My Wonderful GBZC Bodhisattva Sangha Members:

Ōbaku (Huángbò) addressed the assembly and said, “You are all partakers of brewer’s grain. If you go on studying Zen like that, you will never finish it. Do you know that in all the land of T’ang there is no Zen teacher?” 

Then a monk came forward and said, “But surely there are those who teach disciples and preside over the assemblies. What about that?” 

Ōbaku said, “I do not say there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.” 

~ Case 11, “The Blue Cliff Record,” trans. Katsuki Sekida

In all of Greater Boston Zen Center there is no Zen teacher.

This is no mere cliché profundity. It is true. In all of Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC), there is no Zen teacher. Unlike every North American Zen community that I am aware of, GBZC alone is without an official teacher, acting teacher, or lead spiritual director. And GBZC is not even actively seeking one at this time. 

Usually after I mention this to someone, the questions start coming: 1. Why don’t we have a teacher? 2. Why aren’t we even looking for one? 3. What makes GBZC Zen? 4. What are we going to do?

Here’s my gander at answers:

  1. Why don’t we have a teacher? The best concise answer I can offer comes from the opening lines of Resilient Sangha Project (RSP) About page: “Greater Boston Zen Center (GBZC) is a sangha in recovery from clergy abuses of power. [In the course of handling the clergy abuses of power] all then-transmitted teachers left our community.” (https://bostonzen.org/resilientsangha/)
  2. Why aren’t we even looking for one? I can best refer you to the RSP page again (link above.) To summarize, GBZC has experienced more harm than good from its experience with teachers over the past several years. And so our sangha is taking its time to consider the best leadership for itself.
  3. What makes GBZC Zen? The short, provisional, conventional answer is that GBZC runs its sitting groups, services, liturgies, precepts classes, and other activities with long-time Practice Leaders. Many of these have “attained” some level of official recognition by formally recognized transmitted “teachers” in the Zen tradition, up to and including full teaching “transmission.” These individuals collectively lead GBZC. Among these, no one holds any more authority than any other. Many at GBZC have taken to the term “sangha-led sangha” as a good description of what we are. Consider that Zen and Buddhist communities around the world regularly recite vows of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We do not take refuge in any teacher. We are a sangha-led Zen Buddhist community. The longer answer is being practiced moment by moment by the members of our sangha. More thoughts on this below and more to come. We are living the answer.
  4. What are we going to do? I don’t know. And, what a wonderful place to be.

While there is much we don’t know, there are some things that can be said:

  1. We have a strong, engaged, community of practicing bodhisattvas committed to compassion, justice, and skillful means. Even as our work has continued to be attacked by powerful players in the Zen Buddhist community, RSP and our board members have continued to remain dedicated to an effort we see as critical. As the RSP web pages say, “If you practice Buddhism long enough in America, you are bound to uncover an extensive and disturbing history of teacher abuses of power (sexual, emotional, financial, etc.). It can be distressing to read about and even more distressing to experience firsthand. All too often, Buddhist communities who harbored transgressors have enforced a culture of silence around the misconduct.” Because of this extensive history of abuse, GBZC is taking a stand that American Zen must do something radically different if we are to detach from this cycle of harm. 
  2. Did I mention that we have a strong, engaged, community of practicing bodhisattvas committed to compassion, justice, and skillful means? Oh, yes, I said that in the point above. It bears repeating. I specifically want to call attention to the names of our current board members: Ryan Iuliano, James Peregrino, Cheryl Morrow, and Karen McCormack. These members have been making lots of important decisions. And they have been committed to doing the hard work of learning about all aspects of the issues to make the best decisions possible. And further, I want to call attention to the Resilient Sangha Project Trustees: Rebecca Behizadeh (lead), Jill Gaulding, Rebecca Moonspike, Sarah Fleming, Julie Nelson, Cheryl Morrow, and Karen McCormack. These have made Herculean efforts over the past few months to continue to strengthen our message to the world.
  3. Other American Zen communities have been in contact with GBZC for insight and guidance on new ways to handle clergy abuses of power. One reason that our community is experiencing backlash from powerful players may be that other Zen adherents are taking heed of GBZC’s transparency in our handling of clergy abuse. 
  4. GBZC’s Practice Leaders, Board, and Sangha members are in the process of setting up discussions and learning sessions (not teaching sessions) on what are the most true and useful forms for a Zen Buddhist community like ours to put in place for best supporting our bodhisattva vows to save all beings. We plan to investigate this thoroughly.

Stay tuned! I’m eager to report over the next weeks and months the inspiring work that our dedicated sangha members engage in. We are eager to have others join us too, as we ask big questions—like, What makes for a great Zen Buddhist community?—and seemingly small ones—like, Can everyone unmute for the last verse of the Bodhisattva Vows so we can have our voices blend together at least for a short bit, even if it’s messy?

In all the land of Greater Boston Zen Center there is no Zen teacher.

And, according to Ōbaku, we are not alone. “In all the land of T’ang,” he says, “there is no Zen teacher.” In all the world, he is saying, there is no Zen teacher. And, in fact, Katsuki Sekida notes in his comments on this case,It is an iron rule that Zen cannot be taught.” Sekida further emphasizes this point by quoting Buddha: “In my forty-nine years of Dharma activity I did not preach a word.” 

Perhaps we might say we are all Zen learners.

In my last Board Chair note, I closed with the following haiku:
Greater Boston Zen,
Prunes its branches in summer,
Great harvest in Fall.
This time I leave with another:
Great harvest in Fall?
We sit. Snow flies. We sit still.
The climate changes. 
Sanghas are numberless, we vow to save them

Deep bows,

James Shōun 祥雲 Lopata (he/him)