I was recently asked to articulate my vision for Gather and Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community. I hesitated for a minute, experiencing a little glitch in my brain. I had two thoughts bumping into each other: one centered around the traditional settings of Dharma talks, rituals, robes, and Dogen workshops, and the other focused on the practice we do within the cracks of our community. This internal short circuit made me question whether I could provide a clear answer. And perhaps, I thought, having blurred vision might not be such a bad thing after all.
When I talk about Community-Engaged Zen Practice, which involves working in our neighborhoods for the common good of all people, I sometimes encounter the response, “Isn’t all practice community-engaged?” I don’t believe so, not in the way I envision it. There are plenty of temples, churches, and religious groups that create subcultures within their neighborhoods instead of actively engaging with the community. These subcultures establish rules, a specific language, and a sense of belonging for insiders while labeling others as outsiders (Bernie Glassman called these “clubs”). These places become bubbles of safety and certainty for a few while requiring newcomers to jump through hurdles, learn the jargon, and conform to the culture. This aspect of religion has bothered me since the beginning of my spiritual journey and continues to trouble me today. I myself fall into this trap at times.
I rejected Zen when I first encountered it because it felt exclusive. I was once told by a Zen teacher that the gate to Zen training is, by design, very narrow. I didn’t believe that, and still don’t. I kept looking. Eventually, I discovered Zen Peacemakers and what they were doing in Yonkers, on the streets, and in places of enormous chaos and suffering. They disposed of safety, certainty, and narrow gates and tried to eliminate the bubble-like experience that Zen had become in many places. It was their example that helped me realize what Zen meant and that it could take me into new areas of spiritual exploration and hopefully growth.
Shakyamuni did not live in a bubble. Well, he did for a while, but then left it behind. From what I can tell, as he evolved, he made a point to avoid clear boundaries between what was done within the sangha and what extended beyond it. He was not concerned with establishing the confidence-inspiring clarity for a play-it-safe religious establishment. In fact, he saw the dharma as countercultural, blurring the lines between castes, challenging the status quo, and working outside conventional religious structures. He did it to break down the us-them dichotomy. Our way of living out the Dharma down to today still aims to break down all the us-and-them boundaries we repeatedly create. Expressions of the Dharma, especially Zen, deliberately blur the edges between one and two, asking us to accept the blurriness of a not-one/not-two way of practicing and a way of life.
Personally, I do not believe that Zen is a call to believe in a religious orthodoxy around forms, a specific telling of history, or a Zen preservation project. People often struggle to let go of their preconceived notions about Zen. This struggle resembles the difficulty of releasing the doctrinal certainty of a kind of fundamentalism. What is truly radical about Zen is that it calls us to embrace, not a cultural artifact and fixed philosophy, but a lifestyle centered on love, embodied in the precepts. Love is most often a blurry experience. We know it’s there, but can we really put our finger on it? If we read the precepts, what are they teaching us? What invitation do they extend to us? Even though we take on a robe and receive a dharma name, I do not believe that the precepts primarily invite us to join a religious club of like-minded individuals. Rather, they guide us on a path of love towards those who see and experience the world differently, urging us to open our hearts and experience the interconnectedness of our existence. The precepts shift us from “not like me” to “just like me.” We know it’s there, even as we can’t put our finger on it.
Community-Engaged practice is a way of functioning when we take the precepts into our hearts and actions. It urges us to step outside our bubbles and venture into the messier places and among the people we fear, dismiss, detest, or despise. It is through these actions that healing can occur within our communities, neighborhoods, and ourselves. In our current culture, Community Engaged practice doesn’t align with what we’ve learned about authoritarian structures of power and privilege, nor does it focus on building and preserving institutions. Instead, it aims to work alongside marginalized individuals and groups to create spaces for the common good to take hold. It blurs the distinction between individual and collective awakening, personal independence and the empowerment of others, and it requires us to reconsider how we have been thinking about where the walls of the temple exist. It’s not so clear anymore.
In my experience, Zen and the precepts themselves are expressions of love. As I try to live a life guided by the precepts, I question what our institutions would look like if we truly embodied “Zen love” in everything we do. I don’t believe we would expend a great deal of energy catering to the subculture, reinforcing clarity, and strengthening club identity. While activities like the weekly Dharma talk and sesshins a few times a year are undoubtedly valuable, I believe that Zen life can easily get imbalanced. We can wind up spending a lot of our energy on comfort and certainty at the expense of plunging into the hard and unknowable work of widening the circle of belonging. I have found myself drawn to the work of widening, and I am curious and eager to blur that line between holding on and letting go.
Zen is all of life. This means that the Dharma is present and active in every person within our community. I’ve been told that temple practice is about tilling the soil of awakening, allowing for the possibility that it may blossom. Likewise, being community-engaged, we place our practice of awakening within the possibility of being invited to join and participate in community life. The invitation is to empower others to create the happiness they seek, doing so without any hidden personal agendas, especially without the intention to build our institution at the cost of the common good for all. We hold up the blurry notion of the common good – true social harmony – as the basic intention of our practice. I think this is what it means to trust the Buddha’s insight that we and all beings awaken together.
Plunging into the community, especially reaching out to those places and people we have previously excluded from our bubble, becomes a core practice for us. It holds equal importance to old-style Zen koans, ritual training, and Dogen studies. Perhaps we even need to reevaluate the prominence we give to these traditional practices, remembering Ikkyu’s beautiful warning:
Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
and endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
how to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
After all, not everyone in our community will examine complicated sutras or minutely practice the temple forms. But everyone in the community, including us, can learn to make coffee, play a game, share a slice of cake, and listen to each other to experience the Oneness of Life. Love letters.
I am not suggesting that the traditional teachings are unimportant. Rather, I can’t gauge someone’s realization of the Dharma from what they talk about unless I can witness them living out their understanding in the activities of community life and creating social harmony. Often, individuals make statements like, “I’m committed to Dogen” or “I’m dedicated to the teachings” or “I aspire to be a Zen monk.” However, if their practice does not reflect an alive commitment to live into each surprise moment and unfolding situation, and to see in them the constant unfolding as a true encounter with the healing action of the Dharma, it is merely a right-sounding thing to say.
At Gather, we don’t disregard the dharma teachings of our ancestors. We learn about the dharma primarily through the lens of connection, reflecting on our experiences in attempting to foster genuine connections. When we don’t know what to do, we don’t need to conform to comforting identities and forms that distance us from the situation. That approach would lead us astray. Zen is not comfortable. It’s a plunge. It’s a great adventure! All we have is trust in our caring attention in each moment.
At Gather, I’m being drawn into so many conversations that don’t fit the traditional mold of a “dharma conversation.” People are asking fantastic questions that can lead us all to deeper questions and profound insights. I believe we cannot create a genuine sangha without these questions; it is simply impossible. Life will inevitably challenge what we think we believe, and only then will we begin to understand who we (singular and plural) really are. Listening to people who have deep, searching questions different from our own is not only interesting but essential. We allow ourselves to question alongside them. The hard questions that plunge us into the unknown are not the antithesis of practice and commitment; they are an incredibly vital part of our journey. Being stymied by questions, not latching on to roles as “Zen practitioners,” is a healthy sign that we have a living relationship with the dharma and our lives.
So, my dear Zen community, let’s embrace a blurred vision. Let’s dissolve the boundaries between temple and community, between insiders and outsiders. Let’s strive to live a life guided by love, where engagement with the wider world becomes as central to our practice as the ancient texts and rituals. May we place less emphasis on preserving the subculture and more emphasis on creating connections, reaching out to those we fear or dismiss. Let us be a community that listens deeply, cherishes questions, and engages authentically with the world around us.
I believe that living a blurred vision of Zen, messily blended community-engaged practice and what we think of as traditional Zen, is crucial for our sangha. It invites us to embrace a path centered solely on love, interconnectedness, and the common good rather than personal certainty, comfort, and safety. Venturing into community-engaged spaces and processes, we become a presence for healing, compassion, empowerment of others, and social transformation. Let’s blur our vision.
In Zen love and interconnectedness,