Brian Joshin Byrnes, Sensei
It wasn’t until later in life (I was in my mid-forties) that I encountered a style of Zen that piqued my intellectual curiosity, touched my heart, and called me into a sense of vocation. Having been raised Roman Catholic and studied with the Dominicans, my early spiritual formation was influenced by vows that revolved around a life of communal prayer, a commitment to ongoing study, and a path of service. By my late-twenties however, during the AIDS epidemic and my own process of coming out as a gay man, in an angry and harsh reaction, I left the Church and entered a period of life where, I could say, I wandered in a dry spiritual desert. Later on, when I was confronting the classic symptoms of burnout in my professional work in the AIDS epidemic, that my heart started to soften and turn. In one of those moments in life where you realize you’re not in a good place, it was suggested to me that in rejecting religion perhaps I had stopped tending to the wellbeing of my inner life, my heart, and my mind. Without tending to the inside, dealing with what was happening on the outside was overwhelming. Alas, in my relationships, at work, in my community, and in the world at large, I wasn’t at my best. I was falling short of being the “non-anxious presence” I wanted to be when I was at my best. I either had to pivot, take a backward step and turn the light around and start doing some important inner work, or continue to allow my unsettledness get in the way of happiness.
I looked to the eastern traditions for guidance and ultimately was inspired by stories of Zen Peacemakers and the work of Bernie Glassman, Roshi. When I learned that he was working in Yonkers, NY and adapting the principles of Zen and Buddhism for a social-enterprise bakery that hired so-called un-hirable people to make brownies for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, some things clicked into focus for me and my Zen path of training started.
At the beginning, like most, I did a lot of reading about Zen and Buddhism. After years of this, I ultimately became a student of Roshi Joan Halifax, one of Bernie’s students. I lived, studied, and trained in the rich environment of Upaya Zen Center for several years from 2009 to 2017. It was at that time I received dharma transmission from Roshi Joan. I am a teacher and priest in the White Plum lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi. While he was alive, Bernie Glassman was an important influence on my spiritual imagination, and remains so even now as I give shape to Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community.
I have found the Zen path to be dynamic and ever evolving. I appreciate Maezumi’s invitation for us to craft a Zen that reflects the culture of our own time and place. I embrace the ancient forms, practices, and teachings as they have been transmitted from China and Japan, as well as sincere contemporary experiments and innovations that express the heart of the ancient teachings.
Community-Engaged practice, a term I use to describe socially-engaged practice at the local level, close to our own homes, has a foundation in Buddhism and Zen, but is also enriched by contemporary encounters with other traditions. I love what Keizan wrote seven hundred years ago, “Don’t just long for the past. Avail yourself of the present day to practice Zen.” Where Dogen brilliantly reformed Zen largely for monastics, Keizan, the founder of the Japanese temple at the trailhead of our particular lineage (Soji-ji), envisioned a more widely applicable Zen that could be a support for people no matter their position in society.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working in the economic cracks of society. I have led large social service agencies and community philanthropic organizations, and speak openly about some of the social structures of suffering and the perpetuation of systemic suffering related to marginalization. Homelessness, poverty, untreated mental health and substance use disorders have been places for me to apply my understanding of the Dharma and to practice. Street retreat practice and Gather are both settings where I practice with the ancient wisdom of Zen and try to manifest a life of vow based in the precepts. I also embrace my role as a teacher and priest as a path of continuous practice. Offering the precepts, ordaining aspirants, maintaining a temple life, and offering the teachings in more traditional settings allows me to avail myself and others of the present day practice of Zen. Each moment, of course, connects past and future, inner and outer, which I find full of potential and possibility. Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community sits at an interesting intersection of old Zen and new, as well as contemplative practice and social action.
To learn more about Joshin’s journey and teachings, you’re invited to listen to his interview with meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg. In this conversation, Joshin shares his experiences and inspirations, as well as his view of the ways in which Zen practice can shape our engagement with the world at the intersection of spirituality, social action, contemplative practice, and compassion.