Looking Back, Stepping Forward

Welcome to 2023 and the turning of the season, the return of light. What will come our way this year is unknown. The pandemic still wanders at will; its course is uncertain and compels us to stay flexible in so many of our activities.
The last three years—marked by the pandemic and by Sojun Roshi’s illness and death—have spurred us to let go of customary patterns and plans, to adapt, to bow to grief and loss, even as we move forward.The Berkeley Zen Center sangha seems to be adept at making these changes. I think this is the deepest legacy of our late teacher: in the spirit of zazen simply to be a true community, a beloved community; to remain flexible and capable of an appropriate response as conditions continually change.
I am now about two years on as BZC’s second abbot. While I had a very long apprenticeship as tanto and vice-abbot, nothing I had previously encountered prepared me for the changes we have had to reckon with. I want to emphasize that I have never felt alone or overburdened by the zigs and zags of the Covid years. Senior students, residents, and long-time practitioners carry so much of the day-to day responsibilities of our temple life. I am deeply grateful to all. As for Sojun, he spent fifty years preparing us to meet uncertainty, even to welcome it. He showed us how to lean into zazen practice and cultivate ordinary mind.
Over the last years, I feel I’ve been mainly trying to support the practice and community. Not everyone agrees about what this should look liked. Should our Covid protocols be looser or tighter? Should we return to our prepandemic schedule more quickly? Are we at risk of losing the practice legacy carefully crafted by Sojun over many years? As a community, how should we be responding to a societal call for a deeper commitment to equity and inclusion? There are other questions.
My response to such issues has been to listen deeply and hear the inner voices of Sojun and our ancestors. To be patient and nonreactive, to try and see the other side of things. When possible, to take the time to build consensus for major decisions. Honoring these principles, much of my energy has necessarily been focused on administration and organizational process. In the coming year I plan to get help sharing these tasks. I’ll say more about this early in the year.
If I can share some of the administrative responsibilities, I’ll have more time as abbot to focus on the dharma. I’d like to do more teaching and studying with people. This would include classes, informal teas, ongoing study groups, etc. Starting in January I will expand my dokusan hours online and in-person. It is important for us to train and refresh the Soto Zen forms, which include basic zendo activity and comportment, the proper way to do various service positions, how to chant, how to bow, and so on.
The practice we have inherited is always a work-in-progress. Many of us have seen small shifts over the years. Like Sojun, I prefer to make changes slowly, honoring what our ancestors carefully carried here from China and Japan. Then the pandemic drove us out of the zendo we love and into the unexpected and challenging land of Zoom. Now, as the pandemic’s effects are more diffuse, we have had to create a “hybrid” practice—in-person and online—which is very challenging.
What next? We don’t know, but we do know how to practice together. On that ground, which is the meeting place of faith and action, I believe we will step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole.