Category Archives: Dharma

Hopelessness—Reflections in the Viral Age

Hozan Alan Senauke

Plagues and natural disasters appear regularly throughout human history. No times, places, or people have been immune to these occurrences. During Japan’s Kamakura period a series of plagues and famines burned across the country. During the Kanki Famine in 1230-31 roughly a third of Japan’s population died—from 1.5 to 2 million people. In that year Dogen Zenji left the famine and sectarian strife of Kyoto to practice in an abandoned hermitage south of the city. I think of this as Dogen’s approach to social distancing in the 13th Century.

What did Dogen rely on during this terrible time? Zazen for sure, but we don’t exactly know more, except, that in the midst of crisis he moved away from the center of the turmoil. Did he cultivate hope or radical hopelessness? Are they different? Dogen turned inward for a time, surely digging into zazen. He turned inward, then opening his dharma eye he widened the field of enlightened action and stepped forward into his world.

In 1231 Dogen began composing Shobogenzo, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and wrote Bendowa, the first expression of zazen in the Japanese language. Two years later he founded Kannondori Temple in Fukakusa, the locus of practice for his community over the next ten years, before he moved to Fukui Prefecture and built Eiheiji.

The way of our zazen practice is to turn inward, noticing and embracing everything that happens within us, which allows us to regulate and harmonize body and mind. Zazen enables us to put our mind in order. The purpose of our practice is, with a well-regulated mind, to take beings across to the shore of liberation. The form of our sangha practice is to create an island of sanity in a world of turmoil. We do this by offering material needs, dharma teachings, and fearlessness. We reflect on justice, a sense of proper balance among all people and beings.

In this pandemic moment we need all these offerings: inner reflection and work for justice. These are strange days. Streets are virtually empty but for people in masks, stores are shuttered, businesses are going broke, religious services have morphed into video conferences. We hardly dare to imagine the future. For the last month, as we practice social distancing to tamp down Covid-19’s impact, it is sometimes hard to know when we are turning inward and when we are moving in the wider world. Such provisional distinctions seem less clear with each passing day. It feels as if we are living in a dystopian novel, a bad dream. And we are writing that novel as we live it. But there is a lot of love out there. Warm greetings as strangers pass on the sidewalk.

At Berkeley Zen Center, where I live, we are sewing masks, offering food and funds to those in need, sweeping the temple grounds, and sustaining a daily zazen practice and Saturday dharma talks, cultivating fearlessness even as we learn of friends and family struck by the virus. Actually, we are sustaining Zen practice and it is sustaining us. Right now I am not much thinking about the future. There’s something fresh and creative about such “hopelessness.” Not to hope for things to return to some imagined normal, but to feel alive and full of questions right now, and now, and now.

We would never wish for a time like this, and we grieve for the thousands of lives lost from Coronavirus and from governmental irresponsibility. Still there is an opportunity here for each of us to stabilize our mind and be of service, as Dogen did in his own time of crisis.  What is that opportunity for you? How does practice teach us to love each other?

Practice Has No Gaps

Dear Sangha,

Being that we are so well informed, the state of our virus situation needs no more information from me. But what I do wish to talk about is how we manage, or practice as a Zen student in this trying time. We always talk about how in this Saha world (of suffering), facing our trials and difficulties is the ground where our personal dramas are played out. What we are dealing with now is no exception. This is a great test for our practice.

Every one of our lives has been altered. Some will not go back to the way it was and for them life will never be the same. Others will not be so affected. For many of us, both the present and future are tragic and unknown. For some, the shut-down is a kind of blessing; a relief from the day-to-day grind, and a chance to lay down the burden while the curtain is open.

Whatever the circumstances, at this time we all share the imposed condition of personal confinement. The Zen temple, the center of our shared practice with its AM and PM schedule, the talks, interviews, classes, and the immovable bedrock that we are sure is always there suddenly has exploded. The pieces have scattered, and a complete piece has landed in your lap and my lap. For now, each one of us is on our own, confined to our personal hermitage.

We are used to practicing all together in one space in the Japanese fashion. Now we need to adjust to the solo meditation way as is done in other countries. I suggest that you set up an altar where you sit if you don’t already have one, and offer flowers or incense before you sit. When you make a meal, do an offering. This is a good time to study one of those Buddhist books that has been taking up space on your shelf and flashing at you every time you walk by. The fundamental thing is to not dwell on when you are going to be released, but to completely live your life situation right here, one moment at a time.

This is a time to look at the tide pool of your environment and let those things that have always been there but you rarely see, reveal themselves. Everything is significant. This is how we do zazen continuously.

Instead of seeing this confinement as an imposition, it can be seen and be experienced as an opportunity. It’s great that we have Zoom and other forms of communication, and that our practice leadership is working hard to keep the ship afloat. Another suggestion is that we take advantage of the practice leaders’ offering of dokusan and practice instruction. So there are two sides; one is to keep the lines of communication flowing, and the other is to enjoy our solitude.

Blessings to all, and I am always open to your call.

Sojun Mel

from my cozy full service zendo

Letter from Sojun Roshi

Dear Sangha,

I want to express my gratitude to all of you and wish you a satisfying and healthy year in 2020. Although I have nothing against happiness, I avoid using that word here, and maintain that a healthy and satisfying life is a happy one.
I am greatly encouraged by the constancy of your practice and the way the temple has been taken care of while I was on sabbatical last year, and during my recent illness since mid-September. I want to express my gratitude to our board of directors and the leadership of the Vice Abbot, who pay attention to the maintenance, infrastructure, finances, and major issues that effect all of us.
I want to thank all of you members for your willingness to pay your dues and to make contributions: the support that keeps us rolling along. And of course the balance of daily participation among the practice leaders and members willing to take positions, have dokusan and practice discussion, attend classes, dharma groups, and
teisho (lectures). All of this has made for a strong sangha based on mutual encouragement, which has been a great support for me at this time.
Currently I have been tolerating my chemotherapy without side effects, which enables me to move around easily and continue my practice at the zendo. Given the situation of being a 90-year-old with cancer, I do need my fair share of rest. So I sleep a bit late most mornings and have been attending afternoon zazen. I see members mostly semiformally in my office, or informally. I make appointments online.
I remember Suzuki Roshi saying that when what you have to do and what you want to do are the same, your discriminating mind is under control. This is shikantaza: just doing, and a secret of happiness.


True Faith

Sometimes I hear someone grumble about not getting enough out of practice. When I hear this I realize that we need to remind ourselves every day of the meaning of practice. Although we can’t avoid the desire for material well-being and the necessity of food, shelter, clothing, and good supportive friends, it is important to remember that instead of giving us something, zazen taketh away our materialistic blinders, leaving us free from that which binds. And even though we talk a lot about wanting freedom, it is not always easy to know what we want freedom from (or for).
One purpose of practice is to free us from our addictions, of which we are often unaware. We are all in some way victims of our wants, and of our excessive needs. As we practice zazen over time, we have the opportunity to discover the joy of letting go. The effort we put into this practice is one with the satisfaction we experience. What better reward? Each moment of sincere effort is a moment of satisfaction.
The purpose of ordination for both priest and layperson is to cut off our habitual karma and to find ourself as a newborn being. We don’t have to be bound by the past. We can practice with this intention moment by moment. Even though we still find ourselves drawn to our attachments, the time we spend in zazen while letting go is a great gift that can break the spell of enchantment for that moment in time. Through continuous practice we can step back from reactivity and step forward to find ourself new and fresh in each moment, free from clinging to anger, resentment, and all other unwholesome dharmas as they arise. This is the beginner’s mind—open, unassuming, receptive, and full of vitality. It is also the life of appreciation and thanksgiving. It is the true gift, the bottomless well that never dries up.

Spring Practice Period

What are we endeavoring to accomplish during these six weeks of concentrated and peaceful abiding? A student asked Suzuki Roshi what he meant by a non-gaining mind, to which he replied, “You are perfect just the way you are, and you also could use some improvement.” Practice is focused more on what we don’t need than on what we think we need or what we are told we need or want. There may be some value to self-improvement, but our true Self is not subject to gain or loss or improvement. Practice period is a time to set aside as best we can our “needy side” and to “settle the self on the Self,” taking off the cover and allowing our Big Self to breathe easy. It is a peaceful and harmonious abiding for six weeks and a renewal of our practice intention, setting a tone for the rest of the year.

The practice period has some minimum requirements, but within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others may have the opportunity to extend or stretch themselves much more. Find the right rhythm for this period of time and make adjustments as appropriate. Be mindful of your obligations while honoring your practice commitments and balancing and integrating zazen with your daily activities. This means creating a reasonable schedule without cherry-picking based on personal preference or convenience. This helps to create an edge: something to push against but not so much as to be discouraging. Give yourself space by letting go of some minor activities. It may not be possible to add more zazen to a busy schedule, but if you can, all the better. It is important to pay attention to your home and work practice and to ask for your family’s support.

It should also be clearly understood that in no way is any sangha member required to participate, nor is there any pressure to do so. You should all feel free to continue to come to BZC as usual and to attend any of the classes and talks and other events even if you have not committed to taking part in the practice period. We will all still be practicing together.

Here are some practices you can do at any time as the occasion arises:

  • Patience: Find your center and settle on the present moment.
  • Complete one activity before going on to the next.
  • Always be aware of being centered.
  • Continuously return to abdominal breathing.
  • Engage each activity wholeheartedly.
  • Honor your intention.
  • Choose one clear-mind precept to work with. (This is good for dokusan.)
  • Be an example for harmony. Be aware of, and helpful to, others.
  •  Feel free to ask questions.

If we pay attention to the elements of this simple outline, we will be sure to have a successful and satisfying practice period.

Samu and Soji

We don’t use these terms so much any more. But when our Japanese teachers were with us in the 60s and for some years after, Japanese terms were used for positions and various activities, including Dharma names.

Soji refers to cleaning up: sweeping, mopping, putting things in order after some activity. Every day after morning zazen some of us sweep and mop the zendo and adjust the cushions, leaving it as it was when we came. Others sweep the central area and the paths. This is our first activity together after zazen and service. So refreshing! At SFZC when Suzuki Roshi was abbot, his room was facing the street and he enjoyed the sound of the brooms on the sidewalk below. He said, “Sweeping the path is [akin to] sweeping the mind.” Single-minded activity, zazen in motion.

Samu refers to a longer sangha work project. It could be moving stones or branches together. Twice a year we have a work day, a sangha endeavor to take care of projects long overdue. Samu, Zazen, Dokusan or Practice Instruction, and Teisho (lecture) are the four fundamental activities of practice. All the various rotating practice positions are forms of Samu. We call it work practice. But the terms Soji or Samu give it a slightly different meaning. Sometimes using a foreign signifier gives a fresh meaning to a familiar activity. In the cool morning we sweep the leaves together into small piles. At that time one person holds the scoop and the other sweeps the leaves into it. There is a subtle satisfaction at play in this silent interactive moment when we agree on which is the last leaf, like the pause at the end of a bow. The next moment it is quickly forgotten as we continue our day. Master Hyakujo was famous for saying that a day of no work was a day of no eating.

Not all of us are in a position to contribute this way. In a lay practice many of us are fortunate simply to be able to practice zazen. In that case, being mindful about how we take care of our space in relation to our surroundings and how we treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness is not different.

Bowing to Dr. King

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. . . . For some strange reason, I can never be what I am until you are what you ought to be.

  —Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(“Remaining Awake in a Great Revolution,” March 1968)

We are nearly fifty years down the road from Dr. King’s prophetic vision, and never has it seemed more possible that we might actually perish as fools. The fools and the greedy and the hate-filled have great influence in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. To the extent that we allow them power and take advantage of privileges for ourselves, we partake of their foolishness, in oppression of the disempowered and despoliation of the world itself.

Our hazardous situation is nothing new. Think of the twentieth century’s World Wars; think of our own Civil War, the extermination of native populations in the Western Hemisphere, the Crusades, the Mongol conquests, and so on. In the Buddha’s time, he sat under the branches of a dead tree and witnessed the massacre of his own Sakya tribe by the neighboring Kosalans.

Nations have always threatened nations. Within the U.S. there is racial and economic violence. It seems that the voices of Dr. King and other teachers of justice, equality, and nonviolence are lost—as if their bold words were never spoken and their brave deeds never happened. But their words and example continue to inspire us.

Each of us can take up just one thread in Dr. King’s “garment of destiny” and do our best to make the cloth whole. In “The World House,” Dr. King writes: “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Drawing from Josiah Royce, the early-twentieth-century theologian and founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. King spoke of his own vision of Beloved Community. The Beloved Community resonates with the historical model of Buddhist sangha—community based on intention and vow to practice the Dharma. 2500 years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s life we celebrate sangha in Berkeley, vowing to practice together and to resolve our differences peacefully and nonviolently. Dr. King said:

The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness. 

Dr. King understood what Buddhists might call the illusion of self and other—one can strenuously oppose systems of oppression without hating the person of an oppressor. As we all know from our quotidian conflicts, this is a difficult practice. But it is the heart of spiritual practice. King said, “When the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.” This is the Beloved Community, which depends on diligent training and practice, transforming ourselves and others. Dr. King said:

Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person . . . the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. . . . Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.


A last word from King’s 1967 essay “The World House”:


We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals who pursued this self-defeating path of hate.


We must do our Zen practice with determination. We must take on the work of love deeply, swiftly, and decisively. Otherwise we will soon find ourselves among that sad wreckage. We do have a choice. Each of us.


—Hozan Alan Senauke
December 2017

New Year Letter

Dear Sangha,

2018 is the Year of the Dog. The emphasis is on the qualities of intelligence, faithfulness, fear­lessness, and optimism, both now and going forward. This year, if you remember, has been the Year of the Rooster: the year of the wakeup call, the year the sky fell down. It was when lying became truth, when government agencies were disassembled, women came forward, and the Stock Market took off as the unthinkable became the law of the land. You must be feeling somewhat vindicated by now, Mr. Orwell, as 2017 became 1984.

This year we all got a little older. Having experienced the undulations and the awesome mood-like swings of life, we managed to celebrate our first 50 years of practice at BZC with a wonderful party that brought so many of our members, former members, and friends together to meet, reminisce, and enjoy each other’s company for a very special evening. I once again wish to thank all those who volunteered their time, effort, expertise, and donations.

Although this is a trying time, a time of great uncertainty, our Center and our practice have held together quite well. The afternoon sitting seems to be the main doorway for newer sitters, and we are making an effort to be more attentive to them. The noon sitting, although recently established, is appreciated by those who are able to attend. The morning zazen, although a doorway to practice for some newcomers, remains the preferred time for most of the regulars. Rotation of the leadership positions and the service positions is a prominent aspect of our training, and I also want to express our gratitude to all of you who consistently contribute your time and energy. The same goes for the tenzo and the Saturday cooks as well as the dishwashers and cleanup crew and the head servers and servers who make our unusual oryoki meals so satisfying. Then there is the work leader and the work crew who show up for work meeting after breakfast on Saturday. The Practice Committee seems to be doing well with a number of observers on Monday mornings. I also want to acknowledge the various other committees who, relatively unseen, do many of the thankless tasks that make it all work. The project manager, along with helpful hands, completed some major projects, including the front path, a satisfying project indeed.

Since zazen seems to be the main draw here, who wants to take on the unglamorous work of the Board of Directors? I say, “Hats off to the Board,” the practice of the mature Zen student. Then there are the librarian, the oryoki cloth makers, the gardeners, the kitchen cleaner, the chidens, the morning zendo cleaners, the newsletter editor, the director, the teachers and student teachers, the Friday afternoon tea maker, the zendo managers, the sesshin directors, the shika, the zazen instructors, and on and on . . . and not least the Vice Abbot. Please remember that these are rotating practice positions rather than jobs, and constitute the “curriculum” of our “training.” The Asian Zodiac represents twelve animals, each one epitomizing certain specific qualities common to all of us. Given the opportunity, those qualities can become valued teachers bringing out the best in us. Let’s pay attention to the best qualities of the Dog this year. Looking forward to seeing you in the zendo on New Year’s Eve, and wishing you a deeply joyful New Year.


Ordinary Mind Is the Way

Most Zen students are familiar with Master Nansen’s “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Joshu, his student, asked the master, “What is the Way?” and Nansen said, “Ordinary mind is the way.” Joshu then asked if it makes sense to go after it, and Nansen said that if you run after it you stumble past, and if you don’t, you stagnate. So how do you practice with that?

We have the two terms “ordinary” and “special,” or “extra-ordinary.”  We tend to think of “ordinary” as something less than “special.” Ordinary refers to something routine, like the mechanics of making it through the day.  In the morning I get up and pee, brush my teeth, and go about my ordinary routine. Special is something extra-ordinary, something beyond ordinary, like Enlightened maybe. Although we are taught, like Joshu, that ordinary mind is the way, it is easy to remain doubtful. It is a special event in a sense when we come to the zendo, because the zendo contains the atmosphere of Zen practice. The formal set-up and procedures help create that atmosphere, so when I enter the space I know what I am supposed to do. “This is where we sit zazen and this is where we practice Zen.” And it is very special. Dogen says that one minute of zazen is one minute of enlightenment. And when we leave the zendo, we return to the ordinary. It is like when you light a match in a closet it lights up the entire space, but when you light a match outside in the daytime it has almost no effect on the surroundings.

One of Suzuki Roshi’s most quotable sayings was “Nothing special.” Don’t think that because you are sitting zazen early in the morning that you are doing something special or that what everyone else is doing is ordinary. The whole universe is sitting zazen with you and you are sitting with the universe. It is very special because it is the most ordinary thing.

When we seek the extraordinary we stumble past because we miss the truly extraordinary right beneath our feet. The truly extraordinary is found within the so-called ordinary. The beautiful geode is found within the lump of rock. The doorway of enlightenment, the gateless gate, is open right in front of us, but it is so obvious and ordinary that it is only visible to the selfless. The selfless see the extra-ordinary quality of life in the dharmas of our ordinary world, and others suffer trying to be special while missing the special qualities of their ordinariness. The Way is practice, and practice is nonstagnating, but living each moment fully, one moment at a time, without creating too much difficult karma, while offering ourselves unselfishly to the support of other beings while walking freely through the open gate.

In Gratitude Sojun's Reflection on Fifty Years of BZC

Excerpted from the BZC 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book.

Download the web version here (~3 MB)

Download the high-resolution version here (~45 MB)

What comes to mind when I reflect on the past fifty years of practice at the Berkeley Zen Center is deep gratitude. First and foremost for my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His gentle but firm and nourishing example encouraged us, his disciples, to go beyond what we thought were our limitations. He once said to us, “I have nothing to offer you but my Zen spirit.” He always taught by example. He had thoroughly digested the essence of Dogen’s teaching and could express it in his own authentic way to make it accessible to our generation.

He was totally grounded in the Way. What he taught was selflessness, not acting from our ego, integrity, truthfulness, no arrogance, shikantaza (just doing), meeting each person right where they are with full attention: the world stops here. Living our life one moment at a time. He taught us the nature of determination and steadfastness: sit still and don’t give up. And the nature of compassion: if you need to change your position, you can do so without judgment. When we can accept ourselves just as we are, both good and bad, it makes it possible to identify with others and support them. One time I told Suzuki Roshi how bad I was, and he said that this was good, otherwise it is harder to help others.
He taught us what he knew, the Japanese style. His intention was not to turn us into Japanese, but to offer what he felt was the highest virtue of his culture. He didn’t have to tell us what it was. We could practice and find out for ourselves! He loved his American students because of our open-mindedness and willingness to adventure wholeheartedly into a totally foreign world. One of our virtues as Americans is our openness to accept the best that other cultures have to offer. That is what makes America great, again and again.

Suzuki was not attached to Buddhism or the Soto School. That doesn’t mean that he rejected it. His teaching of non-attachment was not based on rejection but on great respect for things in a world of constant transformation. To show respect for things and cling to nothing.

Back in the 60s, before his students were ordained, we recited the robe chant in the morning, but we didn’t know what it meant because it was in Japanese. So one day he and Katagiri Sensei were in his office, and I asked him about the meaning of the chant. Katagiri started shuffling through the desk to see what he could find, and Suzuki stopped him. Pointing to his heart, he said, “Love.”

I also wish to express my gratitude to the Japanese priests who were drawn to Suzuki and our practice. Katagiri Roshi, who came in ‘63, the year before me, and together with Suzuki modeled the practice. Then came Kobun Chino Roshi, the “mystic,” and then Yoshimura Sensei, the “friend.” Then when Suzuki was too ill to come to Tassajara in 1970, Tatsugami Roshi was invited to lead the practice period, and I was the shuso.

When we opened the zendo on Dwight Way, February 1, 1967, I had thought of our practice as a grassroots endeavor, served and maintained by the members. We had morning and evening zazen based on the SFZC model. Our first major work project was to refinish the splintery floor of the large, square attic to make a zendo. When we moved to Russell Street, the real work began. What is now the zendo was two apartments which we gutted and rebuilt as a sangha effort of both men and women, sangha members and carpenters. (When you need to build something interesting, the carpenters appear.) Then we raised the two-story house next to it where my office is and built the ground floor under it. To me it felt a bit like a community barn raising on a grand scale.

When I look back at all the dedicated work and contributions of our members that went into this entire building project over a two-year period, I am totally overwhelmed with gratitude. I doubt that we could do something like this today. All the conditions were in alignment, including my own naiveté.

And last but not least, I wish to extend my gratitude to all of you who have passed through this Buddha Hall and contributed time, effort, and financial support. And to everyone who has ever been a board member, a cook, a gardener, a resident, a president, a treasurer, a librarian, coordinator, Tenzo, dishwasher, bathroom cleaner, office manager, work leader, sesshin director, member of a committee, general labor, etc. There is so much more that can be said, but for now please know that I honor and respect you and all that you do, have done, and hopefully will do to make this practice place possible.