Category Archives: News

Update on Reopening Plans

We found that we are changed by our year of practicing remotely. The task now is to shape our practice place and program to include this new reality, while returning to our warm-hand-to-warm-hand way. We have been wrestling with many questions: Is convenience an important priority? How much do we believe in person-to-person practice? How much do we accommodate people who are at a distance? We concluded that the tension is just there: deciding the heart of practice is our practice and the way we relate is our priority.
In one of our recent planning meetings, Hozan articulated a vision of practice at BZC that acknowledges our in-person practice as sound and necessary: the ground for being able to offer something more widely. Likewise, sangha members practicing in-person are inspired by having people attend from far away places, like India and Germany. Hozan writes:

Part of the vision I have, which is coming clear to me, is having a more open front and accessibility to BZC; understanding that we are connected to the larger community and to the world. In-person practice and being open are not in contradiction to one another: one is the ground for the other. We are not looking to be expansionist; we have never advertised in any Buddhist magazines and that’s fine. Rather, we are looking to be open.

Planning for reopening may be the most complex aspect of the pandemic experience to date. In addition to wrestling with our vision of practice under these new circumstances, there are the complexities of: working out the details of the schedule; establishing an Internet infrastructure that is stable and reliable with­out being overly expensive; upgrading our audio-visual equipment; assessing the ventila­tion needs of the zendo and the community room; working on adequate sanitary processes in the kitchen; and, working out what require­ments we ask of those who attend in person. All of these are being addressed under the realities determined by Covid and its variants, the details of which change week by week.
The current plan, which has been discussed by both the Board and the Practice Committee, is that people physically on the grounds of BZC must be fully vaccinated. We will develop a means of verifying vaccination so that this need only happen once. We will add outdoor capacity for those who wish to distance, orwho don’t have a vaccination card to show when they arrive.
For the “soft” opening, now slated to start August 1, we will take out half of the zabutons from the zendo for distancing, and permit chanting with masks. Some sewing has resumed in the community room among those vaccinated.
Beyond this first stage, we will evaluate the ventilation capacity of our communal spaces, understanding that it is not only Covid, but fire season and other viruses that we need to think about. We have purchased a set of air-monitoring devices, which are now set up in the zendo and the community room to get a picture of the air quality under varying circumstances. The Buildings and Grounds Committee has been working on obtaining a mechanical engineer’s assessment of what the various solutions might be to both spaces. (This ad hoc committee consists of Rob Lyons, Hozan, Gerry Oliva, Ron Nestor, Ellen Webb, Laurie Senauke, Mary Beth Lamb, Ken Powel­son, Cheryl Gordon, and Mary Duryee.)
The recent end-of-Practice-Period sesshin included an experiment in both in-person and Zoom practice. New and old residents, all of them fully vaccinated, sat in the zendo. The Shosan and closing ceremonies were also accomplished with both zendo and Zoom participants. This was quite successful and moving to everyone: for Zoom participants to see the zendo in use and for zendo participants to be supported by more than thirty people online, including our members from India and other remote locations. A lot of work on our Internet infrastructure preceded and enabled this exper­i­ment. (The ad hoc committee that worked on this consisted of Rob Lyons, Dean Bradley, Gary Artim, Laurie Senauke, Hozan, Charlie Wilson, Carol Paul, and Mary Duryee.)

We are taking a step-by-step approach, figuring out the next thing, gathering infor­mation and experience, which then becomes the guide to the next step. Meanwhile, we are feeling grateful that we have buildings to come home to, and the tremendous support of the sangha. Thank you to all who are working on this next chapter.

BZC Sangha Weighs in on Reopening

Participants may remember filling out a questionnaire about BZC practice after Covid—asking how you felt about participating online, in-person, or a hybrid of both, once we reopen. We were gratified to hear from 82 sangha members, and your responses are shaping our planning for the coming months. This is a snapshot of what we learned:
A large proportion of the sangha (84%) expect to continue practicing on Zoom “at least some­times.” The reasons vary: ten percent of our sangha live too far away to attend in person; ten percent are still concerned about Covid, regardless of precautions, or are unable to get vaccinated; a whopping 55% indicated that the convenience of being able to practice at home was a significant factor. They listed a variety of reasons: not having to deal with traffic; greater ease in tending family; not having to find parking or to make frequent long commutes. Of those who wish to continue participating on Zoom, most preferred the 7:30 a.m. and 5:40 p.m. weekday times.
As for in-person practice, 45% preferred a 6:00 a.m. time, while 24% preferred our previous 5:40 a.m. time. A surprising number preferred the afternoon 5:40 p.m. time (61%).

We asked what activities you thought should be both on Zoom and in person. In every category, the answer “both” was by far the largest:  Saturday program (93%); way-seeking mind talks (85%); all-sangha meetings (82%); daily service (76%); classes (88%); and sesshins (66%). In contrast, the next largest categories of responses came from those wishing for activities to be in-person only:  daily service (22%) and sesshins (30%).
There were also numerous comments and thoughts, which we have been digesting.  Typical among them were: “I am so grateful that BZC is exploring hybrid approaches”; “Online zendo has made it so much easier for those of us with disabilities and other chronic conditions to participate”; and “Thank you for sending out this poll! I understand that some activities in the list above may be more difficult to live-stream than others, but we very much appreciate the greater geographical reach of BZC during the pandemic and feel that these people should be able to continue to partici­pate, if they so desire.”
Thanks to the work of the committee dealing with these issues: Gerry Oliva, Hozan,  Ron Nestor, Ellen Webb, Laurie Senauke, and Mary Duryee.

BZC Country Jail Pen Pal Program

We’d like to invite you to join the BZC County Jail Pen Pal Program, a new project emerging out of the BZC anti-racism committee, initiated by Preston Evers, Penelope Thompson, and Laurie Senauke.
The BZC County Jail Pen Pal Program will connect BZC participants with incarcerated people in the Alameda county jail who are looking for friendship. The program will also provide a network of support, a listening ear, and a sounding board for BZC participants.
The main purpose of the correspondence will be to build bonds with our incarcerated community members, offer emotional/spiritual support, and learn about life inside the county jail. While pen pal relationships with incarcerated people can be beautiful and illuminating, they can also be upsetting and confusing, as jails and prisons are concentrated sites of oppression, deprivation, and trauma, so BZC participants will regularly meet as a group to process their experiences and seek guidance from one another. Though not a requirement for participation, BZC members will also have the opportunity to join an ecosystem of individuals and organizations advocating on behalf of loved ones incarcerated in Santa Rita. The project will have its own P.O. Box for receiving letters.
See details here: County Jail Pen Pal Program for more information about the Program. If you’re interested in joining this project or have any questions, contact Preston at prestonevers13@gmail.com.

Visit with Reverend Ryoko Osa Berkeley Higashi Honganji Temple

Early in our period of quarantine, Abbot Hozan and I received an invitation from Reverend Ryoko Osa to visit her Jodo Shin Buddhist Temple at 1524 Oregon Street in Berkeley. The temple was built in 1926 to serve the Japanese immigrant community, and continues to do so.

The temple is affiliated with the prominent Higashi Honganji Temple in Kyoto. Reverend Osa, a warm, lively, and articulate teacher, trained in Kyoto and in Los Angeles before she became the Minister of the Berkeley temple.

The Jodo Shin tradition is lay-oriented; its core practice is chanting the name of Amida Buddha and seeing how Dharma is revealed in everyday life. Services on Sundays are in English, with a short talk in Japanese. During the Covid pandemic, services and classes have been held via a Facebook link (available on their website).

As a young woman, Reverend Osa was deeply interested in Buddhism. She wanted to come to the United States to practice. The three of us had a lively conversation about mutual acquaintances and practices in each of our traditions. She was delighted with our zendo and grounds and plans to return.

The temple community is predominantly Japanese-American, with some Chinese-Americans and Caucasians. Members have understandably been concerned about violence against Asian-Americans and are being mindfully cautious about safeguarding themselves.

Anti-Racism at BZC

Last fall we invited anyone who wished to participate in a self-led group of BZC members to explore how to address racism in our sangha and the larger community. We warmly welcome any BZC members to join us for meetings, which happen approx­imately monthly. The next meeting is May 2. If you would like to attend, please contact the group facilitators (see emails below). Please watch the calendar for upcoming meetings beyond May.

Racism touches our lives in innumerable ways. It can take the form of systemic racism—such as the policies that shape people’s access to education, home ownership, community safety, food, and economic opportunity. It can also take the form of overt and subtle forms of racism at the personal level. Our society is designed to perpetuate racism at every level, from national policy to cultural norms.

Berkeley Zen Center, like all organizations, is not immune to/from these dynamics. Even with the best intentions, any of us can still act and talk in ways that harm or exclude others. Many of us struggle with knowing how to respond if we see racist acts. Sometimes we do not even know if what we say or do is causing harm. The purpose of this work group is to see what can be done about this, on the individual level and on the interpersonal level, and how BZC can respond and work with the commu­nity and other faith-based organizations.

For more information, please contact Heather Sarantis (heathersarantis@gmail.com), Karen Sundheim (ksundheim@gmail.com), or Mary Duryee (maduryee@icloud.com).

Young East Bay Zen Update

Despite the pandemic—or possibly because of it—the Young East Bay Zen group is thriving! Over the past year, we’ve enjoyed the partici­pation not only of active BZC members, but also people from other sanghas worldwide. We’ve also had a number of new-to-Zen people join us in recent months, and we’ve heard that YEBZ has provided them with a meaningful way to  engage with other young practitioners during these isolating times. Through our regular group check-ins, dharma discussions, and occasional (socially distanced) outdoor activities, we’ve cultivated connec­tions and spiritual friendship—even though many have never met in person!

We have regular meetings and open discussion twice a month: on the first Mondays and third Thursdays. On the last Saturday of each month we have our dharma discussion facilitated by a practice leader. In 2021 we are exploring The Hidden Lamp, a collection of “stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women.” Thus far we have investigated “Chiyono’s No Water, No Moon” with Gerry Oliva and “Maurine Stuart’s Whack” with Susan Marvin.

We encourage participants to join us as much as they feel comfortable—all group activities are drop-in and no advance signup is required. While the group consists primarily of people in their 20s and 30s, anyone who identifies as “young” is welcome.

To encourage participation in the spring practice period we will pause YEBZ activities after May 3 until June 26. To receive email updates, please visit our page, where a link is available to join the YEBZ Google Group.

Upcoming meetings:

  • Monday, May 3, 6:30‒7:30pm (check-ins and open discussion)
  • Saturday, June 26, 11:30am‒1:00pm (Hidden Lamp discussion)

Spring Practice Period 2021

Our annual spring practice period will take place online this year, beginning with a one-day sitting on Saturday, May 8, and continuing through a three-day sesshin on June 18 to 20. The schedule will include a Thursday evening class, Small Group Teas with the Abbot, a mid-practice period Skits and Music Night, and more.

Topic Schedule

Talk Sat 8 May—Fukanzazengi…Hozan

Class Thursday 13 May—Refuges…Hozan

Talk Saturday 15 May—Fukanzazengi…Hozan

Talk Saturday 22 May—4 Noble Truths…Laurie Senauke

Class Thursday 27 May—8-Fold Path…Hozan

Talk Saturday 29 May—3 Marks of Existence…Hozan

Class Thurs 3 June—16 Bodhisattva Precepts…Ryushin Andrea Thach

Talk Saturday 5 June—5 Skandhas…Hozan

Talk Saturday 12 June—4 Immeasurables…Peter Overton

Class Thursday 17 June—6 Paramitas…Hozan

Talk Sesshin Fri 18 June—4 Foundations of Mindfulness…Gerry Oliva

Talk Sesshin Sat 19 June—T.B.A….Hozan

Talk Sesshin Sun 20 June—T.B.A….Hozan

Our Approach to Practice Period

Since 1989, Berkeley Zen Center has had an annual six-week practice period in the spring or fall. Sojun Roshi regularly offered words of encouragement and perspective for those intending to participate. For our Spring 2021 Practice Period, I offer a similar message, drawing on Sojun’s expression and my own.

Practice Period has roots in Buddha’s time and continues through our Soto Zen tradition. In India and Southeast Asia, the Buddha established a Rains Retreat each year. During the monsoon season, monks and nuns would cease their wandering and gather in monastic centers for collective practice. This tradition migrated through East Asia and continues today. In Japan there is ango, which means “peaceful dwelling.” Practice period at BZC translates ango into our urban setting.

This spring we can concentrate our effort, renewing the practice of beginners’ mind. Study will center on zazen and basic Buddhist teachings. The practice period has some minimum requirements, but within these requirements each person should create his or her own realistic schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. According to the demands of our whole life, some will be able to do a minimum, while others can stretch themselves further in formal practice. In general, sangha members are not required to participate. You are free to come to zazen, even if you are not signed up for practice period.

The schedule you sign up for should incorporate zazen into your rhythm of  life as an intention rather than as a special activity. When we design our schedule for these six weeks, taking into consideration the other factors and responsibilities in our life, we have a foundation for practice, honoring all our commitments.

Sojun Roshi wrote: “I like to think of the spirit of practice period as the wish to do it all, and then narrowing it down to what is practical or possible, rather than simply picking and choosing pieces of it based on preference or convenience.  This helps to create an edge; something to push against but not enough to be inhibiting. When we all have this attitude, it creates a strong sangha feeling of mutual support and encouragement. We also manifest the spirit of zazen in our home and work life as continuous, well rounded practice; not just something we do on the cushion”

This provides an encouraging atmosphere for those who sit from day to day but are not in a position to throw themselves into this practice period. Please remember that we are all practicing together.

After this strange year of isolation, practice period can prepare us for the renewal of our intimate practice together.

—Hozan Sensei