A New Vision for Zen Center

Julia Sommer reports on an intensive three-year process at San Francisco Zen Center to set its goals for the future.

By Julia Sommer

Photo by Kit Seeborg.

Julia Sommer reports on an intensive three-year process at San Francisco Zen Center to set its goals for the future.

San Francisco Zen Center has been a mecca for serious Buddhist practitioners for more than thirty-five years. It operates three renowned practice centers in Northern California and offers community service and outreach programs for prisoners, the homeless and people in recovery. Teachers trained at Zen Center have founded some forty Zen centers and dharma groups around the country. Lectures by its legendary founder, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, continue to be published.

So why did this venerable institution decide that it needed a new vision and strategic plan?

“The main fact about Zen Center is its size and age,” says Norman Fischer, SFZC co-abbot from 1995 to 2000. “A lot of people have been doing Zen there for a long time. It’s the flagship Buddhist institution in the West. Because of this, it’s had to deal with organizational issues that younger, smaller sanghas haven’t, and it’s had a chance to make more mistakes. I wonder what will happen to some of the other Buddhist sanghas in the West when their charismatic founding leaders die.”

SFZC has had to define and redefine itself several times in its history: at its pioneering founding at Sokoji Temple in the early 1960’s; after Suzuki Roshi’s death in 1971, when Richard Baker became the second abbot; in 1983, when Baker Roshi was asked to step down as abbot, and again in 1987, when the board of directors decided that two co-abbots were better than one.

Since then, SFZC has seen an orderly transfer of authority from the first two co-abbots, Mel Weitsman and Reb Anderson, to four of their disciples: first to Norman Fischer and Blanche Hartman, then to the current co-abbots, Linda Cutts and Paul Haller. With this solid leadership base established, the time seemed ripe to tackle the challenges that come with a young but established institution: How do we support ourselves financially? How do we respond to changing times and changing demographics? How do we train the next generation of teachers? How do we support Zen Center teachers who have founded and continue to found dharma groups around the country? How do we address the ongoing concerns of residents at the three practice places?

“The inspiration and motivation for the strategic planning process was the realization that SFZC was at a transition point,” says Haller, “We had a sense of the potential of Zen Buddhist practice in the West and wanted to make sure that what we offer is relevant to the needs of our sangha and society.”

Blanche Hartman, co-abbess from 1995 to 2003, points also to practical and financial concerns: “We came to the conclusion that we needed to launch a capital campaign to support our many constituencies, including outreach programs and affiliated dharma groups, and to pay for deferred maintenance. When we approached our major long-term donor for support, he suggested we first establish a vision and strategic plan for the next five years on which to build this campaign. And he offered to pay for this visioning process.”

So started a grueling, three-year journey of consensus-building among SFZC’s three practice places (City Center, Tassajara monastery and Green Gulch Farm) and its non-resident sangha and supporters about where SFZC should be going.

Leading the journey was a vision committee appointed by SFZC’s board and assisted by nonprofit consultants TDC of Boston.

“We started with our existing mission statement and asked people what brought them to Zen Center, how their practice was supported by Zen Center, and how Zen Center could better support their practice,” explains SFZC President Victoria Austin. “While ninety-nine percent of the sangha felt supported, many also pointed to areas that needed to be brought out of the shadow.

“At the beginning of the process, there was a fair amount of suspicion,” recalls Austin. “People were scared to mention certain things. But in a religious organization, the only thing of real value is trust. Talking straightforwardly, being open and transparent, promotes trust.”

TDC and Austin interviewed almost 300 of SFZC’s constituents, assessed SFZC’s financial situation, and reported on their findings. The results of these interviews and a survey of affiliated sitting groups were presented to the board and sangha and posted on SFZC’s Web site (www.sfzc.org) in July 2002. From that process emerged SFZC’s new vision and strategic plan, with seven primary goals:

  1. Strengthen and clarify all paths of practice (teacher, priest, monk, layperson, parent/child).
  2. Build upon and strengthen service to existing and emerging sanghas.
  3. Ensure Zen Center’s long-term financial health.
  4. Clarify and streamline the decision-making process and lines of authority.
  5. Steward resources of land, built assets, and people to make the dharma available to others and to succeeding generations.
  6. Implement Zen Center’s diversity and multiculturalism initiative.
  7. Develop and expand Zen Center’s social outreach programs.

Also, TDC’s financial assessment concluded that SFZC needed to get serious about fundraising, and SFZC is in the process of assessing the feasibility of a capital campaign.

Co-abbess Linda Cutts served on the vision committee, which regularly held four-hour meetings and conference calls with up to a dozen participants. “Without TDC, we would have given up,” she recalls. “We got into very deep conversations about Zen Center, but Liz Curtis of TDC kept gently bringing us back to what we needed to do. It was very difficult, time-consuming work requiring a certain kind of thinking that she helped us conceptualize. We learned terms like ‘stake-holder’ and ‘community buy-in.’”

“I feel very good about the visioning process,” says Austin. “It’s part of bringing Zen to this country and this time. I feel good about a process that respects all the different voices of the sangha, and I hope that every member of the sangha will see him- or herself reflected in the strategic plan.

“The visioning process was enormously helpful to the sangha,” continues Austin. “As a community-wide conversation, it prepared us to move forward in a unified way. It’s an ongoing conversation. The vision and strategic plan also communicates in a conventional way that will serve as our contract with donors. This is a new way for Zen Center to work.”

The need for a strategic plan first became clear during Norman Fischer’s tenure as co-abbot, when he found himself dealing with issues far from his natural avocation of poet.

“I was the first abbot of SFZC trained in the West by Western teachers,” notes Fischer. “I felt a responsibility to pass Suzuki Roshi’s teaching on to future generations, so my agenda as abbot was to solidify the future of an American style of Zen. That meant establishing rational policies and creating a more explicit understanding of how things are done at Zen Center, such as the training and ordination of priests. What had started as a face-to-face band of disciples around Suzuki Roshi was now a large institution without its founder.

“That’s when I realized we needed an endowment to guarantee our existence over the long haul,” says Fischer. “And for that kind of fundraising, we needed a vision document to show who we were and where we were going. We couldn’t just say, ‘We’re nice guys, so please give us some money.’ And this visioning process was also good for us.

“To tell the truth,” says Fischer, “our vision has always been clear: the practice and teaching of Soto Zen. But the vision process gave us a more shared, explicit understanding of this. Zen Center also has a larger vision: to have a humanizing influence on the culture in general.”

That is exactly what Fischer is doing now with his Everyday Zen Foundation, whose aim is to “share the Zen attitude, spirit and practice with the world in a variety of settings.”

Mel Weitsman, an early disciple of Suzuki Roshi and co-abbot of SFZC from 1987 to 1996, has a somewhat different take on the need for an explicit vision and strategic plan—but as long-time abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, he has always been able to take a more independent view.

“It’s probably a good idea to know what you’re doing,” he says, “but I don’t know if it’s solved anything. Some important issues didn’t get resolved.

“Zen Center already had a vision,” Weitsman continues, “which is to teach and provide a place to practice Zen in all its forms. But many people think there should be something else.”

About was seen by many as a financial crisis at SFZC, Weitsman comments: “When you don’t worry about money, it’s not a problem. But when you start to worry about money in a professional way, you see problems, and when you address those problems in a professional way, it looks like a crisis.

“SFZC is used to living high on the hog,” says Weitsman. “It started with Dick [Baker] and was financed by Dick’s friends. We need to live within our means. Suzuki Roshi had no plan. He just did zazen and people were attracted to him. SFZC grew up around him. He used to say, ‘We don’t want a Zen boom.’ He didn’t want us to be too ambitious or chauvinistic about Zen Center.”

The fact remains, however, that SFZC has become many things to many people.

It is perhaps the only Buddhist practice place in the country where dedicated students can theoretically be supported from cradle to grave: from the generous allowance given to resident parents and their children, to the provision of housing, jobs, stipends and health insurance, to retirement support for many residents.

“We try to be all things to all people,” says Blanche Hartman. “The visioning process has helped the sangha examine how SFZC’s resources are being allocated, and whether they are being allocated equitably. During the hard times at Zen Center, the practice kept us going. That’s what we’re here for, so it makes sense. We’re not here to be a landlord or an employer, although we’ve become both.”

Yvonne Rand, one of the founders of SFZC, notes that Suzuki Roshi expressed concern towards the end of his life that too much emphasis on community would affect the practice. “An ongoing residential community produces ongoing tension,” she notes. “Now SFZC has to deal with the consequences of people living there for life.”

“We have all the problems and joys of a monastery, plus all the problems and joys of a residential community,” adds Cutts.

And then there is the matter of spreading the dharma.

Michael Wenger, president of SFZC from 1990 to 1997 and currently vice president for development and dharma group support, points out that “key to the future of Zen Center and Buddhism in the West is developing teachers who can go out and lead dharma groups. We haven’t quite figured out how to set up a mutual support system. Most of our affiliated dharma groups are just scraping by. They should be both independent and connected to SFZC. In many parts of the country—unlike the Bay Area—Buddhism is not accepted.”

As for the “vision thing,” Wenger says: “We’d had a strong founder and a strong administrator in Richard Baker. It was time to take stock and see where we were and where we wanted to go. Vision statements and strategic plans are particularly American phenomena and part of the American ‘can-do’ spirit. In the East, the process would be more intuitive. But it’s O.K. to be un-Zen-like in Zen.

“There are always problems starting and establishing an institution, and then there are growing pains,” says Wenger. “Now we’re forty years old, and we have the problems that come with that age. I think the best times to be at an institution are when it’s struggling to define or redefine itself. There are times I’ve hated being at Zen Center, but there’s no place I’d rather be.”

SFZC’s board of directors approved the new vision and strategic plan on May 10, 2003. Task forces from all three practice places have reconvened to discuss what it will take to implement the strategic plan’s seven main goals, and the board’s vision committee has evolved into the vision implementation committee, chaired by George Kellar, vice president of marketing for a software company and a member of SFZC since the 1970’s.

“Alignment of operational realities, a vision for the future, and our Zen practice is necessary for the long-term health of Zen Center,” says Kellar. “The strategic plan may look daunting on paper, but actually it’s a one-step-at-a-time process, with the practice permeating everything.

“The visioning process itself was a plus,” he continues. “Everyone got to express their ideas, air differences, decide what works and what doesn’t, and set priorities. It was a positive, purposeful approach to organizational and operational refinement and long-term goals that did not disrupt the day-to-day functioning of Zen Center. In the process, we learned more about how to integrate our practice into near- and long-term objectives.”

Board chair Matt Jeschke adds, “Zen Center is a very complex organization. Thousands of people care about it and consider it their practice home. Not everyone will be totally happy with our new strategic plan, but it does reflect the shared vision of Zen Center. It says, ‘This is what we want to do and this is how we plan to get there.’”

SFZC has been through birth, growth, breakdown, reconstruction, more breakdown and consolidation. What does its future hold?

“The tantalizing question for me is, how do we stay relevant to the needs of the sangha and society?” says Paul Haller. “Everything follows from that. For example, how do we talk to a group of incarcerated men in a way that lets them see how to practice Zen in their environment? How do we support people to be both active in the world and partake of a contemplative practice that offers insight into the world and who they are? If SFZC as an institution supports the dharma, great. If letting go of SFZC as an institution supports the dharma, great.

“We offer the dharma,” Haller stresses. “I’ve always felt that whatever support we needed would just come along. The vision process helped us articulate our intention and strategy.”

Blanche Hartman is concerned about what she calls “fructification.”

“We have a generation of wonderful, well-trained teachers, but they don’t like to leave home,” she notes. “We have six related dharma groups in Marin County alone. I’d like to see our priests move out into the world and make themselves available to groups that would like teachers in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. But we’re spoiled—the Bay Area is such a great place to live.”

“I see two dangers for Zen Center,” Wenger says, “completely assimilating our practice into American culture, and not assimilating enough. Actually, I’m more concerned about becoming too assimilated. Every religion must both honor its roots and traditions and adapt to new conditions. But to survive assimilation, an institution must be strong.”

Weitsman worries about the “abbot thing.”

“Who’s leading SFZC now?” he queries. “The board? The practice committees? The abbots? SFZC seems to be run by committees; the abbots have given up too much of their authority. The abbots should consult, but they should show more direction.

“It seems Zen Center has reached a plateau,” adds Weitsman. “This is natural in the life cycle of an organization. It’s probably O.K., as long as SFZC doesn’t stagnate.”

Says Austin: “Zen Center’s whole can definitely be more than the sum of its parts if we agree on where we’re going. If we go forward together, the whole community will feel new life and energy. Implementing our plan will, of course, be the most difficult part of the visioning process.”

Linda Cutts was SFZC development director in the early 1990’s and is particularly attuned to financial concerns. “There’s a gap between people’s wanting us to be there when they need us, and their financial support,” she notes. “People are used to paying to be members of synagogues and churches, but they don’t seem to have the same feeling about Zen Center. We need to educate our sangha more about dana, giving, and the relationship between the temple or practice place and the sangha. My understanding is that in Asia, it would be unusual to visit a Buddhist temple without leaving a donation.”

On the other hand, Cutts hails the “wisdom of our great benefactor in knowing what would be a helpful next step for our organization. Funding our visioning process was not something many donors would do. This same donor funded the setting up of our first accounting system many years ago. These are the nuts and bolts of institution-building.”

Rand notes that SFZC is both blessed and challenged by having three extraordinary pieces of real estate. “SFZC is a highly visible religious institution in the Bay Area,” she notes. “Big institutions tend to be more cautious and conservative, and it’s easier to hide in a big setting. Before Zen Center was so visible, it could be more experimental. When you’re small, you can try new things, and if they don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. Suzuki Roshi came from a small country temple; SFZC is more like Eiheiji.

“But SFZC is now clear about its intention,” says Rand, “and that makes it a potent force for change. I appreciate the co-existence of large and small practice places.” (Rand leads her own practice place, called Goat-in-the-Road, just down the road from Green Gulch Farm.)

Soto Zen practice is based on Dogen’s emphasis on the non-specialness of Zen, the concept that practice and daily life are the same. Can a large, established institution on a capital campaign maintain this teaching?

Haller likens this seeming contradiction to the form and emptiness refrain of the Heart Sutra. “The vision and strategic plan is form, but Zen is essentially formless,” he notes. “I hope that American dharma practice will carry all the essential wisdom of Shakyamuni and all the ancestors. And I hope that SFZC will adapt to whatever arises and keep changing and surviving in service to the dharma, rather than try to change the world around us. We should look to our past for guidance, and to the future for the direction of our activities.”


Julia Sommer

Julia Sommer is a freelance writer and a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center.