Modern sangha leaders need skills that aren’t necessarily taught in traditional Buddhist training. Lewis Richmond and Grace Schireson report.

By Grace Schireson

Lewis Richmond
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery, once wrote, “Here in America we cannot define Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not exactly priests and not exactly laypeople…[so] I think we must establish an American way of Zen life.”

What did he mean by this? Who and what did he hope we might become?

Suzuki Roshi had a vision for Buddhism in America. It was a courageous and creative vision, of a universal Buddhism based on tradition, but not limited by it. From the time he arrived here in the late 1950s, Suzuki Roshi realized that for Zen to truly take root in America, it could not be just an imitation or extension of the Japanese style of practice in which he had been trained. It would have to be transformed by his American successors into something indigenous to American culture.

So what is the state of Suzuki Roshi’s vision today, fifty years later? Does it hold relevance for other Buddhist traditions in the West? Are we truly making the Asian traditions our own, or are we still imitating Asian ways?

A Meeting of Zen Minds

Three years ago we got together with four other teachers empowered as dharma heirs in in the Suzuki Roshi lineage to take up this and other questions. Those teachers were Darlene Cohen, Gary McNabb, Alan Senauke, and Steve Stucky.

The six of us had a lot in common. We had all been trained in one or more of the residential practice places of the San Francisco Zen Center, where we continue to teach and train; we wore the priest robes of Soto Zen; we had received dharma transmission, giving us authorization to teach in the Soto Zen lineage; and we had struck out on our own to start our own Zen sitting groups, just as Suzuki Roshi had done. Yet we were still wondering about Suzuki Roshi’s vision and were brimming with questions.

Through our ongoing meetings, we realized that all of our years of Zen training―leading a regimented life, keeping a strenuous meditation schedule, ringing bells, and bowing at altars―had given us a good understanding of the dharma. It had improved our focus, concentration, and sense of Buddhist ritual, but it did not seem to have prepared us very well for what we were actually doing as American Zen teachers. We were not in monasteries or retreat centers anymore. We were helping ordinary people with jobs and families to find their Buddhist way. What was the connection between our training and this emerging vocation to share Buddhist practice with our lay sanghas?

These early peer-group sessions were the first time that most of us had ever given public voice to our concerns. We were part of the first generation of graduates from the training centers that Suzuki Roshi had founded, and each of us had gone off on our own to teach Zen―and now, coming together after so long on our own, it was comforting and a bit surprising to find us all in the same boat. The role of Zen priest can be isolating and lonely, and we cherished our new companionship.

As our discussions evolved, we realized that perhaps it was unrealistic to think that our training, based on Asian models of practice and pedagogy, could have prepared us fully for the work we were now doing. Moreover, our residential training at Zen Center and Tassajara was not even representative of the many ways that Zen priests in Japan receive training. Every Japanese person is reared and nurtured in a society and family that are deeply infused with Buddhist imagery, attitudes, and values. In this way the training of a priest-to-be in Japan―particularly in the realm of feelings and emotions―begins at birth. In addition, the monastic training of Japanese Zen priests is not the whole of it. Most of them do a long apprenticeship with their primary teacher, assisting in the care of the home temple and performing the myriad tasks of a temple priest. As well, most Japanese Zen priests attend a Buddhist university, and receive an academic degree.

In light of all this, why should we have assumed that we had received the whole package? Suzuki Roshi only had time during his twelve years in America to give us the essentials of Zen practice. The rest, he exhorted, was up to us.

Birth of the Program

These discussions led to the start of our own peer-group teacher training, offering guidance and support to each other. At the same time, we recognized an immediate need to address the training of the next generation of priests and teachers, since not only were we training lay practitioners, but many of us were already preparing to ordain our own priest disciples. What were we going to teach them about keeping their vows to make Buddhist practice the center of their lives? How were we going to train them? Here was a chance to figure that out together.

Until these discussions, we had not given a whole lot of thought to disciple training, except to assume that it would be much like our own. But in most cases that was not really practical. We had done our residential training while relatively young and unencumbered. In contrast, our own students were older, with partners, families, and professions or careers. Long residential training at a Buddhist monastery like Tassajara was impractical for them. In most cases, their aspiration was to be like us, out in the world as hospice workers and chaplains, meditation teachers and sangha leaders. They needed focused and comprehensive preparation aimed at helping them teach Buddhism without the enhancements of Zen centers, altars, priests’ robes, and residential schedules. In short, they needed to know how to do the work of a Buddhist priest without depending on the trappings of formal practice.

From these peer group meetings, the SPOT program was born. SPOT stands for Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training (Shogaku is one of Suzuki Roshi’s Buddhist names). The six of us formed the faculty and invited our own priest trainees to join. As well, a few other teachers from lineages related to the San Francisco Zen Center sent some of their own disciples. When we started the program we had thirty trainees, including some still in residence at the San Francisco Zen Center.

From the outset we made it clear that SPOT was not a substitute for the one-on-one relationship of teacher and disciple. All participants must have their teacher’s permission to join and that relationship is honored, since the relationship between root teacher and disciple is an essential part of our Zen tradition. Nor is the program a substitute for monastic experience. Trainees who can manage a training period in a monastery or residential center are encouraged do so. Our intention is to supplement and support those traditional training methods with new ones that embody Suzuki Roshi’s vision that we find our practice in our own Western culture.

At our first SPOT meeting, one of the trainees, recently ordained, began to tell of his new life as a priest. “As soon as people found out I was a priest,” he recalled, “they began to share all their troubles with me. They began to ask me all sorts of questions. They poured their hearts out to me. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say.” And he began to cry.

We were moved by his story and found it sobering to realize what we had taken on.

Addressing Misunderstandings

Early on in our curriculum planning, SPOT faculty homed in on three common distortions of Zen practice in America. The first we referred to as idealization of the exotic.

Some practitioners work with a hidden assumption that an Asian teacher is naturally spiritually superior to a Western teacher, and that their mere otherness makes them wiser. Suzuki Roshi did not encourage our idealized notions of Japanese culture, or even of him. Once, when asked what honorific title we should call him after his death, he responded forcefully, “No! It is not a question of what I should be called, but what you be called. You are the ones! Give me five or ten more years and you will be strong teachers yourselves!” Sadly, he made this remark only a year before his death.

In the last few decades we have learned―sometimes painfully―that Asian teachers come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of realization, just like human beings everywhere. Our idealized sense of their superiority may be due in part to our own lack of confidence, as well as our need for an idealized parent or authority figure. The best Asian teachers, like Suzuki Roshi, avoided taking on our unrealistic projections.

Another misconception in American Buddhism is that Asian forms and rituals are essential to practice. In many Buddhist practice centers, the robes and rituals are mistaken for the practice itself, as are the special ways that people move and hold their bodies, and even the way they talk.

We must remind ourselves that Buddhism and Zen are not just Japanese, Chinese, or Indian, but universally human pursuits to relieve suffering. Of course, we need to honor the forms and rituals of our traditions, which have deep practice meaning, but we must realize that simply imitating these Asian rituals (which are imbued with meaning from their own cultures) will not result in deep understanding, nor will it transform our suffering. The essence of Buddhist practice involves finding our own way and our own rituals in our American culture. That is what Suzuki Roshi wanted us to do.

A third common mistake is using meditation to repress our emotions. In the environment of the meditation hall, where there is no eye contact, no talking, and a constant effort to remain focused on our own inner state, meditation can sometimes be used to create a sense of emotional distance or disconnection. There should be a warning label attached to Buddhist practice: “Living and practicing in a Buddhist community can be harmful to your emotional health if improperly used. Avoid repression and mind numbing.”

The actual process of Buddhist meditation is the opposite of repression; true meditation is totally exposed, completely in touch and connected. The danger is that Western psyches may use the meditation experience to override their own emotional perceptions and needs.

In explaining all of this to our trainees, we found it helpful to speak of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal levels of training. Meditation experience opens us to the transpersonal core of Buddhism―the realization of the empty nature of our ego-selves and all phenomena. But we cannot bypass or ignore the personal and interpersonal realm of relationships, and the afflictive emotions, group dynamics, and projections that arise around the authority role of priest or teacher, and from belonging to a spiritual community.

We took heart in similar efforts being made at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Jack Kornfield, Spirit Rock’s founder, has pioneered a teacher-training program that in the last twenty years has produced over a hundred Vipassana teachers and practice leaders. Once, when asked what kind of people his training program was designed to produce, Jack answered, “Mature adults!” He meant mature in all senses of the word―emotionally, psychologically, and socially, as well as spiritually. Author John Welwood has coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe the way meditators try to achieve spiritual maturity while ignoring, or “bypassing,” their personal and emotional problems.

Welwood and Kornfield are saying much the same thing. Real spiritual maturity cannot happen on the superhighway of spiritual bypassing. We have to wend our way through all the local roads of emotion and ego, transforming each obstacle as it goes. We cannot skip pain or conflict by spiritual workarounds that bump us to a higher plane while repressing or bypassing our human condition. We must instead use our carefully honed attention to honestly encounter our vulnerability and suffering, one breath at a time.

The Curriculum

Rather than refine the core skills of meditation and ritual that trainees already study with their own teachers and within their sangha or residential community, SPOT faculty decided to focus on the trainable and measurable skills that Zen priests or teachers need to minister to their groups effectively. These skills include the ability to provide spiritual counseling in one-on-one situations, and to give dharma talks that teach laypeople the benefits of Zen practice in everyday life. Priests and teachers-in-training also need group leadership skills in order to guide their sangha or group to become a cohesive whole. Other important skills addressed in the training program include learning how to prepare and lead effective Zen rituals, offer spiritual solace in times of human need, and take care of our own emotional and physical needs and teach those self-care skills to sangha members.

The most basic skill of all, however, is just being able to talk and listen to another human being. During training this is practiced in dyads to create the experience of intimacy and tenderness that arises between two people. There is a saying in Zen: “You cannot eat a painted rice cake.” To fully appreciate the vulnerability of being with another human being, balancing wisdom and compassion, we need to actually be present in the doing of it. The SPOT faculty models this willingness to be present through its own frank discussions and interactions with each other―much of which is shared openly with trainees.

In teaching students how to prepare and deliver a dharma talk, we address the importance of knowing the needs of an audience in various settings―including prisons, hospitals, schools, and retreats for beginners―so that we can match the talk to the needs of that audience.

Zen master Yunmen was once asked: “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?”

Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.”

The Buddha himself always tried to offer the best medicine to his followers, discerning what was needed in each particular moment. We teach that effective Zen talks do not need to be inscrutable, clever, or full of Zen-speak. Zen talks first and foremost need to be helpful.

Each SPOT teacher goes into some detail about how he or she prepares for a talk, and each trainee is required to give his or her own talk. Trainee dharma talks are followed by audience participation and feedback. It is a powerful experience for trainees to get feedback from their peers and each faculty member. Style, organization, delivery, and dharma relevance are all grist for the mill in the feedback process.

Perhaps the most complex task SPOT addresses is understanding the interpersonal, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the priest’s role. We especially concentrate on issues of power, transference, projection, idealization, and conflict. Suzuki Roshi taught that sangha in and of itself is the full expression of buddhanature, and in working with our own sanghas, we have found this to be so. Within the intimacy of sangha, our understanding―or lack of it―is fully exposed. In sangha relationships we can see what we have aimed for, what the results have actually been, and everything in between. We can get caught up in our self-centered dream even as we struggle to articulate the Buddha Way. We note our preferences and aversions, and trace them back to self-centeredness. We confront what we are afraid of, and what we are attached to. All of these things are clearly revealed in the healthy functioning of sangha. In our trainings, we bring this understanding of group dynamics to the forefront and work on it explicitly.

A Typical Day of Training

During a recent daylong training session, our theme was working with conflict in the sangha. In preparation for the day, trainees had read a lecture by Suzuki Roshi in which he discussed how the three treasures of Buddha, dharma and sangha are different aspects of one truth. The teaching emphasized that sangha was not just a group of people practicing together; it was itself an expression of ultimate reality, as much as zazen, sutras, and rituals. The thrust of the day’s work was to connect our Western understanding of the power of group dynamics with this teaching by Suzuki Roshi.

In a radical departure from the usual Zen teaching of “one Zen master per mountain,” the six teachers took turns commenting on the teaching. In this way we were able explore the range and scope of the teaching’s meaning and express the variety and validity of different interpretations and approaches. This not only makes for a fuller interpretation of the text, but also helps the students see that each of us teaches and practices as ourselves. In the process, if any sparks fly between teachers, our students can see that even the teachers’ relationships are ongoing practice. Our interactions are not idealized as some perfected or inscrutable Zen wisdom, but seen as work in progress.

Even though the sangha is essential to Buddhist practice, Buddhism doesn’t explicitly describe how groups work. Western specialists in group dynamics, on the other hand, emphasize that groups are an integral part of human development and interaction. Understanding how groups form and develop gives aspiring group leaders much needed insight.

We believe it is essential for priests to understand, in Western terms, how group dynamics work. So we create small group exercises to allow trainees to feel the pull of the group in the context of whatever subject we are studying. We also study the stages of group development, the roles various group members may assume, and the crises that predictably arise as a group becomes empowered.

In one unit where we studied the significance of sangha as the completion of Buddha and dharma, we created a small group to work with a problem that commonly arises in newly formed dharma groups―the tension between adhering to the traditional Buddhist rituals introduced by the center’s founder and adapting the teachings for Westerners. Not only is this question inevitable in the group’s evolution, but the enactment within the newly forming sangha highlights how unconscious forces and previous wounds may create divisiveness within an emerging group. There are bids for power, issues with authority, personal preferential relationships, and past wounds with family or teachers that will shape the group’s discussion and even its outcome. In our exercise, we do not count on the chance emergence of these roles within the group; instead, we secretly assign these roles so that a smooth discussion will be virtually impossible.

There is a tendency among Buddhist practitioners to avoid conflict in favor of silencing dissent and adopting a “Zen-like” compliance. To expose this tendency to our students we form groups of six or so trainees as the “practice committee” of a fictitious sangha. The committee’s job is to deal with the following conflict: Most members of the sangha, including its teacher, want to start formal chanting practice of, for example, The Heart Sutra.But one member, who claims to represent a constituency in the sangha, contends that chanting is too sectarian and will exclude potential members. The practice committee takes up and deals with this issue in whatever way it can.

Each trainee receives a pre-assigned role. One is the dissenter, the member most resistant to the chanting idea. Another is someone who personally dislikes the dissenter, yet agrees with the dissenter’s position about chanting. Another is someone who personally likes the dissenter, but disagrees with the dissenter’s position. One trainee plays the public role of sangha president and meeting facilitator. A faculty member plays the sangha teacher, but is not involved in resolving the conflict. If the group members are faithful to their roles, it will be difficult to resolve the conflict without hurt feelings. The trainees’ task is to concentrate mostly on what their feelings and body sensations are in the midst of the conflict, rather than to resolve it.

We have learned that enacting conflict can be very exciting, but for actual learning to take place, we must go back and forth between the assumed roles and our usual selves so we can process the meaning of the feelings. Groups alternate between time “in role,” acting out the conflict, and time “out of role,” where they can reflect on their experience.

In role, people get upset at each other, offend each other, and become impatient with one another. Out of role, people express surprise at how much their nervous systems are engaged and reactive, even though the situation is “pretend.” In the plenary session that follows, we discuss this at length, exploring the questions: What is real? What is pretend?

The poet Robert Creeley titled one of his books, Was That a Real Poem or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself? our personality a real identity or just another role? Is there a difference? What is the difference? What is the relationship of that question to the core teaching of the Buddha about anatman―there is no continuously existing self? Who are we really? Who is the other person really? What is our role and responsibility as vow-takers and priest professionals to enact and express the dharma in each circumstance?

It is one thing to read Buddhist scripture on the topic of no fixed self; it’s quite another to experience it in such a potent role-playing exercise. Our purpose in constructing these exercises was to make a vivid connection between the Buddhist teaching of no fixed self and our actual experience in the moment―in our emotions, in our bodies. This enactment is done within our own cultural framework, as our Western selves, to help our students understand how to practice in their own lives.

The Shogaku Zen Institute

SPOT is an ongoing exploration of the interplay between Buddhist tradition, lineage, and our own experience as Americans trying to understand the Buddhist teachings and put them into practice on our own ground. What we have discovered repeatedly in role-playing and other experiential exercises is the intersection of the personal, the interpersonal, and the transpersonal, and how that nexus re-enacts the basic teachings of dharma “on the spot,” in the here and now.

In addition, we hope that training with an aim of accreditation will help Zen priests in professions such as chaplaincy to find employment as other religious professionals do. Currently we give a certificate of Zen studies to help our trainees make use of their Zen training for working in the world. Of course, this is not a substitute or replacement for the traditional initiations in Zen that occur between teacher and student and lead eventually to dharma transmission and empowerment as a teacher.

Over time, we hope that Zen’s further integration into the American religious mainstream will pay dividends for future generations of Zen practitioners, sangha leaders, and teachers. To further this aim we have created an umbrella organization for our program, the Shogaku Zen Institute, which we hope will lead to the offering of a master of divinity degree or equivalent.

When we six teachers came together, we didn’t quite know where it would go. It’s been an adventure in friendship and risk. We have changed our teaching styles and expanded the rules of engagement in our tradition. We believe that in coming together as SPOT, we are on the way to embodying Suzuki Roshi’s vision of Zen in America. But it is not just for Suzuki Roshi that we fulfill this vision. He insisted we were not the Zen school, just people following the Buddha’s Way. The Buddha encouraged practitioners not to cling to his words, but to translate his teachings into their native language, to illuminate their own lives. We need to remember this is our primary practice and not get caught up in following a formula.

For more information on SPOT, visit

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Zen teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His new book is Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity, a Guide for Men.