2016 SZBA Conference Report

Eighty members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association gathered at Camp Courage Conference and Retreat Center in Maple Lake, MN, from Wednesday, 28 September through Sunday the 2nd of October, 2016. This year’s theme — “Responding to the Cries of the World—Soto Zen Priests and Sanghas in an Age of Climate Change and Social Suffering” — reminded us clearly about the unfolding climate crisis, the call for solidarity with Native peoples at Standing Rock, and the upcoming election, whose sorrowful result heightens the need for a principled, non-violent response from all people of conscience. Over the course of four days of plenary presentations, breakout groups and TED-style talks, we addressed a wide scope of practice and action.

The SZBA board wishes to thank the Program Committee—Myo-On Hagler, Shodo Spring, and Susan Nelson—and we offer particular gratitude to Minnesota sangha members from Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, Hokyoji, Clouds and Water Zen Center, Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center for their myriad and tireless efforts to welcome us and make our gathering comfortable.
We also express gratitude and to the staff of Camp Courage. This was the SZBA’s first time holding a conference outside of a temple. Doing so presented new and unique challenges, while also giving us the opportunity to welcome a large representation of our Midwestern relatives, many of whom had not previously been able to attend a conference. We hope to continue to embrace the geological diversity of our membership in this way in the future.


Most of us arrived on Wednesday in time for two simultaneous informal sessions, one for the full members and one for the associate members. After the informal sessions, we had a moving Opening Ceremony.

Thursday began with welcoming words from SZBA president Hozan Alan Senauke, reviewing our 20-year history and acknowledging the strengths and challenges of our present organizational circumstances. The day continued with a workshop on the Right Use of Power led by Peg Syverson & Tenku Ruff. Our good dharma friend Gengo Akiba Roshi, the Soto Zen Sokan or Bishop, made presentation on the Tempyozan monastery project moving ahead steadily in Clear Lake, California.

The afternoon session concluded with a memorial service for Shunbo Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Shofu Myozan Dennis Keegan, and Koko Dave Hazelwood, SZBA members who had died in 2016. We chanted the Lotus Sutra’s “Life Span” verses remembering our absent friends’ vivid examples:

In order to liberate all beings,
as skillful means I appear to have entered nirvana;
yet truly I am not extinct,
ever dwelling here to voice the dharma.

That evening David Loy, scholar, activist, and Zen teacher gave the keynote presentation, “Hearing the Cries of the World,” addressing the intersection of Dharma, ecology, and activism, urging us to commit ourselves to lead our communities into social action.

On Friday morning Peg Syverson and Peter Overton facilitated an interactive visioning session, introducing the Appreciate Inquiry method. The group took some initial steps to discuss and explore the direction and vision of SZBA, based on where we are in our organizational history and in this moment of Zen in the West. Generation X priests met for a breakout session over lunch. Afterwards, Thomas Bruner led a workshop on fundraising for Zen centers. The afternoon featured breakout sessions on the sewing practice and furthering the conversation with David Loy. In the evening Dai-en Bennage offered women members a seldom-seen Ananda ceremony, honoring the monk who opened doors to women monastics during the Buddha’s time.

Saturday’s business meeting heard reports from standing committees, as well as from Associate members and the Gen-X breakout group.  Four TED-style talks included: Hogen Bays—“Nothing is Amiss: the Foundation for Social Action;” Tenku Ruff—“Cultural Competence Across Generations;” Koun Franz—“Race/Diversity/Privilege in the Sangha;” and Ben Connelly—“Working with Police departments with Mindfulness and Meditation.”

On Saturday afternoon we concluded our work with the Dharma Heritage Ceremony and closing ceremony, followed by a banquet and an evening of cultural sharing—songs, poems, skits, and even calligraphy. The Dharma Heritage Ceremony widened our Soto Zen priest circle to include:

Dainei Page Appelbaum, Chimyo Simone Atkinson, Myosho Ann Kyle Brown, Chodo Robert Campbell, Konin Cardenas, Ben Connelly, Seiso Paul Cooper, Kotoku Ray Crivello, Zenki Christian Dillo, Koshin Paley Ellison, Guy Gibbon, Tova Myocho Green, Prajnatara Paula Hirschboeck, Wanda Mahadana Isle, Myoshin Kaniumoe, Myozan Kodo Kilroy, Bussho Lahn, Flying Fish Barbara Murphy, Peter Overton, Christine Koshin Palmer, Margaret Syverson, Ryushin Andrea Thach, Bonnie VerbonCoeur, Kyoku Tracey Walen, and Steve Weintraub.

And on Sunday we forgot to rest. Some left for long afternoon and evening flights home. Others had a chance to visit Zen centers in and around Minneapolis, deepening friendships and dharma relations.

This report only touches on the rich discourse and warm fellowship of SZBA’s biennial gathering. We recognize as well, that many of our 300 members were not able to attend. We look forward to seeing you in the fall of 2018.

All We Have To Do –
A Reflection on the Keynote Presentation
by David Loy

Let me begin with a Zen story. A student asks the master: “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?” Zen master: “Welcome.” Our path is not about avoiding difficulties. Another Zen story is also relevant: the student asks the master, “What is the constant activity of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas?” In other words, what is special about how awakened people live in the world, moment by moment? Again the answer is very short: “Responding appropriately.” That may seem simple but it’s not, because in order to respond appropriately, we have to understand the situation that we are in, and is our perspective short-term or long-range? What if “the real calamity is the status quo” (Slavoj Žižek)?

All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren, is to keep doing exactly what we’re doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels. They’re accelerating dramatically. (James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, 2009)

We are all in a big bus that’s speeding very fast toward a precipice. In the last election two people were fighting for the steering wheel. The winner plans to step on the accelerator, but would the other have stopped the bus? Maybe she would have slowed down a little bit…

Suppose Hillary had won as expected. Would we have sat back on the bus more comfortably into our seats? Does that point to the silver lining of the horrendous cloud that now hovers over us? We are shaken out of our comfort zone. Indifference is no longer an option.

Or is it? Some practitioners have discovered their own personal solution: when the news makes us anxious, we meditate, letting go of our thoughts and feelings, and after a while we feel much better!

A more appropriate response is the bodhisattva path, which may be the most important contribution of Buddhism in these difficult times. Bodhisattvas have a two-sided practice. They continue to meditate, cultivating their own self-transformation and equanimity, but not because they are self-centered: that equanimity enables them to respond more compassionately and wholeheartedly to the social and ecological challenges facing us today.

Because of their spiritual practice, they are able to deal better with the frustration, anger, and burn-out that activists are susceptible to.

Most importantly, the bodhisattva path cultivates the ability to act without attachment to the results. This is counter-intuitive – “we need results!” — and dangerous if misunderstood, because it can encourage half-hearted commitment.

Consider the distinction between a 100-yard dash and a marathon. When you’re running a 100-yard dash, the only thing that counts is getting to the goal line as quickly as possible, whereas with a marathon it’s one step at a time. Tada, “just this!” In each motion nothing is lacking. You are completely one with every moment. You don’t need to be thinking about the goal, but you’re moving in that direction.

That is part of what it means to be nonattached to results, yet there’s more to it. Traditionally, the first vow of a bodhisattva is that “although living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.” I vow to do something that can never be achieved, which means it’s really about a basic reorientation that replaces our usual self-preoccupation: “henceforth the fundamental meaning of my life is working for the well-being of everyone.” Someone who takes that vow seriously will not be intimidated by the comparatively minor task of working with others to save global civilization from destroying itself. The point is, whether or not we become temporarily discouraged, we don’t give up. We get on with it.

But there’s one more thing to emphasize about the bodhisattva path. We naturally want to know what to do, and whether our actions really make a difference; yet today especially the challenge is so big and intimidating that we just don’t know – which can be discouraging, or even paralyzing. For the bodhisattva, however, “don’t know mind” is essential. Enlightenment doesn’t mean “now I understand everything about myself and the world.” It’s opening up to one’s “don’t know” mind. As Robert Aitken-roshi said, “Our task isn’t about clearing up the mystery, but making the mystery clear.”

When we open up to what’s actually happening, we experience a world that’s fundamentally mysterious. But that doesn’t relieve us from the need to understand and act, as well as we can. Our task is to respond appropriately to whatever situation arises, not knowing if anything we do is going to make any difference whatsoever. It’s okay that we don’t know. Knowing is not part of the job description. We don’t know if what we do is important, but it is very important that we do it. Because it’s what we find ourselves called to do.

(David Loy was our theme presenter at the conference. His doctorate is from the University of Singapore, where his dissertation was on Nonduality. He is also a long time Zen student and has been authorized as a roshi, or senior teacher in Sanbo Zen, a lay oriented koan school. David is a prominent social justice activist, with a particular focus on environmental justice.)

Right Use of Power
A Presentation by Peg Syverson and Tenku Ruff

This workshop introduced the Right Use of Power training developed by Cedar Barstow, who notes: “Right use of power is one of the most crucial needs of our time and one of the greatest challenges we face in leadership and personal development. We have the capacity for wisdom, skillfulness, and service in the use of our power. Yet we have all been wounded by misuses and abuses of power by those in positions of trust, and we have also inevitably misused or underused our own power. Peace, harmony, and a life-sustaining world depend on the appropriate understanding and use of power, not only by our leaders, but by every one of us.”

Power is the ability to have an effect or an influence. Every single person has power, but the wise use of our power is not simply a matter of good intentions. We must learn and practice how to use our power skillfully. The right use of power is relational, compassionate, and pro-active. It is a profound teaching on ethics and effectiveness.

Through a combination of presentation and experiential exercises we explored leadership styles, three forms of power, and the four dimensions of the right use of power: being informed, being compassionate, being connected, and being skillful. We described and experienced the concept of the power differential and its implications for Zen practice and teaching. Finally, we introduced issues in non-ordinary states of consciousness, self-care, and resolving difficulties: tracking for difficulties, the de-resourcing effects of shame, and repair.

For more about the Right Use of Power click here to access the website.

TED-Style Talks:

Cultural Competence: Communicating Across Generations by Tenku Ruff

Our Zen communities are made up of people from many generations, from retired people, to families with children, to high school students. The majority of SZBA Zen teachers, though, are between the ages of 54 and 73, in the generation known as Baby Boomers.

At the 2016 SZBA conference Tenku Ruff gave short talk on how we can better communicate across generations by understanding some of the general characteristics of each generation. How do generations see the world differently? How do our communication styles differ? If we can increase our knowledge of how people from generations other than our own see the world, we can move into communication based on mutual understanding and respect.

A generation is defined as a group of people who are living at the same time and who are within a certain age range. These groups of people have witnessed the same historical events and had similar sociological influences. (See linked pdf.) Our generational characteristics are fairly formed by the time we are around twenty years old, which means we have to work much harder to understand differing perceptions as we grow older. Fortunately, Zen practice provides a framework for working with fixed behavior patters and for expanding our views.

In terms of cultural competence, there are there are 4 components: awareness, attitude, knowledge and skills. Awareness is about becoming consciousness of our personal reactions to people who are different. For example, a Baby Boomer who is aware of their (mis)perception that Generation X members do not work as hard as they do or don’t “have what it takes” has cultural awareness about their reactions to this group of people.

Attitude is how we approach our differences. We should ask ourselves whether we want to learn more, or simply for “them” to be like me? We can ask ourselves, “Am I committed to trying? —and making mistakes?  —and apologizing?  —and learning?  —and trying again?“

Increasing knowledge is an important part of cultural competence. Are our core values consistent with our behaviors? Are we aware of our own blindspots? If so, given that we can’t see blindspots ourselves, who is pointing them out to us and how? Are we actively encouraging feedback—and truly listening to it? Current research indicates that our values and beliefs about equality may be inconsistent with our behaviors, and we may be unaware of it. For example, many people who score low on inherent bias tests tend to do things that exemplify prejudice, like using outdated labels such as “ladies” or “colored”—even though at their core they abhor the idea of treating others with disrespect.

Though communication is the fundamental tool by which people interact, the way we do it varies. Learning more skills to have in our personal toolkit helps us communicate better across differences. For example, people from the Silent Generation tend to prefer the telephone, while Millennials tend to text. Millennials might consider using their smartphone to dial a number and then speak on the phone, while Silent Generation or Baby Boomer members can learn to text and use emojis—perhaps even to have emotionally challenging conversations via text.

In the realm of the Dharma, there is space for difference. Awareness involves noticing these differences, acknowledging them, noticing our own biases surrounding them, and then working with what we notice. If people are seeing things differently, it needs to be examined. Peace can only arise when awareness can hold the space for everything.

Click here to view a pdf of Tenku’s conference presentation

Nothing Is Amiss – A brief presentation about some essential aspects of practice, vital for anyone engaged with activism, social service or being fully human.  by Hogen Bays

This moment and our humanness right now is the culmination of an endless stream of cause and effect. One aspect of zazen is to sit in complete acceptance and appreciation of this moment. In this moment as humans we have movement in our lives. We are always moving towards something, e.g.; food, shelter, love, meaning. Part of the total acceptance the world is to recognize its critical needs. It is incumbent upon each of us to respond. But to respond out of reactivity and small mindedness only makes things worse. We must rest in the boundless, pristine, isness of our Buddha Nature in which every thing is whole complete lacking nothing. From this awareness, everything we do impacts the whole world. Each of us has to express our particular way of being for the benefit of everyone. The Bodhisattva Vow is not about fixing the world but offering the only thing we can offer – our life.

Mindfulness with Police by Ben Connelly

No incense, Buddhas, or bells, just a spare conference room and attentive faces of men and women in eight pound kevlar flak vests, with loaded firearms, tasers, extra clips, and I know not what else on their rigid belts. Meditation time. Time to share words about suffering and moment to moment opportunities to do simple practices that promote well-being. There have been some visionary leaders in bringing mindfulness training to police officers, Cheri Maples perhaps foremost, but I was simply fortunate to get a call from a local police department looking to try some innovative wellness programs.

For years I have been troubled by the disproportionate mass incarceration of black people in the US. This first brought me to teaching mindfulness in correctional facilities, then to practicing meditation at Black Lives Matters occupation sites. When I was invited to come to Columbia Heights PD I felt excitement. I sensed this was a chance to cultivate peace in a situation where there was a stress, fear, and violence. I knew that I would have a chance to grow, by practicing meeting officers not through the lens of my prejudice, but through the lens of our shared part in the web of human suffering, and our shared opportunity to take care of it.
I believe hurt people hurt people, and that mindfulness heals us from the very roots of our beings by transforming the patterns of body, speech, and mind that impel us. I am so grateful for my training in Zen, for when I sit down in a prison, or a police station I am often able to realize these are people just like me who want to be well, do good, and who, like me, suffer, and sometimes do harm. Recently, after we finished meditation at the station one of the officers offered to let me try on his bulletproof vest. Driving away I heard on the radio that an officer in NYC had just been shot several times and survived, for he was wearing just such a vest. How can I even imagine what these officers experience?  I cannot know another’s life, but I can listen and share the healing power of presence.  We can cultivate trust in healing through connection.

Presented by Peg Syverson and Peter Overton

We were asked to introduce Appreciative Inquiry, a model that could facilitate large-scale discussion among SZBA members to create a shared vision and design for the organization as it continues to evolve. The Appreciative Inquiry model views organizations not as sets of problems to be solved, but as living systems which move in the direction of shared inquiry.
David Cooperrider defines Appreciative Inquiry this way:
Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. It involves the discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. The inquiry is mobilized through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question,” often involving hundreds or thousands of people. AI interventions focus on the speed of imagination and innovation—instead of the negative, critical, and spiraling diagnoses commonly used in organizations. The discover, dream, design, and destiny model links the energy of the positive core to changes never thought possible.
The questions we ask are fateful: collective attention and energy move in the direction of our inquiry. Fundamental questions about any organization include:
•    What is it?
•    What is our purpose?
•    Who is included, who is excluded?
How will we organize and govern ourselves?
The workshop used both presentation and activities to provide an actual Appreciative Inquiry experience on a small scale. Participants engaged in pairs interviews focused on these questions:
1.    What is it in the SZBA that has the most vitality for you; what do you find most engaging? When have you felt most at home in it?
2.    Without modesty, what would those who know you well describe as your true gifts
3.    Imagine that you wake up five years from now, and SZBA has evolved into your ideal organization, thrilling, vibrant, and deeply nourishing, so that you look forward to all that SZBA offers and engage with it wholeheartedly. What does that look like? What would you be doing? What would other people be doing? How is the organization relating to the world? What is going on?
In small groups, participants then shared their interview notes and looked for common themes in these visions. After listing these themes on the wall, we began to discuss possible designs to support the realization of the visions and concrete steps toward realizing those designs. This work reflects the four phases of an Appreciative Inquiry:
•    Discover: an inquiry into the strengths and capacities inherent in the organization
•    Dream: envisioning what might be: our ideal future
•    Design: developing an architecture and a plan that expresses that vision
•    Destiny: committing to concrete, doable steps to realizing the design