By Cat Li Stevenson
Congratulations to Marcia Lieberman on the publication of her new book Clean Slate: Images From Dogen’s Garden. In this book, Marcia combines Dogen’s writings with photographs of the plants he might have seen while living in 13th C Japan. The book’s purpose is not to make a scientific analysis but to consider and imagine what beauty may have provoked his writing.
Marcia Liebermasn is a teacher at San Francisco Zen Center and a photographer. Sangha News recently spoke with her about Clean Slate.
Sangha News: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Before we go into the book, I know that SFZC is your home temple and it’s special to you. Could you share about your relationship with Zen Center and how long you have practiced here?
Marcia Lieberman: Well, it’s a little like describing a mate [laughter]. I discovered Green Gulch Farm in 1988. I knew nothing about meditation, I just wanted to sit quietly. I showed up wearing a bright red zebra jumpsuit and wild red hair. Blanche [Hartman] taught me how to sit.
As for many of us, my practice was a lot of starting and stopping. You know, careers and children — the usual distractions. I would take a spoonful now and then. I would do things like sesshin and maybe a practice period.
I consistently volunteered in the garden at GGF for 10 years before working with a teacher — I had heard that is what you do to deepen your practice — and that led to residential practice. When I recollect, there are people who jump forward: a quote, a look, a tremendous kindness — stepping stones.
I have a lot of affection for GGF. Delightfully, I was able to be Shuso (Head Student) there many years later.
SN: What is your practice like now?
ML: For many years I would travel to various Branching Streams sanghas, (the affiaite SFZC groups located all over the country and beyond) offering instruction on oryoki, sutra copying, chanting, enso practice, altar rituals, doan training. I really enjoy sharing my love for the temple arts and am looking forward to returning to that.
SN; And where did Dogen come in?
ML: In the earlier years, I had no interest in reading anything. Don’t put a book in front of me, I just want to sit zazen! That changed in the early 2000’s when I discovered Dogen — or Dogen found me, I’m not sure who knocked on the door. He blew my mind!
SN: What was it that shifted your interest into Dogen, in particular?
ML: The teachers I was talking to had a great regard for him, so I thought there must be something here. That’s how I got into Dogen: I fell into the big lake of study. And I still don’t understand any of it [laughter].
I was lingering on the shore until [former SFZC Abbot] Steve Stuckey invited me in. We were talking, and he said with his eyes sparkling: “You love gardening, things that grow in nature. Why don’t you use that as a way to explore Dogen? Why don’t you just do the botany of Zen?” That was like BAM! WOW! sparks went off! It was a clever and insightful suggestion. He said “Take what’s familiar, what’s knowable, as you traverse the writing.” And that’s what I did and still do.
SN: What a powerful entrypoint. Tell me about the process of creating the book from there.
ML: As an artist, when something comes forward in my everyday life, I want to explore it. Once I realized that I wanted to understand Dogen, I began purchasing any book I could find on him. WIthin a few years, I connected with Taigen Dan Leighton. I was in graduate school and he was one of my professors. I knew he was a Dogen explorer. I asked him what he thought about this idea: “I want to know what Dogen saw. I wondered what Dogen looked at when he was writing.” Lucky for me he said, “Wow, that’s a great idea.” It was so encouraging. You get ideas and you think they’re great, but then you need a little reality check.
When Taigen said he’d support me, I took him up on it. Twice I went to Chicago to see him. I took the subway to the zendo at 4:30am and I laid out my notes. It was great. He has studied for a very long time so Dogen just rolls off his tongue. He was like a traffic cop in a very beautiful way. I didn’t have 40 years left to do that degree of study.
Eventually, I took a deep breath and asked would you consider writing an introduction and he said yes. And I took another deep breath and sent a request to people I respected, asking if they would do an endorsement. Wow, was that humbling! But everybody came back with wonderful commentary.
SN: Could you say more about the people who contributed?
ML: In terms of SFZC, Reb Anderson wrote a beautiful commentary, as well as Michael Wenger and Shinshu Roberts. They were like my aunts and uncles and ancestors — people who I respect. There was no money involved. It was all about generosity.
I feel like when people purchase the book, it’s not just me getting a book sold, it’s acknowledging all of the contributions from the people who have advised me, the whole community. In a way, it’s a community book. Maybe I’m the pilot, but truly it’s a big ship.
SN: A big ship — beautiful. Could you describe the book?
ML I would say it’s a book that is both fact and fiction. The fact is that Dogen lived and I studied him, and I became curious about who he is and what his writing meant. The fiction is that he looked out the window back in the 13th century and he saw something that somehow influenced how he thought and wrote.
Back to the factual part. I worked with graduate students at Kyoto University and we did a data bank of what plants grew in Dogen’s area in the 13th century. Then I went to Japan and took photographs of the plants. The fact and fiction come together on the page.
I wanted this book to appeal to Zen students and people who have never heard of Zen. People who are interested in nature, beauty and gardens, and interested in Japanese history. People who are into photography, and the use of it as a representation of an idea.
SN: From the excerpts I’ve seen of the book, it feels intimate.
ML: It is very intimate. People feel very quiet when they look at it. It’s very peaceful which makes me very happy. It’s definitely contemplative.
When I was working with the designer, I wanted the shape of the book to be a tatami mat. Wherever I could, I wanted to bring in the association of quietness. The images are quiet, too.
It’s a way to study — as the garden was a gateway for me, the picture book could be a way for people to study Dogen. Maybe for somebody else, it could also be a way to enter in.
SN: Tell me a bit about the title, Clean Slate, how did you come up with that?
ML: I have my own history of the idea of ‘clean slate’: emptiness and wiping things clean so I could really look. It’s about looking. Just think about Zen altars — they are often quite bare. So whatever sits on the altar, it’s easily seen.
SN: Any parting thoughts around your book coming out during the times of the pandemic and how it might be supportive to the world we’re currently living in?
ML: It’s such a tender time. I have ongoing discussions with people who are teaching like myself, who have a book coming out, and it’s difficult. On the one hand, it has no relevance. What does this have to do with the critical and dramatic and devastating things that are happening? Is this going to make things better, is this going to solve anything?
What I’ve come up with is what I’ve always said about art — we need enrichment and we need beauty, and we need to have good things. We need to see the butterfly in the garden. We need these things in order to support us to go forward. I wish it did have a literal impact. Hopefully, it’s a place to gather strength and move forward. I think we do need places like museums. I ache for that.
Marcia Lieberman will be teaching an online class based on Clean Slate on Mondays. September 14 – October 5, 2020.
The SFZC Board of Directors is pleased to announce the appointment of Sozan Diego Miglioli as the next President of SFZC, beginning in 2021.
From Helen Degenhardt, SFZC Board Chair: “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Diego for the last year and a half. I admire his ability to think strategically, present ideas and concepts clearly, and listen to feedback.
“In one of our early conversations Diego made a comment that, in my view, wonderfully describes how he sees his work at Zen Center. When asked how he sees his role as Vice President, he replied: ‘I’m a Zen Student who happens to be a Vice President.’ I’m looking forward to our collaboration and am grateful he accepted the position.”
Diego will be taking over for Shinchi Linda Galijan who will be stepping down in January, 2021.
|Tova Green||Lucy Andrews|
Unpacking Whiteness is a SFZC affinity group. Currently held online, these gatherings explore whiteness and the structures of racism through a Zen Buddhist lens so that practitioners learn to skillfully engage with and transform white racial conditioning and white supremacist systems. Unpacking Whiteness focuses on racial justice, interconnection, and liberation, with the intention that sangha members build brave and inclusive spaces in their homes, workplaces, communities, and at San Francisco Zen Center.
Newcomers and seasoned practitioners who identify as white are wholeheartedly welcome.
It makes a difference when white people can see the ways we’re contributing to the oppression of people of color.
Dawu: Unpacking Whiteness started in July of 2017. Can you tell me more about how the group came about?
Tova: David Zimmerman (the current City Center Abbot) and I had both taken programs at East Bay Meditation Center led by Kitsy Schoen and Crystal Johnson. We were inspired by this work so we asked Kitsy and Crystal if they would do a class at SFZC. After the class ended we thought it would be good to start an ongoing group for white sangha members at SFZC.
Lucy: The structure of a class can be a good place to start and then there needs to be continuity since the work of anti-racism for a white person is lifelong. This group arose from the class in recognition of that need, and for accountability and action.
We have a steady group of folks who show up every month and there are always newcomers. Given the political circumstances of this year in particular, we’ve definitely seen an explosion in attendance.
Dawu: Lucy, what is your background with this kind of work? How did you come to it?
Lucy: My practice of anti-racism is deeper and older than my Buddhist practice. I have spent a lot of time in intentional communities to build liberatory space, including living in an intentionally interracial cooperative housing space for a year.
My peers and I put on a lot of programming and facilitated a white-identified group to look at anti-racism. That was my awakening in my late teens and twenties, having that as a job. I learned a lot, and made many mistakes.
I moved to California and saw that San Francisco Zen Center, a place where I had been practicing for a little while, had a class [led by Kitsy and Crystal] I thought: that’s perfect, let’s see what’s up there. Then Tova and David put out an open call for collaboration in leading the next version of that conversation, so I volunteered.
Tova (to Lucy): Although you practice at City Center and you come to different affinity groups, your primary teacher is Liên Shutt and her sangha is very diverse. I’m wondering if that contributes in some way to your wanting to keep this work going.
Lucy: One of my initial introductions to Buddhism at SFZC was through the “Buddhism 101” classes that Liên taught. I immediately appreciated the way she taught the Four Noble Truths, how she engaged with the suffering that I saw in the world. It was not so much about me and my own anxieties, though that was part of the examination, it was also about the ways we make each other suffer and the ways we experience social domination, power and oppression. I thought: here’s a teacher teaching in a language I appreciate, who has a moral understanding of Dharma that aligns with mine.
I wanted my path of study to have an engaged dimension. I really believe that a practice community should be just. I’m constantly challenged and I get feedback from my sangha on the ways that I show up that are useful or not, or that are harmful.
At the same time, I deeply love the monastic aspect of practice even though I have not lived in a monastic space. The feeling of sanctity at SFZC is beautiful and I respect the wisdom that comes from a deep study of Dharma, so I want to maintain a presence in that practice space, too.
I’ve heard people in Liên’s sangha say they don’t feel welcome at SFZC, that this is a space in which they have experienced racial harm. That upsets me and I want to do what I can to prevent that from happening. I believe that a diverse, liberated, racially just SFZC sangha is possible and I want to see it happen.
Dawu: Tova, is there more you want to say about your history with SFZC?
Tova: I first practiced Zen at Berkeley Zen Center and Green Gulch Farm, and then gradually I started participating in City Center programs. I was aware of how white those three places were. I wanted SFZC to be more inclusive from the time I started living here in 1999.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I got involved with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and was part of a group of Buddhists, not all Zen, that started meeting to look at racism in our sanghas. I met a number of practitioners of color as well as practitioners from Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan practice centers. We put together a booklet called Making the Invisible Visible, which was really important work.
I was an activist before I was a Zen student. The main form my activism is taking these days is doing this work on whiteness because I believe it makes a difference when white people can see the ways we’re contributing to the oppression of people of color. It’s really sometimes hard to see. I’m aware that more residents, community members, and people in leadership roles are seeing this as important as well. This keeps me going.
I’m still hopeful that a liberated, compassionate, radically equal way to live and practice together is possible and I’m starting to see the seeds of that.
Dawu: How has the group changed over time?
Lucy: We spent a lot of time in the beginning talking about what is whiteness in a very personal sense, what does it mean to inhabit a white body, and also what is whiteness as a political and social condition — what are the ways in which privilege manifests in terms of access to power and institutional resources. What are the ways in which the benefits of whiteness are predicated on violence toward Black bodies.
White cultural rhetoric is changing, at least among some people in places like the Bay Area. Many more folks today understand whiteness is a racial identity, that white supremacy exists (though we may have quarrels about what that actually means) and that racism is alive and well in the US. These are now shared understandings that we couldn’t have anticipated when we started three years ago.
More recently we’ve been able to push the boundaries toward what are people’s personal practices around racism and accountability — not just definitions but looking at what they are doing. How their lives and community connect to bigger structures, structures that have historical roots, that harken back to chattel slavery and colonialism. So the conversation is deepening in terms of action orientation and rigor.
Tova: There are four dimensions of working on racism: Intrapersonal level (within oneself), interpersonal, community, and society.
Initially we focused on the intrapersonal dimension, such as ‘when did you first realize you were white?’ Then we began looking at some of the impacts such as microaggressions. We provided background on how societal notions of race came to be and some of the history of racism in our country, redlining, etc. Many sessions focused on how to talk with other white people about race. We did many role plays.
As Lucy said, now we’re moving into the institutional and systemic aspects which we have to face if we’re going to change anything. We might have close personal relationships with POC in which we can be open and honest but that’s not going to change our institutions. It’s important but it’s not enough.
Three recent meetings have been about policing and the prison-industrial system. Because racial inequities are more visible due to Covid-19 as well as the protests against police violence, people are more aware of the injustice and are asking what we can do about it.
Lucy: It’s nice to have a shared analysis, not just definitions but also an understanding of cause and effect, as a group. Then the conversation expands beyond the narrow domain of prejudicial racism and starts to be about how white people engage with things like money and recognizing that our economy is structurally racial capitalism and the foundation of our economy is based on the extraction of resources from the bodies of Black and Brown people.
When we say we’re concerned about economic justice or climate justice or carceral justice, all of these are ways of saying anti-racism or racial justice.
Dawu: What are you finding inspiring about working with the group?
Tova: The level of commitment many participants have to doing this work is very inspiring. I see them coming back and growing and speaking with more ease about whiteness and seeing some of the ways in which we cause harm inadvertently.
I see people viewing things differently at SFZC now. Some of the people who come to the group faithfully are taking the practice into their lives, relationships and work. I find that so encouraging.
Lucy: We’ve definitely had some frequent fliers and it’s been great to get to know them not just as part of the group but as individual people. It has felt very socially connecting for me.
It’s also a social privilege to be empowered to teach. I have had to clean up my act in a good way and to make sure I’m clear on what I’m talking about and personally how I live out my commitments. I’m being called to responsibility by being asked to hold space in this way and that’s a blessing. It helps me to keep showing up.
It could be so easy for me to put down this work since my life is full. But when I know Tova and I need to meet to plan and then hold space together, I keep showing up. I’m not perfect – I will forever be learning and unintentionally acting racist and having to repair my mistakes, but I believe in the work, and I’m committed to the long haul. To draw on the wisdom of Rhonda Magee, I want to stay in relationship in the shared pursuit of justice.
I’m still hopeful that a liberated, compassionate, radically equal way to live and practice together is possible and I’m starting to see the seeds of that.
Tova: People in leadership are discussing how to have a bigger impact on the culture of SFZC. What could we do to support a parallel group for POC? Perhaps then we could come together and talk about those issues together. Lucy and I would both like to see that our work is relevant and that SFZC is moving in terms of more equity and inclusivity for different groups
Lucy: A group like Unpacking Whiteness can’t stand alone. Given the structure of SFZC and both of our positions, we’re trying to understand what deeper accountability looks like. What is a way that Unpacking Whiteness can be accountable to practitioners of color at SFZC? How can we build out those relationships and mechanisms?
What does it look like for practitioners of color at SFZC to have a space of their own that is protected, resourced and joyful? Because it feels imbalanced to have a group of white practitioners doing this work and then to not resource a space for practitioners of color to feel like they can let down their guard and be themselves in ways that are often impossible around white folks. These are the goals for the next phase.
Anti-racism organizing and action in institutions needs to be coalitional,so understanding what it looks like for a group of white practitioners who have an awareness of how they manifest whiteness can then act in support of their peers of color. Bigger picture questions, we don’t have all the answers.
Tova: I know that many of the people who are coming are taking this back to their workplaces, their relationships, their families, maybe their institutions. What we’re doing ripples out —you never know all the ways in which it does that.
The other thing that keeps me going is Lucy [they both laugh].
Lucy: We do like working together.
I believe that the practice of anti-racism is the fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow. If we are practicing for all beings, if we are looking to bring an end to all delusion, if we are looking to cease suffering—this is the path.
Dawu: Is there anything else you think would be good for people to know [about the group]?
Tova: I would like people to know that they’re welcome. They can enter this practice of self-study and societal study at any time. It’s interesting to me that people now come from around the country [because of Zoom]. Unpacking Whiteness groups are starting up at other Zen centers and I think it’s transformative work
Lucy: I’ve got two thoughts. One of the goals I have for Unpacking Whiteness is accountability and to be more transparent about what the group is doing. So we’re making our resource list available for this interview. [See below.]
I think it’s important for a group of white people to be transparent because historically groups of white people getting together to talk about stuff in a corner has produced violence. So we want to be very transparent about what the group is.
Secondly, I believe that the practice of anti-racism is the fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow. If we are practicing for all beings, if we are looking to bring an end to all delusion, if we are looking to cease suffering—this is the path.
It’s a bold and global statement, but I think anyone’s practice is incomplete without an understanding of race and liberation and that is particularly true for white folks. So I challenge people if they haven’t taken up this work to do so—and there’s a lot of ways to do so, they don’t have to necessarily come to our group. An understanding of racial harm in America is inherent to being an enlightened practitioner.
Tova: Beautifully said. That brought tears to my eyes. She speaks for me. I agree!
More information on joining the Unpacking Whiteness meeting (currently being held online.) The next meeting is on August 17, 7:30 – 8:30pm PT. Dates for the Fall meetings will be available soon.
Unpacking Whiteness resources list (includes slide decks from previous meetings)
A Dharma talk from Crystal A Johnson
San Francisco Zen Center, Marin County and, indeed, anyone concerned about the environment, lost a great friend and benefactor with the death of Huey Johnson on July 12, 2020. Read more
There has been an array of solar panels on the roof of Beginner’s Mind Temple at 300 Page Street since 2005. These panels produce 40-50% of the electricity used in the building, based on the available square footage for the array.
Late last year, with the availability of rebates from the City of San Francisco, and with the help of Interfaith Power and Light, a nation-wide environmental non-profit that works with religious institutions, San Francisco Zen Center hired Luminalt, a local firm, to install panels on the four other buildings that Zen Center owns on Page Street. (Abbess emerita Linda Ruth Cutts is a former board member of IPL.) Read more
This week San Francisco Zen Center’s leadership made the difficult but necessary decision to close Tassajara for the remainder of the Guest Season and to cancel the Fall Work Period. While this is disappointing news, the health and safety of our guests and community is too important to risk.
The closing of Guest Season offers us a unique opportunity to address important and much needed fire prevention measures. Tassajara’s Fire Marshal Rob Thomas has friends in the wildland fire community who are interested in making Tassajara a safer place for residents, guests, and future emergency responders. We’re planning for a group of 5 to 10 people who can take crucial steps towards preparing the area for the high-alert fire seasons that are unfortunately expected this year and in the future.
The crew will work on a number of fire safety projects and begin clearing the surrounding underbrush to reduce flammable material.
Tassajara is grateful for your love and support as we navigate this extraordinary time. We look forward to when we can open the gates and share this beautiful valley with you once again. Read more
Sangha News speaks with Nancy Petrin (Horin Raika, Dharma Forest/ Bringing Harmony), recently appointed as tanto (head of practice) at Beginner’s Mind Temple/City Center.
Sangha News: Hi Nancy. Thank you for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your new position.
Nancy: You’re welcome. And thank you.
SN: Before we go into more personal territory, let me ask you a general question. The tanto position is defined as the head of practice for a temple. But what does being tanto mean to you?
N: Before I accepted the position I asked to see a job description because although I had known many tantos I didn’t know exactly what the job would entail. The first job of the tanto is “keeper of the forms”––the forms of the zendo and of ceremonial practice. I loved reading that because I love our forms and was drawn to practice largely because of them.
The second task is to “bring everyone along together.” This involves inviting speakers and scheduling classes and doing my best to include everyone in the practice––teachers and residents and non-residential practitioners. And that is what I really want to do, to find ways to support people as individuals and help them show up for practice as themselves, both here and in the world.
Eleven weeks ago, we reached out to San Francisco Zen Center’s community of friends, practitioners, and supporters asking for their help. It was a time of great uncertainty and distress and you responded with generosity, warmth, and care. We heard from over 1750 people in 25 countries, some giving for the first time and some for the first time in several years. We also heard from our long-time donors whose steadfast support is so critical.
Today we are pleased to announce that thanks to your generosity, we have exceeded our goal at 1.1M. These funds make it possible for us to take care of our communities and to continue to offer the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha Way to the wider sangha. We are deeply grateful and humbled by your overwhelming response. Read more
“When Shunryu Suzuki first saw a published copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he looked it over for a minute and commented, “Good book, I didn’t write it, but it looks like a good book.” That was fifty years ago, the summer of 1970. He and a few students were in the foyer of the San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center standing around some boxes of the newly published hardcover.” — David Chadwick, from the new afterword of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind turns 50 this summer, with a beautiful new cover and updated afterword by David Chadwick. We were in the beginning stages of planning a big celebration when the pandemic hit but hope to have some events online this coming fall.
David Chadwick has devoted an extensive section of his website to the history of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, including a chart annotating his new afterword.
Green Gulch Farm held a memorial service on 5/31 for the innumerable lives lost to police violence and hung a Black Lives Matter banner on their sign on Highway 1. Yesterday, residents marched to the top of the driveway to sit in solidarity as strict shelter in place protocols have prevented the community to join the protests. To view the memorial service, held in the empty GGF zendo due to physical distancing, go here: https://www.sfzc.org/teachings/dharma-talks/george-floyd-blm-service
On Sunday, residents at Beginner’s Mind Temple painted a Black Lives Matter banner and put it up across the front of the entryway of 300 Page Street. Green Gulch Farm is also in the process of creating a BLM banner and we will share that when it happens. UPDATE: See images below of the banner that Green Gulch Farm made and hung on the sign on Highway 1.
The spiritual leadership of San Francisco Zen Center stands with the families and communities of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other Black lives lost to the systemic racist violence endemic to American society.
The painful and pervasive reality of racism will not allow us to turn away. We take a stand against all expressions of racism, beginning with the racial, cultural, and class disparities in our state and country that are being highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bodhisattva vows we hold in our hearts tell us to save all sentient beings from suffering. To this end, we encourage each member and friend of the wider San Francisco Zen Center community to cultivate the Bodhisattva spirit in inquiring deeply, “What am I going to do from here on to be actively anti-racist?” We urge our community not to be silent.
In the coming days, we will be sharing more about how to practice with this deeply complex and important question, as well as what SFZC is doing as a sangha and an organization.
May we all have the courage, strength, and support to examine our own hearts and minds. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.