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Writing Is How I Live, an interview with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Zenju by Anna Cummings

Photo by Anna Cummings

By Tova Green

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is a poet, although to Sangha News readers she may be better known as a Dharma-transmitted Zen teacher and author of several books inspired by her Zen practice. She will be co-leading a poetry workshop on Saturday, September 11, with Ross Gay, “How to Skim the Cream.”

In our interview, Zenju spoke about her lifelong connection with poetry and how she came to see herself as a writer.

Zenju, known as Earthlyn prior to receiving her Dharma name, started writing as an eight-year-old because she felt speechless. Her family had moved to a new neighborhood in Los Angeles and she was attending her first all-white school. Writing helped her navigate the experience. She didn’t think of herself as a writer then. She wrote poems on paper bags, envelopes, anything she could find, and saved the papers in large boxes. She did this from elementary to high school. As an adult, when she was getting ready to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, she discarded the boxes and their contents, in an effort to reduce her load. She later regretted it.

Although high school teachers praised her poetry, and were happy about a poem that was published in a chapbook of the school’s English Literature department, Zenju wasn’t interested in being published and didn’t hold onto her copy of the chapbook. She wrote some essays in high school, though for her it was “poetry, poetry, poetry all the way.”

Zenju attended a college preparatory high school and majored in English literature. She read the classics—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, Emily Dickinson, and added on her own Phyllis Wheatley, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes. Although she started out studying English literature in college, when she saw the reading list she realized she had already studied the texts in high school and wasn’t interested in repeating them. She took classes in Sociology and Psychology but later graduated with a major in Pan-African studies. After being offered full scholarships from major universities in the country to attend graduate school, she chose to stay in her hometown and attend UCLA.

Zenju’s father, born in 1898 in a sharecropper’s family, was illiterate, and her mother, born in 1910, had only completed sixth grade, but later graduated high school at the age of 65. Both parents, having migrated from rural Louisiana, made sure that their three daughters received a good education. It was the path to success for many Black people whose families were farm-workers or servants, with limited access to formal education. Read more


In Appreciation of Thomas Cleary: A Personal Remembrance

Thomas Cleary and Taigen Leighton

By Taigen Dan Leighton

I am writing to honor Thomas Cleary after his passing away June 20 and his amazing legacy of translations, Buddhist and otherwise. Many of his texts are crucial to Soto Zen practice, and for all modern Buddhist practitioners. His translations are lucid, creative, and accessible. They included not only Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, but important Taoist and other Chinese classics. He later also translated from Arabic the Qu’ran and illuminating Sufi material, as well as translations from Greek and old Irish classics. His gift with languages was phenomenal.

I was privileged to study academically with Dr. Cleary for a year, 1986-87, including three courses, in Zen, Taoism, and Huayan Buddhism. His classes led to my studying for a Masters Degree at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, where I enrolled initially for the opportunity to study with him. He was an insightful, brilliant lecturer. In the first class in his Zen course he said that the aim of learning Buddhism is to learn about learning, and to maximize receptivity to reality although no complete formulation of reality is possible. I enjoyed several lengthy individual conversations with Cleary while walking from CIIS, back then in the Haight-Ashbury, to the Civic Center BART, where he took the train back to his East Bay home. During this year Cleary also taught two very popular classes at San Francisco Zen Center, which I also attended.

Any account of Cleary’s translations must commence with his monumental rendition of the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, more than 1600 pages, one of the most stimulating of Mahayana texts. It is replete with luminous visions of bodhisattva activity and exalted experiences of mind and reality, conveyed with lush, psychedelic, evocative imagery. As the inspiration for the Chinese Huayan teachings (Kegon in Japanese) it is highly influential for all East Asian Buddhism. In his Huayan class I attended, Cleary mentioned that he recited aloud the entire Avatamsaka Sutra in Chinese seven times before he started translating it. Cleary’s Entry into the Inconceivable is one of the most valuable books on the dialectical Huayan philosophy, providing translations of the dense, profound writings from the Chinese Huayan founders. As with most of his translations, Cleary’s introductory commentaries are extremely informative. Read more


Sew with Heart: An International Zen Sewing Practice Period

Sewing a rakusu

By Tova Green

The Zen Buddhist Sewing Teachers and Everyday Zen launched a six-month non-residential online practice period in June 2021, called Sewing with Heart. Seventy sewing teachers and apprentices from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Russia are participating in this unique offering.

The inspiration for the practice period came from Shosan Victoria Austin, who wanted to honor the fifth anniversary of Zenkei Blanche Hartman’s death on May 13, 2016. Because of the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic, Shosan realized that she couldn’t plan a large in-person gathering to celebrate Blanche’s life and teaching, and decided to put together an online practice period to honor Blanche’s many years as the SFZC sewing teacher.

Shosan describes sewing Buddha’s robe as a work practice, a form of service to the sangha. Suzuki Roshi said in a talk he gave in June 1971, “We do not make our robe just for ourselves. We are making something greater, which will include everything, which could be everyone’s.”

Sewing Buddha’s Robe, or Nyoho-e (translated literally as the clothing of Dharma suchness) is a tradition that goes back to the time of the Buddha. In the early days of San Francisco Zen Center, Suzuki Roshi invited Yoshida Roshi to come from Japan to teach sewing. Later, Richard Baker invited Joshin-san, who had trained at Antaiji, to be the Zen Center sewing teacher. Yoshida Roshi and Joshin-san represent two traditions of sewing. Yoshida Roshi passed her method on to Tomoe Katagiri in Minnesota, and Joshin-san trained Blanche Hartman.

When the Zen Buddhist Sewing Teachers Association was founded in 2012, one of its goals was to fulfill Blanche’s request that we keep sewing practice alive and connect sewing teachers in both traditions.

The six-month Sewing with Heart practice period is divided into three sections, each two months long: a historical focus, acknowledging the heart of the Nyoho-e tradition, including stories about Blanche and Tomoe-san; learning about how this tradition is transmitted through time and space; and exploring the legacy of Nyoho-e, how to transmit the heart of Nyoho-e to future generations. Read more


Meet Eli Brown-Stevenson, SFZC’s New Secretary

Eli Brown-Stevenson portrait

Interview by Tova Green

Eli Brown-Stevenson, a San Francisco Zen Center priest ordained by Central Abbot Ed Sattizahn, became SFZC’s Corporate Secretary in January 2021. In this interview he spoke of what prepared him to take on this leadership role and what he is learning as Secretary.

Prior to coming to Tassajara with his wife Catherine (Cat) Stevenson in the summer of 2012, the couple had been living in Phoenix where Eli had worked in management positions in different sectors including for-profit education and new home construction. His years of interfacing with the cosmopolitan world, as well as his education in business, helped prepare Eli for his roles at SFZC.

Eli’s experience as Director of Work Practice exposed him to the complexities of SFZC’s organizational structure and policies. Because he participated in high level Zen Center committees, Eli has gotten to know those in leadership roles at all three temples.

The SFZC Board invited Eli to become a member in 2016. As a Board member he gained an understanding of the role of the Board and the function of Board committees. This makes it easier for him to take notes at Board meetings now. “I’ve been well trained for the Secretary position,” he commented. “I have been behind the scenes enough that I don’t feel so new as an officer.”

Eli loves to know how things work, and how things came to be the way they are at SFZC. The Secretary is the keeper of SFZC’s archives and this gives Eli “a full pass to look around at things, such as how certain committees were formed.”

The role of Secretary includes a number of projects. Eli finds it satisfying to see a project through from start to finish. He worked with the other SFZC officers and two residents to draft SFZC’s recent “Zensus.” This survey had two purposes: to learn how residents feel about their life and practice at SFZC and to gather basic demographic information. Eli worked on a follow-up report which was distributed and discussed at an all-temple meeting and with the SFZC Board. The plan is to repeat the Zensus annually which will give leadership a better pulse on residential life. This can be useful for visioning processes. Read more


Closed Captioning: Benefits and Limitations

Closed captioning graphic
By Tova Green

Recently, Closed Captioning was enabled for all San Francisco Zen Center’s programs, classes, Dharma talks, and meetings, that is, anything presented via Zoom. Dan Belsky, SFZC’s IT Director, and Brendan Crowe, one of SFZC’s Zoom hosts, worked through some glitches to get it functioning reliably.

Brendan had checked  for the availability of Closed Captioning and found that Zoom users had to pay for a third party transcription service that wasn’t efficient for SFZC’s purposes. While he was hosting a Zoom program on Unpacking Whiteness, he learned from East Bay Meditation Center’s host that Zoom had begun to provide its own automated transcription, with the qualification that it  transcribes only words and terms that are spoken in the English language.

Brendan is impressed by Zoom’s efforts to support users. Zoom can save an entire transcription of an event as well as the visual and voice recording and is planning to make this feature available to all Zoom users this year. He notes that, “When you’re working on making things accessible to a particular group (in this case, those who are hard of hearing or deaf), it ends up being of benefit to everyone.”

Sangha News consulted City Center resident Rev. Keido Keith Baker in preparing this article. Keith, who became deaf while residing at City Center and has been an advocate and resource for offering access to SFZC’s teachings to members of the Deaf Community, commented, “The current offering on Zoom is from the Google AI Transcription Servers. It’s called Closed Captioning by most, but really it’s Live Captioning, or Real Time Captioning. It approaches nearly 100% accuracy when captioning simple English wordings, and about a 75% success rate for ‘off English content.’” Read more


Willow Fire at Tassajara: A Firsthand Account

ZMC firefighter helmet
By Myles Cowherd

On June 18, at 2 am, less than a month after my fire preparedness training, I received a phone call from Kogen Dito-Keith, our Tassajara Fire Crew head. He said, “Good morning, Myles. Sorry to call so early. We’ve got a fire 1.66 miles away from Tassajara, and I don’t have many details on it, so I’m on my way, and I was hoping you could come with me.” I packed my things and left after lunch to help protect Tassajara from the Willow Fire.

The week that followed was an exhilarating experience for me and gave me a new appreciation for both the precariousness of maintaining a mountain refuge in a time of climate change and for Zen practice as a tool to meet this challenge. These are my “behind the scenes” observations (including a link to my photos) as a resident staff person, priest, and volunteer fire crew member.

The seven-person volunteer fire crew, including a resident from all three SFZC temples and a smokejumper from Alaska, divided the temple into five divisions from west to east. Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, with Dharma Rain as our lifeline.

Each division had a pump submerged in the creek, pressuring the above- and below-ground Dharma Rain system. We incrementally improved the system daily until it covered 100% of the structures, pumps, and hoses. As I fiddled with the Dharma Rain system, getting thoroughly wet in the process, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for all the community members who made it a reality.

In the evening, we took turns of one-hour shifts between midnight and 6 am, making our way to the solar panels to see if the fire had crested the mountain. The cool evening air biting the skin and cooling the sweat from the trek up the hill while our hearts raced and the stars sparkled in the jet black night sky. Read more


Zen-a-thon Bike & Hike

Group picnicking on lawn

Bike ride in Marin, lunchtime – image by Myles Cowherd

While Covid-19 restrictions prevented San Francisco Zen Center from holding the usual Zen-a-thon Day of Celebration this past spring, sangha members were able to participate in three outdoor activities on Sunday, June 27, with a lunch provided by Greens Restaurant.

A stunning ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, from San Francisco to Tiburon, was led by SFZC priests and avid cyclists Myles Cowherd and Zachary Smith.

SFZC priest Shundo David Haye led an urban hike through San Francisco’s half-block alleys, staircases, slow streets, and some steep unpaved trails.

Melina Bloomfield, a Green Gulch Farm resident, led a hike in Marin, up and over Coyote Ridge, where sangha members enjoyed stellar views of the SF Bay and coastline.

It was a beautiful day in all locations and a wonderful opportunity to be together.

Read more