By Tova Green
Hozan Alan Senauke and I met soon after he became Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1991. Meeting him inspired me to practice Zen at Berkeley Zen Center. I joined the Board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and later the staff, and worked closely with him. Hozan became a mentor to me as my commitment to Zen practice grew, and I was delighted to meet with him for this interview.
We met in the Abbot’s room at Berkeley Zen Center, focusing on what it’s like to be the Abbot, his transition to that role, and his vision for Berkeley Zen Center.
Hozan began practicing at Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) in its earliest location on Dwight Way and later established his practice as a student of Sojun Mel Weitsman in the early 1980s. He was ordained as a Zen priest at BZC in 1989 and received Dharma Transmission from Sojun Roshi at Tassajara in 1998. After serving as Tanto (Head of Practice) and then as Vice-Abbot at BZC, Hozan was installed as Abbot in January 2021.
He is the second Abbot in BZC’s 55 years, following Sojun Roshi’s long tenure as founder and teacher. Because he has been practicing at BZC for so long, Hozan was familiar with Sojun’s way, and was well-known by the BZC sangha. When Sojun became ill, he and Hozan created a small group of senior students who helped think through the transition, including the ceremonies of Sojun’s stepping down and Hozan’s mountain seat (Abbot installation ceremony).
Sojun was weakening by the time of an emotional Stepping Down ceremony in late October 2020. He died at home on January 7, 2021. Hozan’s Mountain Seat Ceremony took place three weeks later. Hozan noted, “Because the sangha had seen us working together closely over so many years, members were able to support the change in leadership even while grieving Sojun’s death.”
Taking into account Covid precautions, the mostly online Mountain Seat ceremony was challenging to organize. “However, due to the pandemic, we were already in a hunkered-down mode. The community has pulled together during the pandemic. Things have been stable at BZC over the past year and a half, returning to our traditional practice in the context of safety, although some people may feel we’re too lax and some that we’re moving too slowly.”
Hozan reflects, “It’s hard to take on an abbot’s responsibility for a busy center at age 74. Many of my peers are retiring. It’s not only hard physically, it’s challenging to figure out my/our vision for sustaining practice at this practice place, and how to continue Sojun Roshi’s practice. Our leadership cadre is relatively old. The next generation is here, but the circumstances are different for younger people. They need more money to get by than we needed thirty years ago. It is more difficult [for them] to immerse themselves in practice than when I was coming up.”
Hozan came to Zen practice in his thirties “after seeming to come to the end of the script for my life. I had done many things—working as an editor, driving a taxi, performing music, and doing various low-level jobs that were not particularly satisfying. I felt that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Then I threw myself into Zen practice.” Hozan has been a resident at BZC since 1985.
Around the time he turned forty, a number of things shifted in his life. “I survived a serious illness. I was ordained as a priest in May 1989. I married Laurie later that year and soon became a parent. Then, in 1991, I was hired as director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship.” From that time on, his life and work activities have aligned with his values. Alan and Laurie (who is also a dharma-transmitted priest) raised their children Silvie and Alex, who are now young adults, at BZC.
Coming into the Abbot’s role, Hozan is learning to prioritize and delegate temple responsibilities and there is a strong cohort of senior students who have been practicing together for many years. Some aspects of Hozan’s activities are more difficult to share directly. Like Sojun, he has a long relationship with Sotoshu here in the U.S. Soto bishop, or sokan Gengo Akiba Roshi has been a mentor since Sojun’s passing. Hozan’s commitment to international and interfaith activism is something he longs to share in his extended network of friends and fellow practitioners.
During his years at BPF, Hozan became involved with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Rich friendships and connections through INEB have led to solidarity and support for the democracy movement in Myanmar, teaching in communities of Dalit Buddhists in India, and—here in the U.S.—working in prisons and protesting the death penalty. This work is described in two of Hozan’s books, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace—Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines and Heirs to Ambedkar—The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India. He is also founding director of the Clear View Project, which works on humanitarian projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, India, and the U.S. So far in 2022, Clear View has distributed $60,000 to projects and trusted friends around the world.
Hozan sees his vision for the future of Berkeley Zen Center as an extension of Sojun Roshi’s pioneering commitment to lay Zen practice, learning from our traditional teachers as well as from the diverse communities of the East Bay. In the coming months, BZC is beginning a program developed by East Bay Meditation Center and SZBA entitled “Many Communities One Sangha.” This educational process is aimed at enhancing diversity, strengthening communication skills, examining biases, and gaining confidence in our ability to respond to each other through skillful means.
In the long run, Hozan hopes to encourage a new generation of leadership at BZC, developing younger and BIPOC practitioners to sustain the teaching of Suzuki Roshi’s way and administration of the temple. He would also like to see BZC in relationship with diverse congregations of different faiths in the Bay Area.
Speaking of Branching Streams, the network of Zen Centers and sanghas in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, Hozan says, “The proliferation of Suzuki Roshi’s tradition is astonishing to me.” He is contributing to this, having inspired a practice group in Kerala, India, and given dharma transmission to two students who have a zendo and hospice in northern Germany.
Hozan also makes time to write. His forthcoming book, Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, will be published by Shambhala in March 2023. And he always takes great pleasure in playing traditional music with good friends.
Berkeley Zen Center is very fortunate to have Hozan as their Abbot.