Sara Tashker (Ango Jika – Peaceful Shelter, Compassionate Result) recently became SFZC’s Director of Donor Relations, with a deep bow to her predecessor, Myles Cowherd. In this interview, Sara describes how her idealism in her twenties resulted in her more than twenty years of organic farming and Zen practice at Green Gulch Farm and continues to inspire her in her new role.
Sangha News: What brought you to Zen practice? How old were you? What was going on in your life?
In college, I majored in political science and was interested in socialist, left-leaning governments and their visions of a more equitable society. Then I spent a year after college working in New York City and on Long Island for a political party formed by Labor unions and community groups. It turned out that the work was too abstract for me. I ended up coming back to California three days before September 11. I did a lot of soul-searching about what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I still wanted to do something very idealistic and asked myself, “What is the most idealistic thing I can think to do that will also be the correct scale for me?”
Organic farming is what I thought of, because it’s generative and the things you’re responsible for you can see with your own eyes. I had a friend who had lived at San Francisco Zen Center and he mentioned that Green Gulch had a Farm Apprenticeship Program I should check out. At the time, I knew nothing about Buddhism, but I came as a Guest Student.
The community life really appealed to me—having support, teachers, and encouragement. As a farmer, I’ve been able to experience how growing food powerfully addresses harm and suffering in the world, and I’ve also been able to see that it’s only one of many ways to do this. In a sense, when I came to Green Gulch I wasn’t searching so much for farming as I was for the Dharma, which illuminates the root causes of suffering and points to freedom in any conditions. Zen practice and our Bodhisattva precepts gave me language to talk about what I was trying to do with my political organizing, when I was asking, “What kind of world are we manifesting and where does it come from?”
I want to live and manifest a world arising from vow, from the desire to live for the benefit of all beings. I ended up at Green Gulch because I saw that embodied here.
Sangha News: How did residential life, personal life, and family life unfold together?
I was lucky enough to meet my partner—now husband—Abbot Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler when I was a Farm Apprentice in 2002, during a trip he made back to the U.S. to be ordained by his Zen Center teacher, while training in Japan. Luckily, the center of his life is also practice. We both have a capacity to live in sangha and a desire to dedicate our lives to formal practice and the institution of San Francisco Zen Center. It’s a rare thing, and it has been very nourishing.
We were married in 2007 by Sojun Mel Weitzman in the Green Gulch zendo. Our first child, Frank, was born in 2010 and our second child, Dusty, was born in 2014. I was ordained as a priest by Sojun in 2013.
Now Frank is 13 and Dusty is almost 9. They love living at Green Gulch, being outside, and playing in the creek. And occasionally I can get them to help on the farm!
Sangha News: What is it like to have lived at San Francisco Zen Center for over two decades?
It’s a gift to have been so supported. My understanding of how much I have been supported has changed as I transition into the role of supporting other people. I realize how generously I was held as a new student—and still am! I see how much work all the senior teachers, long-term residents, and members of the wider sangha have done to take care of this place over the decades.
I’m so fulfilled by taking care of Green Gulch and the people who come with Way Seeking Mind. It is an honor to help to create the practice container that has been so important to me. My life has been made by this institution, this place, this land.
And of course, living here is not for everyone. There are many people and relationships to tend, and there’s not a lot of privacy. But it keeps me on my toes and really supports my understanding. When we have a more independent life, maybe we think we made our own life or aren’t supported. And it’s just so clear to me that every single aspect of my life has been given to me by the sangha. Then I can ask, “How am I reciprocating that? How am I offering it back?” I can’t think of anything better to do with my life.
Sangha News: How does the long-time Farm Manager become the Director of Donor Relations? What’s the connection?
The need arose with Myles transitioning away from SFZC and I thought about it and realized at this time in my life it feels like a good fit, because all my years of farming have cultivated my understanding of relationship and what this place is.
What I understand—what I have learned from farming—is that life is all (and nothing but) relationship. On the farm, you pay attention to soil, nutrients, weeds, pests, water, and weather and all of these things are what come together to make the food. As my practice has matured, I see how SFZC is nothing but the people who care about it and who create it with their life energy in the form of time, money, labor, and whatever resources they have. This includes residents, non-residents, Zen practitioners, and non-practitioners who are touched by this place. We all manifest it together through our actions.
When I was a younger student, I saw the senior teachers holding these sangha and donor relationships and I didn’t quite understand it. And now I understand that this is how San Francisco Zen Center is real and how it continues—it’s embodied in people who care for each other over time. So I think, “Well, of course I want to love and honor and collaborate with people who have an affinity for the Dharma, the land, and the wellness of the world, and who understand that we have to take care of each other and the world.”
When people make a donation, there is something San Francisco Zen Center is doing that they feel connected to and want to see happen in the world. What a wonderful opportunity to give my life energy to supporting people who want to manifest our shared values in the world.
Sangha News: What is the essence of your work as the Director of Donor Relations?
The essence is connecting people to what they love about San Francisco Zen Center, practice, and sangha. I want to be able to share with our supporters what SFZC is doing that might be of interest to them or relates to their wish to care for the world. What is it we’re doing that touches you and what do you want to see blossom in the world through your giving?
So, for example, we’ve had a longtime SFZC supporter who loves the farm—the land here and the fact that we farm from an orientation to spirit. When Myles and I shared with her our vision for the farm—our aspiration to give away more of the food we grow and to adopt more sustainable farming practices—she immediately wanted to help. She offered several very generous gifts that have enabled us to use less water, care for the soil through no-till and low-till soil management, and give away more produce to neighbors in need. Connecting this donor with what she loves and showing her the tangible impact of her giving, right here on the farm, has been such an honor for me. Her clarity about what’s important and how she can support it financially is quite moving.
Partnering with other SFZC supporters in this way is connection, collaboration, and joy. How fun to do something that you think is going to support and delight living beings!
Sangha News: What would you like members of the SFZC sangha and wider community to know about how you can support them?
I want to hear what you love about how San Francisco Zen Center is contributing to the world by offering Suzuki Roshi’s way, and I hope you’ll reach out and tell me how we could make that more impactful together, how we can share and embody even more “the most important thing.”
It’s a serious question and it’s also joyful. I’ve come to a place where practice is about joy and ease. And that has arisen because I’ve been able to practice with the Four Noble Truths and the reality of suffering, the delusion (and very real feeling) of separation, and impermanence. Once I’ve been able to really settle with these wounds and let go, then I can feel how beautiful and precious this time is that we have with each other.
Sangha News: What are you passionate about right now?
I’m interested in caring for places of practice and inviting people in. Part of what draws people to San Francisco Zen Center is that we have these physical spaces that make our practice manifest and recognizable to each other. You walk into 300 Page Street (City Center) and you feel how that building is cared for: how the statues are placed and the cushions lined up, the way people are walking and the way the courtyard garden is tended to, and there is a feeling of practice that you can’t necessarily put your finger on but that is the visible karma of many people coming together and caring for one another and for each thing.
Most of my practice life has been at Green Gulch, taking care of this land. People come here and they see the land and the plants and the animals are thriving and the work we’re doing is visible even if you don’t know what the vows are of the people doing this work. People feel the care, and it affects them.
I am personally energized by how we take care of the land, farm, and soil as Zen practice and luckily there are many people with many interests who are energized by other, different aspects of what we are doing at SFZC. So really what I’m passionate about is collaboration. Because it’s only together that we take care of the whole. And when we do it together, it shows people there is a way of being in the world that is connected and healing.
Sangha News: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
There are so many people with long-term relationships to San Francisco Zen Center that are dedicated to this place and to Suzuki Roshi’s way of stillness, kindness, and generosity. Through their practice and support of practice centers, they have created the stability and continuity for SFZC to exist. In some ways, I’m a newbie. [Laughing.] I’m excited to get to know our donors and work with them to create the next generation of this stability. I’m excited to be working with others who are motivated by a sense of, “This is what we need to do with our time on earth and I’m ready to dedicate resources I have—time, talent, or treasure—to supporting what’s vitally important in this world, where there is so much confusion and suffering.”
For thousands of years in India, China, and Japan, there has been an understanding of the merit of supporting the Dharma. The Dharma could not go on without these benefactors. This places the supporters of San Francisco Zen Center in a long and important lineage of keeping the Dharma alive.
If you would like to connect with Sara to share your experience as a donor or to learn more about giving at San Francisco Zen Center, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org