April 16, 2024
Thoughts on Disability and Access in Zen Practice

“The body is not an obstacle to enlightenment;
the body is itself enlightenment.”
–Shunryu Suzuki


By Brendan Crowe, Online Content Manager at San Francisco Zen Center

In October, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association’s Priests with Disabilities affinity group offered a two-part Disability in Zen Workshop Series. In keeping with several workshops SZBA offers, this series was open to the public, though I attended on the invitation of one of the organizers, Marta Dabis from Jisso-ji Zen Ann Arbor, MI. 

I have a specialized interest in the topic, with years of experience working in the disabilities field, particularly in home and religious settings. Over time, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of how to practice with neurodivergence within my own family. The matter of disability and accessibility are interwoven into my life and are a focus of making the Dharma accessible in my role as Online Content Manager. 

The Priests with Disabilities affinity group was co-founded in 2021 by Andrea Grant and Rakugo Castaldo. Andrea, who holds a doctorate in atmospheric science, recognizes that her journey in Buddhism and Zen practice has been deeply intertwined with her experiences as a disabled, neurodivergent individual, leading her to advocate for inclusivity and representation within the Zen community. Rakugo, a Soto priest and Shakespeare professor, is dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and works closely with the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity) committee of the SZBA.

The conception of SZBA’s Priests with Disabilities group was a response to the challenges and misunderstandings in addressing ableism within Zen, as experienced by practitioners who found formal priest training to be inadvertently exclusive. Tells Andrea Grant: “I had no one to support me as a ​disabled priest in training at my sangha, nor was my teacher able to find any disabled or neurodivergent priests they could consult. Indeed I finally reached out to SZBA directly asking if there were any disabled priests I could speak with. If there are no disabled priests, how will disabled sangha members feel truly welcomed and that their needs and issues are truly understood?”

This underscores a broader narrative in Zen communities—the profound impact of representation, or the lack thereof, on disabled and neurodivergent individuals seeking a place in these spiritual practices. 

Kokuu Andy McLellan, a participant in the workshops who identifies as disabled due to chronic illness, captures this sentiment: “I want to see people sitting in chairs with neck braces, wheelchair-using priests … visually impaired Zen students reading from braille chant books.” McLellan’s vision for inclusive representation in Zen underscores the urgent need for diverse embodiment in our practices and spaces, aligning with the conversations initiated in the workshops to foster this change. 

The first workshop that SZBA offered explored how disability, trauma, and neurodiversity manifest within Zen practice. It began by defining ableism as “a pervasive system of oppression that devalues and marginalizes people with disabilities.” 

I reflected that some of the biggest challenges and strengths I’ve witnessed over my years in the sangha have arisen when the community of practice encounters ableism. This happens when a need to find supportive adaptations is marginalized by adherence to strict forms, or when the community’s ongoing needs for physical labor trumps a healthy accommodation. 

The workshop pointed to two Dogen quotes that helped to set the context for which we began our discussions:¹
“To fully engage without sparing your bodily life is to mature your practice of the Dharma.”
“Love and respect our body, mind, and self that are engaged in this continuous practice.” 

Read one way, Dogen encourages embracing one’s entire being, including any disabilities, suggesting that the depth of practice and sincerity is more important than conforming to a specific physical or mental standard. Read another way, “they are two views that can be in conflict—throw yourself in so completely that you don’t even spare your life, or take care of yourself kindly,” reflects Dhammadīpā, a teacher with a background in the Theravada tradition and ordained in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage of Soto Zen.

Does Dogen’s teaching advocate for embracing our whole selves within Zen practice? Does this stand in stark contrast to ableist views which often perceive disabilities as issues needing correction?

The question posed to us was how to move away from seeing disability as “a problematic characteristic that needs correcting, normalizing, or eliminating”² and ask ourselves “how we can truly create and support forms … that welcome everyone,” as noted by Koshin Steven Tierney, SZBA Board and Planning Group Member. 

Dhammadīpā, an SZBA Board Member, offers her reflection: “If our understanding of ritual is not based in the Dharma, then ritual becomes mechanical. It becomes a set of movements that is prescribed and it is taken up as a collection of rules. When that happens, then questions such as, ‘Is it okay for someone to sit in a chair in the zendo?’ and ‘Can someone perform a ceremony without doing all the bows?’ will be discussed endlessly without resolution. However, when ritual is understood as the embodiment of the Dharma, then it can take the shape and respond to the needs of these very bodies in which we live.” This perspective illuminated our discussions, highlighting the importance of grounding our practices in the essence of the Dharma, allowing it to naturally adapt to the diverse needs of practitioners.

The second session delved into the practical aspects of Zen training and priest training. We navigated the intricate discussions surrounding training essentials and how these intersect with the needs and capabilities of practitioners with disabilities. This exploration was not just about adapting to disabilities but also about honoring the diversity that each individual brings to our Zen practice. 

“Though I often experienced sensory overload of various kinds, like lights, sounds, and smells, I stayed on the cushion. To manage this, I adapted by wearing earmuffs and using a hat in the zendo when more light was needed, but not during zazen when the lights were subdued,” shares Anlor Davin, who identifies as autistic. This insight highlights her personal approach to adapting Zen practice to her sensory needs, exemplifying the importance of individualized accommodations in spiritual settings.

It became evident that there’s no one-size-fits-all method, especially when it comes to accommodating diverse needs. Each lineage, with its unique practices and perspectives, offers valuable insights into how we might inclusively adapt our training methods. The richness of these varying approaches opened up possibilities for more accessible and flexible practices, catering to a wide range of abilities.

As Steven Tierney noted, this goes beyond mere accommodation, which “can also be otherizing, making the person feel highlighted and stigmatized.” Instead, it’s about actively recognizing and valuing the unique contributions that each person brings to our sangha. Ben Connelly, a member of the SZBA Board, reflected: “[In the workshop] … I envisioned Zen communities where every person’s ability is supported and celebrated.” This vision encapsulates the spirit of our discussions—a movement towards a community where diversity is not just accommodated but is integral to our collective practice.

The breakout sessions provided a more intimate setting for us to grapple with these themes. We pondered the statement, “Forms in Zen matter, but not the sameness of them.” This led to rich conversations about the core aspects of our practice, such as zazen on a cushion, full prostrations, and chanting—and how these could be adapted without losing their essence.

One of the vital insights from the breakout groups was the importance of shared expectations in Zen forms. In this regard, Hoka Chris Fortin, a workshop participant, shared her thoughts: “It was heartening to join in intimate conversation that was both deeply appreciative of our Zen tradition and its beautiful forms, and also of the ways that harm has been caused by zendo and practice standards that are not considerate or inclusive of the diversity of capacities and abilities of the bodies that we have all been born into.” Her words underscored the emotional depth and complexity involved in adapting Zen practices to be more inclusive, balancing respect for tradition with the need for change.

The breakout sessions allowed us to deeply explore adaptability within Zen practices. Hoka Chris Fortin’s reflections on the need for inclusivity echoed Andrea Grant’s experience. In an email, Andrea candidly shared a telling instance: During dokusan in retreats, she observed how the doshi would only address their own need for a physical break from the cushion when accommodating her, a disabled practitioner. This behavior raised critical questions about genuinely modeling self-care and acknowledging diverse physical needs within Zen practice. It highlighted a discrepancy between the spoken encouragement of “taking care of your body” and the actions observed, underscoring the complex emotional landscape in adapting Zen to be truly inclusive.

The dialogue on accessibility in Zen spaces extended beyond physical infrastructure to embrace the broader needs of practitioners. Andrea Grant notes, “Retrofitting for access is often very expensive or not even possible for many buildings, so it’s something that’s going to move slowly.” While many centers have been commended for their accessibility by some wheelchair users, the conversation highlighted the nuanced requirements of a body-based practice. Andrea continues, “Disability goes so much farther than just whether or not the building is wheelchair accessible.” This understanding underscores the need for ongoing adaptability and flexibility, both in physical and online settings, to foster truly inclusive practice and community building.

The workshop series pushed me to rethink and reevaluate practices in light of inclusivity and compassion. The discussion of ableism as a systemic oppression is just the beginning. It’s crucial to recognize the real harm caused by such ingrained biases, rather than perceiving it as merely an item on a DEIA checklist.

Understanding ableism, akin to the slow societal grappling with racism and other systemic oppressions, requires deep, ongoing engagement and not just surface acknowledgment. It reminded me that offering Zen practice, at its core, is about meeting each individual where they are, with all their unique abilities and challenges.

Our discussions were not just theoretical but a call to action—to create Zen communities that truly embody the welcoming spirit of the Dharma.


¹ Dogen’s Gyōji, “Continuous Practice”, Fascicles 1 & 2, as translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi. For more details on the translation and the text, visit Kazuaki Tanahashi’s works on Dogen.

² Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Introduction). Indiana University Press.