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
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
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
On June 17, San Francisco Zen Center’s Central Abbot Ed Sattizahn, Enso Village Spiritual Director Susan O’Connell, and Green Gulch Farm Senior Dharma Teacher Linda Ruth Cutts officiated in a ground blessing at the site of the soon-to-be-built Enso Village, SFZC’s senior housing project in Healdsburg, CA. For the ceremony Leslie Thiele attended as jisha and Walter Keiser sounded the inkin.
The Kendal Corporation, SFZC’s partner in Enso Village, announced the closing of a green bond sale this month that raised funds to cover development costs, including design, marketing, land acquisition, and construction. Read more
Interview by Tova Green
Sozan Miglioli became San Francisco Zen Center’s President in January 2021, after serving as Vice President for several years. In this interview he spoke of his vision and priorities for his new role.
Sozan sees that “the world is going through a deep spiritual crisis.” When he was invited by the SFZC Board of Directors to take the President position he felt a deep sense of responsibility and also an opportunity to keep deepening his bodhisattva vows. He has asked, regarding SF Zen Center, “What does it mean to be one of the leading Buddhist organizations in the Western hemisphere in the 21st century, and what does it mean in this time, which is marked by a lot of suffering and division?”
Sozan’s focus as President is to keep making SFZC relevant and accessible for the wider community while ensuring that it is internally sustainable, inclusive, and diverse. By accessible, he means that what we offer must be relevant, although this might look different for different people.
“It’s important to find the connection between tradition and skillful means, between the teachings of Suzuki Roshi and understanding what touches people’s lives today. Both communication and deep listening are essential, opening the channel both ways—communicating what we have to offer in a skillful way and listening. Being accessible means that what we offer is available, approachable, people can relate to it. Zoom offerings bring a new light to the meaning of accessible, making it possible for people to participate in zazen, classes, and workshops who live at a distance from the Bay Area, or who are unable to come to the centers for health or other reasons.
“As we move out of Covid, we are asking how we can keep nourishing all the new connections we’ve made in this time of the pandemic. During this time many people have started asking basic questions, such as ‘What is really important?’ This pandemic has changed people’s personal lives. It is important both for individuals and for the organization to stay close to this question.” Read more
by Tova Green
The SFZC Health and Safety committee was formed soon after the pandemic began. Initially it consisted of the SFZC President and the directors of City Center, Green Gulch Farm, and Tassajara. The committee began reaching out by email to Michael Gelfond and Grace Dammann, both longtime Zen students, for medical advice when questions came up in their meetings. The committee soon began to regularly include the two physicians in their meetings. At first the committee met twice a week; now it meets weekly.
Michael and Grace, who are both retired clinicians, also regularly consult with other physicians on behalf of the H&S committee, including Rick Levine, Frances Herb, Andrea Thach, Robert Brody, and Neal Halfon, all of whom have long relationships with SFZC and Zen practice.
I spoke with Michael Gelfond regarding SFZC’s reopening to the public.
Michael said, “We are trying to negotiate the reopening as safely as possible—and there’s a lot that is not yet known about this pandemic. We’ve all tried hard for fifteen months to provide as close as we could to 100% protection for SFZC residents. We really want to open the doors of the temples but want to do it in a way that protects both the physical health and the sense of safety of the people who live in them.”
City Center, Green Gulch Farm, and Tassajara are not simply religious institutions like churches, Michael noted, because they are places where residents live and many of those residents are in high-risk health categories. The world is in a dynamic state with respect to the pandemic. Some factors are not completely understood or may be changing, for example: How well are vaccinated people protected from new variants? Is it possible for vaccinated people to transmit the virus to those who are unvaccinated? Read more
by Tova Green
The San Francisco Zen Center bookstore has been a wonderful resource for people to visit in person. The new Online Bookstore will enable people to view and search the bookstore inventory virtually.
During the pandemic, people have ordered items by calling or emailing. They could pick up items at a scheduled time or ask for them to be shipped. Since the SFZC Bookstore will remain closed for now, the new Online Bookstore makes it possible to browse the variety of inventory offered and to place orders using a credit card. The orders can be shipped or a time set for onsite pick-up.
The bookstore carries books, cards, and home altar and meditation supplies, as well as items from the Green Gulch Farm Welcome Center and the Tassajara Stone Office. It also carries titles by authors affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center, books for beginning practitioners, for those studying the precepts, traditional Buddhist and Zen texts, books related to programs SFZC is offering, poetry, and children’s books. One of the most-ordered items is SFZC’s boxed incense.
The Online Bookstore website was developed by City Center resident Joshin Shaevel, who has a background in website and applications development, as well as graphic design. He spent days in the bookstore taking photographs of all the items, and used an online store platform to categorize and inventory them. Joshin will feature items on the website and let people know what has newly arrived. Read more
As Bay Area Covid-19 risk assessment tiers turn from orange (moderate) to yellow (minimal), the SFZC staff and leadership have been working to determine when the three temples can safely open to the public again. We have been hearing from people who are understandably eager to return to sitting in the zendo, listening to and being present for live Dharma talks, or dipping their feet into the cool waters of Tassajara Creek. They are wondering when they can return to the places that they love and find so nourishing and inspiring.
In the beginning of the pandemic, SFZC quickly assembled a Health & Safety Committee that met weekly to determine the best path forward. Today the committee consists of the Directors of City Center, Tassajara, and Green Gulch Farm, the SFZC President, and a group of medical professionals who have a better understanding of the latest thinking on the science behind the pandemic and its spread. It is this group that has been setting the policies and cadence of our opening plan and has been in on-going dialogue with the local county health departments.
by Tova Green
It is unusual to see the name of a Zen Buddhist teacher in the credits of a Disney/Pixar animated film. Many people have noticed Daijaku Kinst’s name at the end of Soul, a recent release that has been nominated for three Academy Awards. Daijuku is a Zen priest who trained at San Francisco Zen Center. She currently teaches at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) in Berkeley and co-leads Ocean Gate Zen Center in Santa Cruz. I interviewed Daijaku to learn about her relationship to the film.
A December 2020 review in the New York Times by A.O. Scott describes Soul as “an inventive tale starring Jamie Foxx as a jazz musician caught in a world that human souls pass through on their way into and out of life, Soul tackles some of the questions that many of us have been losing sleep over since childhood. Why do I exist? What’s the point of being alive? What comes after? It’s rare for any movie, let alone an all-ages cartoon, to venture into such deep and potentially scary metaphysical territory.”
About four years ago Daijaku received a call in her office from Pixar asking if she would consult with them about a movie. They wouldn’t say how they found her or what the movie was about. When she visited Pixar in Emeryville, CA, she was invited into a large room with a storyboard on the wall. Peter Docker, the film’s director, and four or five other people were there. She found the staff humble, kind, gentle, welcoming, and really curious. They wanted to know about what Buddhist beliefs are concerning what happens after death. They were speaking with people from different faith traditions about this. The movie was still in the early stages of conception. Read more
by Tova Green
On March 21, a clear, cool Sunday morning, two residents of Green Dragon Temple (Green Gulch Farm) were ordained as priests by three preceptors: Abiding Abbess Fu Schroeder, Eijun Linda Cutts, the teacher for Kristin Diggs, and Tenshin Reb Anderson, the teacher for Valerian Hauffe. Read more