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
On Saturday, June 19, Juneteenth, the most prominent emancipation holiday in the United States, Jarvis Masters and Lee Klinger Lesser will be giving a livestream Dharma talk. Jarvis will be calling in to Lee’s cell phone from San Quentin State Prison, where he lives on Death Row, convicted of a crime he did not commit. Jarvis was offered several dates for the SFZC talk and chose Juneteenth.
Jarvis Masters is a longtime meditator and Buddhist practitioner and the author of two books, Finding Freedom and That Bird Has My Wings. Lee Klinger Lesser has been leading workshops in Sensory Awareness for over 45 years. She began studying Zen in 1978 and appreciates the deep interconnectedness of these practices.
Lee and Jarvis’s friendship began in an unusual way. Lee brought a copy of Jarvis’s first book, Finding Freedom, to Mexico in 1997 when she went there to participate in a Sensory Awareness course with Charlotte Selvers. Lee read the book as she was listening to the sound of ocean waves. “This book crashed into me,” she said.
Jarvis’s address at San Quentin was in the back of the book, and Lee felt moved to write to him—the first time she had ever written to an author whose book had impacted her. Jarvis wrote back. This was the beginning of many years of correspondence. There was a resonance between them. In his letters Jarvis shared what he was thinking about. In her letters Lee shared what her days were like. She saved all his letters.
After some time, Jarvis let Lee know that she could visit him. Although San Quentin is only a fifteen-minute drive from her house, Lee had never been there. She was overwhelmed by her first visit, beginning with going through the gates and security clearance. Jarvis was then in the adjustment center of San Quentin, also known as solitary confinement. He was kept in isolation for longer than any prisoner in California—24 years. They met through a glass window, speaking on phones to one another. Read more
Statement from San Francisco Zen Center Leadership, in collaboration with the Central DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) Committee and CAIC (Cultural Awareness and Inclusivity Committee)
Since early last year, this country has been battered by a series of ongoing crises and events. We have experienced heartache after heartache from a global pandemic to instances of brutal racial violence to increasing numbers of mass shootings. It has been one year since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered while in police custody.
At this time, we want to acknowledge that Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the hardships of the last year and to offer our support.
The economic impact of the pandemic has meant that households of color, already over-represented in low-wage “essential” jobs, have often been first to lose incomes and the last to regain employment. While this has been the case in every economic downturn, the inequality is especially glaring this time since the economic pain of Covid-19 has cut so deep. Today, Black households struggle with the highest rate of unemployment in the US today while being twice as likely to die from Covid-19.
Income inequality has also been coupled with violent policing and an assault on voting rights for the poor and communities of color. Black Americans have also suffered from adverse mental health due to generations of collective trauma. In some areas of the country, suicide mortality among African Americans nearly doubled in the past year while decreasing substantially among white Americans.
These are symptoms of the systemic racism that has been designed into the institutions and culture of our country. While a small measure of justice was served to the family of George Floyd for his murder, his life remains lost, to them and to us.
No one should feel afraid for simply existing. For far too long, economic, physical, and emotional abuses directed toward our Black brothers and sisters have gone ignored. We want to say that we see you, we care about you, and we are committed to cultivating the conditions in which you can feel safe, respected, and at ease anywhere you may wish to be.
We resonate deeply with the words of Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” However, the real power of encouraging words is not in the feelings they evoke, but in the positive actions they inspire, the commitments we make and uphold, and the work we do together.
Hate is a cycle, but so is peace. Thus we vow to interrupt hate, intolerance, and division wherever we encounter them and instead plant seeds of loving-kindness, inclusion, and unity. Using our voices to speak out, we will bear witness to the suffering caused by systemic racism and to act as allies. May we continuously manifest the truth of our profound interdependency as we work together for the liberation of all beings.
San Francisco Zen Center Leadership in collaboration with Central DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) Committee and CAIC (Cultural Awareness and Inclusivity Committee)
Resources and references…
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
For Chenxing Han, the Month of May, which is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, has been bookended by two events, the May We Gather National Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors on May 4 and the Dharma talk she will be giving at City Center with Rev. Dana Takagi on May 29. She will also, with co-organizers Duncan Williams and Funie Hsu, be speaking about the May We Gather Memorial Ceremony in an online SFZC program on June 26.
Chenxing is the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists published by North Atlantic Books in January 2021. Her articles have appeared in Buddhadharma, Journal of Global Buddhism, Lion’s Roar, Tricycle, and elsewhere. She was formerly a Buddhist chaplain; after studying chaplaincy at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, she worked in spiritual care at a nearby community hospital.
In our interview, Chenxing spoke of the connections between her book, the May We Gather event, chaplaincy, and her upcoming Dharma talk at SFZC. Read more
By Tova Green
Pamela Ayo Yetunde, a Community Dharma Leader, Zen practitioner, chaplain, and author, was living in St. Paul when George Floyd was tortured and murdered. She experienced the unrest in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the weeks and months after this event and paid close attention to the George Floyd/Derrick Chauvin trial in March. She was concerned that if Chauvin was found not guilty it would have serious repercussions for the safety of communities of color. She could not have just sat on her cushion without finding a way to respond.
Ayo, along with BIPOC Zen and Insight practitioners in the Twin Cities, founded Buddhist Justice Reporter: The George Floyd Trials to address the role Buddhists could play in criminal justice reform. This project is the focus of an online SFZC program Ayo is offering on Thursday, June 10, from 4 to 6 pm PT. She will engage participants in a discussion with an aspiration to tap into the compassionate and creative energies that already exist in Buddhist communities. Read more