There is an obvious risk in attempting to predict the future of anything, especially in the USA, and let alone the future of Zen. The following is the text of a “Ted” style talk I was invited to give at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) the first week in October, at Great Vow Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. The text has been embellished with more detail than the talk itself, which was limited to ten minutes.

Because we were allotted such a brief time for presentation, my approach was to talk fast, in order to cover the ground that I felt necessary to make my point. My apologies to those who were not able the glean much from the presentation; this written recap is my attempt to provide the information in a more laid-back, digestible form. Those who attended the breakout session the next day added important questions and opened up other dimensions for serious consideration. It is apparent that all recognize this set of lay practice issues as critical to the future of Zen in the USA.

The fact that several other presenters were holding breakout sessions at the same time is a perfect and poignant illustration of the situation in which Zen finds itself today. Each person in the audience would have to choose to attend only one of the sessions, one which may have turned out to be the least important to them. Millions of people in this culture are making similar choices, every day, to attend something other than Zen. And whatever the attraction or necessity, it will probably turn out to be a lot less important than Zen, at least in the long run.

Some of the material that was excised in order to fit the time format has been added back, and anecdotal references deleted. Multiple illustrations were included in the slide show, for which there is insufficient space here. I invite any comment or question you may have, and will do my best to follow up all inquiries in timely manner.


In what follows we hope to take a snapshot of the present state of the original Soto Zen mission declared by Master Dogen, not from the formal side, but from that of the Zen consumer, the lay practitioner. The formal transmission of Zen in America comprises a separate track in the future of Zen, and its challenges differ from that of the propagation of lay practice, though the two overlap. That is, anyone engaged in leading lay practice should have grounding in formal training. In my case, thanks to the intercession of Seirin Barbara Kohn and Shohaku Okumura Roshi, I was formally entrusted with the Dharma through a seven-day Shiho ceremony in 2007, though I had received informal transmission from Matsuoka Roshi in the 1980s.

One caveat that I want to establish early on is that this discussion is not about lay practice versus monastic practice; I think all of those who are engaged in this project see the two as complementary, not at odds.


            • Skillful Means in the 21st Century

            • Findings; Conclusions; Recommendations           

Today we want to raise some questions that remain unanswered, or at best inarticulate, in the conventional wisdom of those who are carrying on Dogen Zenji’s mission, and indeed that of the original order in India. Shakyamuni Buddha’s method of spiritual Awakening, and the method he discovered, is, after all, that which we claim Zen transmits in its essential, most direct and simple form, our saving grace: zazen. 

So how does Zen compete in today’s context of over-choice, excess information and dis-information?

The propagation of Zen in America will require radically redefining what we mean by “skillful means.” In our times we are called upon to reinvent Zen, as Master Dogen did in his. The old ways of setting up shop on the nearest mountain — building it anticipating that they will come — may not be sufficient in the madhouse we call the 21st Century. Yet we do not want to throw baby Buddha out with the bath-water.

The Americanization of Zen is fraught with unintended consequences. If we allow Zen to be positioned as a religion, for example, we go head-to-head with Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I don’t think we want to go there, do you? We in the Silent Thunder Order, (J. mokurai) have come to some market-based conclusions, based on findings admittedly of a qualitative nature, gained from the school of hard knocks. For example, starting up a sitting group by inviting the public into your home on a weekly basis may not be the best idea in the world, at least not for your family, or for very long.


            • Home-Based vs Zen Center

            • Commute vs Residency

One of the issues begging clarification is the relationship of what we conceive of as monastic practice, versus lay practice. Monastic disciplines suggest standards for training priests, of course, but lay practice is where tomorrow’s priests will come from; it is where we all (members of SZBA) came from. Our founding teacher, Soyu Matsuoka Roshi, was thoroughly trained in monastic practice at Sojiji monastery in the 1930s. But he firmly believed that Zen would find its rebirth in America, and that the future of Zen lies in lay practice. As a black belt in judo, he advised the Chicago Police department to practice zazen along with their martial arts, one of many forms of outreach to the community, including taking on beginners like me, performing weddings, et cetera. We continue  outreach to many colleges and institutions in the Atlanta area, such as Emory University, the campus being adjacent to the Zen center.

Who is Zen really for, after all, if not normal people who have a life? And how and where does zazen fit into their picture? Our approach to introducing Zen to the public is based on the proposition and promise of lay practice, stressing a balance of daily home practice and weekly attendance at ASZC or one of its affiliates. Of course, we offer regular practice and service, zazenkai and sesshin, and have adopted standard protocols of Soto Zen — to the degree practicable. We gladly host guest teachers to speak or lead retreats. You are all hereby officially invited to take us up on this invitation.

Most practitioners in our centers today are commuters. They consider that extra hour or two on the expressway before deciding to attend, which, with Atlanta traffic, can be a major hurdle. We have a limited residency program at ASZC, where the facility can comfortably accommodate four full-time residents. One is in his mid-20s, a second his mid-30s, the third mid-40s, and the fourth mid-60s. All are professionals who hold down jobs. And they represent a good cross-section of the diversity we have in age ranges. We also enjoy gender diversity, usually more than 50% male, however. We are also developing a 60-acre farm in North Carolina for retreats, owned by one of our board members, a psychiatrist who works primarily with inmate populations. The barn loft will be the temporary zendo, with sleeping below.


            • Hit & Run Zazen - Drive-Time

            • Zen Punctuating Life; Life Punctuating Zen

But we recognize that for folks living the hectic life demanded by society today, Zen practice takes on a pattern much like guerrilla warfare — hitting and running, surviving to fight another day. We provide the bivouac for them to recharge between bouts of battle. Zen practice acts as a kind of punctuation in the run-on sentence of life — zazen commas, periods, semicolons, the occasional exclamation point and frequent question marks. With time, the seeming separation and apparent conflict between the two diminishes, and eventually a turning point is reached.Eventually other dimensions of life become the punctuation in the ongoing sentence of Zen practice. It may not extend to 24/7 any time soon for a lay person, but it becomes the new normal for those who stick with it.Sadly, by far the largest group of Westerners who try Zen is still those who quit too soon, before the longer-term, more robust effects can set in.


            • Home-Work-School-Play

            • Family-Colleagues-Mentors-Friends

            • Spouse-Boss-Child-BFF                       

            • Career Transition / T.O.L.

            • Vacation vs Retreat

            • Stress vs Collaboration

Some of the stressors connected to causes and conditions of living today include those listed above for starters. We’ve all been there, done that. If Zen is to be made available for everyone, it is imperative to fully understand the daily life cycle of laypeople today — the modern scenery of the Eightfold Path. It is also important to provide the tools they need: web sites, newsletters, welcoming invitations; but also collateral materials on practice at home and at work; outreach to affinity groups; and graphical representations of the teachings to help visualize and remember the dharma.


            • Why Zen? What Brings You Back?

            • How Does Zen Affect Your Life?

Skillful means in understanding others’ needs derives both from personal experience and what can be gathered from dokusan, practice discussions, and dialog with the sangha.This represents a fundamental principle of marketing, that the way to better understand your market, customers, or clients, is simply to ask them. Problems with practice at home often come to the fore. For example, many regulars who attend zazen have a spouse who doesn’t. They may have different schedules or attitudes about  religion, especially when it comes to raising the kids. Work-related issues, career decisions and personality differences at the office, bundled with keeping a household together, changing as the family matures, add to stress levels.

How does Zen fit into this picture? How can meditation help? Finding time for monastic-style practices such as retreat must be traded off for vacation and other down-time. Social dimensions of personal practice come into sharp focus, and the answer is not always “Just sit!” It is incumbent upon us to address “Why sit?” And “Where do I find the time?”

The second Sunday of each month we engage in a Sangha rather than a Dharma — dialog. Board meetings, formal as well as informal and usually open to members, follow on the third Sunday, which allows for considering any actionable items that arise.Testimony about why members practice, what brings them back, how it affects life at home and at work, dealing with stress and developing more collaborative ways of coping,helps newcomers understand how Zen might fit into and benefit their own life.



            • Sangha-Dharma-Buddha-Dharma-Sangha

            • Physical-Mental-Emotional-Social Samadhi

Along with spiritual Awakening, and the Bodhisattva Vow, we stress zazen’s Samadhi — as both central to the method, and as the central effect — of zazen. To de-mystify Samadhi, and tie it into daily life, I like to represent it as having four dimensions:

1. Physical balance that comes about through  stillness in zazen brings with it:
2. Mental balance: more clarity, less confusion
3. Emotional balance: less anxiety and reactivity to the roller-coaster; and finally
4. Social balance: less manipulation and melodrama in family and work relationships.

Patience developed on the cushion fosters patience with others, folks who are not quite as “Zen” as we are. Newcomers always want to know how to apply Zen to their life. We try to help them understand that if they simply apply themselves to zazen and the cultivation of its Samadhi, no worries, Zen will apply itself to their lives.

All this, of course exists in the context of supporting the individual member’s personal journey, climbing the Zen mountain. The entry level, the foothills, represent the terrain of Sangha practice: relatively easy going, but quicksand and bramble bushes, personality conflicts, thrive there. Dharma practice engages the steeper slopes: less entangling but slow going, one toehold at a time. Buddha practice, represented by time on the cushion, is the peak; the air is rarefied, on the edge of space. A storm may rise and blow you off the mountain. Coming down from the mountain is sometimes more hazardous than the climb up. Entering dharma and sangha from the other side, and re-entering the market place. This illustrates the pivotal place of zazen in the practice of the Three Treasures.



            • Open Door 24/7 Zendo - Rotation Schedule

            • Newcomers vs Initiates vs Members vs Disciples & Priests

            • Staffing & Security           

Our ideal is to make the zendo accessible 24/7. Our challenge is how to do that effectively and efficiently. These are some of the issues, including the simple need to take turns to keep the doors open without burning anyone out. But it gets complicated. As the sangha grows, the community differentiates into groups. Newcomers have varying needs; long-term members, disciples and priests, develop new needs. It becomes necessary to offer programs based on experience level, where all have access to training, but not on the same level.

As individuals gain experience and choose to enter upon the formal path, training opportunities for them must be integrated with the needs of the rest of the sangha. Like most members of SZBA, we have developed and codified standards for service and other training protocols, such as Practice Path Prerequisites, a Soto Zen Service Book and other documents,based largely on Japanese models, and graphically formatted and reproduced to offer a degree of consistency of training and presentation of protocolsin all STO affiliates.


            • Priesthood as Retirement Option

            • Pedagogy as Flipping the Classroom

            • The Message is the Medium is the Message

            • Best Practices vs Reinventing the Wheel

            • Refining Life — Arts & Culture as Zen

So for priests, those of us for whom Zen has become a way of life in the 21st Century, with all its faults,the matter of propagating practice, while truly a mission, must address the practicality of doing so on a professional level, including paying the bills and all the rest. As a career designer and researcher, it seems to me a matter of paying close attention, and re-designing a better approach, based on findings. For most people today, full-time Zen is not feasible, though there may be exceptions. Once one reaches retirement age, it may become an option, right up there with golfing or fishing.

Master Dogen was exceptional in his time; 20-somethings as full-time Zen masters will be exceptional in ours. He did wonders with the communications media of the time — rice paper and brush — and we are challenged to adopt the fruits of the digital revolution to similar ends. One of the approaches we are experimenting with is online conferencing, where we “flip the classroom,” spending no time reading material, but instead interacting to clarify questions raised by the study material.

For me, as a creative type, Zen is at the heart of art and culture, as well as the sciences. As such, all become dharma-gates to Zen. Creativity is sometimes defined as “making the familiar strange.” I can’t think of anything that does that better, or more completely, than just sitting still enough, for long enough. The creative arts, provide several avenues of access. Master Dogen himself was a master of poetry and prose.  Along these lines, we hold art exhibits and concerts, and invite scientists as well as guest Zen teachers to give talks. We also participate in festivals in our neighborhood. Like Great Vow, we want to be known as good neighbors.     



• Critical Mass — Inner Tube vs Raft

• Location Strategy — 7-11 or Walmart?

• Program Schedule — Annual, Monthly, Weekly, Daily

In 1970 Matsuoka Roshi moved to Long Beach from Chicago, leaving Kongo Langlois in charge, Zenku’s first teacher, and I moved to Atlanta. We are currently striving to serve a dispersed network of startups, sitting groups and practice centers, as well as lone rangers, across the USA and in Canada.  The Affiliate network functions as a kind of raft, where all are connected to each other, rather than separate inner tubes floundering about on the sea of Samsara. 

One of the practical matters is what in retail planning is called location strategy. The two extremes are intended to serve what are known as convenience — versus destination — purchases. In light of our lay practice orientation, we have adopted the convenience strategy, emphasizing small startups on every corner, more like 7-11 stores than the Walmart strategy of having Mohammed come to the mountain. Our training center, currently in Atlanta, to extend the metaphor, acts as a distribution center for coordinating and sharing best practices for startups and established groups, as well as a home base for more intensive and extensive training. We are currently developing the farm in North Carolina for a rural retreat location. We think the synergy that results from the two locations will strengthen the stability of each.

Another practical issue is that of the program schedule, with the complex demands that people are facing in their daily lives — commuting to work, dropping off and picking up the kids before and after school — and the precious little disposable time left over for evenings and weekends. Not to mention the precious little disposable income available for supporting the Zen center, with all the demands on income in today’s economy. This has been a brief overview of the constraints and considerations around the big picture of Zen in America. It is only the tip of the iceberg, of course.

With respect to SZBA’s shared legacy from Dogen Zenji, ours from Matsuoka Roshi, and SZBA members from the other founders of Zen lineages in America, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. This is a great inheritance, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the past. But this mission is an exercise in paying it forward: Where do we go from here? We fulfill our mission basically by providing space and time, for folks to pursue their personal practice and penetration of the essential buddha-dharma. This is the pragmatic dimension, but Zen is nothing if not practical.


To close, a brief recap of some points we have raised. Like science and the arts, Zen is less about finding better answers than about asking better questions. Key take-aways:

A. The Future of Zen in the USA depends upon lay practice; it is more critical than monastic experience (do the math). The two are not-two.

B. Providing access to the practice of Zen depends upon our designing it to fit the reality of life in the 21st Century.

C. Developing effective design intent for Zen practice depends upon our creativity and willingness to experiment and adapt.

D. Making a profession of Zen is, for most people, a retirement option. Zen maturity, as in the arts and sciences, depends on life experience.           

E. Zen = zazen = Zen; if we throw this baby out with the bathwater, we have lost it.