Friday, June 24, 2011

The Rebirth of the Blog...

Victoria Zen Centre circa 2003-4
It's been quite a while since I last posted. I've been reflecting a lot on what this blog should be all about.

At first I just posted transcripts of talks that were being recorded. As time passed, the quality of recordings improved so much that I started the Living Zen Podcast. A year and a half later, the podcast has surpassed 200,000 downloads...more than I could have imagined.

Over the years, the Victoria Zen Centre has developed from being a very basic sitting group into a very robust and healthy community. We have done this as a Sangha by combining the wisdom of the Dharma with the best of business practices, empowered by modern technology. It has proven to be a very potent combination.

Being involved in the development of a community which has as it's mission "To make Zen come alive", has been a very exciting and challenging experience. When people ask about how we have created and sustain this Centre and community, I often start explaining with great gusto. Often the person I am speaking to also gets excited, and suggests that I ought to write a book about it.

I figure that it would be more useful if I just wrote a blog about it. So that's what I'll do.

What will follow will be a combination of history, some talk about the business that is involved in running a stable and healthy Zen Centre, and I'll likely toss in a healthy mix of current events to keep things lively.

Some of you may be upset or offended by our approach, some of you may think it's fantastic. I invite comments from everyone, but I would ask that you keep them clean and aimed at respectful dialogue.

To start us off, I'll include a picture from circa 2003-4. I had been a monk for nearly five years. After working full-time in a receiving home for teenage boys in the care of the then "Ministry for Children and Families" for several years, the Provincial government changed, funding was cut, and I was out of a job. My pregnant wife Niki, my young son Kigen and I went from a 2.5 bedroom upper in which the main living/dining room was the Victoria Zen Centre's Zendo to a 2 bedroom basement suite. I picked up some work with the Vancouver Island Health Authority Mental Health and Addictions Services. It was mostly on-call, so the financial picture was dodgy for both myself, and the Zen Centre, because at the time I was the major financial resource and human resource at the Victoria Zen Centre.

Minutes from the AGM in 2003 indicate that exactly 3 people attended. Thus becoming the board.

The picture on this post is of the outside tent Zendo in the back yard of the basement suite. Several members and I did a major clean up job of the yard, leveled and laid a concrete slab patio. I built tans out of pressure treated lumber. We stored the cushions and accoutrements in rubbermaid containers outside as there was no room inside (pregnant lady, small child 100lb dog, and 6'4 me in a 2br basement). Until we figured out an anchor system, there were times when the tent actually lifted off and we had to catch it before it flew over the fence like some kind of monstrous white box tent. I got a call one day at work when it actually did. Fortunately it blew the right way, sheering off the awning over our door, and obstructing the entrance so that I had to come home to extract my family.

From May to about September, many people came to sit in the tent Zendo. Participation shrank in the winter. Most often I sat alone, just like in the picture. Some mornings I came back into the house for a cup of coffee and had to shake the snow and frozen rain off that had encrusted my entire right side (people who live in Victoria will be familiar with the snow and rain that falls sideways due to the wind.)

Ah...the good old days. I think that's enough of a sentimental walk down memory lane for now, and a great place to start...stay tuned.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Do You Have a License For That Dharma?

I am hoping to start breathing some life into this old blog. To start with, I will be posting some recent postings from Sweeping Zen, and I will also include blogs that I have posted to the periodic "Spiritually Speaking" blog from the Victoria Times Colonist.

Recently, on the Sweeping Zen website, there have been a couple of articles posted that discuss the practice of “Dharma Succession”, the first by Erik Storlie, and a response by Myoan Grace Schireson. There are points in both articles that I agree with, and I am grateful that there is a place where this custom can be discussed.

In my opinion, I don’t think it is a matter of Dharma Succession not having a place, or a value in the authorization of teachers in the Zen Tradition, but rather a question of whether it is entirely appropriate for it to be the sole determining factor of what authorizes a teacher, and what precisely is implied by Dharma Succession.

It seems that there are indeed some traditions of Zen in which Dharma Succession is a process which has oversight and governance, a clearly laid out process of training and examination under supervision, in which several members of the organization can discuss and assess a particular individuals training, insight into the teachings, personal conduct, and capacity to teach and lead, and from there discern whether Dharma Succession is appropriate or not.

There are however, other organizations in which nobody has any idea of what the criteria are, nor the authority to assess, discuss any part of the process, or have any say in the matter, except the great teacher themselves. I have come to call this the “magic wand of Dharma” school. The process in these organizations is that the teacher alone determines when a disciple is anointed, and further, once that person has received Dharma Transmission, the status is irrevocable.

I don’t think that there are many people that have too big a problem with the first scenario. However, I suspect that what Erik Sorlie is taking issue with is the second, and indeed the fact that at present, both of these models simultaneously exist and use the same terminology, so that what you get coming out the end of both systems is called a “Dharma Successor”. This should really bother those that come out of the first model.

The metaphor that Myoan Grace Shireson uses (like blaming a license for an accident) is simplistic at best. It only really works if we presume that there is some kind of logical process and examination behind the awarding of the license (ie. model one).

What if you found after the “accident” took place that in the office where the driver in question had received their license there was no theoretical knowledge examination per se, no visual faculty testing done, and no practical road test took place? How about if you also learned that the authorizing examiner happens to be a well known menace on the roads him or herself? Well, then I think you would have to agree that the validity of the license and the process through which it is rewarded was ripe for criticism. In fact, you might not call it an “accident” at all, but criminal negligence.

I think the comparison of Dharma Succession to a Phd. is okay, but there are some significant differences. Generally speaking, a Phd. (Doctor of Philosophy) represents mastery of a body of knowledge, but in many professions, even with a Phd., an individual has to become licensed by an independent body of peers, and is thereby bound by ethical and professional guidelines in order to take up a practice and maintain their license. If there are violations in conduct, the person’s license is revoked, and if they continue to practice without license, there are consequences.

The problem with the way things are at present is therefore twofold:

  1. There is no consistent and scrutable criteria for Dharma Succession that extends to all, or even many lineages.

  2. At present, Dharma Succession serves as BOTH the degree, and the license, and is at the same time irrevocable.

Dharma Succession as a degree, I can get behind. I’m comfortable with it representing a mastery of the “philosophy” of any individual lineage. However, this wouldn’t necessarily make a person a teacher. In order for that to happen, the individual would have to voluntarily subject themselves to licensing by an independent organization of peers, and be bound by its standards. Dharma Succession as a license, I can also get behind, provided it is subject to revocation in the event of gross misconduct.

Another issue that this brings up for me is that in some professions, even without a degree, it is possible for a person to demonstrate a “combination of equivalent training and experience” and earn a license. Currently, as there is no consistent standard of training and experience that is required to receive Dharma Succession, it is totally possible, and demonstrably factual, that unethical, and/or poorly trained (but anointed) “charlatans” are lauded as teachers, while rock solid “vessels of the Dharma” are shut out of a broader conversation because they haven’t been tapped by somebody’s magic wand.

However, as Erik Storlie points out, this certainly doesn’t make it impossible for these people, just more difficult, and in the end perhaps everyone is better for it, as those who would practice with them are not lulled into complacency by the false sense of security provided by the title “Dharma Successor”.