Canadian Zen Sangha – a conversation

British Columbia Buddhism in Canada Buddhist community Sangha Teacher Stories Zen

Some time not too long ago, I received a note from Myozen, a Zen Priest in Terrace, BC, whose centre (Daiko-ji) was closing, commenting on my earlier post about Canadian Zen teachers and the American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA). We began a conversation, which Myozen has graciously allowed me to post here (editing out the salutations, etc.). My hope is that it will spark a larger conversation…

Myozen: Thank you for updating the directory in relation to Daiko-ji Zen Centre. Your article regarding the AZTA is interesting – since I trained in Japan I am listed with the Soto Sect Headquarters there. Sorry, I made an date error in my previous e-mail to you – I converted to Buddhism in Japan in 1968 at my adopted Japanese family’s ancestral temple, and was ordained in 1969.

John: Can you give me more context on why the AZTA has such a low profile in Canada? Are they too USA-centric? What percentage of US Zen teachers do they represent? Are there alternative organizations for mutual sangha support of Zen teachers in Canada? If you would care to comment on the post and start a public conversation, that would be wonderful. I would be grateful for the education about the Canadian zen landscape.

Myozen: Have been thinking your questions over and am uncertain how to answer them – will try based upon just my experience Perhaps the AZTA membership criteria also have bearing?  The name seems to imply specifically American teachers? I looked at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association website and there are only two Canadian groups/teachers listed, both with American ties. I have also often wondered why there is virtually no Canadian representation/coverage in the popular Buddhist magazines like Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Shambhala Sun.  This is also why Sumeru is such a valuable resource.

It is only recently that I have made contact with North American Buddhist organizations, so I really do not have much experience yet in relation to the larger Canadian Zen landscape. In South Africa, where I was born and raised, my peers during those years were more influenced by Europe than the United States. I went from South Africa to Japan to study, and the only direct experience I have of American Zen is one year or so spent in California in a monastery. Since immigrating to Canada in 1971, I have mostly been here “up north” and have been continuing to study and practice with connections to Japan.

Compared to the lives of my Zen priest friends in Japan, it seems that North American “convert” Zen groups are primarily focused on sesshins/retreats. This is an awkward statement, since the distinction between “convert” and “ethnic” is a bit problematic, and may over-simplify things. In Japan during the  mid-1970s while in training with my teacher, I had the duties of a “parish priest” in a rural temple. I was not attending sesshins/retreats; I was required to be available to the members of the parish whenever needed. There were ceremonies to perform in relation to deaths, the ancestors, local deities;   seasonal rituals – even prayers for rain. At that time the customary 33rd year memorials coincided with the last years of World War Two and thus included memorials for parish members who died as servicemen. These ceremonies took place in the parishioners’ homes in front of their household altars with the portraits of the deceased. I gradually came to know each individual family’s ancestry and altar. In Japan, traditional/territorial parishes exist over centuries in relation to a particular temple and its lineage of priests. This determines the priests’ roles, relations, activities. A priest’s participation in sesshins/retreats after the completion of monastic training period, is a personal matter. Since the parish members in the village related to the temple and resident priest primarily within the context of ritual, it was wonderful seeing even the elderly attend when I requested three of my priest friends to assist me in presenting a series of films about the Soto head temples – Eihei-ji and Soji-ji – and monastic training, Zen arts, etc.

My teacher leads day-long zazen, sutra-copying, and chanting retreats in his temple in Japan now that his son has taken on the position of vice-abbot, allowing him time for such activities. As Daiko-ji Zen Centre here in Terrace did not represent a traditional parish with ancestral, etc. ceremonial duties, when here my teacher has adopted a casual approach focusing on communal sangha-family activities. Our group, being small, tended to socialize independent of scheduled events.

It would be wonderful if there were a support group similar to AZTA in Canada.

John: Your personal training experience reminds me a lot of the stories told in Arthur Braverman’s zen novel: Dharma Brothers Kodo and Tokujoo. (Review here –

I would tend to agree with you that the parish tradition is largely absent here, except within the Jodo Shinshu lineage and even there it has been subject to profound transformations occasioned by the shifting demographics of Japanese Canadians over the past 100 years. Be that as it may, perhaps Canadian Zen teachers will find some common ground for mutual benefit and enhanced outreach in future, even if it is only informal networking. They do seem to need a stronger voice, in my opinion. May I have your permission to include your comments as a follow-up post to my original AZTA post? It might start a productive conversation…

Myozen: Once more your comments have brought much thought. I feel a bit awkward since my comments are not well-written (ESL as my mother language is Afrikaans) and my activities as a monk in Japan are limited to temples and customs in the area of Aichi and Mie Prefectures – but please use any of my comments which seem  useful.  It would also be interesting to see what conversations develop through the “Dharma Transmission to the West” forum. I have not participated in any forums to date.

This morning I noticed a posting on the Buddhist Channel website – a paper titled “Zen has no morals” which was presented at the International Cultic Studies annual conference in Montreal on July 7th. Wonder what comments this would elicit.

I have not read Dharma Brothers Kodo and Tokujoo yet – I look forward to obtaining a copy. When new monk Don Hodo Philpott passed away suddenly three years ago, his sons gave me his copy of Living and Dying in Zazen. Hodo prepared for his ordination for several years and, in his own words, also read voraciously – this book was one of his favourites. Arthur Braverman’s translation of Suzuki Shosan was like a swift whack with the keisaku/kyosaku, reminding me of the sharp attentiveness encountered in the Rinzai monastery in Nagoya.

As you mention, the Jodo Shinshu temples in Canada have operated similarly to the mother temples in Japan – parish/ritual structures are rapidly changing  in Japan as well now. My teacher has also made reference to these transformations within his own parish. His experience as a monk/priest is a little different to the “norm” of the parish priest who succeeds his father as abbot of his temple. When he was 8 years old, born into a non-temple family, he decided that he wanted to be monk.  He was ordained at 13 years of age and trained in a Soto monastery in Nagoya until about 22 years old, at which point he entered Eihei-ji for a number of years before becoming the abbot of his urban temple. He does not speak English and his visit to Terrace was his first outside Japan.

When I first arrived in Canada in 1970 on a visit, with just my robes, the Toronto Buddhist Church was a warm and wonderful place to take refuge in.  Bishop Ishiura was always full of ideas for new approaches and on one occasion turned the service over to the youth group. Their slide show, accompanied by guitar-led songs, included the image of Thich Quang Duc. The entire congregation was deeply moved by this service. He asked me to do the sermon one Sunday. After my talk on O-higan, his wife Mary commented that she could see all the elderly ladies nodding in agreement. Bishop Ishiura countered with, “They were nodding because they were falling asleep!”

One of the aspects that first impressed me in relationships with the Japanese monks was their humour. A prank by the monk leading the procession on one of the first takuhatsu begging rounds with dharma relatives after my ordination, entailed my having to walk the route with a bunch of balloons tied to my rakusu.

Recently I had a discussion with a person who has attended Vipassana retreats regarding the possibilty of forming a local non-denominational Buddhist interest group – being  rather isolated here geographically it seems a pity for the few Buddhists in the area to be “separated” by differing practice methods. I would be grateful for any suggestions and advice.

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