Still Exploring: An Ethnographic Look At The Berkeley Zen Center and its Wednesday Drop-In Group, Part I

Is it possible for two people to have the same understanding of anything?

Part I: Introduction and Historical Background of Zen in the United States

**All the names of people at the Berkeley Zen Center have been changed to protect their identity.

The ongoing transmission of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism to the Western context since World War II has been a product of the collective desires of Japanese Zen Buddhists as well as intrigued Americans. While Zen Buddhism is now recognized as a legitimate religious practice in the United States, its expansion outside of Asia has occurred relatively recently and with significant transformations to its original foundations in Japan. Its American development flourished with the movements of various Asian groups to all parts of the world in the post-World War II period as well as by the growing number of Westerners travelling east since the late 1960’s. Specific followers of Zen Buddhism during the Beat Generation have also served in promoting, popularizing, and morphing a religion to the spiritual demands of Americans. While the overall number of committed practitioners in the United States is still relatively small, the growth of interest in Buddhism — specifically Zen Buddhism — among the non-heritage population is a significant feature of the religious exploration of Americans and arose from a longing for spiritual fulfillment and personal development that began in the 1950’s (Dumoulin).

For the purposes of my thesis, I chose to integrate myself into a Zen center located in the Bay Area to understand their practices and the relevance of those practices to those who frequent the center. By immersing myself in the culture of the Berkeley Zen Center, located on Russell Street, I hoped to understand the significance of the practices at the center to the people here in Berkeley, while also noting the historical progression that made such a place and religious practice possible. With specific questions in mind, I interviewed a number of Berkeley Zen Center attendees who came to the Wednesday night drop-in group. This group, led by a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest — Priest Jonni — consists of 5-15 attendees, some of whom have been coming for years while others are only just beginning to attend.

The interviews were conducted in a conversational fashion to gather a sense of the significance of Zen practice and outlook in the lives of these Bay Area residents. From the personal conversations, I began to gather an understanding of the significance of Zen to them individually and to what extent their practices created or affected their personal lives in society.  Ultimately, I sought to understand why these Bay Area residents were attracted to Zen Buddhism, how they practice it, and how its transformations were critical to its appeal to Bay Area Zen practitioners. Further, through my ethnographic research, I became intrigued specifically by the attendees of the Wednesday night drop-in group as representative of a micro-niche of spiritual seekers and what it was they were after in their attendance of the Wednesday night group. Also, the quest of my research was a personal endeavor as well whereby I sought to observe the transformative properties of this specific religion within myself.

As the ethnographic account of the Berkeley Zen Center began to take shape, it became apparent that a significant feature of research into a particular element of society cannot necessarily be separated from the researcher. In Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, Karen McCarthy Brown discusses the issue of blurred boundaries between observer and participant. She places particular emphasis on the nature of practice, explaining her own research as part of a practice in which the researcher becomes someone who participates. While the intention was — and is — to understand the practices of the Berkeley Zen Center and what these practices mean to other people, the nature of immersion diminishes the need for boundaries between observer and the observed.

Further, through practicing Zen, it has been asserted that American ideals place emphasis on personal boundaries such that the need for an independent identity is more highly valued than it is within Zen. In practicing Zen, I have come to understand their conceptualization of the sense of self differs from the ideals that I had previously assumed to be factual. In Zen, there is more of an emphasis on continuity between all living creatures such that there is no separation between an individual and anyone else. This assertion of Zen thought affected my research in such a way that I began to see myself as one of the Berkeley Zen Center attendees and not as a researcher separate from the researched.

I paid attention to myself as a participant and as a researcher, and was aware of the possibility that by asking certain questions, I was co-creating the answers.

I did my best to let the conversations arise naturally and immerse myself in the environment of the center so that the experience of the Wednesday night drop-in group was no more different than the experience others would have had I not been there. While I could not account for the experience of the environment while I was not present, I attempted to position myself as a Zen attendee — rather than as an obvious researcher — so as to keep from altering the overall dynamics of the average interaction that would take place at the drop-in sessions. By immersing myself in the cultural practice of Soto Zen Buddhism — touching on its own unique history and presence in the United States — I hoped to understand its role in the personal development of individual people. To do this, I became an attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in group at the Berkeley Zen Center.

In addition to understanding the role of Soto Zen in their individual lives, I also intended to understand the significance of Zen in the wider American context. With the vast array of Zen practices permeating the Bay Area, not to mention the rest of the United States, it is not possible to generalize from one group in Berkeley, California to the rest of the United States. Yet, by using this one Zen Center as an example of Soto Zen Buddhist practices in the Bay Area, I hoped to understand how this center came to be the way it is — while keeping in mind other variations of Zen in America by touching on recent literature — and the role of this contemporary, Americanized Zen within the broader American context and its underlying Christian elements (Macy; King; Yandell & Netland).

Since the transmission of Buddhism — and specifically Zen Buddhism — to the West resulted in alterations in the formulations, ritualistic elements, and certain key focuses of this religion, a new kind of Zen arose (Prebish & Baumann; Fields). While keeping the historical elements of Zen Buddhism in mind, I understood its American identity as a uniquely recent and distinct approach to Zen.

The American identity of Zen is represented in the structural and historical creation of the Wednesday night drop-in group at the Berkeley Zen Center. As I am interested in mature forms of Zen at convert centers, I have chosen to focus on a segment of the “congregation ” that is historically new and distinct from the original orientation of Zen practice as understood by its Japanese roots. There are multiple groups and services that frequent the center, with the Saturday service existing as a more formal and ritualized focus on Zazen under the guidance of an authorized master.

In contrast, the Wednesday night drop-in group is focused less on ritualistic elements of Zen and on moving through the ranks of prestigious ordination as a Zen master and more on the ideological conceptualization of Zen thought. With the multiple groups that meet at the Berkeley Zen Center, there are many conceptualizations of Zen. By nature of the historical innovation that led to the formation of this particular Zen center, the Berkeley Zen Center practices Zen in different ways within the center and in comparison to other Zen centers across the United States.

The Wednesday night drop-in group, my main ethnographic focus, is a Zen practice due to its orientation at this particular Zen center but it is not recognized as a traditional formation and understanding of Zen practice. In its origins, Zen refers to Zazen and its physical meditative practice. To the attendees of the Wednesday night sangha, however, Zen is understood as having the added element of verbal engagement and its ability to be understood between individuals in a communicative environment. Each group and service at the Berkeley Zen Center is not Zen by itself; rather, they are groups of people doing something at a Zen center.

Through my ethnographic research, discussions with individual attendees and the priest, and observations of the unique structure of the Wednesday night drop-in group, I concluded that the individuals involved in the Wednesday night drop-in group were after psychological and personal exploration. The unique spiritual niche created by the Wednesday night group is not representative of Zen’s original methodology, but is instead representative of the spiritual and psychological yearnings of those in attendance to gather a sense of understanding about their own personal, individual lives and how to live in the broader world.

The practice of Zen, for them, is one of cognitive training wherein the ideological understanding of Zen helps them interpret how Zen can aid them personally, rather than how they can become better Zen practitioners.

Difference & Identity, Ian McFarland

In contrast to original Japanese Zen practice as one of ritual and of ongoing physical training, the individuals who attend the Wednesday night group are characterized by having an agnostic orientation of spiritual searching and psychological training, wherein their focus resides in personal development through the applicability of Zen ideology to their everyday life. This is Zen for this group, whereas the focus only on Zazen is Zen for other groups.

While there are different reasons for individuals to attend the different groups at the Berkeley Zen Center, my ethnographic focus on the Wednesday night drop-in group exemplifies a niche of individuals who, in their searching for ideologies to coincide with their personal cognitive developments, found this particular center and this particular group as a community wherein the way Zen is focused and structured is beneficial to the cognitive and spiritual growth of those who attend.

This kind of transformation of a ritualistic tradition is not uncommon for the modern age and American culture. Since WWII, there has been a reorganization of religious thought in the United States that has contributed to the transformations of traditions and an influx of religious practices from other areas of the world.

In the United States, there has been a transformation of religious ideology into something akin to “spiritual practice, ” veiled in a secular framework. The Berkeley Zen Center is one such example of the reorganization of a traditional Japanese religion and practice into a place for spiritual growth. The Berkeley Zen Center established itself with a focus both on the ritualistic elements of its traditional Japanese roots and additionally created a space for a more ideologically-focused practice. This allows the more traditionally-minded population to have a space for continued practice while also creating an environment for those interested in Zen thought but opposed to perception of the oppressive nature of the religions present in the United States.

Read Part II here.

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