berkeley zen center

Still Exploring, Part II: Ethnographic Account of the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC)

How do expectations interfere with or contribute to our self-understanding?

Read Part I here.

A Typical Wednesday Night Drop-in Group

On November 12th, during a Wednesday night drop-in session at the Berkeley Zen Center, there were 13 attendees who all contributed to a particularly lively discussion of the purpose and practice of Zen and how it can be utilized in daily life as a method to deal with the Buddhist understanding of the human condition.

The “human condition ” is a phrase often discussed and mentioned at the drop-in group. It pertains to the unorthodox Buddhist version of the human condition, which are feelings, thoughts, and behaviors deemed “negative ” that are met with avoidance or denial in American society. While the ” human condition ” can be a term used in any religion, the Buddhist valiance of this term refers specifically to mental afflictions, as the Buddhist religion explains most everything in terms of mental states (usually negative). Additionally, this represents the use of secular language in a religious setting; the Buddhist term for the “human condition ” is samsara, or the repeating cycle of life and death. “Samsara ” has metaphysical baggage, however, in its relation to traditional Buddhist doctrine, and is not often employed in the context of the Wednesday night drop-in group. The use of the phrase the “human condition ” as opposed to “samsara ” highlights the American expectation that Zen does not have metaphysical baggage and can be abstracted from its religious origins and seen as a philosophical and psychological cure for humanity. Further, this relates to the idea that Zen—and more specifically, this Wednesday night drop-in group—serves as cognitive training of emotions and perceptions which differs drastically from the original function of Zen as a physical practice of meditation, wherein the focus is not on cognitive development per se. The “human condition ” will be referred to in quotes to indicate its meaning within this thesis as pertaining to the unorthodox Buddhist version of the human condition.

I arrived early that night, around 7pm, before Priest Jonni had opened the Zendo for the early-birds to settle in to Zazen and early enough to overhear a conversation between a semi-regular attendee and an individual who was attending for the first time. Since they were acquaintances through work, the two individuals made small talk regarding their relation to one another with the semi-regular attendee, Shawn, surprised that his acquaintance, Jill, actually made it out to the center. Jill remarked that Shawn had made it sound so interesting and revitalizing for the soul that she wanted to come check it out. Shawn then proceeded to walk her through the steps, claiming that he was himself still relatively new and was in no way an expert on Zazen methods but that he would guide her as much as he could. Upon entering the Zendo, Shawn first directed Jill to take off her shoes and place them on the shoe rack and then to bow to the altar upon taking one step in to the Zendo.

I followed them in and found a seat and listened to Shawn softly dissect the different hand positions and body postures she could utilize if she found them comfortable.

“What’s important for now, ” he said, “is the breathing. For now, just focus on the breathing. On breathe. Be aware of everything. Be aware of your body — that you are in your body — and be aware of everything around you too. That is Zazen: awareness of your body and of everything around you. Thoughts arise and let them arise but come back to your breathing. ”

And with that, they settled in to their meditative state as the bell was rung to signal the beginning of Zazen.

With the end of Zazen, 13 people filed in to the discussion room, crowding around the wooden table that usually feels too large. Thirteen zafus made their way around the table, with the three newcomers seated around Priest Jonni at the head of the table. Introductions were made, wherein the newcomers explained their reason for attending. Jill came due to Shawn’s encouragement, Mary has practiced Zazen of her own accord for a while but wanted to be a part of a sangha, and Kay has had no introduction to Zen at all but had a desire to see what it was about.

As we were still reading Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion, we went around the circle, each reading a paragraph from chapter 4: Transform the Bad Circumstances into the Path. Jokingly, Priest Jonni said before we began, “A.K.A. mistakes are inevitable. ” This chapter focused on the practice of patience, Fischer’s “all-time favorite spiritual quality, ” as he explained it involves the ability to accept and deal with difficulty. Beginning with the argument that life’s difficulties are unavoidable, Fischer skillfully captured attention by clearly stating how to create a meaningful and happy life.

Shawn, who was reading Fischer’s introductory argument, chuckled slightly as he read Fischer’s words stating we “have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it ” (46). Jay, a 40-year-old teacher of elementary-aged children, spoke in a deep soothing resonance as he read over Fischer’s assertion that the general tendency is to run away from the negative life events and that the path is not the mishaps, rather it is “love and light, compassion, joy, and so on, we think ” (48). His simple calm tone coated in a thin layer of sarcasm elicited grins and knowing glances from other attendees while Priest Jonni pointed out that the key words were “we think. ”

norman fischer
Norman Fischer

Although the reading and discussion was slow at first with Priest Jonni occasionally making remarks after each paragraph and no one else chiming in, the conclusion of this last paragraph sparked a question within Jake, the E.M.T. trainee which opened up the floodgates, leading to a long winding inquisition regarding the nature of dealing with negative emotions. Intrigued by the argument that negative emotions are not necessarily bad but rather part of the path, Jake wanted to know if we are supposed to let the negative emotions go or if they can be used, or channeled, in a way to produce positive results.

He brought up the example of extreme negative emotion, when channeled into art, can produce beautiful creations. If the end result is something positive, Jake argued, “Can we channel these negative emotions to produce something we would otherwise potentially miss out on creating? ” This question sparked two different trailing discussions, the first of which dealt directly with the question.

Priest Jonni responded to this question by articulating that within Zen practice, it is not the custom to channel negative emotions regardless of the potential beauty of their end result. Rhetorically, Jake then mused what we are supposed to do with these negative emotions when they arise, “do we let them come in full-force or do we try to assuage their deafening effect? ” This musing spiraled into another discussion regarding the nature of “negativity ” in general.

Jay commented, “Well, what is negative? ” Jake responded by listing what Fischer had remarked as the negative attitudes that make our lives ‘unhappy:’ anxiety, fear, narrow-mindedness, and avoidance.

Jay stated that having worked with children for a significant portion of his life, he had been accustomed to experiencing high levels of anxiety on a daily basis when dealing with complaining parents. Upon discussing his feelings to a fellow teacher who asked him, “well what is it exactly? What is anxiety, ” Jay said that that had really helped him.

Opening his eyes wide and letting this thought sink in, Jay spoke calmly and openly, recounting his revelation that once he began to sit with the ‘anxiety’ and attempt to understand what it actually was, it no longer ailed him. The act of fighting himself was what caused him pain, and once he realized he did not have to fight himself but instead allowed himself to attempt to understand what precisely he was feeling, his ‘anxiety’ miraculously began to dissipate.


Phil, a long-time attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in, a paying member of the Berkeley Zen Center, and a trained Doan (an individual who rings the bells during Zazen) spoke up on this note regarding his own personal encounter with negative emotions. A litigator for many years, Phil articulated that he had also experienced extreme levels of anxiety and anger on a daily basis when dealing with people who asserted unfair amounts of control over him.

Addressing Jake’s concern regarding what we do when the wave of negative emotion ensues, Phil said that he found it impossible to avoid the negativity, that it must be expressed but that it should not necessarily be targeted at another individual. Thus, he concluded that he used to write an email filled with paragraphs of unedited anger but that it was important not to press ‘send.’ Laughter ensued wherein most everyone seated around the table undoubtedly empathized with this unavoidable fact of the “human condition: ” the existence of emotions and our ability to be swept away by their force.

Although we did not make it to every individual to read a paragraph on that night, the discussion that culminated from Fischer’s assertions included the wonderings of attendees searching for answers and guidance in regards to how to deal with inevitable hardship. “That is what we do here, ” said Priest Jonni, “this is a practice for how to deal with the ‘human condition.’ This is the root of Zen: Zazen. ” In Zazen, she said, we just sit, because it is Suzuki Roshi’s teaching that we are all already in Buddha-nature, yet we do all these things and there are all these expectations for what we are ‘supposed’ to do.

Zazen, asserted Priest Jonni, is the practice of being with everything that arises in complete acceptance of them and also in patience of them. When simply sitting, we are not running from our negative affect nor are we running toward our hopes and desires. We are sitting with what is and dealing with anything that comes our way. Upon this point, Stacey commented that she feels at times like she does this successfully but she then gets caught in this thought, such that she congratulates herself and feels pride for how “Zen ” she is being. Knowing laughter ensued wherein most everyone in the group met her comment with looks that articulated they had experienced the same hurdle.

Priest Jonni commented that it is important to reign oneself in when this happens and not get too wrapped up in feeling prideful. Although, since Zen is the practice of allowing what is, the appropriate response would be to be aware of the prideful feelings and to not get too attached to them. To clarify, Priest Jonni said to acknowledge that you are feeling prideful and in the acceptance of these feelings, you do not have to identify with them.

Bowing out of the weekly discussion, we all helped in putting away the zafus, taking the tea and trays of cookies into the kitchen, and some even helped to wash out the tea pots. As I was putting my shoes back on, Jim came up to me and started talking. Jim had started coming around the same time I did but has been practicing meditation and his own personal ‘brand’ of Zen and ‘spiritual’ practices since his teen years.

Going through an extensive period of drug abuse and eventually recovering from his various addictions, Jim had planted himself firmly in his spiritual seekings as his main point of existence. He said he had been to other Zen centers and had even tried out the San Francisco Zen Center but lived only a few blocks from this center and so, he enjoyed the proximity, ‘comfortable atmosphere,’ and ‘cozy community’ that the Berkeley Zen Center offered.

In previous meetings he claimed he had spent a few years living in the mountains near San Diego County tending to the needs of a dying old lady and spending a lot of his time “doing nothing. ” Asserting this with much pride, Jim comes across as though considers himself something of a ‘spiritual guru’ and has no problem voicing his often ignored opinions. From various meetings, Jim has discussed his past regarding very serious personal issues with his father — issues he assures us he has worked through — but speaks in a tone and bravado that almost demands respect for his accomplishments. He has a comment for everyone else’s comment and never misses an opportunity to discuss his past or his current project, a website wherein he discusses ‘The Way.’ He has gone through years of wandering and spiritual endeavors and speaks with an authority that not only would make someone not practicing Zen uncomfortable, but seems to personify a lot of the qualities that Zen turns away from.

In just about every meeting, I conspicuously observe how other people react when Jim begins his weekly ramblings. Jim often raises his hand in an attempt to exemplify a certain level of shyness that he presumes would be respected in the Zen environment, and often begins with an “If I may… ” as if his asking permission makes his forthcoming self-righteousness acceptable. Regardless of who is attending, most everyone averts his/her eyes and remains very still until he relents and relinquishes his asserted stance of presumptuous austerity. Priest Jonni’s reactions are by far the most interesting as it is she who guides us in the Zen practice of how to live.

In theory, it is one thing, but in practice it is oftentimes another. We cannot always practice what we preach, and this is evident in Priest Jonni’s simple avoidance of Jim’s scream for approval.

Priest Jonni will often sit, hands folded on the table in front, head cocked to the side, lips pressed, and watch Jim speak for a few seconds. Jim’s repetitive head nods, practiced quite possibly to give himself a sense of approval — since not many other people grant him this — and unabashed splaying of emotion eventually contribute to Priest Jonni’s wary glance away, her scrunched eyebrows, even her obvious grimaces. It is not so much Jim’s forthcoming of emotion that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere though — since most people within this group frequently express experiencing strong emotions — but the level of pride and lack of humbleness that tags along with his remarks, which are directly counter to the lessons we are learning.

For example, during this session when Jay discussed how he observed through his teaching that American children require a lot of approval, Jim recounted that he often experiences other people who get caught up in needing approval and that he himself “does his best ” to stay away from getting “wrapped up in all that. ” Jay continued to explain how it seems to be integral to the American identity to be in constant need of approval, to know that we are doing things appropriately and that it is ingrained in us from a very young age with the way the school system is set up as part of this accepted national identity. While nothing was said to point out the contradiction between Jim’s words and his actions, though, a silence of averted eyes ensued, and often ensues after his pointed remarks.

After lacing my feet firmly in my shoes and nodding at Jim’s claims that he was “already a teacher ” of his own spiritual creation, I noted Priest Jonni’s downcast eyes and angled body posture as she walked past. The avoidance of Jim by most of the attendees, the Priest included, is never directly addressed and as it was stated in a drop-in group, we can never escape from the “human condition. ”

Thus, while we attempt to live in accordance with Zen ideals and do our best to bring theory into practice, certain situations and either the clarity that we cannot change a particular person or the lack of clarity with how to deal with a particular person leads us to avoidance in that characteristically undeniable expression of humanity we cannot shed. While some could argue Priest Jonni is not necessarily acting in-line with Zen thought, others might articulate her behavior is not wrong but merely a protective shield to keep herself from acting in a more direct and obvious contradiction to Zen when communicating with Jim.

Before leaving for the night, I was able to help Priest Jonni put away items in the kitchen and discuss with her some questions I had regarding the readings and general nature of this particular Zen center. First, I inquired what other materials she might recommend to someone wanting to learn Zen and who was new to the practice. She mentioned a few names, such as Norman Fischer, but heavily emphasized Suzuki Roshi as the place to start. She explained that Suzuki Roshi was really the one to start the main Zen centers in the Bay Area: San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and the Berkeley Zen Center. While Suzuki Roshi did not open the Berkeley Zen Center directly, he trained the leader of the Berkeley Zen Center, Sojun Weitsman Roshi. Priest Jonni emphasized that our practices are in direct accordance with Suzuki Roshi’s teachings and the best place to start for someone seeking Zen understanding would be his books, particularly Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Regarding the book we are currently reading by Norman Fischer, I had been intrigued by the general acceptance of his teachings by the attendees and by Priest Jonni, as the particular book we are reading delves into the practice of Lojong, a Tibetan practice. As I brought this to Priest Jonni’s attention, she stated that Fischer is a Soto Zen teacher trained by one of the teachers at the Berkeley Zen Center and his teachings and ideology are in the same lineage as Suzuki Roshi. The only difference though, is his emphasis on Lojong, which, Priest Jonni said, he uses in combination with Zen theory to produce a new result.

Priest Jonni explained that while he is trained in theory in Suzuki Roshi Zen, Fischer utilizes the Tibetan practice of Lojong because he personally believes that the combination of a myriad of Buddhist practices creates a better understanding. While some Buddhist practitioners — traditional priests from Japan in particular — would frown upon this, the assertion of melting the barriers between various schools of Buddhism and using concepts from different lineages is looked upon as a strength for those seeking Buddhism in America. Priest Jonni discussed this phenomenon as particularly beneficial to those searching for a Buddhist understanding, as the combined use of various methods can create a clearer view of how to be a Buddhist in the modern world. The division of Zen and Tibetan, Priest Jonni claimed is really not as important as understanding how the practices and concepts of each can be used together.

I asked Priest Jonni if she thought that this Wednesday night drop-in group was representative of Zen practice. She chuckled and said “Oh I don’t know if I can answer that, Zen is different everywhere. ” She articulated that regardless of if you come to the drop-in group or the Saturday service or to another Zen center, there is no real representative understanding of Zen. She compared the Saturday service for Zen practitioners to the weekly Sunday service to Christians in America, with the Wednesday night drop-in group as comparative to Bible Study for Christians. “What we do on Wednesday night is understand how to be Zen practitioners just like how in Christian Bible Study, they understand how to be Christian, ” she said.

The people who come on Saturday, she continued, are not necessarily anymore invested in understanding how to practice Zen and often, she observes, they come mainly for the lecture and participate very little. Additionally, there are quite a few newcomers every week who come just to check it out and see what “Zen is all about. ” In this way, the Saturday sangha is no more invested in understanding the purpose of Zen than those who attend the Wednesday night drop-in group.

Priest Jonni’s discussion of the Saturday sangha and the Wednesday sangha highlights the differences in focus of the two groups. Neither group has more claim to the understanding of Zen as they focus on different methodologies. The structure of the Saturday service focuses on the physical ritual of meditation while the Wednesday night service focuses on the ideological elements of Zen in a community discussion. Those at the Wednesday night group are no more invested in understanding Zen than the Saturday service, but simply understand it through a more Protestant bias, due to the Wednesday night drop-in group’s emphasis on communication of what Zen means and how it can be applied to their lives. A Japanese bias more prevalent at the Saturday service pertains to the Zen emphasis of practice and ritual, rather than discussion of the practice and ritual.

After this long discussion with Priest Jonni, I was on my way out when I noticed Jill was still around. She had been talking to another member but their conversation was coming to a close as well and she was making her way to leave. Catching my eye, she waited for me on the steps outside of the community room. I asked her how she liked it, as this was her first time. She said she really enjoyed it, she felt very connected. “I was surprised, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting, ” Jill said. When I asked her what she was expecting she said she did not know but that she really felt like she walked in to something important. “I came for anxiety, ” she said, “Shawn recommended this would help with anxiety, so I thought I’d try it out. ” The community atmosphere was new and intriguing to her and she said she wanted to see where this would go.

nature meditation

Another drop-in session some weeks later was particularly interesting due to two newcomers who were overcome with emotion. Having practiced meditation before in various contexts and within their personal daily routines, Sarah and Jasmine stated they felt an extra push to attend on this particular night due to certain life events that left them feeling vulnerable. Sarah was particularly vocal and voiced how she had been practicing on her own every day with meditation and t’ai chi but had stopped recently due to the feeling that she “didn’t need it. ” She explained she felt as though she had gotten into a habit such that the practice became second-nature in a way that was no longer beneficial. Thus, she grabbed a friend and decided to explore new possibilities for how to combat the constant stream of overwhelming emotions she had been experiencing.

The drop-in group session served a specific purpose for Sarah that was recognized in its ability to give her a sense of peace as she battled the uncertain nature of her individual conflict. Without giving away too many details, Sarah expressed she felt overwhelmed by life and its demands; she was uncertain and scared. Ramon, a semi-regular attendee, tried to console Sarah by explaining that when he feels overwhelmed by a particular emotion or emotions, he lets them come. “There is nothing you can do about it, ” Priest Jonni said, “just let it happen and eventually you’ll feel the emotion come and go, like a wave passing by you that you don’t have to take. ” Near to tears, Sarah choked down a sob and, laughing, said “That sounds lovely, but how do I get there? ”

Sammi, a-semi regular attendee of the Wednesday night drop-in group, said rhetorically “Well what is it that you feel exactly? ” Ask yourself, Sammi continued, what you feel and instead of feeling scared of your own emotions, allow yourself to be curious about it. “So you feel uncertain, ” Sammi said. “What is uncertainty? This is what I do when I feel something. I become curious about it and try to figure out what exactly is this feeling I am feeling. ” As soon as she does this, Sammi explains that she no longer feels chaotic or out of control. The aversion to the emotion, Sammi says, comes from the fear of allowing yourself to experience whatever it is you are experiencing. “Be curious, ” Sammi continued “about why you feel so against letting yourself feel. ”

Nodding in agreement, Priest Jonni added that the only thing we can do is be where we are. “We must start where we are. If we are feeling sad, then we start with that sadness. ” We cannot run or avoid but we additionally cannot dwell. We sit and we acknowledge, we let it happen and then we move on.

After this Wednesday night drop-in session, I talked with Ramon who had started coming to this Zen center around the same time I had. In his twenties and Hindu from birth, Ramon explained that he started coming to this center out of a need he felt to understand himself in a way that nothing else was helping him to achieve. Although he lived about 20 minutes away, he was attracted to this Zen center as it was the closest and most convenient to his house. More importantly, he confided he enjoyed this center due to the relaxed nature of the gatherings and the talks by Sojun on Saturdays, where the center has service all morning with a lecture from the priest.

Despite his recent introduction to Zen and his inconsistencies in attending the drop-in group, Ramon discussed a feeling of change in himself since his presence at this center. Before coming to this center and opening himself up to Zen, he articulated he would feel a pressure to go out and party on the weekends despite the emptiness, lack of clarity, and perpetuation of dissatisfaction it would have left with him. Now, however, he felt a release from that pressure, an acceptance to not be forced to act in a way that did less than nothing for him. Our conversation, lasting no more than 10 minutes, was filled with the kind of genuine connection with a lack of boundaries so common among American dialogue.

He continued by saying that this center, and Zen in general, gave him a freedom he had not experienced before. Whereas in other religions, he argued there are rules and expectations and models for how or who to be, Zen grants the individual a release. Zen, as understood by Ramon, is a practice that does not have expectations but instead gives him an allowance to be without expectations to be anything.

Read Part III here.

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