Although I began my research as an ethnographic account of the Berkeley Zen Center, noting its formations as a product of both the modern American society as well as the traditional doctrine of Japanese Zen, my participation at the Wednesday night drop-in group led me to become invested in this practice as a religious and spiritual community for individual cultivation. Like any religious center, the Berkeley Zen Center is a place of spiritual longing, individual yearning for understanding of self and others, and placement of individual persons in the broader picture of existence.
These elements are most representative at the Wednesday night drop-in group, however, as opposed to the Saturday service and other traditional features of the center. Additionally, in contrast to other religious practices within the United States, Zazen practice establishes a community of individuals dealing with the ebb and flow of internal and external life. The distinction between the Saturday sangha and the Wednesday sangha remains significant in that the Saturday sangha is not necessarily concerned with the ideological communicative practice of Zen as it pertains to dealing with the “human condition. ” Rather, the Saturday sangha focuses more on the traditional, ritual practice of Zazen with less emphasis on the ideological nature of Zen.
While the historical formation of a cultural practice is crucial in understanding how it came to exist in its contemporary state, the Wednesday night drop-in group is most intriguing due to the individual lives of the people who are attracted to this feature of the Zen center. What I find most interesting is the unique micro-niche of the Wednesday night drop-in group that exists within, because of, and in contrast to modern American culture.
The individuals who attend the Berkeley Zen Center’s drop-in group all seem to come out of an internal drive for understanding, a quest for something they previously had not had in their lives. Whether introduced to the center or Zen by others or stumbling upon it themselves, the thread of connection for all individuals I talked to and those who vocalized concerns openly at the drop-in group revolved around a personal need to deal with themselves. Most individuals expressed experiencing extreme levels of emotion such as anxiety, anger, or sadness that led them in search of a place that would help them in understanding.
While experiencing extreme levels of emotion is not uncommon for a reason for an individual to pursue any religious organization or practice, most of these individuals were led here, to a Zen center, out of dissatisfaction with other religious organizations, doctrines, and practices they had experienced previously in their lives. Further, their choice in attending this specific Zen center, BZC, was mostly out of convenience, since most attendees lived nearby in Berkeley. While some, such as Ramon, did not live particularly close by, this center was still the closest to his residence. Additionally, individuals are drawn to the drop-in group, in comparison to the Saturday service, as it allows an ideological organization of dealings with the “human condition ” and how perceptions of Zen can be utilized within their individual lives.
The micro-niche culture of the Zen sangha at the drop-in group pertains to a rejection of the other more common religious practices in the United States (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism). Additionally, while the attendees are not in direct opposition to psychological and scientific explanations for existence or personhood, the way life is understood by general Buddhist doctrine, Dogen’s teachings, Suzuki-roshi’s teachings, and followers of Suzuki-roshi — such as Norman Fischer — provides a path of clarity for those at the Wednesday night drop-in group.
Carried out in a community, Zazen and the Wednesday night drop-in group provide a fabric of support for individual efforts in recognition that life is a sangha of individuals, a fluid, thriving organism constantly changing. This is unique to the Wednesday group and characterizes a niche of individuals who are Zen by affiliation with the Zen center, but whose conversations at the drop-in group lend themselves to being representative of a wider spiritual demographic and of those seeking spiritual and psychological understanding.
While existing within the American religious landscape (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam), this population is formed in opposition to the common religions pervading and underlying American culture as the individuals in attendance of the drop-in group often come from various religious backgrounds they chose to reject. Thus, the organization and structure of the Wednesday group exists because of a need in the community for a place of spiritual seeking. The Wednesday group filled a void in the greater Berkeley community and specifically at this center, as its focus on the ideological understanding of Zen and verbalization of its applicability to everyday life in a community atmosphere created a special niche for a demographic of people seeking something akin to spirituality and cognitive training.
The first night I attended the Wednesday night drop-in group, there were 10 or so of us seated around the big wooden table in the community room, zafus beneath us and tea and cookies passing between us. Starting with Priest Jonni, we introduced ourselves clockwise around the circle. When it was my turn, I said this was my first time to any Zen Center and that I was just exploring. Around the table we went and finally the attention landed on a guy in his mid-twenties. Calm and soft-spoken and absorbed in an air of careful questionings, he shifted on his cushion and said “I’m Eric. ” Looking up from the cup of tea steaming before him, he looked at me and said “I’ve been coming here for years and I’m still exploring too. We’re all still exploring. That is the point. ”
Priest Jonni nodded and said “We are all continuously arriving. ” This is a practice, she said, of climbing up a totem pole; the point is not to reach the top of the totem pole, “and if we think we’ve reached the top that is a sure way to get stuck in our egos and to lose our footing. One minute we may think we’ve experienced something profound, we may think we’ve reached enlightenment. ” And the next minute we’re wallowing in self-pity and doubt and anguished with the impermanent nature of that previous insightful experience.
“How can we get it back, ” she said rhetorically. “Sit with yourself. And don’t ever let yourself think you’ve reached the top of the totem pole, ” because there is no top. Zen is different for everyone who practices it. For some, it means Zazen; for others, it means talking. For the niche of seekers at the Wednesday night drop-in group, it means exploring, still exploring, continuously arriving.