Innovation and Transformation

by Sensei Mark Kizan Shogen Bloodgood

The suffering of the world is a specific situation, not some big abstraction. It calls us to do this, and this, and this. It calls us to get out of our heads and take concrete actions now, and now again, and now again.

From The Book of Householder Koans by Roshi Eve Marko and Roshi Egyoku

Within a week after our stay-at-home order (whenever that was–I can’t remember now) we had moved all our San Luis Obispo Zen Circle (SLOZC) programs onto Zoom. Thrown into Not-Knowing with the Pandemic, Bearing-Witness to our options, and, BOOM, we were on Zoom! It was similar at ZCLA. For us that meant our Tuesday morning zazen, our long-running Thursday evening program, the current Precept/Jukai class series, and our newer Sunday morning program. Ironically, we had been “rehearsing” with new liturgical Services for a number of months during the Sunday program, with just a small group of our members, and were ready to finally open it up to the public. Then Covid-19 hit.

We not only regrouped quickly but then began expanding our offerings. Now, we have 6 a.m. sittings Tuesday through Friday. Now, our members are attending ZCLA Sesshins and Zazenkais where heretofore most had not been able to make the 200-mile trek to Great Dragon Mountain. My own auto mechanic recently called concerned about my absence. Not driving 40,000 miles per year anymore, he wasn’t seeing me very often! (LOL) Moreover, prior members who had moved away were now joining us once again online. Yet another silver lining has been not schlepping a Prius-filled cargo of Zen “stuff” every Thursday night and Sunday morning.

Face-to-Face (F2F) interviews had been a concern for our little group. For most of our 17+ years together it hadn’t even been an option. But I never stopped hoping we could eventually offer it, motivated by Yamada Kôun’s words, “Most important in the practice of Zen is dokusan ( F2F) for without dokusan true practice is not possible. As Harada Roshi also said, if dokusan is taking place, you at least know that practitioners are attempting to transmit the true dharma…please come as often as possible to dokusan if you really want to practice Zen. Unless dokusan takes place, it’s not real Zen.”

My own 20 years of F2F with Roshi Egyoku and other teachers has been foundational in my own practice. I wanted that for others. Finally, at a certain point in my own training, I got the nod from Roshi Egyoku to offer F2F. It was a huge step. But there were still challenges: on Thursday evenings at Crows End, the interview room, which was in what I call the Thoreau cabin, was over 100 yards away from the zendo. During our one hour of zazen, I was lucky to get three interviews in. Then we had just started doing F2F on Sundays, before the lockdown occurred, using the office of a psychiatrist which was only ten yards from the White Heron Sangha Meditation Center where we meet.

Now, in this Zoom environment, there’s little limit to F2F offering. I am able to meet with members, both here and some from ZCLA, on a weekly basis. As a result of all these changes, through these past months, many of our members have deepened their practice. As a new teacher, it has deepened my own practice. Real shifts have taken place. A number of students are now doing koan work. We’ve been able to spend so much more time together, connecting, practicing. Innovation and transformation!

I’ve been inspired by ZCLA’s vision and creativity with virtual Sesshins, Zazenkais, Teishos and Dharma Talks, online Services, Chant Circles, and Dharma Holder ceremonies. I am currently working with Roshi Egyoku on how best to handle an online entering ceremony for our first SLOZC Head Trainee, Geoff Kanjō O’Quest.

So, as I often exclaim when talking from my Zoom room, “Welcome to the Los Osos Hermitage! And more specifically, welcome to Sensei Koan’s bedroom!” (My Zoom room is where Sensei Koan stays when he visits.)

Sensei Shogen is the guiding teacher at the San Luis Obispo Zen Circle