Leaving Austin Zen Center

AZC Sangha Members,

People have been asking if I am leaving AZC. The answer is yes … and no.

I’ve recently made some fairly radical decisions about my practice career, that I very quickly communicated to a number of people. As these things happen, a wider group of people have then heard about my decisions and begun to interpret them in not completely accurate ways. I think it is time for me to announce my plans publicly bring people up to date and to clear up any potential confusion about my motivations.

Alongside various shortcomings, I’ve gained a reputation at AZC for steadfastness. I am a founding member of AZC, I practiced in the Clear Spring Zendo, the precursor to the Austin Zen Center, I’ve been here longer than Seirin, I was one of that first group of four who took the Precepts after Seirin arrived, and the second person to leave here for practice and training at Tassajara, the Soto Zen monastery in California, abandoning a lucrative and stimulating career for this practice. I was ordained as a priest by Seirin on April 19, 2003 in our zendo. I’ve lived in a Zen community, primarily here, but also at Tassajara, since the Fall of 2001. I’ve served this center as janitor, remodeler, board member, Web master, ino (in charge of zendo practice), tenzo (cook), teacher, lecturer, shoso (head student) and practice leader. I’ve represented this center at many interfaith gatherings, panel discussions and classroom settings, and even on TV. I am as familiar with the sometimes obscure works of Dogen, founder of our tradition in Japan, as anyone here. I am sure I have clocked more hours in our zendo, ever present physically, if not always mentally, than anyone else. I’ve ridden the ups and downs of this center’s history. My heart has been in this center, in this practice and in this tradition, and it continues to be to this day. I hope I have inspired others in this direction. Word that my status at AZC may soon change has caught some people by surprise.

As many of you know I’ve been interested for many years in Buddhist monastic practice, and in the question of what it means to be a monk in the world, rather than cloistered in a monastery. This was, after all, the original model of the Buddhist life, one that allows engagement in the world while at the same time maintaining the monastic container. It is also a model that suits my particular aspirations, and is furthermore, I feel, critically underrepresented in fabric of American Buddhism. As much as I love our tradition, it no longer provides, neither here nor in Japan, the peer support for, nor full understanding of, this aspect of practice. For that reason, after much research, I have decided to seek a second ordination, in fact in the Theravada tradition. This should not be interpreted as a rejection of the teachings or practice of Soto Zen, nor of dissatisfaction with the mission of this center, but is rather specific to seeking the peer support for the discipline necessary in the practice lifestyle I have chosen. My teacher, Seirin, is fully supportive of this decision.

So, what are my plans?

My immediate future involves Sitagu Vihara, the Burmese temple in Austin, and its abbot, Ven. Ashin Ariyadhamma. At the end of February I will travel with a group from Sitagu Vihara to Burma, then Ven. Ariyadhamma will give me full bhikkhu ordination at a new international Buddhist academy at Sagaing Hills, on March 6. I will remain in Burma foreseeably for about three months, for training and observing Buddhist life in its traditional setting, then live back in Austin at Sitagu Vihara for at least several months, all the while sporting a more colorful outfit than heretofore. (In all of this I have the sense of stepping off the top of the hundred foot pole, as one of our koans describes. For instance, as a bhikkhu I will agree, essentially, not to be a part of the exchange economy. This allows engaging in the world in beneficial ways, but only as an offering, and at the same time makes me totally dependent on the unsolicited offerings of others.)

After I return to Austin, since I will not be living close to the Zen Center, I will no longer steadfastly warm a seat in the zendo; however I intend to remain on the Zen Center board, and to continue to be active in teaching here, both in the classroom and one-on-one. Moreover, I hope to be more active than ever in the prison project, to do a lot of writing and to be engaged in inter-Buddhist dialog. I will continue to be ordained as a Soto Zen priest (a kind of Thera-Zenny hybrid), but will wait at least a year before working out with Seirin whether it makes sense to complete my training toward Dharma transmission. I hope to continue my studies in the writings of Dogen Zenji.

I realize that the extent to which I will be less involved at AZC leaves a gap, and at a critical transitional time in the history of our center. I hope that my pulling back in this way will inspire others to come forward as owners of this center, to recall the value of having a strong practice center like AZC in Austin and difference it can make in their own lives, to make zazen a routine part of every weekday morning or evening, to learn to ring bells and hit the han and to volunteer for some of the many tasks that keep this center running. That is my hope. (It is the eve of a new practice period; what better time to renew or extend one’s commitment to this wonderful practice and to this center.) I also hope that the perspectives I bring back from my explorations, not only on individual practice but on sangha, will benefit the center in the long run.

I know that my practice decisions will be perplexing to many, and make sense for others. I know of one other sangha member who is exploring following a similar path. If anyone would like to learn more about the background of my decisions, please come talk with me any time.

Above all I want to reassure the sangha that I steadfastly continue to endorse the mission of this center. I think relatively few realize the enormous value of a practice center like ours. I, for one, will continue to support this center in every way I can within the new parameters I am setting for myself.

In the Dharma,
浩仁放川 (Kojin Hosen)

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