Zen Buddhism Temple of Ann Arbor

Zen Buddhism Temple of Ann Arbor

By: Harrison Tamke

Introduction to Buddhism, Fall 2017


Near the corner of Packard and Wells St., in the affluent, liberal college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits an unassuming red brick house. Flanked by a (closed) bicycle repair shop and an (open) vacuum cleaner shop, the building is surrounded by a short brick wall without a gate. Beside the entrance to the yard is a simple wood sign. It reads: “ZEN BUDDHIST TEMPLE. SUNDAY SERVICES 10 A.M. & 4 P.M. ALL WELCOME”. This is a visitor’s first view of Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple, run by the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom. It is home to a community of about a thousand lay people (mostly white converts), who come for daily or weekend services, Dharma talks, meditation sessions, and other community events. It is a quiet place, where one can meditate and find inner peace, but it is not a hiding place. Though there is a small residency program, it exists mostly to minister to laypeople, and a recurring theme in the priests’ dharma talks is that practice need not be confined to the temple (Fellowship for Intentional Community 2016). Rather, one can continue to practice throughout their day-to-day lives, helping not only to finally achieve nirvana for oneself, but also to make one’s community a better place.


The Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor was established by a Korean monk named Samu Sunim. After wandering for several years as an orphan, he entered the Namjang-sa monastery in Sangju in 1958. In 1962, at the Pomo-sa monastery in Pusan, he was ordained as a disciple of Tongsan Sunim, training also under the monk Solbong Sunim. However, in 1965, he left South Korea for the United States, in order to avoid conscription. He settled first in New York, before moving to Montreal in 1968, where he established the Zen Lotus Society in his apartment. Later, in Toronto, he helped organize and minister to a small sangha of Korean immigrants, but was soon after joined by a small group of white converts. Together, they held meditation practices and weekend retreats. As the sangha grew, its members realized they would need a bigger facility. So they purchased a dilapidated house and renovated it all by themselves. In addition to the Buddhist practice and constant renovation of the facility, the sangha started a Buddhist newsletter, Spring Wind, on a printing press they purchased and rebuilt themselves (Pappu 1999).

In 1981, Sunim decided to begin a new community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He dispatched one of his disciples, Haju Sunim (formerly Linda Murray), to identify a suitable location. Haju had formerly been a school teacher in Canada, and was one of the original members of the Toronto sangha. She helped to identify the Packer Street site, which the sangha (again) renovated by themselves (“Our History” 2017). In 1989, Haju was ordained, and received the dharma transmission from Samu Sunim just ten years later. While Samu Sunim resides with the New York sangha, she remains as the head teacher of the Ann Arbor sangha (“Teachers” 2017).


The Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, being part of the Zen school, heavily emphasizes the relationship between practice and enlightenment. During a dharma talk at the Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in 2015, Samu Sunim explained that practice was important to enlightenment because practice is enlightenment. All beings, Samu Sunim explained, already possess Buddha nature, and this nature is developed through practice (specifically, meditation). Indeed, he compared practice to a mother’s womb, in that it gives birth to enlightenment in much the same way that the womb gives birth to a child. However, he cautions that practice is no simple thing (Samu Sunim 2015). In another Dharma talk, delivered at a Sunday service in Toronto, Samu Sunim talked about how right practice requires “true humility” and “profound gratitude”, as well as silence, and solidarity with all sentient beings (Samu Sunim 2008).

However, this meditation need not happen only in a temple. In a dharma talk at the at Yongmaeng Jeongjin retreat in 2013, Haju Sunim shared an ancient story about a temple that was trying to elect a new head monk. To their collective surprise, they found that the wisest among them was the monk who did the cooking. He had honed his concentration and grown in wisdom not in group prayers or meditation in the temple, but during his daily walk to and from a nearby stream, to carry water in a heavy pot along a difficult path back to the temple kitchen. Just as the monk was able to cultivate his mind and spirit during his daily work, said Haju Sunim, so, too, could a layperson cultivate their own mind in their day-to-day activities (Haju Sunim 2013).

While the Zen Buddhist Temple preaches the importance of practice and meditation as means of achieving enlightenment, it also preaches the importance of being engaged in the community. In 1987, the Ann Arbor temple hosted the Conference on World Buddhism in North America. Some of the topics discussed included: ethnic and North American Buddhist movements; Vinaya rules and regulations; monasticism and the lay Buddhist movement; feminism, ecological awareness and social issues; the role of tradition in the contemporary Buddhist movement; cross-cultural assimilation of Buddhism; and Theravada-Mahayana encounters in the West (“Our History” 2017). Even to this day, social issues are an important topic at the Zen Temple. The temple hosts an “Earth-in-Mind” group that meets twice a month to discuss environmental issues. The emphasis on social issues can also be seen in some of the poems written by Samu Sunim. In one, titled, “The American Women’s March”, Samu extolls the Women’s March that took place in Washington DC in 2017, writing, “Would women be our future! Let their compassion and wisdom prevail. ‘When men go low, let nasty women go high!’ Let them be our guardian for all beings on our planet!” (Samu Sunim 2017). Similarly, in a poem titled, “Let’s All Get Along”, Samu writes about a homeless friend of his named Ken. The poem talks about poverty and social strife in America, with references ranging from pop culture (e.g.: how Ken resembles Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls) to the political (the beating of Rodney King in 1991 is frequently referenced) (Samu Sunim 2017).

With respect to other Buddhist traditions, there is little indication of the temple’s views on the matter. As the Conference on World Buddhism in North America shows, engagement between Buddhist traditions is a topic of interest. However, I could find no indication of joint events with other Buddhist communities, even though there is a Tibetan Buddhist community- the Jewel Heart Buddhist Center- in Ann Arbor as well.


On its website, the Ann Arbor Temple states that it, “seeks to establish a viable and nurturing balance between zen training and one’s obligations outside of residency to family, school, and work”. To become a member of the sangha, one must take a short beginner’s meditation course. While the classes are a prerequisite to becoming a regular member, the temple advertises them as being open to anybody who wants to learn meditation for their personal benefit (“Meditation Class” 2017).

Once prospective members finish the course, they are able to participate in the two main activities at the temple, which are communal services and retreats. The services typically include two meditation periods, with a group chant and recitation of the Three Refuges in between, and a dharma talk by one of the priests or senior lay members at the end. The talks are recorded and posted on the temple’s website so that visitors can listen to them, as I did. They are not at all dull, but typically incorporate stories and parables (e.g.: the story of the cook-monk). And the talks always incorporate periodic yelling by the instructors to keep the sangha on its toes and ensure understanding of key concepts.

The temple also conducts retreats, which can vary in length. Over the course of a year it will offer several short retreats of less than 24 hours, including several expressly for beginners, and one five-day Yongmaeng Jeongjin (or “fearless practice”) retreat. In addition to services and retreats, the temple also organizes community events and celebrations. Each year it hosts a two-day celebration of the Buddha’s birthday; the celebration usually includes poetry readings and storytelling, singing and chanting, and even a vegetarian buffet, before concluding with a “Peace & Happiness Parade” down Packer Street (Axelsen 2010).

Finally, the temple offers some services regarding aging and death. The temple has a “Mindful Transitions” group that meets once a month. When a member (or, interestingly enough, their pet) dies, the temple will perform a modified version of the traditional post-mortem rite: members will gather to meditate and chant for the deceased for a period of 49 days, as their soul transitions to its next place in the universe. However, rather than performing the rite over the unburied corpse, as is traditional in some Buddhist countries, the rite is performed around an altar with a picture of the deceased and “small items of importance to the person” (Gaudin 2016).

The city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a boisterous college town, home to the famed University of Michigan. Many of the finest and most ambitious students and athletes in the country call it home, striving endlessly for the pinnacles of academic and athletic achievement. Yet on a quiet little road near the great Michigan Stadium sits a quiet little Buddhist temple, the Zen Buddhist Temple. Adjacent to an institution that exists to further worldly ambitions, the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor exists to help its members find inner peace and, ultimately, escape from the worlds of pleasure and ambition. Through weekly meditation services and retreats, it helps its members to not only purify their minds, but also to realize the sanctity of potential of day-to-day life, so that they can work toward enlightenment not only in the meeting rooms of the temple itself, but in the activities of their day-to-day lives. As Katherine Brown, a senior lay person in the sangha remarked, “The wall is there not to separate us from the rest of the town” (Dwyer 2011).

Works Cited:

Axelsen, Katherine. “Zen Buddhist Temple Celebrates Buddha’s 2,554th birthday”. The Ann Arbor News. 27 May 2010. Web. 5 December 2017. http://www.annarbor.com/faith/zen-buddhist-temple-celebrates-buddhas-2554th-birthday/

Dwyer, Ann. “Silence is Golden at Zen Buddhist Temple”. The Ann Arbor News. 27 January 2011. Web. 5 December 2017. http://www.annarbor.com/faith/silence-is-golden-at-zen-buddhist-temple/

Gaudin, Madeleine. “Understanding Life: Zen Buddhist Temple Offers Placid Sanctuary”. The Michigan Daily. 27 January 2016. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.michigandaily.com/section/arts/copy-buddhist-temple-bside

Haju Sunim. “Dharma Talks from Summer Yongmaeng Jeongjin 2013 (Chicago)”. 30 June 2013. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks

“Our History”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/history

Pappu, Sridhar. “Have Hammer, Will Travel”. Chicago Reader. 15 January 1999. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/samu-sunim-stories (text from temple website; could not find original story)

Samu Sunim. “American Women’s March 2017”. Poem Collections. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/df6bb4_494cf3d72a8941c586fb6bb5ea7d7bca.pdf

Samu Sunim. “Dharma Talks from Summer Yongmaeng Jeongjin 2015 (NYC)”. 27 June 2015. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks

Samu Sunim. “Let’s All Get Along”. Poem Collections. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/df6bb4_494cf3d72a8941c586fb6bb5ea7d7bca.pdf

Samu Sunim. “Samu Sunim 2008 October 12 Toronto”. 12 October 2008. Zen Buddhist Temple. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/dharma-talks

“Teachers”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/teachers

“Meditation Class”. Zen Buddhist Temple. 2017. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.zenbuddhisttemple.org/meditation-class

“Zen Buddhist Temple – Ann Arbor”. Fellowship for Intentional Community. 30 April 2016. Web. 5 December 2017. https://www.ic.org/directory/zen-buddhist-temple-ann-arbor/

San Francisco Zen Center

Sam Houmaoui

Located in San Francisco, California, the San Francisco Zen Center was established by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1962. The teachings of the San Francisco Zen Center are based on the lineage of the Soto School of thought, which seeks to make the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha accessible to all.  The Zen Center believes its purpose to be instilling within the lay people the power of monastic practices as an expression of the Bodhisattva Way. The Zen Center idolizes a specific quotation from Suzuki Roshi to exemplify the importance of their practice: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” The work of Suzuki Roshi’s practice of Zen Buddhism is to continue along a path to mastery while maintaining the open mind with many possibilities.

The mission of the San Francisco Zen Center is to express, make accessible, and embody the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. The central value held by the center in the tradition of the Soto School is to express non-duality of practice and awakening through practice of the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts. The Zen Center is intensely cognizant of the long term support of their vision, and is upheld by 5 sustainability goals. These goals are as follows: clarify Zen Center’s teacher training program; Create an inclusive, effective, diverse and sustainable employee and residential environment; enhance our ability to provide Zen Buddhist practice to a wider audience of practitioners; secure long-term financial well-being of the organization; and to steward land, buildings, facility infrastructure, and IT systems in harmony with the earth and our environmental values.

The San Francisco Zen Center has been a major proponent of a dualistic understanding of American Precepts. On one side is prohibitory style of Shoaku Makusa, and the positive style of Shuzen Bugyo. Both sides are intensely important to the Buddhist practice, whereby exemplifying this duality, we can not only help ourselves, but also help others help themselves. Suzuki Roshi is intensely focused on supporting through community, and this ethical structure of boundaries and enticers is important to deliver the Zen message to the American mind.

Tokudo courtyard whole group colour 2_shundo_1150

The lineage of the Soto Teaching tradition was brought to San Francisco by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1959. He was excited to grow the Zen Center in America as he found promise in the commitment and quality of the beginner’s mind that his students had. Eventually he grew the center to two locations, the primary center in the City Center, and a supplementary Mountain Center. Growing up in the Soto tradition of Komazawa University in Tokyo, Suzuki Roshin found the intensity and superficiality of Japanese Buddhism to disatisfy him and his practice. He looked to the Americans as a potential reformation back to the pure zazen practices, and worked for the rest of his life to build his Soto influenced Zen practices in San Francisco.

Upon the death of Suzuki Roshi in 1971, Zentatsu Richard Baker Roshi took over as the head abbot of the Zen Center. Baker Roshi’s influence was key in bringing sustainable financial support to the Center through a restaurant and bakery business. He was also key in adapting the yogic teachings and philosophies to contemporary social issues in the late 70s and early 80s. Zoketsu Norman Fischer was a prominent abbot of the Zen Center, where he worked as a poet and writer to bring about a change in the world through Zen teaching and practice. In 2000, Norman Fischer began the Everyday Zen Foundation, which is primarily dedicated to this cause of spreading the Zen traditions in a digestible form. The first female abbess of the center, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, rose to her position in 1996. The current abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center has resided in the Zen Center studying for over 35 years. She has brought the Zen Center to be an active supporter of programs for children, people of color, the gay and lesbian community, and the interfaith community. She was also a leader of the Contemplative Caregiver Course offered by the Zen Center.

The foundation of the teachings at the San Francisco Zen Center are the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts. These precepts are the vows taken in ordination, during weddings and funerals. The purpose of these precepts is to vow in your studies that the practice of Zen Buddhism may only exist in the right foundation. Students must vow to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. One exceptional pure precept is the vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment. This is a vow entirely exemplary of the American Zen tradition, which is driven to life in a state of enlightenment as a journey, instead of seeing enlightenment as the final goal. All other precepts of the pure and grave condition are those that align with all other Buddhist traditions.


The institution known as the San Francisco Zen Center is actually made of of three campuses throughout northern California. City Center is in the heart of San Francisco and is the main campus and practice center. Here, a full array of daily meditative services are held, as well as classes, workshops, residency programs, and dharma talks are held. The institute also owns a property right along Muir Beach of northern California, known as Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. This center includes a temple program of zen studies and conference centers, but is mostly used for its organic farm and garden to supply the food offerings within City Center. Many Zen meditation retreats are held at Green Gulch for a variety of study levels. The final practice community in the San Francisco Zen Center conglomeration is called Tassajara, which is nestled in the valleys of the Big Sur region. This monastery, founded in 1967, is actually the first Zen training monastery outside of Japan. Today, Tassajara operates to the public as a summer learning experience of deep Zen practice and meditation.



The San Francisco Zen center runs a teaching program known as the Dharma Talks, available publicly online. The purpose of this teaching platform is to bring on prominent teachers both within the Soto lineage and without to discuss and share greater teachings of Zen Buddhism. This discussion is recorded in a public forum and broadcasted on a website link, and is available in both podcast and video stream style. This form of teaching has seen an incredibly positive response from the larger community for its easily digestible format and personalized ability to learn at ones own pace. The archives have discussions and lectures dating back to 2007, so the breadth of information in this medium is incredibly complete. The website requests a donation of $5 – $10 per talk to maintain the full experience of these teachings for others in the community. The San Francisco Zen Center also has archived a host of meditation supporting materials such as Temple Sounds, and Pre and Post-Lecture Chants. This content is wonderfully organized in one central location on the website to make the meditative practice as easy as possible, and to maximize the learning potential available to all students of the Zen Center.


The City Center, being the largest of all of the Zen Centers facilities, hosts an array of different events and programs available to all types of practice level and age group. One program that is particularly interesting is the Young Urban Zen program. This experience is designed to “meet us where we are,” with a focus on the mind and body of 20 to 40 year olds. By organizing social activities and retreats for this more like-minded individuals, the Zen Center is working to bring the benefits of Zen to the fast-paced lives of millennials. This is also a wonderful way for the institution to market themselves as a beneficial organization that younger generations will align with and want to support in the future, building in the longevity of the Zen Center to the program. The Zen Center also has specific practice groups for Meditation in Recovery. The goal of this group is to capitalize upon the amazing mental health benefits of meditation specifically at a time when one’s body or mind isn’t at its prime. The Center emphasizes three additional meditation groups specifically for minority populations: Zen en Español, Queer Dharma, and Transforming Depression and Anxiety. These groups are designed with more of an emphasis on bringing the meditative benefits to groups who would not normally seek out this exposure to Zen Buddhism without the Center.

It is remarkable to see the San Francisco Zen Center being able to bring the benefits of the teachings of Suzuki Roshi to the American Zen culture in such a way that is representative of western values and also advanced enough to receive the true benefits of this practice. The continued learning for those interested in joining the lineage of Suzuki Roshi is a more privileged and exclusive experience for all of those who seek it, maintaining the San Francisco Zen Center as one of the preeminent learning centers in the Soto School outside of Japan and Japanese Zen tradition.

The Home Page for the San Francisco Zen Center