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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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