Report by Matthew Porter
The Blue Ridge Zen group is a small group of Zen Buddhist practitioners located in the central Virginia area. They have a small but comfortable zendo in Charlottesville, where they practice zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and hold chanting sessions and lessons on the Dharma.
They also have a small retreat hut in the Blue Ridge Mountains where experienced practitioners go on retreat for 1-7 days and sometimes even longer. Here, while on retreat, they engage in ample kinhin on the nearby trails, as well as samu (work practice). This retreat hut, called the Flattop Mountain Zendo, has a small but comfortable area for zazen, a spring well, a small kitchen, an outdoor privy, an outdoor shower, an outdoor dining area, and a wonderful view.
The group’s retreat hut in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Flattop Mountain Zendo
The Blue Ridge Zen Group, as the name implies, firmly places itself in the Zen Buddhist tradition. The group derives from the Myoshin-ji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. The original Myoshin-ji temple complex was constructed by Kanzen Egen in the 14th Century CE at the behest of Emperor Hanazono of Japan. The school grew quickly and today constitutes by far the largest school in Rinzai Zen.
In 1962, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, a Myoshin-ji abbot, traveled to the United States to spread the tradition. He established several Zen centers in the US, including the well-known Mount Baldy Zen Center. Bill Stephens, the abbot of the Blue Ridge Zen Group, received instruction from Kyozan Joshu Sasaki and constructed the Blue Ridge Zen Group within his tradition. Bill relates a story about Sasaki, saying, “[Sasaki] Roshi seems to love Americans, and their openness. He once told of his first encounter with Americans, two soldiers right after the war ended. They came to his temple and were interested in the Zendo. When they asked permission to go in, Roshi told them they had to put away their rifles. Then he said they had to take off their boots. Roshi was extremely impressed with the politeness, respectfulness, and genuine interest of these conquering soldiers. He was actually being quite brave. He implied that telling conquering Japanese soldiers what to do like that could have led to a very bad end. These two soldiers may have played an important role in Sasaki Roshi’s willingness to come to America” (Bill Stephens, Sweeping Zen).
Bill began his own Zen practice with assistance from Rev. Hearn and Tom Davenport. At that time, Bill says, Zen practice in Virginia was very scarce. The Blue Ridge Zen Group’s website says, “Our origin was with a few members willing to climb through a second story window once a week to get to our zendo in a condemned building. In 1975 we organized as the Blue Ridge Zen Group, and now have a walk-in zendo for daily practice in Charlottesville” (brzen.org).
The group gathers four times a week to practice. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday they gather for a short zazen session, and on Sunday they gather for a longer session of zazen, kinhin, tea, chanting, and a lesson on the Dharma. Their Sunday schedule is as follows:
9:00 AM – Tea, zazen
9:30 – Chanting, kinhin
10:00 – Zazen, kinhin
10:30 – Short reading or talk, zazen
11:00 – Closing
As one can see, they alternate zazen with other forms of practice. They usually practice zazen for the length of time it takes for a single incense stick to burn before transitioning to something else.
In regards to zazen, Bill says that many in the group use or have used koans, but that, at the moment, he practices “just sitting” or focuses on his breath. While the group is within the Rinzai tradition, they incorporate elements from the Soto and other traditions as well.
When sitting, the group sits in a variety of postures, hankafuza (half-lotus) or seiza (kneeling), or sitting in wooden chairs. Some members express the desire to graduate to kekkafuza (full-lotus), considered to be the best style for zazen. The meditators sit upon a zabuton (mat), and use a zafu (pillow) for support. They sit upright, with their eyes half-open and their hands in a mudra.
When practicing kinhin, the group walks in a line around the zendo, focusing on their breath and keeping their steps in time with the group. Bill serves as the timekeeper, ringing a bell when it is time to transition from one activity to another. Importantly, as one enters the zendo, they are to stop and bow, indicating a respect for the space and a respect for the work they do within it. Then, with their hands together, they proceed to their seat, where they bow again, outwardly. Some traditions emphasis bowing to the seat itself, but Bill explains that, in their zendo, they bow outwards to the other practitioners in order to acknowledge their place within the group. Even if nobody has yet arrived in the zendo, one is expected to bow to honor those that have been there in the past and those that will be there in the future.
The group finishes their session by getting on their knees and bowing low. Bill explains that, far from bowing to a deity or an idol, they are bowing to their own Buddha-nature. The zendo also contains several images of the Buddha and a small shrine with a Buddha statue. When the group drinks tea they pour the Buddha a cup. Bill says they do this to show thanks for the Buddha’s teachings and to emphasis their relationship to him via their own Buddha-natures.
In addition, the group regularly holds retreats (twice a year or so), during which they practice a variety of Zen activities from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM.
Where the group practices zazen while on retreat
Stephens serves as the group’s abbot. Along with him, the group consists of a core base of about ten people, with other, more sporadic practitioners as well. The group welcomes newcomers to both Zen and Buddhism as a whole, and does not require one to practice Buddhism, only to respect their traditions and practice.
Teido Bill Stephens, the group’s abbot and a founding member
The group consists primarily of white Americans, but they foreground traditional Japanese Zen practice in their own practice. The group focuses most intently on meditation practice, but does not shirk away from their Zen nature, paying homage to the Buddha and thanking him for his teachings and attempting to recognize their own Buddha-nature. He says, in regards to an American Buddhist tradition, “Sasaki Roshi brought his Japanese Zen tradition to America, because that is what he knows. He says developing American Zen is up to us. He once said that originally, in China, our tradition was more feminine than Japanese Zen, that it was ‘hard on the inside, but soft on the outside.’ When Kublai Kahn’s [sic] warriors encountered this Zen, they took to it in numbers, and in so doing, gave it a masculine quality that was ‘hard on the inside, and hard on the outside.’ This quality continued as Zen spread to Japan with its samurai culture. Roshi has expressed his hope that American Zen will be more like the original” (Bill Stephens, Sweeping Zen).
The group contains a variety of beliefs, all rooted within a general Zen worldview. Bill points to the Diamond Sutra as the most central Buddhist teaching to his own practice, and also mentions the Christian, Meister Eckhart, as a spiritual influence. Bill emphasizes Buddha-nature, saying, “we are all spiritually complete. You need nothing more. You only need to realize it.” The website says, “Buddha is your own hidden perfection. There is no need to add anything. There is nothing else that needs to be attained. Already, we are complete” (brzen.org). Bill also foregrounds no-self as critically important. He tells of how, in his youth, he came to a revelation that the outside world is not separate from the self, and the self is not separate from the outside. At first, this distressed him, but he came to realize how liberating this could be. In his practice, he seeks to more fully realize this.
In regards to reincarnation, Bill says that reincarnation exists in a sense, but that, really, there is no “self” to reincarnate. He does not think it necessary to make a mad dash for liberation before one is reborn, but that we should focus on recognizing our already inherent spiritual completeness and experience a liberation from the false-dichotomy of self/other in that way.
Buswell, Robert E., Lopez, Donald S. Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.
Myoshin-ji Temple. Myoshin-ji Temple. https://www.myoshinji.or.jp/
Blue Ridge Zen Group. Blue Ridge Zen Group, Charlottesville, Virginia. https://www.brzen.org
Stephens, Bill. Sweeping Zen, 28 July, 2009. http://sweepingzen.com/teido-bill-stephens-interview/
Stephens, Bill. Personal Interview. 25 November, 2018.
Suzuki, D.T., An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Eastern Buddhist Society, 1934.
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995. Print.