Book Tour Stories

February 16, 2014
Zen Center of Los Angeles
Florence Caplow

Sue and I have been at Zen Center of Los Angeles for the last couple of days, on the last stop of our Southern California series of events for The Hidden Lamp. It's been quite the whirlwind: last Monday at the Dharma Punx practice center in Santa Monica, Against The Stream (isn't that a great name?); then several days in San Diego....Sweetwater Zen Center, two different Unitarian Universalist Buddhist meditation groups, and two Buddhist studies classes at San Diego University. 

One of the unexpected benefits of visiting the practice centers of the contributors to the book is the opportunity to get a glimpse of the range of Buddhist practice in America. Just this week we have experienced such different places. 

Against The Stream was started by Noah Levine, a tattooed vipassana teacher and son of a vipassana teacher who found the dharma for himself after a life immersed in drugs, violence, punk rock, and prison time. Many of those who find Against the Stream are in recovery or walk in off the street, though my host for the night was an attorney who lived in a beautiful old Los Angeles house, so there's a great range of people there. It feels like Against the Stream is exploring many alternative ways to reach people and offer the dharma, often to people who might never enter a more conventional dharma center. There were four contributors to the book speaking the night we were there: Jane Schneider, Diana Winston, Wendy Rgyoku Nakao, and Caitriona Reed, a transgender woman teacher. There were about a hundred enthusiastic people there, and the energy was great. 

Florence and Sue at First Unitarian
Uniitarian Universalism, a liberal American association of congregations, has many Buddhist meditation groups that meet as part of the church. We visited two different churches, the very large First Unitarian of San Diego (nearly a thousand members), and the small but beautiful UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, in Solana Beach, where their main sanctuary is an outside space on a hillside. This is another face of American Buddhism. People who are part of these groups have personal practices from all the major Buddhist traditions: in one of the groups, people identified with Vietnamese Zen, vipassana, Soto Zen, and Tibetan lineages. And yet they all come and sit together. This is a characteristic generally of UU, which is so open to religious diversity.

University of San Diego is a Catholic University, but Karma Lekshe Tsomo, another contributor to the book, is a Tibetan nun (born in Malibu) who is a full professor in their religious studies department. She is wildly popular with students, and had two sections of a Buddhist Studies class. We had a great time with the students: they were curious, open, intelligent, and engaged. One class was a majority of white girls, the other class, by coincidence, had many more students of color, including a brilliant African America non-traditional philosophy student who asked penetrating questions. They were all very polite and respectful, and it made us wonder if there are some advantages to a traditional Catholic education! Karma Lekshe Tsomo is one of the founders of Sakyadhita, the international organization of Buddhist women, and a brave and intrepid and high energy person. It was a delight and inspiration to spend time with her.

Sweetwater Zen Center is in "the barrio" in National City, south of San Diego, and the teacher there, Seisen Saunders, is a member of the Zen Peacemakers Order and engaged in all kinds of social justice and prison work. Even the stray cats of the neighborhood are welcome there! A small group of people came to hear us in the yurt that doubles as their zendo, and we really felt the depth and sincerity of practice there. Often there will be one or two people in an audience who have a strong feeling of gratitude and joy about the book, but at Sweetwater there were many such people, including men, who seemed to feel that way. It was a touching night.

Then we landed here, at Zen Center of Los Angeles. This is my first visit here, though I've heard of it for years, San Francisco Zen Center's cousin to the south, founded by Maezumi Roshi, who died in 1995, and now led by Wendy Egyoku Nakao, a powerful Japanese-American woman teacher (and contributor to Hidden Lamp). The center is very urban, in the middle of Koreatown, a rough, ethnically mixed neighborhood not far from downtown LA. It is an oasis of beauty, spread between several old houses with beautiful gardens between. We have been treated with extraordinary kindness here, and led a workshop with about 35 people in attendance. Many of our other workshops have had a low number of male attendees, so we were very happy to see so many men there, and men who seemed just as moved and engaged as women are by these stories. Jane and Peter Schneider joined us for the day, with members of their sangha, and Egyoku was part of the workshop too. 

ZCLA, under Egyoku's guidance, has transformed how ZVLA functions as a practice center and a community, using much less hierarchical and teacher-centered governance forms than most Zen places I've known. At the heart of their community life is both zazen and Council, a way of bringing forward all voices in the community. It has been inspiring to be here and taste the style here. 

Now, onward to the Pacific Northwest!