a true story: a quiet, yet powerful force for good

The unlikely story of the arrival of a Japanese priest and the eventual flowering of a major cultural institution we call the San Francisco Zen Center is important to tell because it is a true story. It is a real-life story with real people. It is an inspiring story of dignity, love, patience, beauty, humility, perseverance, integrity, and personal vow. It is also a story that continues to evolve, unfolding in new ways in each moment.

We look around today and see the word “Zen” showing up across our consumer-driven culture in many ways that have little or nothing to do with anything approximating Buddhist practice. But this hardly diminishes the fact that in the five decades since the founding of the San Francisco Zen Center many of the practices, principles, and tenets of Buddhism are now commonplace, woven into the fabric of contemporary mainstream culture. Fostered by the spread of Zen Center teachers and those of other Buddhist schools and lineages, the practice of meditation and mindfulness now informs the lives of doctors, therapists, management consultants, students, athletes, coaches, songwriters, teachers, parents, and countless others.

I recently heard a story about a woman with terminal cancer who recently came to Green Gulch Farm. Her son brought her there for a two-day stay, and though she was not a Buddhist practitioner, she immediately declared, “I totally get the zazen thing.” She then settled into a very peaceful place, resting among the large trees and the coastal air, with the support of the practicing community, while the events of her life and a picture of the end of her life gradually came into clear focus. She left Green Gulch ready to face the remaining days of her life in a way that she would not have been able to without that experience. She died two months later as, according to her son, a calm and composed, “flag-waving Buddhist!” This is only one of countless stories that could be told of people who have come to Zen Center and Buddhist practice and somehow have found their lives changed forever.

But despite all of the lives that have been changed and the good that has been done, it is fair to ask, “Where has all of this gotten us?” For, even with pronouncements that everything changed in the 1960s, we can see that the suffering of the world hasn’t changed. There are still far too many people who go hungry, get sick, and die because they can’t get the care or help they need. It is still too common for people to oppress, persecute, torture, and kill each other. Our vehicles and factories are spoiling the air of our cities, toxic wastes ruin our rivers and lakes, and entire species of plants, animals, and insects are fading from the face of the earth. On a spiritual level, vast numbers of people have lost their sustaining connections and find themselves separated from the origins of their basic support, from their families and their religions, from the farms that grow their food, and from the oceans, rivers, mountains, and forests of the world that sustain life on this planet.

It is important to note that just like we are, the Buddha himself was distressed by the problems of life and sought out a way to help. Giving up the comforts of his palace, he made great efforts for six years to discover the origins of this suffering, and his example of wisdom and compassion is the result of this inner exploration. It is said that he became like a doctor who had come to heal the troubles of the human race. His prescription was simple: to practice his way together and help each other. According to the Buddha, like-minded friends and good communities of dharma friends are the most important factors to help us align our lives with our deepest intentions, manifest our desire to be of benefit to all beings, and encourage others in the direction of peace, wisdom, and compassion.

This is the simple, yet profound gift that Suzuki Roshi left with us, and the legacy that the San Francisco Zen Center carries forward today: a sharing of community life based on the intimacy of Zen practice with dharma friends. This is the path of practicing together with all beings, of waking up from our delusion, of seeing all beings as like ourselves: part of a larger, endless, interconnected web of life. This intimacy of practice within a widening community of dharma friends is itself a quiet, yet powerful force for good and practical medicine for today’s troubled world.

Robert Thomas, President

Robert Thomas