Zen Abbot Gives a U.S. Look to an Asian Faith;
WATANABE, TIMES RELIGION WRITER
Saturday, June 19, 1999
of L.A. Buddhist center is dropping some of her Soto sect's
Japanese traditions and emphasizing a more American combination
of social action, interfaith work and egalitarian exchange.;
led "street retreats" on skid row, injected feminism into
a patriarchal liturgy and sponsored interfaith gatherings
with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest.
not fit the cloistered, contemplative image of Zen Buddhism,
but the new abbot of the Zen
Center of Los Angeles is here to make changes.
formal ascension of Wendy Egyoku Nakao, an American of Japanese
and Portuguese descent, signifies a transition for one of
the nation's most prominent Zen centers--from its Japanese
roots to a more American combination of social action, interfaith
work and egalitarian exchange.
to separate Buddhist teachings from Japanese cultural wrappings
has challenged other American followers of Japan-based religious
organizations, such as the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai
International in Santa Monica, but Nakao is being closely
watched as one of the more daring innovators on the American
what she is doing is at the forefront of the [Zen]
centers," said Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, who ran the
Los Angeles center after the 1995 death of founder Roshi Hakuyu
last few years, Nakao has added women's names to the liturgical
recitation of the male lineage of her Soto sect, including
"all women whose names have been forgotten or left unsaid."
She has flattened the traditional teacher-student hierarchies
with egalitarian discussion circles on everything from parking
to divvying up workloads.
has replaced much of the Japanese terminology with English,
including the Buddhist names that teachers traditionally give
students; under Nakao, they are now Dharma Ocean, Plum Hermit,
has sought to establish what Glassman calls family Zen, moving
the center away from its original monastic model, in which
members would leave their jobs and families for weeks or months
on training retreats. The center now accommodates all aspects
of a person's life, including family and careers. Reaching
Out to Other Religions
she has reached out to other faith communities, sponsoring
Shabbat services, discussions with other Japanese Buddhist
sects and meditation gatherings with Catholics and Jews.
As a member
of Glassman's new Zen Peacemaker Order, Nakao last year took
members to skid row to live among the homeless for three days.
The aim: to help members strip away the ego and live the Buddhist
teaching that all life is interconnected.
us to not identify so strongly with who we think we are--your
ego--and the things that make us comfortable," Nakao said.
director Jeanne Dickenson said the community has largely embraced
the changes as more open and egalitarian. But some have been
lukewarm to the discussion circles--balking at baring their
souls--and the focus on women, she said.
woman with an easy laugh, Nakao was called in to help heal
the center in 1997 after turbulent allegations of alcohol
abuse by Maezumi and sexual misconduct by one of the leaders.
An early influence on Zen Buddhism in the United States, Maezumi
was a pioneer in bringing its teachings to non-immigrant Americans
by leaving his Little Tokyo enclave to open the center in
leaders say, however, that Maezumi always realized his American
successors would have to adapt their practices to the local
environment, keeping the yolk of core teachings but separating
them from the Japanese cultural wrappings.
is manifesting a lot of the things Maezumi Roshi talked about,"
same time," he added with a smile, "he might be taken aback
by it all."
innovations have caught the attention of Japanese Zen officials,
who are searching for ideas that would help revive interest
in Buddhism in their country.
arrived in Japan more than 1,400 years ago, still claims at
least the nominal allegiance of the vast majority of the population
and remains deeply embedded in the national language, culture
officials say, Buddhism is losing currency among Japanese
youth and is commonly seen as a dark "religion of the dead,"
mainly concerned with funerals and ancestral rituals.
Buddhism cannot catch young people's hearts," said the Rev.
Taiken Yokoyama of the Soto Zen Administrative Office in Little
Tokyo. "But here in the United States, there are many good
ideas that Japanese Buddhism can use."
said the street retreats are one innovation that might attract
Japanese youth. To serve as a conduit of ideas and contacts
between the Zen communities in both nations, the Soto sect
opened an education office in Little Tokyo in 1997.
as Japanese officials seek American innovations, they also
hope to ensure that the Soto sect's 750-year traditions and
teachings are correctly transmitted here. (The sect traces
its lineage to Dogen, a 13th century priest who brought Zen
from China and promoted the primacy of sitting meditation
as a gateway to enlightenment. Soto represents Japan's largest
Zen organization, with 15,000 temples and 8 million members.)
of maintaining authentic tradition is growing, now that the
majority of Soto Zen teachers in the United States are American--83
of the 99, Yokoyama said.
Gengo Akiba, who heads the sect's North American administrative
office in Los Angeles, said Zen practice in Japan is more
strict and formal, with rigorous attention paid to technique
and a somber decorum observed at ceremonies.
people are very free and put in a personal touch. . . . You
can feel everyone's heart and warmth," Akiba said. "But the
techniques and mannerisms need some work."
Western culture developed from logos, or the word, Yokoyama
said, Zen teachers find they have to explain everything to
Americans--that placing one's hands together prayerfully,
for instance, represents I and you, the subjective and objective,
coming together as one. That the bowing is to self, in the
greater sense of the undivided all.
he said, teachers are more trusted to guide without constant
questions and use silence more to compel students to seek
answers from within.
herself is succinct when asked to name her top aspiration
as new abbot. "That the Buddha dharma [teachings]
become truly our own," she said.
about awakening to what we say is your true nature," Nakao
said. "For us, that means realizing the emptiness, realizing
there is no fixed self. The thing is to realize that life
is in constant change, and because it is, you come to the
very profound question of 'How do we live?' "
the Zen "path of 99 curves" began with a thunderbolt. Born
in Hawaii in 1948, she studied library science and East Asian
history at the University of Washington and was working at
a community college in Seattle when she met her first Zen
master at age 26.
a seven-day retreat, she said, "I no longer knew who I was."
her marriage, a new house and her job. She cashed out her
retirement savings. In 1978, she moved to Los Angeles and
began to study with Maezumi.
this path, my journey has been fueled from the earliest days
by a heart that sought freedom," Nakao wrote in a verse offering
for the installation ceremony.
performed last week under bright skies, is known as "Ascending
the Mountain," a ritual so named because most Zen temples
were traditionally located in the mountains. True to Nakao's
East-West style, she offered well-wishers both formal bows
and warm kisses, chanted ancient sutras and tossed out on-the-spot
quips. The ceremony was rich with both Japanese tradition--she
offered incense and poems at different altars--and such American
touches as a specially crafted celebratory song with guitar
In a series
of questions posed by five members of her community, Nakao
was asked to reflect on her hopes as an abbot. One asked what
to keep and discard in life: "Throw it all out and stay in
not knowing," Nakao said.
how she would develop the lay Buddhist path, Nakao smiled.
"We're going to do it together," she said, "so let's have