Early Autumn Notes

NTI BuddhaThe Golden Buddha of Nagaloka

There’s a lot going on. A few notes before I leave. Tomorrow morning I fly to India for a conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). We are gathering at Nagaloka, the school I’ve been working with in Nagpur, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion, and the birth of India Buddhist movement, widespread among Dalit communities. I am honored to be able to witness conversion ceremonies of new Buddhists from Gujurat and from the Chandrapur region of Maharastra.

During the conference, engaged Buddhists from traditional and western backgrounds can reflect on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s vision and aspects of Buddhism from their own social experience: Dhamma as empowerment; breaking down barriers between people; the implications of Dhamma for governance and civil society. I am looking forward to being with INEB comrades, some of whom have been friends for twenty-five years.

The anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion will be celebrated at Nagpur’s Diksha Bhumi, the conversion ground where he stood to become a Buddhist in October of 1956. This memorial will bring together more than a million Buddhists from Maharastra and other provinces of India. I am excited and apprehensive about being in a crowd this size.

I’ll have much more report (and photos) when I return in two weeks.


szbagroupshotfun2016SZBA Conference—Maple Lake, MN—October 2016

Monday I returned from the biennial gathering of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association in beautiful Maple Lake, Minnesota, an hour north of Minneapolis in a land of lakes. Eighty-five Soto Zen priests met to affirm our connection and address the conference theme: Responding to the Cries of the World.

As president of SZBA, I had an opportunity to work closely with our devoted board of directors—Tenku Ruff, James Ford, Mary Mocine, Daishin McCabe, Koun Franz, and our Administrative Coordinator Shogen Danielson—and with wonderful friends from Minneapolis Zen communities—Clouds in Water, Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, Compassionate Ocean, and rural Iowa’s Hokyoji Zen Practice Community.

With the fellowship of sister and brother priests and teachers, this conference—marking 20 years of organizational history—felt to me to be a watershed moment in American Zen. Powerful concerns about the conditions of society—racism, gun violence, environmental crisis, and the coming election—were clearly voiced again and again. Keynote speaker David Loy reminded us of the Buddhist tools that we can use in this crisis.

Along with the vision of carrying our practice into the world, a generational shift was taking place. Gen-X and Millennial priests have steadily moved into leadership of Zen communities previously led by the teachers of my generation.  Of course, that is precisely as it should be. But my generation can often have difficulty stepping aside.  Fortunately, change is inevitable.


dsc_0091-copyOriyoki Breakfast—2008 Election Session

When I return from India in a few weeks we will be in full election season. The electoral choices are pretty clear to me. But among friends on social media I still hear what might be a healthy back and forth of opinions. At the same time, I recall the “Culamalunkya Sutta” where the Buddha presents this parable:

A man is wounded by an arrow dipped in poison.  His friends carry him to a doctor for treatment. But the man will not allow the doctor to treat him until his numerous questions are answered. What was the caste of the man who wounded me? What was his name? Was he tall or short, fair or dark? Where does he live? Did he use a longbow or a crossbow? And so on. He lies there asking unanswerable questions while the poison does its work. The Buddha says, “All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.” 

The Buddha’s point is: first things first. We know that if a doctor removes the arrow and treats the wound, that person has a chance to live. The answers to all those questions — foolish ones and good ones — do not prolong his life.

The arrow wounding our society carries a slow-acting poison that turns us into sleepwalkers. But for the moment we are awake. We remember that there is a stark choice between a black hole of no-nothing egotism and the possibility of compassionate governance.  How it will turn out, I have no idea.

At any rate for the fifth time since the election cycle of 2004 a group of independent Bay Area Buddhists have organized an “election sesshin.” For two weeks in advance of the election we settle in to support a swing state or district congressional candidate, walking precincts, distributing campaign literature to undecided votes, and helping to get out the vote. But the form of our participation draws on our experience of Zen retreats. We find a suitable house in the area—so far we have been in Oregon, central California, and northern Nevada. We set up a meditation hall, have a short liturgy, silent meals, work around the house, then hit the streets for six or seven hours, going house-to-house or staffing phone banks. We are going back to Nevada, a critical swing state for the presidency and for congress. Laurie and I will go for some days just at the end of October.

There is plenty of work to do before November 8. If you are inspired to create an election sesshin of your own, get in touch with me and I’ll put you in touch with the right folks.

Meanwhile, as Woody Guthrie says: “Take it easy, but take it.”

— Hozan Alan Senauke



About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Early Autumn Notes

  1. avivsky says:

    Thanks for writing this.
    I will look forward to hearing your impressions of the INEB conference.
    Meanwhile two questions:
    1) You wrote about “Powerful concerns about the conditions of society—racism, gun violence, environmental crisis, and the coming election—were clearly voiced again and again” at the SZBA gathering. What is the response of SZBA teachers/members to these concerns? I mean, what routes of action were suggested and will be taken up?
    2) When a Sangha sets up an “ellection seshin” how does it deal with sangha members supporting different parties/candidates? even if it’s not a sangha action – once a teacher actively acts in favour of this or that candidate how do you suggest to deal with the anger/dissapointment of students who support another candidate?


    • asenauke says:

      Dear Aviv–Thanks for writing.
      1. Each teacher is doing things in their own way and in consultation with their communities. People are feeding the homeless, looking at their collective use of fossil fuels, etc. For the most part our small communities work in collaboration with other religious communities in their local area. That process itself, which builds relationships across religious lines allows us to share both values and approaches. But, for me, the important thing at SZBA was for each of us to hear that so many others share the same concerns.

      2. As to the “election session,” it is not the expression of a particular sangha. That has been the case from the beginning. Rather it is an improvised “sangha” coming together independent of an established community. While I support it and have spoken about it to sangha friends, I do not advocate it from the teacher’s seat. Usually, what I say from that position is to encourage people to work for the candidates and issues that are important to them…and that I certainly have my own views.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s