I spent last week at a conference for Soto Zen priests. There were 90 of us at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) gathering. We were defined as much, or more, by our differences as by what we held in common. In the 45 years or so that Soto Zen has been developing amongst western converts in America, priests and lineages have stayed quite true to the American ideal of individualism, freedom and innovation. Within lineages there has been some degree of conformity, but between lineages there are often vast differences, especially regarding priest training. For example, in one lineage it is expected that an ordained person will spend at least 7 years in a monastery before becoming an independent priest. In another lineage ordained people typically stay in the monastery for their entire lives. In yet another lineage, lay practitioners with jobs and families are ordained and become independent priests without ever living in a monastery or residential practice community. We are like a herd of cats.
This is why it is so remarkable that this group of priests is striving so hard to stay together – to find out what we hold in common, or what we want to hold in common. At first glance the only thing we could find was this: we all feel passionately about being priests. We all feel that we deserve to be priests, that being priests is one of the most important things in our lives, and that priests are vital to the flourishing of Soto Zen.
This is not much to start with, in one way. All of this passion could just be ego-delusion. We might just be clinging to a role or a label without much to substantiate our claim.
Nonetheless we keep up the dialogue with one another, constantly seeking for things we agree on and trying to minimize the divisiveness caused by the many things we passionately disagree about. Why? Why don’t we all just go our separate ways? It’s a free country. Nothing is stopping any of us from calling ourselves Soto Zen priests and functioning as religious leaders for anyone who cares to come practice with us.
The longer I am involved with the SZBA the more deeply I understand why we stay together. It is a difficult thing to describe, but this starts to get at the heart of the matter: together we can create something greater than any of us could create by ourselves. Or together we can create something greater than any of the lineages could create by themselves.
Exactly what this “greater thing” we are creating will be we don’t even know at this point. Nonetheless we can sense its character when we taste the satisfaction of completing a communal project – one that required us to speak up for our positions but also listen to others and find a creative way to function together. We can sense the character of this “greater thing” when we grudgingly learn to respect and even like colleagues that hold views very different from our own. We especially sense the character of what we are creating together when we feel the growing power and stability present in a group of peers that has tested, questioned and come to understand and trust one another.
Frankly there have been times when I wish I could simply set the agenda and the standards and force everyone else to comply. At other times I wanted to give up and take my toys home, feeling like whatever is being created together is so far from my ideals that it is irrelevant to me. I am grateful that I have not done any of these things. Even though at times I find myself thinking of a phrase I learned from a friend of mine, “It takes all kinds. Unfortunately.”
I imagine this is something like what the founding father felt when they created the United States of America against all odds. It’s really pretty amazing.