No Zen at San Quentin State Prison

A couple of weeks ago I gave the weekly talk, as I occasionally do, at the San Quentin State Prison Buddhist group, the Buddhadharma Sangha.  My ordination teacher and the founding teacher of the Sangha, Seido Lee deBarros, asked me talk about Two Shores of Zen there, and I was a little hesitant.  What do those guys care about “Eastern versus Western Zen”?  My project seemed suddenly academic.  And as book tours go, state prisons are a little far afield.  But I’m used to saying yes, especially to Lee, and I did so even though I didn’t feel 100% behind it.


Maybe not until the moment that we volunteers and inmates sat down together in zazen did I notice the depth of the opportunity behind my resistance – the opportunity that our prison Sangha always offers me.  The opportunity to ask, not as luxury but with real suffering and real liberation at stake:  why does this matter?  Who cares?  And I remembered that I quite honestly don’t give a damn about Japanese Zen or American Zen as such.  I am of course happy to dissect them, read about them, think about them, and talk about them, but at the end of the day it’s maybe more a hobby than anything.  What’s beyond that?  What’s important about it?  Why would this matter to anyone at San Quentin?

Part of what is consistently inspiring about going to San Quentin is that it strips away, or at least undermines, my idea that practice is all about the conditions of practice.  The simple fact of our being there attests to a faith that “real Zen” is available even in the most unsupportive environment.  By being there we are pointing to a practice that is beyond having the “right conditions” in place or holding the “wrong conditions” at bay.  It’s hard to spend the week thinking “I can’t practice at this lazy, unsupportive Zen temple, where people chat during meals” and then to go Sunday evening through the sallyport at San Quentin to tell a group of sincere men in blue that if they just apply their minds the Way is perfectly within reach exactly where they are.

The question for me then, amidst all of this nonsense about where or whether Zen is, is fundamentally about what kind of effort is needed for spiritual practice.  That is the underlying question of Two Shores of Zen, and of my whole life and study, and I’m grateful to the Buddhadharma Sangha for helping me to remember that.

How much do we need to work on our circumstances, and how much is practice-enlightenment just a matter of how we relate to our mind and our awareness?  To say it’s completely unconditioned miss something critical about cause-and-effect, and to say it needs special conditions cuts off the men of the Buddhadharma Sangha, and is in any case refuted by their genuine practice.  This question is present in the broad brush strokes of our life – how many retreats do we do, how often do we sit on the zafu and face the wall – and in the minute details of meditative effort.  How much control, how much intention, and how much surrender?

“Japanese Zen” then is maybe just a way for me to talk about discipline, those moments when we cut through extraneous thought and come back to our breathing, being body.  And “American Zen” likewise is simply shorthand for the wide-open, all-inclusive, all-accepting Buddha-mind that effortlessly surrenders and goes with the flow.  Understanding how the two work together, how the two shores need each other, is not a cross-cultural exercise but is precisely learning the art of zazen and the art of human life.


Thanks as always for joining this conversation.  I continue to be amazed by the thoughtfulness and depth of your comments (no pressure!), and I renew my intention to put more regular effort into maintaining this page in the midst of my other responsibilities.


3 thoughts on “No Zen at San Quentin State Prison

  1. When you said the topic of your talk was to be “Two Shores of Zen”, my first thought was that the topic referred to “this shore” and the “farther shore”. I’ve found that finding my way between unconditioned practice and practice requiring special conditions has become easier as I’ve aged. Sometimes I need special formal conditions and sometimes I don’t. Thank you for your post. MEC

  2. The difficulty you wrote about in your book is familiar. In my early practice I also found it difficult to rectify what I had read about how the ancestral teachers practiced with what I found at American Zen centers. I left San Francisco Zen Center to try to find a place to practice which offered “harder training”, but I found my resolve for a lifetime of celibacy was not as strong as I had believed. Consequently, in order to be able to have a taste of the “hard training” I had hoped for living as a monk in Korea, I lived in two worlds: the world of an ordinary midwestern working class stiff, and the world of the traditional 90 day retreat in the Korean Zen tradition. Having done retreats at Diamond Hill Monastery in Providence, Musangsa temple in Korea, and at Tassajara, I would say periods of intense traditional practice are very helpful for practitioners who are prepared mentally and physically for this sort of practice. But it’s not for everyone. The Bodhisattva way requires us to make practice available for practitioners of varying capacities and levels of maturity. I feel a mature American Buddhism will offer both “shores”: The disciplined intensity of very sincere and mature practitioners engaging in long periods of strict practice, and a wider approach that is accessible to all levels of development. Teachers and promising students should undertake long periods of strict retreat practice according to their ability, while practice centers in the wider community make the practice of meditation accessible to people of all capacities. Continuing the tradition of hard training will keep the lineage of teachers strong well into the future. Encouraging practice in the wider community by making a “relaxed” style of practice available will allow authentic Buddhist practice to flourish widely among laypeople in the west, and create a strong Sangha to support the retreat centers which keep the traditional practice of the ancestors alive. I feel it would be a tremendous help for the development of Buddhism in the west if communities like SFZC develop and sustain retreat centers which offer a more traditional monastic retreat emphasizing sitting meditation.

  3. I just met Lee tonight and was delighted. I hope I can practice accepting and transforming impermanence, which was the topic of his Dharma talk at Dharma Eye; and if I cannot I hope to accept that, as well.

    Great talk, great guy.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s