Buddharma: On the occasion of San Francisco Zen Center’s fiftieth anniversary, we thought it would help to hear how Zen Center, as one of American Buddhism’s most important and thoughtful institutions, is addressing the important issues that all Buddhist communities face as the dharma makes a true home in the West. The first issue I’d like you to discuss is the tension—one that of course can be very creative—between Buddhist tradition, with its Asian roots, and the values and culture of modern Western society.
Blanche Hartman: At Zen Center there is a dynamic tension between those two things. To me, what is important is that people continually look at it. There are people who ask why we chant all these things in Japanese since we’re not Japanese. We don’t even understand the words. Other people say these
Norman Fischer: The lure of Zen Center was always that Suzuki Roshi carried this very tension within himself. He was faithful to Soto tradition—he wore his robes, he transmitted the rituals very carefully, and when he didn’t know the rituals, he brought in Japanese experts to help us. He was conservative in that sense, but at the same time he wanted Zen Center to be independent of the Japanese Soto establishment. He wanted Zen Center to find its own way, and he was attentive to the needs of Western students. This is why, I think, he turned Zen Center over to an American as his successor. He had Japanese priests who were very good, whom he could have turned to, but he chose an American. So the tension between the traditional and the modern, the East and the West, was there from the beginning. Zen Center is very conservative, and yet very open and non-conservative at the same time.
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