Zen Abbot Gives a U.S. Look to an Asian Faith;


Saturday, June 19, 1999

New head 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.;

She has led "street retreats" on skid row, injected feminism into a patriarchal liturgy and sponsored interfaith gatherings with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest.

It may 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.

Last week's 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.

The quest 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 Buddhist scene.

"I think 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 Taizan Maezumi.

In the 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.

Nakao 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, Diamond Moon.

And she 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

In addition, 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.

"It helped us to not identify so strongly with who we think we are--your ego--and the things that make us comfortable," Nakao said.

Program 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.

A petite 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 1967.

Center 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.

"Egyoku is manifesting a lot of the things Maezumi Roshi talked about," Glassman said.

"At the same time," he added with a smile, "he might be taken aback by it all."

But Nakao's innovations have caught the attention of Japanese Zen officials, who are searching for ideas that would help revive interest in Buddhism in their country.

The religion 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 and psyche.

But today, 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.

"Japanese 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."

Yokoyama 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.

But even 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.)

The challenge 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.

Roshi 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.

"Here, 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."

Because 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.

In Japan, he said, teachers are more trusted to guide without constant questions and use silence more to compel students to seek answers from within.

Nakao herself is succinct when asked to name her top aspiration as new abbot. "That the Buddha dharma [teachings] become truly our own," she said.

"Zen is 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?' "

For Nakao, 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.

After a seven-day retreat, she said, "I no longer knew who I was."

She left 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.

"In taking 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.

The 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 accompaniment.

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.

Asked how she would develop the lay Buddhist path, Nakao smiled. "We're going to do it together," she said, "so let's have fun.'