I’m not exactly sure where this post will go, but I’d rather write here than gossip. Last Sunday after the monthly 88 Buddhas Repentance service the building next door was blessed and dedicated. Right now it’s the gutted shell of an office building with a concrete floor, but the construction should start, according to the Abbot, around May and it is designated as a Zen Campus. We were shown a detailed architect’s sketch of what the two buildings may look like side by side. The Abbot wants better exterior lighting, more unity between the two buildings, statues in the space between the parking lot–which originally was planted with tree-sized oleanders–and a “zen fountain” in front of the new property. One of the points he made was that he wants the main building to be immediately identifiable as a temple. (Personally, I’ve never had trouble with the identification, since there’s a big sign out front.) For ID and for safety, the lighting is a good idea. He wants carved wooden solar lamp posts lining the sidewalk out in front of the main building, and a “zen gate” either at the entrance or at the sidewalk in front seems a bit much to me, since it breaks up the beautiful curved mound of lawn, but my aesthetic is not Chinese, I’m not a major donor, so there was zero seeking of my opinions about this matter.* The Abbot made the point that the Iranian Christian Church next door is easily identifiable at night by it’s lighted cross. My idea for the lighting would be this: light the paths–all the paths. Put a bigger Dharma wheel over the door with a light behind it, so it shows up in silhouette, and put a single small spot on it, mounted lower on the wall to pick out the details of the carving. The center closes at 9:30pm and classes here go to 10:30, and sometimes it’s as black as the inside of a cow out there in the parking lot.
Okay…planned for the inside: Another library, a lounge with coffee and vegan pastry available “free or for a donation,” a porch, facing Wolfe Road, under that another garden, another classroom which will be about the same size as the current dining room for the huge Level I classes, and a large zen hall that will accommodate 600. At one end of the building is a big dorm for the monks so they don’t have to commute to work from the apartment building across the street. There’s also to be some sort of play area for the kids, and a stage where the teens and adults can put on performances & rehearse. Now…all this stuff sound’s swell, right?
First point: What is actually done here in the temple? In no particular order…
1. Volunteers working almost ’round the clock, just to keep the two meals cooked and cleaned up after, and the center presentable. Laundry, exterior clipping, mowing and cleanup, removal of trees and bushes, repairs and so forth. Reception desk. Assisting at the services with bells and chimes. And on any sort of holiday, the work quadruples at least.
2. Students attending classes, in Chinese and English, all day long.
3. The public and congregation members eating. Two meals a day are offered.
4. People attending services, the monks every morning (before opening) and the congregation members, in the evening at 6 before dinner.
5. Big teams orchestrating holiday all-day events, which run from, for example, 9am to 4:30 in the afternoon, and the cleanup.
6. The shifus doing shifu stuff: one-on-one counseling and teaching Dharma, as available and by appointment, and preparing their class lectures in the offices. Also, of course, their own meditation and prostrations.
7. Congregants attending Sunday retreats: four sitting periods and a lecture. Choir members practice during the 10-11 hour.
8. Kids and teens attending classes and activities: education, skits, dancing and singing. Also a performance team rehearses short plays.
9. People attending services for the dead.
10. Attendees doing random things such as yoga, and special-information guests.
The point I’m making is that this is all that goes on. The only time the library is used is when someone comes in to listen to the mp3s and make up a class. The evening services are not well attended–if there are 30 people that’s an unusually high number. A few random people come in occasionally to meditate or prostrate. There’s no kicking back. No conversation, because there’s a warning about “idle chat” and a notice that says “speak softly: meditation is in progress.” No socializing goes on except between classes or in the kitchen where despite the signs, people still socialize (only in Chinese, of course.) I’ve attended classes for years with people I don’t recognize since they sit behind me, and the only time I see them is when we register attendance at the back of the class. The reason for this is that almost everyone who attends the zen center works. And everyone who comes in during the day is either a volunteer, attending a service or taking a class. I can’t for a minute visualize myself coming in to get a free donut and coffee in a lounge, and sitting around. Working people work, to make money to support all this. A break in the work, and they pull out a Smart Phone & text. Retired people work at the zen center free. They text too, since chatting is discouraged as too noisy.
So–what do we really need that building for?
1. First, there are four important activities that are done right here: classes, Sunday retreats, major services and the end-of-year Zen Seven retreat. The new dorms will obviate ferrying everyone back and forth from the apartments, and keep the retreat participants in the temple area.
2. For the major services we need one zen hall that will accommodate a thousand people…I’ve thought about it and can’t get around this. ‘Numbers is numbers’And ours are going up.
3. And, we need one big class room.
4. A stage would be nice…since there are performances.
We don’t need another library, since the one we have isn’t used. We don’t need a lounge with food, because–as I said before–no one comes there to kick back. And when there’s free food, there will be all kinds of problems. Who will provide the food? Who will stay there all day long making coffee and giving out treats? A porch wouldn’t be used, and the land between noisy Wolfe Road and the new building is planted with huge pines that overshadow it and fill the ground with needles, making it impractical for a garden. And we certainly don’t need a fountain. What we’re looking at with the proposed changes is doubling the volunteer staff…and for what? Twice the cleaning. Twice the grounds keeping. So basically every female pensioner in the congregation will be working at Sunnyvale Zen Center. Free. Nice if you can afford to do that.
But will this happen? No. When volunteering I see the same faces, over and over, year in and year out. It’s the “80/20” rule: 80% of the work is done by 20% of the volunteers. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s been exactly like that. It works that way.**
So, I think this “purposed building” is someone else’s dream, probably the Abbot’s. But this is not college. Call it a Zen Campus if you will…or a Zen Vatican, but the most important activities here are meditation and studying the sutras. And the purpose of a temple is to help the attendees cultivate samadhi and attain prajna wisdom. If putting on plays and “community relations” and fountains and tours to Taiwan every year are interfering with this purpose…then this current costly undertaking will just be another instance of wheel-spinning.
There are, granted, a lot of things I don’t understand. One of which is how something so essentially mystical as the enlightenment experience of one man got turned into an elaborate and expensive system of “merits in, better rebirths out” in the same way that Jesus’ ministry got turned into the Roman Catholic & evangelical churches, with–respectively–their own expensive systems of “pay, pray and obey” and “Bible worship.” I’ll just leave it at that.
*Yes, this is fine with me–I’ve been here over 3 years and haven’t even taken the Three Refuges. No desire to be a mover and shaker.
** If I were to take the Refuges and the black robe, I’d be pushed into leading chants and hitting gongs every night of my life, something an old blond woman who still works, eats meat, wears makeup, watches TV and goes to the opera shouldn’t be doing, IMHO. And then, of course, I would be identified with this religion and not those other ones. Yeah, that’s what I need right now: more dualism. Since we’re constantly being told to “think outside the box” I don’t intend to jump from one box to another.