Thursday, July 29, 2010

Zen, Rats, and Landmines

After all this discussion about American Zen scandals, and whether there is a need for institutional oversight or not, I offer the following post excerpt from the Buddhist Geeks website:

The dojo of Morogoro

Africa. Is it possible to make a Soto Zen sangha flourish in a small rural town in Eastern Africa? Apparently, it is. This article describes the dojo of Morogoro town, in rural Tanzania, but also explores my feelings of amazement when I visited it. For years, I have asked myself how to reconcile the need to attend the sangha back home, in Europe, with my deep passion to work in developing countries as a humanitarian nutritionist.

In February this year, during a sesshin in Spain, I asked my Zen Master Roland Yuno: “…I have lived for many years in developing countries and I have realized that my practice has become stiff, lonely and sometimes sterile because of the absence of a sangha. Soon I will go back home to Kenya and I do not know what I should do really”. The Master, in the most direct and easy way ever, popped up the solution I had been seeking for years (and I never dared to ask): “Well, my Belgian disciple lives in Tanzania (neighboring Kenya!). He also works in humanitarian activities, and has set up a sangha. He is an ordained monk. Why not get in touch with him?”

A few months later, I started my two-day journey from Nairobi to Morogoro, a pleasant small town in a green hilly region of inland Tanzania. An appointment was previously arranged with the responsible of the only Soto Zen sangha existing in this part of this huge continent.

It's totally fascinating to me how Soto Zen, a school of Buddhism slowly disappearing in it's native Japan, has been popping up on nearly every other continent in the world, often in places you wouldn't imagine it to do so. Anchorage, Alaska, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Morogoro, Tanzania, just to name three locales, are all home to Soto Zen temples. Pretty wild, don't you think?

In February, I did a post on Buddhism in South Africa. Like that post, I do think there are some potentially challenging issues around race and class that could be present in the post quoted from above. The author himself points to this when he says the following:

I met with one of the Tanzanian guys, Francis, nineteen years of age and studying to become a tourist operator. He answered with a question to my question about the reason why he practiced Zen: “Why do all you wazungu (white men in Kiswahili) keep on asking me why I practice? A German guy visiting us here asked the same thing a few months ago. Zen helps me. That is it”. Thanks Francis, good lesson you gave me.

It's excellent that this white European guy was able to take a quick race lesson from a Tanzanian teenager, but it does make me wonder what will happen when black African Soto Zen practitioners become "seasoned" enough to be teachers and sangha leaders? Will their white European teachers be as generous and supportive as many of the Asian immigrant teachers were, and continue to be, to their primarily white American students?

The author's sincerity and excitement about Zen practice in both Tanzania, and in Kenya, where he now lives, is infectious. And clearly there are people coming to practice. I will be interested to see what happens over the coming years, if Soto Zen will be a point of convergence for a multiracial, shared-leadership kind of practice, or if it will become yet another battleground of race and class.

Many bows to the experiment. May it continue to go well.

*photo is of Alfredo Adamo, a member of a team working with trained rats to rid Tanzania of unexploded landmines. The Zen teacher leading the temple there, Bart Weetjens, wrote the following paper about the project. Zen, rats, and landmines are a combination almost beyond the imagination, yet there it is, in real life.

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