By Tyson Davis
“One day, someone asked Layman Pang, ‘Is Zen difficult or easy?’
“He replied, ‘It’s like trying to hit the moon with a stick. Very difficult!’
“Then this man thought, ‘Oh, Zen is very difficult.’ So he asked Layman Pang’s wife, ‘Your husband said Zen is difficult. I ask you, then, is Zen difficult or easy?’
“She said, ‘Oh, Zen is very easy! It’s like touching your nose when you wash your face in the morning!’
“The man could not understand. He thought to himself, ‘Hmmm … Layman Pang says Zen is difficult; his wife says it is very easy. Which one is correct?’ So he went to their son and said, ‘Your father said Zen is very difficult; your mother said it is very easy. Which one is correct?’
“The son replied, ‘If you think it’s difficult, then it’s difficult. If you think it’s easy, then it’s easy. Don’t make difficult and easy!’
“But the man was still not satisfied, so he went to the daughter. ‘Everyone in your whole family has a different answer to my question. Your mother said Zen is easy. Your father said Zen is difficult. And your brother said don’t make difficult and easy. So I ask you, is Zen difficult or easy?’
“‘Go drink tea.’”
In our Sunday sitting group we have had several new people show up over the last few months.
It’s very encouraging to see a new interest in Buddhism and meditation. But at the same time the “veterans” have been showing up less frequently. There have been several weeks where our normal 8-10 attendees have dwindled down to three or four people. The energy of the group has dissipated.
No offense to Mrs. Pang, but Zen is hard.
I don’t like meditating once or twice a day, every day. However, Pang’s daughter Ling Zhao is also correct, I need to go drink my tea. But we can’t really say that to the newcomers to our zendo, so what do we say? Most don’t end up returning. That might be because of something we are or are not doing as a sangha. I blame it on myself, because it’s a sad state of affairs if I am the one greeting new people. But really, my guess is that they expect something magical to happen when they sit for the first time. And when it doesn’t happen—and not only didn’t it happen but it was uncomfortable as hell while waiting for it to—they look for another path. That’s much easier than coming back again and again and torturing yourself for an hour by meditating with a group of weirdos.
So, do we warn them? Do we tell them that, “Hey, this isn’t going to be fun for you at first, but trust me, if you do it for an hour a day every day, maybe in 3-10 years you’ll see some benefits.” I didn’t major in marketing in college, but even I know that’s not a very good sales pitch. Or are we even supposed to be trying to get them to come back.
Bodhidharma made someone cut off his arm before he would accept a student. Recruiting in America sounds kind of cult-y and we don’t want anyone thinking we are Jim Jones, David Koresh, or heaven forbid, confusing us with Hare Krishnas!
I reached out to a few seasoned Zen teachers from across the country and asked them how they increased their Zen flocks. James Ford was nice enough to write a blog post for me. I think our sangha has been attempting to do most of the things he suggested, but the reinforcement was nice. A few years ago we designated official greeters to give newcomers an introduction and to help them feel welcomed. We might need to look at getting some printed materials though and adding some videos to our webpage.
A couple of other people suggested having a wide range of activities and classes for beginners as wells as for veterans. This is a great suggestion, and I would love that. However, we have limited people and resources so I’m not sure how feasible it is for our group. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a formula for getting Mega-Sanghas like the non-denominational Christians have been able to do. Zen needs our own Joel Osteen!
So I guess until a Joel Osteen Bodhisattva emerges, our sangha, and my guess is probably yours too, will continue to limp along. And maybe that’s fine. But for me it’s scary knowing we are one or two members leaving away from being non-existent. That bothers me for two reasons:
- Selfishly, I like meditating with others in a group a couple of times a week. It keeps my practice energized.
- I want those newcomers to have a place to go, so in 3-10 years they can see the magic happen like I did.
Let me know how your sangha attracts new members and keeps the old ones engaged. In the meantime I will be drinking my tea.
Tyson Davis is not a Zen Teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He does think he is something of a Zen unicorn though, because he is not a Liberal/Progressive Democrat Buddhist, and he rolls his eyes when American Buddhist teachers and bloggers constantly inject politics into their religion. Because of that he started a blog, Don’t Know Zen. There he does what some would call tilting at windmills but he calls bringing American Buddhism back to the Middle Way.
Editor: Dana Gornall