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Home Temple Practice

Zen Buddhist practice has been developing in America since a handful of Asian teachers took steps to establish it here 100 years ago. Many of the cultural values and practices shaping the American context are quite different from those that influence the lands and societies in which Zen originated. For example, there is no strong monastic influence in our culture, and relationships between teacher and student, and the individual and society are informed by America’s unique historical and cultural inheritance. In choosing to develop a Home Temple Model, TTZC has tried to support the particular needs of American practitioners.

Although our community began in 1986 as the Jo Ren Zen Center, we incorporated with the State of California as the Three Treasures Zen Community on December 11, 1996. From the beginning, we have practiced as a non-residential Zen community in a home setting, and we continue to place a strong emphasis on sesshin, the student/teacher relationship, and sangha. In Rancho Penasquitos, Roshis Nicolee and Barry convert their family room into a zendo each Monday, and at the end of the evening, the sangha turns the zendo back into the family room. Home as temple and temple as home are intrinsic aspects of practice at TTZC, and the physical transformation of space encourages students to clarify that wherever they are, that’s the temple.

In establishing itself on the Home Temple Model, TTZC is following an example found in Japan as well. Yamada Koun Roshi, Robert Aitken’s teacher, was a lay Zen Master who had a small zendo in his backyard, which he used for sesshin. Koryu Roshi, one of Maezumi Roshi’s teachers and Barry’s first teacher, had a temple that housed students of college age, like a residential center, but was geared mostly for commuters to come weekly and monthly for sesshin.

We have as many week-long retreats per year as the temples mentioned above—although this can vary—and this is a favorite for many experienced students who feel that the two or three-day mark in where a major shift occurs and practice really deepens.

As we might expect, there are some disadvantages of home temple practice: limited access to the center at other than scheduled times; lack of ownership by the sangha of physical practice space; fewer opportunities for sangha members to interface with each other and teachers on an impromptu basis. But even taking this into account, we find that we have been fulfilling our mission and that home temple practice is working quite well. The key ingredients are commitment and intent on the part of teachers and students.

To clarify our intent, we found it important to create a curriculum so that practitioners are able to decide which level of practice they wish to pursue. Whether someone wants to sit and meet with a teacher for occasional meditation guidance, on the one hand, or make a significant commitment to practice, on the other, the curriculum provides a map for levels of training. It also encourages participants to take responsibility for their training.

Attending sesshin is central to training at TTZC, and participants who sit sesshin and work deeply with a teacher are truly taking advantage of the riches Zen training offers. At TTZC the teachers are also available by phone, e-mail or in-person, if an appointment has been arranged. Traditional ceremonies and rituals are performed at certain times throughout the year, and trainings to teach others how to carry on these practices are a part of the program.

It is important to emphasize some of the other advantages of TTZC’s home temple practice. Fundraising is limited, and the low overhead helps us keep the need for participant contributions lower than at other Zen centers. Our teachers provide for their own livelihoods. In terms of practice, students take full responsibility for what they put into and get out of it, and sangha connections are also up to them. We have found that councils and sangha gatherings provide a venue for participants to learn more genuinely about one another, and this helps foster friendships and mutual support. These are important practices for creating a caring and open sangha. Because Zen practice is ultimately integrated as one’s everyday life, the Home Temple Model makes this a “built-in” aspect of our practice and not something that has to occur at a later point in a student’s life.

Zen Buddhism is still an infant in our society, and the various methods of training and practice will continue to refine and flourish. It is both inspiring and challenging to work with developing the Home Temple Model as Zen continues to take root in America.

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