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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel V: Living Buddhism: Community and Family, 2:00 - 5:00

Zen at a Distance: Isolation and the Development of Distant Membership

Helen Baroni, University of Hawaii at Manoa

The present study is based upon an analysis of the correspondence between Robert Aitken, founder of Honolulu Diamond Sangha and his distant correspondents, and represents another portion of a larger study that I first introduced at the AAR Conference in Chicago in 2008. For purposes of the study, I defined “distant correspondents” to include individuals who had only brief or indirect contact with Aitken before they first wrote to him. This group includes Zen sympathizers, solo practitioners and members of other Zen communities. These individuals may be regarded as distant not only in geographical remove, but in terms of establishing any personal relationship with Aitken as a Zen teacher. The 261 correspondence files utilized for the study comprise only a small portion of the Aitken correspondence.

Despite the rapid growth in Zen centers and smaller meditation groups in the United States that characterized the last three decades of the 20th Century, Aitken’s distant correspondents continued to raise concerns about their feelings of isolation from a Zen group or teacher throughout the same period. This paper will identify the causes of this isolation, which go beyond simple geographical considerations and include factors such as physical disabilities, limitations caused by financial and family constraints, as well as resistance to religious affiliation and other self-imposed forms of isolation. It will also discuss Aitken’s suggestion of a form of Distant Membership, either with HDS or another Zen Center, as his solution to the problem of isolation that evolved over the same decades.

This paper will argue that one of Aitken’s primary goals in his ministry by mail was to facilitate the transition of his correspondents from isolated sympathizers or solo practitioners to active affiliation with a Zen Center or group, not necessarily HDS. The paper will describe Aitken’s experimentation with different forms of distance teaching, that eventually lead him to propose a fully developed pattern of Distant Membership. The pattern included the following suggestions: 1) The Distant Member should continue to practice zazen as regularly as he or she could manage, preferably at least once a day. 2) The individual should seek out communal support somewhere in their immediate geographical vicinity and attend group meditation sessions, ideally once or twice a week. Aitken routinely commented that in some circumstances this would entail finding a single “Zen friend” with whom to sit once a week. 3) The Distant Member would need to establish a teacher-student relationship with a qualified teacher whom they could trust. 4) Finally, a Distant Member would need to travel to attend sesshin with their teacher at least once a year.

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