The San Francisco Zen center (SFZC) was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971) and his American students. His main aim of travelling from Japan to America was to become a senior priest of Sokoji, a Soto Zen temple that was located at 1881 Bush Street in Japan town during that period. In 1961, his wife Mitsu joined him from Japan (Albanese). Sokoji was founded in 1934 by Hosen Isobe and was accommodated in a previous synagogue of the Jews presently identified as the Kororo Assisted Living.
The congregation at Sokoji in May 23, 1959, when Suzuki arrived, was entirely composed of Japanese-Americans. He could speak English quite well, unlike his predecessors. It did not take long after his arrival that Sokoji got non-Japanese Americans coming to sit zazen at the temple. These were mostly beatniks, but soon, the Westerns also joined in and started attending regular services. Progressively, new non-Asian students outnumbered the Japanese-American meeting. There was a rift in the Sokoji community, when some of the Western students began referring themselves as City Center group and eventually incorporated to form the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962 (Coleman).
The San Francisco Zen Center gives hospitality to persons of every race, nationality, gender, age, class, and sexual orientation as a symbol of appreciating diversity. The main purpose for the establishment of SFZC is to allow accessibility and, consequently, symbolize Buddha’s compassion and wisdom. This is stated in the Soto Zen convention which was established by Dogen Zenji in Japan in the 13th century. Suzuki Roshi and other Buddhist instructors conveyed this Soto Zen tradition to other followers as a sign of their belief and respect to Buddha (Albanese). According to this belief, all creatures are considered to be Buddha, and meditating is a sign of implementation of the nature and enlightenment of Buddha.
SFZC is among the biggest Buddhist sangas located off-Asia. It consists of three residences for practice. These residences are at the City Center that is situated in the center of San Francisco: Green Gulch Farm, which has organic fields that are linked to Marin County ocean and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is in the Ventana Wilderness from within Big Sur. The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is basically the first Western Zen training monastery. These three practice places offer systematic monastic retreats, daily meditation, lectures, practice classes, and workshops.
One of the major influential personalities in Buddhism is Jiko Linda Cutts, who was nominated Abbess in 2000. Linda was appointed after receiving Dharma transmission from Tenshin Reb Anderson in 1996. Paul Haller was appointed as co-abbot with Linda in 2003 after receiving transfer from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1993. SFZC established the largest Buddhist hospice center in America through the volunteer labor in 1987. The founding director of this volunteer project was Frank Ostaseski who served till 2004 (Albanese).
The structure and architecture of SFZC offers a magnificent and unique combination of Eastern palatial construction. It is among the most genuine models of traditional Chinese imperial style in architecture. It is constructed with porcelain roof tiles and flaring eves on its traditional part and includes western technology with the inclusion of concrete columns and steel frames (Coleman).
Traditional Buddhist buildings are constructed in a similar manner as a sign of utmost respect to the teaching of Buddha. This style was basically set for the Emperor of China. The roofs, pillars, and beams have the imperial color yellow and the Chinese dragons as a symbol of an imperial regime. Visual impact is widely felt through the expansive walls and roofs. The roofs in particular are two-tiered. They contain traditional flared eaves and are arranged with golden porcelain tiles. The garden, for instance, is designed in a manner that literally mimics spontaneous growth of nature.
Zazen begins at 6:30 every Saturday morning. The program during Zazen includes oryoki breakfast where guest bowls are present. During the Zazen, individuals are required to meditate and sit according to the required posture. Worshipers may perform several Mahayana rituals when they visit the temple to pay homage to the Buddha. Worshippers may chant, meditate, pray, take vegetarian meals, and celebrate Buddhist holidays according to the Chinese lunar calendar (Albanese). The rituals involved in a Zazen include bowing, chanting, lighting incense, altar offerings, and meditation.
The very first act when worshippers enter the room with the statue of Buddha is bowing. This is done to by putting the palms together to demonstrate the ultimate respect for Buddha and His teachings. The bowing is referred to as prostration. One is required to prostrate three times by facing the Buddha with the palms turned upwards while kneeling on a special stool. The open arms in the first prostration are meant to symbolize compassion and wisdom. Turning out of one hand signifies the internal cultivation of wisdom, while the movement of the arm symbolizes the outward submission of compassion. The second prostration is used to symbolize the bestowal of compassion and wisdom upon an individual by Buddha. The third prostration on the other hand indicates a person’s sincerity to the prayers. Three prostrations are considered adequate for illustration of an individual’s earnestness and building of concentration.
The second part of the ritual is chanting. The chants are generally considered to pure and free from lies, curses, or slanders. Chanting acts as a way of training a person’s thoughts through repetition to reveal compassion, charity, self-discipline, and perseverance, as it involves the uttering of the teachings of Buddha. The worshippers use gongs as chanting instruments. Other main purposes for these gongs include the announcing of the time for a certain meeting, marking the different phases of services, and aiding the worshippers in meditations.
The lighting of incense is very significant, as it portrays the respect awarded to Buddha. It assists worshippers to practically concentrate on a single object during meditation in accordance to the practices and teachings of Buddha. Incense lighting signifies one’s detachment from the samsara of material desires, reincarnation, as well as life and death. It is a vital guide of every worshiper in the Buddhist religion in the journey of spiritual development (Anderson). In other case, as observed from the visit, some of the worshippers use the lit incense as an avenue to acquire Buddha’s blessings, since they stand in for offerings.
Tables are laid with fresh fruits and flowers, which are observed at the temple. These are the alter offerings presented to the Buddha for his teachings and blessings. Individuals also bring offerings to the temple to thank the Buddha for safety. Although most of the alter offerings are flowers and fresh fruits, sometimes individuals bring forth vegetarian dishes. Buddhism does not advocate for the killing of animals for food and, thus all the food offerings brought forth are vegetarian (Coleman).
Meditation is the most captivating part. One realizes that meditation can only be acquired through direct experience but not from reading only. Wondering minds are calmed through meditation. Samadhi is the first step that results in the calming of the mind, where individuals focus on a single object. The second step in meditation is Vipassana or self-contemplation, where worshipers contemplate introspectively and put their minds under control. Meditation generally involves the adjustment of the body, mind and breath.
In the adjustment of the body, one sits upright, with the legs crossed and the hands are placed on the knees. Eyes are then gently closed, the back is kept straight, and the head is kept upright. In the case where one is unable to cross the legs, they may sit on a chair. The second adjustment is the breath and concentration on the place where air goes into the nostril. The last adjustment in meditation is the adjustment of the mind. One is supposed to be conscious of their mind during inhalation and exhalation (Anderson). An individual is supposed to count ‘’one’’ when the air touches the nostrils during inhalation and not exhalation. This is done to ten and then a repeat of the same from ‘’one’’ starts.
The experience at the temple during the worship was one of a life time. It was interesting and captivating, with every turn of events unfolding in a new way. However, at some instance, one would feel a little bit confused before realizing the actual manner in which some rituals were supposed to be performed. It was also rather unfortunate that I presented no offering, as I had no idea that fruits and flowers were the main alter offerings to the Buddha. In appreciation to Buddhism, it was really a place that makes one eager to pay another visit or even more.