Mt. Source at Branching Streams Conference

I attended the Branching Streams conference, September 16 to 19, representing Mountain Source Sangha. Branching Streams is a group coordinated by San Francisco Zen Center, that gives sanghas all over the world who practice in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, chances to talk, meet and exchange experiences. Branching Streams also provides one-off support for some teaching opportunities, and coordinates the sangha week gatherings that Mt. Source has participated in a number of times.

In addition to a robust website at and regular emails, Branching Streams holds a conference every other year. The most recent conference was hosted by the Milwaukee Zen Center, and held at the Siena Retreat Center in Racine, Wis.

Around 40 people from 25 sanghas gathered for presentations, discussions, meals and morning and evening zazen. The conference was organized largely around social justice issues and conscientious Buddhist activity in the modern world. We heard from teachers and sangha leaders from across the U.S. and Canada about actions they or their sanghas have taken, and how practice is linked to, supports and informs what they do.

In New Orleans, Rev. Michaela O’Connor Bono works with the city’s criminal justice system to divert people out of incarceration and into restorative justice processes, and visits inmates at Angola Prison, while drawing support and direction for that work from her sangha’s community and zazen. Zen practice supports this work by making us OK staying with discomfort, creating acceptance for change, and helping us see that people are not defined only by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

Rob Lyons of the Berkeley Zen Center has been designing and leading election sesshins around the country for several years, where the sesshin model and daily zazen are used to support get-out-the-vote, neighborhood-walking practice. This kind of practice highlights the new roles that our existing Buddhist and Zen forms can also support. As always, having a tenzo is key to keeping the group functioning.

Buddhist ecology writer and educator Stephanie Kaza helped us see the interdependent, co-arising nature of ecological and social justice issues by examining one troubled area, and following where it led. Stephanie commented that in her purely academic environmental work, she isn’t always able to bring Buddhist terminology to bear on the conversation. But because we shared a fundamental understanding of interdependence, we could use Mara’s Web as a way to help see the connections between troubled systems more easily. I learned, in particular, that it’s important not to get stuck thinking any one action is the magic solution that will make everything better; instead, we should continue to try our best at each moment, to make whatever seems like the least-harmful choice we can make in the moment. We can’t know for sure whether A or B is ‘better for the environment’ – but we still have to live in the world, so we should reduce suffering whenever we’re aware of it. And we could all be more aware.

Between the presentation sessions, the group separated into different tracks to discuss sangha experiences, like welcoming newcomers, future planning, fundraising, ecological practice, and social justice awareness. These conversations were rich with actionable suggestions for strengthening and nurturing sanghas, for taking personal action on topics that matter to us, and for finding our practice within whatever is happening in the sangha at any moment.

Much of the life and spirit of the conference came, of course, from tea breaks and meal times, when members of all the sanghas mingled and chatted. I learned how similar all of our groups are, scattered around the country, and thinking about our futures, developing appropriate forms for our groups, wondering what are the best ways to make dharma and zazen available to our wider communities.

It was notable to me that the largest and most active sanghas were ones whose members – singly or together, but on behalf of the sangha – engaged in other outreach work in the community, like interfaith gatherings, community cleanup, protest marches, food or clothing drive volunteering, or special topic events, like a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day sitting. Also, seemingly key to sangha health worldwide, is unstructured time, like our lunches in Bolinas and tea time in the San Rafael group.

Again and again, I was struck by the realization that none of our ‘projects’ – healing the earth, achieving social justice and equality, expanding the sangha to include everyone who wants to be inside it – none are projects that we get to some final place, and are done with. All of our work, all of our relationships and activities, we have to meet in the present moment, do our best, and be willing to keep coming back every moment, and keep doing our best, forever. This Zen Buddhist practice, breathing, being, cultivating compassionate wisdom, has prepared us perfectly for this moment, and every one that follows.

It was a really fantastic experience to meet other practitioners, and see echoes of Mt. Source Sangha reflected back from the Branching Streams groups all around the world. I encourage all our sangha members to visit other Branching Streams sanghas, in the Bay area or out and about. If you’re traveling to a major city, chances are good that there is a zendo not far away, where Suzuki Roshi’s practice is being preserved and transmitted. Stop in, sit with another group for zazen, introduce yourself, connect the streams of this Soto Zen lineage, and meet fellow travelers along the way.