In April, Ryan and I flew to Austin, Texas to take part in the 2022 Branching Streams Conference, a four-day gathering of affiliate sanghas and dharma centers in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. This felt like an auspicious meeting. Ryan and I would be representing Brooklyn Zen Center (BZC) in our new roles—he had recently become administrative director and I was a newly minted tanto—and this was also the first Branching Streams gathering since the pandemic started (the last one was in Milwaukee in 2019). There would be 40 participants representing 20 different sanghas from across the US, Canada, and Germany, ranging from large established centers to smaller sitting groups.
On a personal level, returning to Austin was a homecoming of sorts. I had lived there for nine years before I moved back to Brooklyn in 2002. It was where I first met Greg Snyder, who would go on to found BZC with Laura O’Loughlin in 2005 and who would eventually become my teacher. I was also able to reconnect on this trip with the old friend who gave me a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind for my birthday in 2000. It was in Austin where the initial sparks of my way-seeking mind were mysteriously and quietly kindled.
The conference itself took place at the Ancient Yoga Center, which was part of Radha Madhav Dham, a 230-acre Hindu ashram located in the outskirts of Austin. The grounds were beautiful, replete with a large central temple, a network of hiking trails, as well as a small population of peacocks. It happened to be mating season for the peacocks and their cries periodically punctuated the silence, contributing a wondrous soundtrack to our time there.
The theme of the conference was “Healing Relationships.” Over the course of the four days there were several workshops and large- and small-group activities. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye led a poetry workshop on the second day, which helped cultivate a sense of playful and creative vulnerability among the participants, encouraging us to bring our voices into the room. On the following day, the professor and writer Stephanie Kaza offered a workshop based on the work of Joanna Macy called The Work that Reconnects, which called on us to unfold the full breadth of our bodhisattva practice in a world riven by ecological destruction and inequity. On the last day, Galeyn Godwin Roshi, Abbot of the Houston Zen Center, presented a slideshow highlighting the 100th anniversary of Soto Zen in America and the spread of various lineages across the country. The cumulative effect of these offerings for me was reassuring, as we bore witness to the strength and resilient capacity of our communities two years into a pandemic, but also sobering as we came to realize the work still ahead. It was both a celebration of our tradition and a reality check for our bodhisattva vows in a suffering world.
For me, the jewel of sangha shone in the in-between moments: the spontaneous conversations that sprung up over meals and tea and the impromptu hike on a hill country trail that happened on our last evening together. It was illuminating to learn about everybody’s sanghas and their experiences over the past two years. It became clear that so many of us were navigating similar challenges: how to care for and cultivate community during a pandemic, how to come back together in person, how to support our online sanghas, etc. Some centers had lost their temples as we did. We shared stories, exchanged ideas, offered support. A wonderful sense of solidarity emerged. And underneath it all was the visceral understanding that we all shared a tradition, a family style that had been passed down to us by Suzuki Roshi and the ancestors before him.
May we all continue to care for the sangha in the ten directions.
With gratitude for sangha
Tanto (Head of Practice), Brooklyn Zen Center
Image by Pat Yingst, Austin Zen Center
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