Frequently Asked Questions
What is Soji Zen Center?
Soji Zen Center is a community of people who meditate, study, and observe rituals together. Our lineage comes through both the Soto and Rinzai lines of Japanese-style Zen, and yet we are recognizably an “American-style” Zen community.
How do I learn more about Zen practice at Soji Zen Center?
The best way to learn more about practice at Soji is to visit the center. “Introduction to Meditation” workshops are held throughout the year and provide detailed instructions on meditation. Dharma talks given on Sunday mornings are a resource for learning about practice, as are all of the workshops that are offered.
Do I have to be a member to participate?
No, everyone is welcome and encouraged to join our activities, but membership does help support the center through dues that we can depend on. Student Membership level is necessary to participate in the weekly Study Group.
How is Soji Zen Center financed?
Soji Zen Center supports itself through donations and program fees.
How is Soji Zen Center managed?
Soji Zen Center is volunteer-based, and runs itself through a Board of Directors that makes financial and policy decisions. Sensei John Ango Gruber leads the teaching functions.
Why do some people wear robes?
While it is not necessary to wear a robe, members wear them for various reasons. Robes foster a sense of “visual quiet” and similarity among the sitters. They are a material reminder of preparing for meditation, and they are comfortable.
What are the bib-like garments some people wear around their necks?
The rakusu is a miniature “Buddha robe” and signifies that the wearer has taken refuge and a vow to follow the Bodhisattva precepts (Buddhist ethical guidelines). Typically, the wearer has practiced for a year or so with the teacher and community and studied the precepts before making the commitment. The commitment ceremony is called “jukai.”
Some people are wearing more elaborate robes and have bowing cloths. What does that mean?
Those wearing the traditional Soto robes are priests. These are practitioners who over the course of practice feel they wish to take on the role and appearance of a caretaker of Soji Zen Center and its community. The majority of senior practitioners at Soji Zen Center are not ordained.
Why do some members shave their heads?
These days, shaving your head can be a fashion statement, or a message saying, “I am interested in spirituality.” It is traditional to shave your head when ordaining, but no longer required for novices or priests. Originally, it conveyed the sense of cutting off one’s attachments, but these days it is rarely understood in such a way.
What about the people who do not wear the priest's robes?
They are lay practitioners. This path emphasizes the humility and simplicity of practice and eschews outward display of one’s inner dedication. Lay practice is very strong at Soji Zen Center.
Who gives talks and teachings?
It is easy to talk about Zen; it is not easy to speak with genuine insight. Therefore, the path to giving talks is long and carefully checked. After years of practice and working with a teacher, a Zen student is recognized as a practice leader, and during a formal ceremony presents a talk and dialogue with the community. After that, the “senior” is permitted and encouraged to give talks.
What is a Zen student?
We call a practitioner a “student” because we value the mind of the seeker, one who looks at experience and wishes to investigate and learn more.
What do the titles Roshi, Sensei, and Hoshi mean?
Roshi means “old teacher,” Sensei means teacher, and Hoshi means Dharma holder (assistant teacher). These are titles of respect that indicate authorizations to teach.
Sometimes there is a call for "dokusan." What is that?
This is a face-to-face interview with a Zen teacher. It is an opportunity to ask a question and test one’s understanding.
What is a retreat like?
Retreats, whether held here at Soji Zen Center or at a retreat center, are ways to deepen our practice by engaging in intensive meditation for an extended period of time. They also often include dharma talks, private interviews, and liturgy. Soji Zen Center runs one-day retreats (zazenkai) and longer retreats (sesshin), held at various times throughout the year.
I notice some people are struck with a stick during sitting. What is that?
The kyosaku or “encouragement stick” is a flat, hollow stick that has long been used to aid practice in the Zen tradition. People sometimes request the stick when they are feeling sleepy or when they wish to release tension in their neck, back or shoulders. The stick is used only at the request of the sitter!
What is the purpose of chanting?
Chanting serves many purposes. We chant poems and verses that have been handed down because of their wisdom value, and we chant “seed” syllables that are valued for the quality of their sound. Blending all voices into one sound, harmonizing, and joining together are vital aspects of community practice.
Who is the founder of Soji Zen Center?
Roshi Jules Shuzen Harris (1939-2023) founded Soji Zen Center. He was a Soto Zen priest who received shiho (Dharma transmission) from Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and held an Ed.D. with a concentration in human development. As a psychotherapist, Shuzen Roshi found creative ways to synthesize Western psychology and Zen to achieve dramatic results with his patients. He also focused on the relationship between Zen and the martial arts. He was a fourth-degree Dan Black Belt in Iaido and a Black Belt in Kendo.