Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sangha Incorporated - Why and how?

Some of you might already know that the legal process of getting Cold Mountain Zen (CMZ) sangha registered as a nonprofit organization has started. This is referred to as getting an organization “incorporated!” Some members of the sangha have started conversations about how this incorporation will and should change our community’s structure, operations, and responsibilities, etc. This post was written by Jacky and Kritee to clarify some questions that are likely to come up as everyone associated with the sangha learns about these developments.

Why do we need our sangha to become a nonprofit organization?

Getting incorporated is the beginning of a process of deepening our relationships to each other and imagining the future of our sangha—a future as a community that is able to offer Zen teachings more effectively to our existing members and also to new groups throughout the tri-state area. We have been so lucky to find this way of life that has given us so much. It is, perhaps, the biggest gift we can give to our communities to make these teachings available to others now and in the future.

For the past 15 years, Kurt has driven for up to 1.5 hours each way, bringing cushions, cookies, or weather control systems (i.e., fans or heaters) and has converted classrooms, dance studios, and empty lodges/halls into zendos (meditation rooms). Other regular members of our sangha like Jacky and Alex (Blairstown), Sandy and Rumi (Cranford), Richard and Kritee (Princeton), and Gary (Rutgers and Monroe) have also made their cars traveling zendos week after week. These locations have helped different groups of people find a way to deal with the stresses of everyday life, to explore the deep layers of their minds, and to investigate the true nature of reality.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t it all working just fine?

If we look ahead, we can see we need to make changes now so we can thrive in the future. The locations we currently use for practice and the time/energy that Kurt and others happily volunteer to bring Zen meditation to others have certain limitations. For example:

1. We can’t share this beautiful practice of seated meditation with as many people as we could. At Rutgers’ Livingston Campus, we often have more people enthusiastic about sitting than that venue can accommodate.
2. These venues cannot be personalized to create an ambience most suitable for meditation. Our belongings are not always safe: In the not so recent past, our property (e.g., vacuum cleaners) has been stolen.
3. The availability of these venues is subject to the continued personal interest of their owners or a continued affiliation of one of our members with institutions, such as Rutgers or Masons, who own those buildings.
4. All of our volunteers have full-time jobs and they face burnout from showing up day after day, week after week, year after year. They need more help.
5. We need a more organized structure and more effective communication about the needs of our sangha. Some members, who are deeply committed to Zen, enjoy this practice and being part of our group of dedicated practitioners. They have sometimes voiced confusion about how to deepen their relationship with the sangha. The have various talents they can contribute to our operations and want to share themselves, want to give back to the community that has given to them.

So what is the solution?

Imagine a spacious and personalized home building owned by our community—a space where we don’t have to fold tables and chairs five times a week before we can set up our altars, our zafus and zabutons. Imagine a Zen center where we can have our sangha library and share literature that can inspire us to practice more deeply. Imagine a community where we can cook hot oatmeal after a deep morning sit. Or a place where members who live far away can stay overnight before a half-day meditation. Imagine a homebase from where more effective communication and more organized operations can be managed. Imagine eventually broadening our activities to include classes on the sutras, calligraphy and other Zen arts, as well as Buddhist yoga and tai-chi, cooking classes, and other community offerings. Imagine having a stake in such a place…creating a network of open-hearted practitioners who contribute to spreading Buddha, dharma, sangha to those who come after. Imagine being a vital contributing member of such a community.

Why do we need a nonprofit organization to be able to have a Zen center?

Registration as a nonprofit organization helps us to make our community a legal association, giving us the benefit of having numerous tax allowances, and allowing people to make tax-exempt donations. Also, it helps us to get organized so we can establish a group of individuals who have talents in the areas of business startup, accounting, law, and networking to serve as our Board of Directors (Trustees). These board members can guide the sangha by using their talents and skills to keep Cold Mountain Zen, Inc., a legal and financially stable entity.

What is a mandala organization and how does it fit in?

We plan to use the image of a mandala to symbolize the decentralized, shared, and interrelated nature of organizational responsibility among many different people, teams, and councils. When we think of organizations we usually picture the typical vertical structure: Things work from top to bottom, with the people at the top being in charge and making all the decisions. A mandala is very different from the typical structure of American businesses. The mandala graphic visually represents how all the inherent elements work together. It is divided into councils, where each council has mandates, and develops policies and other informational documents pertinent to its work. Each member of our sangha can contribute vitally to an area of the mandala. We can fully capitalize on each person’s individual talents and offerings to help build an organization for the sangha, run by the sangha, with each member valued and integral to the whole.

What do these changes in the sangha mean for me?

These structural changes will offer each of us:
• A chance to deepen our relationships with and commitment to each other as individuals and the entire sangha as a group.
• More opportunities to offer our talents for benefit of the sangha starting now.
• The encouragement we may need to hone our individual skills so we have more to offer as time goes on.
• The ability to give tax-exempt donations at the end of the year.
• More organized, accountable, and transparent operations and …
• If we like, a formal membership such that we become stakeholders in the decision-making involved in the process of making Cold Mountain Zen Center a reality.

We have always heard our teacher say that our informal and warm community practices deeply and simply, so why do we need to get entangled in a formal structure (e.g., Board of Director or formal members)?

These changes will not alter the spirit of our sangha but, in fact, will deepen our relationships, giving us a chance to participate fully. To some of us, all of this is bound to sound like an unnecessary and uncomfortable formality. It may sound frightening or disappointing. To some, it may feel like a necessary evil or even a waste of time. If you feel like this, you are not alone! This is how incorporation has sounded to many burgeoning sanghas around the United States.

Recently, a member of our sangha visited three Zen centers in the city of Portland: Dharma Rain Centre founded by Karlsons (students of Jiyu Kennett), Portland Zen Center led by Larry Christensen (student of Joko Beck), and Zen community of Oregon founded by Bays (students of Maezumi Roshi). Members of all three sanghas mentioned their struggles with questions similar to what we see arising now or in the future within our sangha. When these three sanghas incorporated with the aim of expanding their reach within the wider Oregon community, and started changing their organizational structure in order to increase their functionality and begin to fund-raise, it left at least some people a bit bewildered. Why? Don’t meditation practitioners need to stay spontaneous, simple, and poor? The short answers these sanghas came up with were: 1) effective zazen needs a structure (for example, a meditation room and cushions, a deeply awake and healthy teacher, groceries and supplies for sesshin)—and 2) everything costs money. Poverty is not necessarily simplicity, and even spontaneity requires structure. Simplicity has to do with naturalness, a lack of luxury, pretentiousness, or guile. A lack of organization at this point would imply, to quote from an article in the newsletter of Dharma Rain Zen Centre “…..that we can’t share Zen practice and teachings with as many people as we could if we were better funded, that it’s harder to contribute to the community, harder to communicate effectively within the sangha, that volunteers burn out, and that we don’t have the space we need to offer the programs we wish to, among other things.”

How do we pick board members and mandala stewards?


Anyone who is a board member will be offering their time, skills, and commitment to our sangha. Kurt has worked on an interim team that will be announced at the April 3rd meeting and, committed members of our community will have a say in “electing” these members during our October annual meeting. All board members and mandala leaders will be doing a service to the sangha. However, none of these members or team leaders will hold “spiritual” authority. Just like being ordained does not necessarily imply spiritual advancement, being a board member and mandala participant does not necessarily imply that the person is a spiritually advanced practitioner. Remember, our vision is not for a vertical organization, but for a horizontal one, where everyone is integral to the organization as a whole.
As a community, we do not need to support our teacher as many other meditation communities in the U.S. have needed to do. However, to step up to a higher level of functionality—a deeper involvement with the wider tri-state community—we need a more structured organization.

Uniqueness of our sangha: For more than 15 years, we have operated on a zero budget. We pay a bargain rate for 5 days of excellent food and lodging—our sesshins are probably the cheapest sesshins in the country. In fact, many times Kurt has donated money from his own savings so that students can participate in sesshins. He has repeatedly said to students “Don’t worry about money! The most important thing is that you go to a sesshin…” Our teacher has always said that most of us need to start young and diligently practice zazen for years before it is too late to start changing our mental habits. So here we are: a dynamic, energetic, talented, and warm community of friends with probably one of the highest percentages of student members—who, sit after sit, week after week, sesshin after sesshin, learn to let go of our chattering minds and touch the compassionate and still parts of our selves. But Kankan Roshi’s decision to bring zazen to a younger group has meant that the average income of our members is not too high. So as individuals with modest incomes, we can’t accomplish much by ourselves, but if we work together to enlarge the circle of our supporters and mandala participants, we might be able to achieve something quite remarkable.

A few final words:
Among our regular participants, there must be many who feel grateful for our group and the extraordinary opportunity for practice that it has provided. And when we look to the future, we can easily imagine that upcoming generations might also appreciate the freedom and joy that Zen has given us. But where will they practice on a weekly basis when for example, Room 103 in the Livingston Campus of Rutgers University is gone? If we have benefited from the practice of Zen, which has been passed down through the hard work and sacrifice of many generations, then we might try to pass it on to others too. This is an opportunity to build a future where others can have what we have been so fortunate to find: a community of open-hearted, talented, wonderful people who want to fully engage with the world around them.

Love and Gassho,
Jacky (Kanki)and Kritee

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