The Marriage of Service & Spiritual Practice:

An Interview with the Abbot of Zen Center of Los Angeles

Roshi Wendy of Zen Center L.A.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao embodies the union of activism and spirituality, or service and practice. A Zen Roshi, her root teacher was Maezumi Roshi, who helped to bring Soto Zen to America. She also is a successor of the late Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers Order, which gained fame for combining meditation and social action as a path. The Order’s spiritually-based social engagement grew into the renowned Greyston Bakery, which provided jobs for people in need, whether homeless, HIV-positive, or former prisoners.

When I spoke with Roshi Wendy, she told me that her interest in spirituality grew out of her culturally diverse family and a need to find meaning in their differences. In 1975, a friend dared her to go sit in a silent Zen retreat for seven days — and she accepted the challenge.

“There was no instruction. We would sit, the bell rang, we would unfold our legs, then sit again. We would practice walking meditation. Then sit again. I had no guidance. But something stirred in me. I went home and told my husband that I was leaving.”

I had to follow this path alone, Roshi Wendy told me. She entered a longer training and met Maezumi Roshi. After five years, her mind still noisy, she learned mindfulness. “I was so surprised that I could sit the way I needed to. It was not rigorous, like Zen.”

She began to build up inner silence and see how the mind works. On a longer retreat, she realized that she was trying to be an ideal person, an image in her mind. “I saw that I had to be simply me.” She returned to Maezumi Roshi and ordained as a Zen priest. Then she trained with Roshi Bernie in Zen Peacemakers.

When it was discovered that Maezumi Roshi was sexually involved with students and an active alcoholic, scandal rocked the Zen Center of LA, and most students left in despair. Roshi Wendy stepped up and, following a fire on the premises, decided to rebuild inside and out. She trained the remaining members in council to process their feelings about the devastating disillusionment with their teacher and to resolve disagreements.

“In sitting, we face the wall,” she told me. “In council, we face each other. It’s the other arm of sitting.”

Roshi studied communication skills, to speak and listen from the heart without an agenda. And she looked directly at the shadow issues of the community, the blind spots of spirituality. “We work now on our emotional integration and our discernment to detect potential conflict. I can read the energetic field and sense if something needs to be brought to the light.”

She singled out a shadow of Buddhism: It has been filtered through a male monastic lens. “What would practice look like if the voices of women, such as his abandoned wife and his many early followers, had not been written out of Buddha’s life story?”

At ZCLA, she broke up the traditional hierarchy and created a peer sangha for shared stewardship. Autonomous circles run the center and fit into the whole. All of this built a new container for an intentional spiritual community and, as problems arose, the container remained strong.

“The old forms collapsed, but 40 people came together to build a new structure, tell the truth about our history, and learn how to create another kind of community.

“During the past 20 years, we’ve woven consciously the many threads of the Zen Center — including its light and shadows, its vertical and horizontal dimensions, and its feminine and masculine energies — into a resilient fabric with a newly emerging story and patterns. Stitch by stitch, we are sewing the robe of Buddhas, which is the robe of liberation and service.”

This orients us to a great vow, Roshi Wendy said. For Buddhists, the decision to take refuge means to commit to a life that is far larger than your own preoccupations. “Allow it to expand you and call you forth in new ways.”

The Three Tenets of Zen Peacemakers include not-knowing, letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others, and the universe. As Roshi Wendy put it, “Over the years I have discovered that this great field of not-knowing calls me to listen deeply to all that is arising. The limited sense of ‘I’ expands to include things strange and unfamiliar — things beyond my capacity to know, things that I may have considered ‘not me’ — all expanding-and-contracting in one seamless flow of interacting complexity.

“So, I like to say, ‘Know what you stand for.’ We are all related and can never be separated. What are the everyday actions of my own hands, words, and heart that affirm this One Life that we are living all together?”

The second Tenet, bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world, asks us to face the conditions that are presented to us. “The present circumstances of your life are the perfect vehicle for your awakening. How can we use these very circumstances to forget the self, practice the precepts, and serve others?”

The third Tenet, taking action that is caring and serves everyone and everything, includes action that is rooted in not-knowing and bearing witness. When the voice of a shadow says, “I can’t,” she urges us to listen to what we tell ourselves and to dialogue with the shadow.

Members of ZCLA take all kinds of action in this context: caring for local homeless people, creating food baskets for local churches, offering non-violence training to teens, doing prison ministry, and planting trees locally. The Zen Center designates an apartment for a homeless youth to provide a stable circumstance for his transition to adulthood. They also assist formerly incarcerated people to reenter society and help to feed youths who are transitioning from foster care to adulthood.

The call to serve is part of the Bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings by doing our spiritual practice to cultivate enlightenment for all beings, not merely for ourselves.

“We move our intention from becoming enlightened for myself to the realization that we are all interconnected,” she said. “So, practice occurs in the environment of service. And service is practice.”

Roshi Wendy steps down as Abbot in May, 2019.

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For my book on Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality, see