Does the world really need more Zen sitting groups?

It comes up every so often that the only active sitting groups for the Five Mountain Sangha are in the Los Angeles area and in Cincinnati. Here in the Bay Area, there are only two active members of the order. The other member, Greg LeBlanc, is a teacher in the order but really only has the time to do a group sit once a month because of his many (many!) other commitments.

I generally practice at home and don’t do much in the way of group or together action with others. I’ve gone to Empty Gate Zen Center run by the Kwan Um School, which is part of the same overall lineage, but not on a regular basis. The lack of a local sangha is, I feel, the biggest detriment of the model of practice that we follow, where all of us are distributed across the United States and get together for retreats.

That said, I’m not sure that the world, or at least the Bay Area, really needs more sitting groups. In Cincinnati, it is different in that there are a total of two (yes, two!) Zen groups. That’s it. In that instance, forming a group, as my teacher Jiun Foster has done, probably fills a real need. Here? Well, off the top of my head, there are two large and long lived (since the 1970’s) zen organizations with a building or two within two miles of my house. If I’m willing to do out to five or six miles, there are probably, easily, a dozen.

In that circumstance, what does adding a sitting group do? It strikes me as a bit hubristic to say, “Oh hey, I’m going to form a Korean Zen group. We’ll all get together and chant and sit” when there is a group that has 30+ people meeting a bit over a mile away. It feels self-focused in the way that we try to avoid. That isn’t to say it would be bad to have such a group but a large part of me says, “Get over yourself. Just go to where the other Buddhists are!” Of course, I hear that voice but I generally don’t do so!

I think it would be much more useful to form a service-based group or organization and fulfill some actual need (and that need is not to sit on a cushion). A “Helping Hand” organization in some fashion. The back of my rakusu has a poem on it in English. It says:

great love,
great compassion,
the great Bodhisattva way,
attaining Bodhidharma’s family tradition.

My Rakusu - 2

This comes down to the maxim, the great question of a Bodhisattva, “How can I help you?”

Sitting and the support of a group can help a great many people but there are many other ways to help others as well. I’m not sure what I am ultimately going to do in that regard but it seems likely that the help offered by running a small group of practitioners is well covered. I think that I would better serve others by finding ways to help other people that are not being covered to relieve at least a little of their suffering.

In the short-term, this probably means getting off of my butt and cushion, and actually getting over to San Quentin to work with the inmates there in their Zen group. It may also mean some time in the local food banks or even, as funny as it is, helping people in the community with their computers and technical problems. There are many ways to serve others and we don’t need to fit everything into the Buddhist box.

I’d be interested in any thoughts others might offer on this kind of problem, not necessarily for my situation but in the general sense of things Buddhists can do instead of simply lighting incense, chanting, sitting, or ringing bells.