Branching Streams Newsletters

Branching Streams newsletters & posts will appear here on this page:

May 18th, 2020

Branching Streams “Newsette,” May 18, 2020

Dear Branching Streams teachers and leaders,

Sunlight is filling my room this morning as I compile this “Newsette” – shorter than a newsletter and perhaps more current. I am borrowing from SFZC’s Abbot David Zimmerman’s use of the word “Dharmette” to describe brief and pithy dharma talks.

I had a conversation with Teresa Bouza from Kannon Do Zen Center in Mountain View, CA this week and learned that she is visiting many Branching Streams sanghas’ websites to learn about some of their innovative offerings during this time of Covid-19.  I’m including a few offerings she found in this Newsette, as well as a link to a memorial service Austin Zen Center held last week for their founding teacher, Blanche Hartman, and a reminder about Jon Voss’s weekly Zoom class.

Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Chicago

They are going through their archives and offer a selection of podcasts on a weekly basis to provide dharma steadily while activities remain online. The current’s week collection titled “Unfolding Wise Hope” seems relevant right now.

Also, Taigen Leighton, their guiding teacher, has started a list of movies and TV shows to watch while staying at home:

Mountain Rain Zen Community, Vancouver

This coming Sunday, May 24th the Zen Center in Vancouver is having an online evening of music, poetry and stories…

 Ashland Zen Center

They are offering “encouraging words” weekly. Sangha members can register to receive them. Teresa enjoyed reading them:

Austin Zen Center’s annual memorial service for founding teacher Blanche Hartman

This link take you to a beautiful page with information about annual memorial services, some archival photos of Blanche Hartman, and the text of the memorial service with an audio recording.

Jon Voss’s ongoing Zoom class meets on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific Time. The link to the Zoom meeting is 222-402-816.  If you have any difficulty joining, please email [email protected]

Wishing all of you good health, support, and connection as this time of uncertainty continues.


March 13th, 2020

Dear all,

I am writing to you after receiving an email this morning from a Branching Streams guiding teacher with this question: “I’m reaching out amidst all the anxiety and fear to see if Branching Streams has guidelines/advice on what others are doing as far as schedules, closures, creative responses and general practice advice for fear/panic, etc.” 

I thought about her question all day, received a number of newsletters from sanghas about what they are doing, and decided to write the attached letter. with deep bows, Tova Green, Branching Streams Liaison, pronouns she/her


Dear Branching Streams teachers and leaders,

I have received notices and emails from many Zen Centers and sanghas in recent days about ways in which you are trying to slow the spread of the COVID19 pandemic in the U.S. and around the world. I’ve also received questions about best practices…when to close a center, what advice to give sangha members, how to address anxiety and fear about the uncertainty of the changing situation.

These decisions can be very difficult for us to make.  I found Alan Senauke’s comments, posted on the Soto Zen Buddhist Association forum, helpful: Loving the warm hand to warm hand nature of our practice, there is an understandable loss felt as we move towards “social distancing.” But it is necessary, and we can share with each other creative approaches to maintaining connection and cooperation. Humans are amazingly adaptable. And we are all in this together.”

I have been in Texas since March 3rd and am now visiting Austin Zen Center. I have watched the care with which AZC’s leaders are making decisions about how best to keep residents and the wider sangha safe, checking the CDC reports as well as local health recommendations, and noticing what other Zen groups are doing. I have also been following the decision-making process of San Francisco Zen Center’s leadership in the last two weeks. 

Many Zen Centers are closed at least until the end of March. Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast posted a link to the on-line zendo at SFZC which offers daily zazen every weekday. Seattle Soto Zen is offering a Virtual Sunday. The guiding teacher will be offering a talk and discussion from her home using Zoom technology. Other centers are offering practice discussions by phone or Zoom, as well as dharma talks and classes online.  Some centers are open and are finding ways for sangha members to practice together safely.  All centers are suggesting the basic precautions the CDC has publicized.

I’d like to share some words of SFZC’s Abbot, David Zimmerman, which I find helpful:

“Everything is changing quickly: almost hourly we receive new information and updates regarding the expanding spread of the virus and what we need to do to protect ourselves from it and/or to mitigate its impact. The practice effort required of us now is one of ‘compassionate accountability’…to do our best to take loving and conscientious care of ourselves and each other. In my mind, this means that each of us needs to make a whole-hearted effort to be well-informed, to diligently do what we can to reduce the risk of infection for ourselves and others, and to treat everyone with kindness and tenderness as we navigate this time of uncertainty and great concern.

While it’s normal to be experiencing fear, anxiety, confusion, overwhelm and other forms of distress right now, the dharma practices of the six paramitas (generosity, ethical conduct, patience, diligent effort, meditation, and wisdom) offer us powerful medicine to help restore us to equanimity. We might think of ourselves as entering into a new practice period or intensive of indeterminate length, one with the theme of “The Zen Practice of Meeting a Pandemic”.  Regardless of the plethora of unknowns we’re being presented with, let’s explore how we can collectively sustain and nourish our personal and communal practice.”

Please send me your newsletters and announcements about how you are meeting this emerging situation so that I can share suggestions with other groups.  I am also available to speak with any of you by phone or Zoom if you would find it supportive.

I will end with Seattle Soto Zen’s guiding teacher Allison Tait’s words: “Please take care of yourselves and one another.”

With gratitude for all you do, Tova

p.s. I thought the following excerpt from “Six Ways to Transform Fear” by Marc Lesser, might also be helpful.

Change the pace: Slow down. Structure a day, or part of a day, where the focus is on paying attention to yourself and your surroundings when you have nothing to accomplish. Leave your cell phone behind.

New perspective: If possible, go on a retreat away from your office space and home space. Be in a place that is less familiar and where you are less apt to feel the pull of everyday tasks and usual routines. Quiet and spaciousness are a beautiful thing.

Get to know your monkey mind: Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you notice how busy and noisy your mind is when you remove distractions. Use your meditation and mindfulness practices; come back to your breath and body.

Find your center: Notice that you are more than your stories. In the busyness of life, you can easily become fooled into believing that the stories you tell about yourself are you, and that they absolutely define you. As your mind becomes more quiet, you gain access to your still, undefinable center. You glimpse the ways you create these stories about yourself, about others, and about the world.

Refresh and renew: Allow yourself to step (or more accurately, drop) into a place of not knowing, of uncertainty, of joy and refreshment. See if you can just appreciate everything you are, even your doubts and discomfort; just appreciate being alive.

Blend the mundane and the sacred: See and appreciate the immensity and sacredness of all existence and at the same time see the mundane need to eat, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, and clean the counters.

First Branching Streams Newsletter of 2020, February 14th

Dear Branching Streams teachers and leaders,

Last weekend we celebrated the first full moon of the Lunar New Year at City Center, and today is Valentine’s day. This seems like an auspicious time to be writing to all of you.

This newsletter focuses on what some Branching Streams centers and sanghas have been doing in response to the Climate Crisis.  I plan to have a focusing theme for future newsletters. Please let me know if there is a particular theme or issue you’d like to share or hear about from other sanghas.  One idea I have for the next theme is how sanghas are welcoming young people (in their teens, twenties and thirties), as this has arisen as an area of interest in sanghas I’ve visited recently. This theme could include how sanghas are welcoming children and families – or that could be a separate theme.

Other news reported in this newsletter:

  1. Save the Date for the 2021 Branching Streams Conference
  2. Tassajara summer 2020 – new dates for a Sangha week for Branching Streams priests and opportunities for summer student practice at Tassajara
  3. It’s time for your 2020 Annual Contribution
  4. Website updates
  5. Black Mountain Zen Centre’s Fall Visiting Fellowship report

Responses to the Climate Crisis

Since this was one of the themes of the 2019 Branching Streams Conference, inspired by Stephanie Kaza’s presentation, I invited groups to share their ways of responding to the climate crisis and heard back from six groups.  If you didn’t respond, it’s not too late to send your news for future newsletters.

Zen Center North shore members and guiding teacher Joan Amaral participated in a Climate Funeral in August 2019

  • Zen Center North Shore, Beverly, MA

In 2019, Zen Center North Shore in Beverly, MA participated in:

A demonstration at the Boston Globe offices in Boston, where approximately 100 people gathered in the lobby, calling for the paper to inform “the public on the climate emergency at the level of urgency that was placed on reporting the Second World War,” and to scrutinize public policy “with respect to the scientific consensus on the scale of action required,” increase coverage of local environmental issues, and divest finances that are tied to fossil fuel corporations. (April 17)

“Funeral on the Beach” at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, to mourn the sixth mass extinction, we joined a procession in black to, sing and march through water and sand with thousands of onlookers. (August 4)

A march to the Brazilian consulate in Boston, we stood with the indigenous women of Brazil and their courageous efforts to protect their rights, their home, and our earth. (August 29)

Global Strike for Climate in Boston, we joined millions worldwide in a day of strikes from school and work to call for meaningful action on climate. (September 20)

“Flood the Seaport” in Boston, we joined hundreds of activists to close a bridge to traffic and display banners “declare a climate emergency.” (September 27)

Honk Parade in Somerville, a marching band and sign-carrying procession with Extinction Rebellion calling for meaningful action on climate. (October 12)

Links to newspaper articles about three of these actions:

Compiled by sangha member Rob Bonney.

  • Bamboo in the Wind, Sunnyvale, CA

Bamboo in the Wind Zen Center has launched our 2020 “Go Green in the Stream” Project that involves 2 classes in Green Buddhism, examing the teachings associated with going green (ethics, when is enough is enough; personal study of habitual patterns that destroy the environment and harm the health of all beings) coupled with practical tips to reduce single use plastic, limit chemical use, recycle, etc.  We will offer a list of organizations that actively, promote sustainability, reduce waste, offer technology solutions for cleaning our oceans and so forth.  We have started a webpage and hope to add to it with facts about the real problems facing our planet.

Sent by Val Szymanski

  • All Beings Zen Sangha, Washington, DC

The theme for the Fall 2019 Ango at All Beings Zen Sangha was “The Whole Earth is My Body.” In diffusing the boundary between the Earth and our bodies, Sangha members explored the harm being done to the planet as a result human (in)action(s) and made space to incorporate Zen practices to actively engage in healing the Earth through mindful interventions aimed at changing habits.

Early in the Ango, Sangha members watched a 2018 stop-motion film parable: “The Isle of Dogs,” written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson. Set in a dystopian near-future Japan, the story follows a pack of banished dogs, led by street dog Chief who helped a young boy named Atari searching for his own dog after the species is banished to an island following the outbreak of a canine flu. The discussion after the film revealed Sangha members’ deep respect for non-human life forms and concern for the current state of our World on a number of different dimensions ranging from profound miscommunication to political corruption and environmental degradation.

To further our understanding of the systems and science of earth’s health we invited an outside expert Mike McClary, Esq. to help us with these three questions: (1) what is climate change, (2) how will it affect the world in the coming decades, and (3) what needs to be done to reduce its risks?

Many sangha members read Stephanie Kaza’s book “Green Buddhism.” Which is a beautiful meditation in essay form on various aspects of ecological awareness as it intersects with Buddhist practice.  We had two gatherings to study three chapters (10, 11 & 14) of “The Avatamsaka Sutra” also known as the “Flower Ornament Sutra,”  in which the Buddha teaches about the infinite interpenetrating co-arising of everything and the spiritual wisdom which sees the nature of the world.  

Our studies lead to spirited discussions both during study periods and outside the zendo over meals and tea, to clarify aspects of the material presented and to better understand the magnitude of the degradation of the earth.  We talked about: public policy, energy use, food systems, personal consumption patterns, systems theory, how do we as Zen practitioners face the realities, how do we engage with and impact these issues?

To stimulate Sangha members to explore small actions to halt further degradation of the Earth, we had two targeted three week-long habit changing challenges. We tried two strategies aimed at reducing single use plastic waste. The first challenge was refraining from using straws and using aluminum straws instead (or completely doing without straws). The second challenge involved casting aside single-use plastic eating utensils in favor of portable bamboo utensils. Several Sangha members reported adopting either or both habits permanently and we learned first-hand the importance of sharing our habits with the rest of the world as a way to create change around us. Also, some members decided to begin eating a plant-based diet.  Many members voiced changes in their holiday consumption and purchasing habits and an awareness of focusing on wasting less and using pre-used items rather than purchasing new items.  

Our taking a clear look together on “the whole earth as my body” and supporting each other in small and large efforts to improve our “care for the earth and thus ourselves” has enabled some of us to look toward the future with less unease and more hope for healing.

Written by ABZS Shuso Seidō David Sarpal

  • Kannon Do, Los Altos, CA

The Sangha of Kannon Do is pleased to announce our plans for solar panel installation on the roof of our zendo early in 2020.  In addition to our commitment to the Earth, we feel this project will also encourage other non-profit institutions and private property owners to do likewise. 

Sent by Chris Becker.

  • Chapel Hill Zen Center, Chapel Hill North Carolina

In January 2018, the first meeting of the Chapel Hill Zen Center Eco-Dharma Group was held with the mission to “informally explore together Buddhist teachings on the natural world, caring for the natural world as an expression of the Bodhisattva Vow, and our own responses to current environmental issues.

The intention of this group is to support and inspire one another in our efforts to make appropriate Buddhist responses to environmental concerns at a personal, local and global level.” Originally a discussion group, participants share articles, videos, and personal approaches to dealing with the environmental crisis and for staying connected to the natural world. We meet outside whenever possible, walk together on the trail around the temple, and are considering silent nature walks outside the temple grounds. And, sponsored by the group, we held the first CHZC outdoor half-day sitting in November 2019.

Some members also attended a recent climate rally together. Eventually the group began writing a regular entry for the CHZC’s newsletter and website covering subjects such as problematic materials recycling, hazardous waste disposal, and how to reduce packaging and materialism during the holiday season. A composting workshop, the first of a series of workshops on how to incorporate caring for the natural world into daily practice, is scheduled for early 2020. In addition, members of the group are considering doing the One Earth Sangha’s online Ecosattva training together and have begun learning about innovative methods to care for the temple grounds, such as mimicking a controlled burn without actually setting a fire to allow areas to evolve in a more natural way.

The Chapel Hill Zen Center Eco-Dharma Group gives people a place to share sorrows, fears, discoveries and successes, and is focused on responding to the climate crisis, both in discussion and action, grounded in the Buddha’s teachings and the Bodhisattva Vow to care for all beings in this “dewdrop world.” CHZC in general has a culture of being conscious and conservative in energy consumption, water consumption, recycling, food use practices, and how we use material goods. This is a direct result of our Abbess’ example and teaching.

Written by Zenki Kathleen Bateson

  • Zen Heart, Sebastopol, CA

Bodhisattvas do not turn away. This is the continuous practice and vow of the Dharma Heart Zen sanghas, Sebastopol and Cotati CA, an affiliate of the Everyday Zen Foundation. 

 The sangha’s many gardeners, beekeepers, naturalists, Jizo earth-womb makers, school- teachers, parents, grandparents, and on and on, wholeheartedly vow to meet the suffering of climate disruption, displacement of populations, and the degradation of our precious earth body with fierce, tender, and creative response.

 From a sangha member: “Each week, (we) sit down with practitioners whose commitment to protecting the natural world arises from their deep understanding that we are not separate from this earth, but that, in fact, the minerals in our bones and the water in our blood is the earth itself…(together) we find the strength and courage to turn towards this terrible pain with determination and hope.”

 We dedicate ourselves to the study of Ecodharma. Through the Everyday Zen Dialogs that I curate we ‘Walk for the Earth’ on the Green Gulch ridge that overlooks the cites, hills, gardens, forests, and bay—invoking the four directions, and offering chants and prayers for the wellbeing of the earth and for all beings. 

We attend marches as individuals and as a sangha. We have visited and studied the oceans. We chant the Ecosattva vows and Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Prayer regularly. The sangha has begun sewing a rakusu with cloth made from recycled plastic as an expression of intent. 

And along the way we become wiser and more compassionate in our actions of body speech and mind. 

From a sangha member: “I have been turning my lifestyle away from consuming so much, and there is so much more to do. This is what I have been doing:

  • I do not buy beverages in plastic bottles…ever.
  • I have turned towards a plant-based diet.
  • I receive a community supported agriculture (CSA) box that is based on produce not usable in regular grocery stores in order to combat food waste.
  • I educate myself along with my community about climate issues and racial inquiry.
  • I live in dense housing.
  • I compost and recycle.
  • I will vote.”

 Together we can change the world, and sangha has never been a more important refuge and vehicle to awaken to and enact our interconnection with all of life. May we universally support each other to not turn away and to embody the Bodhisattva vow with and for all beings. 

written by Hoka Chris Fortin, founder and guiding teacher 

  The 2021 Branching Streams Conference

Next year’s Conference will be hosted by Austin Zen Center at the Ancient Yoga Center, half an hour from Austin,  October 12th  through 15th.  If you are already planning for 2021 please put those dates in your calendar.

Tassajara Summer 2020

The Tassajara Brochure is out! Starting on February 14th you can make online reservations at Phone reservations can be made after March 14th. Toll-free 1(888)743-9362, 7 days a week from 9 am – 5 pm PST.

In my last newsletter I mentioned a new Branching Streams Private Sangha Week for priests. This will be led by Greg Fain and will focus on skill-building including care of the okesa and ceremonial roles. The new dates are August 9 to 14. Contact Tassajara Reservations to register.

If you or members of your sangha would like to spend a week or longer at Tassajara following the student schedule you can apply by filling out an application found at

Annual Contributions

You can make your contribution online through the Branching Streams Website with this link: send a check to San Francisco Zen Center with the name of your sangha on the memo line and mail it to San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page Street, San Francisco CA 94102, attention Tova Green.

Website updates

Our webmaster, Zenho Eric Jonas, from All Beings Zen Sangha made some aesthetic and structural changes to the Website, including some new photos.  We will be posting the Climate Change news on the website.  Please check it out!  And please let us know what else you’d like to see on the website.

Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast

Heather Iarusso, a priest who lived at Tassajara for several years (and started her Zen Practice at Austin Zen Center!) and is now Program Director at City Center spent three months at Black Mountain Zen Center through a Branching Streams Fellowship. Djinn Gallagher, the resident teacher at BMZC, sent several photos and this report:

Heather’s visit to Black Mountain Zen Centre was a wonderful opportunity for our students here in Belfast to get to know a teacher with an inimitable style, full of energy and enthusiasm. She co-led the monthly zazenkai, gave four well-appreciated Sunday morning dharma talks, and led the Saturday morning study group every week as we read Suzuki Roshi’s Not Always So. Her astute perspective and thoughtful insights made her a helpful practice leader for several students needing to talk, and her friendly and outgoing personality offered easy and open interactions with the community.

With Heather’s participation, we were able to rehearse and carry out our first Full Moon Ceremony in Belfast in October, and we followed it up with a second one in November – now that our sangha has seen how it can be done, we hope to continue.

During her stay in Belfast, Heather gave a four-week meditation class aimed at LGBTQ+ women and girls, in conjunction with Cara-Friend, a voluntary organization that supports and empowers the LGBTQ+ community in the north of Ireland.

Heather encouraged us to open our Sunday morning programme to beginners once a month, and our first experience was very positive. She also co-led our first Rohatsu sesshin in Benburb Priory during the weekend of December 6th to December 8th, and she led our first LGBTQ+ affinity group, Rainbow Zen, modelled on SFZC’s Queer Dharma.

Our experience of her presence in Belfast was universally positive, and we said goodbye to her with much sadness. 

To see additional photos please visit the Branching Streams website.


Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, concerns, or news to share. If I’m not already receiving your newsletters, please send them to me.  Please visit the [email protected] and give me feedback about it.  I’m here to help us all connect and support one another.

With deep bows of appreciation for your practice, and a Valentine’s Day greeting: Please treasure yourselves.