The BZG/Tallowwood Sangha sitting group was originally formed by the late Sexton Bourke Roshi (1949-2011) in approximately 1998 following a request from his teacher Subhana Barzaghi Roshi. Subhana is a Zen teacher in the Diamond Sangha lineage and the Insight Meditation tradition. The Diamond Sangha was originally established as a sister sangha of the Sanbo Kyodan (“Three Treasures”) School and eventually became an independent Sangha, with affiliated groups in North America, Europe, Australia and South America.
The Sanbo Kyodan was established by Yasutani Hakuun Roshi & his heir Yamada Roshi as an independent lay tradition. Yasutani was a Soto monk but left the monastery and did koan training with Harada Roshi. He basically felt that Soto Zen in Japan had fallen into complacent quietism and wanted to re-emphasize the need for genuine kensho. The Diamond Sangha teachers are all koan teachers and are unique in having full transmission for lay teachers, something impossible in Soto and very rare in Rinzai. The Diamond Sangha was founded in 1959 by Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010) and his wife Anne in Hawaii. A student of Nakagawa Soen Roshi, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi and Yamada Roshi, Aitken was authorised to teach in l974.
He later came to Australia to become the founding teacher for the Sydney Zen Centre and led sesshin in Sydney from 1979. The Diamond Sangha is a unique tradition for two reasons: firstly, it was established for lay practitioners with full transmission for lay teachers; and secondly, it integrated Rinzai and Soto Zen traditions. The main difference between Rinzai and Soto is that the Rinzai tradition, following the famous 18th century teacher Hakuin, uses extensive koan study. Koans are inquiry questions and used as objects of meditation, the most famous of these being the koan “Mu”. Mu literally means “No” and was the answer given by the 9th century monastic teacher Chao Chou (Joshu) when a monk asked him “Does a dog have Buddha Nature”? The student takes up this one syllable, silently breathing “Mu …..” as their meditation practice. On the other hand, “just sitting” or “shikantaza” is the primary meditation practice in Soto Zen. Founded on the famous teachings of the 13th century Soto Master, Dogen, the student sits in open awareness, letting go of all thoughts of gaining something. It is a goal-less practice of being just “this moment” without striving to be anywhere other than fully here and now. As Dogen says, a student does not practice meditation as a means to gain enlightenment (or awakening); rather, practice itself is enlightenment-in action. Enlightenment is therefore not a special state of personal being that someone “has or has not” – it is how we live and respond to whatever life presents, from moment to moment. There is therefore no end to practice or enlightenment, it is something we do for the rest of our lives. Our practice is to awaken from the dream of me/not me; us/them; and the countless story-lines we find ourselves getting caught up in all the time and stay present to our life as it is.
In 2010, Sexton began his daily early morning sits to inspire people to join him in establishing a daily sitting practice. Sexton was joined by Brenda Mitchell and Christel Wecker (among others) who would sit with Sexton from 6am – 7am. Round about the same time Andrew Tootell and Vince Jensen started a Zen sitting group at Maratana’s Yoga Studio. After they found out that Sexton was also sitting at the same Studio, Andrew and Vince invited Sexton to join them as the resident teacher of their Zen Group and the BZG was reborn as a sub-group of the Tallowwood Sangha.
Both Andrew and Vince are long-term students of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. Andrew’s teacher is Barry Magid and Vince’s teacher is Ezra Bayda. The Ordinary Mind School was founded by Joko Beck in the 1980s. Ordinary Mind is, like Sanbo Kyoden, a breakaway school, belonging neither to Rinzai or Soto. Joko’s teacher Maezumi Roshi ordained in Soto Zen but also studied with Yasutani Roshi and received transmission in both Rinzai & Soto lineages. His White Plum lineage heirs are mostly koan teachers but some emphasize the Soto side and shikantaza. Joko rejected traditional koan study entirely in favour of working with the “koans” of everyday life. Ordinary Mind is not strictly a lay lineage because some teachers were previously ordained and still consider themselves priests. Joko placed importance on just sitting and her instructions for meditation given to students, such as focusing on body sensations and labelling and letting go of thoughts, have much in common with contemporary Vipassana practice.
Before Sexton passed away, he invited Ellen Davison, a teacher in both the Diamond Sangha and Insight Meditation traditions to become the new teacher of the BZG, and this was accepted warmly by the members of BZG. Ellen drives down from her home town of The Channon, every second month, to lead a Zazenkai (one day of sitting) at the Studio. Given the influence of both the Diamond Sangha and Ordinary Mind traditions on its founding members, the BZG incorporates the traditions and teachings of both these schools to form a unique cultural experiment that is unfolding here and now in the little town of Bellingen. The inaugural sesshin (Zen retreat) to be held at North Farm in March is another exciting development in the life of the group with the hope that it will become an annual event.
Andrew Tootell, Bellingen