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How do monasteries fit into modern Western culture? Zen Community of Oregon

In the bustle of modern Western life, it can seem difficult to imagine how living in a monastery, spending one’s days deep in contemplation and study, would even be possible. What role do monasteries play in the modern world? Are they still thriving, still needed? We spoke with Jogen Salzberg, Sensei, of Zen Community of Oregon to learn more about life in the monastic setting and how he sees monasteries serving the needs of our world.

Zen Community of Oregon has two locations – Great Vow Monastery, the rural residential practice place, and Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple in Portland, Oregon. As such, the monastery is not walled off from the public — but instead welcomes people for various workshops or retreats, including weekend and week-long silent retreats. Already, it becomes apparent that this particular monastery has a mission to share the teachings of Zen with anyone who is interested.

When we asked Jogen how he sees the monastery fitting into modern Western culture, his answer was touching: “Perhaps the good vibes of temples, monasteries and spiritual sites of the world invisibly and mysteriously keep the planet from spinning off its axis into utter chaos, distraction and lovelessness. Who knows? We are a modern, American monastery responding to where people are at and simultaneously stewarding forward an ancient, powerful lineage of awakening technology that, in essence, is timeless. Ordained and lay people, men and women are full-time residents and this includes couples. The Bodhisattva Vow, the sacred aspiration and practice of opening and clarifying oneself in order to be of unhindered service to others, is the zeitgeist we cultivate and celebrate here.”

In essence, Zen Community of Oregon has responded to the need: meet Western seekers where they are while maintaining the integrity of an ancient lineage and a spirit of service.

“What could be more precious or more relevant?” he says. “Folks are starving for authentic connection, inner silence, communion with nature and insight into the nature of Being. The consequence of being undernourished in those things is evident everywhere we look.”

But do we all need to become monks and commit to monastic life to reach enlightenment? What about our families, our jobs, our passion to serve the world through other modalities? Jogen explains what brought him to the monastery and why we don’t all necessarily need to take monastic vows.

“I decided to live here because I was (and still am) inspired by the compassionate and expansive heart of the teachers and the possibility of living day after day in a fresh, peaceful state of mind that can truly appreciate the gift of life. The structure of the monastery and support of the community help me to return to and sustain this deep essence in a way that is pretty challenging without lots of help.”

“We don’t need to become monastics to realize enlightenment, but we do need to make Awakening our priority. It requires a devotion and a passion for training our mind to shine through our layers of self-deception and distraction. It will probably require sacrifice of some kind. What does that look like? What does that require? This is an intimate question for each person. This can happen with the stuff of the life we already lead – it depends on our attitude, aspiration and view of that life. We have several lay teachers in our community who teach here at the monastery and elsewhere who for me are stellar exemplars of loving-kindness and wisdom.”

Ultimately, having the support of a monastery makes a challenging journey feel a little more accessible. But do we all need to become monastics? As Jogen says, no – but we do need to be willing to commit to the work and, probably, make sacrifices in order to train the mind within the container of the lives we lead.

It is possible, but perhaps…maybe it’s time to make a visit to the monastery for some support?

Jogen Salzberg, Sensei has been practicing Zen since 1997, he entered monastic training at Great Vow in 2003 and received Dharma Transmission from Chozen Bays, Roshi and Hogen Bays, Roshi in 2017. Since 2011 He has also been a student of Dzogchen teacher Keith Dowman. Jogen is one of the guiding teachers at the monastery and serves as the Assistant Abbot and Director of Training. Jogen leads a weekly meditation gathering at Heart of Wisdom in Portland, and DJ’s for the live-blended listening meditation event Beyond the Sound. Visit the Zen Community of Oregon’s Retreat Guru page!

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