‘Watershed moment’ as new leader takes reins at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center

The center in Santa Rosa welcomed a new abbot for the first time since it was founded in 1973.|

Dressed in a black and gold robe and carrying a hossu, or wooden staff with a bundle of horse hair, in his left hand, Nyoze Kwong joined members of the Soto Zen community for a procession across the grounds of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center.

The journey down a dirt track that circles behind the Buddhist sanctuary just outside Santa Rosa and back up toward the mountaintop temple in many ways represented the metaphorical mountain Kwong was about to climb inside on Saturday morning.

After offering prayers at several altars, reciting dharma phrases and lighting incense, Kwong walked up the steps of a large platform at the front of the temple and ascended to the role of abbot of the Zen Center.

The installation ceremony, known as a “shinsanshiki,” or mountain seat ceremony, was a “watershed moment” for the Zen Center, said longtime member and board president Chuck Ramey.

Kwong is the first new leader of the center in 50 years, succeeding his father Jakusho Kwong-roshi, the retiring abbot who along with his wife, Shinko, founded the center in 1973.

Ramey and other members of the Zen Center said Nyoze Kwong’s appointment ensures the long-term future of the center and that Jakusho Kwong-roshi’s teachings and those of his mentor, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, who is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the West, continue.

Kwong, addressing the 100-plus people gathered inside the temple, some who traveled from as far away as Iceland and Poland where his father also founded centers, said he was filled with warmth.

He thanked those who “worked tirelessly” to organize the event, his parents for their support and for giving him space to “find my own way,” and his wife and son for always standing by his side.

Kwong has been a constant at the center over the past several years, and along with his family spearheaded efforts to save the campus in 2017 as the Nuns Fire closed in. He’s also led efforts with his father and other members to revitalize the campus and build a new zendo, or temple.

Before taking on his new role, Kwong was vice abbot of the center, serving as head of practice and executive director.

He received his lay precepts there in 1987 and spent several years in the late 1990s living and working at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe where he studied socially engaged Buddhism, a more modern movement that seeks to apply Buddhist practices and teachings to contemporary social issues, according to a biography on the center’s website.

Kwong was ordained as a novice monk by his father in 2009 and in 2012 finished formal training at Eiheiji, the oldest monastery and the head temple of the Soto Zen School in Japan.

He received his dharma transmission, which in Zen Buddhism recognizes the person as the successor or spiritual descendent in a lineage of teachers, in 2014.

Before the morning-long installation ceremony, the Zen Center was abuzz with activity as members and volunteers set up tables and chairs and made other preparations for the festivities.

Saturday’s ceremony is one of the most important in the Soto Zen practice and for many in attendance it was a once-, maybe twice-, in-a-lifetime opportunity, Ramey, the board president, said.

Ramey, who has been a member for 20 years, said the Zen Center is one of fewer than a handful of family-run temples outside of Japan.

Around 8:30 a.m. visitors gathered outside Kwong’s home on the property, known as the Kanzeon House, or rest stop of the new abbot, and mingled over green tea, Japanese cakes and wasanbon, pastel-colored sugar candies.

Following the refreshments, Kwong, temple officers and senior practitioners of Soto Zen gathered inside the home where he recited the Heart Sutra, a popular Buddhist scripture, before the group began its walk to the temple.

Along the way, Kwong and the group stopped at the site of the future meditation hall to offer incense at an altar and again at the gate that leads up to the existing temple before moving inside for the ascension ceremony.

Members of the Zen Center congratulated the new abbot and wished him a long life and prosperity before the group broke out in loud applause.

His wife, Kashin Kwong, said Kwong’s current and previous lives had culminated in this moment and she was so impressed by his dedication and work. She said the temple as a whole stood behind him in this new journey.

“We are together with you and always here to support you,” she said as Kwong grew emotional.

Richard Johnson, 78, a senior member of the Zen Center, congratulated Kwong, who he’s known since he was a child, on his new role.

Johnson first met Jakusho Kwong-roshi in 1971 when he taught at Sonoma State University.

The man in the robe walking around campus caught Johnson’s attention and already interested in yoga and meditation he decided to check out Zen Buddhism, he said.

“I’ve been practicing ever since,” he said.

Johnson said he hoped under Nyoze Kwong’s leadership, the Zen Center could attract new and younger members to the center as many of the members are aging.

He also hopes to see the center finally complete construction of the new temple and restoration of the existing campus.

The project, known as Sonoma Mandala, calls for the construction of a new mountain gate leading up to the temple and a new meditation hall on the backside of the existing temple.

The project is intended to serve as a lasting home for the local Soto Zen community.

The first phase of the project that included construction of a new residence hall, bathhouse and updating utilities and underground infrastructure at the site has already been completed.

But the group must raise funds to finish construction, which Ramey, the board president, estimated was about $5 million.

Johnson said he had full confidence that Kwong would be able to help the center achieve its goals and excel in his new role.

He also reiterated message that was threaded throughout the ceremony – he’s not alone in the job.

“I’ve watched him grow up and I know he can do it and more importantly he knows he can do it,” he said. “But the key phrase is we are all going to do it together. He’s not alone.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

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