Sangha History

History of Zen Desert Sangha

Zen Desert Sangha began in May 1982 in a wonderful spirit of faith in Zen practice and in an open democratic process that would be truly open to all. We had no teacher, little money and it might have appeared from outside that we were unlikely to survive for long. Yet, our hearts were simply open to each other and to the practice. The original members were: Anne Murray, Barrie Ryan, Donna Reed, Paul Markl, Sara Way, Hannelore Stone, Kathleen Erickson, and Bob Wallin.

We contacted Aitken Roshi because of his openness to democratic group process; he encouraged us with our practice and sent us letters and tapes of his talks that embodied his deep compassion and wisdom. Naturally, we felt very grateful and inspired by his warm support! Thanks go to Bob for first writing to Roshi, in the summer of 1982.

We first sat as a Sangha at the home of Sara Way for the first few months. In November, we moved to the Tucson Association for the Blind where Paul worked and lived, and where we were encouraged in our practice by Roshi and by our sitting together.

Nelson Foster first met with the ZDS in October 1983 while in Tucson for a meeting of the American Friends Service Committee. In January 1984, he returned to lead us in the first of many sesshins throughout the 1980's. Then, in September 1984, Aitken Roshi came to lead us in a zazenkai. The Sangha had just moved to a new place at the home of Sangha members Esther Moore and Mark Schueneman on Hedrick Drive. We were naturally very excited and grateful to Roshi for inspiring us by his wonderfully insightful and compassionate talks. ZDS applied for official status as an affiliate Sangha of the Diamond Sangha in January 1984. This request initiated a discussion within the larger Diamond Sangha about the meaning of affiliation. We officially became an affiliate of the Diamond Sangha in June 1985.

Nelson Foster led us in sesshin, as often as three times a year, until the end of 1988. His wonderful sense of humor and caring nature allowed us to feel relaxed and connected to him as our teacher; we enjoyed his wonderful teishos, his hikes with us in Saguaro National Monument, and his Thich Nhat Hanh retreats with their rich personal sharing of our hearts with each other through poetry, song, storytelling, and walking meditation in the park. It was a truly joyful and compassionate way of connecting life and death. And the Zen Desert Sangha has been transformed.

In June 1992, we moved to a larger zendo on Timrod Street, thanks to Sangha member Greg Anderson: a beautiful and spacious place to practice. Another close friend of Aitken Roshi, Ruben Habito Roshi, led us in a Zen retreat in August. We enjoyed his sharing of his Zen experience in Japan with his teacher Yamada Roshi, who was also Aitken Roshi's teacher.

By February of 1993, Indiana Nelson, a student of Pat Hawk Roshi, generously opened her home for sesshin. We felt her warm loving nature and wild sense of humor in her beautiful home. In October 1994, Aitken Roshi returned, very generously sharing himself in our beautiful large zendo. We have very fond memories of his beautiful kind spirit. This would be his last visit to us and we are very grateful for all that he has done for us over the years.

In April of 1997, the Sangha moved to the Pima Friends Meeting House on Wednesday evenings and the Unitarian Church on Saturday mornings.

And, in May of 1998 ZDS moved to our current home on Martin Avenue. Pat Hawk Roshi moved to Tucson in August and we held sesshin with Roshi that same month. How very fortunate we felt that summer and since in having both Roshi living here in Tucson and being our teacher, available so very often to us and having such a very beautiful and spacious zendo. We truly have come home!

For a more extensive history of ZDS, see our past newsletters and talk to those who personally have been active throughout its history.Thanks go to so many: to our teachers; to Pat Hawk Roshi, to Nelson Foster Roshi in the 80's and Aitken Roshi through the years; and to the many who have sat with us and supported us through the years. 

May we continue to grow in compassionate awareness to the True Self: the many Beings.

My mind and yours already include all beings. They are already saved.
Our task as a Sangha is to realize that fact in our hearts and in all hearts...
We realize truly that we form a single organism with all inanimate things of the universe. Together we enrich this realization individually, and as a fellowship, 
among ourselves, among our neighbors, and in the world.
Thus we find our home in the Sangha.

                                            - Robert Aitken Roshi, Taking the Path of Zen


Some of the original founders at 25th anniversary of ZDS in 2007