The circumstances were less than ideal. I’d been working for Tsuburaya Productions, makers of the Ultraman TV shows and movies, in Japan for ten years and the company was in a state of turmoil. A family business since 1963, by 2004 the family was a bickering, back-biting mess. Noboru Tsuburaya, the man who hired me, had died suddenly in 1996 leaving a power gap that the rest of the family kept trying to fill. In the midst of all this, Akira Tsuburaya, who was then jockeying to oust his nephew Kazuo from the presidency, hatched a plan to open an office in Los Angeles and install me as the head of that office.
There were tremendous opportunities for us in the USA at the time. Everyone in Hollywood wanted to remake a Japanese property and Ultraman, being that nation’s longest-running and most popular superhero character, was high on lots of people’s lists. Will Smith had gone on TV saying Ultraman was one of his favorite shows. The comany coulda made a ton of money and I coulda been the executive producer of a mega-hit movie with an A-List star in its lead role.
But that’s not what happened. Although I brought the company a series of attractive offers from major studios, nobody back in Tokyo could take a break from fighting each other long enough to come to LA for a meeting. Meanwhile, my marriage was breaking up, which did nothing to help my already sour mood. The sunshine, the beaches, the palm trees and even Amoeba Records were not enough to make me like Los Angeles.
I had a little Zen group here that met on Saturdays, but it never seemed to do very well. Every week, between five and ten of us would gather in Santa Monica to sit for half an hour and then chat and drink tea. The donations I took in at those meetings never covered the rent I was paying for the space we used. At the same time, whenever I led retreats or gave talks in other cities around the world I could attract ten times that many on a bad day. Not only did I not like Los Angeles, Los Angeles did not seem to like me either.
So I left. I lived in Brooklyn for a while. I went back to Akron, Ohio for a year and a half. I lived in Philadelphia. Yet, much to my astonishment that little group I’d started in LA kept on going. I really didn’t expect that at all. I thought they’d pack it in a few weeks or months after I left. But they didn’t.
Last year I ordained three of the long-time members of the LA group as priests as a first step in making the group a more solid and stable entity. Whereas initially the group was just a thing I did on Saturdays, it has now evolved into a true sangha.
Los Angeles has a whole lot of Buddhist organizations. In fact, someone once told me there are more meditation centers in LA than in any other city in the world, including cities in Asia. I don’t know if that’s true. I kind of doubt it. But there are plenty already. So why start another one?
For one thing, at the moment there really isn’t a straight-up Soto style Zen meditation center in LA. Yeah, I know the Zen Center of Los Angeles calls itself a Soto center, but their practice is far closer to the Rinzai style. And I know there’s Zenshuji downtown, but they function more as a social gathering place for Japanese-Americans than as a meditation center. How come San Francisco gets a giant Soto style center but we have to make do with renting out rooms at yoga studios?
Plus, I have come to love Los Angeles. For years I felt sort of guilty to be a Zen practitioner who liked living in big cities. It’s just not “Zen” to dig the noise and the crowds and all that, but I do. And I like all the movie industry weirdness. I like living down the street from where Laurel and Hardy filmed The Music Box and in the same neighborhood where The Three Stooges tried to haul ice up a set of stairs similar to those that appear in the Laurel and Hardy picture. I like seeing famous people at the grocery store. It’s fun.
I wonder if the kind of Zen center I want to start can survive here. Much of what’s on offer in terms of meditation in LA is pretty full of woo-woo. People here love their magic crystals. Folks with more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime chant for abundance and prosperity. Of course this is not restricted to LA. But it is very popular here.
Yet I am optimistic. I really feel there is a place for a real, down-to-earth meditation center in the Soto tradition here in this City of Sin with its Scientology churches on every corner, and its back-stabbing executives looking for someone to spiritually justify greed and ambition. I’ve met a lot of good people who are not like that at all, who are ready to take a hard look at their real lives and discover the beauty that already exists right in front of them.
We shall see. Stay tuned…
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This Sunday February 15, 2015 at 11 am I will lead meditation at Against The Stream 4300 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029
Every Monday at 8pm I lead zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
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