New Zen Teachers Step Forward
In Bellingham and Vancouver

Written by: Jaren Hoppe-Leonard

Tim Burnett and Norman Fischer at the celebration.

Tim Burnett and Norman Fischer at the celebration.
Photos by: Amy Darling, Janet Martinson, Ken Oates

Red Cedar Zen Community celebrated a new stage of development at the end of April, installing Nomon Tim Burnett as the new guiding teacher.

For the last 25 years Burnett studied closely with Zen teacher Norman Fischer, who has visited Bellingham, Washington, from the San Francisco area several times yearly.

Nomon Tim Burnett receiving the invitation to teach from the community.

Nomon Tim Burnett receiving, from the community, the invitation to teach.

Fischer felt it was time to fully transfer leadership of the community to Burnett, and did this through April’s Mountain Seat ceremony in Bellingham. Fischer is a former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.

This marked a major change in leadership at Red Cedar, the first time a new leader has guided our community. Burnett shares some of his thinking through this blog.

The next week Fischer took a similar step in Vancouver, British Columbia, by transferring leadership of Mountain Rain Zen to longtime students Myoshin Kate McCandless and Onshin Michael Newton.

During Burnett’s ceremony he spoke about looking to the wider circle of dharma practitioners for support.

“Today we remember that we’re doing our part of continue this journey around the sun of the Dharma and remember, deeply with our hearts cracked open, that we are not here on our own, that this moment isn’t about a few friends in Bellingham, Washington, carrying doggedly on,” he said. “Today we remember that we’ve been accompanied and helped and supported and encouraged every single step of the way, and that only becomes more so as we take this step together.”

Burnett teaching with a dandelion!

Burnett teaching with a dandelion!

Burnett was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest by Fisher in 2000, and in 2011 received full priest ordination and Dharma transmission. Through this ordination he was given permission to independently teach the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, as well as to ordain people as priests or lay practitioners.

Since his ordination Burnett has been the spiritual director of Red Cedar Zen and very involved in all aspects of the community.

Burnett and a few friends in 1992 created what they then called the Bellingham Zen Practice Group, under Fischer’s guidance.

Fischer also is founder and leader of Everyday Zen Foundation in Oakland. He sometimes teaches at Seattle Soto Zen and Seattle Insight Meditation Society.

Red Cedar Zen Community now operates a beautiful zendo and garden in downtown Bellingham, with a full schedule of meditation, classes, and retreats. About 60 people are members.

The April and May ceremonies were complex and it was the first time that any of us, except Fischer, had seen it.

Olympia Zen Center’s Eido Frances Carney offering Burnett congratulations.

Olympia Zen Center’s Eido Frances Carney offering Burnett congratulations.

On Saturday members of the board and practice committee dined with Fischer, everyone sharing memories or qualities they appreciated about him. After dinner Fischer stepped down as guiding teacher of the community in a simple yet beautiful ceremony, which included heartfelt words of appreciation.

The following morning was the stepping up-portion of the two-hour Mountain Seat ceremony.

The ceremony began with a procession by Burnett and five attendants around the Red Cedar Dharma Hall. We stopped and made offerings of cedar at altars representing different aspects of the community.

At each place a member of the community requested Tim’s help with the practice represented by that area. These were the gate, garden, kitchen, office, library, foyer and a shrine created for the Buddhist ancestors in our particular lineage of Zen.

At the shrine of the ancestors Burnett said, “I’ve carried your teachings in my backpack, in a Ziploc bag, all of these years great grandfather Shogaku Shunryu, dai osho. And somehow this wandering life led all of us, together with you, to this moment and this place. Today I offer my beginner’s mind to you and humbly request your teachings. I don’t know how to do this role and probably that’s for the best. Please help me to unfold your dharma wisdom together with all beings who walk through these doors. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Eko Jeff Kelley offering congratulations.

Eko Jeff Kelley offering congratulations.

Finally we entered the Zendo, which was filled to capacity with friends, family, and Buddhist teachers from Bellingham, Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia, Vashon Island and the Bay Area.

In the ceremony that followed community members requested Burnett to teach. He then made offerings of cedar expressing gratitude to Fischer.

“This offering is for my root-heart teacher Zoketsu Rinsho Norman Fischer. It’s now been 30 years since a 21-year-old new Zen student and a 41-year-old new Zen teacher first sat together to explore this way of practice. In every one of those 30 years I have been deeply supported by this good fortune to practice and study with you. My gratitude can’t really be expressed, but the ceremony says I need to try.”

Red Cedar’s head cook (tenzo) Bob Rose preparing for the potluck celebration.

Red Cedar’s head cook (tenzo) Bob Rose preparing for the potluck celebration.

Members of the community then participated in Dharma Inquiry with Burnett, where they each asked him a personal question about their life and Zen practice and he replied spontaneously. Then members of the Red Cedar community and leaders of the other Buddhist communities offered congratulations to Burnett.

The feeling in the room was very warm and connected. People appreciated all Burnett’s years of practice and the friendship he had given them. They expressed excitement to be with him for this big moment in his practice.

Post-ceremony potluck celebration.

Post-ceremony potluck celebration.

After the ceremony concluded Burnett now wore a new Okesa, also called Buddha’s robe. In his new role he’s now guiding teacher of Bellingham’s Zen sangha, with full support from the local Bellingham community as well as from larger Northwest Zen community. It was a special day and we were glad to share it.

Red Cedar will maintain the practice opportunities we offer to the wider community, including community sits every Wednesday night, Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning. We also offer several weekend and three-day retreats in Bellingham.  As founding teacher Fischer will continue to teach twice yearly until he retires from teaching.

Every winter we offer a non-residential practice period. In June we offer our largest event, a week-long retreat called a sesshin, on Samish Island south of Bellingham. Fischer will continue to teach this retreat.

Red Cedar also offers a wilderness program every spring and summer. This includes Zen meditation hiking and outdoor retreats, ranging from an afternoon sit in an old-growth grove to day hikes, and to up to two weeks in the wilderness.