Joe Tennis and students archive Buddhist monastery material

Shortly after 5 a.m. each day in July, Joe Tennis and students in his Information School graduate research seminar spent 40 minutes in Zen meditation. It was part of their schedule as archivists at the San Francisco Zen Center.

In the course of a day, they might handle rare books and manuscripts or brooms and dust mops -- but their goal was to be mindful.

Tennis, an assistant professor, and the six students, who are in the Master of Library and Information Science program, focused much of their work on material associated with Shunryu Suzuki, who in the 1960s invigorated Zen Buddhism in America, particularly in the Bay area.

The Zen Center material provided students and their teacher hands-on experience. "Information science is usually theoretical, so I like to show the practical side, and the Suzuki library is huge and diverse -- art, audio tapes, diaries, correspondence, lecture notes, personal letters and 500 books," Tennis said.

The archive project, now in its second year, is particularly large because the center is almost 50 years old, and there's much to be sorted. Along with the Suzuki material, the collection also includes notes on the Japanese tea ceremony written by Suzuki's wife, Mitsu Suzuki, as well as antique Buddhist robes and even recordings of beat poet Alan Ginsberg, a practicing Buddhist, giving a talk at the center.

"We need Joe and his students to help us understand our attic -- and it's spread over three campuses. Everything from the sacred to the mundane," said Valorie Beer, secretary of the Zen Center and a resident priest. Beer said the UW crew is needed because the center would like to show off its best things for its 50th anniversary next year, but nobody there has archival skills.They also fit in. "We love having them," Beer said.

The feeling seems mutual. "We want to be as much a part of the Zen Center community as possible," Tennis said. "When you go into the field, you learn by living," This past summer, he and his students often worked in the dokusan, the small room where Suzuki conducted private interviews with students of Buddhism. Tennis and his students sat on the floor, working at small, low tables.

A key idea was to make work much like meditation, focusing on only one task at a time and speaking only when necessary. "Zen practice encourages us to incorporate mindfulness in everyday life," Tennis said. "We tried to take mindfulness from the meditation cushion into our practice as librarians and archivists."

They worked from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every weekday, and from 1:30 to 3 p.m. three days a week. Two afternoons each week were spent in class, where study included archival practice and the basic ideas of Buddhism.

In October 2010, Tennis formally converted to Buddhism by taking lay ordination vows. As part of the ceremony, he was given a new name, Jusho Hoshi. Beer calls him "a bodhisattva," one who goes about doing good.

As part of course requirements, Tennis required each student to write a multi-page reflection on the Zen Center experience.

"I studied to the point where I experienced a general house cleaning of the mind," wrote Andrew Brink, one of the students. Daily routine, he said, transformed ordinary practices such as eating supper and going to bed "into unfamiliar, mysterious and bright occurrences."

Another student, Erin Briggs, wrote that the focus and pace of each day helped calm her anxieties about matters she could not control. Attention to small matters taught her a key word in archival practice: respect. "Making sure to hold the spine of a fragile book correctly, placing a book back on the shelf without harming its dust jacket or the adjacent books, maintaining original order -- all these tasks were surprisingly taxing," she wrote in her paper.

Tennis and the students also noted a paradox: As experts, they organized an archive. Yet to perform expertly, they approached the work as beginners, people who needed to learn a great deal. "When you're a student of Zen, you're not supposed to have an expert mind; yet professors are supposed to be experts, and so are their graduate students," Tennis said.

It means, he explained, that professors and students have to continually start over -- begin again.

In October, Tennis returned to the Zen Center to plan for next summer. The work will include digitization that will improve the center's online presence.