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The 11th Year of Not Knowing

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment
Zen ordination photo 2007 03 22.jpg

The above photo was taken in a small fishing town in Japan called Obama, at a training monastery known as Hosshinji. It was taken on this day in 2007. It is a photo of my ordination into the Zen priesthood, the day on which I became a nun after some 20 years of lay Zen practice. I can hardly believe that it has been 11 years since that day.

The teacher in the huge, fancy hat is Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot of Hosshinji and a well respected, high ranking member of the Soto Zen establishment in Japan. I knew nothing about any of that, however. At that time, I only knew that I had met a person whose practice was so deep and so vast that it changed my life. His practice and teaching gave the Dharma a whole new dimension. As I said to my Zen friends in the US after my first five day sitting (sesshin) with Roshi, it was like realizing that my practice had been exploring the four corners of the earth for many years, but now I had been shot off in a rocket. I was exploring something much greater. The vastness was daunting and inspiring all at once. Practice with Harada Roshi surprised me in many ways.

Perhaps more importantly, I saw in Roshi's practice the reality that it is possible to awaken to the inner meaning of the Dharma, to the true nature of all being. Over the course of a very short period of time, the Dharma went from theories and concepts to a lived activity framed by the inquiry, "What is this moment?"

So what does it mean to be ordained into Soto Zen, particularly when lay practitioners and priests all take the same 16 bodhisattva precepts? When asked by Sojun Mel Weitsman the meaning of being a Zen priest, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi of San Francisco Zen Center famously replied, "I don't know," a reply echoed by his then assistant Katagiri Sensei, who later become the Roshi at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. I understand this reply to be an elegant pointer toward the basic paradox of Zen - the mind and heart of abiding in and responsiveness in the moment, and the timelessness of a practice that points to the personal discovery of suchness. In later writings about the meaning of priesthood, Sojun Roshi would point to "...the fundamental intuitive quality that is the basis of our practice." Yes, being a Zen priest is a life committed to "don't know" mind.

Sekkei Harada Roshi too would exhort us, the Hosshinji residents, "You are not from families that expected you to become a Zen priest. Why did you ordain? Don't forget the reason." The reason was to be fully immersed in a life of waking up.

And in the course of waking up every day to the world of suffering and freedom, there are many aspects to being a Zen priest. In large part, we are role models, whether we know it or not. We are a visible example of the path of committed practice. We model sitting, model ceremonies, model wisdom and compassion, model ethics, model humility, model friendliness and inclusiveness, and so much more.  Of course, sometimes we also model making mistakes and finding ways to correct them or atone for them. This too is the very public practice of a priest. Once, when I told Zenkei Blanche Hartman Roshi that I was planning to sit more often in my room in the evenings, she said, "Don't be so selfish. If you're going to sit, do it in the zendo." Sharing our practice with others, being an upstanding role model for their practice, is an important part of being a Zen priest.

Many expressions of Zen priest - Zenju Manuel, Shosan Austin, Konin Cardenas, Kiku Lehnherr, Josho Phelan, Keiryu Shutt

Many expressions of Zen priest - Zenju Manuel, Shosan Austin, Konin Cardenas, Kiku Lehnherr, Josho Phelan, Keiryu Shutt

Because we have this commitment to living fully in the Dharma and to being a role model, priests also take on the responsibility of serving the sangha. Like being a role model, being of service takes many forms, from the mundane tasks like cleaning toilets and cooking, to the most exalted functions like leading complex ceremonies or teaching from the platform. Often we are of the greatest service to our sangha when sitting quietly over a cup of tea, listening to the heartfelt to and fro of a human life. Shosan Victoria Austin has been my Teacher for 13 years, and it is her practice of service to sangha that inspired me to become a resident at San Francisco Zen Center, and to continue as a priest when I returned from Japan. To be of service is to embrace the fullness of a human life, and without Shosan's shining example, I don't know whether I would have ever found the generosity in my heart.

These days, the big questions for me as a priest are about how to best serve the sangha and the tradition. How can the practice of Zen be true to its full lineage, all the way back to the historical Buddha? How does one maintain the quite specific forms and teachings of this tradition, and pass them to future generations in ways that are suited to this culture and time? How does one do this delicate, intimate dance of practice together with people with all sorts of expectations and life experiences, and still show them the beauty of a way they have never imagined?

The life of this priest has been incredibly varied, and there have been times when the vow of service loomed large. One example is the time that I was in the hospital offering spiritual care on Ash Wednesday. I'd spoken to my supervisors quite a bit about the ritual of offering ashes on the forehead, its meaning, and whether I could actually do such a thing. Then one of my peers, an Episcopalian priest, shared the meaning to which he felt closest.  He said that Ash Wednesday is about the circle of life and the inevitability of death - ashes to ashes. This was something I could get behind. Still, I secretly hoped that I would not be called upon to do this little ceremony.

The day flew by, and I was about to settle in for the night, when my pager went off. I was asked to visit the acute care floor to offer the ashes to someone who had been asleep all day and missed the floor chaplain. I prepared myself on the way, recalling the words, the ceremony, and what I might say to the patient about its import. As usual, when I arrived at the unit, I asked to see the patient's chart. To my consternation, the patient was a man with whom I had had a difficult interaction just days before. He was a large, older gentleman with debilitating, chronic back pain. When he arrived at my regular unit, I had gone to his room to introduce myself but, seeing my shaved head and Zen clothes, he dismissed me at the doorstep with a roar. Now I was the only person in the hospital who could give him what he wanted. Would he still want the ashes? Would I give them to him? 

A photo from my hospital chaplaincy days

A photo from my hospital chaplaincy days

I entered the room quietly, checking to see whether he was awake. It was fairly dark, but I could make out his face as he lay in bed. He turned and saw me, and gently acknowledged his recognition of me from the day of his arrival. I asked whether he wanted to received the ash ritual. He said he did. I placed the ashes on his forehead, in the shape of the cross, speaking the words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." At that point I expected him to ask me to leave but, instead, he asked me to stay. In the softest of voices we spoke for some time of the wonder of life, encounters with people and things that are unexpected, and the beauty and mystery of simply being a human being. This man's don't know mind was so present and so gentle. I was deeply moved. A Zen priest never knows where don't know mind will appear.

So how does the ancient way become embodied in me and in the sangha, honoring the uniqueness of each person, while engaging the one who can see the emptiness of body and mind? These are the questions of a Zen priest in 21st century America. The answers? Well, I don't know, and I vow to continue not knowing so that, step by step, we practice together and discover the way in each moment.

 

 

 

To Live and Be Lived

Service & EngagementGuiding Teacher2 Comments

Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.

This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one's motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:

The three refuges

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

The three pure precepts

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do all that is good.

I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

The 10 grave precepts

I vow not to kill.

I vow not to take what is not given.

I vow not to misuse sexuality.

I vow to refrain from false speech.

I vow to refrain from intoxicants.

I vow not to slander.

I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.

I vow not to be avaricious.

I vow not to harbor ill will.

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

For today, I'd like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it's not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to "live and be lived for the benefit of all beings." This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone's welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.

One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague's patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.

When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.

At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked "why here?" I replied, "I'm just here to bring you blessings." "Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!" She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman's room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn't have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.

This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn't see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.

As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as "Refraining from Unwholesome Action,"

...one moves from the aspiration for "refraining from unwholesome action" toward the practice of "refraining from unwholesome action." As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one's practice suddenly appears fully.

What is the power of one's practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That's a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.

 

The Wisdom of Chaplaincy

Study & Arts, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend the day with a group of women who were offering a daylong Introduction to Buddhist Chaplaincy. It was a day full of heartfelt sharing, both by those interested in exploring the possibilities of this work, and those of us who were giving the introduction. My friend and fellow chaplain Eric Nefstead also came by to share his wit and wisdom around the path to professional chaplaincy work. 

During the panel on "A Day in the Life of a Chaplain," I spoke a bit about how I became interested in chaplaincy. For me, the work of being by the side of people who are in need of a spiritual friend and guide is one which arises from Zen practice. It is zazen off the cushion. Just as in zazen, I bring an intention to be present with whatever is, to have some curiosity about it, and to hold it with compassion. I also bring the intention not to provide pat solutions, but to ask the questions which help illuminate the path.

 

Daylong Leaders far left and far right: Revs. Jennifer Block and Daijaku Kinst. Panelists from second to the left: Rev. Konin Cardenas, Dawn Neal, and Rev. Jennifer Lemus.

This work is intimate and valuable as a practice of its own.  Chaplaincy, and in fact any work in which you place yourself at the service of another, shows you your growing edges, your limitations. It reflects back to you all of the aspects of birth, illness, old age, and death that you haven't yet come to terms with. What a helpful way to encounter the four messengers again and again.

Yesterday, I also noticed how the discussion turned to commitment and engagement in practice after the three "day in the life" panelists spoke. It was as if the people in the room were able to turn back to their own intention and show up for themselves by hearing how we'd also shown up for ourselves. For me it is the beauty of sangha, the community of practitioners. Today, I bow to my fellow presenters, and to those in attendance for our efforts to be of benefit to all beings.