Reading the teachings of Buddhism, one encounters a lot of discussion about the nature of a human being, of a human life. It has been viewed from various perspectives, described according to various systems and frameworks, and explored in meditation and in the daily lives of millions of practitioners. Some say it's pure. Others say it's impure. Here’s how I practice with it.
A human life is a precious thing because it is so fleeting. It is the coming together of countless conditions, acted upon by the energetic principals of impermanence, karma, and dependent co-arising. Each moment is a unique transformation into one particular state of these conditions and energies, as they harmoniously arrive at resolution, at completion. Having come together, the state of the universe, and a human being within it, is so momentary that there is no way to pin it down. There is nothing that can been seen as wrong or right, pure or impure, about this state because it includes everything as mere instantaneous phenomena. It holds all things as mere conditions relating to other conditions in a flux of transformation. This is one way to express the ultimate or absolute perspective of a human life.
However, simply saying such a thing is like a painted rice cake. It doesn't satisfy our hunger. It doesn't satisfy our thirst. For that reason, the historical Buddha got up from the seat of enlightenment and spent the remainder of his life explaining that one can only find one's peace with life by seeing its principles all the way to the bottom. He gave teachings from both the absolute and relative (or subjective) perspectives. He said that "tanha" or "thirst" is the reason for fundamental pervasive dissatisfaction or "dukkha." And he taught that meditation and an ethical life are necessary to have a firsthand experience of how and why this is so. Having seen it and experienced it clearly for oneself, one is no longer willing to engage in a life that creates dissatisfaction and is dominated by thirst.
From then on to the present day, sincere practitioners have received the Buddha's teachings and expressed them in fresh ways, extrapolated from them, or sometimes focused on just one aspect with great vigor. Some had profound revelatory insights and wrote breathtaking new teachings. Some walked the path adhering as closely as possible to the Buddha's own, as they understood it. Some shared the teachings of Buddhism with new cultures and countries, bringing forth those unique expressions. I don't subscribe to Buddhist elitism, claiming one form of the teachings to be the only valid form. That kind of thinking abounds, but I believe it fails to capture the incredible diversity and richness of human experience.
That said, I deeply agree with the Buddha's teachings to the Kalamas that the teachings must be lived in order to be effective, or even to be assessed for their effectiveness. And the Buddha gave us an incredible variety of tools with which to investigate the nature of mind, body, and human experience. Lately, I have been exploring many more of these early teachings, and living at a monastery where women train to put them into practice. As many of you know, for the past six months I have been in residence at Aloka Vihara, a monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition in the West. I came here for many reasons, one of which is to fulfill a yearning that I have had for years to live only with other women practitioners.
Reflecting on my experience here, I notice shifts in meditative experience. I notice the way that the body responds with more relaxation and clarity. I notice that my life feels different than it did at other monasteries and practice centers. That it is different and quieter than, say, an urban center is to be expected.
However, something unexpected happened to me during the extended period of silent practice that is called the Winter Retreat. As with each of the monastics, within the three months of silent Winter Retreat I had the opportunity to sit a "solo" retreat for three weeks. This meant that I lived in the forest, in rustic accommodations called a "kuti," focused exclusively on practice, with no contact with the community other than to see each other in passing once or twice per day. This is a new form of practice for me. Solo retreats are not done in Zen, a tradition that has been my path since I began practicing many years ago.
I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.
There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.
Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.
The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.
All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...
"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...." AN11.2
Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.
Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility. In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.
Given this confidence and many other experiences over the past six months, I have decided to continue on the path of Theravada practice. I want to go forth as an ordained Buddhist nun in this tradition. I have found that the supports I need to walk the path of practice are right here at Aloka Vihara, in the place, the schedule, the people, and the forms. This ordination will be in addition to my precept vows in the Zen tradition, as is typical for Chinese Chan and many other Buddhist lineages.
So I have asked to stay for the long-term and the two nuns who are the founders here, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, have been gracious enough to open the door and welcome me. They will be my Theravada practice teachers, and Ayya Sudinna from South Carolina Buddhist Vihara is kind enough to be the “pavattini” or preceptor. That is, she is the nun presiding over the ordination because she has the requisite years of seniority and a generous heart. Typically, there are two one year periods of commitment to training as a novice 10 precept nun, and then one two year commitment of training as a bhikkhuni (a fully ordained Buddhist nun), should one chose to take up the 311 training precepts in full. The 10 ethical and renunciate precepts I will take up as training rules when I go forth on this path at "pabbaja" are:
1. I refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
2. I refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
4. I refrain from false and harmful speech.
5. I refrain from consuming intoxicants.
6. I refrain from eating at an inappropriate time (between midday and dawn).
7. I refrain from dancing, singing, music, and going to shows.
8. I refrain from beautification and adornment.
9. I refrain from lying on a high or luxurious bed.
10. I refrain from handling money.
The key difference between these precepts and the eight I am currently keeping here at the Vihara is giving up the personal use of money. It means that I become totally reliant on the relationship of mutual support, as the Buddha set it up. And I promise to live so that relationship is communicated through my commitment and my robes. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved in this relationship is learning to let go in a variety of ways.
There will be more to write about the precepts as training rules, and the intentions and practices related to each of these. For now, look for an ordination announcement to come soon.
With gratitude to the Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, to Mahatheri Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, and to my Teacher in the Zen tradition, Ven. Shosan Victoria Austin, and all the skillful Buddhist teachers with whom I have had the good karma to practice, a lifetime of deep bows of appreciation!
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.
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?
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.
For me, nothing can compare with the joy of seeing someone commit to a life of Dharma, a life of exploring how wisdom and compassion can come into the world through oneself. It's a happy, moving occasion and one that is a milestone for the practitioner.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of offering the Buddha's robe and the bodhisattva precepts to my student Dana Elliott, whose long years of dedication to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha have now led her to jukai, the lay bodhisattva initiation ceremony. I am very glad to be Dana's preceptor. Having spent the past year studying the precepts and sewing the rakusu together, we'll now take another year to explore what it means to put the precepts into practice. May all beings benefit!
Yesterday was the culmination of months of study and sewing, practice discussion and personal exploration by Deborah Silver. She received her new Dharma name and Buddha's robe in a ceremony called "jukai." It's a joyful event for her, and for me, and the entire sangha.
Deborah's new name is 切 炎 眼 珠 Setsuen Genju, which means Sharp Flame Jewel Eyes.
Of the ceremony someone once said, "It feels very big. Things are the same, and not the same." Indeed.
Today was a very joyful day for Ekan Zen Study Center sangha! Paula Borsody, a sangha member and Board member of Empty Hand ZC, took the 16 bodhisattva vows today. By doing so, she sets off on the bodhisattva path, receiving Buddha's robe, a new name, and publicly affirming her commitment to the refuges and the precepts of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. Paula's new name is 琢 園 明声 Takuen Meisho, which means Refined Garden Clear Voice.
It was a particularly tender moment when she was moved to tears by the chant, "Oh Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas, please concentrate your hearts on me..." As the Guiding Teacher conferring the precepts, I have to say that this is one of the best parts of my role, supporting students to commit to a lifelong path of bodhisattva practice. May her joy and sincerity of practice continue endlessly. Congratulations Paula!