this bright world is yours to discover


Going Forth and Reaching Back

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment
Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

On May 11th, I formally took the eight precepts of an Anagarika in the Theravada tradition. Though I have been practicing eight precepts for some time now, wearing the white robes felt very light. It also made for a clear and appropriate transition from my black attire as a Zen priest. This step marked my intention to wholeheartedly take up the Theravada way, and during the ceremony I took dependence on Ayyas Santacitta and Anadabodhi as my teachers in this tradition. I can honestly and joyfully say that it is their commitment to demonstrating the path of practice of the early Buddhist teachings that enabled me to aspire to this practice myself.

Then, on Saturday, May 12th at Buddhi Vihara in Santa Clara, California, I went forth in the Theravada tradition, after many years of practice in the Soto Zen tradition. Going forth is an outward, conventional expression of an enigmatic evolution that is happening within. Having known the Ayyas for six years, and having visited Aloka Vihara a few times in the past, I came to live here in October of 2017. At that time, I was in search of a place where the practice would support turning inward, where practice would support a transformation of mind, heart, and body toward its natural clarity and peace. For me, the practice of monastic renunciation, the practice of Vinaya, is just such a support. It allows me to set down, again and again, those things that are unessential. It allows me to commit my entire life’s effort to the activity of being an instrument of Dhamma. And, it is like reaching back all the way to the beginning of the Zen lineage in which I was ordained 11 years ago, integrating the practice of the Original Teacher Gotama Buddha and the earliest disciples. I received the name “Dhammadīpā,” which means light or lamp or island of Dhamma.

The day of the Pabbajja was a shining example of blending like milk and water, as the more than eight sanghas that were involved joined together to make the day’s events both memorable and easeful. In particular, Ayya Sudinna, the Pavatinī (Preceptor) who came all the way from Carolina Buddhist Vihara in Greenville, South Carolina was so joyful. It was a day full of mudita (empathetic joy), not just for me, but also for Ayya Cittananda who received her bhikkhuni (higher) ordination. It seemed to me that everyone shared such heartfelt caring for each other. The beautiful sunny weather was reflected in our hearts, and the great generosity of the dana revealed how deeply sangha members are moved by the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. My heart is full of gratitude and joy for everyone who is playing some part in making it possible for nuns to go forth into this life. Anumodana! I rejoice in your good works!

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.




The Clearest Cut

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

One of the ways, though certainly not the only way, that Buddhist monastics are identified is by their shaved heads. It is a common sight in many Asian countries, and increasingly in the West as well. Some find it beautiful, others find it disturbing, and still others don't even notice it as they go about their busy day. No matter how one feels about it, though, a shaved head is a statement. What kind of statement is it, and what does it have to do with Buddhism?

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

Investigating the meaning of the act of shaving the head, I turned to the life story of Prince Siddhartha, the man who later became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. According to some of the earliest accounts of the Buddha's life, the then Prince cut his hair at the start of his journey in search of the resolution to the difficulties of life.

Siddhartha left the palace. It was midnight, and the prince was on his white horse Kanthaka with Channa, his faithful servant, holding on to its tail. He was going away to try to understand old age, sickness and death. He rode to the bank of a river and dismounted from his horse. He removed his jewelry and princely clothes and gave them to Channa to return to (his father) the King. Then the prince took his sword and cut his long hair, put on a monk's robes, took a begging bowl and told Channa to go back with Kanthaka to the palace. 
Source: Buddhanet.net

From this story it seems that Siddhartha saw his long hair as a symbol of his high social status, and he chose to cut it and change his clothes in order to make clear that he was renouncing that life. Then he went on to practice asceticism for six years, living on very little food and spending all of his time meditating. During that time, Siddhartha's hair must have grown long and matted, as is common for ascetic practitioners. Thus, there are also later stories of the Buddha's haircut by Upali, of his "giving the tonsure" to his disciples, and of many women, men and children shaving their heads prior to and as part of becoming ordained sangha. In this way, the Buddhist sangha was visibly different from the ascetics, Brahmins, lay folk, and royalty of that time. By shaving their heads, they became more identifiable as "Buddhists," though to be sure that term had not yet been used. 

It is traditional, even today, that shaving of the head is a key element in the ordination of Buddhist monks in most traditions. That said, due to the Meiji Restoration that took place in Japan in 1868, laws were passed enabling Buddhist monks to grow their hair and make other changes to their lifestyle and appearance. Thus, while the shaving of the head continues to be a traditional part of the ordination ceremony of Zen monks, they may grow their hair longer at some point afterward.

Still, it was an important question in the Buddha's time and in 19th Century Japan, and the question of religious identity is certainly one that was and is also of concern to Americans. In fact, this concern was important enough to be inscribed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There in the First Amendment, each person's right to practice their religious beliefs is expressly affirmed. So we are fortunate, even in this country where the practice of Buddhism is a relatively new phenomenon, to be able to wear the robes and the shaved head of the sangha. 

In the Soto Zen ordination ceremony as I have experienced it, the candidate's head is usually fully shaved the day before, except for a small patch near the crown of the head, called the "shura." During the ceremony, as it's performed at San Francisco Zen Center, the important and significance of shaving the head is described by the Preceptor, who also cuts off the shura:

Cutting off the hair is cutting the root of clinging. As soon as the root of clinging is cut, your original body appears. Changing into monastic robes now, and leaving worldly passions, you are free. Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.

Therefore, one should not view shaving the head as merely a choice of appearance. There is a deeper meaning that is being expressed, the Dharma of cutting the hair which is explicitly linked to the Dharma of renunciation. What is renounced is clinging to outward appearances, thus enabling the appearance of the original self, which is free. This Dharma was taught very explicitly by the Buddha himself, and it has been transmitted to us in these words from the Dhammapada, as translated by Gil Fronsdal:

Fool! What use is matted hair?
What use a deerskin robe?
The tangled jungle is within you
and you groom the outside!

In this verse I hear the Buddha suggesting that even the matted hair of an ascetic could be as much a status symbol as the long locks of a prince. So the Buddha exhorts the practitioner to turn inward and study the nature of self, rather than concern oneself with outward appearances. 

So shaving the head is renouncing both attention to, and inattention to the hair. It is simply a way of taking care of the hair without getting caught by it. Shaving the head, then, is a practice of neither aversion to, nor attachment to hair. One simply removes it so that it doesn't require any other care or become a mess. In this way, hair cannot become a focus of attention or divert energy from the practice. Shaving is acknowledging the body for what it is: a vehicle for our practice of renouncing the view of self in this very life. This is a lesson for everyone, not just those who are ordained. 

In speaking about the meaning of shaving the head, a good friend and fellow Zen monk quoted the Abbess of Mount Equity Zendo, a woman by the name of Dai-En Bennage. My friend said that Dai-En Roshi had mentioned that having our heads shaved makes it easier for people to find us. I would agree. As monastics, we vow to be visibly available to support all beings on the path of awakening. And I would add that having our heads shaved might make it easier for us to find our selves too.