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Not Sneaking Up On Zen

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

I have recently returned from a trip to Asia, where I completed a series of ceremonies that acknowledge my Zen Dharma Transmission. They are collectively called "Zuise" and they grant me various titles including Resident Head Priest (Jūshoku) and Teacher, Reverend, or Venerable (Oshō).  Practically speaking, this means that the Dharma Transmission I received in the United States with Shosan Gigen Victoria Austin is now also recorded in the official records of the Soto Zen Buddhist administrative body in Japan. I believe that there are only about 40 individuals in the US who have completed this practice, all of whom have trained with teachers who practiced in Japan, but not all of whom have actually practiced in Japan as I did. Even so, I am not particularly concerned about titles or about status within the American or Japanese systems. So why go? What does it mean?

Eiheiji crest

Eiheiji crest


Naturally, some have asked about the purpose of this trip, given that it is not necessary to have any certification in order to lead a Zen sangha or teach Zen in America, things I am already doing. There are many reasons and many implications. I hope to express some of them in my travel logs from the trip. My plan is to post to this blog about the trip over the course of several days.

To respond a bit to the question, I feel that, in a way, this process is following through on my initial ordination as a priest with Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot at Hosshinji in Obama, Japan. That ordination, which occurred in early 2007, and the three subsequent practice periods (ango) that I completed in Japan were all recorded in the official records at the time. That is, I had already received the standard basic training of a Zen priest as it is currently offered in the home of the tradition, and the guidance of a respected Zen Master. My early priest training included a wide range of practical matters, such as how to wear the robes properly, eat formal meals, and perform basic ceremonial functions. When returning from Japan in 2008, I continued my relationship with Vicki and followed through with further training here in America.

More importantly though, all of Soto Zen is the passing down of Eihei Dogen's style of Buddhist practice, his intimacy, vigor, and embodied expression. In my years in Japan I had never visited the Head Temples of Soto Zen, preferring instead to travel directly to my home temple. Still, my life is dedicated to the way of practice that was developed by these men, Dogen and Keizan. By visiting their temples, I sensed so much more about them and what they deemed important enough to pass on. And I reflected upon myself as an instrument of that Dharma and as a teacher leaving a legacy. What is this ancient Way, and what will it become? Since American Zen is less than 70 years old we, its practitioners, will have a strong influence on the direction it will take. I hope that we can do so thoughtfully, informed by the depth and breadth of our teachers.

Sojiji crest

Sojiji crest


June 11, 2017

At LaGuardia airport, as I was leaving New York, the TSA staffer was going to sort through my bag, to look for something that shouldn't be there. I was carrying my breakfast in a paper bag. As I was standing in the area awaiting my bag's review, there was a Japanese couple undergoing the same process. They had a yogurt with them that might have to be thrown away. They seemed to be having trouble understanding what the TSA staffer was trying to tell them, so I added a bit of my broken Japanese to help make it clear. They were grateful. Seeing their situation, I realized that it was the yogurt in my breakfast that was likely to be the problem too.

It was a different person who was going to review my bag, so I mentioned to him that I thought it might be the yogurt. The young man agreed that as probably the issue. He explained that I could go back out of the TSA area and eat the yogurt, or he could throw it away. I said that I'd prefer not to have to go through the line again, and would be okay with losing the yogurt. It was then that things turned.

The TSA staffer inspected it to make sure that it was sealed and then seemed to pause, not putting it directly into the trash. He seemed to hesitate. I watched silently, without moving to take my things, and then saw him gently tuck the yogurt back into the paper bag and start to turn away. I quietly thanked him and slowly picked up my things to go. It seemed that he felt enough kindness to tuck the yogurt back into my breakfast bag, rather than confiscate it. This created a tickle of joy, hopefully for both of us. Maybe this happened because I initiated with a "good morning?" I don't know, but it was pleasant to think about sneaky compassion as I boarded the plane. 

June 12

Upon arriving at Narita airport, I was approached by a group of people from a Japanese television station. I guess I wasn't sneaking compassion into Japan after all; it was going to be plainly visible. They were doing "man on the street" interviews, or in my case American nun on the street. The journalist asked all sorts of questions about how I came to be practicing in Japan, and ended by asking for my teaching in a nutshell. Saying one word, on camera, before even leaving the airport, I guess it is all in a day's practice.

He seemed not to know anything about Zen Buddhism, and he was more interested in the places that I would be visiting. At the end of the interview, though, he admitted to feeling anxiety about approaching people to interview. He asked what to do about this. I spoke about checking in with the body and returning to an acceptance of whatever might be there. The reporter nodded his head, as though it made sense.

June 13

The grey sky is now clearing in Yokohama, and I am having a leisurely breakfast before the plunge into Sojiji. The brightly lit restaurant, with its low stools and straight counter, runs on the basis of meal tickets. The machine is impatient. Because I take a little extra time to look at the images and try to guess at the food that is offered, it keeps reverting back to the lock screen, asking me to start over again and again. Typical. On the third try I am finally able to buy a ticket. All the while a man at the counter has been watching and making understanding noises, and he is happy to see that I have managed to purchase the ticket. I sit down one seat over from him and we smile at each other. Later, I ask him to take my picture and, finally, he waves and smiles again before leaving to catch his train.

The sign says "Daihonzan Sojiji"

The sign says "Daihonzan Sojiji"

The monastery sits just behind the train station, out the window of my hotel room, a crouching dragon in the city. It was rebuilt here after a fire tore into the original location in Ishikawa on the Noto peninsula. There are remains of the first Sojiji there, and the area is said to be beautiful. I don't know, having never been there. The new Sojiji, built in the late 1800s, is massive but it is tucked among the streets and buildings of the bustling sea port of Yokohama. Even from the street entrance there is little hint of the swooping roofs and the stalwart gate. Riding this dragon is sure to be interesting.