Monday, January 20, 2014

Filling the Well With Snow

You've heard of some practitioners who take the Buddha's phrase "Be a light unto yourself" and run 10,000 miles to books and various states of mind, rejecting forms, rejecting teachers. I've also heard that phrase of the Buddha translated as "strive diligently." I'm going to run with that.

I've been training with my teacher Ejun Linda Ruth for about 2 years now. I think we've been training closely- I've served as her Anja for the last year. That means I make her tea every morning and I clean her bowls. I'll be leaving that job in February and I'll become her Jisha. That means I'll meet her every morning outside her house and follow her with incense as she "opens" the temple by offering at all of our alters. And I feel blessed to have been Anja- so many quiet conversations over cold mornings, so many laughs, and stretches of somber silence as we waited for Abbot Steve to pass. She'd come in sometimes and say, "You look subdued." and I'd say, "I'm sick." She'd say "Go back to bed." and often I'd say "Can't, it's a harvest day." or I would just sneak away to sleep. Some days she'd come in and drink her tea quickly and say, "Off we go to the old Zendo!"

 And I feel honored to be invited to be Jisha- completely fulfilled! I've always wanted to be "close." I always want to stay close. I'll be there, handing her incense, in front of the main alter.

But then one day I wanted to decline, I wanted to back out of my commitment. And it was pretty simple to see through; fear of intimacy, fear of rejection. In dokusan, she asked me, what is that you really want, and with some frustration, some anger, I said I wanted to sew an o'kesa already. She was silent; I'd asked her before to sew the robe of ordination. She'd heard a charged insistent tone in my voice, and took pause, and called me out on it.

I just cried, of course. This path to priesthood is nebulous and long. I first requested priest ordination in 2008, 3 teachers ago. I entered practice 11 years ago. I have no savings, I have no house, no car, and no exit plan. The gravity can be gripping. But she saw me only like my mother, sister, and wife has seen me- my voice dripping with greed, hate, and delusion, as I sort of demanded to be allowed to sew.

As I wept, my eyes clouded, and I couldn't see her so well. All I remember hearing her say was, "Kogen, you don't have to prove anything to me. I know you want to walk the path of the priest." She also added that she'd like me to stay at Tassajara for at least 3 practice periods. Well, actually, she said she wanted me to stay until I was on Doanryo, so that could be up to 4 or 5 practice periods.

Which means ordination is at least 2 years away, if not more. And who knows what happens between then and now? I can feel my heart searching for an abode.

  I used my break time to sew a new setsu tip for her bowls. I turned into a mass of doubt; why, why, why am I doing this? What is a teacher and what am I being taught?

Then, just 2 hours later, Tenshin Roshi, my teacher's teacher, taught a class that started like this:

One day, Ananda bowed before Shakyamuni Buddha, paying respects before taking his seat next to him. After a few hours of sitting, Ananda said,

"Admirable friendship, admirable camaraderie is half the holy life."

"Don't say that, Ananda! Don't Say that!" the Buddha scolded.

Kalyanamittata is the practice of the perfection of wisdom through meeting beneficial friends along the path. Tenshin Roshi told the story of how Suzuki Roshi sent him to Tassajara to learn how to chant. He really didn't want to go. He wanted to stay with Roshi. But he had to. So, he went and learned how to chant just like the old Japanese monk who was transmitting that skill. When he returned, Suzuki roshi heard him do it perfectly and said, "But that's how an old country monk from Japan chants- I want to hear how a young American monk will chant." Tenshin Roshi couldn't believe his ears and wanted out of that dokusan room! But Suzuki roshi had all the time in the world to keep correcting his intonation.

I'd heard of filling the well with snow as analogous to our path of practice, our path of no goal, our path of paradox. How could it be that I express that I want to ordain with my teacher and she'll send me away for up to two years? I don't care if it's tradition! It's ridiculous. What could the walls of Tassajara teach that our fields, our old barn Zendo can't? But it is tradition and it's way older than Zen Center. Possibly older than Zen.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the young boy Suddana visits 53 teachers, sent from one teacher to the next. He's looking to practice the Bodhisattva path and has his heart and mind set to it. He meets some teachers and loves them, joyfully accepting their directions. But sometimes their directions send them toward scary teachers of ill repute. However, he summons the courage to move toward them, relying on trust that his previous teacher wouldn't do him wrong.

And that's where I am today. I'm full of doubt, but actually not lacking in faith. I do trust Ejun Roshi; I do trust our temple; I do trust that even if I'm wrong, I'm okay, that this is more about meeting than who is meeting. In the mean time, why does chanting feel so good? Why does doing prostrations seem to warm me up? I don't know, but I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the camaraderie in the green dragon cave as we sit in the dark murky depths of consciousness.

So, the Buddha said:

"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that! Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life."


  1. No disrespect intended, but my mother once gave me very good advice about a Zen practice she admired but didn't adore. She said simply, "Don't get too holy by next Thursday."

    She wasn't wrong.

    1. What did she mean? What do you mean?

    2. actually now I think of it, you approach zen like a writer ! always writing a script !


      real !


    3. basically she is saying that holiness is not something relating to time !





      nonsense ! :o()

  2. that's a good post, at least one can see what you think !

    a returning circle always returning to the same point !

    why is that?

  3. You're so lucky. It's so hard out here, not in actual contact with a teacher, making my own decisions minute after minute.
    Faith is somewhat the opposite of arrogance, isn't it?

    1. or is faith exactly the same as arrogance !? the self assured ignorant who will not look for fear their view of the world is distorted !?

  4. Rough life.

    Good Luck!

    Think Genkaku's mother was correct but too patient.

    Were / Are traditional Japanese monastic trainings so vague? I doubt it. Westerner's are still too easily conned.