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The Transformation of Ceremony

Ordination Day

I want to say something about the transformational aspect of a ceremony. Like wine to blood, from person to priest, practice enlightenment as transmogrification. Like cucumbers to pickles, surprise! 

I underestimated the ceremony. After pursuing ordination for nine years I had visualized it into nothing. Having junior monks pass me by, then disrobe, then put the robe back on before I even got to wear it once lent a sobering perspective. Imagination dispensed. I sat and stitched and lived practice in a way where oryoki wasn't a treat, Zazen wasn't something I could talk about, and robes started to have gravity- they were not without weight. 

And I think that's the first element of my ceremony: a period of discernment and someone to discern with. In the case of ordination, my teacher, our tanto, and other priests served as mirrors and sounding boards for these two questions: Why do I want to be a priest and what is a priest? It was about as clear as wine transmogrifying into blood. A good ol' fashion unofficial koan. 

The time passed. Nine years from my jukai sometimes felt like twenty years and sometimes felt like three months. Zen temples have an interesting way of keeping time- wooden blocks count minutes, days off are on "four" and "nine" days. I don't know if this is  zen skillful or  zen medieval, but for me it's skillful. This diversion from clocks and calendars help the retreat sink in. 

Retreat was the second element of the ceremony. For me it was a retreat within a retreat- I left Tassajara to go to Green Gulch. But it was effective because it gave me a new sense of space. I was given a guest room, and after three years of absence, I didn't really know many of the students at Green Gulch anymore. Silence came easy. And I was surprised by how new I felt- I forgot about my history at Green Gulch, I forgot about Tassajara. There's a certain intimacy in feeling new. While you're being asked "who are you?" you're also asking yourself "who am I?" 

And I think intimacy comes from being witnessed, and that was the third element of my ordination. I bowed to my family during the ceremony. My head was shaved by my dharma brother who has nurtured me for years*. My teacher and I locked eyes as I recited my vows- about 8 minutes worth of memorization. She helped me when I stumbled. Senior priests helped me tie my okesa on as I floundered in a sea of black fabric. Intimacy also became an invitation- two of the guests shared grievances, personal ones, that they had with me. This is what I asked for by becoming a priest, and it started right away. 

Ceremony is cathartic, and  I believe, like Dogen says In the Circle of The Way, you're first step is also your arrival. It's popular to say ceremonies are for who you already are. That's true, but this one was a threshold for me. It reminded me of becoming a father- after catching our baby girl an enormous amount of energy became available. After ordination, wearing the symbol of the Buddha and being accountable, I found the capacity to listen and the courage to be vulnerable. 

I'd like to repeat that I underestimated this day. I had been living like a priest for so long, I memorized the lines, I couldn't imagine what would really change. People would ask me, so what will change after ordination, and since I can't give talks or see students until I've been shuso (maybe about 5 yrs from now? It's not really guaranteed) I didn't have a great answer. I go to priest meetings and trainings, I shave my head with a razor every four days, and I have a lot of fabric to manage (it's like trying to make your bed while you're still sleeping in it). But something did change. 

What changed? I don't know yet. But for those of you who have become mothers or fathers, it feels similar to that shift. Suddenly the world is less about you and even though you have more responsibility, you also feel more relaxed because you have less of an agenda. The agenda didn't drop mentally, but it dropped because there was no room for it- you pick up the Buddha's robe and you have to put down whatever you were carrying. You only have two hands.

I feel like a good bridge, long engineered and quiet and strong. People don't really need you, they could find another way around, but it's nice you're there. It's scenic, too. And it will require maintenance. 

*The teacher, as shown in the picture, shaves the shura-a spot of hair. A senior priest usually shaves the head of the ordinand in a ceremony in front of the alter. I chanted and he shaved my head. He's also Sicilian, which is helpful because we both have thick, stubborn hair! 


  1. Oh Sweetheart, that's exactly how I feel - I am so happy for you! Even though it has been a long time ago, I feel part of your (and Lauren's) journey, and yes, it's very much like parenthood. You hear a lot about it, but once it's happening for you, it's totally different.

    I remember you asked as guest student why we do those ceremonies, and I tried to answer truthfully from my own experience, and I think you got it!

    1. I remember! I think I was a little skeptical, but now feel in accord. Thank you for the book!


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