Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A year later

One thing to note is that the anniversary of my ordination was January 7, so I've survived my first year of training. In fact, I have thrived. I'm loving what I'm doing.

The holidays have seen a fair amount of socializing with old friends (one I hadn't seen in well over a decade -- how does this happen?). Haven't done a lot of socializing in the last couple of years, and in any case have never been a party person, but it's nice to touch base with people I've known for a long time.

January has been, as I predicted, full of meetings with everyone gearing back up. I find I'm much happier now that we are back with a full schedule. I seem to prefer activity to inactivity. Sitting meditation is another matter -- that sort of stillness is almost always welcome. And I suppose my mind is often still active, even though it's not technically supposed to be. Still, there's an intention, a focus to meditation that isn't there with just veging out. My tolerance for the latter is limited, while I enjoy the former quite a bit, at least most of the time.

One thing I was hoping to do when I started keeping a record of what I'm doing was to document my training process. I feel like I have failed in that, though I've certainly tried. People still ask me what kind of training I'm doing, and I still find it difficult to answer exactly. However, I haven't talked about New Year's Eve, and maybe that will illustrate at least one aspect of it.

I love how we do New Year's Eve here. We do a vegetarian potluck, sacred dancing (which I haven't been able to join much in the last few years because I'm involved in dinner cleanup during that time), then a repentance and renewal of vows ceremony, then meditation, and finally right around midnight the priests serve sparkling cider in a formal tea ceremony style.

This year, 3 of the 4 teachers (abbots) who ordinarily do the serving were pretty sick. Our abbots, Kyogen and Gyokuko, took turns attending various parts of the evening so they could rest. I got called on to "direct traffic" during the Fusatsu ceremony, where we each burn slips of paper with things we've written that we are ready to let go of for the new year. That was fine. Right at the beginning of that ceremony, I got tapped on the shoulder and went downstairs to lead the processional in, striking the inkin at regular intervals. Fortunately, I do know how to do this (having done it before), so that was fine too.

Finally, I was one of the 4 novice priests who stepped up to serve sparking cider in lieu of the teachers. I was honored to be able to do this, as I've always found this the sweetest part of the evening. The first year I attended this event, back in 1999, I was really struck by how wonderful it was to have this silent, formal ceremony going on while there was all the noise outside. The way it works is that a priest goes to each person in turn, bows, kneels in front of them, and there is a series of bows, pouring tea, handing the cup, bowing, taking it back, standing up, bowing again, and moving to the next person. There's something really wonderful about the monks serving the community in this way. After everyone else was served, we 4 novices (two from Dharma Rain and two from Great Vow Zen Monastery) served the 4 teachers sitting up front, and then they served us.

Even though I've never filled this particular role before, I found it fine to do it, and enjoyed it (only slightly nervous that I would mess it up). And I guess that's what I'm getting at -- there are increasingly times when I'm participating in services and am not terrified that I'll mess up. More times when I do know what to do, and can just go forward and fill whatever role I'm called on for, even at the last minute with no warning. And so, one aspect of this training is what is often called "priestcraft," which to me has to do with filling ceremonial functions of various sorts. I haven't been trained in all of it yet, but gradually over the next four years, I will probably learn most of it. And part of it is also that willingness simply to fill whatever role is assigned and move gracefully in and out of them. I do that more or less well these days, and it is getting a little easier all the time.

There is a document that may be adopted this week by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association at their board meeting that attempts to set forth what priest training should include. We had a copy of it to look over at Jikoji on the training Ango I went on in October. It was interesting. I found myself going down the checklist and thinking, okay, got that one down. Ooh, that one needs work. So in that sense, it is a way to show at least some of what the training is about. Of course, it won't be adopted as a blueprint by all the Soto Zen centers in the US, and each individual teacher will still have their own ways of teaching. But it gives at least an idea of the kinds of things that need to be covered.

Some of them are pretty straightforward, like the priestcraft stuff I've been talking about. Then there's some knowledge of Buddhist history and literature. There's Sangha relationships, how well you get along with others in the community. And there's self-knowledge, an interesting one that has to do with working through some of your own karma so you don't keep dumping it all over others. Well, this is my best recollection, and probably is leaving out major components (likely the ones I still have to work on). At some point, this should be available on a website somewhere. When I find the link, I'll post it here.

Musings as the year nears its end -- December 25, 2007

Journal entry this morning, 5am

I am on a particular journey. There is a kind of work I can do during a sesshin (silent retreat -- in this case, I'm thinking of Rohatsu sesshin that happened earlier this month) that is difficult to do under other circumstances. Each sesshin is different, but I'm beginning to see a little of what kind of work I can do there.

There is vast empty space that sustains the journey, underpins it. I don't seem to rest there much. Maybe the work I'm doing doesn't afford time to do that. Maybe I'm just not the resting sort. Yet. My zazen (sitting meditation) is still mentally active -- the mind doesn't know, most of the time, how to rest.

And yet, I trust the journey. At least I'm beginning to trust it. Something or someone guides me.

Someone is emerging from all of this. Who am I becoming?

Someone with a heart more tender and raw. Someone less inclined to control everything around me. Someone with compassion and appreciation for all those damaged component parts, and maybe someone who can put those pieces together. Someone new who is part of the old wreck, along with the beautiful terrible wreck that we call the rest of the world.

I'm beginning to open my eyes and look around. Beginning to think it may be possible to live, really live, after all. Not just to survive, not just to cope, but to live fully, to find that taproot of life that makes it possible to accept everything. It can't be grabbed hold of and manipulated. It can be found, though, and followed. I need to sit quietly, and let it come to me.

And so I sit. Every day. Even today, when I had thought maybe to give myself a break. No. I am awake. I will sit.

Annual Letter -- written December 21, 2007

Things are very quiet here with the teachers gone, and a couple of the monks gone as well. Next week we're actually closed, and I'm planning to do a bunch of sewing, work on my car if the weather breaks at all, study for my seminary class, and a couple of little projects around here. Basically, though, take it easy. I know I need to enjoy it while I can, because January starts up with a lot of things happening. So I'm resting up.


Many of you have been getting my e-mail updates, so I don't need to say too much about this year. And yet, I find some value in reflecting and summing up some things at this time of year. In any case, my e-mail updates have been less regular than they used to be, and I don't always manage to get even those on my blog.

This has been a good year for me overall. It began with my ordination as a Soto Zen novice priest January 7. I've spent much of the year learning a little of what that means. In Zen, we learn by practicing rather than by someone telling us, so it's difficult to articulate what it is I've been learning. But I'll give it a try.
Some of it became clearer when I went to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association training Ango for the month of October in the Bay Area. For one thing, I got to see different teachers and meet other novice priests from around the United States. I often didn't know what to do or what would happen next. I found myself getting more comfortable with change and not knowing, so that when I returned home and found some things had changed in my absence I was able to take that in stride. My responsibilities are changing, and at this point in my practice, I see that it's more important for me to do new things and learn to flow with them than it is to figure out what I'm good at and stick with that. Making mistakes is something I'm still not altogether comfortable with, but I'm getting better at it.

My biological family has had an eventful year. My mother seems to be more settled and stable than she has been for a while, now that she is in a foster care home in Springfield. My sisters Josie and Marilyn live near her and keep in close touch. Also living in the area are cousins and Aunt Phyllis (my mom's sister). I get down there once in a while to see them all.

Son Nico, with his wife Alice and their sons Christopher, Matthew and baby Brendan (born November 25), moved to a bigger, better place to live where they have a yard for the boys to play in and laundry on-site.

It's been a while since I heard from my other son Alex, but the last correspondence I had with him indicated that he was doing well.

Just after I returned home from the Ango, my father died (November 2). He had been battling cancer for several years, and finally there was nothing more that could be done. Many of us went to Seattle for his memorial service November 11. It was nice to see everyone, including my brother Dave and his family, including his son Josh who flew back from the east coast.

A few other things I could comment on. I'm hoping to join the community here in a trip to China in Spring 2009. So I've started taking some lessons in Mandarin. As part of that study, I bought myself an iPod, because there's a well-done web site where you can subscribe to download podcasts of lessons. We will soon be putting most of our dharma talks and classes online as podcasts as well, so it seems like a good tool. Of course, it's also nice to have my music so accessible — I've been able to listen to things I haven't heard in quite a while.

The other thing I'm planning to do soon is to sell my car. The trip to China will cost a fair amount of money, and my available funds are diminishing faster than I had hoped they would. With no income, that's worrisome. I don't really need to own a car. I have a Flexcar account, bus tickets, a bicycle and a pair of good legs — many transportation resources. I replaced the clutch in my car this summer, and can't really afford to continue maintaining it and paying insurance. Unfortunately, just making the decision to sell it is not getting it sold – there are specific things I have to do (clean it inside and out, take photographs, post it on craigslist, etc.) to make it happen. Haven't yet done all that, but soon …

Report on Rohatsu Sesshin -- written December 12, 2007

On December 2 we went out to the Zen monastery near Clatskanie for Rohatsu sesshin, which is an annual silent retreat held around the world to celebrate the Buddha's enlightenment, traditionally set for December 8. Those in the Pacific northwest know what's coming -- on Monday, the first full day of sesshin, we had flooding. What I didn't know was that they had already had a flood in another part of the monastery that I didn't go into early in the morning. But as we were gathering for work circle in the cafeteria we began to see water coming in on the floor. We went ahead and did our work chant and work assignments, and then just began to push water out the door. A bucket brigade worked over near the other part, but at some point I got enlisted to help dig a drainage ditch to divert the water from coming into the building where we were.

The area we had to dig the ditch already had rock in it, so digging was not easy. There were probably 10-15 of us, though, and someone finally figured out that picks would work better than shovels, and so we used both and finally got the ditch dug and the water diverted, and it could stop going into the building. Water was literally pouring out of the ground, like welling up from gopher holes or who knows what, coming down the hill toward the building. I came in from that task completely drenched, hung up my sodden jacket, changed many of my clothes, because they were pretty wet as well in spite of gore-tex (when rain comes down inside your jacket and your waterproof boots it doesn't matter how waterproof they are), and hoped that I wouldn't have to go back out into the rain, because of course I was limited in what I had in the way of clothing.

We did have a couple of brief power outages. The one that was kind of comical was during lunch. Okay, we're eating, it's daylight, and we barely miss a beat. No one said anything, or even stopped eating. (I'm serious when I say it was a silent retreat.) We just kept on going. That is our practice after all, meet what is in front of us and deal with the reality of the situation. In many ways, it was fortunate that the flood happened during this sesshin, because the monastery then had about 40 people to help deal with the situation rather than only the 8-10 people who live there.

I found the whole week valuable. I'm learning, I think, how to get what I need from this practice, and I had some significant breakthroughs and shifts in my way of looking at my life. Of course, I had to cry for two days to get there, but I've learned how to do that silently and still follow all the forms -- stand up and bow when the bell rings, put on robes, take off robes and put on work clothes, go to bed, get up, eat formally, process with the others, etc. It all feels familiar and it all supports my practice. The crying was actually liberating in this case, and when it gradually receded, I found that I knew more than I had known before. I'm finding the practice incredibly valuable, and am settling into this monk role, which includes staying very open and flexible. Still don't do everything perfectly, but that's part of it too -- learning how to make mistakes and be okay with all of that.

Now I'm back trying to catch up with all the work. It was nice to go and it's nice to be home. And I'm finding increasingly that "home" is everywhere.

My father's death, written November 15, 2007

My father died last week, November 2, 2007, to be exact. (Full legal name Robert Joseph Stearns, but he was known as "Rocky" to almost everyone most of his life.) I went up to Seattle this last Sunday (November 11) for his memorial service. Most of my family on that side came, including an aunt and cousin I hadn't seen in over a decade.

My feelings are decidedly mixed. I wasn't close to my father for a variety of reasons, and I have a lot of conflicted feelings. There was some affection, and recognition that we are alike in many ways. There's also anger, and grief that we weren't able to connect ultimately. And conversely relief that it is no longer possible. I'm just working through things as they come up as best I can.

In the mean time, of course things are busy here, and there's plenty to keep me occupied. We're in the midst of a reorganization in the temple, and some of my jobs are being shuffled around. So new-ish things to learn about, and old-ish things to let go of. On days when I am not, shall we say, at my best, the community here is always understanding and supportive without interfering with the process. On days like today when things are feeling pretty good, then everything just goes humming along, and I can be understanding and supportive of others if they are having down days.

Training Ango for Novice Priests -- written November 9, 2007

The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) put on a month-long training in monastic forms and practice specifically directed toward novice priests October 1 through 31, 2007. The schedule was light compared with a typical sesshin (silent retreat) but it was also relentless, and included teachings as well as ceremonies and zazen.

The teachings covered both training around the forms we were using and the Dogen fascicle Gakudo Yojinshu. We ate almost all of our meals oryoki-style, and spent our time alternating between wearing formal robes (koromo and kimono) and work clothes (samue), and between okesa and rakusu, depending on the activity and teacher’s preference. 4-and-9 days (that is, the 4th, 9th, 14th, etc.) were used for head shaving, laundry, some personal time, and art work (as well as zazen and a morning service).

There was enough personal time to take advantage of Jikoji’s extensive hiking trails, and the weather was good enough most of the time to make this pleasant. The space at Jikoji (buildings and grounds in a forested open space preserve) was lovely, though the dirt paths between buildings played hob with my long white kimono, especially when it rained. The community in residence there sometimes joined us, and on Sundays Jikoji’s regular sangha joined us for zazen, dharma talk, and lunch.

The theme question for the month was “What is Soto Zen?” We considered that question from different perspectives, and never definitively answered it, of course. One question related to it was the future of Soto Zen in America, which is of interest to all of us. We can speculate, and did so freely, looking at how things are, but it’s clear that there are many possibilities for how things will develop.Students came from a variety of centers all over the United States, and part of the purpose was to help us get to know each other as well as getting a taste of different (and similar) ways to practice from four primary teachers who came in for a week each. Three other teachers (Mike, abbot of Jikoji; Kyoki, who coordinated everything and acted as tenzo the last two weeks; and Taitaku, who was tenzo for the first two weeks) also contributed to the mix. Having all these different teachers was wonderful, and provided us with a rich variety of approaches and perspectives.

The first week was stressful, as those in charge worked to set things up (the physical space, the schedule, forms and ceremonies, and assignment of jobs), and the rest of us, coming as we did from different backgrounds, often didn’t know what to expect next. and couldn’t help each other very much. This provided me, at least, with lots of opportunities to examine my own desire to be in control and to know what is going to happen next. After the first week, though, we were able to settle in to a more predictable routine and help each other out, even though some things kept changing.

I really enjoyed studying Dogen’s Gakudo Yojinshu. The title is translated in several different ways: Kaz Tanahashi calls it “Guidelines for Studying the Way,” while Jiyu Kennett has it as “Important Aspects of Zazen.” I found much in this fascicle that spoke to me where I am right now, and felt it was exactly right for this Ango.

As a new monk, I came into this Ango with the intention of being open in as many ways as I could be to the training. I was still surprised, and found some resistant places as I did my best simply to accommodate to what was happening, to flow with it. In this respect, the Ango was a success for me, allowing me to make discoveries about myself.I’m still discovering what it is to be a priest, what is this thing called training, etc. In 2005 I completed a masters program in Adult Education, and found that, though there are educational theorists who can describe what we’re doing in Buddhism (transformational theory), I still have a lot to learn about how it works. I spent a lot of my educational years, once I realized I wanted to teach, watching teachers and how they work (along with being a student and learning the coursework), and that’s pretty much where I am now in terms of Zen training. I’m watching myself learn and watching teachers teach, and watching the process in general. I’m still taking in, taking in, and feel a little like that baby bird with its beak wide open, all beak, demanding FEED ME! I found that hunger for the Dharma in myself, wide open, during this Ango.

All in all, I congratulate Kyoki Roberts of SZBA in particular for putting on a highly successful Ango. I’m grateful to the temple and my teachers for making it possible for me to participate.