Wednesday, January 09, 2008

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.


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