Sunday, January 11, 2009

FAQ? At least one person asked ...

This is adapted from an e-mail correspondence with a woman on one of my e-mail lists. Just in case anyone else might be interested in some details about my life here.

Q. I never thought about women practicing Buddism. Are there just as many women as men who practice?

A. Yes. At least in our sangha (community) there may actually be more women than men, and the balance varies back and forth over time. We have two teachers, a married couple, and their teacher was an Englishwoman named Jiyu Kennett (Jiyu being her Dharma name; before that she was known as Peggy).

Q. When did you first think about trying Buddism? What attracted you to the practice?

A. I don't know when I first thought of it. But how I got into it was because my partner was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, and knew that she needed to learn a bunch about death and dying, and when she looked around she didn't see much that was helpful. Enter Gilda Taylor, an American woman who was ordained and transmitted as a Tibetan Buddhist. She came and gave a talk one Sunday at the Unitarian church we were then attending. She and my beloved hit it off immediately. Gilda was also a breast cancer survivor. They then both showed up at the cancer support group at the hospital, and found that they had many things in common, including a passion for getting down to brass tacks when it came to talking about death (a topic that many people prefer to ignore).

My partner got involved in Gilda's group, and I was intrigued by the teachings, but didn't click with the group in the same way. So I became the silent supportive partner who occasionally participated, but more often gave my partner rides. At some point, she had a falling out with the group and stopped practicing. I saw the difference in her, and told her she needed Buddhism in her life, and maybe we should try Zen. The Tibetan group rents space from the Dharma Rain Zen Center, so we were somewhat familiar with the space at least, and had attended a DRZC event on New Year's Eve. My partner thought that was a great idea, so we went to their introductory workshops and began to attend regularly. Both of us felt like we had found our spiritual home, and I still feel that way.

DRZC has supported me in so many ways from the beginning when I was a caregiver, through my partner's death and the grief after that, and I found the tools I have learned here in practice to have immediate practical application to real-world problems, especially around death, but also around life. That just continues to deepen and grow.

Q. How long do you have a teacher and is there a graduation time from school?

A. My teacher will be my teacher as long as he lives. The teacher-student relationship is almost more like a parent-child relationship in that way. In fact, I find my teachers here to be a lot like parents to me, and I mean that in a very good way. And it is irrelevant that they are only a year older than me. In some ways I am two years old. This can sound like I am giving up all of my power to them, and there is a way that this is true, but another way that it isn't. It is a choice on my part, and I see the value and wisdom in it. I trust them a great deal, obviously.

Graduation is not that easy to define. I suppose what we call transmission is the closest I can come to that, and it's a little mysterious. The way I have heard it described is that the teacher sees that the student is embodying the Dharma, is carrying the teachings in his or her own body. Transmission is a recognition that this has happened, and at that point the student begins to learn about becoming a teacher in his or her own right.

Q. Are the teachers the equivalent to a minister?

A. Not quite. Our teachers are also abbots, but that’s not how it's done everywhere. We use the word Teacher (in Tibetan they use the word "lama") to recognize that transmission I just talked about. The abbot is more of an administrative function. Many ministers do both the administrative piece and the teaching/service piece, depending on the size of the organization. As the organization grows (as ours is), the function changes somewhat. Our Teachers are the spiritual guides for the community.

We do use a lot of the English terms for positions. For example, I'm called a "novice monk," which isn't quite accurate, but somewhat close, and the word "priest" could also be close, but it's not quite equivalent to how the word is used in, say, Catholicism.

Q. Do practioners meet each week on a certain day like Christians?

A. We have many opportunities for practice. Our main events are Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, which is pretty similar to a typical protestant church. But we also have other evenings and most weekday mornings have some time for meditation and services as well. Those are much more sparsely attended, but there are some in the community who take advantage of it. Those of us who live here participate in all of it. That is, the ordained participate in all of it, while the lay residents do what they can, depending on their own work schedules.

Q. Has there been anything about the practice that you are a little leery about? Are there things that bother you about your living situation?

A. At this point, I would have to say no. I think I had some fears about going into postulancy, especially, making myself that vulnerable, and also about living in community, after having lived alone for three years. But all of my fears have proved groundless. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that my fears were really fears of myself, whether I would be good enough or something like that. The people here have exhibited extraordinary kindness and patience, consistently over time. That has allowed me to see that my fears have really been of myself. It's been interesting.

I have to stop now, because we're going to do a 3-hour festival starting in about 20 minutes, and I have a role. I'll come back and work on the answers to the rest of these at some point -- it's a busy day, but there will be breaks now and then. And starting tomorrow afternoon I will be on day off.


Contining later that evening ...

Q. Could you describe the phyical surroundings of where you live? How many people do you live with? Is it an urban environment?

A. The easiest way to do this would be to go to our website
There's a brief description of the three buildings we own and work and live in. I live in what we call the Sangha House on Taylor Street, but really I just sleep there and keep my stuff there. I spend most of my time in the Dharma House, where we have offices, a small zendo, and do our meals and some classes and workshops. Then there's the Zendo, the main temple building, where ceremonies, services, meditation, classes, and such like happen. We rent out that space quite a bit, to another Zen group most regularly, and then also for special events like Dances of Universal Peace, which is happening this evening.

I would say the two houses are both the nicest houses I've ever lived in. The Dharma House is 100 years old, with wonderful craftsman touches, and quite nice. There are also gardens around it that are lovely.

There are five of us who live in the Sangha House, and seven in the Dharma House. Plus some people come to stay overnight periodically and then maybe spend a day or two here. We have about three people who regularly come once a week like that, an overnight and then a day doing various volunteer work.

We are in inner Southeast Portland, so yes, an urban environment.

Q. How often do you meditate? How often do you get to play?

A. The meditation schedule varies. I find that I have to do at least an hour every morning, whether it's on the schedule or not, and usually do 1-1/2 hours by choice. There are some evening sits as well, and occasional other events like today's festival. There are Zazenkai events that happen every couple of months where we do 8 hours of meditation in a 12-hour day. Then there are retreats which typically include 8 hours of meditation a day for 6-7 days. We have four of these a year.

We have regular days off once a week, and I have a lot of freedom in how I spend those. Sunday noon through Tuesday noon, at least theoretically. There are some things that encroach on that time, but I have choices about that, and often find that I prefer to do some work or take care of some things when there is less pressure. What I usually do is go to the library and get some books, do my laundry, some sewing, etc. I know, a regular party animal. It suits me. There are monks who regularly go to the beach or the mountains or at least out on bike rides, etc. I just generally like to stay home and rest.

Q. Is your group involved in the community with good works?

A. We have an active prison program, which I participate in. We also do a Dharma School, which isn't precisely "in the community," but which serves a lot of kids whose parents aren't members here. That's about all we can keep up with at this point. Of course, we run regular meditation workshops and classes which are free to the public, and are heavily attended by people we often don’t see again.

Q. Do you still have your possessions from your life before you went to study?

A. I have all I need, actually too much stuff. I had to get rid of a lot of stuff just because it wouldn't all fit into the space I'm alloted (very generous, I have to say, a room plus storage space in the attic). I rented a storage space for three years and then got tired of paying for it. I whittled my possessions down a bit during that time, and some more this summer, and finally moved everything here. We are not required to get rid of everything or give all of our money, for example, to the community. In fact, it is recognized that we don't get much out of this service monetarily, and it is all to the good to be somewhat financially independent. So far I'm doing okay. I have small retirement funds that will keep me going until Social Security kicks in in a few years.

What the center provides to the ordained is room, board, and health insurance. That's almost enough, but there are always other small expenses. I find I spend about $100 a month or so on incidentals (fabric, underwear, razor blades, bus passes, transportation if I rent a car, any extra treats like my special honey or nuts, etc.). That's what I have to have a little other money for. Some places give their monks a small stipend every month, but we don't do that here -- can't really afford it. Fortunately, as I mentioned, I do have some funds. I sold my car last summer and am still living on that money. And I've been doing some paid sewing projects for people.

Q. How does your group support itself?

A. Almost entirely member donations and pledges. We have tried to write grants, and I'm still pursuing that, but haven't yet had success with it. We are beginning to do an annual silent auction to raise funds, especially for capital costs associated with things like the new roof and solar panels.

Q. Do you leave the community after a certain time?

A. I could. When we ordain we vow to serve for 5 years of training and to follow our teacher's directions during that time. After that I am free to go where I will. Assuming I get transmitted at some point, then I could actually start my own center and become a teacher in my own right in a new place. One of the monks is going that route, working at starting a little center out on the west side. At the moment, that prospect doesn't look all that appealing to me. I'm happy here, and would be contented to be here the rest of my life. But of course no one knows what the future will hold, and we'll just have to see.

Q. Why did you change your name and who decided what it should be?

A. When we do lay disciple ordination we get a Dharma name. My teacher decided on Genko. What the teachers do here is give people three choices, which you then get to give input on. In this case, my teacher was clear about his first choice, with a couple of other distant second choices. When I saw that this name meant "mystery light," I immediately said "yes." So we agreed with no negotiating about it.

Typically lay disciples are referred to in our newsletter with their regular first name, then their Dharma name, and then their last name (hence, Sylvan Genko Rainwater). We usually use our Dharma names here in the Center. Since I ordained, I pretty much have dropped the "Sylvan" except with my family and a few other people who have known me a long time. I almost wish I did what my "little sister" did, which was to make her Dharma name her first name, and the other name the middle name. But I'm not going to change it legally again -- I've done that four times or something in my life. Enough, already!

Hope this answers these questions. If you have more questions, please feel free to ask, as I say, I love answering questions that I actually know the answers to.