Something about Zen

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From Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun, published in 1999. This book, no longer in print, gathered together some of the presentations given at the 1996 Life as a Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India.

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Portrait of Mitra Bishop Sensei.

Mitra Bishop Sensei

These vows are repeated daily in Zen temples and monasteries throughout the world. Reminding us of our intention when we practice, they are basic to our school and to Buddhism. “Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “Ch’an,” which came from the Sanskrit word “dhyana,” meaning meditation. Meditation is the emphasis of Zen, the core of our meditation practice being sesshin, a meditation retreat, which usually lasts a week. In the Rochester Zen Center in New York, and in Sogen-ji, the temple where I lived in Japan, we have these retreats each month. In addition, at Sogen-ji we have two in December: the traditional eight-day Rohatsu Sesshin, celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment, and a follow-up seven-day sesshin.

Centuries ago Zen divided into the Soto Sect and the Rinzai Sect, based on the specific emphases of particular masters. The Rinzai Sect traces its lineage to the Buddha through Lin Chi (Rinzai), a Chinese master famous for his strong, dynamic way of teaching. The Soto style is gentler and puts more emphasis on form. The Rochester Zen Center, although technically a Soto center, is an amalgam of both, as the two main teachers of its founder, Roshi Kapleau, trained in both sects. Sogen-ji’s lineage is Rinzai.

In the Rinzai Sect and Rochester’s version of Soto, the primary advanced study is koan work. Certain koans have become familiar in the West. Breakthrough koans are those which one works on for years until gaining some degree of understanding. That understanding is broadened and deepened through work on subsequent koans. One of the most famous breakthrough koans is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” It has an answer, but not one that can be talked about with one’s teacher. Koan work must be experiential; deep meditation is required to solve these koans.

Such intensive meditation is done primarily, though not exclusively, in sesshin. During a Sogen-ji sesshin, we begin the day at 3:30 A.M. with sutra chanting for an hour. After that we go to the zendo (meditation hall) for zazen (meditation) until breakfast. During that early morning meditation period, we also have sanzen (dokusan), a brief, private, one-on-one meeting with our teacher. Our teacher checks our practice, gives us spiritual instruction, and urges us on. When we live in a monastery, temple, or center and work directly with a teacher, we have such private meetings frequently. This is part of the Zen way, and it is very effective in deepening our practice. After breakfast we do chores for a short time and then return to the meditation hall to continue zazen until lunchtime. Following that is rest period, then teisho (Dharma talk) by the teacher, more zazen, a short exercise period, and a light supper. After another short break, we do more formal zazen for a few hours until we retire around 10:30 P.M.

Zen training

The emphasis in Zen is on coming to awakening, deepening that awakening to profound levels, and living our lives with that understanding. Accordingly, we place somewhat less emphasis on the precepts than do those schools that focus Vinaya study. We do not ignore the precepts by any means. They are a fundamental basis of practice, for practicing with a confused mind is difficult, and following precepts gives us clarity and simplifies our life, enabling us to meditate deeply.

In Japanese Zen we move as a group from one building to another, marching in file according to seniority, based on one’s date of arrival at the temple and whether or not one is ordained, not on how long one has been training. Seniority is a serious aspect of the training in Japanese temples: the bottom line is that if someone more senior asks one to do something, one does it.

We have two training periods a year at Sogen-ji. One is from February 4 to August 4, and the other from August 4 to February 4. So essentially we are in training all the time. Kotai, meaning change, occurs on August 4 and February 4. At this time, the jobs in the temple are rotated, as are our rooms. During each kotai the women move clockwise one room around the women’s quarters, and our roommates usually change as well. Learning to work with change is a fundamental aspect of our practice of Zen, the idea being to be like water, which can flow with the circumstances. Almost nobody knows until the day of kotai who is going to do what job for the next term. There is a very short time in which the people formerly holding jobs can meet with the people newly assigned to them, so that the latter have to scramble to understand their new jobs before they have to do something in their new capacity a few minutes later. At the same time, everyone rushes to move her belongings to her new room, which means the previous occupant has to leave that room first. It’s like a grand game of musical chairs!

Sogen-ji is a double monastery, which means both men and women train there. This is relatively unique in Japan, where usually there are either monasteries or nunneries. At Sogen-ji everyone lives the monastic form whether or not they are ordained. It is called a temple as well as a monastery, while the Rochester Zen Center is a “daily practice center,” an American term encompassing ordained and lay practice. In the United States, “monk,” “nun,” and “priest” have different meanings in different temples. In my home temple, the Rochester Zen Center, I was ordained as a priest, which means I can conduct certain ceremonies and run a temple. According to the Japanese system, a priest can also marry although I am not and do not wish to be. “Monk” is used for both men and women in some temples. There are no differences in precepts in my lineage whether one is called a monk, nun, or priest. The titles “roshi” and “sensei” pertain to one’s status as a teacher, and not to one’s ordination.

Many people practicing Zen in Japan are foreigners, while few Japanese are interested in religious practice these days. In the nineteenth century the Japanese government declared that Buddhist monks and nuns could marry, and that took the teeth out of spiritual practice in many cases. It also hastened the decline of Buddhism in Japan, a trend which unfortunately continues to this day. There are “accredited” temples in Japan where anyone whose parent is a temple priest can study for six months to three years and receive a certificate allowing him to inherit his parent’s temple and to conduct ceremonies—usually funerals—to earn a living.

A few serious training temples still exist in Japan, of which Sogen-ji is one. We are fortunate not to be a priest-accrediting temple, so we are not thronged by people who are interested only in getting that certificate. The people who come to Sogen-ji are serious about practice, and if they are not, they leave very quickly because it is a strenuous lifestyle.

The word “sangha” is used in a broad sense both in Rochester and at Sogen-ji and does not refer to ordained people alone. Because so many lay practitioners are serious, it is more difficult to distinguish those of us who are ordained—who have made formal life-long commitments—and those who have families and regular jobs in society yet still meditate regularly each day and spend their vacation time in sesshin. Lay practice is strong in America and in Europe and is one of the directions in which Buddhism seems to be going in the West.

Still, a number of us are called to dedicate our entire lives to this practice. In my lineage this means that when we work, we work for the Dharma and not for money. We can be supported for our work, but it cannot be, for example, architecture, engineering, secretarial work, or computer work. Although being a hospice worker would be acceptable, in general most ways that people earn money are not available to us. This is an exercise in faith. As long as we remain in the temple in Japan—which has been in existence for three hundred years and has a strong base of support—we are supported. Our basic needs are taken care of through donations to the temple. In Rochester it is similar. Outside of these temples, however, we are on our own.

The liturgy or the sutra chanting in Sogen-ji and in Rochester is done in both English and Japanese. Our teacher, Harada Shodo Roshi, is very unusual for a Japanese. The only reason we chant in Japanese at all is because the temple is in Japan. Lay supporters come sometimes, and Japanese monks still live at the temple. Otherwise, he would have us do the liturgy in English, the main language in the temple after Japanese. Our teacher is intent on translating all the chants into the languages of the people coming to train, so that they can chant in their own language. He feels that if we hear teachings in our own language they register more, and this is true. If someone staying at Sogen-ji does not speak Japanese, a Western woman who has learned Japanese well over the years is happy to translate when needed. Although Harada Shodo Roshi knows quite a bit of English, the subtle kind of work that one has to do in the private meetings with him requires a translator.

The precepts

Every year at the Rochester Zen Center three receiving the precepts ceremonies (jukai) for adults and two for children take place. One is held at Thanksgiving, because over the years Thanksgiving has been transformed into a Buddhist holiday in our Zen centers. We also hold jukai at New Years, and in the springtime at Vesak, the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday.

We take the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. The first three are called the three general resolutions. They are 1) to avoid evil, 2) to do good, and 3) to liberate all sentient beings. These three cover the full range of actions and are a tough order to follow. The next three precepts are the three refuges, formulated as a vow. They are: “I take refuge in Buddha and resolve that, with all beings, I will understand the Great Way whereby the Buddha seed may forever thrive. I take refuge in Dharma and resolve that, with all beings, I will enter deeply into the sutra treasure, whereby my wisdom may grow as vast as the ocean. I take refuge in Sangha and in their wisdom, example, and never-failing help, and resolve to live in harmony with all beings.” The final ten precepts are the ten cardinal precepts. Over the years in Rochester we have worked refining the translation of these precepts. They are each put forth as a two-faceted precept, with something to refrain from and something to enhance. They are:

  1. Not to kill, but to cherish all life
  2. Not to take what is not freely given, but to respect all things
  3. Not to lie, but to speak the truth
  4. Not to engage in improper sexuality, but to live a life of purity and self-restraint (How this precept is kept depends on one’s life circumstances)
  5. Not to take substances that confuse the mind, but to keep the mind clear at all times (It is worded in this way because so many things besides liquor can confuse the mind)
  6. Not to speak of the misdeeds of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic
  7. Not to praise oneself and disparage others, but to work on one’s own shortcomings
  8. Not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed
  9. Not to indulge in anger, but to exercise restraint
  10. Not to revile the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but to cherish and uphold them

In addition to our precept-taking ceremonies and repentance and confession ceremonies, we work on these precepts in our formal practice by using a long series of koans. Because the precepts are so profound and can be seen in many ways and at many levels, more than fifty koans are dedicated to precept work, and it takes quite awhile to get through them. The precepts are examined from many different perspectives, beginning with the literal interpretation, proceeding through the Mahayana understanding, and so on all the way to their ultimate nature. In this way, we discover multiple layers of understanding about each precept. To speak on the precepts at all is difficult, because they are much more profound than words can express. As soon as we say one thing, another can also be said that comes at an angle to it and is correct at a certain level.

Because we are still limited beings, we make mistakes and transgress our precepts. To purify and restore our precepts, we do a confession and repentance ceremony before each sesshin, before each precept-taking ceremony, and at other times as well. This ceremony has become a basis of serious, deep practice in Rochester. Lay people are included in it, unlike the custom in the strictly monastic traditions in Southeast Asia, Tibet, and China. It has taken Westerners some years to grasp the spirit of these ceremonies. Early on our understanding was rather superficial, so many people attended only because it was required. However, we have been transformed by Dharma talks and practice, so now these confession and repentance ceremonies have become deep and moving. We come out of them feeling cleansed and inspired by people’s struggles to keep the precepts.

In Rochester, our confession and repentance ceremony is based on the writings of Dogen, the Japanese master who brought the Soto lineage from China. Before the ceremony begins, the leader, who is a senior ordained person, talks about the purpose of repentance and the spirit of the ceremony. The ceremony opens with chanting and a moment of silence. The leader then recites a piece that speaks of openly confessing before the Buddhas and ancestors in order to purify ourselves. After this, a stick of incense is lit and placed in a small incense pot, which is passed from person to person. If we have nothing to confess in that particular ceremony—which rarely happens—we offer the incense pot for a moment and then pass it on. If we have something to confess, we do so. The confession has two parts: revealing our wrongdoings and resolving not to continue those habitual patterns of behavior in the future. When we finish our confession, other people may bring up faults or wrong actions they have observed in us. If nothing is brought up, we pass the incense pot to the next person. The core of the ceremony is the repentance gatha, “All evil actions I have committed since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger, and ignorance, arising from body, speech, and mind, I now repent having committed.” It is done nine times toward the end of the ceremony just to cover whatever we might have missed in our specific confession. Revealing our mistakes in this way is very helpful for lightening the heart and effecting change within us.

The ordination ceremony

It takes a long time before one is permitted to be ordained in the Zen tradition, although in Japan exceptions are made in the case of children expected to inherit a parent’s temple. Various levels of ordination exist. Especially in the Soto Sect, lay people traditionally take the receiving the precepts ceremony as a personal and public commitment to Buddhist practice. At this lay ordination one takes the sixteen bodhisattva precepts and receives a lay rakusu (miniature Buddha’s robe) and a lay Buddhist name.

Zen Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests also take the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. However, while lay people keep them within the context of a householder’s lifestyle, fully ordained people are expected to exemplify them as fully as possible for the rest of their lives. In addition, a fully ordained person in the Zen Buddhist tradition, as practiced in Rochester, vows to dedicate his or her life to the Buddhadharma, and in receiving the ordination robes vows to use them for the welfare of all beings. Something about this level of ordination is difficult to put into words. It resembles the difference between living with someone and getting married. When one is fully ordained the commitment is greater, although the precepts we take are the same.

Because this commitment is intended to be life-long, the full ordination is approached in stages. First one receives the novice ordination, in which the same precepts are taken and one’s hair is cut, but neither the robes nor the ordination name are given. A trial period follows, during which the novice must live as an ordained person but can choose not to take the final ordination or even to return to lay life. By the same token, the teacher can choose not to give the final ordination or to delay it.

Taking lay ordination simply requires the firm wish to do so, but reaching the point of taking novice ordination demands much more. At the Rochester Zen Center one must have reached a certain level of practice and kept the full practice schedule while living at the Center for a minimum of two years. One then requests one’s teacher to grant the ordination. The teacher usually ignores or refuses any number of requests to test the student’s seriousness and dedication. After receiving novice ordination, one continues to practice and live in the community, and after a year or two, one’s progress is evaluated to determine if full ordination will be given.

I have had the honor of shaving the heads of some women before their novice ordination. We do the main shaving privately, first shaving a big Zen circle on her head. The circle is important in Zen Buddhism, the clip on our robes also being circular. It symbolizes our Buddha nature, which, like a circle, is perfect just as it is; one cannot add to or take away from it. Then, we shave the rest of her hair, except for a tiny topknot that the teacher will cut during the ordination ceremony.

After bathing in solitude in a traditional Japanese bath scented with incense for the occasion, the novice-to-be dresses in a white underkimono. Then, in the ceremony proper, she goes before the teacher and after repenting her wrongdoings, is given the first robe. A pause occurs as we go back and help her put it on. When she returns, she prostrates in turn before the senior member of the ordained sangha, her parents, the invited lay people, and the rest of the sangha. She then goes before the teacher, who shaves off the little topknot of hair with the words, “Now the appearance is ruined.” She receives the rest of her clothing—the outer robe and so on—puts them on, takes the precepts, and does more prostrations. Following this is a grand dinner for the sangha and guests to celebrate the joyful occasion.

One woman’s parents came from Germany for her ordination, the first parents of a Westerner being ordained at Sogen-ji to do so. Most Western parents are somewhat aghast when their child chooses to abandon a promising career, shave her head, and wear strange clothes for the rest of her life. When I was ordained in Rochester, my two children, now adults, came, which made me very happy. My parents and siblings for various reasons did not. I do not believe my mother ever came to terms with my ordination before she died, but my father and I experienced a wonderful meeting of hearts recently. I was deeply touched that he was finally able to accept my decision and my way of life completely.

Many Westerners eventually accept the ordination of a family member. As more of us take these robes, it will become more acceptable. My children grew up in Buddhist countries and went to temples with the Buddhist nanny who worked for us. So when their mother was ordained as a Buddhist—something no other American mother does—my children were fine with it. Their support touched me deeply.

People often ask me why I became a priest. I have tried to put words to that feeling ever since it happened and have not been able to do it. The best I can say is that I was searching for something as a child. When I was nine years old, my grandmother gave me a Bible with my name engraved in gold on it. I set up an altar under the basement stairs in our house in Cleveland and searched through that Bible for meaning; but it was beyond me in those days. As I grew up, my family wanted me to become an art teacher, which I did, and then went into graphic design, architecture, and engineering, all of which I enjoyed. I raised a family, which was fulfilling; but something was still missing. Finally, I encountered Zen Buddhism and after ten years was ordained. At that time, everything fell into place. This was right for me: the square peg finally found the square hole after trying to fit in round holes all my life. I have never regretted this decision, even for a second.

I know lay people in the Rochester Zen Center and in Sogen-ji who are just as dedicated to practice. I think the difference might be that I have committed the rest of my life to it; I am not going to do anything else. I will not go back to engineering or architecture, though I may do some in the process of whatever my Dharma work is.

Becoming enlightened is a personal possibility for everybody. Everyone is there already; it is simply a matter of uncovering our misperceptions, cleaning our glasses, and seeing clearly what is already there—that we are already just as perfect as that circle, except that due to delusion and our misperceptions, we act otherwise. I would like to close with Dai E Zenji’s “Vow for Awakening”:

Our only prayer is to be firm in our determination to give ourselves completely to the Buddha’s Way, so that no doubts arise however long the road seems to be. To be light and easy in the four parts of our body, to be strong and undismayed in body and in mind. To be free from illness, and drive out both depressed feelings and distractions. To be free from calamity, misfortune, harmful influences, and obstructions. Not to seek the Truth outside of ourselves, so we may instantly enter the right way. To be unattached to all thoughts, that we may reach the perfectly clear bright mind of prajna wisdom and have immediate enlightenment on the great matter of birth and death. Thereby we receive the transmission of the deep wisdom of the Buddhas to save all sentient beings who suffer in the round of birth and death. In this way we offer our gratitude for the compassion of the Buddhas and patriarchs. Our further prayer is not to be extremely ill or to suffer at the time of departure. To know its coming seven days ahead so that we may quiet the mind to abandon the body and be unattached to all things at the last moment, wherein we return to the Original Mind in the realm of no birth and no death, and merge infinitely into the whole universe to manifest as all things in their true nature and, with the great wisdom of the Buddhas, to awaken all beings to the Buddha Mind. We offer this to all Buddhas and bodhisattva-mahasattvas of the past, present, and future, in the ten quarters and to the Maha Prajnaparamita.

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