Becoming a Zen Priest, Part Four

Now that my ordination has come and gone, it’s hard to know where to begin in describing the event itself. It was one of the most special days of my life, in the echelon of my son being born, my wedding day, and the day I received my black belt.  A curious phenomena for me as a writer is that I often have more to say in anticipation of an event the following it. This is no exception.  It’s not that I don’t want to share the specialness of Tokudo, or give thanks for all those who participated in the event. It’s more that, with the event having taken place, it feels a part of me now. Describing it is like describing what it’s like to have hands. I just have them. The ceremony is now part of my life, and who I am. So it’s hard to know how to describe it, or where to begin.  All that being said, I want to close the series and start blogging about other things. It doesn’t make sense to do so without describing the event itself.

I barely slept the night before Tokudo. As is so often the case before important events, the body’s adrenal system has a hard time shutting down before we embark on a major life event.  This is no exception. By the time I fell into a reasonably deep sleep, around 2 AM, it was almost time to wake up again. The 5:00 AM bell signaling the time to rise and shine during retreat came all too quickly.  In retrospect, the fact that I was so tired may have been a good thing. It kept me from getting too nervous.

Itwas a pretty normal morning during a meditation retreat, or sesshin: zazen, breakfast, dishes. But during the work practice, my work assignment was to get my head shaved. That was a little different then the usual cleaning the bathroom or chopping vegetables!

The sharing of the head represents letting go of attachments. Zen priests, and all kinds of Buddhist monks and nuns, shave their heads regularly as a reminder not to become attached to this fleeting world or anything in it. Although I remain a householder and am remaining in a family unit, taking on these vows, I am still committing to focus on service and nonattachment as opposed to pursuing worldly comfort. The shaving of the head is symbolic, and it felt important to me to take part in that aspect of the tradition.

An interesting note here is that I used to keep my hair a very short, when I practiced and taught martial arts more regularly. After our son was born, my hair grew out on accident, because I was so tired and addled, I didn’t get around to it for a couple of months. My wife liked it, so I let my hair stay a “normal” length. I must admit I had gotten somewhat attached to it, but attachment to appearances is something worth letting go of, or at least be mindful of.

My friend Linda, my teacher’s wife, was assigned the duty of shaving my head. She started with clippers. My hair had gotten long, thick in curly, and this was quite a chore. I asked her to give me a mohawk, just for fun, and she did, at which point we stopped to pose for pictures. After that, she continued the job, leaving only a small tuft of hair at the crown of my head. This piece would be saved until the actual ceremony.

Then, the other priests, including teachers and some very old friends, lathered up my shortened, crew cut head, and shaved it to the skin. At the beginning, this was a very emotional event for me.  Tears were shed, as I felt myself being prepared for the ceremony. By the end, however, it was a joyful experience, with everyone smiling and laughing.

Even though you’re supposed to keep your gaze down during retreat, I could feel everyone’s eyes on me during the afternoon. I know I look like a Hari Krishna, with my head completely shaved except for one splotch parachuting out of my crown.  One thing I love about Zen is how ordinary it is, and how it helps us appreciate ordinary life. As I look back on Tokudo, I’m struck by how ordinary the next few hours seemed. My head was shaved, but it was just time to sit zazen and eat lunch. No big deal.

After the afternoon block of zazen, I came downstairs from the Zendo out to find my wife, son, and father waiting in one of the dormitories. My dad had flown in from Boston, and my wife and son driven up with me from Arizona. I thought my heart would burst when I saw them all sitting on that couch. I was so touched that they had all made the journey to be there, and witness the commitment I was about to undertake. Linda led my family upstairs the Zendo, and I was escorted into sensei’s office.

There I waited with his dog JR, feeling surprisingly calm and peaceful. I wore my brand-new kimono, which my friend Liz, who made it for me, said signified that I was a baby Buddha. Between the fresh white cloth, and the air on my freshly shaved head, I felt very new, and I did feel a purity in me. It was as if a lot of the difficulties I’d endured in life has led me to this point, which they had, and they, along with me, were being purified but in what was about to happen.

After a while, my friend Cindy, who is Sensei’s sister and also his attendant, came to get me. I was led upstairs the Zendo, where I encountered my sangha and my family seated on either side of the Zendo, and Sensei seated on his zabuton in front of the shrine.

I don’t remember all the details of what happened next. I remember the power of Sensei invoking the three treasures and how much energy he put into consecrating the room. I remember going through the 16 precepts, just as I had during my lay ordination 13 years previously. I remember doing bows to my family, to the Sangha, and to my teachers. I remember having my robes purified in the incense, and my friend Gerhardt putting them on me for the first time.

During the ceremony, I cried a lot, laughed a lot, and tried not to fall out of my new kimono, which I had not properly put on, not being familiar with it. There were a couple of times I almost gave the crowd more of a show than they had signed up for.  Mostly I remember how supported I felt in taking on a roll of support for everyone there, and everyone who wasn’t there.

During the rest of session, I became more comfortable with my robes. I learned how to put them on and take them off, and in what order. I’ve continued to wear them almost every morning during my zazen, and have gotten fairly proficient at donning and removing them. I still feel the power of the ceremony and the vows every time I put on my robes.

In a way, I feel very different than before Tokudo. In another way, I don’t feel different at all. What I do know is that I am even more rooted and grounded in the Dharma that I was before, and that the power of the vows and the commitment serve as fuel in my everyday life.

I want to be worthy of all the people who supported me in taking on these vows, and of all beings.  I continue to have the utmost respect for the lay path, and those who walk it. For me, though, stepping onto the priestly path has been immensely powerful.

For the first 19 years of my life, I looked for a path. When I discovered Zen, I knew I had found it. For the 17 years that followed, I continue to look for a path in a lot of ways. Going through my school and professional training, getting married, becoming a father, and working in various roles in the mental health field have all contributed to my Dharma path, but I now realize that they were all leading to this moment. I’m very grateful to my teachers, sangha, and family for supporting me and this endeavor.

I am particularly grateful to Daishin Sensei for suggesting that I partake of Tokudo. I will never forget the fact that three days after the conversation in which we decided I would do it, he called to tell me that his cancer had returned, and was terminal. The intertwining of me deepening my commitment to the Zen path while coping with my teachers situation, and the deepening of my connection with him through receiving Tokudo, will always stay with me. I bow to him deeply.

Becoming a Zen Priest…

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