Becoming a Zen Priest, Part Three

This article was originally published on the Red Rocks Zen Circle website on November 30, 2013.

I finished my massive sewing project yesterday. The okesa was finished a couple weeks ago, and since then I have been laboring away on the zagu, a bowing cloth that accompanies the okesa and keeps it from touching the ground when a Zen priest does his or her  prostrations. The zagu, while a serious undertaking, was child’s play compared to the okesa, mostly because it was a much more manageable size. By the end, moving the okesa around my sewing table was awkward at best, nearly impossible at worst.

As soon as I finished the zagu, I was hit by a burst of sadness, which lasted into today. The adrenaline wave I’ve been riding for several months, knowing I had a deadline by which I had to finish this project, has finally subsided. I’m sure that was part of it. But there was something deeper, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I had a talk with Daishin Sensei where I told him how sad I felt. He wanted to know why and I couldn’t really tell him. It seemed to have to do with the reality of my upcoming Tokudo hitting me, now that the sewing is complete. Like most Americans, I busy myself with tasks that keep me from feeling. While I have definitely been feeling my way through the sewing, somehow having the project completed opened me up to the reality that I am ordaining in nine days, and all that is implied from that impending commitment seemed to hit me at once.

When we first started talking about Tokudo, Daishin Sensei said that an important difference between ordination and lay practice is that before Tokudo, you take refuge in the Three Treasures, and after Tokudo, they take refuge in you. What this means to me is that I am offering myself as a refuge, a place other beings, and the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha themselves, can go for comfort, for solace, for counsel and, when needed, for constructive feedback.

As I understand it, once I have made these commitments, I will no longer be able to avoid or hide from these responsibilities, nor from the suffering of the world. As a layman, I can theoretically “close up shop” so to speak, and choose to be finished helping people for the day.  I rarely do it, but in theory I could  As a priest, this will no longer be an option in my mind.

The sadness I have felt the last 24 hours is the sadness of the world, and an opening of my heart to be willing to witness and feel that suffering, and perhaps even heal what little of it I can, and be willing to do that whenever and wherever I’m needed.

Sensei said he thought it was a good thing I was feeling this, because it shows I am taking the commitment seriously. Our conversation was long and fruitful, and by the end of it, I still felt wide open, but I was smiling and laughing again — not just feeling morosely heartbroken like I was earlier.

But the tears weren’t finished for the day. After I hung up with Sensei, I went for a walk. The timing coincided with a brief respite from the eternal rain of the last two days, and I got to walk through one of my favorite things — the Sedona mist. We get 300 days of sunshine a year here, so rain is a novelty, and the mists on the rocks of one of America’s most beautiful towns is something to behold.

As I strolled, feeling cheerful after my chat with Sensei, I was again overwhelmed with emotion. This time, though, there was no mysterious pressure in my chest, no feeling of the amorphous enormity of the world’s suffering.

This time, there was a feeling of connectedness, a sense of the oneness we all feel during zazen and, if we’re lucky, while living our lives off the cushion too. I took in the rain dripping off of leaves, the birds singing, the mist on the red rocks. Sensei’s words from today echoed in my head: “A priest’s job is to preserve the Dharma.” Between that comment and the three treasures taking refuge in me — which I feel woefully inadequate to accomodate at times — I was once again felled, this time not with pain, but with gratitude.

I put my hands to my knees as the tears came. A car came and I stood up so the driver wouldn’t think I was ill or needed assistance. As the car passed I looked back up and in a burst felt the power of the lineage all around me.

All the teachers I’ve been exposed to and who have contributed to my journey flashed through my mind at once, and I felt a huge amount of gratitude to them. I realized then that Tokudo is about vowing to bring the Dharma forward, to preserve it, and to pay them back.

The Dharma has meant so much to me, and I’m so grateful to all those throughout the history of this lineage who have labored to bring it into my life. Not just my teachers, but all the priests and teachers long dead who have preserved the teachings, koans, liturgy, methods, traditions and techniques.

As the Gatha on Opening the Sutras puts it, “The Dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is rarely encountered, even in billions of ages.” I am so lucky to have encountered it, and I am so humbled to be charged in some small part with bringing it forward.

May I be worthy of this responsibility.

Becoming a Zen Priest

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