Becoming a Zen Priest, Part Two

This article was originally published on the Red Rocks Zen Circle website on November 3, 2013.

The date for my Tokudo (priest ordination) has been set. It will take place on Monday, December 2, during Rohatsu Sesshin at Prajna Zendo just outside Santa Fe. This sesshin (retreat) celebrates Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, which is recognized on December 8th of each year, on Bodhi (Awakened) Day.

Becoming a priest represents my commitment to being of service to all beings.  I was recently talking with Daishin Sensei about the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha, literally “the truth”) that we practice, and one of the key points we discussed was flexibility.

Certainly, Zen practice assists me greatly in being flexible. I am, by nature, an inflexible, judgmental, impatient person. Daily meditation helps me to see my thoughts, judgments, and opinions as the transient, amorphous flotsam they are. When I don’t solidify them, I am much more able to respond skillfully to the changing situations of my life.

If flexibility is a key to Zen practice, I am committing, in receiving Tokudo, to become more flexible. This has arisen even as we have discussed the date of my ordination.

I will admit that, when we agreed to do my ordination during Rohatsu, I initially loved the idea of ordaining on Bodhi Day, Sunday December 8th. However, I soon realized Tokudo always takes place later in the day, which ruled out Sunday, since I will have to drive home to Sedona on Sunday after Sesshin ends and staying the extra night wouldn’t work. Not to mention the fact that Roshi, Sensei and the Sangha will be exhausted after the weeklong retreat, and no one is going to want to wait up on Sunday night for me to ordain!

So Bodhi Day was out.

Then I started to think that Saturday night, December 7th, would be best. My wife has made it clear she wouldn’t miss it, which I love, and we have decided we want our eight-year-old son to witness the event as well. So it made sense to me that we could do it on Saturday, so they could attend without any school being missed. Plus, I loved the idea of practicing all week, preparing myself for Tokudo, and then receiving Tokudo it at the end of the retreat. That would feel very fruitional.

But in talking with Sensei the other day, it became clear that it would be better to do it earlier in the Sesshin, because he correctly pointed out that I will need to learn how to handle my new robes, particularly the okesa, the outer robe I am sewing which was referenced in my previous blog post. There is a lot to learn on that front, and it makes sense to have that time during the rest of the retre

So, Monday makes sense. I talked it over with my wife and she’s still in. Our son will miss a day of school, but we decided that’s forgivable in order for him to see his dad make this commitment. The only adjustment I have to make is inside myself, being FLEXIBLE with my expectations.

It’s kind of ironic how my ego has twice been attached to the date of my ordination, when the ordination itself is an intention to become less egoistic and more service-oriented. First, I wanted Tokudo to happen on Bodhi Day. That didn’t work out, so I wanted it to happen on the Saturday at the end of sesshin. That’s not going to work either, so now I have to be flexible.

I am actually very happy to be ordaining early in the retreat, now that I’ve gotten my mind around it. It’s true that I will need practice with my robes.  And on a very practical note, every day that passes after I shave my head for my ordination is another day of hair growth before I return the following week to my currently very cold job as a wilderness therapist in the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah.  I intend to keep my hair short after I ordain, at least for a time, but a completely shaved head does not lend itself to working and sleeping outdoors without contracting bronchitis!

All that said, I am pleased we have a date, and I am excited about my ordination. I now realize that the date doesn’t matter; what matters is my intention, and the fact I have the privilege of ordaining with someone whom I so deeply respect.

The sesshin will now be about sitting with having ordained, rather than sitting with the fact I am about to ordain. Or, perhaps if I’m very lucky, it will be about sitting in the present moment, ordained or not.

Becoming a Zen Priest…

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