My First Taste of Monasticism

09 22 2016

As I write this I’m on the tail end of a week back home after my first days at Dai Bosatsu. I’ll be moving there in phases since wrapping up my business is a slow process, and so packing, storing and moving is delayed as well.

“So what was it like?” I’ve been asked all week. The short answer is that the schedule is rigorous and the days long. Essentially I’m up from 4:30AM to 10:30PM. There is a lot for me to learn, and chanting in Japanese to not only get accustomed to, but memorize (there sutra book is at this link if you’re curious). The time slot for yoga is a short 45 minutes, and overlooked or there’s just too much to do. With all the busy bustle, it seems folks are tense a good bit of the time, but there is a deep and supportive camaraderie as well.

We had two guest groups for the weekend, one for the Intro to Zen program, and a yoga group that was mostly doing its own thing. So there was all the dorm room prep to do, and general prep of the public space. And making meals for 30. I overslept my first morning of breakfast duty, which caused a bit of chaos. Thankfully I have a good bit of food service experience so could hustle to make up for lost time. And, given the nature of the training and environment, it was a great opportunity to choose to be clear, focused and fast, rather than spinning off in fear, shame and clumsiness. An additional resident jumped in to lend a hand, too, speaking of camaraderie. We served breakfast on time. Phew!

A long-time resident, Juyo Dennis Giacomo, had his priest ordination ceremony, so a lot of Thursday was dedicated to the preparation and holding of that event. It was a calm and rich ceremony, followed by a delicious celebratory meal. Present for the weekend was Dokuro Osho, the future dharm heir of the abbess, Shinge, Roshi. He gave a most delightful dharma talk (like a sermon), and his deep, mellow and joyful energy was a treasured presence for all.

One thing I was greatly surprised by was the amount of talking that happens. Every morning there is a morning meeting, which includes a reading and some discussion. OK, it’s practice relevant. But when the guests were here, the morning meeting was loud, open conversation. And during the periodic lulls and pauses in the work periods, residents often talk. First, it made me realize I had held some preconceptions about monastic life. Second, it made me reconfirm that, as Master Hakuin (d. 1768) said, “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to that pursued in stillness.”

There is a common misperception that meditation is supposed to be done in a perfectly quiet place with no external disturbances. While this kind of environment has its benefit, what becomes of one’s meditation when going back in to daily activities and interactions? Junpo likes to say “Meditation never ends,” and it is true. The purpose of practice is to recognize the imperturbable mind within, and be able to choose to respond to life from it in any given circumstance. The more busy or chaotic the circumstance, the more important this ability is. “Under duress we do not rise to the level of our aspirations, we fall to the level of our training,” Bruce Lee said.

What became immediately clear to me upon arrive at Dai Bosatsu was that there is an established energy of meditative mind that inhabits the place. And the collective intention and practice, whether sitting or working, feeds it. When you walk in to the zendo (meditation hall) or the hondo (dharma hall), you can feel an energetic shift. It is though the rooms are alive and pulsing with depth and wisdom… and well, they are. This effect is among the positive legacies of Eido Shimano, Roshi, and all those who have practice there over the monastery’s forty years. I understood quickly that, in one sense, there is no difference between monastic life and societal living: we have work to do, communication to have, and we all do our best. As a student of Zen in society, I would practice concentration and meditation on the job, when hanging out with friends, best I could, whenever, wherever. The same is true for monastic living, with all the potential for external or internal distraction. What is different is being in a place in which there is a strong collective intention and effort for awakening, and regular structured time for practices that support the process. The environment is rich, and deep and among the most precious gifts I have ever been blessed with.

Tomorrow (Friday 9/23) I return to the monastery and Saturday begins Golden Wind Sesshin, a seven-day silent retreat. There will be community and maybe new-comers to host and feed, and a rigorous daily schedule of mostly meditation. I am very much looking forward to the power and depth of such a week. I have done twenty seven to day, and this will be my second at DBZ, the first being Golden Wind in 2002 when I was still brand new to Zen. So, in my new home it will be like a homecoming. I will not post next week, but certainly will have things to share from sesshin when it is over…



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