For all the routine in a monastery, a lot goes on each day, externally and internally, that makes for a rich and varied life. There is so much I could post about, daily even, yet just do not have the time. I do journal every day (hand-written), both to log and process the details and subtler points of my experiences, inquiry and insights. Maybe a book is in order when the 1000 days are complete.
The last ten days have included out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Over the weekend of the 18th-20th, my first and primary abbot, Junpo came to DBZ to present the Mondo Zen process to the abbess, Shinge Roshi, the residents and one board member. Mondo Zen, in a nutshell, helps someone experience meditative mind, to ground the awareness in the physical and mental minds, and integrate it in to one’s daily life of emotions and relationships. It was the absence of this integration that led him to step off the traditional zen path, and find a way to bring deep, selfless compassion back in to the practice. Mondo Zen is the result of that search.
The process was well received by everyone present. They each chose from their own lives what Mondo Zen calls an “emotional koan.” The invitation is to pick one way in your life that you habitually, negatively react, be it with anger, shame or dissociating/avoiding. Then use meditative awareness to recognize the habitual reaction arising, and choose a new, conscious and compassionate response. Now that DBZ residents have experienced Mondo Zen, we will gradually be using it in our practice and way of life, bringing together the power of the traditional meditation and koan training with the open-heartedness of post-modern Zen. Although it was a private event for twelve people, in its own way it was historic and cause for celebration.
That evening, we of Hollow Bones drove to New York City. The following day Junpo gave dharma transmission (“Inka” in Japanese) to one of our priests, Stan Hui Neng Kohler. Stan has done a remarkable job of mentoring teens and young adults in Spanish Harlem, helping them develop direction and focus in their lives, and empowering them with meditation and consciousness skills found in Buddhism, yet without using any of the cultural or linguistic conventions. “Buddhism without robes,” he calls it, which he now offers as a presentation to interested groups.
His organization is called Peace on the Street, which was born out of his experience teaching meditation to inmates at Riker’s Island. It also began with him helping one of his mentees, Richard Garcia, start a Gung Fu dojo. Richard is a black belt and teaches the art for self-defense and promoting non-violence. His teaching follows the martial art saying: Train so that you do not have to fight, and to be ready if you must.
The core element of the inka ceremony is the candidate having to pass through “The Five Gates.” The gates are four sangha members and the Roshi (Zen master) who stand in a elongated line, each posing a question to the candidate to test and challenge their insight. These are not conventional questions, but more like koans. Each essentially asks, “What is your insight in to meditative mind and how will you actualize it in your life?” The Five Gates of the inka ceremony is not a rote or rehearsed event. The candidate does not know what the questions will be, which are developed specifically for them. The test is live, and being denied passage is a possibility.
As each question is answered satisfactorily, the gate keeper steps aside and the candidate advances to the next one. The last gate to pass is the Roshi with whom the priest trained, who usually asks more than one question, and tougher ones at that. Describing his own evolving of the Zen practice and tradition, Junpo often says he “threw out the bathwater and kept the baby.” Junpo challenged Stan to express clearly the core of Buddhist teaching and how he will manifest it in a post-modern, inner-city setting, saying “What part do you keep?” Stan replied, “The heart of the baby and the thirst-quenching essence of the bathwater.”
Stan was wearing traditional robes for the Five Gates portion. Normally, once passing the gates, one would be given their roshi robes, leave the room to put them on, then return for final confirmation. Taking the post-modern route another step, Stan, instead of getting roshi robes, had a suit custom tailored with an emblem that says “Roshi” in Japanese. One was made for Junpo as well. It’s sharp-dressed zen if I ever saw!
The event was a celebration on several levels. In addition to becoming a roshi (and Stan would say more importantly), the inka ceremony celebrated all the lives that Stan has touched, steering youth out of lives of trouble, helping them find their paths in life, to become mature adults, responsible for and accountable to their community, and supporting themselves with meaningful work through the skills and education they earned. It is heartening to know such beautiful, powerful cultivation of the human body, mind and spirit is happening in the inner city. What is also to be celebrated is all the good Stan and Peace on the Street are yet to accomplish.
The other major recent celebration was, naturally, Thanksgiving. I had not thought at all in advance what might happen in a Zen monastery for this holiday. I was delighted to learn that at DBZ a huge community potluck is held, with Zen Studies Society members (which can include their partners, parents, children and friends) coming from all over, bringing the ingredients for a dish to share, and preparing it in the monastery kitchen. It was a huge family reunion, full of vibrant, communal energy.
There were 54 people here for two days, and it was quite the happy, busy bee hive during that time. I was impressed by the depth of family vibe, and the high level of joy throughout the days, as well as the enormous amount of work that went in to preparing the monastery, the cooking and the clean up. Never once was the energy flat or people idle. The absence of a TV showing football games or a parade was not felt, nor was the presence of one even desired.
Preceding dinner, the day included meditation, and a formal chanting ceremony which was gorgeous. It was my first time in the dharma hall with so many people, and the fullness of our voices in the room, I have to say, was truly spiritual. I suppose holidays have a way of lending to that. The singing during the Christmas service in the Presbyterian church I grew up in was always so much more moving than on regular Sundays.
It is worth digressing here to say that most of the chanting at DBZ is in Romanized Kanji, e.g. “I MU SHO TOKU KO BO DAI SA TA E HAN NYA HA RA MI TA, translated as “There is nothing to be attained, therefore the bodhisattva follows prajnaparamita.” I basically never know what is being chanted. However, as a meditative toning practice, it is sublime, precisely because one can disengage mental processing and just explore the physical, aural and communal experience. It is transformational in its own way.
A lot could be said about the Thanksgiving dinner, but it is sufficient to reiterate the strong and joyful sense of family we all shared. And of course, the food was abundant and amazing. Today (Sunday) there are only fourteen of us here, and we were happy to discover that a cheesecake in the walk-in refrigerator that never made it to the Thanksgiving dessert table. It brought back memories of our joyous celebration the few days prior, and that every day there is always so much to be thankful for.
The longer I am at DBZ, and the more I learn about this spiritual practice and lineage, the more I am humbled and awestruck that life has brought me here. It is a precious gift, that, as part of the morning chanting says, is “rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of eons.” For this, I am eternally thankful.