A Three-event Journey

Between November 21 and December 9 we had, with all the preparations and clean up on either side of each event, a Thanksgiving potluck, a Dharma transmission ceremony and an eight-day silent retreat, which is the most intensive silent retreat of the year, called Rohatsu.

Before the major events occurred, on the 21st, we held our monthly Mandala Day celebration. Mandala Day commemorates the spiritual relationship of Soen Nakagawa Roshi and Venerable Nyogen Senzaki. The two were not able to meet in person for many years, so agreed to exchange Dharma greetings across the Pacific on the 21st of every month with chanting, zazen, and bows. The ceremony also pays homage to those in our lineage, and all teachers known and unknown, who have helped to further the Buddhadharma. The significance of Mandala Day is described in the introduction to Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa. The book introduces the poems, letters, journal entries, and other writings of Soen Roshi (edited and translated by compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi Sensei and Shinge Roshi).

An electrifying sunset preceded this month’s Mandala Day celebration.

Thanksgiving is a giant family affair, full of energy and an abundance of food. People arrive gradually during the days leading up to it to help prepare both the facilities and some of the food. Dinner is a potluck which makes it fun and interesting every year. We residents and early guests make some of the food, other guests bring raw ingredients to cook or prepared dishes to warm. And then there are the desserts… oh, the desserts!

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This year well over 50 guests arrived, including Dharma dignitaries from Japan who came to witness and participate in the Transmission ceremony. This included Noritake Shunan Rōshi of Reiun-in temple in Kyoto, who is also the current abbot of Mt. Baldy Zen Center, or Rinzai-ji, outside of Los Angeles. Mt. Baldy is where Dokuro Osho did most of his training for many years, so several friends affiliated with the center were also in attendance.

At the dinner, Noritake Roshi gave a warm and funny short speech. It was  his first-ever Thanksgiving, and he professed his joy in experiencing hot apple cider for the first time, and that he would request it when back in Japan. I hope he has been able to find it.

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What a great, festive meal!

Two days later was the “Inka shomei,” or Transmission Ceremony for Dokuro Roland Jaeckel, Osho (“Osho” is an honorific word for a priest who has trained a long time). “Transmission” means different things in each sect of Buddhism. In Rinzai Zen, a zen master sees in the long-term student the realization of non-dual consciousness, the mind from which all manifestation arises, and the ability to actualize it in daily life, instruction to students and dharma talks. It is not a “giving” of anything from teacher to student, not an ability nor merely a title. The ceremony is public acknowledgement that the student has trained with an established master (at least 10 years and generally more; in Dokuro’s case, over thirty), and completed koan training (traditionally 1700 koans; in recent times, 100-500 is more common).

Despite arriving at such a point of recognition, this “transmission” is a beginning, not a completion point (in Buddhism, training has no end). In Rinzai Zen, receiving inka meant one could go in the world and teach, and that was viewed as the next stage of training. Could the student actualize, in society with all of its activity and trappings, the insight cultivated in an isolated practice vessel? If so, then they would be allowed to use the title “Roshi.” This period is usually ten years long. Consider that to receive inka shomei can take ten to twenty years of training. Then, an additional ten years of training in society was required before one would be allowed to use the title “Roshi.” This unbroken line of transmission, since the beginning of Buddhism, is an important reflection of the depth and continuity of this practice of awakening.

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Dokuro, Osho, after passing through the “Five Gates.”

The Inka shomei of Dokuro Osho was the second major ceremony at DBZ of which I had the joy and privilege to be a part (the first was the wedding of Kai and Connor). I have been to a fair number of special ceremonies in my life, but none created such a deep communal energy as these. The whole Inka shomei weekend, preceded by the festive and bountiful Thanksgiving, gave the feeling of being carried in a strong but gentle current that has moved through centuries of sanghas and dharma transmission. It is clear to me that this shared energy is the fruit of a deeply bonded sangha steeped in zazen, with a long line of ancestors behind it. What is more, this energy was mutually shared with people from multiple sanghas who had not met before. To have shared zazen and morning service with people you have never practiced with before, and to have it feel as if you have been practicing a lifetime together, is a transformative experience of its own kind. The universality of One Mind, and the commonality of our lineage and practice tradition, was apparent through the weekend.

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Shinge Roshi handing Dokuro Osho the official transmission scroll.

While the focus of the event was on one individual, there was a sense of collective effort that is carrying Buddhadharma and our Rinzai lineage and tradition forward. Also with that sense was that of celebration and gratitude, and a ubiquitous feeling of joyful awe. Similarly, having been involved in the event preparations, I saw how each small and large effort brought the whole ceremony together. Thus, I could see that this is how our tradition and its living teachings are passed on: through communal efforts of all sizes and kinds. To that, Dokoro Osho even said in his Dharma talk, “I need your help,” a fine expression of his recognition that he has received a responsibility, not an accolade. And it is simultaneously a reminder to us that the responsibility is shared. As Noritake Roshi said, first to Dokuro Osho, then to Shinge Roshi, then to the whole congregation, “Congratulations!” Thus, while Dokuro Osho has certainly earned the opportunity to receive Inka shomei, the singular yet shared quality of the One Mind of this special weekend shows that we are truly all in this together. Namu dai bo sa! (Homage to the One Great Bodhisattva!)

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Noritaki Roshi, Shinge Roshi, Dokuro Osho.

Five days after Transmission was the start of the 8-day silent retreat called Rohatsu, which simply means “the 8th day of the 12th month” in Japanese. We had to clean up from the Thanksgiving/Transmission weekend and prepare for Rohatsu, the most rigorous sesshin of the year, in just three days.

The retreat honors and celebrates Siddartha Gautama’s awakening, and encourages us to deepen our own resolve to awaken. Legend holds that after many years of ascetic practice, and several more of yogic training, he sat down beneath a tree (commonly known as the Bodhi Tree, botanically called Ficus religiosa) and vowed to reach enlightenment or die trying. It is said in Zen Buddhism that the morning that he realized the unity of all apparent phenomena was December 8. Despite many temptations from the demon Mara, Siddartha maintained a state of unwavering awareness. In a final effort to challenge him, Mara confronted Siddartha’s claim to have awakened: “Who is your witness?” Siddartha touched the ground and the Earth itself declared being witness, causing Mara to flee, and establishing Siddartha as a Buddha, a fully awakened one.

Rohatsu starts on November 30 and ends on December 8. The schedule is lengthened every day or every other day, so that by the seventh night the meditation practice goes until midnight. Traditionally, one could then meditate all night, honoring the Buddha’s effort to awaken and bring the teaching to humanity, and strive to do the same.

In the Hakuin Ekaku line of the Rinzai lineage, each night we read Hakuin’s “Rohatsu Exhortations.” They are pointed statements of encouragement, and worthy of reading throughout the year. The translation by Zen Studies is a particularly good one, and is available only through our store. Hakuin is a seminal figure in Zen Buddhism, having revived and evolved the tradition, and was an excellent author and calligraphy artist. His works and writing about him are all worth reading. But more importantly, his teachings are worth embodying.

“From the sea of effortless compassion, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth.” ~Hakuin Ekaku

During Rohatsu, my sitting experience was strong and consistent, and despite the fatigue from the rigorous schedule, I found myself eager to return to the zendo each time the bell rang for the next sitting period. However, I found myself struggling with a koan like never before, and it took effort not to succumb to frustration. There is no time frame or finish line when working with koans, and it is said a monk may work on one for months or even years. To the western mind focused on productivity, accomplishment, report cards, quarterly reports and annual reviews, the notion of giving up goals and fear of not achieving them, giving up identity while still experiencing a self, giving up locating one’s efforts on a progress chart… to to relinquish oneself to an organic, undefinable process can be quite disorienting. But we must remember our very lives are like this from the start… learning to walk, to talk, to develop motor skills… none of this happens on a production schedule. Re/discovering the original consciousness from which we come is a lot like this, and finding the middle way between great effort and complete surrender is essential. I will carry my practice with the koan in to winter interim, and for as long as needed for my realization of what it points to.

At DBZ, on the seventh night we listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was a favorite of our visioning founder, Soen Nakagawa, Roshi. It is a fascinating experience to go from a week of deep silence to listening to such a bold and dynamic composition. We listen to it in the zendo which by then is full of zazen energy, facilitating the letting go completely in to the experience of listening, dissolving the veil between listener and sound.

Afterwards I did sit all night, not by declaration, but just deciding to sit as long as I could. On a soft and simple current of concentration, suddenly it was morning. I did not have a thunderous awakening, but the choice to demonstrate to myself my determination and commitment to this practice, I was humbled by the untouchable vastness of the universe, and inspired to continue to surrender to the very consciousness that creates this life experience. My resolve deepened to find what I ought best do in my life by me actions, relationships and offerings to the world. With the end of the retreat, and the 90-day kessei, my practice begins again, renewed and yet the same.

Winter interim will go until March 23, 2018, when the next kessei period begins. I will spend some of the time at DBZ, and some in residency at The New York Zendo/Shobo-ji, providing me opportunity to train in Ashtanga Yoga with Guy Donahaye, support myself with part-time work, and help with the care of and events at Shobo-ji. It will be an important time to integrate what I have lived during this past kessei (and since arriving here), and sustaining my practices to begin kessei with a ready body and focused mind.

The meditation hall at The New York Zendo/Shobo-ji.

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