Monday, November 2, 2009

Black Belt Zen

The sesshin that I just participated in was the final part of a six-week practice period led by Darlene Cohen on virya paramita (or the perfection of energy/effort). The practice period began with an all-day sit at Berkeley Zen Center, which I attended, and then there were weekly study classes in Pacifica, which I unfortunately was not able to attend, since they happened on Wednesday nights, my newspaper deadline day. The conclusion was the three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and then the closing ceremony at Russian River Zendo Sunday afternoon.

Cynthia Kear acted as shuso for the practice period, or apprentice teacher. Shuso is one of the rites of initiation for priests, as they move towards becoming Zen teachers.

The final shuso ceremony is a fabulous "high church" Zen ritual, with all priests in full robes, a processional, lots of bowing and chanting. The apex of the ceremony is the "test," when each person in attendance gets to ask the shuso a question, which she has to answer in rapid-fire succession. There were about 40 people in attendance. As each person's turn came, they would call out, "Shuso!" Cynthia would say, "Hai!" (which means "yes" in Japanese). Then the person would ask their question. Cynthia would answer, then pound the wooden staff in her hand on the ground, signalling the end of the exchange.

Questions covered a wide gamut, from explorations of the practice period ("How do you find virya in your practice?") to age-old philosophical questions ("Is there a God?" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?") to questions of a more personal nature, exploring particular struggles ongoing for those in attendance. The answers were similarly varied, from the pragmatic to the wise, from heart-talk to belly-laugh.

Watching the shuso ceremony reminded me again of my aikido experience. The Japanese martial art of aikido is entirely self defensive. There are no competitions, and attacks are learned only so you can assist your fellow practitioners in learning how to deflect them. When a person decides to go for a black belt, there is a formal testing ceremony. The black belt candidate stands in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by fellow students. The students take turns attacking, one by one, and the black belt candidate must meet each attack with the appropriate defensive move.

Watching Cynthia yesterday, it was exactly like that: She was a Zen teacher earning her black belt, staying present and alert, meeting each one of us head on, heart open, sharing her wisdom, and helping us find our own answers.

My question was simple: "How can I forgive the unforgiveable?" The beauty of this practice is that not only did I get the perfect answer from Cynthia, but two other Zen practitioners in attendance came up to me at the reception with their own solutions. Now all I have to do is let it all settle and distill in my own quiet space, to find my own truth.

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