Thursday, September 30, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Confusion

Confusion/Delusion: it's all the same to me.

The schedule is off and I can't find it. I wake up after 6 a.m. I reverence the altars and, instead of sitting, I begin to do this and that. It all needs doing, so it is easy to rationalize. Feed the birds – water the bird bath – water the plants – do the dishes – vacuum the floor – make a list – somewhere in all this frenzy I catch my delusion. I think that after I do this or after I do that I will feel peaceful. I will be in a frame of mind that will embrace doing worthwhile things like writing this blog.

Then I begin to reward myself. “Have another cup of coffee,” I say, “You need it. The coffee will help you settle down.” Of course the caffeine has the opposite effect. Now I am really jazzed and my mind is busy making future plans. Will I go to my grand niece's wedding in Baltimore in June? Where will I stay? How will I get there? If I decide this now I will feel better.

I have forgotton the importance of doing each thing for its own sake. I stop this writing and I take three deep breaths. I take refuge in Buddha. I take refuge in Dharma. I take refuge in Sangha.

Every day is a good day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: My Turtle Dies

When I was a little girl, the maid who cared for me often said: “We are born to die, Susie, we are born to die.” My mother did not like hearing that. My mother said the maid was being morbid. She said it was something to do with being Catholic. Eva, the maid, was Catholic, but we were not.

One day when I was in the third grade I came home for lunch to find my pet turtle stiff and rigid in the round della robbia ceramic dish from Italy I kept him in. I picked him up. I wanted him to move across my hand. I wanted to feel his tiny feet tickle me the way they usually did. But that was not to be.

I think this was my first experience of grief. I was inconsolable. I cried and I cried and I cried. I refused to go back to school. I was afraid I had done something wrong. Perhaps I had fed him too much, not enough, or perhaps I had not played with him enough.

I don't remember what happened after that. I don't remember burying the turtle or having any kind of ritual around his passing.

Ritual was something Catholics did. I wonder where Eva was. She would have understood. We might have said the rosary together the way we did when I went to church with her.

I think that all those years ago Eva was saying something about acceptance of death as a part of life. Buddhists say: I am of a nature to be ill; I am of a nature to grow old; I am of a nature to die. Acceptance of this deep truth is a gateway to liberation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: What I Want

This morning I awaken at 6 a.m., a bit late for me. I so enjoy getting up at 5 a.m. and making the rounds of my four altars before day break. There is something soft and soothing about being held in the transition between night and day. Often I sit outside in the Buddha garden before going inside and sitting zazen in front of the altar I call the heart of the house.

After sitting I recite the heart sutra, say a prayer for my teacher Darlene Cohen, and do three bows. Then I am ready to begin my day.

On Wednesday I will teach a practice period class on the first precept: Not killing. I want to prepare to teach this class. I want to know everything there is to know about this precept. I want the words to flow out of me in a way that will touch others and inspire them to study the precept further. I want I want I want. The words I have written jump out at me. They are in capital letters . . . boldface . . . highlighted in red.

Wanting will not work here. Try being, Susan, try being with the efflorescence (unfolding) of your own enlightened nature.

What is trying to unfold here? How can I get out of the way? I love the word effloresence. I find it in an explanation of the five precepts by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche.

“I commit myself to refrain from killing the efflorescence of my own enlightened nature as it sparkles through the fabric of duality.”

In preparing for class my mind desperately wants to know which quotes to choose, what order to put them in. I want to know how to present the material in a way that will be helpful to others.

I want. I want. I want. Let this go, Susan. Let the efflorescence sparkle through. Remember your dharma name.

Ki shu Gyoku jun – bright effort jewel, shining benefit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Fear of the GPS

I have a new GPS. I bought it because I have fear of getting lost in the city, going the wrong way on freeways, having an accident because I can't read a map and drive at the same time.

The GPS has been on the back seat of my car for two weeks. I have been afraid to open the box. I am afraid I won't understand the directions.

Some fears are primal. Others are gleaned over time. In a crisis fear can be a motivator: "The house is on fire . . ..Get everyone out now!"

Sometimes fear, for me, is paralytic. It can deny me expression of deep feelings. It can deny me the experience of doing things I know I would love to do. It can deny me the satisfaction of jobs well done. I don't want to volunteer to do the hard jobs for fear I won't do them well. Sometimes fear says "better not" when "go for it " would have been the better response."

My parents were cautious beings. Trips to New York City were circumscribed by rules that made them feel secure. They stayed in the same hotel, went to the same restaurants and shopped in stores where my mother made friends with department managers. Straying off the beaten path was a dangerous thing. They tried to make me a part of their safe and secure world. At 18 I was packed up and sent to Europe under the tutelage of a chaperone.

There is still a chaperone inside of me that says: "No, no, not yet. Don't do that; it's not safe." Sometimes I listen to her . . . At other times I remember getting lost in Kathmandu and finding a motorcycle taxi to take me home. I remember being on the top of Machu Picchu at night. I remember not knowing where I was in Xian, China and finding a monastery and an English speaking monk who invited me in for tea.

I remember these times and I wonder about all the adventures that await me in the future, now that I have a GPS and a computer companion to show me the way.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Ending

Little Bit is home!

I am feeling grateful to the universe that in this one instance, just this one time, there is a happy ending to the story. I know, it could have been otherwise. Life is pretty iffy. But today, things turned out OK.

Yesterday Little Bit was removed from the oxygenated atmosphere, and although she's still breathing somewhat rapidly, and has pneumonia, she can and should recover. We were able to pick her up from the vet hospital this evening, and can administer her medications at home over the next two weeks. She is playful, happy, thrilled to be out of her "glass box" home that she's been in since Tuesday.

The fear we had was that, at some point, that damn piece of nipple that started this whole thing would still end up in her bowels and cause a blockage. Happily, yesterday afternoon, Little Bit threw up the offending piece, intact. It had been in her stomach the entire time.

The nurses and doctors at the vet clinic were all smiles as well. They, too, were pleased to have a happy ending - all too often at an emergency clinic, that's not the way things turn out.

Thank you to all who offered metta, good thoughts, prayers, kind words. Your support was and is greatly appreciated.

Susan's Shusho Blog: The Vacant House

I walk by an empty house on the street where I live. I know the house is empty because my friend moved out two weeks ago. I walk by and I am curious. I see some things resting on the window sill. I wonder if my friend left some things behind. I try the door and it is unlocked. I walk in. I see that the things on the window sill are model trains. I surmise that the landlord has found a place for his collection, now that the house is vacant.

I feel drawn to walk through the other rooms in the house. I see a new phone book on the kitchen table. I need a new phone book. I am a yellow pages junkie. Going on line is not nearly as compelling for me as "letting my fingers do the shopping." I pick up the phone book and I think I will take it with me. Then something happens. I am physically uncomfortable. The space is pressing in on me. I do not belong here. I walk out the door and down the street to my home. I leave the phone book behind.

Phone books, of course, are not considered valuable. What if there had been cash on the kitchen table, or a diamond ring? I would have gasped and I would have told the landlord. Of course I would not take something of value, but what is the principle here? I was tempted to take something that was not given . It is as simple as that. The value or lack of value of the phone book begs the question.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Susan's Shusho Blog: Killing

What is killing? I read so much about killing in the newspaper. I hear about it on the news. I see it on my tv screen and in the movies. I was brought up on the ten commandments. "Thou shalt not kill" was the big one. War, of course, was rationalized away as being a necessary evil. In graduate school I read a book by Michael Walzer called Just and Unjust Wars. His thesis was that we no longer have just wars. Vietnam changed all that. One of the rules of a just war was that it didn't involve civilians. In Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan we don't know who the enemy is. Innocent people are hurt and killed; wedding parties interrupted by violence.

Projection is a psychological process whereby we project powerful feelings inside ourselves onto the body of another. This can happen between two people. I see you and I have a story about you. I am hungry so I think you must be hungry too. I am sad and I feel sadness coming from you. When negative feelings of anger, rage and fear are projected out onto a group of people they become "the other" and a dangerous situation is created.

I remember trying to understand how I was a part of what happened in Nazi Germany before the Second World War. Jew hatred and fear of Jews and jealousy of Jews was projected out onto millions of people. Millions of Jews became "the other". It was easy then to see the other as enemy and see the need for their annihilation.

How can we live in the peace and harmony we say we desperately want and seek? In my 12 or so years of Buddhist practice I have come to believe that the answer to that question lies within. If we can't recognize and own our deepest feelings, we are all in danger of projecting them out. Buddhist confession is reality based. It says look within for the darkness that lies there. Zazen creates the space and the stability for this process to take place.

All my ancient twisted karma
from beginingless greed, hate and delusion
born through body speech and mind
I now fully avow
After saying the confession we say the refuges:

I take refuge in Buddha
I take refuge in dharma
I take refuge in sangha

We are held by the perfect teacher, we have a path and others are there to help. This works. Take it from me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

She's a Fighter

The last 36 hours have been gut-wrenching. Little Bit is still at the vet hospital. My partner Sabrina and I have ridden a rollercoaster of emotions, with each phone call from the vet sending us up to hope, or down to despair.

The very good news: Little Bit has recovered her spunk, is eating heartily, and is very responsive. She is fighting this. And it doesn't appear that there is any blockage, so that fear is gone.

The not so good news: Her lungs are still very compromised, because there is mineral oil aspiration. Earlier today, we were told that she would never be able to live outside of an oxygen tank, and knew that the decision to put her down was imminent. But moments later, the vet called again to say they had taken a new x-ray, and much to their surprise, the lungs showed improvement - against all of their expectations. So there is still hope.

When I called Tony in tears yesterday, he said, well, Buddhists don't really pray....but, heck, people pray. Pray!

So I'm praying. And some good friends who are Catholics have called in the saints. Do what you can. Send out a good thought for Little Bit.

Susan's Shusho Blog: Being Upright

Last night was our first Russian River Zendo practice period class. We are studying shila paramita: the peace and coolness of being upright.

There are 35 people in the class. At the beginning of class I offered everyone ten minutes of authentic movement. Half of us moved in the center of a circle with our eyes closed while the other half witnessed them . Then we switched places: the movers became witnesses and the witnesses got to move. In allowing our bodies to move freely where they will, we experience a letting go of and a transition from the work world to the spaciousness needed for studying the precepts.

Darlene spoke about shila as the opportunity to be truly present to our experience right now. She recommended we read Reb Anderson's book: Being Upright.

After Darlene's presentation we did a free write on the prompt: "I feel upright when . . . " People were asked to write for five minutes without judging, questioning, changing or crossing out. "Just let your pen take you where it will", I told them. The idea for doing free writes comes from Natalie Goldberg's book: Writing Down the Bones. Along with being a writer and a teacher of writing, Natalie is a Zen priest. She believes that writing mind and Zen mind come from the same place.

After writing practice people shared what they had written with a neighbor. The room was alive with chatter. Everyone had so much to say. We then shared what we had written with the larger group.

My writing took me to a time last winter when I needed to be honest with a friend about something he had done that I didn't like. My friend called me and asked if he could stay in our guest room. The easy thing would have been to lie and say the room wasn't available. The honest thing was to say I didn't like the way he had left the room the last time he stayed there. I was resentful of all the work I had to do to clean up after him. I chose to tell the truth and in so doing I realized I was breaking a long habit of slipping and slithering through life by telling half truths, little white lies, or remaining silent because I was afraid I would hurt someone's feelings.

This time my friend did not stay with me but he did come for dinner. We talked a long time. Our conversation went way beyond the messy guest room. At the end of the evening we had a better understanding of one another.

How did it feel to be upright? It felt like it was me being me. It felt wonderful. It felt cool and it felt peaceful.

"The condition of you being you is the source of peace and the source of love". (Being Upright, pg. 43.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tiny Life

We are in the midst of weaning our kitten, Little Bit. She has been resistant, often still wanting the bottle and refusing to eat the various foods we have tried: second-step weaning mixture, like a gruel; kitten food; moist kibble; baby food. We have been at our wits' end, trying to make sure she gets enough nourishment.

Yesterday I had her at work with me, and was trying to feed her. She hadn't eaten much at all so far that day. I was using the baby bottle to pour the gruel into a small dish. She had previously gnawed through the tip, so it was open at the top. She was acting frantic for food, but wouldn't lap out of the bowl. She was grabbing for the bottle. I finally decided to see if I could use the bottle to let her chug some liquid down, even though the nipple wasn't all there. But - in the middle of that, she took a big bite, and ripped off most of the rest of the nipple and swallowed it.

We called our vet, and he was worried that it might cause problems, blockage in the intestines. He recommended trying to get her to vomit. She only weighs 1 lb. 7 oz. I didn't feel confident doing it on my own. Our regular vet is in Santa Rosa, but I was in Calistoga, so I brought her to the vet there. We induced vomiting, but no nipple piece came up. The vet then gave her some mineral oil, hoping that at least it could help her pass the piece from the other end.

But she was miserable. By that night, it was clear that it was not just trauma from the day's event. Something was wrong. We ended up making an emergency trip to PetCare in Santa Rosa. She had aspirated either vomit or mineral oil, and was struggling to breathe, in danger of developing pnemonia. We were told that the diagnosis was "guarded" - less than fair. We left her in their care, driving home in tears.

This kitten, who we have bottle-fed and nurtured for the past five weeks, has become like a baby for us. We are both feeling devastated. My feelings are compounded by guilt: I shouldn't have let her use the bottle. I should have brought her to the vet more quickly. I should have brought her to our regular vet. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I called just a few moments ago, and the doctor said she is doing slightly better, breathing without quite as much effort. I am just praying she is strong enough to make it through.

Susan's Shusho Blog: What Has Aging Got to Do With It

My doctor calls. " I don't like the look of your bone scan", she tells me. "I think you should go back on fosamax. Over the next ten years you are at a high risk of breaking a bone or a hip."

The phone rings. It is my dentist's office reminding me of an appointment tomorrow.

What next? Some days it seems an endless making and keeping of appointments to keep this body on the road. Already this fall I have had a bone scan, an ultra sound, and a mammogram. Soon I will see the skin doctor.

This morning I have a realization. This 78 years old body is a gift. I may not like it, but I have the privilege of being able to take care of it. I am blessed with doctors I love. I have a yoga and a pilates practice. today I will call a woman who has studied bone health for years. She knows of alternatives to drugs. I have another friend who knows about ways to stimulate the brain by playing games on the computer.

The longer I can keep this skin bag going, the longer I will be able to help others.

The first line of a vow Buddhists take when they accept the precepts goes like this:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
We take this vow with full knowledge of its impossibility.

It is a matter of deep intention. It gets into your bones.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Lobsters and Clams and Little Furry Things

Last summer I spent a week at Tassajara Zen Center in Carmel Valley, California. My granddaughter Grace was with me. We were attending a five day yoga and meditation retreat. Grace is 16. She is afraid of spiders. Every day it was my job to remove daddy-long-legs from the white curtains that covered the windows of our yurt room.

I told Grace they were harmless, but this did not reassure her. At some point in my practice of Zen I found myself taking bugs and unwelcome intruders outside instead of automatically killing them. Saving small creatures from death can bring a sense of self righteousness. "Oh look at me now, I am practicing the first grave precept: "A disciple of Buddha does not kill."

Self righteousness dissolves when I remember the mouse poison I leave in the storage shed. . . a week later I discover two little furry things stiff and dead. Better them, I think, than the memorabilia and photos they use as nesting material.

I have been advised to trap gophers . " This is the only way to get rid of them," my gardening buddy tells me. You trap them and then you whack them over the head. This I cannot do.

I used to think nothing of dropping a green lobster into boiling water. I didn't connect with the pain of being boiled alive. I thought only of succulent lobster meat dipped in lemon and butter.

When I lived on Cape Cod I loved walking the clam flats at low tide. An air bubble meant there was a clam underneath. . . a quick dig brought forth a creature in a hard shell. . . a clam knife opened it. I topped it with lemon and cocktail sauce . . . yum . . . it doesn't get any better or fresher than that!

I no longer dig clams or boil lobsters. I do, however, enjoy clam chowder and lobster rolls prepared for me by others.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Taking Refuge

I say the refuges to myself often. I say them before I go to bed. I say them when I wake up in the middle of the night. I say them when I am stalled in traffic. I say them when I am having a sticky problem with a friend .

I take refuge in buddha
I take refuge in dharma
I take refuge in sangha
The refuges are also known as "the triple treasure." They are said to be the base upon which all the other precepts rest. They are home base. They are where you go when there is nowhere else to be.

Yesterday I said something to my daughter I shouldn't have said. It was early morning and I wasn't quite awake. I wrestled with excuses until mid-afternoon when I knew something had to be done. I realized my words had more to do with my inability to let go of some things than it had to do with what she had said to me. I knew I needed to let go but there was a part of me that was still hanging on.

I went to Ragle Park. I lay on the copper covered bench in the peace garden. At 6 p .m. it still held warm from the sun. I lay there and I said the refuges over and over and over again. I invited the refuges to help me let go.

What does in mean to take refuge? For me it means taking refuge from old patterns and ways of being that no longer work. It means the possibility of moving toward freedom.

I come home and I say I am sorry. I have come home to my true home.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Susan's Shuso Blog: Forms & Ceremonies

I love forms and ceremonies: the more bells the better. I love offering incense. I love seeing the purply grey smoke rise and, in my imagination and deep feeling, I see it embrace all beings.

There are four altars in my home. As part of shuso (head student) training, I visit these altars every morning before dawn. I light candles, offer incense, say the refuges and bow to each one three times.

After sitting zazen I say the heart sutra and I offer a prayer for the continuing good health of my teacher, Darlene Cohen.

Last week she came to my home to help me set up the altars. My friends and sangha mates Sarita and Sara came with her.

Each altar was given offerings of candles, flowers, and incense. The main altar, the one I call the heart of the house, was also given an offering of sweet tea and fruit.

We walked slowly from one altar to the next lighting candles and offering incense. In doing this we were setting up the ritual I will follow for the six weeks I am shuso.

Behind me as I write is the creativity altar. It stands at the entrance to my studio where I work in clay. Sometimes other people join me in making clay figures.

When I offer incense at the studio altar I celebrate creativity in all beings. I see the Jizo Bodhisattva figure my friend Peggy made.

Jizo is a buddhist archetype known for helping people in times of transition and change. It is said that Jizo will fearlessly go into the Hell realm with you. This jizo has a smile on its face. It carries a staff of prayer flags. It holds a shining jewel in its left hand. It is able and willing to shine light on all situations.

Today I invite jizo to go with me to Berkeley Zen Center where I will be installed as shuso for a six week practice period. During this time I will be asked to teach, host practice teas, do work practice in the zendo. I so look forward to this time . I look forward to becoming more embedded in my practice and more connected to people in the sangha. I know there will be times of fear and trepidation. I will take Jizo with me. I will hold his smile in my heart.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Minor Glitch

There's always a bug to work out the first time, isn't there? While trying to ready Susan's first blog post, I thought I could get it all set up and save it, then just hit "publish" later on, on Sept. 19, and the post would carry the date stamp of Sept. 19. Nope. Not true. The post carried the date stamp of the date/time when I saved it as a draft. Hmmm. Learn something new every day in the blogosphere....

So -- I did some reverse engineering, and fixed it. (Don't ask for details. It wasn't very pretty.) But now Susan's first blog post does appear, as it should, on Sept. 19, the first day of her official start as shuso, and I was left with the task of filling up this silly little space here. With my ramblings. Lucky you.

I promise to have something more profound to share tomorrow.

An Introduction -- Blog Guest

For the next six weeks, I will be sharing this blog with sangha member Susan Spencer. Susan will be installed as the shuso (head student) at the fall practice period led by teacher Darlene Cohen. The practice period begins tomorrow with a one-day sit at the Berkeley Zen Center, and her induction, and ends with the final shuso ceremony at Russian River Zendo on Oct. 31, following a three-day sesshin at the Black Mountain Retreat Center. In between, Susan will teach two classes on the precepts, host practice teas with everyone signed up for the practice period, do weekly work practice at the zendo, and make daily entries here in the Russian River Zendo blog.

The theme of the fall practice period will be Shila Paramita, or "Uprightness" and its importance to the practice of considering our state of mind as primary. The focus will be looking on the precepts as a way of cultivating a calm and steady mind.

Susan moved to California from Minneapolis in 1998. She met her teacher, Darlene Cohen, at San Francisco Zen Center where she practiced until moving to Sebastopol in 2001. She presently practices at Russian River Zendo, where she participates in the life of the sangha in many ways, including acting as head gardener.

My own introduction to Susan was through her work as an artist. Susan is the marvelously talented and whimsically playful ceramicist that invited all of us into her studio last year to plunge our hands into clay, to make jizo figures for the zendo garden.

Here's how it will work: Susan's posts will appear each day with a main headline that says "Susan's Shuso Blog:...." with a secondary headline for the day. Each of her posts will also be accompanied by her photograph. I will still be acting as "blog master" - she plans to send me the text each morning by 10 a.m., and I'll post as soon after that time as I am able.

My own posts will continue as usual, about three times a week, interspersed between Susan's blogs. You'll know they're mine, because they WON'T have her photograph, or the "Susan's Shuso Blog" header.

Comments welcome, remember. I know that Susan would love feedback. This is her first time doing something like this.

Clear as mud? OK, let's go!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Changing Hurt to Hope

One of the things that fell to the wayside when I was struggling with my own depression was reaching out and helping others. It took all I had, day to day, just to deal with my own life. But when things began to lighten, one of the first resolutions I made was to get re-involved in some way, because I missed that sense of giving back in a tangible way.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I worked as a volunteer in the field of domestic violence prevention, and also did rape crisis hot line work. I did a number of things: wrote letters, accompanied women to court, trained other volunteers. But what I enjoyed most was giving talks to groups in the community about domestic violence, educating people and raising awareness.

A couple of months ago, I contacted the YWCA in Sonoma County to ask about volunteering. The outreach team was newly formed, and while brainstorming ideas for the upcoming Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, I came up with the notion of combining my passion for social justice with my passion for words - the result is "Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence."

We have solicited poetry, "flash" fiction (1000 words or less) and memoir from writers in the county on domestic violence. On three nights in October, the writers will read their words at public events, and a representative from the YWCA will give a brief talk on domestic violence, and the services provided by the Y. The events are set for Oct. 8 in Sebastopol at the Center for the Arts, on Oct. 15 at the Arts Council of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, and on Oct. 22 at the Cloverdale Arts Alliance First Street Gallery.

It has been a challenging and fun project. A team of three volunteers, working with the YWCA's volunteer coordinator Donata Bohanec, has been meeting at least every other week since mid-July, writing up press releases, setting writing guidelines, securing locations for the events, making plans. I have also been coordinating submissions, and so have been in contact with writers. It feels wonderful to be doing something that matters, even though it is a little terrifying, because there's always the chance that it will flop - we didn't have much planning time, because we got a late start, so we've been playing catch up.

In the meantime, I am working on my own submission. Because I am a writer, for one. And secondly, I am a survivor of domestic violence, which is one of the reasons that this issue resonates for me at my very core.

For more information, go to the YWCA's website at this address. (FYI - if any of you are considering writing an entry, I have extended the deadline to Oct. 1. Just send me an email and let me know that an entry is on its way.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A New Name

The part of jukai which I was most anticipating, both with eagerness and with trepidation, was the receipt of my new Buddhist name. Traditionally, a student turns in her completed rakusu with blank white silk on the back side. And on the day of jukai, for the first time, she receives the rakusu back, inked with her new Buddhist name, and hears it spoken aloud.

My trepidation arose from the usual places - what if my name didn't make sense to me? What if it didn't fit? What if I was named "she who worries too much"? Or "she who is the biggest procrastinator"? Of course, I imagined all of my worst traits being highlighted and brought to the forefront.

The eagerness, though, was also there. This was a chance to start fresh, to see myself new. To allow myself, perhaps, to grow into a name.

When the time came during the jukai ceremony for us to receive our rakusu and names, I was sixth of the seven. So first, I was able to watch what happened to those who went before me. And it was amazing. As Cheri, my first sangha mate, heard her name, and held her rakusu in her hands, the aptness of "Dragon Soaring, Vast Mind/Heart" filled her chest and rose up into her face. The name moved into her as if it were an inhalation that she had been waiting to make for years. On down the row, it was the same. Each person seemed to fit the name; the name fit the person.

When it was my turn, I stood in front of Tony and bowed. He pronounced my new name: Ankyō Kikan. "Dark Mirror, Joyful Reflection/Insight." We bowed again, and I sat down.

I was overwhelmed with emotion. There was some initial fear, about that image of a dark mirror. The naming, we had been told, is such that the first part indicates where your practice is now, and the second part shows where you are headed. So I was grateful that Tony and Darlene foresaw joyful reflection ahead. But did they see me as dark and brooding now? Quickly, though, a trusting voice rose up from inside of me. No, it said. These are your teachers. They are giving you a gift, not something negative. I realized that it was simply a name with depth, a metaphor of complexity - and, as Tony pointed out later on, a fine name for a poet.

A week later, Darlene told me that they had used the "dark mirror" image in part to reference the deep pain in my past. But the image she had was of a mirror in the darkness, that looked frightening, because you can't see into it. Then, as you step close, suddenly a beautiful moonbeam is reflected out into the night - joyful reflection. Ah.

I am Ankyō Kikan.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Joining Phobia

My jukai ceremony on Aug. 21 was not the first time that I spoke Buddhist vows - I actually said them once before in a public ceremony when I married Sabrina on June 29, 2008, with Tony and Darlene officiating.

But the ceremony this past August highlighted a critical difference between those two experiences: a true sense of sangha.

I began coming to the Healdsburg sangha about three and a half years ago. I attended sporadically, dipping my toe in, then running away. I wanted it so badly, but I was also wary. I was alternately aloof and removed, or too intimate, followed by a sense of being exposed and getting my feelings hurt. Finally I stopped going altogether. At home, alone, I established a regular sitting practice, which I maintained for six months, giving myself a sense of security.

In June of 2008, when the courts ruled that gays and lesbians could legally marry, I immediately knew that I wanted Tony and Darlene to conduct our wedding. I called and asked them, and they said yes. As we talked over the ceremony in the coming days, we discussed the precepts, and whether I was able to say yes to the three refuges: I take refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. I had no problem with the first two. But at the third, I balked. I didn't really feel like I was part of the Healdsburg sangha. I asked Tony and Darlene if I could use my community of friends as my sangha, and they said yes, of course. So that is how we went forward.

On that wedding day, I not only married the woman I love, I also at last made a commitment to my Buddhist practice. I took that first step towards belonging.

I have never been a joiner. I'm not sure why, exactly, if it's because I'm afraid people won't like me if they get too close, or if it will just get too complicated. Or maybe because joining would mean truly making a commitment, when I have always wanted a quick exit. That is probably a big part of it, since for so many years, I had at least some notion of a suicide plan on the horizon. I didn't like getting too attached. I thought I could protect people from me, from my pain, from my suffering. Even after I decided to stick around, the behavior had become a habit. I didn't know how to become part of the group. I was timid, uncertain, never clear on my role, and so I tended to avoid the scene completely.

But after those wedding vows, I began to attend the Healdsburg sangha every week. I contributed in small ways. I started setting up the altar before the sit. I took on the role of kokyo (chant leader). When asked to give a student talk, I said yes. Eventually, I was invited to prepare for jukai, and then I sewed my rakusu with six other sangha members, as well as attending precepts classes for a year. I also attended a study group for a number of months. I took turns at Russian River Zendo serving as doan, and stepped forward at one-day practice periods to serve as needed: tea server, kokyo, doan, altar attendant.

On the day of my jukai ceremony, we sat in meditation in the morning for two sessions, on cushions facing the wall. As others came in, they occupied chairs facing the opposite wall. When we turned around to start the morning service, I was surprised to see all the people in the room. And throughout the day, later on, the people who attended the service. And the stack of cards and small gifts left for those of us who went through jukai. I found myself looking around and saying, "Oh, there's Beata! And Joan! And look, Cynthia and Lisa are here. And Malcolm, Judith, Suzanne, Susan...." The list just kept going on.

Suddenly I realized - "I have sangha." Here they were. People from the Healdsburg sangha, from the Russian River Zendo sangha, from San Francisco Zen Center, from the Santa Cruz Zen Center. All of them gathered to support me and my fellow sangha members in our ordination ceremony.

Perhaps the biggest gift of the day, then, was this: I realized that I have joined, and it did not frighten me one bit. In fact, it made me glad.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Taking the Precepts

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in dharma.
I take refuge in sangha.

On Aug. 21, with six members of my sangha, I underwent lay ordination, jukai, and took Buddhist precepts. We entered the zendo, where 50 of our friends, family members and sangha members sat as audience, in a procession with the music of inkans, clappers and drum.The ceremony was one of great formality and theater, as we seven sat on our cushions in front of the altar. In addition to our teachers, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, there were about six other Zen priests in attendance, in full robes. We chanted, bowed, moved carefully and with awareness.

But underneath all of the ceremony was a bubbling joy, an effervescent excitement. It was irrepressible. Early on, Darlene blessed the room with holy water. She bent over a cup of water, murmuring very soft incantations. The entire room hushed, straining to hear her. Then she dipped a pine sprig into the water, and walked over to the altar, spraying droplets on the altar. She then came in front of those of us going through jukai, and sent water in our direction. As she flung water from the pine bough towards me, it caught me full in the face. She smiled impishly and said, "Ah, direct hit!" The entire room broke into laughter.

As we moved from that point into our vows, taking the 16 precepts, the energy of the room, of our practice together, of that afternoon, carried us. First we recited the three treasures, named above, each one three times. Then we went through the three pure precepts: Do good. Avoid doing evil. Work for the benefit of others.

Finally, there are the 10 grave precepts: 1) Do not kill. 2) Do not steal. 3) Do not misuse sexuality. 4) Do not lie. 5) Do not cloud the mind. 6) Do not speak of other's errors or faults. 7) Do not elevate the self above others. 8) Do not be withholding. 9) Do not be angry. 10) Do not defile the Three Treasures.

Our teachers asked us question after question, querying us, will you uphold these principles? And we would respond: "Yes, I will." Always, always, three times for each concept.

The repetition, the vocalization of vow in front of those we love, had a profound and deep affect on all of us that day, I think. I know it did on me.

I have been living a life committed to the path of Zen Buddhism for some time now. But on that Saturday in August, when I spoke my vows aloud, I affirmed my belief in a new way, with a renewed vigor. And I now feel more centered within my practice than ever before. It is easy to discount ceremony as pomp and frill - but there is something to the magic that happens when a group of people gathers together and performs a ritual act. Lives can and do change.