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.