I have a Zen Buddhist practice. It’s a journey I started nine years ago and I took another step yesterday on that path.
In the tradition I observe, we call it a practice, because that describes a continual effort. Most mornings I meditate for thirty minutes. The app I use says I have done that 1531 times since 2011. Some mornings it is quiet and serene. Other mornings the thoughts in my head spin and whirl; my knees hurt. The practice is to keep sitting and work with whatever arises.
The Buddha was a man who got very interested in the quiet and the whirling. He concluded that the whirling is inherent in who we are as human beings. We want things—a friend we’ve lost, a different President, more hair—and we hurt because we don’t accept things for what they are as ever-changing, impermanent and unsatisfying.
I remember waking up one morning and realizing that I was no longer equipped to deal with my life. We’d been in Portland for about a year. We had moved, so my wife Amy could go back to school to study Chinese medicine. She was struggling with a sickness that couldn’t be diagnosed. I didn’t have a job and was hustling to string together a set of gigs to make the money work. We had a house back in Wisconsin that we couldn’t sell, so we were making two house payments each month. And I was about to become a single father to three young kids for the next four years. I couldn’t imagine being a good father, good husband, or good person.
I am not sure what led me to an evening class on meditation at Dharma Rain. When I told Amy I was going, she said “ok,” not sure what to make of it. After a few weeks and starting to attend the weekly service, she said, “Keep going!” Something had already shifted in how I interacted with her and the kids.
Zen is just one of many flavors of Buddhism. It came from India, through China, and into Vietnam, Korea and Japan. The Soto lineage I practice came through Japan and arrived in the U.S. about 50 years ago. My Dharma great-grandmother was Houn Jiyu-Kennett. She was an English woman who went to Japan to practice Buddhism. She was the first woman to be sanctioned by the Japanese Soto school to teach in the West and the first woman to establish a Zen monastery in America.
I remember having lunch with a friend a few years ago. They practiced deeply in another spiritual tradition and they asked me how serious my Zen practice was. I started to describe the Saturdays of 10 hours of meditation, the Tuesday evening classes on texts and forms, the four or five day silent retreats and how I decided to commit to a teacher to further explore my practice.
“Yeah, that’s serious,” he said.
It didn’t really strike me until then how much the practice was a part of my life. I served on and lead one of the ceremonial teams. I took trips to Japan and India to visit sacred sites in the Buddhist tradition. I am leading a group of practitioners to Japan next year.
Zen is interesting and challenging and transformative for me. The teachings make sense. And there are layers of depth that will take many more years to explore and appreciate. It feels easy to say ‘yes’ to practice. And I said ‘yes’ again yesterday.
I stepped into the shuso role at Dharma Rain and will be serving in that role through the end of the year. The word shuso is translated as “chief junior”. The role in our sangha is a combination of operation manager, work supervisor and protector of the forms. This person runs the meditation retreats and watches over weekly services. It is a big job and a significant commitment of time and energy.
Two years of planning have gone into making this six months possible. I changed jobs. I piled extra work into the first half of this year to make extra time in the second half. Amy is picking up more on the home front with our family. I am not traveling much. I am still working on the next book projects, just a little less. There are many things I am putting down, so I can pick up this up wholeheartedly.
A member at Dharma Rain asked me if I was ready to put my mark on our Zen Center and then he paused for a moment and said, “But it’s funny how it’s usually the exact opposite.”
It’s in that spirit that I share all of this. I can’t see how I won’t be shaped by this experience. Others who have served in the shuso role say you can’t prepare for it or know how you will be changed by it.
That’s why I said ‘Yes.’