The Mystery of Vow

I know many people who are experts at what they do. They’re brilliant when it comes to investing, or they know all about gardening, or they can explain in detail exactly what makes a particular symphony such a pivotal turning point in the history of music. There are yet other people who simply have an opinion about many things, whether or not they have a strong knowledge base.

Between these two groups of people, up until a few years ago, I often found myself surrounded by friends, family and acquaintances who flooded me with words of advice – everything from what I should do with my money to what kind of coffee I should buy, from where I should live to what career I should pursue, from what spiritual path I should embark upon to what kind of music I should put in my CD player.

Much of the advice-giving happened, I believe, because the people in my life saw me as lost, as fragmented. It seemed that I needed guidance. And I was vulnerable to that impression, at times believing it myself.

But as time passed, I realized the long and rocky path I had traveled had given me a great deal of personal wisdom. I knew things. Yes, I have been a victim of molestation, sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, I have struggled with mental illness, alcoholism and eating disorders. Yes, I have attempted suicide. Yes, I was even classified for a time as permanently disabled for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Yet I survived. Slowly, slowly, I began to rebuild myself. I got clean and sober. I worked in therapy as if my life depended on it – because it did. I began to write, and there found the voice I needed to first express the pain, and eventually to begin writing about beauty.

About six years ago, for the first time, I began to feel as if I might have something to give. Perhaps I, too, would be able to find words of advice for someone. From my own experience in hell, I thought I might be able to lead another person out of the pit.

There was only one problem. I have never believed in giving unasked for advice. And no one in my life saw me any differently yet. I was still broken Michelle. So there were no seekers knocking on my door. No one thought to ask me for assistance.

Until now. Over the past four months, it seems as if almost weekly something has come up. People have been approaching me with all kinds of situations and problems, asking me to help them think things through. Not little things, either. Big things. Suicidality, substance abuse, schizophrenic episodes, fear of death, spirituality.

I am humbled by the trust these friends show in me. For each one of them, what I try to do is be fully present, listen, share what I can of my story that might have some relevance, help them look at their own resources for answers. Often listening is the most important act. I know that because that’s what I needed. I remember all the times I wasn’t listened to, all the times a doctor or a psychiatrist or a police officer didn’t hear me.

Today I was feeling so grateful this is happening, that I am finally having this chance to give back in some small way, to transform all the hurt I experienced into something good. And I was trying to figure out how it came about. Why now? Why are people asking me for help?

Then it hit me. It is because I made a vow to follow the bodhisattva path. It is because I went through jukai (lay ordination). My intention is manifesting itself in the universe.

My Buddhist name is being realized: Ankyo Kikan, Dark Mirror (my past) Joyful Reflection (my future).


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.


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.


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.


Still Searching for the Words

Last Saturday I went through jukai, and am now a lay ordained Zen Buddhist.

There is so much to say. And yet I cannot for the life of me begin to put it into words. The days leading up to the ceremony were full of anticipation, so much so that I was unable to sit down at the keyboard. And then after the day itself, I was so full, so complete, that I was exhausted. The Sunday following, I hibernated, doing little more than read the congratulatory cards from the members of my sangha.

The full import hit me on Tuesday, when I attended my regular Zen sangha group in Healdsburg. The seven of us who had been through jukai showed up with our newly received rakusu. Before the sit, we did the robe chant for the first time at that zendo, and donned our rakusu, wearing them for the rest of the evening. It felt like we had all grown up in a way, entered a new phase of our practice.

I hope, over the next week, to talk about the ceremony, and what it meant to me. About my new name, and receiving my lineage papers, and becoming part of a sangha in a richer way. For now, I must leave it at this: I feel changed. I feel renewed. And I am very, very grateful to Tony and Darlene for giving me this chance to deepen my practice.



Yesterday I sewed the envelope for my rakusu, the final step in my sewing process. All nine of us were present yesterday, coming together one last time specifically to work on the envelopes, even though many in the group are not quite done with the rakusu themselves. But all are so close – so close!

Our teacher, Tony Patchell, came to Sebastopol to pick up the two completed rakusu, Debi Papazian’s and mine. Our sewing teacher Connie Ayers had set up a small altar just outside of our sewing studio. She lit a candle and incense. Debi and I took turns passing our rakusu through the incense smoke three times, bowing to the altar, and then turning and bowing to Tony, handing him the rakusu. It was official. We were done!

Sewing the envelope was especially fun because we got to be a little bit wild. The rakusu itself is pretty traditional, with its staid navy blue. The only deviation was that we were allowed to choose our color of thread. I chose a shimmering green. The envelope is made of the same navy blue on the outside, but on the lining, anything goes. Generally you use silk, something with some stiffness to help the envelope stay flat. But colors, patterns – go for it! I chose a green that matches my thread, with dragonflies.

Jukai is now five months away. So after pouring myself into this sewing for the last six months, I have now just given it away, and I won’t see my rakusu again until August. And then, the blank white silk on the opposite side will have my new Buddhist name, and I will be taking refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. Five more months.

One Stitch at a Time – Revisited

Namu kie butsu. Namu kie butsu. Namu kie butsu.

“I take refuge in Buddha.”

The three-part stitch used in the sewing of the rakusu is done while chanting (internally) namu kie butsu. It is a reminder that with each push of the needle, we are meditating, and preparing for our lay ordination (jukai).

Today I spent three hours at home sewing. I stitched the outer edge of the face of the rakusu, and the seams of the straps. When we began this process in October, I had no idea how involved it would be. Had I known, I would have been more terrified. Luckily, I only know one step at a time. And I am amazed at the results. It actually looks like something! And my stitches, while not perfect, are pretty darn consistent. It is intensely gratifying to do this work.

While I sat at the kitchen counter, bent low over my sewing, my kitten Kenji kept coming up to investigate. I am paranoid about the pins and needles, which can be incredibly dangerous for a kitten. So I removed him numerous times – but he always returned. Finally, he sat down on top of my sewing envelope, curled up tight, then sat mesmerized, watching me work. It’s always good to have helpers.

On Sunday, at my sewing class, I will be attaching the four tiny squares to each corner of the face of the rakusu, a step which I have been told is the most difficult, because the pieces are so small. Part of me is dreading it, because I think it will be hard and I’ll probably mess up and it will take forever. But another part of me is excited, because it means I will be one step closer to finishing, and coming in on the home stretch.

Tomorrow one of my sangha members, Frederika, will be going through her jukai ceremony with two other people at Russian River Zendo. I am going to attend. It will be the first time I’ve seen a jukai ceremony. At the heart, of course, is receiving the completed rakusu, after our Zen teachers have written on the white silk back, giving us our Buddhist name. My own jukai is only six months away. I am very much looking forward to being a witness at the ceremony tomorrow, and getting a taste of what is coming up for me.

Until then…keep on sewing, one stitch at a time.


Merrily We Sew Along…

It was a big moment in sewing class today. Debi Papazian finished her rakusu! She is the first in our group to successfully complete the face, straps and envelope, and is now an official sewing graduate.

There are nine of us, seven from the Healdsburg sangha, who have been meeting weekly on Sundays since October to work on our rakusu in preparation for jukai, or Zen lay ordination, which is scheduled for August.

When our sewing teacher Connie Ayers first said we would probably be meeting through February, I thought, geez, it won’t take that long! This flippancy, however, was born of naivete. It arose from a place of ignorance, before I was properly introduced to the myriad intricacies, convoluted patterns and layers upon layers of stitches that comprise a Zen rakusu.

As you can see by my rakusu, pictured above, I am not quite ready to graduate. Now, February seems alarmingly close at hand. I have been assured (repeatedly) that this is not a race. What do you mean, not a race? It’s a class, right? Classes are contests! That’s what I did throughout my academic life – enroll, study hard, excel, revel in the high grades.

Well, with a couple of exceptions, of course. There was that disastrous home economics course my mother forced me to take in ninth grade. I somehow skated through the cooking portion, because we were assigned to teams. On my team, the other two girls cooked, and I ate what they cooked. It worked beautifully. Unfortunately, when it was time to sew, I didn’t get to share my A-line skirt with someone else. I had to make my own. Let’s just say “horrid,” and leave it at that. I haven’t been near a needle since.

That is, until October. And here I am, spending my Sunday afternoons sewing. (The only person more incredulous than me about this whole state of affairs is my mother. Every time I see her lately, she says, “And you’re sewing!” Then she shakes her head, clearly wondering what other surprises the universe has in store for her.)

What I am truly beginning to appreciate through this experience is the nature of the student/teacher relationship. Connie has been so patient, and so gentle in her tutelage, moving from person to person around the room. Barely a moment goes by without one of us raising our hand in the air and whimpering, “Connie, can I be next?” When one is confidently stitching away, her neighbor has just knotted her thread in the wrong spot. As another masters the art of pinning, his neighbor finds he has mistakenly sewn through three layers of cloth instead of the aimed-for two. None of us are ever at exactly the same place at exactly the same time. And yet, somehow, Connie manages to keep us all occupied, soothed, supported, challenged, and committed. Now, that’s a teacher.

So I’m not at the head of the class. I’m learning it feels pretty darn good simply to be showing up.


Sewing with Worry Brain

Today I finished the patchwork face of my rakusu. I am amazed that I have come this far – it actually looks the way it is supposed to look, which is nothing short of a miracle, given my past history with sewing.

I missed the last two weeks of sewing group, first because our teacher Connie was out of town, and then because I was home tending to my little dog Houla. At our last session before that break, I was “ahead” – keeping pace with one other student, I was farthest along on the project.

But the missed time meant that now I am more in the middle of the pack, with three people significantly deeper into the sewing. While I was concentrating on my final vertical seams on the front piece this afternoon, I was overhearing the instructions they were receiving on the next steps, and I often glanced in their direction to see what was in my near future. They were marking and cutting the frame, pinning and sewing the frame, measuring the white fabric that will lie on the reverse side.

Two things happened: one, I didn’t like being “behind.” As much as I knew it was silly, as much as I know this is not a race, I love being “ahead.” That’s a very, very old habit, and one which is definitely in need of revision, so it’s probably excellent practice for me to lag behind. In fact, I should stay behind for the rest of the classes, just to work on sitting with that uncomfortable feeling.

The second thing was this – I began to stew and fret about the future steps. They looked hard; I didn’t fully comprehend what others were doing. It seemed like I would not be able to execute the tasks when it came time.

What’s comical about this is that when I was “ahead,” I wasn’t worried at all. Because I had absolutely no idea what was coming next, I had no reason to worry about it. I simply did the very simple tasks Connie set before me, one at a time. Now, suddenly, because I am aware of the progression of the building of the rakusu, I am starting to stiffen up with fear and feelings of inadequacy. I’m looking five steps ahead and thinking, “I can’t do that!”

What a great metaphor for staying in the moment! When there was no future, I had no worry, and I was completely competent, with “beginner’s mind” fully intact. As soon as a future appeared, I began to fret, and “expert mind” took over, leaving me feeling absolutely stymied.

A young friend of mine, age eleven, has been learning for the last several years to deal with obsessive compulsive disorder. She calls the two voices in her head “Bossy Brain” and “Worry Brain.” “Bossy Brain” tells her to do things, like wash her hands over and over again, or turn on all the lights in the house. “Worry Brain” is the voice of anxiety, creating tension over imagined negative outcomes of things that are off in the future. When she feels herself succumbing to one of these voices, she talks to herself: “Now, that’s just ‘Worry Brain.’ Summer camp will probably be really fun. I’m not going to listen to you, ‘Worry Brain.'”

Today, I realized, I was sewing with “Worry Brain.” As soon as those words came into my head, I laughed to myself. Ah, I recognize you! I gave “Worry Brain” a little talking to, quietly coaxed “beginner’s mind” to come up out of hiding, and got back to work.

So goes the sewing. Life lessons with every stitch.


Getting Intimate with Anger

As part of the jukai process (lay ordination), each of us was asked in August to choose one of the Buddhist precepts to practice literally for a year. The intent was to select something that would be challenging, something that touched a deep part of yourself.

I chose the Ninth Precept, which deals with anger. One version reads: I vow to not harbor ill will, but to practice loving kindness. Other times it is listed simply as: There is no anger.

At first, I was drawn to the “no slander” precept, which is definitely something I could use some work on – especially at the office, where we find great delight in pointing out the shortcomings of various people we run into in the course of the day.

But something about the “no anger” precept drew me, even before I could clearly articulate why. The expression of anger for me is almost taboo. I grew up witnessing a lot of rage and unpredictable outbursts, and experienced more as a young adult living with explosive partners. Other people’s anger terrifies me. I will do anything to get away from it.

Equally terrifying is the knowledge that I myself have the capacity to get angry. I have spent much of my life burying those feelings deep in my body; although outwardly it may appear that I rarely blow up, inwardly anger resides in secret pockets, behind closed doors, and I live in constant fear that it will leak out into the open.

I have been kidding myself that I have successfully entombed that inner rage. I am listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, Don’t Bite the Hook, which deal with anger. In her words, I am hearing how my anger has nested itself into my life.

I have always been strongly opinionated. When I was very young, I was incredibly rigid in my belief system. I like to think that I have grown a great deal in the last twenty years, softening some of that extreme version of the world in clear-cut black and white sides on every topic. But there are a number of things that I still feel so passionately about, truths that I have come to through intense and hard personal work, that I can still be amazingly intransigent, convinced that I am right.

I’m talking about things like speaking out against racism or ethnocentrism or homophobia or violence against women. I’m referring to bigotry and religious intolerance and xenophobic rants. Those are the things that make my blood boil.

For all of my talk of compassion and acceptance, hearing that the local cop who happens to be a friend of mine had voted for Prop 8, taking away the right of gay marriage, I became so incensed that I had to leave the room.

One night at a club, a Filippina woman I was dating made a racist comment about the black karaoke singer. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her violently towards me, demanding, “What did you say?” It wasn’t until I saw the fear in her eyes, the way she recoiled from me, that I realized I had completely lost it, becoming as dark as the bigotry I was sworn to combat.

When I was walking downtown in Los Gatos, and a pick-up truck of guys drove by, hollering out the window at me, “Fucking dyke!” – instead of being a warrior bodhisattva, facing that assault with kindness and patience, I spun around and flipped them the bird, yelling, “Fuck you!” at the top of my lungs.

The day I saw a man strike his girlfriend and throw her to the sidewalk, I was so enraged that I began to run towards him. I had every intention of leaping on top of him and pummeling him with my fists. The only thing that stopped me was the friend who physically held me back.

Even though these particular examples make me feel ashamed, I have always justified them. I am a lesbian who has been discriminated against, and physically threatened because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-racial/cultural family, and witnessed too many examples of racism in the society at large. I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don’t want any other woman, ever, to be afraid the way I was.

I was in the right. I was working for social justice. It’s necessary to get angry to fight back. How else are we going to defeat all this hatred?

Well, well. I wonder why I chose the Ninth Precept?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved