The Cheerfully Solemn Jiko

Susan’s tenure as shuso or head student has ended, as we concluded the fall practice period last weekend with our three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and the shuso ceremony at Russian River Zendo.

Each time I participate in a sesshin, it seems I am faced with new challenges and experiences. This one was filled with a confusing mess of conflicting emotions. There were a large number of us, about 40 students. Many who came were grappling with their grief over our teacher Darlene Cohen’s worsening health. As the reality of her weakness, and the specter of cancer, hung over the weekend, all of us were brought face to face with our own fears: What does this mean for our sangha? What does it mean for me, and my practice? How can we support each other through this difficult time?

In other sesshins, I have been buoyed by incredible lightness and energy. This time, I was exhausted. I found myself nodding during zazen periods. Twice I took advantage of the optional rest periods offered, choosing to walk in the woods rather than sit. My legs were aching; my body was heavy.

I was saved by my work assignment. On Saturday, I acted as jiko to Sarita Tamayo and Cynthia Kear, two priests who will soon receive dharma transmission from Darlene. They offered dokusan (private student interviews) throughout much of the day. As jiko, it was my job to quietly approach the student in the zendo who was next on the list, bowing, indicating that it was their time for dokusan. I then waited for them to come to the door, and led them to the separate building where Sarita and Cynthia were waiting.

I had never been jiko before. At first I felt vaguely guilty, as if I were cheating, because for most of the day on Saturday, I was unable to sit zazen with the rest of the students. I was too busy shepherding people back and forth to the dokusan rooms. But then I realized that this, too, is zazen – everything we do is zazen, if we can focus our attention properly. So I gave myself over to the task, and completed it as diligently as I could. I was going to say, just now, that I did it as cheerfully and as solemnly as I could. Then that sounded oxymoronic. How could it be both? But that is what it felt like – a practice with both cheerfulness and solemnity.

When it is time to receive a work assignment from one of my teachers, I have a tendency to want to keep doing the same job over and over again, because I like mastery. I am most comfortable knowing that I can do something without error, without hesitation. At first, I was annoyed that my teachers gave me new roles at each opportunity. It seemed inefficient, even haphazard. It has taken me some time to appreciate the teaching in this practice. For me, at least, the constant change is a push, a nudging. It means that each role remains fresh and new as I take it up, and I approach each one with a seriousness, an intensity, as I try to learn. But, at the same time, it has forced me to be light – because I make mistakes. I bobble, and take missteps. The best I can do is simply be cheerfully present, ready for a gentle correction from someone nearby. All of which is a wonderful lesson for a perfectionist with performance anxiety.

Ah, the wisdom of our teachers!

Thank you very much to Susan for being a guest on the blog for these past six weeks. It has been a pleasure reading your words.


Would I Need a ’49ers Jersey, Too?

We had an all-day sit at Russian River Zendo today. As is usual with such events, there were so many layers.

On the positive side: It was gorgeous, sunny and crisp, especially pleasant for our two outside walking meditations. There was a nice cohesiveness to the group, a coming together, a forming of sangha that felt very nourishing. Everyone put themselves wholeheartedly into their service roles, whether serving tea or preparing the noon time meal.

On the less-than-perfect side: I have had trouble sitting lately, and my hips have grown very tight. As the day progressed, I was in more and more pain. I had to shift and move and reposition frequently, each time more self consciously. I struggled with wondering whether or not I was doing the right thing to continue to sit on the cushion, instead of moving to a chair. Was I simply being stubborn? Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was the level of agony in my hips so severe that I was about as far removed as possible from any kind of mindful meditation?

I was acting as doan for the day, which made it both better and worse for me. Better, because I was able to look at the time and calculate when I could reposition so that I’d be able to walk when I rang the bell for kinhin. Worse, because I always feel that in such a role I should be setting some kind of example of steadfastness, and today I felt anything but that.

Somehow, though, I managed to get through the day in good humor. The pain, thankfully, only affected my hips, not my mood.

When I returned home, I called my grandmother, Gladys, for one of our regular check-in phone calls. I told her about my day, explaining that I had been at an all-day meditation retreat. I said I my hips had been hurting because I was sitting on the floor. She said, “You need to get some padded pants.” I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t exactly like that, it was more the position I was in that was uncomfortable. She listened, asking more questions. “So how long did you sit?” I said, “From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” She said, “All day?” I said, “Well, we have breaks. We have lunch, and tea, and take short walks.” She was quiet for a moment.

Then she said, “You know what you need. You need a pair of those football pants. With the pads built in.” I laughed and said, “I’m not sure that would look quite right.” She paused. “Well, you could wear them under your skirt.”

That visual just about did me in. Thank goodness for grandmothers.

We did continue our discussion, and came up with one other solution. Gladys is a seamstress, and she said she’d be happy to help me sew some support pillows. Not quite as fun as football pants, but equally full of grandmotherly love.


A Day of Sunshine and Quiet

The one-day sit at Russian River Zendo on Sunday was a window sneaking a peek into spring – sunlight filtered through the redwoods, and mustard graced many of the vineyards in the valley. It was still cold, chilly enough that the zendo’s heater chugged throughout the day, never quite taking the nip out of the air. I was thankful for the extra-thick socks that I had worn, a cushion of warmth against the cool bamboo floor when we were walking kinhin. I was also grateful that I had opted for my usual over-dressing; the two long-sleeve shirts under a sweatshirt kept me comfortable, but not so warm that I was in danger of dozing by afternoon.

The sit was small and intimate, with only ten people in attendance. We went through the day, from zazen to kinhin to dharma talk to service to silent lunch, back to zazen and kinhin, a short hike down to the river, a break for tea, then zazen once more before chanting the Metta Sutta to close the meditation.

The dharma talk by Tony Patchell focused us on this moment. Tony said we’re always fighting the last war — a reference to the fact that relying on experience as our only teacher leaves us woefully unprepared for the present reality. He said, “Experience serves its purpose, but this moment is brand new, right now.” He urged us to set aside what we have learned, all that knowing, and to be ready and open to be met in this new place, the now. Before the thought arises, the labeling, the classifying, the “what did I do or see or think last time?” habit — make yourself fresh and receptive, ready to be just here. It is only through this practice of “don’t know mind” that we free ourselves from suffering, demons and karma. It is only through this lens that we can really see the tree, the person in front of us, ourselves.

So it was not a time to say, “How did this one-day sit compare to the last one I did?” Instead, just sit, for one day, as if I have never sat before. It is not my task to ask, “Will I be able to hit the bell correctly?” Instead, I am to hold the bell in one hand, the mallet in the other, and see and feel only the bell, only this strike, this one pure sound. It is not relevant to wonder whether it will rain on the drive home. Instead, look up into the trees and feel the sun on my face. When it rains, I will feel rain. Right now, feel sun.


A Chance to Practice Letting Go of Perfection

Tomorrow I will be doan (time keeper/bell ringer) and kokyo (chant leader) at a one-day sit at Russian River Zendo. Tony Patchell, my teacher, will be acting as priest. Darlene Cohen will be out of town – so this is the first time Tony has led a one-day sit on his own. And it is my first time to be doan.

We are also going to do an oryoki meal, using the traditional set of three Zen bowls. I received an oryoki set from my wife a while ago, but have yet to use it. So tomorrow, that will be another first.

There are so many things that could go wrong! I have not yet mastered striking the bell – when I had to sit in briefly as doan at the December sesshin, I struck it so softly during kinhin (walking meditation) that only the people closest to me heard it and began walking faster, according to the signal. Those further away didn’t pick up the pace, because they missed the sound. So people started running into each other. I struck the bell again, and because of feeling so flustered, I hit it too hard, with a huge, resounding, “GONG!” Our silent meditation briefly disintegrated into a chorus of giggles by everyone present. Thinking of all the possible ways I could screw up tomorrow with my bell is making me crazy.

Last week, on Saturday at Russian River Zendo and on Tuesday at the Healdsburg group, I was kokyo. I have been having a low-grade cold with a throat tickle. And both times, part way through the chanting, my voice disappeared and I had to cough. I was completely embarrassed, and had a heck of a time recovering my voice enough to do the eko (chant response), where I’m the only one chanting. Tomorrow I am just praying that my throat behaves itself.

And then there’s the oryoki. Using oryoki is very ritualistic; every fold of the cloth, wipe of the napkin, turn of the bowl, is part of a traditional ceremony. I have seen it done, but never done it myself. I asked Tony if I could sit next to him, so I can follow his movements. He told me he wasn’t sure of all of them himself, but said we’d manage to muddle through.

The group tomorrow will be quite small, between ten and twelve people. Because of that, there will be fewer people available to do service. At this point, there is no eno (person in charge of the zendo and the whole day), so Tony and I will be covering for that role, too.

Given all of this, over the past week I have come to the realization that we will have to do the best we can, but not expect perfection. And worrying about it won’t help a bit – I know, because I worried for days, and nothing got resolved. I have to be okay with a mistaken hit of the bell, a cracking voice, a badly folded oryoki cloth, and having my legs fall asleep. It will be perfect practice for my perfectionist self.


Under My Pillow

In ancient Japan, lady courtiers spent most of their lives indoors. During the Heian era, 794 to 1185, the beauty ideal was very fair skin, so staying out of the sun was common practice. The women spent their days composing love poems and letters to gentlemen, having them delivered, then eagerly awaiting the response. They also engaged in incense contests, and music and theater performances, as well as spending a great deal of time coordinating the colors and patterns of their many-layered robes.

In the main living space, women slept on the floor (as they still do in Japan). It was a large, open room, with few places to keep personal belongings. Each woman, however, had her own pillow – a shallow wood or ceramic block-shaped item, that contained in it a slender drawer. The doors became the repository for small personal things, like hair combs or love letters.

It was here also that the women kept their journals, small notebooks filled with their musings about life, poetry, notes on love. The journals came to be known as “pillow books” because of their most usual “secret” spot.

The most famous pillow book is the one by Sei Shonagon, written in the 990s, which has survived to this day. It is a fascinating look into life in Heian Japan, as well as being a masterpiece which can stand on its literary merits, separate from history.

I have always been intrigued with the idea of the pillow book, placing a personal record of thoughts underneath your head at night, pulling it out to record the day’s entry.

During the Rohatsu Sesshin, those five days that we spent sitting in the zendo, it was similar to the great living room of these Japanese courtiers. Although we slept in a separate room, all of the rest of our day was spent side by side in the zendo, with our personal space limited to the zabuton and zafu that we were sitting on.

Much to my amusement, I realized at some point during the retreat that my zabuton had become a Heian “pillow” of sorts, with personal items stored not in a drawer, but simply tucked underneath. During the course of the sesshin, I stowed Nicorette lozenges, my clappers for the tea ceremony, my kokyo’s chant book and daily schedule, gloves, a hat, tissue, a small notebook, a pen, and even extra “feminine products,” not to mention the growing stack of support cushions on top of my zabuton.

It made me wonder what I would have found if I had gone around the room and flipped up all the cushions….


Suzuki-roshi, Bodhisattva

Tonight at the Healdsburg sangha, we held a Bodhisattva ceremony, commemorating those in our lives, living or dead, who have helped light the way, and alleviated our suffering and that of others.

People brought photographs and placed them on the altar. I chose to honor Sabrina, my wife, who inspires me continuously with her generosity, compassion, and open heartedness. Darlene Cohen echoed my sentiments by honoring her husband, Tony Patchell, especially for his words years ago that gave her the courage to continue practice when her own spirit was flagging.

Tony brought a beautiful black and white photograph (shown here) of Suzuki-roshi, the Japanese priest who came to the United States and founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and later Tassajara, the first monastic Zen community in the country. Darlene and Tony (and so all of us, their students) are in the lineage of Suzuki-roshi, and Tony brought his image so we would all remember that without this man, we would not be together on this night.

At the recent Rohatsu Sesshin, student Roland Brown gave his “Way-Seeking Mind” talk, telling us how he came to follow the Zen path. In that talk, he shared this quote from Suzuki-roshi:

“Without Way-Seeking Mind, enlightenment is meaningless. With Way-Seeking Mind, even failure is enlightenment.”

Leave it to the great teacher. Somehow, this charming Japanese priest found just the right words, time and again, to calm our worries, to give encouragement, to challenge our smugness, to push us to new discoveries. I never saw him with my own eyes, but feel privileged to be meeting many people who did know him, and can share stories.

For anyone who is interested, a wonderful biography of Suzuki-roshi is available by David Chadwick, entitled “Crooked Cucumber.”


Continuous Practice

The theme of our Rohatsu Sesshin this year was continuous practice. My understanding of this is learning to take our practice into every aspect of our lives, instead of separating zazen from all other activities.

A sesshin is an ideal place to do this, because the tight schedule and focus on silence and routine remove many of those distractions of our ordinary lives. It is much easier to be mindful at a meal when there is no conversation at the table, simply a keen awareness of the food on your plate, the tastes in your mouth, and the sounds of humans eating.

Staying in the moment is more challenging after the sesshin has ended, when you must return to jobs, chores, and family life.For me, the “to-do lists” very rapidly create a mindset of worrying about the future, instead of staying right here.

In a dharma talk that Darlene Cohen gave during the sesshin, she referred to this quote from Dogen:

“Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude. This means that you practice continuously, without wasting a single day of your life, without using it for your own sake. Why is it so? Your life is a fortunate outcome of the continuous practice of the past. You should express your gratitude immediately. “

— Zen Master Dogen quoted in Enlightenment Unfolds edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi

I love this quote. I love the idea of expressing gratitude by practice. Darlene also said, during that talk, that it was our task nor to become a “better” self, but to become more fully who we are. It seems to me that these two ideas are integrally connected. Learn and become my own true self; practice continually in order to show thankfulness for everything. Two steps both incrediby easy and incredibly hard to follow.

Every moment of every day that I can create space around myself, a gap between input and reaction, a slowing down of movement, I am moving closer to active zazen, continuous practice.

What do you do to bring practice into your daily life?


Keeping My Balance with Unknowing

By nature, I am a person strongly attached to certainties. I want to know what the rules are. I may not always follow them – I’m not afraid to go against the current. But if and when I do decide to set out on my own, I want to break the rules in full consciousness, so I can be ready for any potential consequences.

For all of you with many more years experience as Zen practitioners, I imagine you are already chuckling to yourselves, because you can see where this is going. Certainty? Zen? You’re kidding, right?

I have been told that Zen has a long tradition of not providing all the information. When new students came to monasteries, they were not given a list of rules. They simply had to stumble along, being as observant as they could, trying to figure out what to do by watching others. When they blundered, a teacher or more senior student might yell at them to point out their mistake, but may very well not tell them what the correct action was, leaving that for the young student to figure out.

You can probably guess that this is not my most comfortable learning style. I detest being “caught out” wrong, particularly when I had no idea that I was doing anything incorrectly.

The recent sesshin was a great example of this. Though we had an extensive orientation before starting, it was impossible to cover all of the bases. And even with what we did cover, much of it was forgotten due to information overload. So throughout the five days, we were continually figuring out what was proper form, when to bow, how to acknowledge each other, etc.

As kokyo (chant leader), I was very focused on my role, and of course, aimed for a perfect performance of all aspects of the job. Shortly after the first time I used the clappers for afternoon tea, Joan Amaral (our doan) told me that I should strike them much more softly, like a kiss. She felt that by the end of a five day sesshin, the vigorous thwack I was giving would split everyone’s head open. I practiced the new, quiet sound, and vowed to be perfect again. At our next meal, I used the clappers – this time, with a whispered kiss. After we were back in the zendo, Tony Patchell, the acting priest, came up to me and said, “Michelle, when you use the clappers, give them a great big resounding Japanese whack!”

Shortly thereafter, one of our dinners was late in the kitchen, so that all of us were milling about waiting to be served. I was standing near the front of the room (by the kitchen) and Tony and Darlene were in the back. The kitchen staff motioned that all was now ready; I turned and motioned to Tony. (We were in silence, remember.) He smiled, and waved me ahead, and I got into the food line. Afterward, one of the attending priests came up to me and said gently that no one should ever serve themselves or eat before the teachers. I felt completely chagrined. I honestly had only done it because Tony waved me ahead, but I didn’t realize there was an absolute rule about “teachers first.” Even worse, not knowing that, I suspected there might be a bunch of other things I didn’t know, rules that I was about to break at any moment.

Later, after some stillness in zazen, I was able to find a sense of humor around the whole issue, which is always the first step towards change for me. I know (almost) nothing – and that’s pretty funny, if I can just manage to steer myself away from over-zealous seriousness.

And maybe, just maybe, it will help me keep my balance.


Calling the Ancestors

(Sorry for the delay — I fell asleep at the keyboard last night!)

At the Rohatsu Sesshin this last week, we of the Russian River Zendo chanted the names of our Buddhist ancestors for the first time as a sangha. These chants, intoned at daily services at Tassajara and many other zendos, go through the entire lineage of teachers, those who have brought us “the middle way.”

The first chant begins with “Bibashi Butsu Daiosho Shiki Butsu Daiosho Bishafu Butsu Daiosho Kuruson Butsu Daiosho….” down through “Eihei Dogen Daiosho” and ending with “Shogaku Shunryu Daiosho” and then, with barely a breath in between, on to the women ancestors: “Acharya Mahapajapati Acharya Mitta Acharya Yasodhara…” until finally coming to the last name “Acharya Chiyono.”

“Daiosho” is a Japanese term which means “great teacher,” a title which follows the name, in the same way “Teacher Tanaka” would be rendered “Tanaka-sensei” or, directly translated, “Tanaka teacher.” “Acharya” is a Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher, and it precedes the name.

We did the ancestor chants as part of our morning service, following the chanting of either the Metta Sutta (Loving Kindness Meditation) or Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, which tells practitioners how to do zazen.

I served as kokyo (chant leader) for the sesshin. When preparing for that role, the instruction I was given was to bring my full energy to the task, not being afraid to use a full, resounding voice. Throughout the sesshin, I worked closely with Joan Amaral, who was serving as doan (bell ringer and timekeeper). Joan has a wealth of experience with the “forms” or rituals of Zen, including many years of monastic life at Tassajara. She helped me fine-tune my chanting skills over the five days, working on pronounciation of the Chinese names, over which I stumbled some, and assisting me in setting the pace and rhythm of the chants, particularly the ancestor chants.

Our first attempt at the ancestor chants was a little rough – great spirit, but pretty ragged. But thanks in large part to Joan’s tutelage, I was able to step more firmly into my role as a leader, and as everyone in the zendo grew more familiar with the chants, we really rose to the occasion. By the final day, it literally felt as if we were calling each one of our ancestors into the room to sit with us.

Chanting kept me centered throughout the sesshin. I love the musicality, the repetition, the sounds of the bells. And I hear different aspects of each chant freshly each time, bringing my attention keenly in tune with one section one day, and another the next. Morning, noon, meal time, end of day – lifting our voices out into the mountain sky felt so celebratory. Serving as kokyo was such a delight, that I didn’t want the week to end at all. I wanted to go home and lead chanting services in front of my altar every morning.

But most profound for all of us, as a sangha, was the chanting of the ancestors. I think each one of us experienced the connection to our past, from India to China to Japan to the United States, in a way that we had never fully realized it before.

All the way to Shunryu Suzuki-roshi….who will be the next name in the chant?



During this past week’s Rohatsu Sesshin (Buddha’s enlightenment meditation period), I spent many of my “thinking” moments planning how I would write about everything I was experiencing. Now that I am home, and back in the everyday routine, I find the opposite is true – I am resisting sitting down to the keyboard, wanting to hold onto visuals and sensory perceptions without reducing them to words on the page.

The five days held an entire lifetime of emotion, sensation, pain, suffering, energy and joy, all flowing from one to the other. The routine was simple: we sat, we did kinhin (walking meditation), we ate, we chanted services, listened to dharma talks, and slept. Most of the day was spent in either zazen or kinhin. Zazen typically lasted 30 minutes, and the three long days had 14 separate sessions of zazen. That’s a lot of time to be alone with yourself.

The first thing I noticed was heightened sensory awareness. The room we used as our zendo had flat industrial carpet, but over the center of the room, there were two large area rugs. As we did kinhin, I felt the plush, deep pile of the rug near my zabuton, followed by the thinner, more threadbare texture of the second rug, then the firm carpet. Each cycle around the room sent these sensations in through my feet and throughout my body.

The day was marked by the sounds of bells and clappers: the small bell to signal transition periods, the large deep toned bell used in service, the still bigger, bold bell calling us to sit first thing in the morning and after each meal, the clappers marking the beginnings and endings of meals and tea.

Added to these sounds were those of the elements. It was a wintery week, with mist, drizzle, and sometimes wild downpours and gusting winds. Sitting in the zendo and hearing the rain pummel the roof, and the wind buffet the windows, there was a connection to nature that felt profound and joyful. There was even one kinhin period outside where we got caught in a sudden torrent of water, drenching our clothes and faces. So the rain was not just a sound, but also a body sensation: cold, wet, clean.

And of course, there were all the gurgles and breaths and coughs of fellow practitioners in the zendo. Bodies spoke to each other; one person’s stomach would rumble, and then the stomachs near by would call out a response. Even the sound of swallowing was perceptible, ricocheting around the room from one seated figure to the next.

The long sit periods held challenges for each of us, as we coaxed our uncooperative and gradually tiring bodies into yet one more session of zazen after each strike of the bell. What kept me going was the incredible example being set all around me, watching and feeling those in my sangha sit and sit and sit in stillness.

I found myself, of course, running after my thoughts during these quiet moments. I covered a lot of ground for someone sitting still on a zabuton. When I realized that I had once again gotten lost in my mind, I would silently chant a short passage from the Fukanzazengi: Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

During dharma talks, Darlene Cohen told us, as the days wore on, that we would begin feeling a building energy from all of this zazen. She called this energy piti, which is a Pali word meaning rapture, bliss or delight, the pleasurable quality in the mind generated during meditation. She urged us not to squander this piti by succumbing to the desire to talk to our bunkmates, but instead to plow it back into our practice, putting the giddiness and joy right back at the center of our sitting.

I did experience piti – unbidden, a growing, irrepressible joy built up over the five days. I also felt a very deep and strong connection, to my sangha, to myself, to the ancestors and to Buddhist tradition. I experienced a profound awakening, or more accurately, a series of awakenings, each one building upon the last.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All human miseries come from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That is the challenge we set for ourselves – come face to face with all of our imperfections, the wayward behavior of our wandering minds, the rollercoaster ride of our emotions – and through it all, sit, just sit, and sit some more, in a quiet room alone.

My life was changed. Perhaps that was true for each of us. Perhaps that change will ripple throughout the world.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved