Friday, 22 July 2016

Dharma combat

The Hossen ("ho" meaning Dharma in Japanese, and "sen" meaning combat or challenge) was my third and final ceremony for becoming a junior-level Zen teacher. The main point of the ceremony is to allow a teacher to demonstrate their embodiment of Zen, and to give the sangha a chance to test them out. If they're going to become a new teacher, do they think they're up to it? Can they talk as the Dharma, not just about it?

A complicated ceremony


The dojo full of people
Despite the simple intention, the details of the ceremony were a bit more complicated. It started with a short introduction from Daizan, then we chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra). I then read out the koan I'd chosen and gave my talk on it (I posted about that in my previous article), then everyone in the audience got a chance to ask me a question. It finished with me reciting the 4-line verse I'd composed summarising my understanding of the koan, and Daizan giving a short summary to finish.

Where it got complicated was around how all these aspects fitted together. So Daizan told me, the whole thing is designed not to give me (the aspirant teacher) a moment to think – and therefore the potential to worry and get caught up in the world of thoughts, ideas and discrimination. From the beginning I was holding my teaching fan – a traditional symbol of a Zen teacher called a chukei. There was a special way to hold it which I had to be mindful of at all times. There was also a very specific way I had to collect my teaching book, and I had to start my talk on the very last syllable of the Hannya Shingyo chant so as not to leave a moments gap. As soon as I'd finished I had to ceremonially take my teaching book back to Daizan, perform a number of bows, and collect our dojo's shippei (staff/stick; see photo below) and come back to my place. Once the questions started, I was encouraged to answer every one, again, without a moments gap or silence.

As I was reading out the koan, I was conscious of speaking from the hara. As I'd spent quite a while preparing the talk, I felt quite ok following on from the koan and giving the main talk. I think I managed to continue speaking from the hara, and I even got a laugh or two at some point!

No questions and no answers


Collecting the shippei from Daizan
Once the talk had finished and I had collected the shippei and sat down, I banged it hard on the ground and said "What say you?". This was my appeal to the sangha to ask me their questions. Pete Jion Cherry, my assistant, was the first questioner. The format was for the questioner to start by saying a loud "Here!" (to indicate where they were sitting) then give me their question. I would then bang the shippei on the floor and gave my answer. If they thought my answer was sufficient they would say "congratulations" – otherwise they were allowed to ask me to explain or ask a further question. After the "congratulations" I was to bang the shippei again and say "I thank you". Then the next question would start with "Here!". All this was supposed to happen with the minimum hesitation or silence.

We had about 35 people in the room, so the questioning took a while. Some were very short and some I gave just one-word answers, some had some further questions. There were certainly moments when there was literally no questioner and no responder – the emptiness and no-knowing that Bodhidharma refers to in the koan were manifest in the room. There were also other moments when I could feel the spinning up of my thinking mind, wanting to assert control and work out how to answer the question, worrying about what the "right" answer was.

Looking back I can't really remember the actual questions or my answers – I feel like it all happened without being registered in my normal memory!

I have a feeling something changes in the way memory works and the way you perceive time when you're in that true place of oneness – where intuition and instinct are master, and logic and reasoning are in their rightful place as servants. Its like trying to remember what happened in meditation, or during a period where time "just flies". The memory becomes more related to feeling and action than thought and storyline. Luckily we videoed the whole thing (I'll post that up soon)!

After it was all over, people were asking me how it felt. It felt simultaneously really hard work and totally effortless. Maintaining that energy and resisting the temptation to let my reasoning mind take over was perhaps the hard part. Letting the truth speak through me was the effortless part. In essence there was no me – the answers just flowed out of the universe through my mouth.

What happens now?


I'm now officially a lay Zen teacher. What that means is for us all to find out in the coming years. My intention is to stay open to whatever opportunities or situations arise, and do my best to simply act. Let's see what happens...




I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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