Friday, 8 July 2016

On the path to becoming a junior Zen teacher

In our Zenways lineage, becoming a Zen teacher happens in three stages: junior Zen teacher, senior Zen teacher and Zen master (or Roshi). Our Roshi, Daizan, likens the process of becoming a Zen teacher to an apprenticeship. It's not a structured course, or even a well defined learning journey, but individual to each person and taken at a speed directed by them.

I've been on the programme for a few years, and back in February Daizan told me he thought I was ready to do the junior-level ceremonies. I knew his would be a great honour so we went ahead and booked in some dates. 

The first one I did was called the Kechimyaku ceremony (I don't think it has to be the first one – just happened to be in my case) starting on Monday 20th June and running through to the summer solstice on 21st. In Japanese, "kechi" means blood and "myaku" means line or channel. The main emphasis of the 2-day long ceremony is to write out our Zen lineage (or "bloodline" of master-to-student) stretching all the way back to the Buddha, and take my place within that (the image shows a small part of a kechimyaku – this one is written in Chinese characters but mine was written in English).

Part of a kechimyaku written in Chinese. It starts with
emptiness, then comes Shakumuni Buddha, then all
the rest of the ancestors.
As Daizan was telling me, historians can find holes and inconsistencies in the official lineage all over the place! – in the succession of Indian masters in the centuries following the Buddha, in the line of ancient Chinese masters, and in the Japanese line too. That's not the point. The point is that each of these masters realised the truth of their Buddha-nature, and once you do that you become Buddha – you become all of the ancestors – and then the lineage is just a mark of gratitude to all those that have carried the torch down through the centuries. 

Notable in their absence, though, are the women "torch-bearers" (for a great book on this see Hidden Lamp). Only one woman appears in our lineage: Rev. Jiyu Kennett Daiosho (d. 1996) who was the founder (1972) and abbot of Throssel Hole monastery in Northumberland, England, where Daizan studied in the Soto tradition for many years. The absence of women only reflects the dominant male monastic culture throughout India, China and Japan for the last millennium, not their ability to realise enlightenment. The Buddha himself always said women can achieve equal levels of insight to men.

The kechimyaku ceremony has five components: (1) asking, (2) san-ge (purification), (3) taking your place, (4) writing out the kechimyaku lineage, and (5) endless bowing. 

The asking part involved some ceremony and symbolism around arriving into the space, and me formally asking Daizan to become a Zen teacher. Sange (pronounced san-gay) means "regret" (san) and "resolve" (ge), referring to acknowledging past harmful actions (the things you regret) and the committing never to do them again (resolve). 

In the "taking my place" section I was asked to sit in meditation for 3hrs without moving. This represents the resolve made by the Buddha before his enlightenment – "if only my skin, sinews and bones remain and the flesh and blood in my body dry up, I will not move from this place until I realise complete enlightenment". The 3hrs was about exploring that steadfast stillness and resolve.

Sitting for 3hrs in stillness wasn't easy. Daizan told me a few months ago to start preparing so I  had been slowly building my way up to the full length. I saw it like a marathon, so trained using an adapted marathon training schedule (where I replaced running distance with time)! I'd tested out a few different postures and found kneeling with a bench to be ok, and the week before my ceremony I'd done 2h30 like that. I'd generally start off with a breath counting meditation, counting to 100 a few times to stabilise and still my mind. Then I'd let go of the breath and sit in the Unborn (open presence. If my thoughts began to wander again, I'd come back to the breath counting for another few 100. I was finding after about 1h30, things would get very still indeed and almost pleasurable (I think people call this a dhyana/jhana state).

During the ceremony, however, I was sitting with my bench on a carpet rug, which (at about 15mins in) I realised wasn't as soft as the zabuton I was used to. The knobbles on my knees got very painful – excruciating at points. Nevertheless I did find some internal stillness after about 2hrs. At this point I basically just gave up trying to make the pain go away. As I stopped wanting things to be different, the suffering ceased – it's a good lesson to be reminded of.

The next part was a kind of retreat involving the writing out of my kechimyaku and a ceremony around embodying what it truly means to be a teacher. After some more meditation and many bows (the 5th stage of the ceremony), we finished sometime in the early evening. I'd been given my junior teacher Rakusu and teaching fan. Now all I have to do is prove my worth in the next two public ceremonies...

Next week I'll tell you a bit about the next stage, the first of the two public ceremonies for testing my knowledge of the Dharma called the Hodo ceremony.



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

I'd love to hear from you

do you have an experience of sitting still for a long period? Who do you consider to be your Dharma ancestors? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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