Thursday, 14 July 2016

Raising the Dharma Banner

In my last post I talked about my experience of the first of three ceremonies I have to pass through to become a junior Zen teacher – the Kechimyaku (lit. bloodline) ceremony.

In this article I want to describe the next ceremony called the Hodo-shiki, and the first of the two public 'exams'.

Hodo literally means "dharma banner" and refers to the times when temples would put up a flag or banner to advertise when a visiting teacher was giving a talk on the Dharma. In our Zenways school, a Hodo-shiki (ceremony) is when a prospective teacher is tested on their intellectual knowledge of the Dharma (as opposed to their embodiment of it, which will be tested in the next ceremony, Hossen-shiki). It's a bit like a PhD viva – and it's been almost 10 years since I did one of those!

On 26th June I did my Hodo-shiki at our dojo in Camberwell in front of the sangha. In the preceding weeks I'd been revising my basic knowledge of the Dharma, based on the last few years of reading the study book list (given here). Some of my fellow trainee teachers had been sending me test questions to answer, and Daizan Roshi had also given me a list of sample questions to study. I felt reasonably confident on the test questions, but was acutely aware Daizan could ask me literally anything.

The ceremony started with me making my bows and then chanting the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) by myself. I was a touch nervous, and although my voice came out clear and steady my memory was obviously affected. I was aware somewhere in the first quarter of missing a few syllables (miraculously without missing a beat). I felt disappointed that I messed it up because I know it well! That was just the way it was – nerves have that effect.

Then I had to say "I wish to be a teacher of the Dharma. Please test my knowledge." And off we went with the questions. Daizan was sitting at one end of the dojo, and me at the other. Thankfully he didn't ask anything out of left field. He asked a few of the "name the 6 whatevers and 10 whatever elses" that Buddhism is full of (in my case the parameters and the precepts). He also asked a couple of questions more specific to me considering my background in physics – "do people use quantum mechanics to help explain the Dharma, and how successful are they?" (That'll be the subject of a future post!)

At the end he said "you've done well" and that was the end! Here's a link to the video of the ceremony where you can hear all the questions I was asked.



Although being a Zen teacher is really about being the truth and speaking as that truth (not talking about it), there's an obvious wisdom to a ceremony like this. As I become a teacher there are some basics I need to know regarding what the Buddha taught, and the history and context.

The session finished with about 40 mins of zazen (sitting meditation) and our usual tea and chat afterwards.

In my next post I'll talk about the final ceremony – the Hossen-shiki – where I have to demonstrate my ability to speak as the Dharma. If you're free to come along to it this Sunday, please do! The more the merrier!


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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