Orchardist and Sculptor, Shinji shared on her blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, about creating a Jizo Bodhisattva for the Monastery garden.
Ancient people made stone piles to mark a site as sacred, while today we use stone cairns to indicate the direction on a wilderness trail. For over a year I had a small pile of stones on one of my work tables. It just sat there and didn’t draw attention from visitors to the studio. It didn’t point me in any direction.
Orchardist and Sculptor, Linda Shinji Hoffman shared on her blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, about her experience being Shuso during the Spring 2021 Ango. The following is a slightly edited version.
As spring slides into summer, I wanted to share about the last three months. I’ve been on an intense retreat—some of it quarantined in my studio, some of it at Zen Mountain Monastery, and some of it following our spring schedule at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio in Harvard, Massachusetts.
Last winter I was asked by my teacher, Shugen Roshi, to serve as Shuso, or Chief Disciple for the three-month training period we call ango. The ango training period dates back to the time of the Buddha. In his time, the monastic life mostly involved wandering across northern India, sharing the dharma and receiving support from householders. However, the summer monsoon season often made the way impassable—dangerous for the monks and nuns to be out walking alone. Instead, they gathered in one place—in shelters and groves—practicing together and living near their teacher. These intensified three-month periods were called vassa (literally “rains” retreat) in Pali and later ango—or “peaceful dwelling”—in Japanese.
At Zen Mountain Monastery we practice ango in the spring and the fall. The shuso can be either a layperson or a monastic. Their role is to inspire the sangha with their devotion and commitment to practice. The training period ends with a ceremony where the chief disciple gives their first talk on a koan and is then challenged by the sangha with live questions.
On the last Sunday in May, my time as shuso ended with a talk on the koan, “Dongshan’s Essential Way.” Dongshan was a 9th-century Chinese Zen master. The koan is a brief teaching dialogue between a student and their teacher. This koan begins with the student saying, “I cannot see the essential path; I still can’t become free of discriminating consciousness.”
What is this essential path? The student can’t see her way. Is it hidden? Who is hiding it? What is hiding it? And why is this student asking the question right now, today?
I gave my talk on the last Sunday in May. It was followed by questions from other students, and then congratulatory poems. The ceremony marked the completion of my transition to become a senior student in the order, and the opportunity to take on a more important role within the sangha.
Many of you know how much I love Zen practice and, specifically, training at Zen Mountain Monastery. A full matrix of activities shapes the practice here: zazen (meditation), liturgy, body practice, art practice, work practice, study of the teachings, and face-to-face encounters with a teacher. Most importantly, it is following the rigorous monastic schedule, putting aside one’s own desires, and joining with the community. It is said that being in community is like being in a rock tumbler. We need each other to bump up against, to be polished. However, to put it most simply, Zen training is the study of reality as it really is when we are not confused, when our mind is not obscured by attachments and clinging to that which is not real. We aspire through our practice to move among the myriad contradictions and complications of this world with equanimity and compassion, to be fully present, to do good and not cause harm.
I didn’t feel I could write about this rite of passage until it was over. There were moments when I knew for certain my teacher had made a grave mistake in assigning me this role. I could not do this. But I also knew there was no way out. Of course I was going to do what I was asked to do. I was going to give it everything I could. And the sangha was there with love and support.
Now that I’ve had a little time back home, and have hung up my new white robe and am wearing jeans, t-shirt and work boots again, I wanted to share with those of you who are curious a little about this rite of passage. There is an audio recording of the shuso hossen ceremony and a video available on the Monastery’s Livestream page.
And now I can focus on the farm! I look forward to reconnecting with my Old Frog Pond community. We’re preparing the grounds for Emergence, our 15th Annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit, which opens on August 1 with twenty-five sculptors bringing new work to the farm. We’ve scheduled a series of storytelling events, African Drumming, Sacred Fires, and Plein Air Poetry. The apples are ripening. It looks like mother nature is providing a bountiful and beautiful crop.
The verse that the end of my koan was: Wet with morning dew The tips of the ten thousand grasses All contain the light of day.
The ten thousand grasses in Buddhism are the phenomenal world. All the myriad things – all our physical experiences, our sense objects, our karma. Go where there are no grasses. Go where there are no conditioned experiences, go beyond desires – go beyond fear. How do we do that? This period of training was a great teaching that whether pruning an apple tree or officiating a service, cultivating the seeded rows or sitting among clouds; to practice fully is to move freely among and to meet every blade of grass.
Orchard grasses are strong, they compete with the young apple trees. Several times in a season, I work with our farmers to weed around each one. We cultivate the soil to support their fruiting growth.
To learn more about Old Frog Pond farm and studio, visit https://oldfrogpondfarm.com/ Shinji’s forthcoming memoir, “The Artist and the Orchard,” will be published in October by Loom Press.
Last Saturday a group of new residents entered the monastery for the first time—about thirty thousand of them to be more precise. On Saturday I picked up three new packages of bees from Hudson Valley Bee Supply to replace the hives we lost over the winter. Each package holds approximately ten thousand bees, each with its own queen.
Residency at our Brooklyn Temple has always been an interweaving of NYC energy with the Zen Buddhism of a lay practice center. In these early weeks of the pandemic, our current residents Oliver, Jo and Brian, have shifted gears from their personal and Temple related routines. Here they offer an inside view of their lives and Zen training, greatly changed and yet in important ways still very much the same. — MR
You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.
Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.
—Toni Cade Bambara, “The Salt Eaters”
When people ask me how I’m doing, I feel a little confused and pause for a moment. In my mind I want to talk about this deep sense of heaviness and despair that feels like mourning with and for the world. I want to say that a part of me doesn’t feel good enough, that this was a feeling I was born into, trained in, and encouraged to accept–that I do not remember experience before this.
Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss
by Richard Heinberg
Technology has grown with us, side by side, since the dawn of human society. Each time that we’ve turned to technology to solve a problem or make us more comfortable, we’ve been granted a solution. But it turns out that all of the gifts technology has bestowed on us have come with costs. And now we are facing some of our biggest challenges: climate change, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss. Naturally, we’ve turned to our longtime friend and ally—technology—to get us out of this mess. But are we asking too much this time?
It is ironic that in countries where food is abundant, disharmony with food and eating is most common. Americans appear to have a particularly unbalanced and often negative relationship with food. In the 1990s, a research team led by an American psychologist and a French sociologist teamed up to do a study of cross-cultural attitudes toward food. They surveyed people in the United States, France, Flemish Belgium, and Japan. They found that Americans associated food with health the most and pleasure the least. For example, when Americans were asked what comes to mind when they hear the words “chocolate cake,” they were more likely to say “guilt,” while the French said “celebration.” The words “heavy cream” elicited “unhealthy” from Americans and “whipped” from the French. The researchers found that Americans worry more about food and derive less pleasure than people in any other nation they surveyed.
These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”
In saying that kind and grateful people are rare, the Buddha isn’t simply stating a harsh truth about the human race. He’s advising you to treasure these people when you find them, and—more importantly—showing how you can become a rare person yourself.
Kindness and gratitude are virtues you can cultivate, but they have to be cultivated together. Each needs the other to be genuine —a point that becomes obvious when you think about the three things most likely to make gratitude heartfelt:
The room was dim. About sixty bodies arranged themselves wall-to-wall in rows, eyes closed, supine on zabutons. Imagining themselves dead.
“How did you die?” intoned a voice. “How old were you when you died? Where were you when you died? Who was with you, or not, when you died?”
The questioner was Zen priest and chaplain Trudi Jinpu Hirsch-Abramson, who conducted the retreat Death & Dying: Using Death to Teach Us How to Live, on January 13 at Zen Mountain Monastery. What was most surprising about the weekend was the degree to which we did not talk about death—at least not about our fear of it—but about our lives.
“The prospect of death,” Hirsch-Abramson said, “can launch you into you.”
Not a story I like to tell, but years ago I got into a fight on the subway. A big-shouldered, well-groomed man in his 40s was tearing down a safe sex poster which showed some playfully kissing teenagers, straight and gay. I questioned him angrily as he tore up the poster, and he stopped. That’s where I could have left it. I had stepped forward without fear or self-consciousness, and I had been effective. But now I was livid with self-righteous anger and so was he. Having created a second problem, I was missing a vital element of skillfulness—to find my ground and learn to speak up differently.