The rhythm of the Monastery’s training year brought the fullness of ango to a close with the Precepts Ceremony of Jukai for five students, followed by the Shuso Hossen for Joel Sansho Benton, and then opened up the quiet space of winter practice. Rohatsu sesshin was full of participants again this year, and with January came the Tokudo ordination for Jogo Kien Martin, and February the Novice ordination for Simon Sekku Harrison with Hojin Sensei at Fire Lotus Temple. This transition time also witnessed a renewed sangha discussion, within gender-affinity spaces, on the gender identities and histories we carry, and the deep healing that can come when our experiences can be met within community.
Below are some images from the fall and winter training periods, from the transitions of fall into the quiet of winter.
Solar energy isn’t anything new anymore, yet the recent additions to the Monastery’s solar array at the Han Shan meadow still bring a spark of excitement: we are doing it! We are continuing to lessen our attachments to non renewable energy sources. This vow is renewed every day whether it be through extensive composting, recycling, repurposing and reusing of just about everything, or growing food and flowers. We also know that whatever we do ripples outward and can have beneficial effects on others. The newest solar array is part of this.
At the conclusion of Ango. traditionally the sangha members who are in attendance that day gather on the back stairs for a group photo. This one was no exception.
And while there was no Chief Disciple chosen for this training period, Shugen Roshi invited each of the fully transmitted Dharma teachers to lead one of the three sesshins. Ron Hogen Green led us in March, Jody Hojin Kimmel led in April, and Shugen Roshi led the closing sesshin in May. Each week of practice had a unique resonance brought about by each of these teachers, while keeping with the rigorous training which sesshin evokes. Each week of training also included a Fusatsu: Renewal of Vows ceremony during the sesshin, another first for the MRO. You can find these Dharma talks and more on our Teachings via Audio & Video webpage.
Just wanted to shine a light on our special recycling program at the Monastery through TerraCycle. We collect used plastic toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, razors, used pens… and their packaging… (see below). New research shows that in the U.S. recycles only 7% of its recyclable waste. Not to mention that these items, like toothbrushes, are consumed by the billions and many get dumped in the oceans, rivers and elsewhere.
The recycling programs that we participating in now at the Monastery through TerraCycle are small but profound efforts we can make for change. I feel they move us toward the creation of less and less harm. So here’s a kindly reminder: please collect these items and bring them to the Monastery.
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.
As vaccinations for Covid-19 became more readily available last spring, the Monastery was able to resume offering on-site Jukai, the moral and ethical teachings represented in the Sixteen Precepts of the Buddha Way, welcoming six new Jukai students, six new MRO students, one new postulant monastic, and two fully ordained monastics. Just before Covid hit in 2020, Jukai was also given to three students at the Brooklyn Temple by Hojin Sensei.
On 11/21/21, the Monastery held a Shuso Hossen ceremony that capped our fall ango training period. During the ango, Degna Chikei Levister held the position of chief disciple acting as a model of practice for the sangha.
What does ‘a model of practice’ look like? It looks like a true person bringing their whole self and dedicated commitment to every task set before them. The ceremony and Chikei’s exchanges with the sangha are a testament to that.
The Zen Tweens program has been offering in-person programs monthly on the 2nd Sunday of the month since restarting in June, and will continue with outdoor programs October 10 and November 14, 9am-noon.
We focus on Zazen, concentration practices, and exploring perception through caretaking activities and creative games. We maintain Covid precautions, and hold space for the tweens to share their feelings and opinions on what we study and how it relates to what is going on in their lives.
In September we made autumnal offerings to the chipmunks, birds, and other woodland creatures by creating cornmeal suet feeders and hanging them in thoughtful places around the forest. After just a few days, woodland creatures have clearly been enjoying our offerings! As a part of our ongoing explorations of perception, we read a passage from phenomenologist David Abram that described his insights on making offerings to the more–than-human realms when researching in Bali.
We also participated in helping with the dye garden’s indigo harvest. The process of extracting indigo from the leaves of the plants grown on Mount Tremper is ancient and involves many opportunities for learning. Developed over centuries, the oldest known indigo dyed textiles were created over 6,000 years ago. For the tweens the lessons included a connection to this deep human past, and also new practical knowledge about the pH scale, agitation, and precipitate in chemical transformations.
Tweens helped in every step of the process, as the harvest is so large that it is taking days and weeks to process the raw indigo matter through all the necessary stages. We removed plants from a pool that had been fermenting, processed pigment, and neutralized various fluids for environmentally friendly disposal.
In other summer sessions we have assisted in supporting the trees of the orchard and weeding the garden beds. We have engaged in various games exploring visual perception and the perceptually influenced interplay of images and written language. In addition to in-person offerings, Zen Tweens maintains a monthly zoom session at the end of the month for community participants living further from the monastery.
Upcoming Zoom dates and times are Thursday, September 30 and Thursday, October 28, 6:15-7:15pm.
Because our guidelines include outdoor programs only, we will return to Zoom programs every 2 weeks over the winter months. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve maintained these Zoom sessions (with lively participation) in order to support this unique age group in their practice and contemplation.
It is a true joy to work with aspiring bodhisattvas at this special age and to see this world through their fresh, inquisitive eyes. If you know any 10 to 13 year olds who might be interested in participating, please share with them and their parents this web page where they will also find contact information for coordinators Kyuko and Jo.
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.
The Zen youth programs, (Kids, Tweens and Teens) have been online for well over a year. We’ve welcomed new sangha members from all over the country and even as far afield as Colombia, SA. The Zen Kids program (4-10 years) joins together once a week to sit zazen, create art, share gratitude, use our imaginations and read inspiring stories together.
Zazen with the young kids is the same as with us grown-ups, but different. We encourage the kids to sit in the same posture, but to find our mudra we might imagine we are taking care of a delicate dragon’s egg. Kids as young as age four participatie so Zazen can often be a playful adventure in locating where we find our breath. Can we find it in our nose, our toes? Our home, the trees and birds outside?