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.
March 11 marks a year since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. It is with heavy hearts that we acknowledge this milestone, the loss of life and the many challenges that accompany this situation. We acknowledge the uneven and tragic toll the pandemic is having on the Black community as well as Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and refugee communities. To honor the victims of this global tragedy, and to give voice to our sangha’s personal losses and challenges, Zen Mountain Monastery held a memorial event on March 14th as part of our Sunday morning program.
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
The mountain offered itself in full autumn splendor on Daido Roshi’s tenth memorial day: flaming colors, sharp lines, the most pristine of skies. Such effortless radiance of nature and the light, creating extra rich contrasts—ironically (given the person we were commemorating) a photographer’s field day.
The Jizo Project is an important sangha-supported initiative to make Zen Mountain Monastery a more accessible and accommodating refuge for practice. Here are several reflections from sangha members on what the initiative means to them. Care to contribute your voice to the conversation? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
“There is a Chinese saying that goes something like this: ‘When you drink water, reflect on the source; when you eat fruit, bow to the tree.’ For me giving to the Jizo Project is a chance to express my gratitude to the monastics and for what their lives create everyday for the sangha.” — Pat Carnahan
“I recently became a formal student at ZMM and the Jizo Project immediately appeared as a marvelous opportunity to give back to the sangha for everything it means to me. I cannot think of a better metaphor for lifelong student commitment than a project that encompasses the circle of life.” — Diego Antoni
“Many years ago the sangha recognized a future need of aging and ill sangha, monastics and lay practitioners, who desired to practice until death took them…. It is time to realize this dream. I am personally so grateful for the wisdom bearing fruit now, especially for the expanded scope of the Jizo Project which will include those that are other-abled as well.” — Michelle Seigei Spark
“As our sangha continues to age, it is so heartening that there will be a way for us to continue to practice with fewer impediments than before. I am also grateful that there will be a place for monastics, when the time comes, to die well, within the sangha.” — Jeffrey Kien Martin
“The Jizo Project bolsters the practice of the Dharma, opening up avenues to more people and providing care for our monastics, who give so much to the world. For me, supporting it is a way to generate good that I know will radiate out in ways I can’t even imagine.” —Jessica Ludwig
“ZMM has been my life raft for the last five years. It is lovely to be working together like this to keep it afloat.” – Jonathan Seiko Rosenthal “I want to practice at Zen Mountain Monastery. I always want to be able to practice there. The Jizo Project is the path that allows us to fulfill our Vows there even as life events including illness, disability and age arise on that path.” — Dorothy Taiju Hickey
“Zen Mountain Monastery is a giant Dharma hive supported by an infinite number of bees. Some bring nectar, others provide care from the inside. Each bee has its own needs and challenges, but also a unique role to play. The Jizo project provides essential structural support to our Monastery so that it can provide refuge and offer teachings to the greatest diversity of beings at every stage of their lives. I am deeply grateful to be part of the Sangha hive and a contributor to this important effort.” — Linda Shinji Hoffman
“For me, my clearest connection to the Jizo Project is Nenshin. As a quadriplegic, he still loved to come to sesshin, even though it was very difficult for him. Four strong people had to carry him into the building and up the stairs. And we had to carry his power wheelchair separately, batteries first removed, because it was so heavy. Once he got into the building, there were many more challenges such as in the guest room where he stayed, which was not set up for someone in a power chair. I was often assigned as his attendant, taking care of all of his needs: helping him get dressed, helping him eat, helping him navigate obstacles to get into the dokusan room, and so forth. Nenshin desperately wanted to come more frequently. But it was just too difficult. “We will finally have a facility that would have accommodated Nenshin. And perhaps, at the completion of the Jizo Project, there are or will be others in wheelchairs who want to come, and who now will be able to.” —Andrew Hobai Pekarik
“For me, what comes to mind about this project is, ‘May all who seek the dharma have access to it.’ The Jizo Project is beautiful on so many levels.” — Rachel Yuho Rider
“I’ve been a student in the MRO since 1996. Since then, I’ve gone from being a healthy, energetic middle-aged person to an old lady with a legion of health problems past and present. I’m unable to do a full sesshin, and have increasing trouble with stairs. The Jizo Project will make it possible for me to continue to come to the Monastery. I’m overjoyed that it’s happening, and deeply, deeply grateful to all who can contribute, and to the foresight and generosity of this vision.” — Chase Takusei Twichell
“This practice and this place have given so much to me, changing my life for the better in so many ways. I have the experience of coming to the Monastery and feeling as if I’m “taking” — taking the enormous generosity of the teachers, the monastics, the residents, the place itself. We now have a tangible opportunity through the Jizo Project to give back, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us.” — Richard Shozen Hamlin
“I am thrilled to think that I can be here my entire life, in a beautiful space, with my sangha family around me, practicing together.” — Jody Hojin Kimmel, Sensei
The Beyond Fear of Differences (BFoD) Planning Group held a public forum at the Monastery on Sunday, March 3, 2019—a moment 10 years in the making. It was a chance to welcome the whole Sangha into the development of the BFoD mission and vision process, to share the details about the process that the committee had been involved in, and to let people know how they can get involved. A similar forum was held one week later at the Zen Center of NYC.
NOTE: In October 2018, 16 sangha members, including Shugen Roshi and Hojin Sensei, travelled to India and Nepal “in the footsteps of the Buddha.” Here are some of their reflections and photos. More photos from an earlier blog post here.