When the situation seems to be permanent, overwhelming, and full of suffering, you have to practice taking refuge in the Buddha—the Buddha in ourselves.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
To take refuge has a quality of despair to it. It feels like someone is pursuing me or there is a danger somewhere that is so large, I cannot handle it alone. I need a place of safety and security. A place where I am no longer pursued but can find succor and maybe even ease. Minimally, “refuge” implies a respite from danger, possibly from suffering.
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.
In the 2500 year history of Buddhism, sanghas and practitioners have always had to adapt to difficult times, and our own era is no exception. The dharma which has been passed down to us survived natural disasters and political marginalization, famine and war, conflict and corruption. So it’s no surprise that training in the MRO continues with vibrancy, creativity, and enthusiasm despite the fact that the Monastery’s and the Temple’s physical gates have been shut for several months. In the past few months, many of the traditional rhythms and forms of training have had to adapt to the lack of in-person contact between the resident and lay sanghas, and it’s exciting to watch new skillful means arise to meet these new challenges.
Two statements—the first from the MRO People of Color Affinity Group, and second from Shugen Roshi and the white members of the BFoD Planning Group—were posted here in response to the surge in violence against men and women of color, and the persistence of unjust, white supremacist systems of oppression which remains invisible to the majority of Americans.
As a sangha we are unified in our vows to serve, to alleviate suffering and the causes of suffering, and to respond with compassion and wisdom as challenges and conflict arise. We affirm our responsibility as individuals and as a community to support each other’s vows.
The wake-up drum and bell sounding through the hallway, people moving quietly before dawn, three rings on the bansho bell beginning morning zazen. Sesshin has its soundscape, and with a little bit of added technology, an unprecedented 133 people shared the experience of the Apple Blossom sesshin sounds.
Until two weeks ago, joining the residents for zazen meant hurriedly finishing the dinner dishes, throwing on my coat and heading down the road to the Monastery. Opening the front door, I would be greeted by the smell of incense and the wooden dragon’s arresting gaze before finding an empty seat in the zendo.
These days, sitting with the sangha has a very different routine. As 7:30 pm approaches, I along with practitioners living down the road or as far away as New Zealand will make room on our altars for a laptop and open the Monastery livestream, where gray-robed residents filter in and take their seats to the familiar rhythm of the timekeeper’s han run. This week, more than a hundred people are participating in “virtual sesshin” from their own homes, committing to four hours of zazen per day, periods of mindful eating and work practice, and limited contact with email and the news.
as it is to have my laptop and Internet connection suddenly become a
central part of my meditation practice, it’s surprisingly powerful to
be able to see and hear the zendo. Particularly poignant are the
small, ordinary sights and sounds: the familiar rustling of robes and
crackling of radiators, the straightening of zabutons after service,
and whispered conferences about the subtleties of service positions.
Shugen Roshi recently made a small but telling change in the liturgy:
instead of bowing towards the center of the room as part of the
formal exit, the monastics and residents now turn and bow towards the
back of the zendo, where the livestream camera is mounted. This
subtle shift makes me feel intimately included in zendo practice,
even at a distance.
Not all of our digital community happens in silence, though. Everything from Zen Kids meetings to art practice sessions to conversations with teachers and monastics has been moved online, so almost every day there is an opportunity to see the faces of the sangha. As much as I miss the physical presence of the community within the monastery building, there is an unexpected silver lining to this time of distancing—the ability to be in closer contact with the many practitioners who live too far away to come to the Monastery regularly. On many of the Zoom meetings, there are faces I’ve never seen, or see infrequently—the New Zealand sangha gathered in their zendo, students living overseas, old friends of the Monastery who have moved away, and many others.
In addition to the generous virtual offerings coming from the Monastery cloister, the lay sangha has found a number of other ways to use the digital tools available to nourish practice in this time of uncertainty. Seigei Spark and Sankai Lemmens, both senior lay practitioners, started a “Sangha Treasure” google group, a platform for sharing photos and staying connected. Shea Zuiko Settimi and Mary Bosakowski, who share a house in Phoenicia, host a Zoom meetingevery night at 8 PM to check in, chant the Metta Sutta, and offer dedications or intentions.
this daily moment of connection, Mary writes:
so warming, so enriching, so tender for us to spend this time and
explore this teaching, together. And, afterwards, to go around the
circle and offer our personal dedications. We have members of our own
sangha, other sanghas, as well as friends who, while they may not
identify as Buddhists, join in whole-heartedly. We may be few,
or more than a few, on any given night, but each and every night has
its own power and grace. I’m grateful for this time together.
Grounded by it. In awe of it.”
new digital tools have great potential, but also present some
challenges. It’s hard to maintain a mental cloister when the same
screen that houses my virtual zendo also offers email, text messages,
work, and a host of other distractions. After some experimenting, I
found a method that works for me: I tune into the livestream while
sitting, but keep my laptop out of sight. That way, the kyosaku’s whack and dokusan bell provide the familiar soundtrack of
sesshin without the seductive glow of the LED screen.
lay practitioners have found their own ways of balancing digital
engagement with solitary practice:
Shea Settimi says, “I’ve learned that I have to get really quiet and grounded before I ‘enter’ the day. I do stretching, liturgy, sitting, tarot practice and journaling. And then I open it up. I’m blessed to have a very large and amazing circle of friends, but talking/texting all day with others can be exhausting. I’m still learning to find the balance. I’ve also begun evening rituals to plant intentional seeds in my mind before going to bed. In a time like this where there is so much uncertainty and so little that I can control, the power of my mind feels really magnified. Every choice is important because I can experience the effects so directly and immediately.”
Seigei Spark set up a new home zendo in her painting studio. She spoke to me about the challenge of doing zazen in front of the computer, noting that the “checking mind”, which is pulled to texts, emails, or the news, is hard to let go of when the device is within arm’s reach. Although Seigei mostly does her zazen practice off-line, she expressed gratitude for the extensions of zendo liturgy into the home sphere that the livestream enables.
I’m sitting outside the Sangha House on day nine of quarantine away from other residents and monastics (I get wifi here), and its a bright, drizzly spring day. A friend down with Covid-19 after we visited—maintaining appropriate distance—and so protecting the other 35 residential sangha members, including our monastic teachers, is a huge priority. So just in case (I feel fine, so far so good), I am practicing solo. The escalation of new cases in New York this week has us all on edge.
The garden is always a refuge but especially now—the delights of the greenhouse and the fresh earth outside are intoxicating—spring has truly come. In the “new normal” at the Monastery and the Temple, life continues with adjustments great and small. Here are some highlights from our new precautions and practices as the reality of social distancing in a communal monastic cloister comes home to us.
This excerpt is from Mountains and Rivers, the annual book-length journal of the MRO which features original contributions from dharma teachers like Hojin Sensei, an artist, ceramicist and director of training at Zen Mountain Monastery. Learn more here about the journal and enjoy this teaching Hojin offered on creativity, connection and spiritual integrity.
Hojin Sensei: You can do an entire art practice with your eyes closed, so it’s not about technique. It’s about connections, about staying connected, turning off those voices that judge. Or, let the judge do your work! What does ‘judging my work’ actually look like? What would a judge draw? I mean, give ‘em a pen! Say “go to it, judge,” you know. They’d probably be, like, “naw, not that. You’re going to do that? no way, that doesn’t look like art.”