Learning how to listen to, recognize and act upon my longing has pulled the strings of my discernment. This is how I have made decisions in my life about my life and my Zen practice. But I don’t always know this. And I have had to be patient. It almost feels like I am being discerned.
When I was eleven to twelve years old my church youth group used to go on retreats in Warwick, NY. I got the giggles in the serious parts. I remember feeling like there was something these people were missing, and that they were hypocrites and bullshitters. I was giggling with dis-ease. Was I a bullshitter? What was God and what did God have to do with me? Did I just have to be “good?”
Later, I vaguely realized in college that I had been making some decisions based on fear. Fear of change, fear of listening to myself, fear of connecting to myself, fear of not doing what I thought my parents wanted me to do. My longing to be “authentic” started having a voice. So I took a risk, and changed my major from biology to religion and psychology. Now I am a Zen student who makes a living being a psychotherapist.
When I was in front of the Guardian Council in 1998 and asked why I wanted to become a student, I responded, “I really want to know how to help people, and I am not sure what that means or how to do that.” I think I was probably trying to say “I have no idea who I am or who you are and that scares the shit out of me.” That was the only way I knew how to put words to that longing, to that pain.
When my wife Senkyu and I went into residency in 2002, after completing my MSW and after the events of 9/11, we decided to figure out if we were going to stay and pursue the monastic path. We went to a few monastic meetings. I brought a dream I had to Daido Roshi one day in dokusan. I told him that in the dream my unborn child came to me and said “Daddy,” and Daido Roshi said, “Maybe you should listen to that.” We left residency shortly after.
“Practice” just keeps becoming more personal. It’s not so much about being an enlightened person, a monastic or a layperson or really anybody. And it’s also not so much about other people, saving them, changing them or making the world a better place. I have come to trust being alive and feeling alive— that is, feeling a part of the world, connected to people, to the earth, to the universe. My longing started as a whisper, and then transformed to a clear voice, and now I feel it as aliveness itself.
—Thayer Kyusan Case
Practicing discernment is especially important to me as I sometimes tend to back into decisions, wanting to see a decision as not really a choice, even as inevitable. I have found that discernment is an opportunity to give up this illusion, to choose deliberately, and to recognize the consequences of a choice. In deciding to become a training student, and later to receive the precepts—because these are in no way required or inevitable—there was room to inquire deeply into why. Understanding that my actions have consequences, I found that I wanted to act with the intention of not causing harm and practicing good, and I needed to study how to do this. And in recognizing that I can only see part of my path at any given moment it has become clearer that discernment is an ongoing practice, each moment holding an opportunity for deliberate choice.
An aspect of discernment that is particularly challenging for me is clarifying what exactly can and cannot be chosen. I don’t get to choose whether to experience sickness, old age, and death. Not even the outcome of a well-intended action can be chosen. But I have found that the intention itself, the effort to practice it, and attention to what happens next can be freely chosen. I am grateful to be practicing discernment in a sangha, surrounded by the attentive discernment of fellow practitioners. Within this, I am finding my own intention to give back what I can, freely and responsibly.
—Karen Fuyu Spicher
The first time I ever thought about being a monk was when I went to my first Sunday morning program at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn. I was sitting there watching the monk who was giving zazen instruction arrange her robes after she sat down and I thought: “I could do that.”
Used to living life at the speed of being chased, I was awestruck at seeing a person moving purposefully, but not rushing. Calmly absorbed in arranging the flowing black fabric of her robe around her legs and in her lap, this monk was showing me without words that there was another way to live. After moving into the Monastery for residential training, this showing continued: It’s possible to be present to my anger without moving away. It’s healing to be heard with complete presence and attention. It’s quite possible I don’t need fixing.
When the Buddha left his palace for the first time, as a young adult, he saw the three messengers—an old person, a sick person and a dead person. And then he saw a wandering mendicant. Twenty-five hundred years later, the sight of a monk—a female monk, no less—was enough to turn my mind from the strong current of a culture based in achievement, self-improvement, ambition and efficiency toward another possibility. It’s a possibility that I’m still discovering as I continue to come up against the strong internal forces of doing, producing, earning my keep, being useful.
I actually remember trying to dismiss that initial thought: “I could do that.” But it never really left me. Almost thirteen years later, I find myself on the threshold of fully ordaining.
—Shea Ikusei Settimi
I came to Zen via Christianity with short a detour through Taoism. Growing up in Mexico, I was steeped in Catholicism from the moment I was born, but my mother had a somewhat unorthodox relationship to our tradition. She felt that much of Catholicism had been lost in its forms, and she wanted to get back to its heart. So she taught my brother and I to pray every day, and to simply talk to God—to not just ask for things, but to be grateful, and to enter into a relationship with this divine being who was the very essence of everything. It was a very close, very personal relationship, and very important to me all through my childhood.
But then I grew up and things got difficult at home and I became cynical. What kind of God lets people suffer so, I wondered. I can’t remember if I stopped praying altogether, but God and I had definitely become distant. It was like we didn’t have much to say to one another anymore. I went off to college, and halfway through I took some time off. Needing time to myself to look at my life, I went backpacking through Europe, and it was there, traveling alone and visiting church after church where I realized I missed the spiritual dimension of my life. I think you can’t sit in Notre-Dame or Chartres and pretend that you don’t feel a presence there. So I started searching again. I didn’t know exactly what for, but I knew it had to be something other than Christianity.
One day I went into a bookstore in Madrid and headed toward the spiritual books section. I stretched out my hand and picked out a cover that looked promising. It was a Spanish translation of the Tao Te Ching. I thought, all right, let’s give this a try. I began reading and was immediately hooked. Here was a philosophy whose basis and purpose—at least as I understood it—was harmony. And as far as I could tell from reading it, creating that harmony was entirely up to me. It was exactly the teaching that I needed.
Shortly after that I stayed at a stranger’s house, and on the bedside table was a book on Zen. Many times since then I’ve wondered what would have happened if instead they’d offered me the Bible, or the Torah. But Zen it was, and I read it as avidly as I’d read the Tao Te Ching, and then began sitting zazen. Few things in my life have felt so right so immediately. Every day and every evening I sat for half an hour or so as I continued my travels. And although nothing much was happening—I had no visions, no whispered revelations, no bright lights—I couldn’t not do it. I was compelled.
I returned home from that trip earlier than planned, and as it turned out, was able to spend with my mother the last month of her life. She passed away two days after I’d left for college. I made myself stay and finish my studies (I didn’t want to at that point, but thought I’d regret leaving), yet that last year and a half was very monastic in tone. I started sitting a lot more, began practicing yoga, and in general spent more time alone than with others. I still had a number of good friends and I enjoyed their company, but it was clear that my attention had begun to turn inward.
Looking back, that year and change feels very much like a kind of preparation for what would follow, for less than a month after graduation, I was on a bus to the Monastery to begin a month of residency. That was twenty-two years ago, and except for a couple of short breaks, I never really left. Oh, and by the way, God and I are on good terms again.
—Vanessa Zuisei Goddard
It is 2010 and I have finally done an Introduction to Zen Training Weekend. I’ve been practicing here for almost three years, though I’ve just dipped my toe into the stream rather than truly entered it during that time. I first decided I wanted to practice because I missed having the spiritual life that I remembered growing up in church and choir and youth service programs. I spent my teen years as the resident heretic in a Methodist church, deciding whether or not I believed in God. Turns out I did not, but nature itself continually challenged my attempts to believe in nothing.
September 2011, having just returned from performing in the UK I sit tangaryo and become a formal student.
May 2013, a blissful month of residency. October 2013 entering for my first full year. As often as I can, I get up an hour early to dance before dawn zazen. Mujaku, a former dancer and monastic, is my confidant. I am also teaching on my days off schedule, straddling two worlds. My body rebels. October 2014, I feel I am not dancing enough and my relationship needs attention. A year of “outside life” with my patient partner.
April 2015, I am already committed in my heart to another year of residency. I declare aloud what I’ve been thinking for so long, that I am considering a monastic path. Relationship is put away. Residency begins October 2015. This time I stop working outside. I only rehearse once a week. I love this life so much, but I complicate things in innumerable ways.
October 2016, my dancing feels closer to my Zen practice than ever but I miss teaching, putting dancing into service. I also decide to explore a new turn in a relationship. Could this work? Could I live dancing, and practice, and a relationship? Is this greed and mistrust of my calling? I have to leave again, to see, to experience if a monastic life exists for me not in a monastery but in a dance studio, with a partner. I know in my bones the Monastery is my home, but in what manner?
Now. 2017. I live outside the Monastery, in Mount Tremper. I am finding ways to serve and creating a dance organization to that end. When I have a clear moment, I see distinction and causal connection much more through feeling than through mental judging. Frequently when I try to see through things with some form of logic, I end up eventually finding that I have deluded myself. Often intentions and their apparent effects are quite far apart. I know this when I’ve meant to do no harm, and yet my actions have caused harm and the pain is on the face of someone I care about—even me. There is unnecessary confusion. I am pulled back and forth like a swing, over and over.
Shugen Sensei repeatedly offers me a simple and difficult alternative definition to follow, echoing Daido Roshi: trust yourself. Perhaps moments of true discernment occur when I actually follow that advice.
—clyde fusei forth
As a young woman, I yearned for a flash of recognition about what to do with my life. A directive from the heavens would have been perfect: “You are a writer!” the voice would boom. Or, “You are a teacher!” Or some other vocation; I wasn’t sure what. That was the point, after all—to resolve any doubts and be filled with clarity and purpose. To know unequivocally how to use my life.
At nineteen, my boyfriend was killed in a car accident. The reality of life and death exploded into my consciousness. The question of how to use this life began to burn hotter and more brightly. But when I looked around me, no one seemed to live with the awareness that death could come at any moment. I had seen that, and it changed me, but I didn’t know what to do.
When I was twenty-one, I spent a month in residence at the Monastery. The first night, monk Shugen appeared in the Buddha Hall to offer beginning instruction. He made quite an impression with his shaved head and unsettling gaze, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know this was an option.” It was as if I suddenly glimpsed a whole different possibility for a life. I was immediately and personally interested. At the end of zazen, the liturgist chanted the evening gatha and I felt relief wash over me. Here, the truth of life and death was practically shouted from the rooftop. I wondered if the voice might come now: “You are a monk!” It didn’t.
At least not loud and clear, like I wanted. What I got instead was years and years of whispers and shouts, turbulent doubts and fervent longings appearing fast in turn. There was so much about monasticism that seemed plain crazy to me: the structure, the repetition, the unending ordinariness. I wondered about children and I hungered for adventure. Still, my aspiration to realize the dharma only deepened with time, and the teachings on life and death quenched a thirst no work or travel seemed to touch. In interview years ago, I remember saying, “I know this life is all I have and I want to learn how to live it.” Even as Gokan and I set about making a life for ourselves in the world, I wondered about monasticism literally every single day.
What is discernment? For me, the voice from the heavens never did come. There was no bolt of lightning. Instead, it felt like reaching through and across the thin scrim of this present life, with its karma and conditions, habits and preferences, and feeling my way toward something I couldn’t see or even name, but knew to be true.
About twenty years after that first night at the Monastery, my teacher shaved my head. I watched locks of my hair drop to the floor and felt decades of wondering dissolve.
For me the paths that led me to the Monastery and to becoming a monastic are all combined in a kind of tangled web. Growing up in Los Angeles, in a Jewish family wanting to fit into the post-war material world without the trappings of Judaism and the sadness that comes from a history of a people aways in exile in one way or another; the feelings of loneliness and a lostness of not fitting in and feeling any ground beneath me; going to a school that scared me and a growing confusion of my sexuality that I didn’t understand (nor at the time did anybody else). Going to Berkeley in the midst of the drug culture revolution was the perfect remedy for a kid as confused as I was. All of the above and so much more drove me to seek relief from the spinning world that I found myself in and couldn’t connect with.
I wanted to live, and somehow I knew that, when I first set my feet down on the ground at the Monastery, I might have a chance here for a real life, a life with a spiritual practice that had come down through the ages and which many had done before me. Taking refuge in this practice is what I did. It was a lifeline and I grabbed hold. Where discernment fits into this I really don’t know, whether it found me or I found it, I can’t really say. What I do know is that it’s been thirty-four years since I first found this practice and this place, twenty-four years since I moved in, and fifteen years since becoming a monastic.
I have never looked back. I feel indebted, and when in my right mind extremely grateful.
The day that I received the request to write this piece I had face to face interview with my teacher that night. I could feel an old familiar anxiety. When you actually put yourself on the line, you risk failure or rejection. I was not expecting to have interview that evening. I fumble through my head trying to remember my lines. The unnecessary repetition of controlling ensues. Projection, a flawed coping mechanism.
Wanting is treacherous. If my desire is untrue, or my motives unclear, suffering follows. How do I know if spending the rest of my life as a monastic is what I want? As steadfast as I can feel, there is always the vast unknown, far more vast than my certainty. A most perfect anxiety provocateur. The unnecessary repetition of projection ensues. Knowing, a flawed coping mechanism.
I’m hoping for a sense of security through possessing knowledge. It’s hard to cop to my instinctual mechanism of positioning myself. Maybe if I can kick up enough dust a clear message will be obvious when the dust settles. Like a voodoo doctor throwing bones. “Strategery.” In “me against the world,” suffering follows. I’ve settled for the idea that struggle is good, because it is the necessary price of admission. No pain, no gain. I assured myself that everyone will be better for it. Is pain and suffering a necessity for growth? Is it possible to have deep development without it? Who would choose pain if they believed they could outsmart it? Putting off todays pain until tomorrow seems like the better choice. If only it always worked and was effortless to maintain. The unnecessary repetition of knowing ensues. Avoidance, a flawed coping mechanism.
I’m in the interview room, sitting in front of my teacher stating what feels to me like it should be a given. Something is different in the actual asking. It’s like the practice of expressing love or gratitude. Of course you are grateful. Of course you love. Yet it still needs voicing. The vocalization is more real than any justification to “Yeah but” ahead to something else. “Of course I do/am, it should be so obvious that I shouldn’t have to express it, anything I could say would only water it down.” The unnecessary repetition of avoidance ensues. Fear, a flawed coping mechanism.
“Yes, request to meet with the monastic counsel,” he says as he rings the bell to conclude our interview.
After the evening meditation period I ask one of the monastics if I can speak with her. I tell her that I got the OK from our teacher to request to see the monastic counsel to ask for full ordination. Her reaction is one of the more affirming experiences I’ve had in my monastic discernment. “It’s not over yet,” I squeak out from the bear hug. The unnecessary repetition of fear ensues. Desire, a flawed coping mechanism.
“Let me savor this one,” she says.
—Jeffrey Onjin Plant
Discernment is the primary focus of my life right now. In the last few years, this has largely been in relation to monasticism. During my last year of residency at the Monastery I began deliberately considering the monastic path. I decided not to petition for postulancy because I felt my discernment needed to continue, outside of the monastery walls.
In the most basic sense I’m asking: “What is my path? What is my calling?” When I reflect on my life so far I feel I have been pointed in certain directions, as if the world was asking me to live a certain way. Therefore a significant part of my process is listening to how I am being called.
I also feel I need to think deeply about what I want and how I can be of benefit. I consider things from various angles and spend time envisioning different possibilities. The process doesn’t feel wholesome, however, unless there is rhythm between asking these questions and letting things settle. It’s when things settle that I start to notice how I feel. There is a value to the conclusions I arrive at through reflection, but I don’t trust those conclusions until I’ve let the question go and made contact with my body.
And I ask for guidance. I speak with my teacher, I reach out to my training advisor, I have conversations with other teachers, seniors, mentors, and peers. The most helpful guidance is when someone gives their perspective without telling me what to do, giving me space to see myself from a different angle. It can shift my view in a way that brings about clarity. I also find that something changes simply when I am seen, when I know that others are witnessing my path. With this sense of accountability I feel I can live in a way that is true to how I am aspiring to live.
So much of my training in the MRO is about learning how to ask important questions, and to do so as deeply as possible. I am so grateful to be learning how to discern my life path and for all the guidance and teachings I have received.
—James Busan Mannion
You might be in a crowd downtown looking about for a friend or in thick fog trying to make out a street sign or somewhere in the high country with too much bush and not enough trail or listening among the echoes at the train station for your track or somewhere between velocity and acceleration on a physics exam or, finally, at the outer edge of your life asking “what lives?”
I could begin five years ago, but really my discernment began well before. When I first got started, I thought physics and chemistry might be the way. Oh yah. The periodic chart seemed to map it out in atomic numbers, valence electrons, and the forces among the nucleons. Such a lovely, sparkling panoply of reality: everything had its place and it all seemed to work so well all the way out across the universe. But then Mr. Frank arrived to teach English among an all-nun faculty at my Catholic high school. Suddenly there was music in my head. And lyric and deep and subtle nuance in what it meant to be human. There was language and metaphor and the antelopean leaping possibilities of poetry. What a thrilling inflation of what I thought was my mind! “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” I entered and knew the human race across generations. I lived in the sweet repose and anesthesia of the small world of suburbia, but now the humanity impinged. I felt the epiphanies lift me and the anti-epiphanies terrify and bewitch me with visions of dark and demonic forces: so many live and exciting ways to embody the human form!
But I remained hungry. Some part of me was not satisfied. My reading turned East: Rumi’s Unseen Rain, Yoganada’s Autobiography of a Yogi, the theosophic Voice of Silence, Krishnamurti’s Meditations, and Christmas Humphrey’s Concentration and Meditation were exotic strangenesses and entry into the world of the spirit. Here there were new options. Here, for the next first time, I felt I was closing in on the light; I could feel the heat. What juice! I knew what it meant to be alive again…wrapped up my legs like a yogi and worked my nostrils like a bellows in pranayama. I felt my head get bright and the energies course through my body.
But it wasn’t until I had the good karma to attend a retreat with Brother David Steindl-Rast that things really shifted. Brother David brought a Zen tea master into the room. What mysteries opened up for me that day. I saw the tea master carefully fold his legs under him and prepare tea in such slow, graceful, wonderfully effortless motions. I felt like I was taken to another dimension. I began to realize what selfless, mindful elegance could be: such mystery, such stillness in motion, such beauty.
It was then that I knew that this would be the way in for me. I had read enough. It was time to set it all aside and sit still and see what I could see. So off to the Zen center I went and began to study in the quietness. I got into it. It got into me. There was nothing else to do. But then (pan hard right), there was this lovely woman who suddenly arrived in my life. Soon came the baby, the house, the job, and the whole wonderful human catastrophe. The wheel began to spin for me again. Life was rich and fraught with all the usual confusions and angst, not to mention, the divorce, the remarriage, the business, grad school, and academia: so rich with the stuff of modern life, so rich in love and family, so rich in letters and art, so rich with all a man could want.
But if you live long enough, you get a second (or fifty-seventh) chance. From somewhere at the back of my mind, I heard a call to come inside and sit with the monks again. I’ve felt and tasted so much this lifetime. I sit down now and feel all the rest drop. Now as I commit to life as a monk, I take the trail that was so well marked all along.
Bounding up a hillside somewhere in Nepal. I’m twenty-two. Steep stone steps. Sun and mountain air. Breathing hard. Sharp-sweet burning in my legs and lungs. Striding forward full of aliveness, and desperately trying to escape the pain.
It was a relief when I found my way to the Monastery. There was something to be done. There were people doing it. Straightforward and not much nonsense. I dug a lot of ditches in my first few months of residence. The Sunday morning after my first sesshin, I cried so hard that my fingers cramped up. I didn’t know what was happening, but somehow I knew it was what I needed. I had faith right from the beginning.
But I also had work to do outside of the Monastery. Feeling happy for the first time after a year of residence, I had to know that I could flourish somewhere else. On my own. And I felt called to be a teacher. Even after returning to the Monastery for a couple more years of residence, I felt clear that my vocation was to teach in public schools. I had something to offer. So much help is needed.
But after a few more years, I started to feel pulled to do more intensive practice. Teaching no longer felt most true. I wasn’t fully committed to the life I was living.
Shoan and I moved back into the Monastery about ten years ago. Daido Roshi was diagnosed with lung cancer soon after we moved in. After he died, Ryushin Sensei became abbot, and my teacher, Shugen Sensei, was in Brooklyn. Shoan and I moved to the Temple for a year and a half, to help there, and to be with Shugen. Then Ryushin left. Each of these changes had implications for the life I was exploring. And always, more personally, inside: Am I living a true life? Am I becoming more whole? Is this joyful? And later, as I consciously let other things fall away so that I could turn my attention more fully to zazen and study, did I feel more alive and fulfilled? Is this how I want to use my energy? Can I make this simple, disciplined life my own?