Happy New Year!
Before I begin there are a few things I have to mention. First, in just mere hours, Waylon from Elephant Journal will interview me and Pirooz Kalayeh, the director of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen on a live streaming thingamajig. The link to the archived video is here.
Also, the last time I looked the screening of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen in Boulder on January 18th had only sold a measly four (4!!) tickets! In Boulder, CO! The home of thousands of supposedly edgy supposed Buddhists! What’s up with that? Has the whole legalized weed thing got everybody out there too forgetful to buy any tickets? The screening will not happen if we don’t sell enough tickets on-line. Please, people. I already invested in plane tickets out there. We’re also playing it the following day (January 19) in Denver.
Also, for those of you asking about a DVD of the movie or a Netflix release, here’s a chance to make your voices heard! We’ve put the film up on a site called Filmbreak. If you go there and “hype” the film (their term) they will pick it up for distribution and get it on all the downloading sites (iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc.). So go and make some noise!
Lastly, February 18-23 I will co-lead a sesshin at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico with Kazuaki Tanahashi entitled Dogen’s Circle of the Way. Kaz Tanahashi is a brilliant caligrapher and Dogen scholar, co-translator of numerous books about Dogen including the recently published complete Shobogenzo from Shambhala Publications, which I rate as the second best Shobogenzo translation after the Nishijima/Cross version.
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On December 21st I performed my first ever priest ordinations. The four ordainees were Nina Snow, John Graves, Caitlin Fabens and Polly Perez. Caitlin’s husband Curtis is the ino at Tassajara. The ino is person in charge of the zendo. Their job is to make sure everyone is there and that everything in the zendo runs smoothly. It’s harder than it might sound. Curtis pretty much put together the ceremony, being far more knowledgable than me about ceremonial stuff like this.
Almost as soon as I announced I was doing this I started getting emails from people who said they’d also like me to ordain them. I’m sorry, folks. But this does not mean I am now in the priest ordination racket. These four people were all very special cases. I doubt I will be doing any more ordaining very soon. In fact I may very well never ordain anyone else. I’d certainly like to believe I won’t. But we shall see.
These four people were folks I knew very well. Nina and John were among the first to start sitting with me weekly when I began doing zazen meetings at Hill Street Center in Santa Monica back in the far-off year of 2005. They’ve been the most consistent sitters ever since, showing up pretty much each and every week. They’ve both become close friends of mine outside the sittings, Nina especially.
When I left LA for a couple of years it was John and Nina who kept the Hill Street Center sittings running. I had figured those weekly meetings would fade away once I was gone. But they didn’t. In fact, they grew and prospered. And that made me really happy. I never wanted the Hill Street Center sittings to be something like The Brad Warner Show. I wanted people to come for the practice, not for me. John and Nina made that work.
A weird thing happened though, at one of the sittings I couldn’t attend because I was off in Europe last Fall. Someone new showed up and after the sitting was done asked if she could have her money back because “the real teacher was absent.” I don’t know if it was John or Nina running the show that day. Maybe they were both there. But I thought it was a shame someone would think either one of them was not a “real teacher.” So I’ve now made them fully legit Zen priests. Take that!
Caitlin is someone I’ve known for a few years. She’s a long time resident of Tassajara who I met one of the summers I worked there. This past summer she confided in me that she’d been having some doubts that training as a priest at Tassajara was the right way to go for her. She’d liked what I had to say at some of the talks I gave there and we had formed a friendship. When she told me she wanted me to ordain her I was pretty taken aback. But after some hemming and hawing I said OK. This caused a bit of a kerfuffle with the folks in charge of Tassajara who thought I might be poaching their students. That was smoothed over pretty quickly, though and now everyone is fine. I think…
Polly lives in El Paso, Texas and I met her there a while back. We had some very long discussions about her experiences in Zen practice and where she wanted to go with them. Much like Caitlin, she’d begun to wonder if the path she was following was right for her. I figured I could help her out by ordaining her as well. So I did.
People have asked what it means to be ordained as a Zen priest. The best answer I can give is I don’t know. I was ordained by Nishijima Roshi many years ago. But he never sat me down and told me what it was supposed to mean. He seemed to feel that I could work that out for myself. Whatever questions I asked him about it were met with answers from him that boiled down to, “You will figure it out.” Ordination was his ceremonial and public expression of his personal confidence in me to work out what ordination meant. I wasn’t sure if that confidence was misplaced or not. I’m still not absolutely certain. But I do what I do anyway.
A Zen priest isn’t quite like a Catholic priest. There are seminary-like institutions that will teach you what they call “priestcraft,” the various dance steps to be performed in rituals and ceremonies, the right way to wear your robes, what to call all the objects priests use and so forth. That kind of thing can be taught just like you teach any other similar activity. It’s all memorization and repetition until you get it right. But not everyone goes to these seminary-like places. In fact my guess would be that about as many American and European Zen priests don’t go this route as do. But that’s just a guess.
What’s harder to teach is the other stuff priests do, like how to talk to a dying person about death or how to deal with someone who imagines a Zen priest should be able to magically solve all of their problems for them and gets very angry when that doesn’t happen. I don’t think that kind of thing can be taught. All you can do is recognize that a person has those sorts of abilities already and then give them the institutional authority necessary to get the job done.
I feel like the four people I ordained last month are going to be just fine. I only hope I am not wrong!
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