A Path to Precepts by Rebecca Greenslade
October 20, 2016 by Jokai Blackwell
As I sit down to write, I am still mulling over the echoes of a conversation I had over breakfast with a guest from the group we were hosting this past weekend. He asked me what led me to Yokoji and Zen practice. We talked about how my initial motivation for learning to meditate accompanied my training to become a psychotherapist – a time where I was searching for groundedness within disruption - and how my interest in Western philosophies of embodiment led me to relocate a nascent meditation practice to the Zen tradition, drawn to Zen’s practicality and ethical concern with how to be in the world. What I now realize I held back from saying during that conversation, was that when I put the narrative of my journey towards Zen aside, I continue to practice because my life depends upon it.
As I write this, I am aware of sounding grandiose. But when I say ‘my life’, I am really referring to ‘our life’; this pulsating, reciprocal lifeworld we have all been thrown into. Dogen said, “the power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. Your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in ten directions”. We’re in it together. I experience this here, living at Yokoji. Each choice and action I make impacts everyone here in some way. It also impacts how this practice continues. Recently, I made some mistakes in how I ended the evening zazen session. When correcting me, Tenshin Roshi said, “if we don’t get it right, it becomes lost.”
It seems to me that life can’t hide within Zen practice. It is life itself. On the one hand, of course I don’t need to practice Zen in order to exist. But on the other, I don’t need to ‘selve’ as much as I do in order to exist. Recognizing this helps me take my seat upon my zafu day after day – accepting the invitation life at Yokoji extends to us all - to become intimate with ourselves, and by extension with our impact and imprint upon our relationships, society and environment. Often we hear Zen teachers say practice is ‘nothing special’. I’m not there yet. As I shift my gaze away from the computer screen towards the pines and oaks, the ravens investigating the latest offering in the compost heap, the squirrels playfully chasing each other’s tails and the golden morning light resting on the mountain top, it still feels special to me.
I’ve been accepted to take Jukai at the end of this training period. It is the studying for and then receiving The Sixteen Great Bodhisattva Precepts from Tenshin Roshi in a formal ceremony. For some, this is the recognition of a commitment to becoming a Buddhist, although I hold no interest in identifying as ‘Buddhist’; I feel a discomfort towards ‘-isms’ and the separatism they can engender between people. For me, Jukai is a commitment to continued ethical reflection upon my life. I have interpreted the Precepts not as prescriptive vows but provocations for contemplation and becoming more intimate with one’s life. When a monk once asked Master Ummon – a Chinese teacher in the Tang period – “what are the highest and most profound of all the Buddha’s teachings?”, Master Ummon replied, “an appropriate response”. I love this teaching and return to it often. I understand Master Ummon to be indicting that practice is concerned less with hierarchical levels of attainment and profound insights than it is with discernment and the capacity to make choices appropriate to the situations we find ourselves in. Taking the Precepts at this stage of practice, feels to be an “appropriate response” to both my time here as resident and when I leave, returning to work and relationships in London, continuing this practice of discernment. An endless challenge and enquiry for me is how to cultivate the conditions to live well amidst this extraordinary, heart-breaking world, not taking refuge within a particular epistemology, but instead constantly revisiting my response towards life itself. The Precepts are a both an invitation and disruption towards showing up to life - whatever it is - and it is this practice I will make a commitment to next month.
And, it is within this context that I participate in daily life at Yokoji. My current role is jikido, which is the traditional temple timekeeper. I rise at 4.45am and arrive at the Buddha Hall before the other residents to prepare it for morning practice and service. It is a beautiful practice, moving quietly in the dark, gradually illuminating the building through lighting the candles on the altars. I wake up the valley by banging the taiko drum and ringing the densho bell in a particular rhythm. Each morning, I silently apologise to the two resident ravens that make a startled flight from the nearby tree they sleep in, prematurely awakened at the abrupt clang of the first bell – perhaps to some quieter branches elsewhere for a further snooze. Performing this morning ritual has brought me much closer to respecting lineage and ancestry – 1,500 years ago, in another temple, someone else was doing a similar morning ritual that I am continuing today, which feels unfathomable and precious.
We’re a small community right now and move between sitting and work practice throughout the day. These past few weeks, our work practice has focused on preparing for and hosting groups that are renting Yokoji for the weekends - their chosen location from which to cultivate their own shared experiences of connection and enquiry. This work has led me to contemplating Zen as a practice of hospitality. The etymology of hospitality comes from the Latin hospitalitem meaning ‘friendliness to guests’. It feels like an apt metaphor for Zen practice at Yokoji, as this tenacious mountain continues to host us and the sentient beings we live alongside, the Buddha Hall houses our zafus from which we practice zazen and do our best to befriend the proliferations and amplifications which obfuscate our lives, extending this practice to our encounters and relationships with others. Perhaps through zazen we are augmenting our potential towards becoming bodhisattvas of hospitality, as we move through the world, embodiments of both host and guest.
The rakusu I am sewing sits to the left of me. The final seam of the kagami is slightly higher that the rest. Rather that amend it, I have chosen to include this imperfection, a gentle reminder of the nature of life itself.