February 03, 2021 by Yugen Lakey
I arrived at Yokoji on Monday and I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had been here. Was it in early 2020 or late 2019? It’s been a while, either way. It feels like a different time altogether, with different concerns, different activities. Even though so much has changed in the intervening months, my heart immediately leapt as I drove through the gates, past the tractor, the woodshop, over the stream-bed and up to Roshi’s house. As I was pulling in front of the house, Coco came out to greet me, wagging her tail. Coco and her sister, Honey, were two of the first residents I met when I first came to Yokoji in 2008. They’re labradors, for those that haven’t yet had the pleasure. Sadly, Honey died a few years back, but Coco is still with us and I really appreciated seeing her and petting her head. Yokoji has a still, unmoving quality that is deeply reassuring. It feels like a place of refuge, a place that can be trusted. As we know only too well, it’s as changing and fragile as all other forms of creation, as the wildfires and floods like to remind us. But it embodies that which is unchanging, that which we can start to realize as we walk through the gates and start this practice.
This is my third day at Yokoji as part of my week here for Dharma Transmission. I had planned on writing every day for the blog, but that hasn’t and likely won’t happen. It’s become clear that the bulk of my time will be spent in the dokusan room copying documents. I knew this was part of the process but the documents are only revealed, one by one, throughout the week, so I didn’t have a sense of how complex they are. There are three documents that are used in the Dharma Transmission ceremonies which I have to copy from — two are types of kechimyaku, or lineage charts, and one is a more esoteric document. As is traditional, I’m writing on a scroll of beautiful silk paper. This is not the kind of thing you’ll find in Office Depot. I made a good start yesterday, but I can see I have a lot of work ahead of me to get the documents ready.
Both Chigen Sensei and Jokai Sensei assured me ahead of time that once you get in the swing of it, it becomes a very meditative and meaningful activity, and I’m now starting to get a glimpse of that. I’m wearing my priest’s robes while creating my documents and offering incense throughout the day. The day is also punctuated with three rounds of jundo, the process of offering incense and chants at various altars around the property in the spirit of gratitude. Mokuin is assisting me with this, and we are taking in ten altars each time, including the Zendo, bathhouse, Buddha Hall and kitchen. The first morning it took us much longer than expected as we realized we were missing various crucial items such as candles, incense and matches. All quite important ingredients in the process. We smoothed it out with each following round and this morning it was almost flawless.
I’ve learned over the years of taking part in various ceremonies in the Zen tradition that the form can almost always be improved, but that’s not really the point, or at least not the whole point. The form is the container by which we can connect to express various aspects of our common nature — gratitude, appreciation, love, remembrance, a wish to end suffering. Learning and perfecting the form is endless, as is the depth of feeling that we can bring to any of these ceremonial rites. It’s part of our practice and we learn to move together as one, whether it’s a full service with many moving parts and positions, or if it’s two very cold Zen priests offering incense at an outdoors altar at 5 o’clock in the morning.