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Barbara O'Brien

Rites of Passage

By June 19, 2012

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While cleaning out a closet I found the certificate I received to become an "official" student of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. Dated March 13, 1988 (which I dimly remember was the wrong date, but they didn't want to reprint the certificate) the certificate declares I had passed the "five-fold barrier gates of this Monastery" and had "entered into training as a Practicing Student."

Let's see if I can remember the barrier gates -- one was being interviewed and accepted as a student by the monastery board.  This was not an automatic acceptance; some applicants were turned down, apparently because they were judged not ready. Another gate was to individually ask the teacher, the late John Daido Loori, to accept us as his students. Another was a commitment to support the monastery financially. I believe one was to have participated in at least one week-end retreat at the monastery.

The fifth barrier gate was the day-long sit. Four of us spent the weekend at the monastery, and on Saturday we were roused before dawn and ushered into a small room off the zendo to sit zazen all day long. We got a break for lunch (still maintaining silence) and then went back to sitting until shortly before dinner, I think.

At some point after the sitting we had tea with Daido and received student robes and oryoki bowls. We were given some kind of welcoming recognition during the evening service, also, as I remember.

We still weren't officially "Buddhists." In American Soto Zen the ceremony marking one as a disciple of the Buddha is jukai, and for me that happened many years later, and somewhere else, in a process officiated by my current teacher, Susan Jion Postal. Usually, jukai (I am told this means "receiving the precepts") requires receiving permission of a teacher and taking classes in the Precepts. We meditatively sewed our own rakusus and were "robed" with them and given new dharma names during the jukai ceremony.

Some might say these ceremonies and accoutrements are a bit silly. Certainly, practice does not require them. But I think they do serve useful purposes.

First, they reinforce commitment. Daido used to say that the purpose of a ceremony is to make visible what is invisible. What is visible becomes clarified and solid.

Second, it serves to protect the integrity of the dharma. This is especially important in the West, where many enthusiastic newbies are eager to reinvent Buddhism to make it a better fit to western culture (rather than the other way around).

Along these lines, please see "What's an American Buddhist?" by  William Wilson Quinn, and also Mumon's response. I don't disagree entirely with what Quinn writes, but I do think that "American Buddhism" is something that is evolving and will continue to evolve through practice. However, it is evolving from Asian traditions brought here mostly by Asian teachers; it is not evolving from thin air.

The dharma has been maintained for 26 centuries by Asians. When we take the refuges and receive the Precepts we are entering into something that Asians have been protecting and nurturing all these years. I think it's important for westerners to appreciate this and be grateful for it. And if we rip it out of its cultural roots prematurely, it's not likely to survive.

Learning and engaging in the traditional liturgies and ceremonies can, among other things, help us feel connected to the many Asian ancestors and to the great global family of practicing Buddhists.

Transmission of the dharma requires meticulous effort. And this takes care and commitment. It is not helped if Buddhism becomes little more than an affectation du jour. For this reason, I think rites of passage -- and they don't all have to be the same rites -- serve a real purpose.

Comments
June 19, 2012 at 3:56 pm
(1) Mumon says:

Great post, Barbara. Your points are all spot-on. Thanks. There is one other aspect of this “training from the tradition” which I continually encounter not only in my formal Zen practice, but also in my martial arts practice, and even from my son’s violin lessons (that’s a culture formerly as alien to me as, well, Mormonism still is.)

That other aspect involves the fact that sometimes you learn something because there’s aspects of learning that thing you will use later, and you aren’t completely aware of how or why you’re learning this; it’s just that this is what your teacher is giving you, and it doesn’t appear to be harmful. It’s only later how incredibly useful it is that you learned that thing.

Part of the practice is trusting the teacher and tradition to provide you with knowledge, which you aren’t quite sure of its purpose at the time.

June 20, 2012 at 7:35 am
(2) David says:

I agree. In my former rabbi days I sat in on one or two bet dins–ritual “courts”–for conversion to Judaism. The convert had to answer questions about the religion or their feelings about it (having undergone months of study), then immerse his or herself in the mikvah (ritual bath) and recite a blessing. They received a new Hebrew name. It was dramatic, and made the statement that one kind of life was over and another begun. It sounds, Barbara, like your experiences were skillful in just this way. It inspires me to finally take a more formal step, moving from more peripheral dharma bum/zendo haunter to more formal affiliation. I find the thought scary–which is good sign, I think. :-)

June 20, 2012 at 11:31 am
(3) Yeshe says:

Buddhadharma is an expansive tree with roots in Asia. You can’t just pluck a flower from the tree and take it home and have the same thing as the tree. American Buddhism is a branch of the Asian tree, and it is growing, but will take time and commitment. It would be ridiculous not to properly respect the Asian roots of the practice, though ultimately the tree is universal, not only Asian.

June 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm
(4) Hein says:

some years ago i did triathlons. Open water swimming is a featureof triahlons. I find centering on a fix object on the land help me keep direction on a wide open expanse of water.
The Three Jewels serve the same purpose and the precepts is the ‘act of swimming’. Life is not much different. One always need a beacon and a guide. i find ‘something’ re-assuring in the fact that i go for/take refuge in the Three Jewels and has the Five Precepts as my guidelines for the difficulties in what we call life.
Part of the Bodhisattva Path (the Four Vows), i assume is to preserve the Three Jewels and the Precepts for future generations or those that ‘come after us’, like the Asians did before us and is still doing.

June 21, 2012 at 9:38 pm
(5) George Deane says:

I think that the greatest commitment one can make is the commitment one makes to oneself. True, no one is there to observe any breach of the commitment and no external rules keep one bound to them, but in the end I feel it is a commitment that really counts. . It requires a huge amount of self discipline and self direction which, in all likelihood, not many can maintain.

June 25, 2012 at 9:10 pm
(6) mickey morgan says:

I’m beginning to think that Ritual, routinely, seasonally enacted, is where we feel sangha, community . . . o so important

June 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm
(7) Paul UK says:

@ Mickey.

Interesting point. I tend to fell the opposite, it`s in the intimate conversations between Dharma friends where I feel Sangha, though I must admit I tend to be a wee bit iconoclastic.

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