Saturday, November 18, 2006

Jukai

Note: This is a very long and purely personal post. Please indulge me. On some occasions, this blog still needs to be the diary I intended. I want to write this all down quickly so I won't forget it, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time explaining every term, etc. And, as always when I write about Zen, all I'm doing is reporting my personal experience in as plain a fashion as I can. I write from a position of no authority. If you really want to learn about Zen, hunt down a qualified teacher or check out The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi.

When I first set foot in the Chicago Zen Center (CZC) back in March, I'd been reading about Buddhism on my own for a year, devouring any book I could get my hands on that didn't seem too superficial or too weird. The more I read, the more Japanese Zen seemed to call me. (I once thought Buddhism was a monolith. Not so. There are many, many sects–same as in Christianity. In Japan alone, even Zen has three major branches.)

My first sittings, for about two months, were with a GLBT Buddhist group in Chicago. They were a pleasant fellowship, and well-meaning, but ultimately I decided I wanted to work with a teacher. The group, which bills itself as non-sectarian was distinctly anti-Zen for reasons I still can't fathom. I asked the others about training centers in Chicago and was told, flatly, that aside from the Korean Zen temple in Lakeview that there weren't any and that, in any case, GLBT people do not practice Zen.

I chalked this up as yet another instance in which I and the mainstream GLBT community disagree about what is right for me. A quick hunt around on the Internet turned up the CZC, which not only seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for, but also happens to be about a ten-minute walk from my office.

After one visit, I suspected this was the place for me. After three, I was certain. The place is welcoming, but they don't give you a big hug when you come in the door. I was shown how to do prostrations, how to ask for the kyosaku during a sitting, how to do kinhin, and how to sit properly. And then into the zendo I went, to do it all best I could.

For somebody who has always been compelled to get even complicated things right the very first time, there have been moments of terror over the past nine months. Because, as I am beginning to comprehend, there's no such thing as a Zen prodigy. And at the CZC there's no hand-holding, no dumbing down, no gold star stickers for minute increments of progress. This is the real thing, not some hippy-dippy smiley-happy Easy Zen substitute, where the path to satori is ordering a platform bed and ecru curtains from Pottery Barn. As a matter of fact, nobody seems to mention (or care about) satori at all.

Sensei and the other members have been very kind to me as I've stumbled over my robe (and my own feet), bowed in the wrong direction after a sitting, got lost on the way from the Buddha Hall to the zendo, and (during one sitting I will never forget) slid right off my cushion with a deafening THUD because my entire ass fell asleep during zazen and I was trying surreptitiously to wiggle it around and wake it up.

I'm allowed to make mistakes, I'm expected to make mistakes. When they happen, I'm gently but firmly corrected or nudged in the right direction. It's like being a child, except that when I was a child in school my errors were punished far more harshly. I can remember so many times hearing a teacher yell, "I would have expected [insert problem here] from any other child, but not from you!" And now I'm not special, not special at all. What a luxury.

All of this led up to last night, and a ceremony called Jukai, during which I (and the rest of the community) took the precepts of Buddhism. I don't know how to describe this in terms that really make sense to people who haven't read a lot about Buddhism. It sort of reminded me of the once-yearly reaffirmation of baptismal vows in a Roman Catholic church. But for me, personally, it felt like a conversion ceremony. I was once a born Christian with an interest in Buddhism. Now I'm a Buddhist. A small but important (well, important to me) line has been crossed.

So that I won't forget them, I want to write down the superficial details of the night.

Jukai was preceded by what the CZC calls Temple Night. Usually, our practice isn't what you would call devotional. We meditate facing the wall, not the altar, and the altars are very small and simple. On Temple Night, sitting is done facing not only one, but many altars set up all around the center. This was my first Temple Night.

I arrived about 7:15 and was greeted by Mike, one of the practitioners who's been there...I don't know...forever?...who gave me a typical CZC orientation for a new occasion: it was whispered, about ten words long, and delivered only once. At this point, I'm used to that. I even like it. It keeps you alert.

I noticed that a scroll I haven't seen before, a standing Bodhidharma, had been hung in the Center's living room. It looked like it was a rubbing from a masterwork, but unfortunately I never got a chance to check it out up-close.

I went down to the men's changing room and discovered that Jukai is something like Christmas Eve in a Catholic church–people come out of the woodwork. I was lucky to get a hook for my pants and such, even though I was early as usual. Note to self: next time, show up at 7.

Sitting was open, which meant we could sit in either the Buddha Hall or the zendo; and we could get up and move as we wished (usually, the stages of a sitting are strictly timed and announced through the use of different bells and gongs). Mike had told me the altar for images of departed loved ones was in the zendo, so that's where I went first.

I had brought Uncle Mike's picture with me–the one from this post. In the zendo everything was rearranged. Two arcs of mats faced a low, central altar of the many-armed Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion) against the west wall. There were a lot of photographs already on the altar. I added mine, bowed, and sat down, resisting the urge to stand there and examine the gorgeous figure. (The instincts of the art historian die hard.) It was odd, at first, to be facing the others instead of the wall, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Made a nice change. And then I noticed that everyone who came and went was doing prostrations to the altar* instead of merely bowing. Oops.

I sat, and felt that this sitting was really my time to remember and honor my uncle. My thoughts were very personal and I won't record them here.

After a time, I decided to move to the Buddha Hall and so got up, did three prostrations (without tripping over my robe!) to Kannon and headed downstairs.

My first sight of the Buddha Hall was so startling I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath. It's a low room, with dark pillars and walls and only small windows, high up. Normally the lighting is subdued, but on this night the only light came from hundreds of small candles on three altars and maybe six or eight smaller tables piled with offerings of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and bread.

From left to right, the altars were (I hope I remember this properly) Kannon (seated, gesture of the fist of wisdom); Shakyamuni Buddha (seated, zazen mudra) and Mahaprajapati (seated, gesture of fearlessness). I'm especially fond of that figure of Mahaprajapati. She was the Buddha's aunt/foster mother, and she was instrumental in persuading him to share his teaching with women. You go, girl.

In the dim light, robed figures sitting, sometimes moving to sit in a different place or do prostrations. Kinhin (walking meditation) at the back of the room. It felt...ancient. Imperturbable. Every so often, chanting. I discovered to my delight that both "Kanzeon" and the Heart Sutra are both now firmly in my brain, and about half the chant to avert disaster.

One thought that rang out loud and clear out of a quiet brain: How happy and fortunate I am to be here.

Sitting in front of Kannon, quite close to the altar, I had a strong sense of déja vu and couldn't stop from trying to puzzle out why. After about a minute it hit me. The overwhelming warmth, the peace in my chest were exactly those I'd experienced one Christmas, years ago, sitting in our darkened living room looking at the Nativity figures by the light of the Christmas tree. I've been trying to get back to that space, without success, for so many years. And here it was, perfect, as if twenty-plus years of angst had not intervened.

A round of kinhin, with chanting (something new for me–usually we're silent). I had never heard the chant before but recognized it (I think) as Sanskrit in praise of Shakyamuni Buddha. I need to go look it up to be sure.

And then, Jukai. I ended up quite by chance directly behind the mokugyo player, in the middle of things. As far as I know, I may have been the only person taking the precepts for the first time. Sensei led from the front. His sense of conviction was palpable. Another luxury: a teacher who believes what he's teaching.

I recited the Three Treasures, the Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vows as directed. Meant every word of it. May not ever be able to live up to it, but I mean to try. Knelt, prostrated, bowed. And when Sensei read about this ceremony being the way in which "we enter the Buddhist family" I felt a tear roll down my cheek. I have so far to go, more miles than from here to the next galaxy before I'll even feel I've moved an inch, but at least I've started.

About the prostrations: the CZC's Web site explains them better than I could, in answer to the question of why there are figures on the altar if there's no "personal God" in our practice: "The Buddha (and the other figures) are inspiring to the practitioner. They embody, in a kind of metaphorical, crystalized manner, the enlightened, open mind that is our truest nature. When we prostrate or bow to a figure it is not a form of worship, but rather an affirmation that the purity that is represented by the figure before us is really within us, and we are lowering our smaller, limited ego before this all encompassing truth."

73 comments:

Stephen said...

Franklin, thank you for sharing this and letting others read it. As the gay son of a minister, there has been so much distance created between the community and love I felt as a child and finding my truth and the role of a spiritual practice in my adult life. Your journey and recording of last night is inspirational. I feel myself in your Christmas memory. Again, thank you.

john said...

I used to lie on the floor and stare into to Nativity and want to be the Baby Jesus. So calm. Just silently be there. And the light inside the Nativity was just right. Made me calm every time.

Melissa said...

How beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing it. Most of my knowledge of Buddhism comes from an art background, so I understand the desire to just stop and examine the works. My older sister is stationed in Korea and I hope to visit some temples if I manage to get over there to see her.

After all, Buddhism is one of the major Korean religions, so I've never felt myself locked into Christianity and thought I should explore my Korean roots.

Norskybear said...

I'm happy that you have found a spiritual home for yourself. I think that as we get older, we all strive to find some kind of inner peace, regardless of where we eventually find it.

TheAmpuT said...

Congratulations on your precepts, and thank you for creating (as you always do) such a vivid image with your words that I actually feel like I'm there.

I've been exploring Buddhism for awhile myself, but so far I haven't found the sect that rings true. I'm happy for you that you have, and I'm even happier you bridged those two moments of complete peace.
~bonnie

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Thank you.

Kathy Merrick said...

Franklin, my dear.
I believe I will never be calm or detached from truly petty things enough to make a decent Buddhist.
But I aspire to that feeling of quiet brightness that comes to me on Christmas Eve, after my family's happy song-and-food-filled evening, when the tree is light, candles glow, it's cold and dark and there's nothing to do except sit and be joyful.
I am glad that ypu have found that with your CZC.

Well, except for the fact that you'll burn in hell.
namaste, baby.

Martha said...

Franklin, how beautiful to be so very present with kindred spirits. Thank you for sharing. Namaste.

Cindy G said...

Peace and joy. Thank you for sharing.

amy [Knitty] said...

wow.

Susan said...

"May not ever be able to live up to it, but I mean to try."

Every sunrise brings with it 24 brand new hours. Awaken each day with intent.

A lotus to you, Buddha to be.

Pearls Mother said...

Thank-you for sharing this special moment in your life.
I wish you peace, happiness and contentment in your journey in buddhism.
Lindy

Janice in GA said...

Congratulations. That really sounds lovely, and a sense of belonging like that is priceless. Very best wishes to you.

LaurieM said...

I'm happy for you. It sounds as though you have found your spiritual home.

Rachel H said...

I applaud your search for this peace, and congratulate you on finding it. And I thank you for sharing the occasion with us.

May the warmth and peace you found last night stay with you and grow only stronger. Namaste.

Adele said...

(Wipes eyes)

I'm so happy for you. I feel both happy for and envious of people like yourself who manage to find their spiritual path; I'm still looking for mine.

Mel said...

Thank you for sharing that experience.

Lucy said...

You took precepts! Congratulations! I took precepts a year ago and I waw so moved by it.
Way to go, and, as they say in my school, thank you for your practice!

kmkat said...

I am so happy for you that you found the peace you are looking for. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Franklin! Have read for a long time, lurking but never commenting, but had to step out of the shadows to say how happy i am for you. I hope someday to find a practice group and work up to taking the precepts myself.
I wish you peace

Stephanie said...

Congratulations. Sincerely.

(and on a more personal note, does this mean that we'll be searching out good vegetarian restaurants together?)

junior_goddess said...

I tried to explain that feeling of warmth to my spouse this week-that feeling that I connect, that God hears me. I'm glad you had one, glad that you feel grounded and connected with the person you are-and where you fit in.

You had a holy night-I wish you more.

DianeS said...

I really don't know how to put this in words very well, but you made me feel so happy (in a very peaceful sort of way) for you.

Warrior Knitter said...

Thank you for sharing that intensely personal experience.

I'm glad you found your way back to that space & that you know how to get there whenever you want. I hope we can ALL get there, however the journey.

Mother of Chaos said...

I am so happy you found "that feeling" again, Franklin. How joyous!!

Chicago Jen said...

Namaste and thank you, Mr. Franklin.

Heather said...

Thank you so much for sharing, and congratulations!

FiberQat said...

Thank you. You write as one awed, not with the zealotry of a convert. Many blessings.

Knit Mongrel said...

Congratulations, if that is the sentiment that best expresses my feelings. As one who firmly believes that all - athesists, Satanists, what have you - have the right to believe whatever makes them happy, I smiled while reading your post. Finding that which gives us peace is always a miracle - in any form.

spider_knit said...

How inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing such an intimate expression of your personal experience. I write experience, and yet, I know this is not quite enough of a word to express it.

Thank you.

marylee said...

How nice for you. How nice of you. Thank you for including us.

Joanna said...

Thank you for the sence of peace that this post reflects. It reminds me of midnight adoration, in a dark chapel .... warmth surrounding oneself.

LornaJay said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I can hear the peace in your tone. It made me smile. I felt that peace in a different faith than the one I was raised in, and I firmly believe that candles have something to do with it, as well as icons. It's an ancient way to practice faith, and it touches our core.

May you walk in peace, chant in peace, meditate in peace, and breathe in peace.

Palzang said...

Franklin, I just wanted to comment on how much your post reminded me of when I was just starting out in Buddhism. My name is Palzang, and I'm a Buddhist monk now. I was in Mongolia with Konchog the summer of 2005 and we were ordained at the same time by the same lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. But I grew up gay in Rockford, Illinois (of all places), and lived in Chicago for a number of years while at the University of Chicago. I came to Chicago after 4 years in the Air Force, 2 of which were spent in Japan where I got my first taste of Buddhism. My interest continued when I got back to Chicago, and my first experiences with actual Buddhist practice were with Zen. I think the CZC was one of the places I used to go to, also Rev. Kubose's Zen group on the North side. Obviously I've come a long way since then, 35 years ago, but your description of Jukai brought back many fond memories. Thanks for sharing!

Susan said...

Beautiful post. Thank you.

janel said...

thank you.

MonicaPDX said...

Franklin - thank you, and congratulatons! It's wonderful finding what has meaning to you. I know the feeling. May we all do so.

Anonymous said...

Unrelated note...have you seen/read "Knitting with Balls"? What do you think, would you buy it or wear the patterns in there? Good post, btw :)

Michelle said...

Thank you.

Ween said...

This sounds like an incredible spiritual experience. I'm so happy that you have found what you have been searching for. May peace be with you on your journey to enlightenment.

Lee Ann said...

My jaw dropped a bit with the "GLBTs don't practise Zen" part. Huh?

Cause sweetie, you're doing it, and doing it right for you, from the sounds of it. Very happy to hear it.

I cook a nice vegetarian lunch...you could come visit, you know...

(Yep, I stray from steak when the mood strikes.)

mlj1954 said...

Thank you for sharing this very personal time with us.

Sandra said...

How wonderful for you, an dhow lucky for us that you chose to share this.
Thanks.

kemtee said...

Thank you for sharing that with us.

Many, many congratulations on achieving the next step of your spiritual journey. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I've been reading about your life for quite some time. I love when you share the personal moments as much, if not more than when you are purely entertaining us. You never fail to bring either a smile to my lips or a tear to my eyes. Thanks again,
Paige

Vicky in Vancouver said...

Thank you for sharing. Your writing is a blessing, I hope, to you, and I know, to me.
Peace.

Pamela said...

Lovely. You are a lucky boy to have found what brings you peace. We do want for everyone, do we not?

Pamela said...

What I meant was, we want that for everyone.

David said...

Fascinating. Thanks.

Treesa said...

Franklin, welcome to the sangha. The descriptions of your first vows are ever so much more elegant than mine. It brought tears to my eyes and a peace and reconnection to my vows of the first time. I, too, wrote my impressions down the night it happened. I hope that this is what you've been searching for to still your troubled heart. In loving kindness, Thubten Nyingye.

daisy said...

Thank you, dear Franklin, for sharing this.

(My word verification is ZENBFX. Coincidence?)

hilary said...

Hi Franklin, I don't think I've commented before.
For a very short time, I practiced sitting with a group in Ottawa when I was doing a very tumultuous postdoc. They were a Tibetan Buddhist group, and it's a different path that your Zen group takes, but a similar end (if I understood what I was doing). When I had to leave, the friend that I knew there gave me a small bronze Shakyamuni Buddha statue. I moved to Halifax, I could have studied intensely there but didn't. We choose. I have moved again to Guelph, Ontario, and I may study here just because your post made me remember what I felt like in a sea of turmoil, and how I found a friend. I am also a practicing Catholic, something I haven't done for 20 years. I don't even think I believe in God per se, but I like the ritual of the church.
The moment I try to recapture (why Christmas?) is one of looking out my bedroom window in the middle of a Christmas eve,(we lived in the country) and seeing the full moon sparkle off the backyard snow. A field full of diamonds. I've never seen anything so beautiful, I've never felt so full, I would love to have that again.
Your post reminded me.

Anna said...

Having just read some of your other entries, I really think you should go visit Sydney Australia, and consider it as a place to live. It has a perfect climate, really good, genuine people, it's not money orientated but rather "good time" orientated, and the quality of life is really high, think about it and at least plan a vacation. It rocks.

Anna said...

OK, so I realise now that that commet doesn't follow on as such, but have just found your blog after listening to "Cast On" and am so passionate about Australia that I wanted to make the suggestion to you.

Sravana said...

Franklin, thank you so much for sharing - and congratulations on finding your Spiritual Home.

Sravana, who's still looking

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing, and Mazel Tov

Sneaksleep said...

Franklin, thank you. I've never met you (in person), but I feel like I have. There is so much to say to you about all this, but in the end, I feel anything that could be said would be expressed so much better by just breathing together. I have attended other jukai ceremonies, but this one sounds amazing. Thanks to you, I have finally gone and dug up my zafu, and I think I might even try to look up a ZC here in my new city, too. Again, endless gratitude.

janine said...

What a beautiful post. Congratulations on finding your own personal path.

marie in florida said...

hug hug hug and kiss on the neck

(i'm short, i usually can only reach my huged one's neck)

hug hug hug

Konchog said...

Sorry to be late to the party, Brother Franklin! I see my fellow monk Palzang beat me to it.

Anyway, I'll never forget the night -- October 12, 1990 -- that I took my refuge and bodhisattva vows. Really a threshold moment, but also one that felt like slipping on comfortable old shoes, you know?

The most gorgeous part of Buddhism for me is how its heart is overbrimming with love and compassion. I am, therefore, not surprised at all that that's where you landed.

Beverley said...

Hi, I just read your blog entry and felt compelled to say "thank you for sharing such a personal experience". I am not a Buddhist, but find it very interesting, we have a temple near to where I live, which is quite beautiful and a Peace Pagoda, which has to be seen to be believed, it is just considered by many who live in this new town as a landmark, but it is much more than that. If you go here http://www.mkbuddhism.org.uk/ and click on Peace Pagoda on the left hand links you will see a photo of it and read about it. It was in fact the first Peace Pagoda to be built in the Western Hemisphere, and has encased within it remains of the Lord Buddha. The monks who live and work in the temple are among the most amazing people i have ever had the pleasure of meeting, all their food is donated and their life is so simple, yet so very caring. Even the disseffected teenagers we took there to visit the temple were not their usual rowdy selves, even they could not deny the sense of peace that radiated from that building and the people within it. Love, light and blessings, Beverley

Jewel of Montreal said...

Franklin, thank you for sharing this. It makes me wonder how are you are approaching Christmas this year; do you still feel compelled to give gifts? Will you accept gifts? Do you find Buddhism helps you deal with the overwhelming bombardment of Christmas ads, Christmas cheer, and general Christmas greed?

gaile said...

Wow, Franklin, thank you for sharing your beautiful memory with us. it truly sounds like the words of someone who has found his true path. Your willingness to be so transparent is an inspiration. peace.

Ryan said...

Next stop, Mongolia! ;-)

Lori Witzel said...

[ g a s s h o ]

alex said...

thank you for sharing your experiences with the chicago center. I myself am a fairly new practicioner at the Rochester Zen center, and I just experienced temple night here and Jukai for the first time also! What a coincidence that I stumbled on your blog randomly. I wish you the best in your practice.

Liz said...

Many faces, one god; many paths, one goal.

Peace,
Liz

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