Reflections on Pilgrimage

Several members of Dharma Rain recently went on pilgrimage to a dozen different temples and monasteries in Oregon and California. Tsuho and Sage were participants and share some of the impact it had on them here:

Ashland Zen Center, as recalled by Tsuho:

The schedule. That’s the first thing I noticed when we arrived.

The first thing that actually happened was the warm greeting from our hosts, Ramana and Stacy, the guiding teachers at Ashland Zen Center. We make bows and shake hands. They make sure to greet each of us individually. There is already a connection of sanghas, as Ramana visited Dharma Rain several years ago to learn more about our Dharma Camp summer program and start their own program in Ashland.

But the schedule…

Every temple has a schedule. You know when the morning sit starts. You know when breakfast is. During a sesshin, the schedule will show activities down to the minute with blocks for work practice, lunch, rest, evening service, dinner and nighttime service. A schedule is a practical tool that helps move a group of people efficiently by clearly stating the course of events. 

In Zen, everything is connected to practice. The schedule is another form. Defining when and where things will take place reduces the decisions a practitioner needs to make. The schedule gives you the opportunity to bring your awareness completely to what is happening in the moment. When the han sounds, you go to the meditation hall. When the bell rings, you sit. When the umpan is struck, it is time to eat. You can rest in the schedule.

Ashland Zen Center is in the Branching Streams lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. If you have read the book or even heard the phrase, “Beginner’s Mind”, then you know something of Suzuki Roshi. In my mind, he is the most consequential teacher in the development of American Zen. There is something he understood about what it would take to establish Zen on a new continent. Today, the Branching Streams counts 65 temples in the United States and another dozen temples around the world in their lineage. The White Plum Asanga of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi and its 200+ teachers is the other substantial presence in American Zen.

And even with all the other Zen lineages (including mine), other Buddhist traditions, and ethnic temples; even with celebrities like Tina Turner, Jeff Bridges, and George Lucas, Buddhism is a ripple in the ocean of spirituality in America. One percent of Americans identify as Buddhist and they are heavily concentrated on the West Coast and in Hawaii. 

On this trip, only on the second stop, I don’t feel any of that smalleness. I feel a tradition growing deep roots in a new land.

“Would you like to offer incense?” 

Kakumyo, our abbot, would be asked that at almost every stop on our pilgrimage. Each time, the offering would feelings of more connection between sanghas, and to the broad sangha of Buddhists around the world. In each place, we follow by making three bows to the altar in honor.

“May we refresh you?” Ramana asks. They have prepared watermelon and lemonade to meet the hot summer day.  We sit around a large table in the dining hall and introduce ourselves. Ramana and Stacy share the story of the Zen Center. They practiced in various places around the city. Their current location had a farmhouse and barn, which they converted to suit Zen practice. In seeing their next vision of practice in Ashland, Ramana and Stacy and Barbara, another member of the sangha, sold their homes in order to fund the buildings needed to bring residential practice to the center. 

“Spiritual practice begins when we recognize the ephemeral nature of pleasure and the ways attachment to a particular outcome can distract us from living fully with what is. In spiritual practice, we seek what’s real, beyond the ideas of right and wrong. We want to get to the heart of the matter.”

From A Sense of Something Greater by Keido Les Kaye Roshi , Teacher at Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View, CA, teacher to Etsudo Patty Krahl Roshi and Jintei Harold Little Roshi, founders of Ashland Zen Center and teacher to Ramana and Stacy.

It’s after dinner and we are sitting in the zendo, a small room in the original house. The room is full. There are people in every position along the walls and two full rows down the center. Later, someone would say it was the most people they ever remember sitting for a period of zazen in that room.  

It is hot. It is the kind of hot where you can feel the sweat coming out of your pores and moving the hair on your arms. I’ve picked the wrong position and my legs start  to fall asleep within the first ten minutes of zazen. We are going to be there for 35 more. It’s early in the trip, so I am determined to hold my posture and show the room the solidity of my practice, in a room where no one is really looking at anyone. 

I start to fantasize about all the ways I might be reunited with my forgotten rakasu before the end of the trip. I curse myself for not driving back from the Empty Field myself – who cares if it would have taken four hours. I think about my son driving south the next day, but that our travels would continue even further south in California, and that he’d never catch us. The idea I settle on involves sending my wife to Dharma Rain across town, getting my rakasu, and sending it out in a next-day FedEx envelope. “She’ll send it to Sonoma Mountain. We’ll meet up with it there,” I say myself, “I’ll have it for the last four days of the trip. Perfect.” 

The bell rings. The thought bubble pops. I try to discern if that whole game was to distract from the discomfort or the lingering attachment to my mistake. Or both.

At Dharma Rain, when one becomes a lay disciple, you are given a Dharma name, a Japanese name, by your teacher. Its meaning is connected to a bigger Dharmic aspiration and is intended to give you another form to practice with. For example, my dharma name is Tsuho, which means “knowing the direction to go.”

Here in Ashland here, and the broader Branching Stream lineage, they use their given English names in most circumstances. At the Shasta Abbey, the monastery where the founders of Dharma Rain trained, they switched to giving old English names, instead of Japanese.

There is an active conversation in American Zen about what is appropriate. There are members of our sangha who choose to continue to use their given names after lay ordination. A teacher tells me that younger students have started to ask for English names. I myself support continuing to use Japanese names. We are following our lineage engaging in a practice with deep Japanese roots. It’s also another form and sometimes forms change. I’ve wondered lately if a name like “True Bearing” would hold the same meaning for me at Tsuho.

The next morning is better—cooler, more comfortable and with a taller cushion. For service, there is a single lay member of Ashland Zen Center in the room and we attempt to follow them as we make our way through service. We gather in the dining hall for breakfast—oatmeal and persimmon sauce made from fruit grown on the grounds. Ramara remarks that she appreciated how our group looked out for each other, “moving like a school of fish.” I appreciate the comment. Ramana and I have had a chance to talk a bit. We share some tenderness over both having sons leaving for college in the fall. 

I ask her about lineage and forms. We’ll be visiting other temples in the Branching Stream lineage in the coming days. I am interested in how, as teachers, they discern what to hold and what to change. Ramana is a fourth generation teacher in the Suzuki Roshi line.  She says they largely do what their teachers and their teachers’ teacher did. The question barely registers, in a good way. The practice and the forms are clear. 

As we leave, Ramana and Stacy are in the same place again, next to the front gate, making sure to send us off. I see Ramana and thank her for the warm visit. She smiles, jumps forward, and gives me a huge hug. 

I say to her and Stacy, “I have already told my group I might stay. They could pick me up on Sunday on the way back through.”

It’s true. I feel like I could stay. 

Sage wrote poems for each of the places visited – a few of them are included below:

To Buddha Eye, on Saturday, July 15:

The sun rises —

and there is nothing else.

I unfurl my petals

to meet it

and nothing is unfurled.

To Green Gulch, on Thursday, July 13:

Hidden in the dragon’s scales

Farm-fresh organic dharma

To Sokoji, Thursday, July 13:

A synagogue and now

a zen temple — some soil

just natural respite.

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