Putting on robes

As part of my transition out of Zen Center, I have been relinquishing most of my habits around following the schedule over the past few weeks. Nevertheless, twice in the last few days I have put on my robes and joined the assembly in the Buddha Hall.
On Friday morning, we commemorated the death of Suzuki Roshi, who died on December 4th 1971. Although there are memorial services every month, the annual memorial is a more elaborate affair, with a procession, a loaded altar, a five-person food offering, several chants, and a general incense offering (even if it isn’t incense these days). In addition, the ryoban, generally the priests and seniors in the front row, which I was a part of, are asked to make a statement of gratitude.

One way we show our gratitude to Suzuki Roshi is by continuing his lineage and his teaching. This continuation is most visible for me in the shuso ceremony, the hossenshiki, or dharma combat, where a senior student or monk takes the seat to answer questions, both from the junior students, in this case those who have been sitting sesshin for the past week, and from former shusos, who want to test the mettle of this student and their understanding of the dharma. The ceremony marks the end of the shuso’s three months acting as head student or monk, and the beginning of their teaching career.
Over the years, as I have become more familiar with the process, been shuso myself, and now looking on as a former shuso, it has seemed to me that the most successful shuso ceremonies are the ones where the shuso gets to be themselves completely. Perhaps that is the criterion of a good zen teacher. This time around, Curtis was the shuso, and I felt he turned himself inside out in his authenticity and sincerity, meeting every question with his full attention and intention.

The ceremony is the last event of this seven-day sesshin, where dozens of practitioners were sitting steadfastly, commemorating the Buddha himself in his original effort to be liberated from suffering. Even if I was not sitting with them this time, I appreciate everyone’s effort to manifest Buddha’s enlightenment.

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