The Language of Ritual

The shuso ceremony, as I have mentioned before, marks the point when a student, fielding questions from the entire assembly, becomes a teacher. It took me many years to appreciate the intricate, and very Japanese, make-up and choreography of this particular ritual. I have seen it from three sides now – on the east side of the assembly as a newer student, in the centre as the shuso, and now on the west side as a former shuso.
Before the questioning, also known as dharma combat, the shuso reads a koan, traditionally the first case of the Blue Cliff Record (which they will offer a commentary on after all the questions) and then ritually exchanges the book for a staff, which is offered by the abiding teacher. Back on their seat, holding up the staff, which at Tassajara was a length of bamboo, the shuso offers this statement, filled with allusions from Buddhist tradition, placing them firmly in the teaching lineage:

‘This is the dharma staff, five feet long. Once a black snake, on Vulture Peak it became the udumbara flower. At Shaolin Temple it burst forth the five petals of zen. Sometimes it is a dragon, swallowing heaven and earth; sometimes a vajra sword, giving and taking life. This staff is now in my hands. Though just a mosquito biting an iron bull, I cannot give it away. Dragons and elephants, let us call forth the dharma: give me your questions!’

It was fun to go looking through my archives to find pictures, though these are all from my time at City Center – the ceremony at Tassajara is too formal for cameras.Lien shuso staff 2
Liên receives the staff from Blanche; the symbol of teaching authority is temporarily passed on.

Gib Shuso benji poem (1)
Gib holds the staff up in the traditional position as he listens to the benji, his attendant, reading a poem about their practice together, just ahead of his making the statement above.

Shuso ceremony fielding questions
Konin holds the staff as she responds to a student’s question. The shuso strikes the staff on the ground to mark the end of the exchange. The energy with which the shuso does this, and meets each question, reveals the quality of the teacher-to-be.

7 thoughts on “The Language of Ritual

  1. Thanks for sharing these pictures. The black and white images offers deeper insights into ceremonies, I’d like one day to participate. I dream in B/W, so this color always arouse a deeper meaning, for me.


  2. Working lately on self-centeredness: And noteing very much my self-centered driven responses. Are their any ritual, other than Zazen, to help mediate this being?


  3. These self-centered responses are in my everyday language; when speaking to others, in my down-time; thoughts of ‘I’ this, and if ‘I’, ‘I’ think, etc. Another example: When in session working or just answering emails or responding to this blog, it is the ‘I’ — ‘I’ want to not say. Correction: From the above comment – it should have read ‘are there any’ vs are their.


  4. Do you think this is unusual? I would suggest that most people are not even noticing they are doing it. Noticing is the gateway to changing the behaviour.


  5. Yes, you are correct and we don’t notice just how often we use the word I. Notice the next time you are having a conversation, listen, for fun of course, how often it is used. Not saying it’s correct or incorrect. However for me, ‘I’ is the gateway into what I consider looking at the little me versus the Big me. Recently, while having a conversation with a friend, we decided to notice how often this word was used. We decided the concept of not using ‘I’ to express our thoughts could not be that difficult and we decided to just say — ‘ding’ each time ‘I’ was used — the dings became a funny song and we were dinging for about 45-minutes, then the other party and me just start laughing for we realized how powerful ‘I’ is…haha funny. Changing lanes changing behavior!…Bowing deeply!


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