Our ten days at school in mid-August were packed with interesting presentations and enriching activities. I stayed in a room with three of my fellow students. My bed was right next to the windows, which we left open every night. It was lovely to snuggle under the puffy comforter and feel the breeze on my face and hear the coyotes howling in the morning.
Next March, my cohort will receive the Zen precepts in the ceremony known as jukai. To prepare for this, we have to do several things by the end of this December: create a chart representing the traditional lineage of male ancestors, starting with the Buddha and ending with our own teacher (who will write my name at the very bottom before she returns this document to me during the ceremony); create a chart representing notable female ancestors; make an artwork or produce a piece of writing about those who have influenced our own spiritual paths; hand sew a rakusu (a small biblike traditional Japanese garment); and write a gloss about each of the precepts, along with the Three Refuges and the three Zen Peacemaker Tenets.
We were advised to try to complete the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ charts while we were at school in August. You are allowed some artistic license with the latter, but the former has to be just so, and involves drawing a long winding “bloodline.” (Traditionally, people had to draw this line in one stroke, but we were allowed to lift our red markers from the long scroll of rice paper as needed.) I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. one night and got both of them done. We also began sewing our rakusus, and here I must pause to appreciate our sewing instructor, someone who went through this two-year chaplaincy training several years ago. There are 23 people in my cohort, plus at least three people who will be joining us for jukai, which means one person is trying to assist people at 26 different stages of doing this sewing project, any number of whom are freaking out at any given moment, yet she never seemed at all flustered.
Working on our lineage charts and rakusus gave rise to joy, tears, quiet and not so quiet satisfaction, frustration, gratitude and many kind offerings of emotional support, encouragement, sympathy, and instruction from those farther along. It was a beautiful time of teamwork, group effort, and deepening relationships. Really, it was fun. Now that I’m working on my rakusu at home by myself, I am very grateful that my mother taught me how to sew. There are people doing this who have literally never threaded a needle before. There are people who don’t own an iron or ironing board.
For basting thread, I am using red thread that was in the very first sewing kit my mother ever bought me, when I was maybe eight years old. I am using scissors she gave me, and my sewing stuff now resides in a handsome round wicker basket that she made. Most of all, I am using the knowledge she imparted to me. We have an excellent online guide, yet inevitably, some things are assumed. For instance, I don’t think it explicitly says how to make a knot in a piece of thread. (We can email our sewing instructor if we get stuck, and she will also do a video phone call with us.)
During my week at school, my childhood home in Ann Arbor was sold, and the father of my very oldest friend died. One of our teachers is a famous Zen gardener who writes for Tricycle and other publications. (There will be a story about her time at school with us in the next issue.) In her corn kernel necklace, she afforded a fine example of a person evidently being exactly and delightfully herself. (“If this sounds woo-woo, deal with it.”) I can fall into thinking that being a chaplain requires a certain piety, or even at times a funereal manner, but am pretty sure that what is almost always most needed and welcome is authenticity, practiced in an ethical manner.
This teacher led us in building up a compost heap, preceded by a ritual in which we called upon the powers of the four directions. Those who wanted to could make a clay sculpture representing something they wished to let go of; these were placed on the compost heap before the final layer or two of stuff was added. While we were working on the compost heap, our teacher divided us into three groups for singing. The first group sang something like, “Rot, rot, rot, rot!” The second group sang a somewhat more complicated but still applicable phrase. To the third group, she said, “You’re the most dangerous of all!” Members of this group were instructed to shriek “Get down!” as the spirit moved them. We loved her.
My parents are avid gardeners who always had a compost heap in the yard of the home that was just sold. Getting to participate in making a compost heap helped with grieving the loss of that enchanted, quiet place, with its beautiful fruit trees, grapevine, flowers and vegetables.