This is the third installment of a story about my personal spiritual journey, covering my path to ordination as Zen monk and the next several years of junior training, including a time I call my “dark night of the soul” and my experience of a life-affirming phoenix rising from the ashes of my despair. Check out episodes 174 and 175 for the first and second parts of the story, which took me up to the point I left home to move into a Zen center. I’ll need a fourth episode to tell you about the remainder of my junior training, up to my transmission as a Zen priest and my decision to start my own Zen center.
Quicklinks to Content:
An Offer of Ordination as a Zen Monk
Postulancy Before Ordination: Trial by Renunciation
Choosing Teacher Over Monastery
Dark Night of the Soul
Phoenix Rises from The Ashes of Despair
An Offer of Ordination as a Zen Monk
I want to make clear from the outset that transmission and serving as a priest and teacher were never a guaranteed outcome of my training. In fact, I didn’t set out to be a teacher at all but got ordained simply to wholeheartedly pursue the no-holds-barred Zen journey identified as my aspiration in the last installment of this story.
As I mentioned in the last episode, I moved into Dharma Rain Zen Center while I was still working on my master’s thesis in wildlife biology. This was in late 1998. I was thrilled to be living at the Zen center full time, where I shared practice and three meals a day with Kyogen, Gyokuko, and several other residents. Dharma Rain was – and still is – a lay Zen center where most practitioners live at home. It wasn’t like a monastery in that it lacked a sizable group of full-time participants in a full-time schedule, but at least I was living extremely simply – all of my belongings fit in a closet – and I was able to devote any extra time I had to practice. I anticipated finishing my master’s thesis and then going off to one of the monasteries I was dreaming about.
At some point Gyokuko and Kyogen asked me if I might want to receive Shukke Tokudo, or ordination as a Zen monk, from Gyokuko. This came as quite a surprise to me, as the Carlsons didn’t have any ordained students. They had plenty of very serious and committed lay students, but no monastics. I didn’t even know ordaining with them was a possibility, but they had always planned on ordaining at least a few folks to pass on that aspect of our lineage. I wasn’t sure what to think; on the one hand, Gyokuko was my teacher, but I also wanted to drop everything and run off to a monastery without looking back.
Eventually I decided yes, I wanted to ordain with Gyokuko, or at least start the long process of discernment, preparation, and testing that would entail. There were many times over the next five or six years when I would regret this, but, as you’ll see, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good decision. I knew that Gyokuko would guide my practice – waking me up when I was deluding myself, questioning me when I was sure I was right, and holding my feet to the fire when I wanted to avoid facing what is hardest to face. She didn’t let me down.
Postulancy Before Ordination: Trial by Renunciation
Once I finished my master’s thesis, I entered a phase called “postulancy” in our tradition. Someone looking to receive ordination as a monk spends a year or more living as a monastic – and as the most junior of all monastics and practitioners. If you’re aiming to get ordained because you think the robes look cool, or you want to lord it over other people, or you want to hide out in private contemplation, postulancy will be the rude awakening necessary to make you consider other paths. At least when I went through this process, postulants are stripped of all leadership positions (assuming they had any). They are first one up in the morning, outside sweeping the sidewalks. They are the last one to bed at night, cleaning up and making sure everything is taken care of before lights out. They are obligated to attend everything on the schedule and serve as the errand girl or boy for every other person in the Sangha.
Dharma Rain wasn’t a monastery – it was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, within easy walking distance of a grocery store, restaurants, and coffee shops. Therefore, a cloistered, simplified, focused atmosphere was created for the postulants by requiring they stay on campus (the Zen center house and yard, and the temple building, which was across the street) unless they asked for permission to go somewhere. Permission was not automatically granted. Come to think of it, postulancy was not entirely unlike military boot camp without the strenuous physical workouts.
I found postulancy tough, but not for the reasons you might think. After all, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to “put to rout all that was not life.” I didn’t mind having hardly any stuff. I didn’t mind not being able to go out on the town. I didn’t mind wearing my hair a half-inch long or wearing boring Zen clothes all the time. I enjoyed the full schedule of practice – zazen, temple work, communal meals, classes, chanting. I did mind having been demoted to the bottom rung of the social ladder. I’m fairly smart, articulate, outspoken, and opinionated, but my teachers managed to subtly model to everyone that people were no longer obligated to listen in rapt silence as I pontificated. Instead, I had requested, as a postulant, to put my practice on full display, inviting feedback from anyone who felt like giving it.
Postulancy was also difficult because I hated – and still hate – being told what to do. Ironically, if I’m being told what to do in a context in which I expect – or even welcome – such a request, I’ve got no problem with it. In other words, you may be telling me what to do but I asked you to tell me what to do. It’s a different matter entirely when your request runs counter to what I really want to do or not want to do, and I’d really rather you butt out of the situation. When this happens, I get silent and furious.
The central feature of postulancy for monastic ordination, and indeed junior monastic training in general, is renunciation. To “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” you have to give up everything you’re attached to. A tradition like Zen makes many demands, some of which you personally may not be bothered by at all – like my not being bothered by giving up nice hair or clothes, because I wasn’t attached to those things in the first place. However, I was attached to my ego, my self-expression, my sense of being respected and admired by others, my ability to take on projects and control them, my autonomy, and my privacy. Postulancy – and much of junior monkhood – challenged these attachments with a vengeance.
The point of challenging attachments is in part to encourage you to be less attached (because attachment hurts when you’re deprived), but even more importantly, challenging attachments encourages you to look deeper. What is left when we put to rout all that is not life? When we reduce it to its lowest terms? Without the aspects central to my identity – my intelligence, self-expression, capabilities, autonomy – who was I? Was life still worth living?
I wish I could say that Zen postulancy propelled me beyond the need for contingent satisfactions, but it didn’t. Instead of breaking through to a life of unconditional confidence and peace, I was often miserable and resentful. My existential angst was still present, but now my everyday life highlighted it instead of distracting me from it. However, Zen training is a long process, and I was just beginning. Zen promised me I could break free from my self-imposed misery, and I put deep faith in that promise because of what Zen had allowed me to do so far.
I was still a postulant when I was sent to Tassajara Zen monastery in California for nine months. Short periods living in a monastery is a traditional part of the postulant’s path when she is ordained at a lay Zen center or temple like I was.
The first three months of my stay at Tassajara was a winter practice period, and I was absolutely in heaven. My dreams had a come true. The monastery is in the middle of a wilderness, and during practice period is completely cloistered. A couple members of staff did runs for supplies each week, and you could request a few small, simple items from town like toiletries or chocolate. Otherwise, we were cut off from the world except for a pay phone we could use on off-days.
The formal practice schedule went from before dawn until after dusk. Except on off-days (days of the month ending in a 4 or 9), the program included zazen, chanting, silent work practice, more zazen, study, rest, more silent work, more zazen, and formal oryoki meals eaten in the Zendo. You were left with almost no time for distractions or lounging around. On off-day you might get some extra sleep or take a hike, but you also needed to wash your laundry by hand in cold water, put it through a hand wringer, and hang it out to dry. Once a month the schedule was further intensified with a sesshin (meditation retreat), entailing much more zazen and not so much work practice.
Although I was surrounded by people at the monastery, I felt like Thoreau living all by himself out on Walden pond. Silence was maintained, more or less, except for off-days. Even then, no one expected you to socialize. I surrendered all other concerns, followed the schedule, kept to myself, and looked deeply within at my fundamental questions – for three whole months. What was this life? Who was I? What did I truly want? Why was I unable to be the person I think I really wanted to be? Why, despite living in a beautiful valley in the wilderness, my every need met, was I still discontent at some fundamental level? I read, reflected, meditated, and absorbed the teachings in the classes and Dharma Talks as if my life depended on them.
Periodically throughout my time at Tassajara, I would call Gyokuko on off-day from the pay phone. I was pleased to report my insights and changes, but sooner or later a tension developed between us. I wanted to stay at the monastery indefinitely. After all, I had once asked Gyokuko why she decided to enter the monastery early on in her practice. Her answer had surprised me: “That’s where I was happiest.” Now I was happiest in the monastery – but she told me to enjoy the time I had there and then return!
When I thought about going back to the Zen center, I was filled with dread; there was so much busyness and work. Residents and the ordained faced days packed with more activities and responsibilities than they could possibly handle, in the middle of all the distractions and demands of modern life. The thought of spending my monastic years practicing there made me think of being a sacrificial lamb on an altar, filling the many demands of the Sangha at the expense of the zazen, stillness, contemplation, and study I craved. I asked Gyokuko, “What’s more important, the monastery or the teacher?” She said, “We’ll have to find out.”
In the end I went back to my teacher, although I barely made it. Over the Tassajara summer season I fell in love with a monk and fantasized about seeking ordination from a San Francisco Zen Center teacher so I could stay in the monastery. Gyokuko stopped arguing with me at some point, requesting simply that I return to Portland to make my final decision about whether to stay a postulant with her or embark on a different path.
Choosing Teacher Over Monastery
Within a week of returning home, everything looked very different. Smart teacher, eh? Gyokuko more or less left me alone to process, but I ended up begging her to let me continue my postulancy despite the low regard with which I had held it for the last few months.
Why did I choose teacher over monastery? It broke my heart and remained a point of tension over the entire course of my junior training (the next 5-6 years), but the gist of it is that I had a real teacher in Gyokuko. We had gotten to know one another well over five years of working together. She was ready to commit to guiding my training as a monk and had insight into my karmic obstacles. I had someone who saw through my bullshit.
The first thing that became obvious was my decision should not in any way be affected by having fallen in love. Heck, I had jettisoned a husband to devote myself to this path! Good lord. The second thing I realized was that, as much as I loved the monastery, I could hide out there and avoid recognizing my karmic patterns unless I had a teacher like Gyokuko nearby, watching me. Even worse, I was likely to flit from monastery to monastery, always seeking the purest practice. Toward the end of my time at Tassajara, for example, I became dissatisfied with the fact that for six months out the year the place is more or less a spendy resort staffed by aspiring Zen students. (There are two 3-month cloistered practice periods a year, and six months of a “guest season,” when people come for the hot springs, natural beauty, and delicious food.)
Although we don’t formally work with koans in Soto Zen, I definitely worked on a central life koan with Gyokuko. It’s difficult to put words to it. In terms of its practical manifestation, I would practice hard, get dissatisfied with my results, and argue that I needed to go somewhere else in order to attain the breakthrough I so desperately wanted. I might need to take up some additional kind of study, or – of course – go away to a monastery.
I would explain at length the inadequacies of practicing at the Zen center, which was, as I knew it would be, full of busyness, competing responsibilities, relatively little zazen, and almost no time for study. Gyokuko would listen quietly and patiently, but in the end, she always remained completely unconvinced. At one point – after ordination – I got to spend a couple months in a nearby monastery and once again loved it. I told my teacher I had to stay there. In fact, I was going to stay there. She told me to return home at the end of my pre-arranged time, adding, “If you can’t do the practice here, you can’t do it anywhere.” Then she got up and walked out of our interview – something that’s unheard of, by the way.
Gyokuko anchored me to my dukkha, or core dissatisfaction. I wanted to problem-solve my way out of it, but I think she saw the likelihood that, left to my own devices, I would fail to “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms” as I aspired to do. I would live in permanent anticipation of the success of my next plan, instead of accessing the truth of life which is not contingent on anything. In an effort to dramatize my personal koan in a classical (although fictional) koan form, I offer this:
This Moment’s Embrace
Domyo was busy preparing the meditation hall for sesshin.
Gyokuko called out, “Stop.”
Domyo explained the monks were on their way to meditation hall and there was much to be done in preparation.
Gyokuko asked, “What are you preparing for?”
Gyokuko said, “How will you penetrate later when you don’t recognize this moment’s embrace?”
Domyo could only answer with tears.
As long as I couldn’t pass this koan presented by my teacher, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Technically I could have left and run off to a monastery at any time, but more than anything I wanted to be able to answer my koan. Until Gyokuko responded to my plans for departure with a cheerful, sincere, “Wow, that sounds great,” there was something I didn’t get, something I couldn’t see. Sticking around was terribly annoying, but there was no way I was giving up.
Dark Night of the Soul
I’d love to be able to say my junior training was a pleasure – that I enthusiastically worked on my koan, improved my zazen, learned a lot about Zen, and good-naturedly served the Sangha – but I can’t. It was satisfying at one level to be ordained in March of 2001, but the satisfaction was about being formally and publicly committed to a tough path. Such a commitment would hopefully make me slightly more likely to stick to it and succeed in my journey.
Overall, I felt woefully inadequate in my practice, at least compared to where I wanted to be. I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to concentrate in meditation, and in my sleep-deprived junior monk years I constantly fell asleep while sitting. It was humiliating, bobbing back and forth in the Zendo in my monk’s robes. The great insights of the Dharma eluded me. After my initial honeymoon phase with Zen, I had to admit I had no idea what emptiness was. I used to be proud I was part of a tradition where you had to verify everything for yourself rather than accept it on faith, but at some point, I realized faith was basically all I had. Teachers and books told me some stuff and I hoped it was true. Geez, what if I’d been hoodwinked?
Residential monastic practice can also bring you face to face with all your shortcomings in a brutally honest way. I remember working on mindfulness of my actions of body, speech, and mind, particularly in the light of the moral precepts. I saw clearly, as vividly as if I was forced to watch a video of myself that somehow included my thoughts, how generally icky a person I was. I was constantly comparing myself to others, vacillating between judgment and envy. I spoke carelessly and insensitively, frequently offending or excluding people. My stories focused attention on myself, even if they were largely based in self-denigrating humor and people’s laughter functioned as a weird kind of self-punishment. I rarely asked people questions about themselves, or deeply listened to them. Given almost any task, I was sure I could do it better than anyone around me. I was stingy, resentful, shallow, and not nearly as insightful as I liked to think I was.
Practice was miserable, and to top it all off I wasn’t any good at it. It was kind of like checking yourself into rehab and dredging up all your issues, recognizing what a mess you’ve made of your life, but then seriously doubting whether you’re capable of recovery at all. Now you’ve faced all your crap and it’ll feel even worse when you can’t actually change. Come to think of it, that probably happens often in recovery. In any case, it sucks.
Doubt and despair aren’t at all uncommon in intense Zen practice either, because many people describe going through a time where everything is bleak and tasteless. You really don’t want to mention this to people who are just encountering Zen, of course. Which is why I dreaded answering the front door of the Zen center during these miserable couple of years: I pictured some bright-eyed person showing up, as I had many years before, looking confused and slightly scared when I grumbled at them, “Get out while you still can.”
Here’s a poem that might evoke a little of my experience, written around this time:
DEATH OF AN IDEAL
the hope purged from my belly
can’t even point
to what’s been lost
in those moments I forget
that’s no longer there
some possibility that oriented my living
grief reaches even
Phoenix Rises from The Ashes of Despair
Why had my teacher named me Domyo, which means “bright way”? There was nothing bright about me for quite a while, it seemed. When I was home visiting family one Christmas, an old friend asked me, “Why are you doing this? It just seems to make you miserable.” I answered sincerely, “I can’t think of anything else.” After all, from my point of view at the time, my two choices were Zen practice or getting back on the conveyor belt to death. The latter was not an option.
Fortunately, a teacher usually gives a student a name that reflects both what they need to work on, and a potential they see in the student – a seed of something which can be nurtured. I started nurturing my seed of brightness during a particular meditation retreat, probably around 2003. I was at my lowest point of despair. Life, as usual, seemed meaningless, and my practice felt completely inadequate. A thought of killing myself passed through my mind, complete with a location and a method. I dwelt morbidly on the thought for a while but wasn’t tempted to act on it – primarily because the monastery I was at had just opened. I couldn’t bring myself to ruin their reputation with a grisly suicide during a retreat. So I sat, hunched over, permeated with pain and self-loathing… [If you are feeling suicidal, please read this poem, which I wrote later in practice]
Until, some time during the evening meditation session, I got so low that something awakened in me. Something lively rebelled against any notion of ending my life. Something powerful and pure in me wanted to live. And it wanted to live vigorously. It didn’t give a damn about life’s meaning or my practice or any of the self-centered hogwash I usually obsessed over.
I like to think of this moment as a beautiful, stunning phoenix arising from the ashes of my despair. The transformation was not based in anything. It had absolutely nothing to do with hope, or with suddenly seeing life as a great thing I couldn’t wait to embrace. Part of me wants to live no matter what. That’s just what life is. Since that moment, I have never contemplated suicide or sunk to that level of despair. I honor the phoenix within.
I need one more episode to finish my story through the remainder of my junior practice and to the point where I was transmitted as a teacher and decided to open my own Zen center. In that story I’ll share some more examples of transformative struggles and insights from my practice. All of my growth has been thus; I’ve never had one, big, so-called awakening experience. My teacher Kyogen used to say that it’s like some people are lotus flowers that suddenly open all at once, while others open slowly, one petal at a time. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all as long as the opening happens.