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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Prelude to Initiation

Just a note of resolution to the petty angst of the previous post. As it turned out, Rev. Sunim's visit has turned out to be productive in a lot of ways, and even if the bulk of the Nashville Zen Center can't see it to do more than attend some Saturday meetings, the one I attended last Saturday with Sunim and a larger-than-usual group (including one new guy who definitely came on the right day) was very good and helped ameliorate my previous gripes and reservations. Plus, I got a chance to spend some time with the monk himself, and came to appreciate his sincerity and experience. It doesn't hurt that he came to be and made a point of personally approving my Atlanta connection, and asked me to try to make the connection for the rest of the group, which has been my agenda for the last four or five months anyway.

Plus, this weekend's Labor Day sesshin in Atlanta is all sorted out, at least for me, and I have resolved to go ahead with my Zaike Tokudo ceremony at 11 a.m. Sunday morning, September 3. The Tokudo ceremony is a Buddhist lay initiation ceremony at which the initiate formally enters the Buddhist path by taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and adopting the Three Pure Precepts and the first five of the Boddhisattva Precepts. There's also some symbolic shaving of the head and such. The ASZC page on this ceremony can be found here:, and the text of the ceremony is

This ceremony will formally enter me into a Zen community at long last, although it is a community which is geographically over four hours away. That's OK; I've been around them enough to know that it's a community I want to belong to. I probably should be a little antsy-er than I am about taking vows. I got lucky enough never to take the one most people take, after all. But I have taken a couple of sets of "religious" vows I didn't adhere to, and while I'm not exactly consumed by guilt, I'm entering into these with a sense of conviction I haven't had before.

First, please realize I've been baptized into the United Methodist Church, twice, and even joined the damned thing in junior high or high school, I don't remember. I'm not sure why I ever went back to church for a while in adolescence, since I'd known that their beliefs were a crock of shit since I was no older than nine. I still have no idea how anyone with a rational mind could ever swallow that garbage, and I never did. Peer pressure, I guess.

Then in 1986 I went through the formal initiation into Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and joined the Nichiren Shoshu of America, which after my departure in 1988 became the Soka Gakkai of America after its leader was excommunicated by the priests of Nichiren Shoshu. At that time I received the Gohonzon, or great object of worship, which I still have around here somewhere. Looking back on it, I don't know why I embraced that Buddhism of nam-myoho-renge-kyo as I did; I don't think I ever believed that stuff either, but I was so unconsciously eager to embrace some form of Buddhism that I jumped at the chance to become involved. I think I had some sense of having abandoned Zen in San Francisco earlier in the decade and being unable to go back to it. I don't know why I didn't find a local Zen group or the Tibetans; they were surely there. I did take a stab at Tibetan Buddhism in 2004 before I found the Nashville Zen Center, but by that time my appetite for that kind of silliness had diminished. That's all been covered in earlier entries, and I'll leave it alone.

Anyway, a couple of my friends from Nashville should be in Atlanta for my ceremony which is nice, and I only regret that the Hojo (abbott) will be unable to meet them, and vice versa. However, I get initiated without having to return to Atlanta the next weekend, and I trust the students. They have built a nice Buddhist community, and both Sunim and Brad Warner have recommended that I pursue the connection for the whole group. So I will.

Anyway, these vows. What do they mean? I won't analyze them in detail here, though I may do so later. Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are obvious. The three Pure Precepts are to not do bad, to do good, and do good for others. Okay. and the first five Boddhisattva precepts are don't kill, don't steal, don't engage in sexual misconduct (as if that were a problem), don't lie, and don't cloud the mind with intoxicants (that one actually translates, I understand, as don't live by selling liquor).

As opposed to the Christian Commandments, violating these precepts will not win me a ticket to hell. The precepts are meant to serve as guidelines for social rules in a Buddhist community to make it work, and in the individual sphere to keep out conflicts that will interfere with the benefits of practice. But vows are vows, and I don't do that kind of thing lightly anymore.

I think I mentioned before my friend with 25 years in AA who ventured his opinion that a lot of people who succeed in AA do so by using AA as an excuse not to drink. Unless you've been close to the situation, you won't understand what that means. But the analogy for the instant situation is that if you want to change your behavior and live differently, taking public vows to that effect may be a very effective crutch. We'll see.

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