Claire Slemmer - Denkai Claire Slemmer August 9th 2011

Headline: Wounded Bird Finally Flies Nest; Becomes Zen Teacher. That may not play so hilariously this morning, but on the cushion last night, after four days of sesshin high and not sleeping very well and other things, I thought that was downright hilarious. I just cracked up, and I thought, Well, I can lead with that, it will break the ice and it will kind of give the idea of what I’m trying to say in case it doesn’t come across.

Some of you may not know that for three days before the ceremony yesterday, Karen and Marc and I did bows in honor of the teachers in our lineage. Three times a day in three different places, we bowed. On the first day, we came into the main zendo here and this was before Bodhidharma had his scroll injury, and we bowed, and I realized that I was bowing in front of the statue of Buddha, an image of Bodhidharma, a photograph of Charlotte Joko Beck, all lovingly, artistically arranged by our teacher, Barry Magid. And I lost it. I started crying at the meaning of all of this, and I really haven’t stopped.

On the other hand I’ve also been looking at this in a lighter way, because ever since Barry asked me to receive denkai and become a preliminary teacher, I’ve been thinking, This reminds me of the ceremony from my childhood, in 1956 when I was 8 years old, and I was a Brownie Scout, the little brown dress and the little beanie, and it was time to become a Girl Scout. In order to bridge from Brownies to Girl Scouts, you had to go through what they called a flying up ceremony. All the Brownies stood in a circle and we looked down into a pond at our reflection. Well, this was indoors, so it wasn’t really a pond, but a hula hoop covered with aluminum foil. We looked down at our reflection and we knew that we were ready as young girls to assume new adventures and responsibilities.

So this is the perfect analogy: I am flying up to denkai, or we might say flying on to denkai to avoid any mention of hierarchy. I’m taking on new responsibilities and adventures. I said to Barry, What should I say in this talk. He said, Well, talk about what denkai means to you. Then I heard him answer the same question from Marc, and he said, Tell them what your teaching is going to look like.

What receiving denkai means to me is definitely leaving my comfort zone. When Barry first mentioned this to me, I resisted it. I did not want to step up. I did not want to assume any kind of authority or leadership. I just said, I’m fine, thank you, in my little nest at the zendo, pressing the buzzer, letting people in, chatting with people, laughing, listening, doing things for Barry, doing things for the sangha, living my life. He said, Now it’s time for you to go from kid to big sister, which is kind of ironic because I’m older than Barry.

So I knew that it was time to step up, but it meant pushing my envelope and leaving my comfort zone, facing insecurities, taking risks, and flying from the nest. I think one of the things that is so uncomfortable about stepping up to this is the whole idea of teacher identity, which Barry talked about in the gazebo the other day. I certainly do not resemble any Zen teacher I have ever met or read about or whose writings I’ve read. I’m not the academic philosopher, I’m not the brilliant writer or the decades-long Zen student steeped in tradition. I’m certainly not the koan-buster. It reminds me of a story about an old rabbi -- I think his name was Zoysia or something like that -- who died and went to sit in front of God in judgment, and while he was standing there in line, getting nervous, looking back over his life, he was saying, What have I done, what have I not done? and thinking -- Why wasn’t I Moses? Why wasn’t I David? Why wasn’t I Solomon? And finally he gets up to the front of the line, he faces God, and God simply says, Why aren’t you Zoysia? So of course I need to be Claire. What does Claire in a leadership role look like?

One day I was talking about this denkai thing to Barry, and I said, Okay, Barry, let’s face it. We all know I get an F in koan class. What does this mean? How important is this in stepping up to be a Zen teacher? He said, Not an F. A C-. But then he said, Zen is about how our practice translates into our behavior. What you offer is sufficient. What you offer is sufficient. Not only was he saying he had faith in me to take this step, but he was saying what you offer is sufficient, you are total and complete as you are, as we all are. So if I’m going to be Claire, I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll still stand by the door buzzer, invite people in, greet new students, chat, listen, share. I’ll keep the zendo clean and I’ll live my everyday life, hang out with Ed, go kayaking, sing with my music group, work as an actor once in a while.

But Barry has given me a couple of new responsibilities. One is training the new jikido. Now being a jikido is hard. The jikido facilitates the form and ritual in the zendo. Of course there’s a lot of discussion these days as Zen adapts to American culture, but form and ritual do simple things. They provide a structure in which we can carry the Zen tradition forward to new generations. They also make it possible for us to have a silent sitting as a community that also has an element of reverence and gratitude for life as it is.

But what I’ve discovered since I’ve been teaching the jikidos, what I’ve been doing for several years, what I’ve discovered is that it’s a practice in paying attention. In Ordinary Mind, the jikidos do just about everything. In some monasteries these duties are divided, right? At Ordinary Mind the jikido is responsible for all the bells and whistles and movements and people and behind the scenes work too. So there is attention being paid all the time to the simultaneous bow before the altar with Barry, placing the incense in the ash straight up, and then in the center of the ash, trying to ring three consistent times on the bell chime, also modulating your voice when you’re leading chants and also being aware of new students and if they might need some help, a verbal cue, and at Ordinary Mind it also means knowing people, so that you know if people have a handicap or an illness or a special need of some kind.

So it is a huge practice in paying attention and it’s a practice which ideally we take from the zendo out into our everyday lives, into our relationships with others. You haven’t seen everything Marc’s been doing. You’ve seen a lot of it, but he’s been doing a lot behind the scenes. Sesshin is like -- extreme jikido. And Lucas had to step up and join the major leagues with little or no advanced warning. It’s really great what you’re doing.

Another thing that Barry asked me to do was teach a class on the precepts. Actually what he said was, You are suited to teach the precepts, by which I think he meant, You have the most experience in breaking the precepts, so you should teach them. My previous jukai talk provides detail. So this group of jikidos who are going to receive jukai -- Anne and Lucas and Alki and John Heiger -- the five of us get together once a month, we read one of the precepts, then we disperse for a month, we observe ourselves in regard to this one precept, then we come back, share our personal observations. We share our moments when we behave reactively, when we haven’t really behaved consciously, and we try to dig a little deeper and look at intentions and motivations for our behavior. There’s a lot of personal sharing, and that too has been an exercise in attention, in paying attention to our thoughts, and this, of course, is outside the zendo and our relationships with others.

There’s one more thing I’ll be doing in the next few weeks. I will be starting a ten month training program with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. We’ll be doing reading and writing and training, and also I’ll be working at Beth Israel Hospital once a week giving spiritual and emotional support to seriously ill patients. I’m looking forward to this, but I do have insecurities and resistance about this kind of work, and it’s going to be a challenge. All of these are going to be challenges for me. So I know from my practice that I need to invite these anxieties and doubts and resistances and fears all to the table. Just like before I gave this talk, my chest was pounding, my rakusu was all twisted and I’m thinking Oh! Everybody can see this! Well, that’s just the way it is. Invite it to the table. So I’m going to put all these feelings into my backpack and go forward.

I was ready to step up but at the very end, before we agreed to do all of this, I said, Well, I’m not going to do the rakusu, I’m drawing the line there, I don’t want this indication of status, I don’t want people to think I’m above them, I just want to work at the zendo. In the end, I said, wait -- you’re shrinking back again. Step up. Take the whole package, Say yes to everyone, and then there’s the Lay Zen Association Conference in January. Now that’s where I draw the line. I have this fantasy of all these teachers in rakusus standing in a circle, they put me in the middle and they’re shooting koans at me. The real Zen teachers will see I don’t know what I’m doing. In all these things I realize I’m going to make mistakes, I’m going to look foolish sometimes, I’m going to have to give up looking good all the time, trying to look good.

There’s a poem that I like by Ryokan:

Maple leaf
Falling down
Showing front
Showing back

You show the front, you show the back, you show everything. You show your insecurities, your frailties, your weaknesses, it’s the only way to transformation and flight. Come to the edge, he said. It’s too high, she said. Come to the edge, he said. I’ll fall, she said. Come to the edge, he said. So she did. And he pushed and she flew.

I want to thank the sangha for your love and support and friendship over the past five years. I’m not the only teacher here. We’re all teaching each other all the time. I want to thank Karen and Marc and Ed for being open and honest and supportive during these past few months -- they’ve been stressful -- and mostly for their sense of humor for keeping me laughing. And I want to thank Barry for finally heaving this old girl up and over the edge of the nest. I always thought -- I’m too old to fly! I hope that we can all stay open, help each other to accept challenges, face conflict, risk, grow, and fly. And now, I take my Brownie wings so I may fly on to bigger things.

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