My Other Teachers II — Jishu

In many spiritual traditions, students are discouraged by their teachers from exploring other teachers or alternative teachings. Many Zen teachers discourage or even forbid their students attending sesshins (retreats) led by other teachers. There are some good reasons for this. It is easy for students, particularly early on their path, to get confused and then discouraged. And spiritual dilettantism can be a big problem— sticking one’s toe first in this pong and then in that pond and never really getting wet.

These three individuals are honored in this series of blog posts entitled “My Other Teachers”.  Here is Part II, Jishu.

Jishu was the most humble person I have ever known. When I met her, she was a Dharma Holder, not yet a Sensei, had not yet received transmission. She was a senior teacher at the Zen Community of New York where Bernie was the Abbot  and she worked in other Greyston programs. She was my teacher in the Ox Classes, which were perhaps the most important supplement to my meditation practice,  and central to my deepening awareness. All of the classes provided a structure for the study of self, for daily reflection and journaling and regular writing assignments shared with Jishu and the class.

As Jishu progressed toward becoming abbot of ZCNY, as she and Bernie planned (Jishu modestly, always reluctantly), I learned that there was no obvious candidate to serve as Jishu’s first Shuso, a critical step in the Soto Zen path to becoming an abbot. She had many students more senior than me, but none were priests. To satisfy the Japanese Soto authorities, one’s first Shuso must be ordained.

Always wishing to find a way to be of service to Bernie, to repay the debt for the teaching I had received, I crazily, impulsively suggested to him that I would be willing to ordain (something which I had always thought of as “not me”) in order to serve as Jishu’s first shuso.

“Ask Jishu,” he replied.

Jishu genuinely appreciated my offer. She thought about it for several minutes. (There is a lot of silence in Zen.)

“No. That’s not a good enough reason to ordain.”

I was disappointed and yet relieved.

Two weeks later, Jishu told me she had thought about my offer and discussed it with Bernie. Turns out, it was a good idea after all. She accepted.

Bernie tells the story about the drunk who staggers into the grove where Shakyamuni and his monks are gathered for the rainy season.

“Shave my head,” he shouts.

Head shaving is the first ritual on the path to ordination.

The monks come to the Buddha. “There is a drunk who has staggered in. He wants us to shave his head. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. We should throw him out.”

“Shave his head,” responds Shakyamuni.

So they do the Tokudo ceremony — the head shaving ritual.

And then, the drunk falls asleep. When he wakes up in the morning and goes to the basin to wash his face, he sees his reflection.  Screaming, “What have you done with my hair?” he runs from the encampment.

“See,” say the monks to the Buddha, “we told you it would not work.”

“You don’t know,” replies the Buddha. “A seed has been planted. You do not know what fruit it will become.”

Jishu gave me Tokudo the next year. Two years later, in the middle of my shuso period, a period of intense study,  Jishu died suddenly.

Jishu had tried to teach me humility.

As had Thomas Merton. I had always been a collector of Zen books, one or two a year for thirty years between my first introduction to Zen in high school and my finally settling into daily sitting practice. During the time I was working with Jishu, I discovered that the books that supported my practice best were the memoirs and journals of others who shared their spiritual journeys.

Among the most important of these to me was the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. His complete journals were being published in these years. After I caught up with those already published, I waited eagerly for each successive volume to appear.

For me, the most important experience which Merton shared was the intense struggle he went through around the possibility of leaving his monastery at Gethsemani. He found himself in a frustrating relationship with his Abbot. He wanted to move on.

Opportunities arose to move to another monastery, to transfer to another order. Should he grab these opportunities? He was tempted. Was this ego? Was this pride? Merton prayed and meditated. The clarity at which he arrived, He would not move unless it was clear that the move was the will of God, has served as a touchstone for me.

During most of the time I was studying with Jishu, I was in in career “exile” at the Staten Island Family Court. The work there was interesting and I enjoyed the people. Most importantly, the work there left me plenty of time and energy to focus on Zen studies and meditation. And yet, I felt it was somehow marking time.

Should I move on?

I had been very proud of my accomplishments as a mental health administrator. At the Family Court, I was an administrator on paper. I enjoyed the clients and I enjoyed the colleagues. I enjoyed the judges and the lawyers.

But was I realizing my potential? Should I be looking for greater challenge?

 I knew I was learning humility, something of a forced feeding, a lesson in swallowing my pride.

Several times, I asked Jishu during my early morning interviews in Yonkers, “Do you think I have learned enough humility yet?”

“Apparently not.” She smiled.

I had to smile too.

When it is time for me to move on, it will be absolutely clear that it is the will of God, the will of the Universe.

Eventually an opportunity to move on arose, a transfer within the NYS Office of Mental Health to a leadership position in a new children’s psychiatric center. I could have it if I wanted. Had I learned enough humility?

I had to admit to myself, even without asking Jishu, apparently not.

I turned it down.

But then I got a follow-up call. “Sorry,” said the State manager. “I know I told you  that you could turn it down, but you have to go.”

Apparently, the will of God.

Pride still challenges me, but perhaps I learned enough to leave my exile at Family Court.

I had been Bernie’s student before Jishu accepted my offer to become her first Shuso. After that, they were both my teachers, but mostly during those years I studied with Jishu.

After Jishu died, I went back entirely to being Bernie’s student. I still miss Jishu. In many ways, I was closer to her than I was to any of my other teachers. I cried more with her than I had with anyone else including the therapists who I had worked with for years, cried more with her than I had with anyone until Jamie was born. (With Jamie, I cried at almost every sentimental, father-daughter movie scene).

I know that Bernie misses Jishu too. He had a very hard time after her passing. She had provided the softness in Bernie’s life. He had to learn to be his own softness. I am trying to soften too. It was one Jishu’s great gifts.

Bernie and I never talked about Jishu much. I think it was too painful. And now  Bernie is gone too.