spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
PictureRev. Lien thanks me / Alison R.
Anyone can google “Dharma transmission” so it is not that secret. And I think it is okay to say I had the privilege of playing a small role in a Dharma transmission ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center. I can’t say much more about this formal, full robe affair whereby the lineage of Buddhist ancestors and teachers passes from the Buddha all the way through living teachers to a student or students who then become priests by virtue of their Zen practice and Buddhist studies. 

So it was the woman who is my practice teacher had her secret week of ceremony and received the dharma from her teacher, coming into her own authority and qualifying to open a sangha of her own if she so chose. And she chose me to play a role in the ceremony.

I ask to be forgiven for being inexact in matters regarding this particular ceremony because it was not open to the public and because my actual role was minor – about one hour altogether on the two afternoons I made the rounds with the three priests as they honored ancestors and teachers whose likenesses or symbols were upstairs and downstairs, indoors and outdoors at the Zen Center.

As I said my role was minor. I walked behind the priests, ostensibly to add formality to the chanting, bowing and processing throughout the Zen Center. I will just say that my job involved flower petals and water. And when we were finished, I followed last minute instructions to offer the petal water to a tree or in the garden rather than dump it unceremoniously in the toilet.

Not only had I joyfully accepted a role in a dharma transmission, I would have a lesson transmitted to me, a lesson about my ambivalence toward instructions. When about a year ago Lien became my practice teacher, she made it clear that she was not a therapist and the matter always before us was meditation. As teacher, she frequently told me what to do, that is “instructed” me and I just as frequently complained to my “real” therapist how much I didn’t like being told what to do.

But prior to the actual ceremonies, I did attend an instructional session in the Buddha Hall for those chosen to participate. No way would I skip these instructions, having once before skipped an instructional evening with unhappy results. I recalled how I had bumbled through a one-day sit at the Zen Center because I chose to skip instructions. I vowed not to repeat that mistake and perhaps embarrass Rev. Lien as she became a priest.

Clearly, sidestepping instructions, written or oral has been part of my history. It could have been me trying to reduce anxiety. Expecting to be anxious whether programming a smart phone or knowing right from left in a dharma transmission, I might have imagined greater happiness if I avoided the anxiety of not understanding the instructions and further eroding my already shaky confidence.

True to form, I was anxious during the instructional evening held in the Buddha Hall at the Zen Center. Even as the half-hour devoted to my very small part in the transmission ceremony was laid out and I heard where to go and what to do and when to turn and where to stand and how to this and that… I was gripped with dread that at some critical moment in the ceremonies I would not remember right from left.

I needn’t have worried, of course. For as it turned out, I made many missteps, including pointing my toes toward the Buddha and having a hole in one black sock, but always someone would kindly point out where I should be standing or walking and despite the formality of the priest’s black robes, their folded cloths placed ceremoniously on the floor for their many bows, they guided me with kindness. And my mind-heart opened to more than my anxiety. I softened toward instructions.

When later in the week I met with Rev. Lien to discuss my meditation practice, we talked about the ceremony. I asked her if I could write about it despite its being secret. She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. What kind of instructions were those? Zen instructions, of course and my mind-heart opened further to this trembly freedom, the one that comes with no instructions to follow. Rev. Lien said I was beginning to understand Zen and she laughed. Funny how understanding Zen is the same as just understanding.

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