Old age, sickness, and death in the full moon

Tonight was our Full Moon ceremony, which we do every month, renewing our vows, the 16 Bodhisattva precepts of taking refuge and living in harmony with all beings.

Once a friend from work who is a casual participant in Zen Center events asked if she should come to a Full Moon ceremony.  Something about the question made me think that someone unfamiliar with the actual ceremony would conjure up something somewhat Dionysian, and I suggested perhaps a different ceremony would be good to start with because I wasn’t sure this one would meet her expectations. Later I regretted not having been more encouraging, but it does seem to me one of our more severe ceremonies.  We start with repentance and the vows get more and more commandment-sounding as the hour rolls on. They are not, in reality, commandments; I see them much more as an invitation to be intimate with experience, but it’s hard to convey this at a first encounter.  Then there is the arduousness of the ceremony:  one’s hands remain in gassho the whole time and there are 36 bows down to the floor.  Twenty-one bows just to get through the homages  – and in three layers of robes in a room full of people, I am usually sweating by the end.

Despite the severity of the ceremony I do find it beautiful. The precepts in their basic form are supplemented by poetry, like this:

I vow not to take what is not given.
The self and objects are such as they are, two yet one.  The gate of liberation stands open.”

Because I am currently the head chiden, I have an ongoing date with the Full Moon ceremony, if I didn’t otherwise think so. A chiden is someone who takes care of temple altars, either lighting up or cleaning them. The head chiden does a bit of both, but particularly in relation to “special” ceremonies such as the monthly Full Moon and Suzuki Roshi Memorial ceremonies, ordinations, solstice and equinox, weddings and funerals, Dogen’s birthday (coming up!), Buddha’s birthday and enlightenment … it goes on.  I take orders from the Ino – whatever he thinks I should be doing, that’s the job.  Mostly it involves gathering up tables and ceremonial cloths and altar elements and placing them in prescribed ways, and then taking everything apart and putting it all away again afterward.

Tonight we all have our attention on a good friend over in Zen Hospice down the street who appears to be in his last hours.  It’s been quite a bit of old age, sickness, and death around here lately.  First there was the death of Jerome Peterson before Christmas, then last week Darlene Cohen died after a long illness.  And now our friend over in Zen Hospice.  If we didn’t realize we weren’t immortal before, perhaps it sinks in a bit deeper now.  The doshi said a few words about our friend’s condition as we started, calling his name into the room and our thoughts.

But I was already thinking of him as I set up tonight for the Full Moon ceremony, because over the past few months that I’ve been head chiden he would come down a bit early with his walker and sit on the bench waiting and watching until the ceremony started. Our friend has been practicing for four decades and knows his temple forms inside out.  So one night when after the ceremony he said to me “that was quite a nice demonstration of someone lighting up the altar for a Full Moon ceremony,” I beamed inside just a bit.  And then he added “but aren’t the wall lights on the Page Street side also supposed to be on?”  Doh.  I often seem to miss some little thing – perhaps I forget to extinguish the jiko candle, or I place the kokyo’s zabuton in the wrong row of tatamis.  Tonight in honor of our friend I tried extra hard to pay attention.

Before the ceremony one of the guest students ambled into the entry way in a sort of directionless agitation.  She walked by me and catching my eye said “I’m so nervous, this is my first time doing this.”  I think she was just talking it out, not expecting a response, but after she walked away I wished I had offered some encouragement, telling her to just enjoy it, to enjoy beginner’s mind.  Ironically, that often seems to be most difficult for the beginner, who wants to quickly get away from the beginning the way teenagers want to fast-forward to adulthood.  The Buddha Hall was full of beginners tonight, or possibly visitors from other sanghas, but definitely folks who were unfamiliar with the dance of our particular Buddha Hall.  So as we offered incense and stood and turned and bowed and kneeled there was some hesitation and looking around, and the exit from the Buddha Hall – a choreography that feels a bit like solving a Rubik’s cube  – was not according to plan.  But actually the improvised version wasn’t bad.  And the guest student who was so nervous about her first time talked to me afterward with a note of triumph in her voice that she’d made it through.

And so we continue, all beginnings and endings; beginnings and endings appearing and disappearing over and over again.  In the midst of this we renew our vows (which are also beginnings and endings) under the light of the full moon:

To expound the Dharma with this body is foremost.  The virtue returns to the ocean of reality.  It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.

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About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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