Bye bye chiden, goodbye


One of the things that has changed recently is that I am no longer the head chiden.

There are many jobs at the Zen Center – house jobs, bathroom jobs, kitchen jobs, dish jobs, staff jobs.  Chidening falls under the classification of doanryo jobs – the jobs that keep the temple going — chidens take care of the temple’s altars.  I have been head chiden for about a year now, primarily responsible for setting up altars for special ceremonies, which we do quite often around here.

Special ceremonies are a bit like Thanksgiving dinner, which I experience as hours of preparation, the food getting devoured in minutes, followed by hours of cleanup.  For a Zen ceremony, the set-up consists of moving things around, taking tables out of closets, changing ceremonial cloths, preparing offerings (sweet water, tea, and rice, or sometimes cakes or manju or pyramids of oranges), pulling out chant cards, lighting up charcoal and candles. Each ceremony has its own arrangement.  Then the ceremony takes place, lasting from ten minutes to two hours, and after that everything has to be put away again.

One morning as I was washing out ceramic bowls and the pot I cooked the rice in and folding up the cloths and generally straightening up, I was thinking about how much effort went into this whole affair.  Everything comes out and then goes back in the closet.  It comes out and goes back, over and over again.  If you think about it with a supposedly rational mind, it makes little sense. Why do we bother?

On that morning I went to my room and spotted the vase of flowers I keep on my dresser/personal altar.  The flowers were moderately fresh but the water was murky and needed to be changed. I vow not to let a container of steadily decaying organic matter fester on my altar, so I keep at it, but with the same thoughts as I had about the pointlessness of setting up for ceremonies – so much effort, and for what? Isn’t it so much easier to do away with the flowers and I don’t know, put a nice statue there or something?

But I do like this ceremony of keeping fresh flowers: I like the constellation of sight/sound/feeling I have when I see the flowers on my dresser and I like the sight/sound/feeling while I’m in the activity of changing them. This state of mind evokes something like optimism, of there being a purpose to activity although there is no goal, even as my thoughts trigger deep questions about whether feeling purposeful is rational.  Perhaps it is in opposition to my sense of defeat, to the inevitability of the entropy that conquers all hopes for “getting anywhere” with all this activity, that I find hopefulness itself, standing apart from the notion that something must be achieved.  Perhaps intimately witnessing the uncomplaining exertion of life propelling itself into the universe is found just here in the act of repeatedly gathering flowers that are doomed, like all of us, to die, having gotten – nowhere. Can this be true?  And is that why we do all these ceremonies, to remind ourselves of that, to drive hopefulness deeper into our bones through repetition?

Letting go of the head chiden role is another death accompanied by mourning.  I rather liked being head chiden; it was a good outlet for my love of forms, for using activity to create beauty and order and offer it in love to my sangha the same way I offer fresh flowers to my personal altar. The organizational structure of the Zen Center hasn’t come out of nowhere though – it’s been passed down for thousands of years, with cultural adaptations, from the practices that foster realization of the dharma in monastic communities.  In this system everyone is encouraged to experiment with nonattachment, and rotating out the jobs instead of assigning people for long periods based on aptitude and preference is part of that.

I’m fascinated by the forms of the temple and how they manage to be preserved over time given the high turnover.  I learned how to be head chiden from my predecessor, who learned from his predecessor, and so on.  But each head chiden also imprints their own ideas and preferences onto the role, so the role is a fluid, evolving entity.

Some of the forms for being head chiden are written down, but not every detail. I start to worry that if the details aren’t sufficiently passed to the next chiden, they will be lost forever.  Me being me, I am exact with the details.  But sometimes my own ideas about details prove to be wrong and my insistence on exactitude misplaced.

For instance, the Suzuki Roshi Memorial we do every month is two ceremonies, one in the evening and one the following morning. The form I was taught is that after the evening ceremony everything is put back to “normal” as if nothing had happened between then and the morning ceremony. I somehow generalized this into a philosophy about all ceremonies that said the setting up should be as invisible as possible and not interfere with temple activities that happen outside of the ceremony. So for a year I have been careful to not start setting up for the morning Full Moon Ceremonies until after the doshi has been in the Buddha Hall for the morning offering.  Imagine my surprise when the new head chiden brought me typed instructions for the Full Moon Ceremony, written years ago under an entirely different regime, which clearly stated that some of the setup was to take place the night before!

As the transition takes place, it’s fun to see how long it takes to let go of feeling responsible for things getting done and to note that as I watch the new head chiden all my thoughts of how it “should” be done come merrily rushing in.  Intellectually I know the new head chiden will realize the position in the way that her own personality channels the dharma, and it will all be just fine.  This place will carry on the way it will carry on, becoming what it will become and not conforming to my ideas about what it should be, for as long as there is need or desire for it to exist. The forms are important, but only as an instrument of focus, and if they stop performing that function then we must be willing to let them go.

As the great teacher Kosho McCall said to me once: keep your eye on the movement, not the object.  Perhaps another way to say that is: stay with what’s happening Now.  The Now includes the dying flowers in my vase and the sadness of loss and the hopefulness of just getting up every day to do it all over again anyway, whether the world conforms to my liking or not.

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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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3 Responses to Bye bye chiden, goodbye

  1. Karissa Sellman says:

    🙂 Thank you for this. I just recently took up the practice of keeping fresh flowers on my altar. Week one, the peony conveniently dropped its petals on the weekend, but week two’s arrangement indicates it may stick around until Tuesday-ish… a much less convenient day for me to buy and bring home flowers, and yet, also part of the practice – tending things on timetables other than my own.

    Deep bows for all your chiden-ing!

  2. Shundo says:

    If you want the world to conform to your liking, you will only be grievously disappointed time after time. Especially afer you have had the opportunity to shape things to your liking for a while. This is why equanimity comes in handy, and why the Hsing Hsing Ming starts “The great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences”.
    That is not to say that I don’t miss your touch as head chiden…

  3. Aarav says:

    If you want the world to conform to your liinkg, you will only be grievously disappointed time after time. Especially afer you have had the opportunity to shape things to your liinkg for a while. This is why equanimity comes in handy, and why the Hsing Hsing Ming starts The great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences .That is not to say that I don’t miss your touch as head chiden

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