Monday, March 30, 2009

Zen Training at a Monastery

Hello all!

It's so nice to read about the Sangha happenings and practice! I miss you all! For those who don't know me, I started my Zen practice with Cold Mountain Sangha in early 2006. It wasn't until after my first sesshin in March 2007 that I was hooked on Zen. Then after the June sesshin last year with the Sangha, I realized that I had to focus on my Zen training. So I applied for a one-year residency at Zen Mountain Monastery and have been here for the past eight months. Kriti asked me to share some of experiences training at a monastery, which I am more than happy to do so!

We just completed our first 30 days of our Spring Ango (literal meaning is "Peaceful Dwelling"), a 90-day intensive training period, where we intensify our practice with more sitting, earlier wake-up, scheduled body practice (yoga or movement led by a senior monastic), art practice, and oryoki breakfast during the training week. Every Ango here also has a theme, this ango's theme is Dogen's Genjokoan, which we have a one-week intensive on in May and our art practice is also based on lines from the Genjokoan.

For this ango we also have a Shuso (head monk), who leads the Sangha and is the model for practice during these 90-days. At the end of the 90-days she will undergo shuso hossen, which is a ceremonial rite-of-passage where she will become a senior and give her first dharma talk and do a dharma combat, which is like a public dokusan. The Shuso's dharma combat is when the Sangha can test the Shuso's understanding of the dharma.

For each training period, the residents and monastics all receive new service positions. I'm currently the AM jikido (timekeeper) which means that during the training week I have to make sure the tea and coffee service is ready by 4.15am, offer incense at the main altar, do the wake-up bell at 4.25, open up all the altars and hit the han at 4.50 to signal that the Zendo is closed, everyone should be sitting and doing zazen by then. During the sitting periods I signal the start and end of the periods and offer incense before each period, make sure the kyosaku stick is ready and watch the time for kinhin. Throughout the morning I make sure the tea and coffee service is stocked and clean. For ango sesshin, everything is moved up 30 minutes earler because wake-up is at 3.55am, not to mention there's also a lot more coffee making!

Training as AM jikido has been such an amazing experience so far. I get to serve the Sangha and have seen that the only way I could serve in the most efficient and effective way possible is by letting go of the self. The service tasks are timed quite tightly so that I have to move swifty, which I've been reminded of several times by the monitor. Once I almost missed canton, when the teacher walks by everyone's seat before the first morning period, because I took too long to close everything down in the dining hall. I've noticed that all of my concentration is required at whatever it is that I am doing so that I can do it swiftly and smoothly. So after I do whatever I have to do to get myself ready for the day my attention is solely focused on the jikido tasks to be carried out.

I enjoy sitting before our morning zazen so when I found out that I was AM jikido this training period I wondered what I was going to do. When I saw the idea of getting up at 2.30am to allow me to sit before morning zazen, I heard myself say to myself, "You've got to be kidding." But I felt like I couldn't just turn away from this opportunity (I don't know what else to call it!) so I set my alarm for 2.30am. I was quite tired by the end of the first week, maybe even a little delirious, but now I find that it's no big deal to wake up at 2.30 or at 2.00 during sesshin. And at that time of the day, it seems like it is neither night nor day. What is time in the end? And also, who said we needed 8 hours of sleep anyway??

This post has gotten quite long, but if anyone would like to know more about life at the monastery I'd be more than happy to share! Be well!

lots of love,



  1. Thanks so much for that inspiring post that also gives a view of a formal training environment, May! I have many more questions. Please write more and send pictures of ZMM -- One time, we kept circling within 2-3 miles of ZMM but couldn't find the entrance to the temple!

  2. Hello, May! Your dedication to practice is beautiful. Hopefully we will make it up to a Sunday sit sometime to see you. Alex and I used to go up for the Sunday sits about 10 years ago! So lovely.

  3. Hello Ladies!

    Kriti - that's unfortunate that you couldn't find the entrance to the monastery! Was it gated? The monastery gate is usually up during our days off.

    Jacky - It'd be great to see you and Alex at one of the Sunday services! I hope you both have been well.