Reflections on a shuso (part 2)

Following on from the last post with Alasdair’s reflections on his month in the Lakes as Shuso (head monk), here are his reflection on the Shuso Hossenshiki (Dharma Combat ceremony):
What started as a brief reflection ended up being a bit like one of those 1980s photo-story magazines… brace yourself! (Photos all by Jenny Best unless otherwise credited.)

So it comes to this – the four weeks of retreat, the preparation and admin leading up to that, the 95 hours of zazen in August (sad that I counted this – during zazen of course!), the grappling with Joshu’s “Supreme Way”, living in Butterwick away from my day-to-day life and family, the preparation done by so many sangha members, the efforts of my fellow monks and of course my teacher, the travelling by friends and family from Northampton and London everywhere else… Right, Alasdair… don’t cock it up.

Drums! Bells! The grand entrance…
We find our places. Bowing. We start to chant the Heart Sutra, the tok-tok-tok of the mokugyo echoing out over Hope Street. Jutta gets the sambo (case book) from Sensei’s altar, and presents it to me.

“Attention!” I read out the main case, and give my dharma talk –  I won’t bore you with the details here! I believe at some point it will be posted on the StoneWater Youtube channel if you’re intent on hearing my lies…

I return the sambo to Sensei’s altar, and start bowing… there’s a lot of bowing to do…
Next, I borrow Sensei’s shippei, a stick which symbolises his authority to teach. I say that I will use it: “Freely, giving life and taking it away.” I return to my place, and with my assistant’s help (with sticks, mats, benches, cushions, robes, I think Keith was kept quite busy throughout!), I sit and display the shippei to the sangha:

“This is a three-foot long black snake. A long time ago, it was a konpura flower at Vulture Peak. At Shaolin it became a plum blossom… Now, in accord with the order of my teacher, it lies in my hands. I feel like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bull…”

Next comes the ‘fun’ bit… the dharma combat. There’s pretty much nothing I could do to prepare for this, I’ve no idea what questions I’m going to be asked, or by whom. I’d already decided that the best thing I could do for this part of the ceremony – really the whole point of the ceremony! – is just kind of get out of my own way and answer without thinking too hard.

I’m told I did OK – the odd thing is that I hardly remember anything I said to anyone. At any rate, I get through all the questions (and one vigorous challenge from Woo!), and say to all as I thump down the shippei hard and loud onto a wooden block, “May your life go well!”

The ceremony at this point calls for my “humble apology” – much joking during rehearsal about this, but I find I make this apology in absolute dead earnest.

I pass the shippei to Keith, and bow down low. “Being immature and insufficient in training, I was not expecting to be appointed Head Monk. I feel as if a crime has been committed which fills the heavens, and there is not a place on earth for me to hide. I hope there is enough water in the Atlantic for you to rinse out my words from your ears!”

I return the shippei to Sensei, with the words, “Water flows and returns to the sea.” Sensei responds, “Very well done.” The “very” wasn’t in the script – I allow myself to be pleased for a few seconds, and grin at him.
More bowing, to Sensei of course and also to the whole sangha… getting pretty sweaty with all this bowing at this point, but I’m taking things as slow as I can which leaves me time to really mean these bows.

Now the embarrassing bit – sangha members have composed poems about me… erk! I’ve got some of these in cards (and if you haven’t sent me your poems, please email to as I’ve only got a few of them!). Thanks to all those who composed your poems – as I sat there, sweat pouring down my face, I loved every one of them… and every one of you!

Finally, it’s all over. A few more bows, and we process out for a short private ceremony with Sensei, jishas, family, then back for the obligatory group photo!

A special thanks to my family – Selena and Josh, Zandie and Cassie – for making the trip up, as well as other friends from Northampton, London and elsewhere. I asked Josh what he made of the whole thing, and got his heartfelt and wonderful response: “Strange. And a bit boring.” Thanks, boyo!