When I told my mum I was receiving Jukai, she said, “You always were a joiner”. At the time, I felt hurt, although I knew on one level she was right. I’ve always been looking for tribes of like-minded people following some path, sharing an understanding of the world, working together for a common cause. It was often challenging but also fun and gave a sense of purpose, community and creativity. My tribes tended to be political and/or religious. I seemed to choose slightly extreme versions (but at minimal personal risk!). I worked my way through evangelical Christianity, left-wing politics and trade unions, radical feminist groups…. Of course, at the time, I believed passionately in these issues. A friend once said, “You always were eccentric, Miranda”. That was exactly the image I wanted – unusual, intriguing, committed! However, these movements emphasised difference and division, them and us, we’re right and they’re wrong, the enemy is the other. They often became angry or hurtful and over-simplified how real life worked in practice – messy, complicated, a mixture of good and bad in all of us.
But then I found Taoism and later, Zen. I first met Roshi, then Dave, in his flat by the Mersey in September 2001. It was an unforgettable day in many ways – 11th September. I remember wondering whether it was safe to drive into the city centre that day, but a Zen group felt exactly the right place to be. I was impressed by the peacefulness of the group, the absence of discussion about the Twin Towers, we just sat. What a comfort. I remember that after zazen, Dave briefly referred to what had happened by saying it was too big to talk about yet – how wise. Here seemed a way to explore the personal and the bigger picture. And here too was another tribe to join, another interpretation of the world to discover! It also felt practical, supportive and somehow complete. Off I went on a new adventure. Another layer to add to my eccentric, inquiring image.
It took me seven years to ask for Jukai. Why so long? It was about making a commitment to this particular sangha, to these particular teachers. It took me ages to even realise that the practice depended on the teacher/student relationship! How did I manage to miss that? I also had a strong resistance to male hierarchies in general, and to what seemed a militaristic history – samurai, martial arts, all very alien to the worlds I knew where consensus was the norm. I plodded along, sitting zazen when I felt like, reading the odd book, enjoying the company of the tribe. And gradually learning a bit more about Zen, about the importance of a regular, more disciplined practice; the strange power and craziness of thoughts and feelings; the mysteries of emptiness, interbeing, and the human condition; how to let feelings register in the body and how to learn from them. A world full of paradox and yet beyond description. I also assumed that I had to be asked to receive Jukai. It took a while to realise that it was me who had to ask! A lesson learned. I took the plunge into some form of limited commitment. But the seed was sown.
Tokudo took me another seven years to commit to. This felt a much bigger deal – what would becoming a monk imply? On one level, it felt a natural step: to give support to Roshi and to the sangha, partly as a way of showing appreciation and thanks for the way the practice had helped me see some of my dubious motives and personal delusions of grandeur. Yes, this is confession time! To commit to the Boddhisatva vow of caring for others rather than just working on/for myself – of course that would be right. Life is about supporting each other. However, this commitment involved being open to everyone – really? Wouldn’t only saints qualify? It would need wisdom as well as love. That felt far too scary and unobtainable – maybe later when/if I become wiser/kinder. But then, as Tenshin Roshi often said, “If not me, who? If not now, when?’ So eventually, after seeing others taking the step, I found that my excuses were just that.
When it came to the actual ceremony, I was delighted to share it with Dr Jo. I found myself on a roll of child-like exuberance and general clowning about. This included masks and bat-mobiles, I kid you not. I blame the other sangha members who joined in! It fitted my image, so I played up. My mobility was rather dodgy by then, so I needed a walking frame and shoes. I even managed to play to the crowd about that – look how special I am! What a poser! Some of it was my way of handling nerves, but that wasn’t the whole story. I’d been given loads of support and accommodation from sangha members and particularly from Roshi. The following day, I was high as a kite and cracked a joke which raised a laugh but landed badly. Afterwards I could see that, if taken literally, it sounded ungrateful, arrogant, showing off, posing. Even worse, I now think it was. Maybe it’s not ‘even worse’ but a sign of greater self-awareness. Let’s hope so.
Now, five years later, what is it about? I know now that I’m just a trainee. How can I best support the sangha? For me, it’s about showing up regularly, whatever’s happening. It’s about being reliable, making the effort, learning how to accept help, supporting each other, being open to the process of zazen, sitting with whatever emerges even if it’s difficult, recognising my limitations. I often feel like a fraud, often am a poser, a show-off, a kind of silent heckler from the back row. But at least I recognise some of that now. Things can and do change. It requires patience, not my strong point, but I’m good at perseverance! I have been with the sangha for nearly 20 years and find it harder than ever to put the process into words. I can’t imagine not practising.
And this is just the start. There is a path, it is an adventure, there is a tribe, I was right first time after all. As ever, there’s a paradox at the heart of it. And it isn’t all about me!