Sarah Kokai Thwaites – Jukai, Shukke Tokudo and Shoken

I’m not sure I can explain well in words why I chose to receive jukai or tokudo because I don’t think I knew why I was doing it. I just felt that I would. There was a pull to do both that I didn’t understand but which felt important to honour.

There was a jukai ceremony during my first Crosby retreat, about 6 months after I first came to StoneWater for an introduction session. During that jukai ceremony I felt a sort of sense of recognition and a feeling in my guts that I would do it myself sometime. It felt strong enough for me to just “know” but it didn’t stop a stream of thoughts and objections from popping up in the following months. Why did I need to do a stupid ceremony? I wasn’t religious, oh no, not me. Why a need to call myself anything? Was that just trying to pin a label on the human experience of life and practice? Why not just keep sitting? And what was with those silly looking bibs? Those thoughts burnt themselves out and within a couple of months I asked to receive jukai. I still couldn’t have explained why I was doing it but with my head no longer coming up with objections the pull to do it inevitably won. During the period while I was sewing the rakusu I was dealing with some traumatic memories and bottled away emotions. The first half of my rakusu was sewn with tears streaming down my face, barely able to see. At times making one stitch after another felt like the only thing that made sense. I sewed some of my rakusu on the rocks behind Butterwick during a Lakes retreat, with the sheep and the landscape for company and feeling settled and stabilised by the setting, the stitches and the practice. The rakusu stopped feeling like a silly looking bib and started to feel like part of me. It was definitely imperfect (the first side I sewed was pretty wonky) but I loved it all the more for that. When I lost my rakusu a few years later, after a Hanamatsuri ceremony in the zendo, it felt like a huge loss.

None of my family were present for the ceremony but two of my walking/swimming friends attended and it was lovely to hear their laughter when they heard that my new dharma name Kokai meant “Great Ocean Way”. It probably reminded them of my excited childlike glee whenever there is an option of plunging into the ocean.

The ceremony itself felt lovely and “right”.  I had no doubts about it but I think it was probably about a year later when it really struck me as meaningful. I was sitting in the zendo and suddenly wearing the rakusu felt such a privilege. I knew I’d be doing this practice a lifetime and that felt like a beautiful thing and I was so grateful to everyone else who had ever done or taught Zen practice and made it possible for me to.

My decision to receive tokudo was similar. The first time I saw a tokudo ceremony I had the same feeling of recognition that I’d one day do it. This time I really did not like that idea and my head’s objections were far stronger. The thought of myself as a monk wearing Harry Potter like robes seemed beyond ridiculous. And the very idea of having all my hair shaved off and then going about my everyday life, going to Asda or turning up at the large work meetings I attend bald, no that really didn’t feel possible. Why the **** would I ever want to do that? And yet I also knew that I would. The tussle between that certainty and the resistance was an internal battle that raged and then fizzled out. Once it had I found myself saying to Roshi that I’d be happy to receive tokudo at some point, expecting that to be years off. It wasn’t and six months later there I was with robes and a shaved head and feeling perfectly at ease with both. I actually loved my shaved head, the feel of the cold autumn air on the bare scalp. I’d told a lot of people in advance but I mix with hundreds of people in my work role and I hadn’t pre-warned enough people. A lot of people made a link between my bald head and chemo and assumed I was seriously ill. After finding out that someone had spent all weekend worrying about me before a colleague of theirs could tell them “Oh no Sarah isn’t ill, she’s just become a monk” I started looking out for the sad eyes and expressions of concern when people saw my bald head and pre-empting their concerns by saying “don’t worry it’s not health related”. I was once in a large boardroom with about 30 people, mainly doctors, around the table and had that now familiar reassuring conversation with one person and found the message passed around the table with a collective sense of exhaling. It was lovely that people cared enough to be concerned but I decided I’d let my hair grow back. I didn’t like the worried expression on people’s faces. I discovered that my hair regrows in a strange way and the regrowth included months of it looking like a toilet brush. I liked that much less than the feeling of no hair!

The ceremony itself felt both lovely and daunting. The vows (largely the same as in jukai) felt much weightier this time and at times it was hard to find my voice to say them. The robes, much as they are unwieldy and at times on retreat can feel like a real faff to keep donning and doffing always felt sort of “right” at the same time and nowhere near as alien as I thought they might. I inherited most of my robe layers from Miranda (my usual Crosby roommate) and I sewed my kesa, by machine not by hand, but I think that sewing really helped me feel intimate with it before I ever wore it. It also really helped that lots of sangha members added a few stitches to the kesa so from the first time I wore it I literally felt like I was wearing everyone’s support. During the pandemic my robes have been hanging in the zendo and I have missed my kesa in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

My daughter bravely attended my tokudo ceremony which meant a lot to me. Two sangha members she had previously met sat with her during the ceremony and helped her feel ok about being there to witness all the strangeness. It was lovely her being there although her first words on arriving and seeing me with my head bald apart from the little strand left for shaving off during the ceremony were “Mum you look bloody awful”. The tact of teenage daughters!

It felt entirely right to have taken that step but after the ceremony I certainly felt like a very baby monk. The next tokudo ceremony I saw after mine, it felt like I was taking the vows all over again but maybe like a toddler monk. I think maybe I’m still learning what the ceremony meant. Maybe I always will be.

I understand that for some people Zen practice does not need to involve jukai or tokudo. For some reason for me it did and I’m very glad I did both. Maybe in a few decades I might be able to explain why. I’m also very glad for one of the other Zen ceremonies, shoken. This one we never see anyone else take because it’s done in private, just the student and the teacher, so this time it wasn’t seeing the ceremony that ignited that knowing that I needed to do it; it was just a short mention of it in a zendo talk and a few days later I was in interview asking to do this strange shoken thing. With this one there was no thinking, no objection, just an absolute certainty that it was what I needed to do. I think this little ceremony which came before my jukai and tokudo was probably for me the most important of the three. I definitely needed it and the formalising and deepening of the connection to Roshi as my teacher that it represented. Thank you very much to Roshi and to StoneWater.