Rough Surface, Hazy Mirror – Tetsugen

Here we have another piece on the question of “If you have received Jukai or Shukke Tokudo, how did you experience that commitment at the time and how do you experience it now?”. The author is Tetsugen, a long time sangha member and monk.

I received the precepts after my first retreat. I felt I discovered something very important to me – something that would be a guiding light for the rest of my life – during the retreat. There were only a few weeks left until the Jukai ceremony by the time I asked Keizan (then) Sensei if I could also receive the precepts. I was thinking that it would happen in the next round of Jukai, as there are a number of things to prepare for it. To my surprise, Keizan Sensei said, “Why don’t you just do it this time round?”. He also told me cryptically, “I was thinking, ‘When would he receive the precepts?’, but I did not ask you because it was not my business to do so.” He didn’t even ask me why I wanted to receive the precepts, but I did tell him that I had found something important, (therefore) I was serious about Zen practice, and (therefore) I wanted to receive the precepts to formalise my seriousness. As I could not make the Rakusu in time, Keizan Sensei even let me borrow his black one that he wore before transmission.

I went through Shukke Tokudo after another retreat, a few years later. There had been something that I was not quite clear about in my Zen practice, yet I had not been sure exactly what it was. During that retreat, the conundrum resolved, and it felt like a mountain had been lifted off my shoulders. Obviously, I felt much lighter. During the first Service after I returned, while the Sangha was chanting the Heart Sutra, I started crying at “All past present and future Buddhas…” It was a moment of realisation when I understood that, only thanks to countless generations of practitioners who devoted their lives for the last two and a half millennia for preserving and transmitting the Dharma, I was now reaping the fruits. Unfortunately, I could not pay back those people nor Keizan Sensei – as they were the source from which I received those gifts – and the only feasible option was to pay the debt forward. In line with my desire to pay forward, Keizan Sensei did emphasise in the meetings before Shukke Tokudo, “Until now your practice has been focused on yourself. From now your practice is focusedi on serving the Sangha as well.”

Now, in 2021, I have been diagnosed with depression and PTSD. I knew I had bouts of depression throughout my life, but I had not quite categorised myself with PTSD. I wasn’t surprised at the PTSD diagnosis, though – I think I knew all along subconsciously. I have been severely unwell with these two illnesses from 2018 till now. It was as if there was a demolition derby going on in my brain. I lost all reliability. The capability that I had prized myself with was gone. I therefore lost all credibility. An important relationship collapsed. Despite the commitments I described above, I offered Keizan (now) Roshi to hand back my kesa, and along with it my resignation as an ordained practitioner of StoneWater Zen. Not once, but twice. First time, due to the shock of the dissolution of the relationship. Second time, for an altogether deeper reason as I felt no longer able to serve the Sangha. I was told that I only talked well about Zen. I agreed. All the Zen practice I had accumulated had fallen apart. All the lightness and discoveries abandoned me. Why would anyone want to be served by someone like me in their practice? In his wisdom, however, Keizan Roshi declined my resignation on both occasions.

Then the ‘turning words’ came from the most unexpected places. The first was my boss. When I finally ‘fessed up to him about what exactly had been happening to my mental health and apologised to him that all the unreliability had been all my fault, he said, sounding incredulous, “Look, you have been ill. I draw no distinction between physical and mental illness. God forbid, but imagine you had cancer. You wouldn’t be saying it was all your fault, would you?” The second was my colleague. She told me one evening, late at work, that she had some serious problems that she could not talk about to anyone. As it turned out, her problems were nearly the exact mirror images of my own, albeit with slightly different variations in life events and emotional undertones. I talked to her about my own struggles, and when she started crying while she listened to my stories, I felt something lift. As Shakyamuni Buddha said time and time again, as per the interdependent origination, someone with my life events could very conceivably end up in my situation.

I am not sure how I will be able to serve the Sangha, or what my commitment will look like in the future. Never mind the future – I don’t know what it looks like now. As Keizan Roshi declined my resignation, I am still an ordained practitioner of StoneWater Zen – such as I am. He once told me, “It’s OK. You just need to keep coming back.”

All our lives are different. I cannot say what works for me would work for others. Or vice versa. Even in those ‘nearly the exact mirror images’, we are still all quite different. It is like looking at a rough surface, a hazy mirror. Nevertheless, I believe (yes, it is merely a belief of mine, and no more; not a truth nor a fact) that we humans see who we are, what we do, and where we go at its clearest through those rough surfaces, those hazy mirrors. At this point in my life, I am fresh out of all the Zen wisdom or insights that are not actually bogus. After all, I only talk well about Zen. So all I can do is bare my life to you. At this point in my life, I really cannot do anything other than that. If it is not enough, in my rejected resignation status, I will just linger around you guys, and perhaps Keizan Roshi will finally do the merciful thing and fire me. If it is, tell me which piece of my life you want. When we finally meet, I might be able to serve you with some freshly carved out pieces of my very own hazy mirror.