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Tetsuji Prelude: Blown Away

I took Jukai with Bernie, although the pathway to that place was convoluted. I had been blown away when Bernie had accepted me as a student, accepted me at a time when he was shedding students. It was an amazing honor.

Bernie was and still is such an important teacher. I was grateful to him for his teaching and guidance and was always looking for any small way in which to give back, but the little services, things like driving him to the airport were gobbled up by more senior students.

When I discovered that Jishu needed a student who was ordained to serve as her first shuso, — she had other students more senior than me, but none were on the priest path — I volunteered. That was crazy. The whole idea of becoming a priest was totally foreign to my life. And the idea of giving up Bernie as much as I loved and appreciated Jishu, how could I do that? He was so important to me.

I presented the idea to Bernie though. I knew that Jishu’s path was important to him. Here was an opportunity to give back. I owed him so much.

“Ask Jishu,” he said.

More convolutions. Jishu rejected my offer. She didn’t think my motivation was adequate. I was disappointed and relieved. And then she accepted. She would become my teacher and I would be working with her.

I went in that week to dokusan with Bernie. I think. In my mind, it was for some sort of wrap-up. Bernie surprised me, as he did so often. “No problem with two teachers,” he said. Bernie would remain my teacher also.

I was working toward Tokudo with Jishu, the first step on the priest path. Shuso was the second step on the priest path. That was the step that Jishu would need to get me through on her path to becoming abbot of ZCNY. And I was also in the class she was leading for students preparing for Jukai.

At one point, Bernie pushed for me to get Tokudo without having received Jukai. Jishu wanted me to do Jukai first, delaying Tokudo a year. Bernie was always in a hurry. Slowing me a year could potentially delay Jishu’s becoming Abbot of ZCNY by a year. Jishu prevailed this time, and I spent the year in her class with other students preparing for Jukai. In our tradition, students receive Jukai from the person who is leading their preparation, but sometime during that year, I had an idea.

“Since I am getting Tokudo with you,” I asked Jishu, “would it be possible for me to receive Jukai from Bernie.”

She nodded. “Ask Bernie.”

Bernie agreed.

So there I was taking Jukai with Bernie. In the group taking Jukai that day, the others were all receiving Jukai from Jishu.

About the ceremony itself, I had no anxiety. I had come to realize in my zazen practice that I would be able to sit through the challenges of my life, perhaps not in one period or two or a week, perhaps not in a year, but if I sat long enough I would come through. I had already found my refuge and in the Jukai ceremony I was publicly acknowledging and celebrating that refuge.

What I worried about was the name. Perhaps every Zen student goes into Jukai with anxiety about the central moment when the teacher gives the student a new name, a Dharma name.

Bernie always (or almost always) gave names in the Kanji ideograms which were the traditional way of the Japanese Soto Sect. And, of course, it comes with an English translation.

What name will he give me? The question had been in my mind for weeks. No way to know until the moment.

There I was kneeling before him, a posture in which I always agonized anyway.

What name will he give me?


Bernie explained, “The first ideogram of my name.” He was “Testugen.” I had gotten that myself, staggered on my knees as soon as I heard the “Tetsu.”

“And the first ideogram of Jishu’s name.” I had missed that. I was completely blown away. I knew this was something momentous.

Bernie continued with the translation. “Totally penetrating compassion.” And then he added, “This is a goal not a description.” He just yanked the rug which was always his way with me. He might as well have said, “Don’t get a swelled head.”

I didn’t. The aspiration for compassion remains a goal, Bernie’s warning a permanent reminder that compassion does not come easily for me.

I barely remember the remainder of the ceremony, but vividly I remember the exit procession, walking out of the zendo and through the garden to the building where we would change out of our robes. Walking single file, Jishu was behind me. She poked me in the ribs. “Now, maybe you understand how much you mean to us.”

I did. Or thought I did. At least, I understood the words.

“Tetsuji,” the first ideogram of each of their names, an expression of their union. Am I the child they never had? I have been overwhelmed by this from that day. Honored beyond words and unworthy. I have never called myself, “Tetsuji.” Too much responsibility.

A few people call me “Tetsuji.” I admit it feels good, even as I feel unworthy.

“Tetsuji.” It is quite a koan.

What would it mean to actualize Tetsuji?

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