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You Can Call Me “Roshi”

“You can call me ‘Roshi.’”

It surprised me when I heard myself say those words. I had never taken readily to the status symbols of Zen. I ordained in order to support Jishu and Bernie, but I was never comfortable in my robes. I have hardly had them on since Bernie and Jishu left Yonkers in 1998.

It surprised me that I even finished the priest training. I went through Tokudo, the head-shaving ceremony, which is the first step on the priest path so that I could be Jishu’s first Shuso. Bernie wanted that for Soto headquarters in Japan. Jishu died one month into my three-month Shuso period. I was to lead a Street Retreat on the Memorial Day Weekend for mental health workers and other care givers. The plan was for Jishu to officiate at the closing Shuso Hossen Ceremony in our home zendo when I returned from the Street.

Jishu’s passing took all the wind out of that sail. I didn’t have the energy to lead anyone. I went out on the Street by myself. On the first night out, I was arrested for sleeping without a ticket in the Long Island Railroad Station waiting room.

Bernie often commented that I was the only person ever to be arrested on a Street Retreat. I spent the night in a holding pen in the station.

When I was released with a desk appearance ticket the next morning, I called Dee collect on a pay phone. I was sure she would tell me to come home, that I’d had enough. Much to my surprise, she answered, “Well, you might as well finish the retreat. Nothing worse can happen.”

I did.

Miriam Healy (now Roshi) joined me for the second night. There was no ceremony when I got home. Just a shower and dinner. I was glad that I had done it. It was something I felt that I wanted to finish for Jishu even though she didn’t need it anymore. But I wasn’t sure there was any point in continuing on the priest path.

I was still pondering this when, a few weeks later, Bernie called. He was trying to finish up some stuff Jishu had been unable to complete. He would be doing a Jukai Ceremony for two groups Jishu had been working with at the time of her passing. He would do my Shuso Hossen at the same time at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

Dee was seven-plus months pregnant, but her obstetrician gave approval for the trip. “But this is the last trip out of the city until after you give birth.”

A week later Bernie called again to make sure I knew that I was expected to give a Dharma talk and to respond to questions and challenges from the group, Dharma Combat, as part of the Shuso Hossen ceremony. And then he added, “I will give you Denkai,” the culminating ceremony on the priest path, “at the year-beginning retreat next January in Litchfield.”

I was shocked by how quickly things were moving. But Bernie always seemed to move quickly. I could manage to stay the course for seven months. I had expected the whole ordination process to take years. Surely, I had enough energy for seven months. Maybe this ordination thing was really meant to be.

And then Bernie called again. “I will also make you a Dharma Holder at Litchfield.” This all seemed crazy. Beyond imagination. “Dharma Holder” is a preliminary recognition. I thought of it as something like an engagement preceding a wedding. Sure, I had imagined the possibility of becoming a teacher. There was talk that I would be Jishu’s first Dharma successor, but I had a lot of fantasies and this was very much an idea of a far-off future.

Litchfield happened in the midst of a crazy ice storm. Morrigan was seven months old. Dee had hoped to bring her to the ceremony but did not dare drive. Bernie gave Denkai to a number of us; Denbo, the formal transmission ceremony which empowers new teachers, to Jitsudo and Eve and Genro; and Inka, in our tradition the highest recognition, to Pia and Nicklaus. When you receive Denbo, you become “Sensei.” When you receive Inka, you are “Roshi”.

On the final evening of the retreat, at a semi-formal gathering in which all of us who had received empowerments were seated on the stage with Bernie. Bernie announced three new Dharma Holders. He hung my brown, Dharma Holder rakusu around my neck.

Years later, noting that other Dharma Holder rakusus were purple, I asked him, “How come I have a brown rakusu?”

“That’s what happens when you have a colorblind teacher.”

The priest training path had gone so quickly. Did I expect the teacher training to go as quickly? Years passed. I had actually given up on ever receiving transmission. It was not until 2007 that I actually received transmission.

After that some Zen students did call me “Sensei.” It felt ok, but it was not something that I really embraced. When somehow some adolescents I was working with found out, -- someone at work must have told them that I was a Sensei, -- they reacted with disbelief. “You’re a Sensei?” They were trying to picture me throwing people around in the Dojo.

I explained, “‘Sensei’ is the Japanese word for teacher.” We all laughed.

Would I ever receive Inka? Paco, who had also gotten transmission in 2007, used to joke about it. “Would we ever?” I didn’t think so.

Then one night the phone rang, the landline, which we never used and never answered. We were entirely cell phone people by then. We never answered the land line, but somehow I answered it. It was Bernie. “Congratulations, Roshi” he said.

Blown away again, I don’t remember any more of the conversation.

A few months later, my new Roshi rakusu arrived in the mail. It had been sewn in Switzerland by Roshis Barbara and Roland Wegmuller, varied patterned strips of blue fabric, inscribed on the back in Bernie’s awkward post-stroke way, “To Roshi Ken, Mazel Tov, Love Bernie.”

Blue. In his last years, the color of a rakusu given by Bernie referenced one of the Five Buddha Families. “Padma,” I thought. Community, relationships. I was surprised. I was disappointed. I had always thought of myself as definitely in the Social Action Family. Karma. But perhaps this was a teaching. It brought me back to the Jukai Ceremony.

When Bernie gave me my name, Tetsuji, he translated it, “Totally penetrating compassion.” And then he had added, keeping my head from swelling, “That is not a description. It’s a goal.”

Always yanking the rug from under me. Perhaps this was another goal. Or the same goal, in different words. I had always thought, “Community is not my strong suit.”

I had been working with that teaching for a few years when, early in the pandemic, Barbara gave an online Dharma talk, sponsored by the Zen Peacemakers, on the Five Buddha Families. I was startled as I heard Barbara laying out the Five Buddha Families, stuff I knew: “Vajra, Study, Blue.” Had I misremembered all this time thinking Padma? Where did the rug go this time?

I couldn’t quite believe it. I wrote to Barbara, “Did you and Roland choose the color of my rakusu or did Bernie?”

“Bernie,” she wrote back.

The teaching keeps on coming.

Study. Preparing for my second retirement, the message took on added meaning. Once a date had actually been set, once retirement was no longer five years away in an always receding future, at the top of my bucket list after time with family and travel was writing, -- blogging, the books I would love to write, sharing my experience of Dharma practice. For a while, these writing aspirations shared space with a list social action projects.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know what my next social action project would be. They convinced me that another chapter of social entrepreneurship was in my future. But the desire to study, to write, to share the Dharma as I have experienced it now dominates. Three books are in the works in some form. I am keeping up the blog. (Actually before retirement, we got a blog out every other week. Now the blog is weekly). I am a teacher. I am an old teacher.

My Blue Rakusu. What a gift!

I am embracing “Roshi”. I am grateful to Bernie for this gift, and I am finding myself at this stage of my life embracing study again. After so many years, I am again primarily a student. And I am accepting with that the responsibility to teach.

And I am accepting getting older. So, although I have never been big on titles, -- if you called me “doctor”, I said “Ken”; if you called me “Sensei”, I said, “Ken,” – I am ok with “Roshi.”

“You can call me ‘Roshi’.”

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