Sunday, August 22, 2010

Amazing Grace

Schireson sensei and friend, Hokkeji, Japan. Original image and Grace's good words here. Further on down, the image of First Church Boston can be located at good ol' Wikipedia.

Blooming on a busy corner of Boston's gorgeous, historical Back Bay is First Church Boston, where a modest wattle-and-daub room for worship created by the founders of Boston eventually grew into a soaring-from-the-ashes phoenix of an early-70's architectural dream of a church. And this is where I found myself, by no small miracle, this past Saturday night: staring into a bright night sky through the odd frame of a burnt-out rose window.

By miracle, I do mean miracle. Like many an at-home mama, I'm not quite sure how I made it out of the house, into the car and down the street after the day I had. And I'm less sure of how I managed to navigate the unfamiliar streets to actually make it to Marlborough Street armed with only a few scribbled notes from Google maps and an intuitive guess where street signs were lacking. But nevermind that-- once I arrived, I actually found a parking space right in front, thankyouverymuch. Indeed by then it was a miracle that I made it just in the nick of time for a short period of zazen. After all, the sit was scheduled to begin at 6:15, and I had only just wedged myself into the aforementioned miracle-parking-spot at precisely 6:14...

Yet even that was not the real miracle of the night; did I mention I somehow had enough time to quickly visit the ladies' restroom? Ah, me, late as I was, I did; and just as I ran up a long flight of stairs and slipped off my shoes and snuck onto an available zafu, Zen teacher, abbess and author Grace Schireson bowed and snuck on to her own directly across from mine. Grace has been on the circuit promoting her new book, Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters, and tonight she was to share an intimate talk with some of the sangha of Boundless Way Zen.

It was rather a miracle that I found myself meditating beside her, and not just because of that incredible, aforementioned parking spot. No, I'd actually had it in mind to meet Grace for about 4 years now, an impulse harking back to the days when I lived in Northern California, closer to my own Zen teacher who encouraged me to join the two of them at an all-women's retreat at Grace's Empty Nest Zendo. But as it was I was nursing a new babe-in-arms, and though they promised to accommodate, such a retreat was (and has been) a luxury of thought only. One day, has been my mantra. Maybe next year. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I learned she was coming to me-- in a way, it felt to me that my own teacher, and even the entire energy of that all-women zen retreat, would somehow be in the room with her. (The joy of that thought helped my navigation through the squirrelier parts of Boston rush-hour traffic, I can assure you.)

Yet even the serendipity of that was not the real miracle of the evening.

The real miracle, the real grace of Grace, her book and this talk tonight was the imparting of a long-held secret: the reality and beauty of a women's Zen Buddhist lineage.

Lineage is the cornerstone of Zen; it offers something of an immediate access to Buddha himself, as if saying the names of the people he touched somehow allows us to touch him, too. At any rate, the offering of this chant also reminds the practitioner of just how close we are to Buddha, and how long our history with him has been. So it was that each day in our Soto service at my temple, we chanted the names of the... patriarchs. And so how sweetly it is I can remember the surprise of tears that came the first time I chanted the names of our female Buddhist ancestors. The woman who would later become my teacher had brought the list with her to share during the sesshin that culminated with my ordination ceremony. I had had no idea that just reading the names of these women would draw such a strong, emotional response! The real gift of Grace's book, then, is that she has gathered so many of these Zen ancestors' stories into one place, into one resource. She has given them light of day, and granted new life to what were once (in lucky instances) just names on a page.

It's hard to explain why this is important; rather, I trust that my body and my psyche know it is. For it is still true that in many parts of the world, and in many instances here at home in our own Western culture (78 cents on the man's dollar, anyone?), women are conveniently regarded as second-class citizens. And even if this is not at the center of one's concentration, the shame of being treated as less-than-whole emerges in interesting, least-expected ways, such as crying one's way through a most touching lineage chant.

As for that chant? Sure enough, the paper carrying all those women's names was folded up and recycled once the sesshin was through. And although the addition of those names cost perhaps 2 minutes extra time during our daily morning service, we never again chanted them. Does sex-- the female sex-- matter in Buddhism? If we are all one, what does it matter? It's a long debate and it certainly deserves its own post, but my focus right now is the grace that came once those names were given breath, once those women's stories were given life.

When something that you had no idea was missing shows up in your life, it is profound and permanently altering. And how appropriate it seemed to me then that I should find myself at the end of my first Saturday-night-out in a long while gazing up at the burnt-out grandness of a 19th century rose window, the fresh breath of a late-summer night breezing through an untold past feeding my own breath, my own hope. Here, here then, to 'untold' pasts made manifest!

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