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The Narrow Bridge: Fear

Our Zen practice is not about transcending, or getting away from—it’s this, this, exactly this is the vast ocean. One of the reasons I’m talking about this is that I went to the hospital a week and a half ago, and I’m fine, but I had day surgery and I didn’t like it one bit. I was really scared. Fortunately, I could practice with my fear. I didn’t know what else I could do with it except be absolutely miserable and maybe mean to other people, and I didn’t want to be mean. What I saw was that our usual habit in the ordinary world does not really hold this as a reality, so it takes a lot of support. It takes sangha. It takes community to help us hold this and remind us of the truth. In this sterile environment of the hospital, which is good—we don’t want bacteria, but it was sterile in other ways that weren’t so good—I brought my own support system so I could remember to practice, and it was a good thing.

Remember this stuff about fear, because now I’m going to talk about living in vow, making a little transition. To live in this big frame, in this vast frame, is leaving home. Do you guys ever leave home? Where do you go? To your friend’s house, to school, to the park, to band rehearsal. In the Zen world, which is the whole world, leaving home is being exactly here in this vast ocean of perfection, and fulfillment. Exactly here.

I’m going to sing another song. Are you ready? I’m going to sing it, and then I’ll tell you what it means, because it’s not in English, and I’ll tell you about it.

[sings in Hebrew]

What this means is, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” This song comes from a very famous Jewish mysic named Reb Nachman, who lived in the 1800s in Ukraine. This “not to fear at all” is living in vow. No difference. In our Zen tradition, the ordination ceremony makes visible and public one’s inner commitment to living in this way. We together, Buddha, dharma and sangha, all of us together create a ceremony in which we ritualize this passage of inner heart and outer form, joining together.

At the ceremony, one receives an outer robe, a big black robe with butterfly sleeves, which embraces her in our Chinese ancestral garment and under it she wears a kimono, which is from our Japanese ancestral lineage, and over both of those she wears an okesa, which she sews with many people’s help. It takes her many months and there’s a prayer in every stitch. This is the robe that the Buddha wore, that he asked Ananda, his attendant, to design for him to look like a virtuous rice field in which the whole universe manifests harmoniously.

As priests we wear this lineage, which kind of holds us up and supports us to awaken here together. So, India, China, Japan, Minnesota--right here, like this, together. One also receives a priest’s name, or Way name, and a set of bowls. These bowls were made to last a long time, and also in Japan the largest one is the Buddha bowl. It’s used for begging, but begging isn’t like begging we think here. Begging is the reciprocal interdependent arising of our life. It’s “throwing ourselves away into,” Katagiri roshi used to say, throwing ourselves away into being supported completely without any idea. We don’t have that practice here, and I haven’t been to Japan but my understanding is that it’s quite touching and very beautiful because it’s reciprocal. It’s not just begging. It’s giving and receiving in a big world.

One also receives lineage papers called Buddha’s bloodline. It has Buddha’s name at the top and all the ancestors written and then the preceptor’s name and the priest name at the bottom. All this outer form is a support for them and for us to recall our deep intention to live in this vow, this vast homeleaving space, and to awaken each moment with each other, with all living beings. We are in training, but not different than someone who doesn’t wear robes. We’re all in training. Good grief. We’re all in training. We’re all living in vow, and this is an outer manifestation of that.

You know, if you ever got married, it’s kind of scary, like you’re making your inner heart public. Then also when you make it public, the support, like the ocean, flows in to support this very difficult thing, this commitment. It’s hard to stay on the point isn’t it? If I make a commitment to do the laundry, I might make a phone call instead. Not that that’s wrong, but you know how it is. It’s hard to stay there.

One very important part of the ceremony is receiving sixteen bodhisattva precepts, or guidelines and the very last one is this: “taking up the way of not abusing the great truth of the triple treasure.” The triple treasure is Buddha, that’s the truth of awakening; dharma, that’s the teaching but also the truth of the interconnectedness of all life all through time and space; and sangha, that’s the community of practitioners who support each other in awakening, and it’s also community in the larger sense, environmental, all living beings. You could say it’s deep ecology, yeah? Not abusing the great truth of the triple treasure.

Dogen says, “The body is manifested, the dharma is unfolded, and there is the bridge in the world for crossing over.” Just like that song I sang you in Hebrew. The world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is not to fear at all. It’s the same bridge. “The virtue returns to the ocean of all-knowing wisdom. This is unfathomable. Please accept it with respect and gratitude.” It’s very huge. Katagiri roshi, the founder of this temple, always taught in a huge way that when we were twenty-five we didn’t understand. But we felt something. He would say, “I know, you don’t understand.”

And we would say, “You’re right. We don’t understand.”

We altogether become this bridge for crossing over. We become this bridge. When I came to this temple as a priest, I have a little friend who gave me something on that day. Her mother is very sneaky. She called me up and said, “What would you tell my 5-year-old daughter about what you’re doing?

So I innocently said the following: “I’m making a big promise to myself and to all living beings throughout time and space, a promise to trust in that thing that is bigger than anything than I can understand. By doing this I really want to help all living beings be happy and understand their life. I can become something that helps all living beings be happy and understand their life.” She put it on one of her pictures, and her mother did something with her computer, and made this. This priest ordination is the complete working together of Buddha, dharma, sangha, and realizing all of of this, including all living beings and space and past, present and future—huge, all of us together.

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