Move Into the Stream
At 59, former Minnesota Alumni editor Cynthia Scott started her journey toward becoming a Zen Buddhist priest.
THERE IS SOMETHING preposterous about trying to put into words how and why I decided to become a Zen Buddhist priest. Words have failed me on this count ever since I was ordained six and half years ago, and it wasn’t until I decided to leave my job as editor of this magazine in September 2017 that I made halting attempts to disclose my plans to any but a few close confidants.
My efforts to come out of the clerical closet mostly proved fruitless: At the time I left Minnesota Alumni, where I’d been on staff for 11 years, I was 63. Most people understandably assumed I was retiring when I announced my decision. No matter how much I tried to explain otherwise, the assumption stood. Eventually I tired of my stammering attempts and just accepted people’s good wishes for a healthy retirement. I still didn’t know how to talk about what it means to be a Zen Buddhist priest, what it looks like in daily life, and why I took this path. I sympathized with the good folks who responded with a blank stare to my attempts to set the record straight.
In retrospect, I realize that those blank stares were due in part to the widespread misunderstanding that Zen is all about chillin’: blissing out in a meditative state, unruffled by the world, and at peace with everyone and everything. In other words, maybe a lot like the ideal picture of retirement.
I once had a small desk lamp in my office that I used instead of the blazing fluorescent overhead lights. That meant my office tended to be dim, prompting the frequent comment, “Wow, it’s so Zen in here!” Well, yes, it’s “Zen” to be sitting in a dim office if that’s where you happen to be, but Zen is also slopping hogs or partying in the bright lights of Broadway if that’s what you’re doing. Zen is everyday life. Sometimes that does mean chillin’, and if you manage to attain a state akin to spiritual orgasm from meditation or anything else, more power to you. Buddha did teach, in fact, that it is possible to be unruffled by anything, even in the midst of calamity. But dim lights and other external trappings will not get you there. Instead, he counseled following the example of his years-long spiritual quest, diving headlong into “the hard tacks of pain, disappointment, and confusion,” as one of the eminent contemporary scholars of Buddhism, Bhikku Bodhi, puts it.
In this case, Bodhi isn’t talking about encountering suffering as an intellectual exercise, but about deeply investigating the everyday discontents of our lives.
And, so it was with me. Like many people, I began practicing Zen earnestly in the wake of profound loss— the death of my wife, Cathy. She died in 2007, before same-sex marriage was legal, but I have posthumously bestowed upon us the status of wives since I think 25 years of committed relationship qualifies.
Cathy and I had lived with the ups and downs of her cancer for 12 years, and when she died, I was lost. I had dabbled in Zen since college—that is to say, I had read a number of books and found the teachings intellectually stimulating—but I assiduously avoided meditating and did not want to go near a Zen center, which I suspected was a magnet for weirdos. And I, I told myself, was not a weirdo.
Scott says the phrase “into the stream” refers to taking up Buddhist practices. As part of becoming a Zen Buddhist priest, Scott also received a new name, Tōku, which means “winter emptiness.”
What I was, however, was desperate. So, I began going to a Zen center in Minneapolis.
In the wake of my loss, I wanted and needed to find my bearings in this foreign new world that death had thrust upon me. I hoped Zen might provide safe harbor. What I found instead was a no-holds-barred encounter with everything I thought I knew.
Zen meditation is called zazen and it is the heart of the practice. The instruction is deceptively simple: Just sit, with no aim other than to notice whatever arises in the moment, neither pushing it away nor grasping after it. During zazen, we sit facing a blank wall with our eyes slightly open, typically for 35 minutes at a time. For the beginner—at least this beginner—it was beastly difficult to sit through the physical discomfort and what felt like a psychic horror show: I found myself overwhelmed by incessant mental chattering, resentments, the desperate desire to escape, feelings of anger, shame, guilt over past mistakes, and various other flavors of suffering that rudely appeared. I quickly understood why the Buddha insisted that one who sets out on this path do so in the company of those who will support, encourage, and love each other along the way. It’s the only way to persist long enough to get through that initial discomfort of paying attention to what’s really going on inside your head and heart.
Over time, I began to appreciate the profound depth, breadth, and swiftness of impermanence that is the “insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot,” as Bodhi has described it. You learn to roll with your insecurities once in a while, and you also learn to sit through and with all the stuff of your life. You begin to let fall away habits of mind that cause turmoil and conflict inside of you and with others. You learn that everyone struggles with their own horror show and from that, you learn compassion. You begin to understand the radical interdependence of all of life.
I started to know deep in my gut that this weirdo Buddha was on to something important and I realized I was home.
Priest ordination in the Zen tradition marks the beginning, not the end, of formal training. In the Buddha’s day, his followers shaved their heads, donned a robe patched together of discarded cloth, and left home, family, and occupation to learn at the foot of the Buddha. These followers were called “homeleavers,” and to this day, the Zen ordination ritual is called a home leaving ceremony. In it, the ordinee vows to live by the precepts—the Buddhist ethical code—and to take up the path of the bodhisattva, who is one who lives for the sake of all beings.
Like all other ordinees, during this process my head was shaved, and I was presented with a new name, a set of bowls, and a plain black robe called an okesa. In the Zen tradition, I began to hand-stitch my okesa in the months leading up to my ordination. This handsewing process is painstaking, and many times, the sewing teacher overseeing my work had me rip out my inferior stitches and do them over. Sewing your own robe is meant to teach patience and also remind you that your own standards take a back seat to those handed down in the tradition for centuries.
Training is, to say the least, a humbling process. Guided by an experienced and skillful teacher of the student’s own choosing, this teacher-student relationship is primary and intense. It’s an apprenticeship of sorts that lasts as many years as it takes for the teacher to be confident that the student is ready to assume full authority as a teacher. Would-be teachers must have a thorough understanding of the teachings; a commitment to lifelong growth and character development; and the capacity to live a life of service. Those fortunate enough to find a true teacher—as I have been—are afforded the precious opportunity to have their worldview turned upside down.
I am now nearing the end of my formal training. When I finish it, that will be marked with a ceremony in which my teacher, to whom I will forever be indebted, entrusts me with the authority and responsibility to carry on the teachings of the Buddha, an Indian monk and sage who lived 2,500 years ago. I approach it with tremendous gratitude and the aspiration to serve well, whatever that means in any given circumstance.
Beyond that, words fail me.
Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is the former editor of Minnesota Alumni magazine.