New Abbot at SFZC
by Norman Fischer | March 03, 2007 at 3:28 PM
Abbot’s Journal Vol 58
March 3, 2007
Sunday, February 25, Myogen Steve Stucky was installed as abbot of Zen Center in the Mountain Seat Ceremony. Feb 24 Jiko Linda Cutts stepped down. I was supposed to have attended that ceremony and spoken but it was Kathie’s birthday, (our son) Noah and (his girlfriend) Ann were visiting, so we all went wine tasting instead. I didn’t realize they were expecting me. Some kind of communication glitch. Many people afterward told me they missed me, were worried about me, where was I, it was embarrassing etc. But I did manage to go, as planned, to the Mountain Seat Ceremony next day. As a former abbot I had, with Blanche Hartman, Mel Weitsman, Linda, and Paul Haller, (the sitting abbot), a special seat on a ceremonial chair. Wearing my fanciest robes, holding my red, silver, and gold Japanese fan. Hoitsu and Akiba were also there, with their fans, up on their fancy chairs, representing Japan. Zen Center’s Buddha Hall, which years ago seemed such a large room, containing universes, is actually quite small. Most of those attending the ceremony had to watch from the dining room, on closed circuit television. So I was fortunate to have a front row seat. I somehow did not notice the video camera.
Ceremony begins with a procession into the building with Steve making an appropriate Dharma Statement and incense offering as he crosses the threshold. Then various offerings and statements of dedication at various places in the temple, so many I can’t remember them all – to the Dharma Protectors at side altars, to Shakyamuni on the main altar, to Suzuki Roshi upstairs in the Kaisando, offerings and thanks to all the teachers and former abbots, Bodhidharma, Dogen Zenji etc. etc. Then the procession goes to dokusan room, with portraits of all the former abbots on the wall, for formal tea and signing of official papers and ceremonial handing over of the temple seal. All this unseen by the audience, but marked by complicated music of drum and densho bell (Mick Sopko, who’s a passionate drummer and studies with an African drummer, did a fine and flawless job on the drums). The procession is complicated, with several attendants. At one point the ryoban, made up of temple officers and officials, enters the Hall, offers incense and bows, moving in complicated ways, as choreographed by Hoitsu, who served as usual as master of ceremonies., After all this there was a break, everyone milling around, greeting one another. It is impressive how many people were present from the old days, impressive how like those days we too are old. Time has a way of making its mark. I said hello to Chitosae, Hoitsu’s wife, whom we’d seen this summer in Japan. She looked very well, such a kind, wise, and sweet person. Also told Akiba, I’m sure for the second or third time, how much I appreciated his talk at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference in New York in October, the one in which he said that we are all deluded, but that when our delusion mixes in with a little wisdom the “wonderful self” emerges, and this is “the source of all human warmth.”
The ceremony then resumed with Steve receiving and putting on the gold kesa made for him by the sangha (I was envious: for my installation a brown nine jo kesa was purchased from Japan, not nyohoe style, and it doesn’t fit well, and the fabric’s stiff. At that time probably the sangha was not completely ready to accept and embrace the new abbot, so no overpowering spirit to sew and celebrate). Steve then ascended the Mountain holding the dharma staff, and then there were questions and answers, some with a little Zen drama, (I think a few of the interlocutors had acting training) but nothing too serious. Steve read more statements. (Technically: the statements were written on cards arranged in the order in which they were to be given, and carried in a big lacquer box by Steve Weintraub, Steve’s attendant for the ceremony, along with incense). Then congratulatory statements. Dick Baker sent a nice letter that was read by Lane, Steve’s wife. It said that he, Dick, had written a letter to Steve, never finished or mailed, in May of 2003, and it quoted from that letter. To the effect that Dick had always had confidence in Steve, always appreciated his work and his generosity. Lane then made her own nice speech about her first date with Steve. He’d come to the door in a funky cooking apron, barbequing. A man clearly not interested in impressing anyone, she said. Waiting for him to let her into the house she’d discovered something broken on the porch and told him it was broken and how to fix it and he’d said, “who do you think you’re talking to, I know how to fix that.” So, she said, Zen Center was getting an abbot who didn’t need to impress anyone and who knew how to fix things that were broken. Many references were made to Steve’s Mennonite father, who was a farmer as well as a preacher. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Steve’s a strong, silent, steady, fellow, a person of great stability and integrity, and everyone who knows him respects him. His involvement in the wider community and practical sense of the true efficacy of the practice will make him a good abbot for Zen Center.
During the congratulatory section Mel Weitsman, Steve’s Transmission teacher (and mine), spoke about the Dharma Transmission ceremony he’d done in 1993 that had included Steve, Steve Weintraub, and Paul. How close they’d all become through that process, developing a brotherly love. And how moving it was that here, today, in the ceremony, Paul was the sitting abbot of Zen Center, Steve was being installed, and Steve W. was serving as Steve’s attendant. Mel spoke of the spirit of collaboration and mutual support that one would have wanted and expected to be Zen Center’s constant way, but it had not been that way, through the 1970’s and 1980’s, an era of heroism. Maybe now it is and will be more and more this way.
The morning of that day I gave the Sunday talk at Green Gulch and at the end referred to the upcoming ceremony. I told people that for three reasons the installation of Steve would be an important moment in Zen Center’s history. First, because it was the first time we elected an abbot in midst of some controversy and contention. There were several good choices, and we had to deliberate, disagree, and come to consensus, and I was proud of the elders of the community for doing that in a mature way, without the pouting and acting out we might have done in years gone by (of course I didn’t put it that way in the lecture). Second, Steve is the first abbot who is returning to residence in Zen Center after some years away (now that I write this though I remember that this is not quite correct – Dick returned from living a lay life in Japan to become abbot after Suzuki Roshi’s death in 1971. But then again he didn’t return to Zen Center after twenty years of ordinary lay life in America, as Steve has done). Third, the election of any abbot at any time is always a chance for renewal, but this time the election comes in midst of a generational shift, as younger people are beginning now to take on significant leadership roles at Zen Center for the first time since the 1970’s.
The most surprising feature of the ceremony was the appearance of the abbot of one of Myoshinji’s famous subtemples, a stern-looking man of about sixty with a large, fleshy, seemingly damaged, nose. Dressed in a purple silk robe, with an ornate Rinzai-style kesa hooked together with an ivory ring, he wore also a large crystal string of juzu beads outside his sleeve. During the congratulations section he came forward to offer Steve a plaque of some sort, and a stack of gifts that instantly were caused to materialize when the abbot, like a potentate with full arrogant privilege, snapped his fingers, and a worried-looking woman priest appeared and disappeared, bearing the carefully wrapped packages. But the plaque was offered by the abbot personally, and the whole ceremony was suspended just long enough for a photo to be taken of the abbot, with Steve and plaque, by a waiting, camera-bearing priest. The abbot gave a congratulatory speech (Daijaku Rume translated, or tired to) which began with an untranslatable Chinese poem. He then went on to reminded everyone of Zen Center’s long connection to the Myoshinji lineage, through, originally, Yamada Mumon Roshi, whom Dick respected greatly, and had invited to Zen Center in the middle 70’s. I remember Mumon Roshi’s little white Chinese beard and wispy white hair and his bemused, slightly punchy, demeanor. I also remember Dick speaking about him in his later years, when Mumon Roshi’d gone completely senile, and didn’t any longer know who or what he was. The teaching in this, Dick had said, was the way Mumon had yielded to his condition with dignity, if not control. Seven or eight years ago, the abbot went on, he himself had visited Zen Center and given sesshin. (Later I learned he’d invited himself to do this, and Blanche had agreed ). Somehow I had missed that event entirely. Clearly he was quite interested in keeping the connection alive – and in documenting it fully. Later when I asked why in the world the abbot was here, and who’d thought to invite him, Jordan Thorn told me in fact the abbot had invited himself – along with an entourage of about thirty people – because they were all coming to America to celebrate Joshu Sazaki’s 100th birthday, taking place around the same time.