Skip to main content

Lay Entrustment

By: Martha de Barros, Mick Sopko, Sue Moon | 08/25/2005
In Topics:

Three talks given at Lay Entrustment Ceremony held in August of 2005 in the San Francisco Bay Area. At this ceremony Martha de Barros, Sue Moon, and Mick Sopko, long time lay students, were empowered by Zoketsu as lay zen teachers. As part of the ceremony each of them gave a talk, included here.
Lay Entrustment
Three talks on carrying the lamp as lay people
by Martha de Barros, Sue Moon, and Mick Sopko

Lay Entrustment Ceremony, August 28, 2005, S.F. Bay Area

Three talks given at Lay Entrustment Ceremony held in August of 2005 in the San Francisco Bay Area. At this ceremony Martha de Barros, Sue Moon, and Mick Sopko, long time lay students, were empowered by Zoketsu as lay zen teachers. As part of the ceremony each of them gave a talk, included here.

Martha de Barros, "A Rakusu is not a Rakusu"

Norman has just given us our rakusus and we have chanted Great robe, great rakusu, of liberation, field far beyond form and emptiness… So what is this rakusu? Who does it really belong to? When Suzuki Roshi was asked, “What is a rakusu?” he replied, “A rakusu is not a rakusu, it’s just something to wear.” So if a rakusu is not a rakusu then what is it we’ve been sewing on these many months?

The three of us have been sewing since January. We sewed on each other’s rakusus and family, friends, Norman, sewing teachers, neighbors, grandchildren joined in. We sewed in Mexico together, Sue took her rakusu to Ireland, mine went to Gualala with me. During this time of sewing, seasons changed, the war in Iraq intensified, there were signs of peace in Ireland, ice-caps were too quickly melting. The joys and sorrows of our personal lives and of the world were stitched in.

A piece of orange cloth from an inmate’s uniform is sewn onto the back of my rakusu. Sue’s envelope is lined with a piece of discarded clothing from a homeless person, Mick’s with African cloth in honor of his drumming teacher and that beautiful strife-ridden country. Sewn into each, the silent voices chanting the name of Buddha with each stitch, and our vows to practice the precepts as a way of life.

So what started out as a personal project I soon experienced as something much vaster and more mysterious. As John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick up anything by itself we find it hitched [or we could say stitched] to everything else in the universe.” It seems to me that our rakusus did not begin with the first stitch nor did they end with the last. They are alive, they are after all green, wild, fresh, always under construction.

Perhaps you imagined us over these many months as being in some kind of sewing samadhi: breathing, chanting, stitching away in silence – half-smiles radiating. Well, life is not like that. Sewing a rakusu is not like that. If you’re ever short on suffering, I recommend sewing a rakusu. Greed, aversion, doubt, anxiety, pride, despair – they’re all there. The voices: “I’ll never get this done,” “How many times do I have to redo this part,” “Hey, I’m getting the hang of this, it looks pretty good,” “Exactly what kind of religion is it that insists on sewing in the first place?” Mick suggested at one point we just call out the word HELP and see what happens. Steve said that while sewing his rakusu, he often found himself between tears and tantrums and it was a relief not to always have to be grown up.

So, rakusu as mirror, rakusu as teacher. Hard to describe, to pin down, yet very down-to-earth – cloth, thread. Something to wear. These words describing the rakusu were a part of our formal ceremony last Thursday night with Norman: “The rakusu, a robe to clothe you throughout this life and times to come.”

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I lost my rakusu as I’m bound to do at this age. What would be missing? When I go to San Quentin tomorrow morning, I won’t be wearing it. Or will I? Rakusu as our very skin. So in a sense, we’re all wearing these rakusus, making our best effort to help others.

Mel reminds us that lay entrustment is not a reward but a responsibility. When a student asked the teacher, “What is the teaching of a Buddha?” the teacher replied, “An appropriate response.” How will we respond in the next moment and the next? As one inmate put it, “It’s all about slowing down and serving others.” How do we do that?

I offer this poem in gratitude for the gift of studying and sewing with Norman, Sue and Mick and for being here with all of you:
Apples ripening in late
summer’s sun.
We sat, studied, sewed
through leafless winter
greening spring
into an intimacy
as lovely as twining vines
holding up that ancient flower
whose scent we recognize
but cannot name.

Tonight the moon
is reflected in the
turning of the
ripened apples
as they simply
let go and fall
to feed the
expectant deer.

I say:
The golden needle
pierces the ancient vein.
Tending the wounded
is our work.

Martha deBarros
Genkyo Jodo
Deep Pool, Quiet Way

Susan Moon, "Who Could Have Predicted It?"

Dharma is beyond words. How can I talk about it? It’s just the “Oh, Wow!” of being alive with you this very second. And now this one.

My sadness comes when I think that you and I are separate, when I think the story the skin tells—that this is me and that’s you—is the whole story. Yes, my skin is real and it’s a kind of container; my blood is not in your veins. But your breath is in my lungs. And my language is in your brain, and it’s the same gravity that holds us all to the ground and keeps us from flying off into space. It’s the same love that makes us shine. This faith, that we are not separate, runs like an underground river in me. The universe, also known as god, is taking care of me. It’s inside of me, and I’m inside of it. As Dogen says, “The entire universe is your own true body.”

I practice with god. Not that word, especially, but the bigness of it. The big love that’s god. Zen practice opens my heart to big love. I breathe big love in and I breathe big love out.

The other night, when we took the precepts with Norman, I really meant it. I’ve taken the precepts before, lots of times, at my first jukai, and at many monthly bodhisattva ceremonies. And every time, I’ve meant it. Every time, I’ve been sincere. But every time I’ve gone on to break the precepts. I say something not entirely kind about another person. I take a pen off someone else’s desk. I give the government money that is used to make weapons to kill people.

And this last time when I took the precepts, I thought: “Yes! I really really mean it, this time. This time, more than ever before, I vow to live for the benefit of all beings! I want to! I have a burning desire to let go of self-clinging!” I watched the incense smoke curling up from the altar in Norman’s candlelit study, and I thought: I really really want to save all sentient beings. And maybe this time, with Norman’s support, and Mick and Martha’s help, I can really do it!

But how can I live for the benefit of all beings, riddled as I am with fear and desire? How could a person like me ever teach or lead? Well, all I’ve got to offer is myself as I am. And so I offer myself as an example of a person who is struggling to become her full self, who is working with her own deluded mind. To quote Tofu Roshi, “How can you awaken, if you are not asleep?” I’m an example of a woman who has a hard time settling. My restless mind drags me around the way a child drags a doll around by the hair. But I haven’t given up, and maybe that can be an encouragement to you.

It’s good to do something difficult, and to work at it for a long time. I had my lay ordination, my jukai, from Sojun Mel Weitsman nine years after I started practicing. And that was exactly twenty years ago. So that makes 29 years of trying to learn how to sit, just sit. Now I kind of like being dragged around by my hair.

Sometimes it helps to know that other people struggle, too. So I offer this struggling self to you. I offer this self who has been in fear of being alone. I’m saying that if you feel alone, you’re not alone in feeling alone. You’re not alone, period!

I have a confession: In my life I have put a good deal of energy into getting everybody to love me every second of the time, as a protection against loneliness. But let’s face it—this strategy is a losing proposition. There’s always going to be at least one person who stops loving me for a few seconds. Furthermore, it’s a self-centered strategy, and one that limits my freedom to become my full self.

Thanks to this dharma practice, I have finally come to understand that there is a sufficiency of love, coming and going in every direction at all times. I don’t have to work for it. I’m already sitting in the lap of Buddha.

In a few days I’m going away to do a month-long retreat in a cabin in the woods, with no phone, no electricity, no e-mail…. I’m not going to talk to anybody for a month. I’m not going to bring my watch. I’m going to be alone, in the ordinary sense of the word, but you’ll all be with me. And there will be other critters with me: bats, and spiders, and wood rats, and probably a bear. I’m planning to enjoy my own company, and I’m even taking a ukulele. When I return, I’ll be glad to see you in the flesh. Perhaps I’ll be a braver woman.

I’m telling you about this because what surprises me is that I want to do it. Not so long ago, I would have hated the thought. But thanks to practice, I want to study the self, and I trust that to study the self is to forget the self and to be one with the ten thousand things. Thanks to practice, I’m not afraid to try.

I feel so much love and gratitude for all of you—family, friends, sangha members, teachers. You have all collaborated with me in this practice, whether you know it or not. I know for certain that this ceremony honors all of us for our efforts and our intentions. And after the ceremony we will all be about the same as we were before, only more so.

I give thanks to god and the universe and prajna paramita, for the light that lies down on whatever it meets without picking and choosing, for the sound of the waves outside the windows, for the awesome coincidence that all of us here have taken human birth at the same time, in the same room, and that we happen to be together in this very moment. Who could have predicted it?

We have a lot of work to do, and we have each other to do it with.

Susan Moon
Reigetsu Myoko
Sacred Moon, Wondrous Light

Mick Sopko, "Dharma Entrustment"

When Norman brought up the idea of dharma entrustment with me over a year ago, I was surprised and touched, but also more than a little doubtful, and actually a little embarrassed too. I didn’t really see how it had much to do with me and whatever it was, it sounded too lofty and I felt unworthy of it.

I’m glad though I had the good sense to put aside my doubts and just put my trust in the notion that Norman had my welfare at heart and that anyway, when it got down to it, I actually hadn’t the slightest idea of what any of it might mean.

Still, I kept the experience a little bit at arms’ length by thinking about it, irreverently, in different words: dharma enhancement, dharma endowment, dharma endearment – somehow, there’s lots of relevant “en”-like words that can fit in there – dharma empowerment or improvement, or, when I’d feel most doubtful, dharma entrapment. After awhile, I forgot what it really was supposed to be. And now I think dharma entrustment is really pretty good, or maybe even dharma enjoyment.

In this last year especially I’ve been thinking that there are no coincidences and that everything comes at just the right time. My experience bears this out and perhaps yours does too. That’s something to trust in. Irritating or sad news, inspiring or glad news, confusing news, no news – all come in on their own schedule and that’s something you can count on. Count on not knowing when it’ll come and also when it does come, not knowing what it’s going to mean.

Basically, like Bodhidharma, we don’t know. I can be rational about it or emotional about it and that can be interesting and necessary, but there’s something else going on too. Like a big engine behind it, like a spirit moving through it, making connections, showing the way.

What’s the name of this thing? Some of you received an invitation to this event which Sue made up and she included a saying of Dogen’s on it that we studied: “The entire universe is your own true body.” On the one hand, this may not be so easy to demonstrate, but we also know that rationally speaking, it actually makes a lot of sense, because that way of saying it, nothing is ever left out.

Layman P’ang and his little family put all their possessions in a boat and watched it sink to the bottom of the lake. Then they went about their business in the world, chopping wood, carrying water, helping out, puncturing windbags if necessary, playing around with each other, dying at just the right time. What was in the boat? Maybe some furniture and what-not, but also I’d think whatever preconceptions and opinions they might have been carrying around through the years, their attitudes and judgments.

It’d be nice to find a boat, wouldn’t it, to hold all the stuff that’s in the way of feeling free and natural? But then what would be left to work with, to call our own? Who would we be? What would we place our trust in?

This past spring we sat together at Mar de Jade, right by the ocean. Closer to it even than the Green Gulch zendo is or this Headlands zendo. Some of the old books say you shouldn’t meditate near the ocean. Maybe because it can be distracting or hypnotizing. But the big waves crashing in and slipping out seemed to me like breathing in and out, like thoughts and feelings arising and fading away – transient, but ever-present, clear and particular and yet also expressing the entire ocean, vast and unknowable. To say waves, implies ocean, and to say ocean, implies waves. Each contains the other.

I find this reassuring, something I can place my trust in. Especially that what we call the unknown is the foundation for the known. I feel like trusting in that is a good idea. That there’s actually a path there. It actually makes sense to me. There’s so much more unknown than known. Being able to trust in that, being able to hold the knowing and not knowing at the same time. To hold humility and confidence, big and small, absolute and relative. To even be able to trust a doubtful, distrusting mind.

Like Martha said, I’ve been learning to ask for help to negotiate this territory of the not known. I’ve noticed that help is there. It’s always there. It’s like a boat I can put my possessions in, if only for a moment, if I can remember to ask. It’s like knocking on a door and entering a room where everyone looks familiar and when you say that you want to know if everything’s going to be all right they all look at you and say, “You know.”

My beautiful dharma sisters and I have spent a wonderful year together exploring this territory with Norman and I want to admit that I’m a different person because of it. I also want to say in their presence now how much I’ve been inspired by their sincerity and irreverence alike, and mostly by the fact that they’re practicing in the world what they preach.

The last thing I want to bring up is a traditional teaching story I’ve been reflecting on about the person riding a wild horse through a town. The horse represents the wildness of the untamed, unpracticed mind, spurred on by greed, hate and delusion. I imagine the rider has no saddle, no bridle or reins, and is just holding on for dear life to the horse’s mane, as it gallops this way and that through the town. At each corner, people shout out to the rider as the horse gallops by, “Where are you going?” and the rider replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

We’re encouraged by this story to take up the practice of mindful awareness, of being able to tame the mind’s passions and to develop the consciousness of how we use the 24 hours of every day and are not used by them.

I’d just like to mention that in addition to that, I think the rider gives a good answer. I think it’s a good idea, a very good idea, to, in fact, ask the horse.

Mick Sopko
Taiko Joshin
Big Drum Quiet Heart