I went upstate to attend the Jukai ceremony on August 10 because I wanted to see what commitment looks like. Committing to anything takes eons for me: I linger long at margins, assessing, taking in. After sitting at the Zendo intermittently for two years, I was curious about the next steps I knew some people made: formally becoming a student, working with a teacher, vowing to live according to the Zen precepts. I hoped that in observing Jukai, the precept-taking ceremony—in witnessing this open, unfixed moment of transition—I might find some greater understanding about commitment.
Much about the ceremony at Grail House was quite moving: Our slow, deliberate Heart Sutra, each syllable a dwelling place, each giving way to the next. The new–sewn rakusu going over each person's head, hiding the face for a moment. The freshly Jukai'd students teetering on stumps as sangha and guests circled them, bowing, signing, chanting: "Buddha recognizes buddha, and buddha bows to buddha." The gentle humor of the entire exchange (Roshi: "These are the three treasures. Will you maintain them?" A scattered, unsure smattering of Yeses. Roshi, chuckling: "Traditionally, the response would be 'I will.' Let's try that again. Will you maintain them?" "I WILL!" "Will you really maintain them?" Some joker, thinking exactly what I was thinking: "I really will!").
And yet. While the day furnished a wonderful gathering of sangha members, many of whom I spoke to for the first time (something about the Zendo renders me uncharacteristically taciturn), and a marvelous feeling of a community coming together to support and celebrate the Jukai group—not to mention a royal feast of brilliant free–form pizzas!—I didn't feel I was witnessing that moment of transformation I'd expected. Was I sitting too far away in that jam–packed room? Was I so closed off to commitment that I couldn't see it taking place right in front of me?
The next morning, these questions faded as I dealt with a more pressing issue: Twenty–four hours after the ceremony, one of my best friends was hit by a car in Brooklyn. For ten days she lay in a coma, hooked up to a half dozen machines. The evening gatha kept running through my head: Life and death are of supreme importance. As the terrible hospital days wore on, I had more opportunity to ponder commitment. No one knew exactly when my beloved friend would awaken, what she would be like then, what abilities she would eventually regain through rehab. In this light, committing to any future felt especially fatuous. Instead I began working on committing to each present moment in its turn, and as I worked on that—especially in the charged and crowded Neuro ICU at Bellevue, where every panicked family member and friend had her own ideas about what ought to be done and who was doing it wrong—I found myself turning to the precepts that the Jukai group vowed to maintain. Not being angry. Not talking about others' errors and faults. Not elevating oneself and blaming others. Not knowing, not knowing, not knowing, not knowing.
Since I haven't studied the precepts in depth, my understanding of them is limited. But just knowing they are there, guessing perhaps at their basics, referring to them as I struggle to behave well in these painful and confusing circumstances, has given me a walking stick to lean on. My memory of the Jukai group on their cushions encourages me to keep practicing, to keep returning to the essence of being and the present truth of these new and taxing interactions. And the more I sit, the more the ceremony begins, retrospectively, to make sense to me: how understated it was, how different from the dramatic superhero transformation I'd traveled upstate to rubberneck. Surely all the precept takers were transformed. Yet I suspect that didn't occur all at once at Grail House on a Sunday morning—summer lightning flashes and thunderstorm notwithstanding—but over time, on their cushions, in their lives, maybe even in an ICU or two.
I went to Jukai to see what commitment looks like, but (oh, Dorothy!) I began to find it back in this city of mine. Long–term commitments feel as alien as ever. But a continually renewed commitment to each moment, and the inevitable accumulation of these moments, suggest a future I can stick around for.