Reading Vimalakirti, the wise layman, at a time when our own practice was being led by another wise layman—a scientist—we were reminded of so many other Shusos whose professional lives, or vocations, gave extra dimensions of meaning to their practice and leadership. Our Shusos have included a potter, a film-maker, a writer, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a media consultant, among others. Here, a nurse, a musician, a corporate research manager, and a pastor/psychotherapist share their experiences of being Shuso.
Chuck Ryoshin Kalmanek: The Shuso and the Sangha are One Body
1. How did being Shuso affect your life, your professional/creative work, your Buddhist practice? And vice versa – how did your professional practice inform your practice as Shuso?
There is no question in my mind that being Shuso was a subtle turning point in my life. It's hard for me to say how, though working with my koan was part of it. I was also moved by the confidence in me shown by my teacher. The koan was Yanguan's Rhinoceros Fan from the Book of Serenity. I would say that one of the biggest teachings of Zen is that we can approach our life with the same spirit of sincere questioning, and the same recognition that we don't know all the answers, with which we approach koan practice. It's very freeing to realize that you don't have to know all the answers because in so much of our lives we go around pretending that we do.
2. What was the experience of the Shuso Hossen ceremony like for you?
I recall experiencing the day of the Shuso Hossen ceremony in a wonderful state of samadhi. My experience leading up to Shusho Hossen was anything but samadhi. But during Shuso Hossen, I was the koan that I had been given by Roshi. I felt both very strong and very vulnerable. Dharma combat was like an intimate dance with the people who asked questions, with no separation between me and the questioner.
3. Did your experience during the time you served as shuso give you a heightened awareness of sangha? In so, in what ways? How about now?
Absolutely. I had this expectation that the role of the Shuso was really to manage every last little detail of the winter and spring sesshins. My life didn't allow me to do that, and Roshi didn't expect me to do it, but I struggled with my inability to live up to my own expectations. Where Sangha came in is that at every turn, things were taken care of. The Sangha was like the thousand hands of Avalokiteshvara, lending assistance so that everything was cared for. Though I knew it intellectually before being Shuso, the experience of being Shuso taught me that the role of Shuso is not about the Shuso. It's about service. The Shuso, the Sangha are One Body.
4. Does giving talks affect your life? If so, how?
I love giving talks. Even though the Zen school emphasizes that the teachings are beyond words and scriptures, the experience of trying to put my understanding into words for others almost always seems to deepen my own practice. On the one hand, it forces me to do some reading – the study side of practice – and then it forces me to try to bring my own experience into what I've studied. And, it gets me to the Zendo.
5. What is your advice for future Shusos?
Just apply yourself sincerely, and don't worry too much. And talk to the teachers.
6. What was the most surprising thing about being Shuso?
How hard it was dealing with my feelings of unworthiness, and how utterly ephemeral those feelings were. But then, that's Zen!
Douglas Fugan Dineen : Homecoming
I felt as though the Shuso Hossen ceremony was a ceremony for/of/by our community
Coming between two extended stays in India—times full of adventure, excitement, and chaos—my experience serving as Shuso was infused with a sense of homecoming. It was a coming home to community, to summer ango, to our together-practice. Through the challenges and joys of serving as Shuso, my overarching experience was one of being held by sangha.
This sense of being supported—by community, by our teachers, by our practice—was only heightened during the Shuso Hossen ceremony. I felt as though it was ceremony for/of/by our community. The sangha—us, with all of our individual faces, all of our voices, and all of our efforts—was fully on display.
That day, my effort included giving a talk. While talking about our practice leaves us covered in mud, I was happy to get dirty, giving my first formal talk, in such good company. My subsequent (mis)adventures in trying to talk about Zen have convinced me of its utter futility and absolute necessity. I am grateful and humbled by each opportunity, and more so by the wonder of being part of the Village Zendo. The chance to serve VZ as Shuso was truly a watershed experience in my life; and yet, it was nothing special—nothing other than what's in front of each of us, all the time.
Allan Jo An Tibbets: The Host within the Host
Is there any difference between the ideas of guest and host?
For quite some time I've been sitting with the idea of guest and host. It's something that shows up often in Zen teachings, in koans in the Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity. It's is no easy concept to wrap your head around. I'm afraid that my understanding of it is fairly basic and simple.
Being Shuso might be likened to being a party planner. Pay attention to the details, make sure everyone at the gathering is comfortable and has enough to eat, and so on.. There is an intrinsic responsibility when serving as Shuso: one must be prepared to serve as host. The Shuso must plan the details of the retreat, make decisions as to when things should happen and how they should happen, trouble shoot the inevitable problems that arise. This classic idea of hosting is absolutely one aspect of serving as practice leader. And yet…those famous two Zen words…and yet. Is there any difference between the ideas of guest and host?
The last few lines of the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness show us another idea of host, the host within the host.
Practice intimately, working within,
As though a fool, like an idiot:
If you can achieve continuity;
This is called the host within the host.
I think what this is speaking to is the dissolving of the idea of guest and host. Practicing like a fool or idiot; cultivating a mind of not knowing, becoming the host within the host.
I can't help but think of Martha Stewart, the queen of event planning, the quintessential host. Imagine her throwing a potluck. I'm quite sure she would go into anaphylactic shock. Serving as Shuso is much like this. We welcome whatever is offered. It doesn't stop the ideas and desires: "I hope that someone brings my favorite cookies." Or "I really don't like jello molds." But we welcome it all without bias.
Working as a RN is much like this. There is the patient in the bed and there is the nurse taking care of the patient. Clearly there are two roles being played, but if we practice intimately, working within…perhaps we can see the host within the host. No patient, no nurse, just what has been brought to the potluck. It may not be what we are craving, but it is nourishing none the less.
Robert Kaizen Gunn:
My Experience as Shuso
I have never experienced such a long, intensive, real and consistent loving in my life.
At the end of last summer's Ango when I was Shuso, I wrote in my journal: "I am still swimming in the glow and energy of my Shuso Hossen. I feel a very deep gratitude and joy at all the incredible support, love and affirmation I received from everyone—really everyone. I have never experienced such a long, intensive, real and consistent loving in my life, with the exception perhaps of my mother—but that is way more complicated! I also have to acknowledge out of this something that I never felt or realized in quite the same way before: that I have a very real gift, a charism. Infinite bows in the ten directions!"
So I think that the single most important effect of my experience as Shuso was the confirmation of my gifts as a leader; I had experienced it before in church settings, but to experience it again in the sangha was somehow even more confirming. Also I felt I could not really mess things up irreparably because people were accepting and adapting to whatever happened and were genuinely supportive of and responsive to me. The whole time felt like a spontaneous movement of all of us in a harmonious, healing and empowering way: no longer you and I, but we.
I felt deeply connected to everyone, and at the same time, felt we moved in a motion of sheer synchronicity that included all the bumps, abrupt shifts and resistances. But that was the point: that space was allowed for those to happen and for us to feel whatever we felt.
For me, the most surprising thing about being shuso was that I rediscovered a depth of fear I thought I had overcome. Although I have been giving sermons just about every week for forty years, I had the same agitated, restless, conflicted, fear-filled anxiety as I prepared my first dharma talk that I used to have for sermons. Why? Because the structure is different, less predictable, and the audience is different. Our sangha consists largely of people who have already done a lot of personal work on themselves in psychotherapy as well as having studied and practiced Zen far more seriously and intensely than most Christians have done in their tradition. Zen demands more effort and inner work than most Christians have consciously taken on. Therefore, I felt much more concerned to truly dig into the heart of the matter (of life and death), to speak much more directly from my heart, blood and bones to people whose life experiences and spiritual seriousness are every bit as concerned, committed and tested as mine have been. This is not different from what I try to do when preaching a sermon, but I felt an even greater need to be utterly real and transparent.
Finally, the Shuso Hossen ceremony was, quite simply, the cherry on the topping of the cake! Even the "dharma combat" was an amazing experience of unthought flowing interaction. It is a life-confirming and life-transforming experience.