Just before Fall Ango began, novice Zuisei sat down for a chat to learn about Chief Disciple Shokai’s perspective on the Fall Ango topic The Bodhisattva's Perfections: 10 Practices to Transform Your Life and to find out what upcoming autumn practice opportunities Shokai is most excited about. Read the interview below.
Zuisei: As I understand, Rinsen Roshi and Do’on Osho asked you to suggest a topic for this Ango.
Shokai: When Rinsen Roshi and Do’on Osho first asked me to serve as Chief Disciple [at the end of the Spring Ango Closing Ceremony], in the announcement Rinsen mentioned that we’d figure out the details of how it works as we go. I didn’t really believe he was serious when he asked me to suggest a topic for the Ango as part of my preparation. Was this some sort of test? But I double-checked with Do’on Osho and Rinsen Roshi again and they confirmed that I really was meant to find the topic under their guidance.
Zuisei: And you settled on suggesting the ten paramitas, or ten perfections, and Roshi and Osho chose to take it up as the Ango topic. What led you to the paramitas?
Shokai: About a month before Rinsen and Do’on asked me to prepare for Shuso, I read the poem “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” by Joy Harjo, a Native American writer. This line has stayed with me:
“The door to mind should only open from the heart.”
Shokai: I practiced in the Vipassana tradition for some years before coming to the Buddhist Temple of Toledo. When I started practicing, I was very wisdom heavy. When I started practicing here, I was still leaning into wisdom, but now the Teachings were about integrating wisdom and compassion -- no one path by itself is complete. Roshi always says “getting up to the top of the mountain isn’t that difficult, but coming down and integrating it all is where the work is.” As a Sangha, we did a deep dive into wisdom with the Diamond Sutra last Fall, so now is the perfect time to go deep into the relative path with the paramitas.
The paramitas are the Bodhisattva Code for living in the world and expressing who you really are in the world -- manifesting your Buddha nature -- past all the self reification and self righteousness. And we need this, especially right now when there are a lot of people engaged in divisiveness and grandstanding and preaching to the choir and drawing warlines, but not speaking from the heart.
In our Ango text, Lama Surya Das describes the paramitas as “the Buddha’s own guide to enlightened living”. During Jukai, our initiates and the Sangha deeply engaged the second paramita, moral discipline, to open our hearts. Now we are going to dive into the whole set of ten perfections.
Zuisei: There are many books out there about the paramitas, and you read several before recommending Lama Surya Das’s Buddha is As Buddha Does to our Teachers for the official Ango reading. How did you encounter this book and what made you suggest it for our Sangha?
Shokai: I listen to Lama Surya Das’s podcast quite a bit. He is called “the American lama” and is from a Jewish background. He spent decades training in Tibet and his style is no-nonsense and earthy. After our Teachers approved the topic, I ordered his book about the paramitas.
The day I started reading it, Rinsen Roshi suggested I take a look at a book about the paramitas. The book he suggested I take a look at was Buddha is As Buddha Does!
I read a couple of other great books about the paramitas that take two different approaches; Norman Fischer’s from the perspective of imagination and Diane Rizzetto’s from the perspective of hope. The Rizzeto book would be really good for beginners as it gives a very good basic framework. Eventually, I settled on Lama Surya Das’s book because it is very practical and intimate, rather than theoretical or impersonal. Personal responsibility is a big part of it.
Zuisei: Usually we are called to intensify our practice during Ango. This Ango, you and our Teachers have asked to instead focus on “peaceful dwelling.” Will you speak a little about why this and change and how?
Shokai: We had a very intense summer this year with so much of our effort as a Sangha directed toward settling our Teachers into the new Abbacy, campaigning for the new Temple building, and assisting Myōun Roshi with the Inka Shomei ceremony and celebration for Rinsen Roshi. With so many significant things going on, it seemed like we were going full speed in manifesting practice in a very busy world. So now the healthful thing to do is to shift into a more gentle “peaceful dwelling.”
I’m trying to be mindful of slowing down this Ango. One practice I have is on my drive up to work in Ypsi, turning off the podcast and looking at the scenery in the sunrise -- really taking it in.
Zuisei: You have mentioned your commute to work, and at other times you have talked about family practice. As always, BTT is offering a lot of events and programs this Ango. Very few Sangha members can do them all. What are you most excited about for the first part of Ango?
Shokai: Rinsen always says “if you have one dart, throw it at sesshin.” And yet, the Fall semester at the university where I work is extremely busy and I can only take so much time off. So my sesshin practice this Ango will be Saturdays and Sunday mornings.
Beyond sesshin, it’s a lot of fun to see how everything integrates. And during our workshops and Teaching Retreats, we usually have time for small group sharing. Somebody always says something that is a way of looking at the topic that I never considered before.
I’ll be at both of the half day workshops on the paramitas (Sat. 9/21 and Sat. 11/9). I’m really excited to get our Teacher’s take on a deep dive into the paramitas. We almost called the workshop “The Bodhisattva’s Code” because the paramitas really are the code of behavior for the bodhisattva as the relative path to awakening. Most of us are a little bit familiar with the paramitas from the Daily Liturgy, but this is about how we live our lives. I think it’s worth spending a few hours to learn how to live our lives skillfully -- how can you manifest joyful effort with everything that’s going on? If you want to find out, come to the workshops!
Due to work, I am not able to attend the full Teaching Retreat this Ango (What to Expect When You Are Human Tues. Oct. 8 - Fri. Oct 11 and the White Tara Workshop Sat. Oct. 12). The Teaching Retreat will cover Rinsen and Do’on’s Zen adaptation of the traditional “Stages of the Path” (Lam Rim) Teaching. When [the current Novices] were postulants, Rinsen and Do’on lead us through a traditional version of the teaching. I am so grateful to have received this wisdom and to have worked through it with our Teachers. It gave me a framework for understanding the practices and texts we encounter -- and the paramitas are a big part of the Stages of the Path, so this is really good timing.
Zuisei: Thank you so much for taking some time to chat today. Is there anything you’d like to share to close?
Shokai: I am grateful for the opportunity to practice with this amazing Sangha. I am looking forward to seeing you at service and sesshin and these special workshops. I’m hoping that I make it through Shuso Hossen ceremony at Ango Closing (Sun. Nov. 17) and that we can meet in Dharma Combat.
Zuisei: Thank you again Shokai! A dedication please?
Shokai: By our efforts this Ango may we fully manifest our true loving and compassionate nature and alleviate our own suffering along with that of all beings. May this be so for our Sangha, for Toledo, for our country, for our planet, and for all beings throughout space and time.