At the traditional Zen Center leaving ceremony, the monk is described as returning to the marketplace with gift-bestowing hands. After fifteen years of residential zen training, Shundo David Haye finds himself outside the temple gate and wondering how exactly he can offer those gifts
A famous zen phrase, used for more than a thousand years but still completely fresh, talks about taking a step from the top of a hundred-foot pole. How does it feel? What is my life like now?
A month into my transition, I still have to remind myself that this is my life, not a vacation or a short break. The changes in my life could not be more apparent: instead of a life in community, with housing, food and work provided, I now live in a typical San Francisco apartment with two other house-mates—one of them a long-time friend through Zen Center. Having spent eight years on senior staff at Zen Center, with responsibilities, a regular round of meetings, full inboxes, and people to manage, now I just have to take care of myself.
I reacquaint myself with the cost of various food items, which is not the same as dealing with sheets of wholesale vegetables prices when I was tenzo. I rediscover how often food shopping is necessary.
Thanks to Zen Center’s generous transition payment for long-term students, and savings from my generally frugal lifestyle, I don’t have to worry about making rent for the next few months, but I still noticed that I was waking up every morning over the Christmas period wondering where my income was going to be coming from. Choosing to stay in San Francisco means I am making life expensive for myself.
My students—some of them incredibly busy launching start-ups or helping tech businesses grow—tell me to market myself, to network, to pitch. I try to learn, with the confidence of having given dharma talks and teachings at Zen Center workshops, what I want to say, succinctly and purposefully. I follow up on connections, arrange meetings, and trust that some of this will take hold.
Having previously enjoyed writing the Ino’s Blog, I start another blog, and, when my students urge me to be more active and visible, navigate acquiring a domain name for myself.
I hear the old voice in my head that tells me I am not really qualified to do anything—and I don’t allow it to take hold.
I reach out to a friend in New York who has successfully transitioned into the marketplace, and she sends back wonderful advice—including, “Keep reaching out to friends in the same position.” I forward it to another friend about to embark on her transition.
I meet for coffee, lunch, or over Skype with friends, peers and teachers, cultivating connections now that I am not constantly surrounded by sixty mostly like-minded people.
Instead of getting up six mornings a week and going to the zendo, now I find myself free to choose when and how to begin my day, when to take meals, when to sit. Long a keen cyclist and runner, I find these activities more available to me, and I allow these to be my meditations as well.
What is my life like now? This is a question for any zen student, wherever they find themselves. Stepping off the hundred-foot pole means falling freely through the sky. But we are all doing that anyway, even when we are clinging to the pole. Can we relax and take in the beauty of it?
Photos courtesy of Shundo David Haye.