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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
summer 2007| 96 |buddhadharma What Would a Zen Priest do? By hilda ryumon Gutiérrez Baldoquín mikeholmes Five years ago when I received priest ordination from Zenkei Blanche Hartman Roshi, I was filled with great joy. As an immigrant and working- class woman of color, I was aware of the risks and seductions of both taking on another identity and entering a privileged class. Yet donning Tang dynasty robes, I felt, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “I am home, I have arrived,” and it has been with that same sense of joy that I’ve undertaken priest practice. There have existed for me, however, the ever-present, nagging ques- tions: How can I respond as a Zen priest while living within complex power rela- tionships and a society mired in oppres- sion? How can I experience Western priest practice as if I were the fabled core of a hurricane, calm and clear? How can I be completely steady when I’m engulfed by dangerous, centrifugal forces outside? Starting two years ago, I had several experiences that began to shed some light on these questions. The first one occurred on a hot mid-June day when I was on a New York City bus westbound on Twenty-Third Street. The thought arose, steady, soft, and cool, “I’m waiting for my aunt to die.” And with the same softness and coolness, the thought dissolved, as gently as a bubble. Then another thought, not as soft, pulsed with a silent roar, as if a subway had crossed the empty land- scape of my mind: “I’m failing miserably as a Zen priest.” In English, the Japanese word for “nov- ice monk” literally means “clouds and water,” but as I waited for my tía’s death, the metaphor that most aptly described my experience was not one of lofty clouds and refreshing water, but that of a withered tree in arid land. There was no ease, no flexibility, no softness, no compassion. I covered my inadequacy with dharmic arro- gance, my rage with false understanding, my helplessness with silent withdrawal. Another experience occurred on a lazy, golden morning as I was traveling through a Northern California college town with tree-lined streets surrounded by Arts and Crafts homes. All of a sudden I heard a siren and looked up at the rear- view mirror. Behind me were blinking red and blue lights. I was being pulled over by a police officer on a motorcycle. Once I was parked, the officer – male, white, and tall – approached my car window and, placing his hand on his gun, leaned in and asked for my license. I felt terror arising from the depth of my hara, and my hands were suddenly white knuckled and sweaty, wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. Intuitively aware that he’d approached me because he thought I was a man of color due to my shaved head, I heard the voices of my male friends of color saying, “If ever pulled over by a cop, don’t make any sudden moves.” So I asked the officer’s permission to reach over to the passenger seat where my monk’s bag lay and I called him “Sir,” experiencing historical humiliation and rage. I, like my men friends, summoned forced stillness as a way to save my life. But in this space of powerlessness, where was the Zen priest? Another experience occurred as I leaned against the kitchen sink at a Mid- western zendo, enjoying the mindfulness of washing dishes on an unusually chilly summer day. A senior student – older, white, and female – whom I recognized from my visit the previous week, saw me and commented, “Now we own you.” As if striking a match, an entire legacy of domination arose fleetingly amidst the hot water and soapsuds, searing my consciousness. “Not exactly” was my sharp, silent response, faster than I could breathe. Yet I held back, only to reply, “Perhaps you just share me.” I also searched for the Zen priest’s response on a hot spring day as I bore wit- ness to the devastation in New Orleans. I was in an ocean of suffering, walking in neighborhoods where the previous sum- mer the streets had been wild rivers with bodies floating in them. Seeing up close the depth of national neglect of a pre- dominantly African-American city in the most powerful country on the planet, my heart ached. I don’t know where the Zen priest is, I thought, the Zen priest that is “me.” Nor does this Zen priest know the appropriate response to devastation and oppression. In difficult moments, this Zen priest only knows sorrow, fear, rage. The Ven. Pema Chödrön challenges us to rest in the space when the unexpected stops your mind. Studying her teachings very closely, I am discovering that priest practice is not about meeting expectations. It is about a lifelong effort to embrace the unexpected, to allow that which pulls me out of my comfort zones to become the object for cultivating patience and nonag- gression. It is about being fully present in every moment, to long for the moment where the mind stops. Perhaps in these spaces, the “I” disappears, allowing still- ness and presence to manifest. No priest here. Only practice. Hilda Ryumon GutiéRRez Baldoquín is a soto zen pRiest in tHe tRadition oF sHunRyu suzuki RosHi and tHe editoR oF Dharma, Color, anD Culture: new VoiCes in western BuD- Dhism (paRallax pRess). journeys