Remarks given by Nomon Tim Burnett during the priest ordination (shukke tokudo) ceremony for Shūkō Edie Norton’s ordination on August 11th, 2013.
What a beautiful morning. These pivotal moments are so powerful. And it might be the way we can really express our gratitude and appreciation for this moment, for you Edie, for each other is to remember that every moment is a pivotal moment just like this. And that remembering is so beautifully supported by someone stepping forward in the wonderful way you are stepping forward today.
Your courage in taking this step, in becoming a Zen priest in our lineage, is so generous. It reminds all of us that we can follow our dreams. That we can enter our deepest life potential with grace and humor (and a little stumbling around when needed). So thank you for that. Thank you very very much.
You’ve thought about this moment for years. For decades.
I like to tell the story of one of our first real meetings in the Dharma. At my shuso’s dharma inquiry ceremony – the formal question and answer ceremony that you yourself performed here a few years ago. At that ceremony your question to me was “How can I be a monk in the world?”, an answer came pretty easily, I said something like “What makes you think you’re not already a monk in the world?”. And here you are bringing that aspiration forward. To be a monk in the world.
Since you met Kobun Chino roshi at a community college class nearly 40 years ago now, you’ve felt a deep affinity for this Zen way of expressing the mystery of our living. Zen practice has helped you though many difficult transitions – the death of your husband and the death of the marriage that preceded that, raising your wonderful sons Dan and Alec who are here today with their families, career changes, and moves, changes in your relationships with family and friends, with all of the changes of passing years, through all of that one way or another you were connected to the practice. Returning to formal practice in the 1990’s you connected with your second teacher, Tenshin Reb Anderson of San Francisco Zen Center, and then after moving to Bellingham to retire a decade later you connected with our sangha and with my teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and then after I received Dharma Transmission a few years ago you asked me about ordination. And now in this formal way I get share the company of these other wonderful teachers as part of your journey.
And you haven’t just been on the periphery absorbing support and teachings or anything like that. You’ve been actively involved in the unfolding of Zen in the West. Sitting on the Board of Directors and in many important roles in sanghas in the Bay Area and how here at Red Cedar Zen Community – especially for the last few years – you’ve made amazing contributions. Bringing your ability to work hard, to be organized; bringing your organizational acumen and your emotional intelligence, you’ve helped so much. Zen in North America is a tiny movement really. A few hundreds or thousands of people, and before me sits one of the great devoted enlightenment workers of that movement. For this I and the sangha are very grateful. How lucky for us you landed in Bellingham.
So what is it to be a priest? To be taking this formal step at this point of your life. One of the ways we think about is you are now a public example of what an ordained person is like. You haven’t been particularly secretive about being a Buddhist and a serious practitioner of Zen I don’t think, but now you are really and truly going public. Plus people are going to be wondering if you are either dying from cancer or have joined a cult! So you’ll be challenged to express your love of practice in a new way. As a fully committed religious person having conducted this sacred ritual of empowerment and dedication of the rest of your life to Buddha activity in the world. Buddha activity expressed so beautifully in our Zen precepts which you have now received again and renewed your commitment to.
Our tradition is unusual in that our ordained people are not true monastics in the sense of living lives of poverty and celibacy under rule, and unlike other Buddhist orders we don’t wear our robes all the time and we have a lot of flexibility about how we express our commitment. And yet it’s that commitment which is as deep as any. As the ceremony says “from now enlightenment is your teacher, Buddha is your teacher, all beings are you teacher.” We really mean this, we know we’ll forget and that our confused self-centered attitudes will arise, but we are committed to remembering this. Norman suggests to us that the Zen priest has three main practices: be humble, see every person as Buddha, and try to help.
We also know that we’re a little addicted to specialness. We want things and people to be special. The whole economic engine for one thing is oriented around this. And people may now see you as special by virtue of your new role. And of course we meet that with ordinariness, with humility as Norman is saying. With kindness, and with this sincere effort to do our best to help. Because we know that we are not special at all, and we know that everyone and everything and every moment is incredibly special, unbelievably beautiful and perfect even when there’s suffering and trouble. Our job as priests is to be able to hold this space – to be in deep connection to the ordinary-specialness of this universe and to hold our understanding in the most skillful way we can to response to the world.
We also know that becoming a priest isn’t gaining anything. It’s the opposite, it’s letting go of something. Letting go of our own agenda. Letting go of getting what we want. Letting go to some large extent of being comfortable. Setting aside many of our wants and desires when they get in the way of our larger purpose as workers for enlightenment.
The priest’s commitment is subtle and spiritual, and also practical. Our lives as ordained members of the sangha are centered here at the zendo and in relationship to the sangha. And we learn more and more how to enter fully into the formal roles and rituals of ordained practice as best we can. We delight in this way we’ve inherited. Loving these forms as we adapt and change various things to fit our time and place.
Of course our practice includes the rest of our lives outside the zendo and we need to find a sustainable way to practice. So I know you’ll be here a lot. And I know you won’t be here all the time. And I know that in your thinking about how to balance your life you will continue to weigh carefully how to support the sangha in the wisest way with your presence, energy, and love.
One way we can think about it is that our personal preferences simply get less airtime. Our decision to come to the zendo or sit down in zazen at home or help others is not about what we want to do anymore. You have been practicing in this way for many years already of course. But from this day forward practicing as a priest there’s even more depth to this way of choosing how best to use your time and energy. And it will be a wonderful, and I’m sure at time challenging thing, to be in conversation with you as those balances continue to change in the years ahead. The one thing in all of this we know we can count on is change.
A few words about your new name.
You would have been happy enough to keep the name you received from your 2nd jukai teacher, Tenshin Reb Anderson roshi who gave you the name Zaren Shinge – Sitting Lotus, Deep Understanding – 13 years ago in year 2000. And I think we might have done that but I was thinking about the fact that you had another name before that, received from your first teacher, Kobun Chino Otagawa roshi, 36 years ago in 1977 – Shunko Myoko – Spring Light, Wonderful Happiness. And I was thinking about the many changes you’ve gone through in life and now at this point to be making yet one more big change.
So I realized we should mark the power of your vow and the depth of this change by also changing your name on more time. Probably for the last time. So I picked a new name that includes one character from each of your previous Dharma names and also, I hope acknowledges both your maturity in practice and some of the possibilities ahead of us as you continue to grow and deepen.
Your new name is Shūkō Zakū- Autumn Light, Sitting in Emptiness. Kobun gave you Shunkō Spring Light, all those years ago and it certainly seems like enough seasons have passed to change this first pair of characters to Shuko. Just one letter different in English, Spring Light passing naturally into Autumn Light and autumn light is actually my very favorite quality of light all year. And what I appreciate about Autumn light somehow matches up with my appreciation for who you are.
Tenshin gave you Zaren, Sitting Lotus, and for your 2nd pair of characters I thought we’d keep his za – to sit – such a central part of our way. Learning how to just be in the middle of anything. And to za we add a little encouragement to continue your studies of the empty and boundless nature of all things with ku, the character used for emptiness, shunyata. Which is also used for sky. So Zaku, sitting in emptiness. Or sitting in the sky if you like. To me this is a very important point, one I forget and remember again frequently. We have nothing solid to rest on. And our ability to feel into the utterly formless, fluid, changing nature of ourselves and others, and our world, to be able to feel that and be with it without being destabilized by it is probably the greatest gift that our way of practice has to offer the world. That is the root of true fearlessness. So to be able to sit in emptiness for the weal of the world as some of the first translators put it is so important.