Michelle Spuler and Mary Jise Jaksch


As part of her research on ritual in the Diamond Sangha, Michelle Spuler interviewed Mary Jise Jaksch Sensei.


MS: What is the role of ritual in your Zen practice?

MJ: The role of ritual is to express in action what cannot be expressed in words, to build a frame that is strong enough to provide safety for those practising in retreats.
I wear a black robe and encourage others also to wear a robe. In the Maitai Zendo we link this to doing Shoken. At this point I encourage students to show their commitment through their wearing of a robe, if they so wish. I love wearing my robe and Rakusu! As I put on my robe, I already begin to settle and I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I wear the same kind of robe that my teacher, and his teacher, and his teacher wore and so on, far, far down the lineage. I become one with my ancestors when I slip on my robe. Wearing my robe I am reminded of my responsibility to offer the teaching and uphold the lineage. When I put on my Rakusu, I silently chant the Verse of the Kesa and with that, the Buddha puts on her robe.
I love the way Zen ritual is so ancient. It is imbued with the passionate practice of so many people in past, present and future! For me it is like going into an old church in Europe: You can sense that the many prayers over a thousand years have left a silent imprint on the very walls.

MS: How does the ritual provide a frame? What sort of frame does it provide?

MJ: I am using frame here in the sense that it is used in psychotherapy. It means a clear framework, such as having each sit the same length, turning in the same direction each time to start kinhin, having the same signals begin and end each sit, bowing to the teacher at the begin of Dokusan and so on. For the participant this kind of strong framework means that circumstances are reliable. This creates safety. Often people in sesshin relive difficult circumstances in their lives and touch traumas that lie way back in childhood. Children feel safe in a regular environment. Mum comes to wake you every morning. In the evening your parents kiss you ?good night? and so on. Most damage to the psyche is done when circumstances become erratic. When mum doesn't wake you in the morning because she has died or when Dad's Good-night kiss sometimes means you are about to be sexually abused. My point is, when circumstances are regular and can be trusted, we are more likely to open up to the dark sides that need healing.
Another aspect of frame has to do with realisation experiences. Often, when people have realisation experiences, they are struck with a sense of great stupidity, experiencing the world for the first time. This is the realm of, "Oh, the wall meets the floor EXACTLY!" It is deeply reassuring at such a time to be in a place of regular ritual so that you don't have to go into your rational mind to make decisions and can happily re-experience the world in a safe environment.

MS: How do the particular actions we do in Zen express what needs to be expressed, i.e. why does it have to be those actions?

MJ: Theoretically we could invent a whole new set of rituals. This is what New Age spirituality has done to excess. (A new age son of friends was asked to leave his job in a supermarket because he bowed to each can as he stacked it...) The power of ritual is accumulated in its use over centuries. In the West we have lost the feeling for that. Indigenous peoples still know this to be true. Maoris in New Zealand keep in touch with their ancestors through following ancient rituals that have been passed down through the generations. In Zen it is similar. When we chant the Four Great Vows, holding our hands in gassho, we join with our ancestors; indeed, we are at that moment our ancestors. Our rituals in Zen are ancient. When we use them it is like calling into a cave - from far in the darkness an echo answers us.

MS: Do you think rituals have a different function for other practitioners, the teacher, or the Sangha as a whole?

MJ: For my cousins in the Dharma, the local Mountains and Rivers group, the strong ritual holds the group together in the absence of the teacher. In fact, the ritual represents the absent teacher in this particular case. I notice that in lineages with emphasis on strong form, good form can be a source of power. Those in the know, that is, the good students, know exactly how to do each little formal requirement. This can create a kind of elite within the group. And yet there is no correlation between insight and precise form!

MS: Do different rituals have different effects/functions?

MJ: Full prostration's, for example, have a different effect from standing bows. Students are more likely to be swept up in the movement and loose their self-conscious awareness. Chanting has the effect of binding the group together because the group breathes together. When we chant together we are actualising harmony. Kinhin, i.e. walking meditation is a practice that happens in the gap between sitting on a cushion and living everyday life. We learn through kinhin to carry our meditation practice into life. Each ritual has its unique function.

MS: Do you think repeated rituals (e.g. orioki, kinhin, dokusan, chanting, gasshos) have a different function to rituals that are only performed occasionally (e.g. transmission ceremony, shoken, jukai)?

MJ: I think there is a difference between ritual and ceremony. Ceremony involves ritual but it has a clear function; it is a rite of passage. Ritual helps to define the liminality of ceremonies.

MS: How does ritual help define liminality in ceremonies?

MJ: Transmission Ceremony, Jukai and Shoken are rites of passage. A rite of passage implies moving from one state to another. There is, accordingly, an in-between, a liminal state - a moment on the threshold. In indigenous cultures, this liminal state is expressed in various ways, such as secluding those who are to be initiated. In our Zen rituals, we use ritual to define the liminal state. Such as Shoken participants being called to the Dokusan line at a special time and doing a set of nine bows etc. Or in Jukai, having the participants kneeling at a table in front of the altar and so on.

MS: How has your understanding of ritual changed over time?

MJ: I started my Zen training in a lineage which has very strong emphasis on ritual and I am a senior Blackbelt in Seido Karate, where ritual is a strong component of the training. Over time though, my stance on ritual has softened. I view ritual as secondary to human needs. For example, if someone is sick during sesshin, I send them to bed. Or, if they have an injury and can only lie down, I'm happy for them to attend sesshin lying down. On the other hand, I don't like people walking in and out of a sit during sesshin if they aren't going to dokusan. Movement is disturbing for others and it isn't helpful for people to evade the fire of practice at whim.

MS: If you have roles in the dojo such as Ino, Jiki Jitsu, Tenzo, Tanto or Jisha, how has performing these roles affected your understanding of ritual?

MJ: I have performed all these roles in the Zendo. Nowadays I am usually the Tanto. This is like being a conductor: You have to know all other parts of the score! As a Tanto you get to set the tone of the Zendo. I like quite a crisp tone (that is, good adherence to ritual) without enforcing ritual with commands or shaming. I like the dojo to be alert and attentive without being overdriven.

MS: Has your understanding of ritual come from your own experience, or from others (e.g. from reading, from discussions with a teacher)?

MJ: My understanding of ritual has come mostly through my own experience. In terms of Diamond Sangha I stress ritual more than most people and consequently the Maitai Zendo is reasonably disciplined but not rigid.

MS: Why do you stress it more than most people?

MJ: I have more experience in ritual than most people. When I was in my teens and twenties, I found a Catholic church that still celebrated the Latin mass and attended each Sunday for seven years - without being or ever wanting to become a Catholic! In my karate training I have been thoroughly imbued with ritual. I have learned how precious ritual can be and how helpful to practice. In the West we have lost a natural feeling for ritual. This is a great loss!

MS: Do you think it is important to understand the meaning of the rituals used? Do you know much of the background of the Zen rituals used in your Sangha?

MJ: I think it's great to study ritual and discover and know as much about it as possible. Recently we had a Chan monk and his students over at the Maitai Zendo for a celebration of Buddha's birthday. I was fascinated by the ritual accompanying the chanting. There were so many elements that we still do in Zen, for example, leading into the sutras with three slow rings and a gatz or using the Makugyo. This means that some of the ritual we practice in Zen is more than a thousand years old!
I do a lot of leadership training. When I teach ritual to leaders I try and explain the meaning of the ritual and the effect it has on people. Take, for example, leading into a zazen period with three slow bells and ending with two crisp strikes. One settles people deeply and the other brings them out. Do it the other way around and zazen is disturbed. I like leaders to be precise in the ritual they are performing and to find the beauty of the settled, precise form.

MS: What makes a form settled? Why is precision important?

MJ: You have to remember that I am a musician! Musicians are trained to be precise. Leaving that aside let me explain by example. Take the position of Jiki Jitsu. I work with the Jikis to make sure their form is settled, that is, that they are in the moment and do one thing at a time: Bow at the end of kinhin, for example, then turn around and bow to the mat. Most Jikis, when first trained, will bow with everyone and whilst still bowed, turn around and bow to their mat. I train them to finish each movement before starting the next. In this way they are teaching mindfulness to the sangha. You might be saying, "... finish one movement before starting the next - how easy!" But I know from my karate training that this is often reached only after a decade of practice. And yes, this makes for settled form.
As for precision - I am not a fanatic. I know lineage's where it is quite unpardonable to put your chopsticks on the left instead of on the right during Orioki and you will be yelled at accordingly. That's going too far! But I want the leaders to be precise, the Jiki, for example to have a steady tempo at kinhin, to keep precise timing of the sits; for the Ino to keep appropriate tempo during chants, for the Tenzo to ensure that meals are on time. Precision of leaders engenders a feeling of safety in participants.

MS: Who do you think should have authority to change rituals in a Sangha?

MJ: Ultimately the teacher should have authority to change rituals, in consultation with senior students.

MS: On what basis do you think these decisions should be made?

MJ: The decision should be made on the basis of practice. Ritual has to be helpful for practice. For example, the Maitai Zendo lies just above the beautiful Maitai River. We do a daily meditation walk along the river each day of sesshin. This deepens and inspires people's practice. Ross Bolleter, our Teacher, finds students' practice a lot richer if we have walks, so we have made a decision to do daily walks. In general, we adhere as much as possible to the traditional ritual but gently bend the form to fit our particular situation, here in New Zealand on the banks of the Maitai River.

MS: How have the rituals used by the group changed over time? Have new rituals been introduced, some ceased to be used, have any changed in any way?

MJ: We have tried some new things during sesshins, mostly on the recommendation of Ross Bolleter, our Teacher. For example, we did a walking Kanzeon that turned into a dancing Kanzeon at the end. Soen Roshi would have been pleased! But Ross Bolleter and the leaders decided to scrap that ritual as it became too boisterous. Ross Bolleter has also made some changes to his own ritual at sesshin. He now gives a practice talk in the early afternoon and a formal teisho by candlelight in the evening, instead of just one formal talk in the afternoon.

MS: I understand your group has started using some new rituals e.g. wilderness retreats. How did these develop? Who instigated them? What is their role, that is, why were they developed? Do they have a different or new function?

MJ: Our wilderness retreats are quite a new breed of Zen ritual! They arose out of my solo retreats. At first I took just one or two people with me and now we go in small groups. We have to fit the ritual to the particular location. Robes are not practical in the middle of the bush. Indeed, they would be ridiculous! We try out new bits and pieces of ritual in the wilderness retreat. It is play!

MS: What is the relationship between play and ritual, particularly in developing new ritual?

MJ: The word play implies some freedom of self- expression, whereas ritual, by its very nature, transcends a sense of self. Nevertheless there is a connection. When trying to find a new form, there has to be trial and error. There has to be creativity. Creativity is fuelled by play.

MS: How does a ritual gain power over time?

MJ: There is a two-way flow: Ritual empowers people and people empower ritual. A ritual gains power when it is used. This is rather like the Renaissance idea of Virtu. Virtu, Toku (Jap.) or Mana (Maori) comes about in a life of good decisions. Each practice of right action imbues the person with virtu. In some sense this is the accumulation of merit. This is how I see ritual gaining power over time. Each time it is used merit is gained. In our sutra services it says: We dedicate the merit of reciting the Great Heart Sutra to ... If you look at Tibetan practice with its prostrations - there too merit is gained through ritual.

MS: Why is that power gained important?

MJ: This is the other direction of the flow: Ritual empowers people. When we bow to Buddha, we become Buddha. The more ancient the ritual, the more empowering it is. Just think of Dogen's introduction to Jukai (from the Kyojukaimon) which is recited at the beginning of each jukai ceremony: The Great Precepts of all the Buddhas have been maintained and protected by all the Buddhas. Buddhas hand them down to Buddhas, and Ancestral Teachers hand them down to Ancestral Teachers. Acceptance and observance of the Precepts transcends past, present, and future, and the perfect accord between the realisation of teacher and disciple, and continues through all ages. It fills participants and observers with awe. The power gained is important because it can move the Zen practitioner into the timeless realm. In that moment of awe, of wonder, we touch something that does not come or go. In that moment ritual fulfils its true function: To release people from their idea of self.

MS: Why is this link with the past important to Zen rituals in particular?

MJ: I think it is important to ritual of all kinds. A short while ago I was watched the funeral of a Maori chief on TV. The link with the past was palpable! Ritual linked to the distant past imbues a ceremony with gravitas, with weight. I think all cultures that still have rituals that link with their ancestors are blessed.

MS: How is it that merit is gained through ritual?

MJ: When we perform ritual mindfully, the self drops away and in this dropping away we unite with all beings. When we become one with all beings, we save all beings. So ritual is a way of saving all beings, thus merit is gained for all.
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©Mary Jaksch 1998

No reproduction without the authors permission please.