I was a resident at the Upaya Zen Center in Sante Fe, New Mexico, for one and a half years. By the time I left, I was accustomed to bowing to everything—to people, to Buddha statues, to my food, to my meditation cushion, to grief, to the people I didn’t like, to my anxious mind, to the stars, to my basic goodness. And I had come to love practicing collective silence; I’d never experienced feeling so alone together.
When I returned to lay life, moving to Portland, Oregon, there were many things to relearn. The transition back into “normal” life after residency is like coming home after a long time abroad. There’s reverse culture shock. Many of the hardest adjustments were at work, where there are fluorescent lights and gossip culture and where meditation can be considered woo-woo.
But the thing I miss the most about residency is ceremony, which was built into daily life at Upaya and created the feeling that ordinary things are sacred.
At Upaya, ceremony was in breakfast, which I thanked before I ate. Ceremony was in the silence, which allowed me and others to just be, without performing our personalities. The carrots were sacred. The sound of a bell was sacred.
I don’t mean this as fluff or Pollyanna preciousness. This sacredness was ordinary, useful, boring, sometimes dirty: even the limp mop rag that I used to clean the temple floor was sacred. See, when doing soji, or temple cleaning, you hold a gray mop rag at eye level with three fingers as you walk in and out of the temple or whenever you are not cleaning with it. The gesture is one of respect toward the rag. Even though it smells like a sock, here you are bowing to it, respecting it as an incredibly complicated object with its own history. You recognize that the rag is made of cotton, which grew hundreds of miles away and was harvested and shipped by human beings each with their own dreams and dramas. Then that cotton was processed on machines designed and operated by more humans. You know that those machines were built from material harvested from the earth—harvested by people speaking dozens of different languages. So you see that this rag has touched a thousand lives, and now here it is, in your palm cleaning a temple floor in Santa Fe. And you see that the hardwood floor has a legacy, too—that its wood grew because of the sun and the rain and was harvested in a specific place and time. So that rag touching that floor touched a million things at once.
Interdependence saturates your field of awareness in a residential practice precisely because the practice is to see inter-being (and the sacred) in the ordinary, and to conduct ceremony—simple or elaborate—to acknowledge it.
I miss this. Belief in the sacred feels painfully absent from American culture. It’s not entirely absent from my lay life: On an average morning before work, I move with a certain mindfulness, I meditate, and as I wash my breakfast dishes I acknowledge the ordinary magic in the act of washing a bowl—of doing just this. I often think of the koan in which the new monk Chao Chou (Jpn., Joshu) asks a senior monk for instruction:
The monk says to Chao Chou, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”
Chao Chou says, “Yes, I have.”
And the monk says, “Then wash your bowl.”
And Chao Chou understands.
For me, that “understanding” was holding the sock-smelling rag with three fingers at eye level, doing something incredibly mundane while also silently witnessing its profundity. I can touch into this sense of sacredness in lay life by being mindful while washing my breakfast bowl. It’s that easy. Yet somehow my experience has lacked the quality of ceremony that saturated my time at Upaya.
Every time I meditate, I bow to my cushion and thank it for supporting me. I bow to the room and thank every object—even the sky and the neighbors—for supporting my practice. But there is something so quiet about this ceremony, so private. Ceremony at Upaya was collective, even when it was silent and individual. The community granted you permission to revere the ineffable, and I’m waiting for this same collective permission in my lay life. It’s like I don’t know how ceremony can exist outside the temple walls. I’m waiting for some kind of clarification: “this is ceremony.” “This is how it’s done.”
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I feel that there is a permission to a sacred sphere that many of us have forgotten or that we have relegated to practice centers, as if our real practice lives there and not with us. I want to bring my practice home. What am I waiting for?
Shortly after I moved into my new home in Portland, my girlfriend said the energy in the bedroom felt strange, perhaps haunted. We joked about an exorcism. Then suddenly we found ourselves making up a clearing ceremony. We were awkward in our mutual embarrassment and tentativeness, and we each held back from how deep we wanted to go. She made up a guttural song to urge the bad energy out the window, but her normally bold eyes were shy as she waved smoke from the burning sage bundle in her hand toward the room’s corners. We were timid in the way that a writer can be apologetic to read her writing aloud, undermining her sincere effort by first saying sorry for what it lacks (“This is really bad, but . . .”).
There are those who would laugh at the goofy ritual my girlfriend and I performed. It was kind of laughable! Does that make it any less ceremonial or sacred? Maybe spirituality is a lot messier and unpredictable at home than it is at a Zen center. Maybe that’s OK.
What I’m coming to understand is that ceremony lives closer to my core than I previously understood. It is original to my being. It belongs to us all. There’s something about that that’s a little frightening, because it is primal. It belongs to a spontaneous unknowable force that manifests in ways we cannot predict. It is the guttural sound my girlfriend made when we saged the room. It is the yawn my body wants to make at sunrise even as I forget to notice and rush to work instead.
Outside the structure of the Zen center, we have to make our own way; we have to personalize our practices. Some people may conflate this with a secularization or modernization that takes Buddhist teachings out of their context haphazardly and, in doing so, robs them of their meaning. I’m talking about something else, about making our practices deeply personal. That means swallowing our practice so that it is us. We can’t help but create small rituals to acknowledge the sacred, the mysterious, or the ineffable—our attunement to these phenomena is natural.
After leaving residency, I felt shocked by a dullness to life’s vibrancy and unknowableness. Ceremony feels like the cure, like good medicine for waking up. But I’m done waiting for it to come to me. It’s already here.