Earlier this week I returned from a Jukai Sesshin at Jikoji Zen Center, feeling overwhelmed in a good way with the experience. I want to share a little bit about the experience without this being a post that attempts to teach about what Jukai is in its entirety, because I’m not a teacher and I also think that no matter what I say, I’d only ever be able to convey one aspect of it that is very much influenced by my own experience. My experience will never completely line up with another’s, though we may share much in the process.

Drawing of the welcome sign at Jikoji Zen Center. Ink on brown paper. It says "Please Ring the Bell so we may welcome you" and has a mallet hammer ready to ring a Buddhist bell that's next to a wooden buddha carved into a log.
“Thus Come” by J. Rentai Lewis. Ink on Paper. This is a sign at Jikoji, welcoming visitors.

Just to give a sense of what it’s about, Jukai in a nutshell means RECEIVE + PRECEPTS. We went to the Jukai Sesshin, which culminated in a ceremony in which ten of us received the precepts. We essentially made a commitment to our practice, which includes 16 interdependent guidelines that point the way before us.

The most impactful moment was when I sat before my teacher and received my dharma name, Rentai Tenbun, the lineage chart that traces a line from me all the way to the Buddha, my oryoki bowls, and my rakusu that I had spent three months sewing. It felt like both the culmination of efforts and the very beginning at the same time. It’s not really an easy feeling to describe, but I knew I was on the right path for me.

My dharma name can be translated in various ways, but “Continuous Peak, Unfolding Culture” is the translation chosen by my teacher, Ōshin Sensei, and I fully embrace this. Ōshin Sensei is both the Guiding Teacher of my own sangha—No Barriers Zen—and one of the Guiding Teachers of Jikoji. I am saving any explanation of my dharma name for another day, another post, for I still want to sit with this gift for much longer. The meaning is already unfolding within me and already shaping my actions.

Taking the precepts that day was preceded by those three months of repeating vows with every stitch of the rakusu, with meeting often on Zoom with our Jukai group to study the precepts together, with countless texts that reinforced the ties between us. By the time we were seated in the ceremony, I already felt beyond words that I was sitting with my dharma family, a second family that I’ll cherish for life.

That week we had days of zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and quiet meals using the oryoki bowls. In between, we enjoyed the calm (though sometimes beautifully rainy) surroundings of Jikoji Zen Center. We bowed to each other in passing, content.

I could honestly write chapters of descriptions about those few days, but instead I want to share a few moments that are outside the norm of a retreat like this, because I think they illustrate something intangible that lights up this path I’m on.

  • At several points during the retreat, we came together to sew, to finish a rakusu. This ended up being one of the most treasured moments of the week, because had the rakusu been completed earlier “on time” then we would have missed out on that opportunity to work together on something really special. This was flooded with a sense of real community, very much a feeling of it being sangha coming together.
  • During soji, in which we are assigned chores to take care of around the grounds, I had the task of raking the pathways. The first day I spent that time carefully raking the leaves off the gravel paths as much as I could, thinking at times that I’d lightly leave grooves like a Japanese rock garden. Perhaps that’s a little silly, but I enjoyed it anyway. On the second day, the paths were still pretty clear, so I ended up raking this path that hadn’t been used as much that week as far as I can see, sloping sharply down to the stream. I had this sense of peace while doing this, even if no one walked down before the leaves would cover it again. Raking zen, perhaps.
  • And comically, the night before the Jukai Ceremony, I got myself locked in the bathroom near the dorms, which is accessed from outside and has one window. The lock just broke, and no amount of fiddling with it would open. I texted my group, hoping some were still awake past hours, but no response. While I waited at a window looking outside, hoping someone would walk by, I pondered whether I would go ahead and sleep on an icy floor or knock on the wall that adjourns the dorms. Suffer an uncomfortable night before the ceremony, or wake the hearing guys sleeping next door (the Deaf one, if he was there, would sleep just fine through that). I was leaning towards choosing the floor, when one of my dharma family walked by and I explained my unexpected confinement after a moment of startlement. Well, it wasn’t long before one rescuer was two, then three, then four, then five. The 5th being the head monk, who had the insight to use a crowbar on a lock that was no longer fixable with common tools. “Thank you for liberating me!” I said. A monk wielding a crowbar, who could expect such a memory? Aside from this being a very funny incident that included my teacher helpfully taking a photo of me stuck inside, I mention it here because I was honestly moved by both the act of everyone coming together to get me out and by the fact that a year ago it would have felt like a very stressful moment. My only stress that night was frustration when I tried to get the door to open. Once I realized that wasn’t happening, everything that followed was just FUNNY and beautiful. And somehow perfect.

These little moments weren’t the reason for being there, but it still added value for me. Not that any value needed to be added. I went to Jikoji to take the precepts, realizing that I had been taking them all along for a while and realizing I would always be taking them. Again and again for the rest of my life, always having moments to remind me and my name to remind me and people to remind me and nature to remind me to take the precepts. This is how a life can be lived. This is how I’ve chosen to live my imperfect life full of the normal sufferings that people go through, the normal problems, and the beautiful everythings that are there if you only notice them however you are able to notice them.

What will you notice today, in your own life, on your own path? What will you unfold, that has been contained?

By J. Parrish Lewis

J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

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