Thursday, March 17, 2016

Busy, Busy

Yumiko Fujii doing calligraphy on Ofuda (household tablets) for shrine visitors
After thirty years of hanging around retreat centers, Zen centers, monasteries, churches, and other places of the religious life, and now here at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, I have noticed a great paradox. When a person comes as a guest to these places (as I was a guest at the Snowmass Monastery in December, and wrote about in Snow Idyll), they are refuges and places of renewal. I see people walking the well-swept grounds of Tsubaki, strolling from here to there under the great trees and bowing in front of the exquisite shrines, and I can almost feel the tension melting from their shoulders, the weight that they carry day after day being released in the beauty and quiet. Anyone who has spent time at a retreat center has felt the same thing. I remember watching fellow retreatants at Spirit Rock watching a bird, or even a gopher (generally not admired) their faces alight with appreciation. 

But if you live and/or work at such a place of retreat and renewal...well, that's a different story altogether!! Who keeps everything together? Who cleans your room before you arrive, cooks the food lovingly, does the ceremony, makes the ofuda, dusts the altar, handles the reservations? And are they in a state of relaxed bliss? (I can imagine my friends who have lived at San Francisco Zen Center smiling knowingly as they read this.) Being here has convinced me that this may be a universal phenomenon: to create a place of renewal and ease, you need a bunch of very busy people, working very hard. To have a place of traditional beauty, you need a bunch of people with laptops and copy machines, hidden somewhere out of sight.

The office of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, on a quiet day. No visitor would see this.
Tsubaki Grand Shrine employs about seventy people: twenty Shinto priests of various ranks (male and female: mostly male), miko (shrine maidens), security, people who take care of the guest house where I'm staying, a calligrapher, even a person who makes sure brides don't trip in their traditional shoes walking the uneven paths. And they are working at a dead run for most of the day. Even during the week there are almost continuous ceremonies going on in the haiden, the main hall. Just like Zen Center, the priests officiate in a rotation. Closed circuit television broadcasts the ceremonies into the office. Miko who aren't doing a ceremony stand behind booths of amulets for sale, protective charms for health and safety. 

A few of the many amulets for sale at Tsubaki

Ever since I arrived here, I have been so reminded of first being a guest and then living and working at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, which has about fifty people who are non-guests. As a guest, I strolled the exquisite gardens and walked to the beach, my spirit filled with happiness and a sense of peace. As a resident, later, I was one of the people making beds, dusting the guest house, and dealing with what felt like endless waves of guests: "It's Friday, and there are three groups coming in for the weekend...and we need a complete turnover in the guest house, and has anyone set up the meeting room..?" 

It's the same here. Today is Friday, and it's still pretty quiet, except for the college kyudo (archery) group that has been here week, shouting in the distance, and the visitors in twos and threes, but if this weekend is anything like the last one, there will be wedding parties showing up soon, and the office will be filled with frantic looking priests taking ceremonial robes on and off and answering the phones, only to open the sliding door and walk out into the public areas as calm as can be, waving another family in to the purification hall and treating them as if they, and only they, matter, as if the rest of the world, and all those phones, have disappeared utterly. 

This weekend is also the weekend of O-Higan, the Japanese equinox ceremony and festival for those who have died, and since there is a Buddhist temple on the grounds here, there will be a ceremony here, with many people coming. Along with the regular work, then, there is the special work of the special days that punctuate the calendar. 

Sacred sakaki branches in the hallway, with shide (folded paper) waiting to be taken out and used in ceremonies
Is one face of a religious institution more "true" than the other? Is the "busy, busy' and financial realities of running an organization more real than the experience of peace that a visitor has here? Or vice versa? I might have thought so, once. In the years I longed to live in the Zen monasteries I visited, I thought living there was like visiting, and it was only when I lived there that I understood the difference. This can come as quite the shock and disillusionment. 

But now I think that the life of service that is expressed by those who serve in places like this, most perfectly expressed by that morning sweeping here, before anything else-- that life of service, busy as it is, is the counterpoint to the experience of the so beautifully taken-care-of visitor, . They are two sides of the coin, each needing the other. Without guests, no service. In fact, without guests, no Shinto shrine, no Zen Center, no monastery.  And without service, no guests. 

In Chado, the Way of Tea (which I know very little about), and in Zen, there is the idea of guest and host. These ways of being are complementary and sacred. Sometimes we are the guest, sometimes the host. The host serves, the guest receives. But fundamentally they aren't two separate ways of being - they are interconnected and interdependent, "empty" of own-being -- there can't be one without the other. Before we eat a formal meal in Zen, we say: "May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver, and gift."  

Of course, it's the same as a Unitarian Universalist minister. It's a very full life, but most people who come on Sunday can't imagine what a minister is doing all week. Contemplating the universe, studying quietly, walking around town? But no, most ministers I know are literally on the run from one meeting to another, visiting someone in the hospital, and putting out fires of various sorts, and ministers work an insane number of hours - sixty, seventy hours a week is not uncommon. A friend of mine gave a sermon to her church about "a day in the life of a minister," and people came up to her afterward,  shocked and amazed. They had had no idea.

This degree of work and busyness looked more than a little unhealthy to me, as I was considering going into the ministry, but so far I seem to have found a way to moderate it, at least in my own ministry. My favorite line about ministry is from my favorite book about ministry, Eugene Peterson's, The Contemplative Pastor (I'm paraphrasing here): "To put the modifier "busy" in front of the word "pastor" is like putting "embezzling" in front of "banker" or "adulterous" in front of "spouse!" Strong words, indeed. But I think part of what he is talking about is not how just how many hours a minister works, but how that minister works. As busy as the staff is here, I feel a deep well of calm and kindness in them as well, which I'm sure visitors here feel too. I think that is what Eugene Peterson may have meant. How do you connect with and replenish that well, so that no matter how many fires you are dealing with, each person you meet feels like they are truly at the center of your presence and attention, and not only "feels like" but actually is at the center of your attention?  

For me, part of the way to replenish the well is to take joy in the service, whatever that service is. The calligrapher here put it well this morning, "I am so grateful for the chance to be here, making these Ofuda for people, putting my prayers into each one as I brush the characters." I feel joy, sweeping the paths for the visitors. I feel joy back home writing a sermon, providing a few moments on Sunday morning for people to connect with a larger understanding, to learn and to sing and sometimes to cry. That is how my own experience of spirituality has changed, over the years. As much as I appreciate times of retreat and inwardness, I also  love being on this side now, the side with the broom, the side making the place where others can find a moment of peace in the midst of the difficulties of a human life.


  1. Without guests, no service. In fact, without guests, no Shinto shrine, no Zen Center, no monastery. And without service, no guests. True, in the way that the aphorism, "if you want to get something done, ask a busy person is true." I'm smiling too, because Susan Cashel has given me a nickname and a matching knicknack. She has dubbed me "the organizer bunny" and given me a little white rabbit that dances when sunlight powers her solar batteries. When Apricat is around, I have to put the bunny into the dark quiet of the cupboard for a rest, because Apricat couldn't resist pouncing on the dancing bunny. And this seems a very good metaphor...