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Making Deals: a Jukai Talk

It is written--somewhere, I suppose-- that Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, in the latter years of his life, after he had created ice cream, spoke to his disciples about what a long strange trip it had been.

Some of you know that I spent six years—from 18 to 24 – in a Franciscan monastery very much like the one we’re sitting in right now. During that time I took three-year temporary vows as a member of the order and left only when I was due to either make those vows permanent or get out. Forty years later, I’m still at it, it seems: sitting in a Franciscan monastery—this time with a golden Buddha plopped down surprisingly at the front of the chapel, which I’m reliably informed has been turned into something called a “meditation hall.”

I saw this juxtaposition even more clearly when one Saturday recently at the end of a koan class, Jeff asked me, “So, you’re taking vows at Garrison this time?” Until then I hadn’t used that phrase, thinking of this as “receiving the precepts” or just “Jukai.”

I was a mess as I was nearing the point of no return with that first set of vows—signing on as a Franciscan for the rest of my life or leaving—I simply could not trust myself to decide. Eventually someone put me in touch with a priest/psychologist who squeezed me into his schedule as best he could. At one point he just asked me, “Well, do you want to be a priest?” Astoundingly, I had never known that that was the question. There had been all this talk about a “vocation” which meant that God wanted me to be, a monk, a priest, and which hid from me my real motives for being there. But somehow being asked the question so simply, especially by a guy in a roman collar, opened some kind of door and I knew immediately the answer. No.

I was completely clear, no doubts. Lots of fear, even terror, but no doubts. I had been there for six years, was almost there for my entire life, because I could imagine no better way to win the approval or, more exactly, avoid the disapproval, of an Irish Catholic family and world based so profoundly on shame and fear.

I called my folks who had both grown up in Ireland where there was no better deal than to have a son who was a priest. I told them I was leaving; they had already made plans to come down for the ceremony. (I learned later that they spent that afternoon getting a little mellow at the kitchen table, but they also managed to accept my decision, and me, even though it was a terrible disappointment for them.) I told my superiors in the order, took off my robes for the last time and got on a train to a life I knew little about how to live, but that I was just beginning to understand was mine.

So much has gone on since then, of course. A son, a daughter, a divorce, a grandson. Moving to a tiny town in an upstate county whose major demographic is cows. A group of friends raising all our kids together in a cluster of houses on a couple of hundred acres in the country. Years of mostly quite happily teaching English in a small, rural college.

A life.

And now I’ve gone and done this vow thing again; it appears I’m a slow learner.

The biggest difficulty I faced in deciding whether to make these vows was finding a way to see them as not a repeat of the ones I gave myself away with all those years ago. As Barry put it, the problem was for me to find a way “… to redeem rules and tradition, something I could trust to carry me through life, not something that constricts it.”

The key to this redemption seems to lie in the difference between “submitting” and “surrendering.“ And that difference brings me back to dealing with cancer over this past year and a half. And that process, as I said in the talk I gave a few months ago, is very hard to pin down precisely because it’s all so very simple.

Submitting to lung cancer seems to be about imagining a me who is in some secret universe cancer-free, but a me who also catches on that I’m gonna have to go along with the program because I can’t do much about changing it. And god knows that is a hard enough program to reconcile to. But I think the key element is that you’re always concocting some sort of unrecognized deal, one that often takes for me the form of “Alright, I’ll fully and totally accept _________ as long that means that in the end it’ll go away.”

Surrendering to the cancer is simpler and harder to talk about. It can certainly be awful, and there always seems to be yet another level of acceptance still to be accepted--and it does, as I’ve said elsewhere, involve a lot of diapers. But it is also exactly right, and, anyway, there’s nothing to do except be cancerous, which comes quite naturally.

But, of course, this talk is not about cancer. It’s about agreeing not to steal, or kill, or misuse sexuality. Okay, I promise. After all, I had already vowed to be poor, to be obedient, and to not even use sex. But what I had secretly hoped for in return for those vows was to have a special sort of life, one in which I did not have to live in this mess. I could submit to those rules because they promised I would not have to surrender to the confusion, uncertainty and shit of this lovely, perfect life.

Bad deal.

There were no signs that my world was going to be able to deliver on it, but still I almost signed on for life because there seemed to be no better offer around, and I certainly did not believe that I could handle what was coming. (I want to say in simple honesty here that this was my reality, I do not presume that others chose that life for my sorts of reasons.) And that experience—so many of those experiences of a rule-laden Irish Catholic universe-- poisoned my ability to trust any set of rules, any structure that offered something in return for my submitting to it.

And then along came Zen, which I thought promised something real. Actually, first along came therapy—I had finished seven or eight years of really helpful therapy and had been practicing semi-seriously for several years at Zen Mountain Monastery and was becoming more and more interested in the connections between Zen and all that therapy. The folks at ZMM were not at all interested in such a connection: they thought it diluted the real stuff. But I stumbled upon a book by some guy named Magid and thought I had hit pay dirt. So I started making the trek to New York pretty regularly. (I also thought Zen looked really cool. I mean Phil Whalen? Jack Kerouac? Alan Ginsberg?) Even Thomas Merton, one of my earliest heroes. But I was also suspicious. I remember telling Barry years ago that I didn’t trust any deal like this; he said, “Zen offers no deal” I said, “Sure.” But inside I really wanted a deal. As much as I did not want to be suckered again, as much as I did not want to sucker myself again, I even more deeply wanted the certainty and control that that original deal had offered me. Again and again, in apparently endless form, I was told there was no deal.

Sure.

And then along came cancer. And, as hard as I looked for them, deals were difficult to come by.

So I’ve begun to think that Jukai and the precepts may not be about a deal at all, maybe they’re just a chance to surrender to a structure, a tradition, that I can use to enter more deeply into my life, into life.

Maybe not stealing (or not misusing sexuality) means not imagining that getting something (or someone) would fill all the cracks in my chipped, dented, sometimes broken, lovely life—the one we all share. Or—more importantly-- not imagining that there’s any need for such a bailout. Maybe not killing means trying not to imagine that getting rid of something would do the same. Maybe the precepts are a way to grow up just because the world—not very surprisingly—reveals itself most clearly when we become better able to hang around.

And Jukai seems to be a chance to receive this wisdom beyond wisdom with all of you here, so many of whom have--in one way or another-- gone through, are going through, this cancer with me.

Thank you again.

And, finally, taking the precepts, and Zen itself, really does feel like “taking refuge” and coming home. A real refuge, one that promises no protection; and a real home, but one that I did not know would look and feel quite like this.