Writing these lines, thinking about the year 2020, the first feeling I get is: “Wow, it is already nearly over”, but once I spend more time thinking about what has happened during this year, I realize how packed it was, a rollercoaster ride, taking new extremes into both directions, high and low.
One of the first big events, which come to my mind is the beginning of the pandemic COVID-19. Todo-san brought it up, during one of the daily held coffee and tea breaks while sitting around the woodfire stove in the hiroma – the only heated room in Antaiji during the winter months. By then there were only a few hundred registered chases, mainly in Wuhan, China, and a handful of deaths. I remember how fear crept up inside of me, no one knew much about the new virus, only that it seemed to spread fast, and when infected there is the chance of a deadly outcome. What I didn’t know by then was that the epidemic to follow would be one of the biggest supporters to continue the practice in Antaiji. What for most of the world population meant to be imprisoned inside their own ‘walls, to experience life with countless restrictions, was for me the biggest hindrance to run away from Antaiji – or better from my own shadows, which I had to start facing this year in a whole other level than the last two years. Already in winter, during the samu-free study period, Eko-san/Dojo-san announced me to become the new first monk. It is one of the steps every student has to pass through when practicing Zen, in Antaiji it is usually during the 3rd year of one’s practice. To be honest, I was quite happy about my new role, after she told me. I did feel like a got a raise, well without the increase of remuneration of course. What I was to find out only later is, that there is really nothing profitable about raising on the career leader as a monk, the only aspects which increase are the ones no one is hoping to get – pressure from above, responsibility for the ones below, a hell lot of more work, all resulting in a mix of nervousness, frustration, anger, sadness, you name it. During the time she told me in February, I couldn’t imagine what was to come, neither in terms of COVID-19 nor in terms of the new role I had to adapt to.
The picture I painted showed a german monk, named Myogen, managing Antaiji very well, making all necessary decisions in the right way, yeah all in all doing a perfect job in the new role given… Buuuuuut soon, after the first few angry “wake-up slaps” given by Eko-san, I had to start to realize that this picture might not be as true as I was hoping for it to be.
When reading my last year’s winter report, one might notice the doubts I had towards her becoming my new teacher, and with the beginning of 2020, since no magic has happened, these doubts just continued to roll in the same direction as they did at the end of 2019. These two factors, my doubts, and my wrongly painted self-image, shining in the light of arrogance and aloofness made an explosive combination for dispute between Dojo-san and me.
Soon after the winter reports were handed in and regular outside Samu started again, the yearly spring takuhatsu was canceled due to the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in Japan. One occasion I remember still quite well was our first dispute right during one of the first few cycleˋs in March. Me not haven understood what it means to be the first monk, thought: to be a leader, I can´t accept any outside opinion, people need to follow my plans, rather than me adjusting to everyone and the environment around me. She seemed to pick up on that quite easily, leading to a few days of confrontation which lead me to struggle with a lot of doubts again. I was stuck in thought loops. Of course, now looking back, all she did was putting a mirror in front of my eyes. I had to learn it the hard way, and yet I am still learning every day.
With the days slowly getting warmer, spring turning into summer, I felt I was slowly getting a slightly better understanding of what it would mean to be a leader. I imagined it to look like the classical image we have of holy people, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Dogen Zenji, or Gandhi. A true leader is nothing different than a Bodhisattva, someone who vows to save all beings before saving himself. I also started to realized it means to stop caring about how YOU feel, what emotions YOU experience, what problems YOU face, or which circumstances YOU are dealing with at any given moment. It is all too easy to forget about others around you, when you are not feeling well, tired or when you think the pressure you are under is too big for you to handle. But, exactly on these occasions, it shows how well you have understood your vow. Are you able to listen to other’s problems, even if you are stuck up to the neck in your own worries? Are you able to forget about your own comfort, to step into discomfort to be there for the ones around you?
But being a leader not only means to be likable, a seemingly good person, a hero. I realized I also have to learn to be okay with not being liked by others. To be the asshole who points out other’s mistakes. Usually, people are always trying to be nice to you. We are truly scared to be excluded by others because they don´t like us, because, in nature, that would mean a smaller chance of survival. So while having grown up in society, I have learned how to avoid conflict with others, how to mind only my own business. Now, to be a leader means to get involved with others problems, to start caring about their behavior, even if it would be easier or more comfortable for me to avoid their problems completely. Usually, humans are very good at keeping their heads down, to keep the peace unless other’s wrongdoing restricts themselves in some way, or they feel bothered by it. To be the person who puts a mirror in front of your eyes, so you can see your own misbehavior, your own wrongdoing, is a true act of compassion, even if it doesn´t feel to the confronted one like that in the first place. It means to be a Bodhisattva.
That being said, I feel that the 3rd year of Antaiji practice has been the most intense so far. Maybe because, the last two years I could always crawl back into my own small safe space, where no one would find me, bother me. This year, every time I tried hiding, everything would just get worse. A leader doesn’t hide – not from others, not from his misery. So every time out of habit, when I hid in my small hole where seemingly no one could find me, I was not there anymore, for the sangha, for Antaiji. And my responsibilities in organizing Samu, etc. someone else had to take care of, namely Eko-san. Of course, she would always find me, pushing me to get back in position. Oh, how hard I tried to resist sometimes, I definitely didn’t make it easy for her. But so the more I am thankful that she didn´t give up on me, because it would have been probably easier for her. The more you realize what burden were to others, the more you are grateful that they still accepted you, allowed you to become how you are today. I realized that all that matters after all anyway – your actions right now, how you handle this given day. Everyone will have a bad day from time to time, it is really how you handle it. Sit in an upright posture, shoulders relaxed, breath naturally, eyes around a meter in front of you on the ground. Sit like a mountain, unmoved by the storms blowing around it, sit like a tree, its branches swinging in the wind, but its roots so deep that it wonˋt fall. Just keep your posture, thats all you can do, I think. A bad day will eventually be over, and so will a good one be too. Nothing stays forever, but it’s up to you how you handle this fact.
Thank you Antaiji for being there, a place which allows people to wake up to their own lives, and thank you Eko-san, for having taken this huge responsibility of guiding me, or anyone coming to Antaiji, along the path of Buddha-Dharma.