When we walk into a house where the furniture is all out of place, foot wear strewn around, unwashed mugs and plates scattered here and there, washed and unwashed clothes piled in corners, a guest who walks in for the first time, feels like putting things in order. Our life is pretty much like this. We try this and that, continue to do this and drop that, then pick that up again and drop this, we try out something new, retain something old. This goes on and on and on through this endless voyage of life. Somewhere, life brings us to a spot where we have tried the this and the that and all of that and now we are up against the wall with nothing further that we feel drawn to try. At this point, a point of contact arises in us, and when we notice that, we feel like the universe supports us to put things in order. This is when we are prepared to uphold and move along with the cosmic order. We’re up against the wall. Ordination happens and things start to fall in order.

When my Master (spiritual father in India) passed on 14th of May 1999, I felt totally shattered and in complete chaos. Now what? I recalled with nostalgia the words he said to me a little before his passing – “You are a half baked cake!” During the prayer class, he said – “From now on you will be called Gayatri Devi”.  I was surprised at my new name. I travelled with my Master to a small village where he installed a temple over his mother’s grave in his home town. After the ceremony, I left back to the temple where I lived with my master in the Blue Mountains. I found there a big parcel of dried fish that came in the mail addressed to my Master. This was unusual. I instantly called him and for the first time, I used my new name – “Gayatri Devi here, someone from Hyderabad has sent a parcel of dried fish, what would you like me to do with this?” In the ashram, we don’t eat or cook fish. He laughed and replied – “Oh, that’s because in an interview I talked about a Roasted coconut chutney that my mother used to make, and added that it would taste good with a little dried shrimps. You may open it out and distribute it to the families in the village.” Okay , I said and just before I cut the phone, he said – “ I just received a letter from a ‘Gayatri Devi’, we don’t want two Gayatri Devi’s. Remove the Devi. “Okay, so is there anything else”? He said – “Wait, and it will follow.” mmm interesting!

Unexpectedly after his demise and my wandering about in the Himalayas, I ended up at Tassajara Zen Monastery. I was Jiko for evening service, standing outside the Abbots cabin with my teacher Ryushin Paul Haller who was Doshi one evening during summer guest season. I was wearing a Black Phiran (Traditional Kashmiri woolen outfit), holding the burning Incense with two hands. He said to me –“How nice it would be if you had a rakusu on”. By now, I had been practicing at Tassajra for a while. This stuck in my head and we started talking about it. When I came over to the city center, Shohaku Okumura Roshi was doing a Genzo-e Retreat (It’s a unique offering, which focuses on the study of Shobogenzo a collection of works by great Mast Dogen Zenji).  This time the great Japanese scholar Shohaku Okumura Roshi was teaching the ‘Virtue of the Okesa’ – Kesa Kudoku where he talked about the Funzo-e (rag robe). I was most touched by how the monks in the past would find fabric that had no attachment, like cloth used to cover the dead, or material used by ladies during menses or child birth, or material bitten and chewed by rabbits or material partly destroyed by fire, anything that is discarded. They would clean and wash it, and dye it in ochre or kashaya color, cut it into pieces and sew it together. All this is done with a sense of humility, deep concentration on every stitch centered on breathing with a chant.

I told my teacher, that is a great idea. I would make a funzo-e. He agreed reluctantly, but set forth several guidelines. Each fabric should be bleached and dyed in blue color. I was never inspired to make one with brand new fabric. So began my hunt for rags. The first piece was a black handkerchief that Brother David Steindl Rast threw down from his pocket when I told him about it. He said – ‘That is discarded’. Later I asked for rag pieces from teachers who I felt were not attached to the material. Tenshin Roshi, Zenkai Roshi, Jordan Thorn, Mark Lancaster, Kosho and Sonja Gardenswartz. I brewed and brewed all summer through the summer guest season at Tassajara. I bleached in the afternoon during lunch break at the laundry area and dyed in blue over a blazing stove top at night, when only the baker and I were around. I put it all together with a lot of help from the crew I worked with at the stone office, the lovely Siobhan, Ann Baker and Elizabeth. I soon had to leave to India, when I ran into Vicky Austin and she provided the last neck piece. I had no time to bleach or dye it. It was a piece from Okusan’s (Suzuki Roshi’s wife) Kimono, which she left with Vicky for such projects. It was a deep purple piece. This was my lay ordination, where I was given the name Ji Kai Shindo (Compassion Ocean, Heart/Trust way), at an informal ceremony in the Abbots Dokusan room at City Center.

Several years later, again back at Tassajara my teacher Ryushin Roshi decided to ordain me as a priest, when again I had to return to India due to some problems with the visa. I had not sewn an Okesa (priest robe). Ryushin Roshi picked up an old Koromo from the Abbots cupboard, a kimono, and a jubon. He found an Okesa in the sewing room made by an unidentified person (in the days of Okusan, some young Japanese women used to help sew okesa’s). And my dear friend Judith Randel passed on to me her worn out old zagu (priest bowing cloth). There I was in the middle of the Ventanna Wilderness, bowing and vowing to my ancestors and teachers in India, receiving the robes and the bowls into a Japanese Tradition. My teacher Ryushin Roshi said at the end of the ceremony – “One world right here! I am an Irish man, ordaining an Indian woman, into a Japanese Tradition, right here, in California!

Now I wonder how things fall in order. The half baked cake started to bake further. Being Shuso is yet another ordination said Abbess Linda Ruth Cutts.



Shuso Entering Ceremony


In some South Indian Weddings, there is a kind of pre-planned enactment that is part of the wedding ceremony. On the eve of the wedding, the bridegroom dresses in a very simple white cloth that is wrapped around the waist and he says as part of the ceremony – “Oh no, no I cannot take on this responsibility of a householder, this is too much for me. I am going to Varanasi (Kasi) to live a renunciate life. I am leaving now”! He carries a small bundle of a set of very simple clothes and has a stick on which the bundle hangs down. This is done in front of the whole crowd of relatives and friends invited for the wedding eve dinner. The Bride’s uncle then walks up to the bridegroom and says – “Young man, you are young and not ready to go to Varanasi yet. Please stay! I will give my niece in marriage to you. Please complete your family life and then you will be ready to go into a renunciate life”. They do it three times. Then the bridegroom is taken by the elders in the family and dressed in grand attire and brought on a horse back and taken in a ceremonial procession. The bride is carried in a bamboo basket by her Uncle and brought into a ceremony where the women apply turmeric and sandlewood paste on her face and henna on her hands and feet. The women sing and dance around her.

I was reminded of this when the Ino and the Tanto went over the Shuso Entering ceremony with me and when we rehearsed in the zendo. It felt so unreal when I read the lines at first. It had to become real and I had to feel it in my body and mind before the ceremony early next morning. After zazen and a short service, the Shika led me into the zendo. The Ino went around and bowed to the Seniors and the community and made an announcement saying – “This is the winter 2016 Practice Period. Through the deep consideration of the Abbots and Senior Dharma Teachers, we offer you Shindo Gayatri the responsibility of Shuso for this Practice Period.” And hit the tsui-ching twice and bowed.

Behind the altar, the director, the Shika (guest manager), the Tenzo (kitchen manager), the work leader, Ino (zendo manager), the Tanto (practice manager) and the manager of the grounds and shop, stood around and did a full prostration to the Shuso. That sure touched the bones. Then she says – “This responsibility is too great for me, I cannot do this.” The director responds saying “You are our choice for Shuso. Please lead us and accept this responsibility. We give you our full support.”

The Shuso then does a full prostration to the Abbot and to the Senior Dharma Teacher. After which she says – “I have received Buddha’s Precepts and have entered this Temple, and I am deeply grateful for your teaching. But I am not yet ready to be Shuso.” She tries to turn away three times, but is stopped by the Senior Dharma Teacher. There is a deep yet subtle dialogue here between the Senior Dharma Teacher and the Shuso which is preplanned and yet spontaneous, unreal yet real. Then the Shuso faces the teacher and says – “These are beautiful days. May your good health continue. Please let me help you to continue the practice in this Temple.”

And the teacher responds saying – “Yes, please help me. This monastic shares my seat and my responsibility. Please give her your support.”

After this drama, which by now seemed very real to me, I was struggling with my zagu as I spread it out in front of my teacher and we did a full prostration to each other. Then I followed the Shika – Barbara Machtinger as we bowed low going around to the elders and the whole community.

Zen ceremonies make one feel humbled whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. It does you before you think of actually doing it.


My Way Seeking Mind in a Nut Shell


This person, Shindo Gita Gayatri was born in a small industrial city in South India called Coimbatore. A City with many cotton industries. Because of the salubrious moderate climate of this little City, many doctors selected this city for a retired life. So did my parents. Father was a doctor who went to England for his super specialization and on his return taught at Madras medical college. When he retired from there he settled down in this city which was in the foothills of the well known Blue Mountains of South India. My siblings were all born by then and all were in school or college. It was in this time of their retired life that I was born to my parents. Probably an accident!

Father was a Radiologist and Cancer specialist. Mother was a lover and healer of animals and birds. Mother’s mother was a healer in the village. She was also a manager of the village theatre group. Even though the women in those days were not encouraged to be educated, my father’s sisters were all educated and worked as teacher and nurse etc. Mother was not sent to school as the village was not well connected to the town and there was no convenient mode of transport. She had a personal tutor who came home to teach her. She also spent time in a convent with nuns learning to sew when father was away in England.

I grew up with several other beings. Cows, dogs, cats, love birds, Guiney pigs, turkeys, chickens. Mother even grew Mushrooms. Father used to read the ancient mythological epics like Ramayana and Mahabaratha to me as a child. Part of our grooming was to learn classical music or dance. Each of us were put through one or the other. I did a little of piano lessons, veena, carnatic music vocals and bharatnatyam (Indian classical dance).

A great Indian Rishi from Kerala South India, named Narayana Guru happened to visit my grandmother’s ancestral home. He installed our family temple, which today is a prominent and popular public temple. The temples that he consecrated were unique and different from the rest of the temples of those days. They were big open grounds with sand and had a pond, a garden, a library, and a hall for dharma talks. Some temples that he installed had just a mirror on the main altar or sometimes words, like we do on our kitchen altar in a zen temple. This Rishi had a disciple who was highly educated. He was sent to Sorbonne in France to study Western Philosophy and Education. His thesis on the Personal Factor in Education was well received by the great masters of his time, in France. This was presented in the French language and published in the Sufi Quarterly magazine. This teacher Nataraja Guru became the spiritual guide of my father and the other doctors in the city. He was a spiritual scientist in the sense that he connected the sciences of the ancient scriptures into modern scientific language. Thereby bringing together philosophy and science. The tradition in India is that we would bow down to the feet of the Masters when they visited. I was three years old when I first met the two masters when they came to my father’s house with a big group of western hippies who were around them all the time. When I was asked to touch their feet, I skipped the main teacher and touched the feet of his student Nitya Chaitanya Yati who was a philosopher and psychologist. He became my Spiritual Master, guide and mentor.

At age 23 I decided to marry and my Mast gave my hand in marriage to a military officer. Two sons were born out of this marriage. They both live in Mumbai. Both are working as brand managers in a music company and they are both part of two different bands. One does hard rock and the other is part of an Indian pop band called Sanam. Their father remarried an army widow and adopted her son. They are a happy family and live in Mumbai.

After my Master passed in May 1999, I picked up a begging bowl and started to wander in the Himalayas. Another student of my Mast who is a Sufi and a writer ended up travelling with me. We became co-travelers in life. We support and nourish each other in practice. We travelled together for about 5 years. To me this was a way of grieving my Masters death.

During one of our travels I carried with me the thickest book on the shelf of our library which my co-traveller picked for me. It happened to be ‘Crooked Cucumber’ by David Chadwick, which I read from cover to cover. Coincidentally I arrived in the United States to visit family. Visited City center and Green Gulch Farm. Later after I got back to India, I got a call from the Abbot Ryushin Paul Haller, inviting me to the Practice Period at Tassajara. He ordained me as a priest in 2009. Thus began my deep connection and practice with San Francisco Zen Center.

One Continuous Mistake


It was a Saturday morning. My body still not yet adjusted to the time change and jet-lag. Did laundry Friday night and went to bed late. I woke up in the morning and found that it was past time to do the wake- up bell. I jumped out of bed and got into my robes and rushed to the main building. The Sangha was all up and about. I wondered how it was without a wake-up bell. I let the Tanto know that I slipped up on the wake up bell. “Wonder if the Benji got it” he replied. The folks in the community were all getting ready to go into the zendo for zazen. Nothing seemed to be wrong. All seemed ordinary as usual. My Big mistake kept lingering in my head, shouting out loud – ‘How could you do this? Waking up the community is a responsible job and how could you slip out on that”? Then came the Ino. I went up to her and apologized. She said – “Oh! You didn’t ring the wake up bell?” I was rather surprised, “Was there a wake up bell” I asked . I didn’t have much time to figure this out, in the silent hours of early dawn when the Han struck out loud inviting people to the zendo. I had to stop the noise in my head and move on. I had to be by the Doshi door by the second roll down to step right in and do the Jundo (opening the zendo ceremony) before the Abbot came along.

In a Zen Monastery, the schedule for each day, is so structured around the sangha and well programmed in a perfectly choreographed way. The kitchen and zendo are harmonized in this structure as well. All the events that take place in the Temple, be it a food offering in the kaisando or a Dharma Talk in the Buddha Hall, all fall in place and move along with the day setting in motion the wheel of Dharma. It clearly defines the interconnectedness and nature of change. Without much talking about it, the very act of ‘just doing’ is so palpable in the body. The mind has no option but to move out of the way and receive what comes as it comes and face it ‘as it is’.

Later in the day on Saturday morning was the residents meeting. Each one had to say what felt real to them about ‘Giving and Receiving’. Each person had something deep to say. When it was the Tanto David Zimmerman’s turn, he started off saying that it felt like a ‘Dharma Talk’, when we were half way around the circle. I shared the story of my ‘Great Mistake’ of the day. Giving and Receiving happens without even the feeling of the giver or the receiver. This very ‘Gift’ of the BuddhaDharma and Sangha goes with us wherever we go. We carry it along.

Later I learnt that Killian Clark who was the Fukudo for the morning, had picked up the strings and moved on. He rang the wake-up bell when I did not show up. My Big Mistake went unnoticed. All happened as always. It sure was clear that nobody is indispensable. The Abbot Ed Sattizahn had the last word when I ran into him and he said – ‘One Continuous Mistake’. We burst into laughter!