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.