Shuso Ceremony: The Practice of Intimacy by Ben Connelly

Intimacy is one of the central themes of Zen, intimacy with each moment and each thing, and intimacy between teachers and students. Struggling with a particularly subtle and difficult point of Zen thought on the subject of enlightenment, I once questioned teacher Reb Anderson during a retreat. I don’t recall the question but I remember his answer: “Enlightenment is realized between two people.”

The record of Zen from China is principally koans, stories of very brief verbal and gestural exchanges between Zen practitioners. Surely, the many visits that I have made to talk with my teacher, Tim Burkett, and to a lesser extent a number of other teachers, have been a fundamental part of the Zen practice that has rather extraordinarily transformed my life. The Buddhist path of suffering to non-suffering, from there to here, is the road I’m on. Look! We’re strolling side by side.

Ben Connelly and Tim Burkett

The shuso ceremony is a traditional rite of passage in Zen. A person, usually a priest-in-training, is made shuso, or head student. The shuso leads, with his or her teacher, a practice period which is an eight week period of coming together for concentrated practice by a Zen community. (At MZMC we have practice periods each spring and fall.) The practice period ends with the ceremony in which a koan, one of these old accounts of a conversation, is presented by the shuso and the community can ask the shuso questions about the koan. Thus, the ceremony is a bit like one of those Russian dolls that contain more Russian dolls, a series of brief exchanges, questions and answers, based on a series of answers and questions, a continuous unfolding of intimacies.

If you’ve ever read a koan, you may find the prospect of engaging in this kind of questioning and answering intimidating, baffling, fascinating, fun, enlightening, or just bizarre. Koans are challenging, they often refer to things we don’t know, and more importantly they intentionally confound any traditional means of understanding the mind employs. They are here to free us from our habitual limited views. However, when we do shuso ceremonies at MZMC we ask everyone involved to let go of trying to be smart or worrying about not getting it. The ceremony is about us as a community coming together to mutually engage in the intimate process of conversation about our practice and our lives, to give ourselves to the process, to show ourselves. If the koan doesn’t make sense to you, just ask a real question from your heart.

In April, I was made shuso. The ceremony was one of the great joys of my life. It is very difficult to express the degree of gratitude and amazement I feel when presented with the completeness with which people at MZMC give themselves to practice. Oh, the heartfelt questions people gave! Simple, complex, subtle or raw, people put their questions out and I let out responses with a profound sense of trust in our practice and teachings. I encourage you all to attend a shuso ceremony, they are occasions of great joy and connection. I also encourage you to make meeting with a teacher a regular part of your Zen practice. There is no need for some big question, just give yourself the time to be real and get support for your aspirations.

I will leave you with some poorly remembered paraphrases of exchanges from our most recent shuso ceremony.

“If there is no building, where are we?”
“Together.”

“The koan talks about knowing how to beat the drum, is it possible to teach rhythm?”
“Yes. But when teaching rhythm the main thing is to help the student concentrate on and trust their own musicality.”

“What is the most important thing?”
“Love.”

Ben Connelly and several other teachers offer one-to-one Practice Meetings at MZMC. For more information contact the office or see the front bulletin board.

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