On Descending the Mountain

by Wendy Egyoku Nakao

 While tidying my bookshelf, I came across The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The tale “The Frog Prince” prompted my reflections of my twenty years as Abbot of ZCLA. This is my telling of the tale:

Once upon a time, a young princess dropped her favorite toy, a golden ball, into a pond. Heartbroken, she sobbed uncontrollably beside the pond. Hearing her pitiful cries, a frog offered to retrieve the ball for her, but first, she must promise to let him be her friend and playmate, eat from her golden plate, and share her bed. “Yes! yes!” she replied. She got her ball back and promptly forgot her promise.

Later that evening at dinner with her father, the King, she heard a “slurp, slurp” from the frog eating from her golden plate. Mortified, she tried to ignore the frog, but the King was curious, so she explained the events of the day to him. Upon listening to his daughter, the King said, “Now, my dear, you made a promise, and you must keep it.”

With great reluctance and loathing, the princess let the frog eat from her plate. When she retired for the evening, the frog went along. His very presence disgusted her. Hearing the frog remind her of her promise, she picked him up and slammed him into the wall! When the frog hit the wall, it turned into a prince.

 The tale of the Princess and the Frog particularly resonates with me for I find that it aptly describes the workings of vow—a promise that recedes into the background of one’s life until it doesn’t. I have learned that vows have power. It doesn’t matter that we ourselves may not feel empowered or that we don’t know how to live our vow because, as I have learned, the power of vow makes itself known in surprising ways.

I have learned that vows have power.

Over the past twenty years, my vows took the form of the Abbot’s Seat. During my tenure, the Abbot’s seat encompassed several key positions: abbot, head teacher, resident teacher, head priest, and preceptor. When all of these are collapsed into one position and one person, people may not discern that each of these functions requires its own unique transmissions, capabilities, and skills. It’s a huge amount of work and responsibility for one person, so as we address the Zen Center’s future, we are experimenting with Three Seats in order to create a more sustainable situation.

During my tenure, I learned that as long as I remained on the complaining side of the vow, I was miserable. Not fulfilling the vow was a miserable way to live because I knew that I was not living the fullest life of which I was capable. I was not manifesting my potential, regardless of real or perceived limitations. When the vow caused me to hit a wall, so-to-speak, those were waking-up moments. I woke up—again and again—to what my work was regardless of whether I was well qualified or not. I simply put my shoulder to the wheel and the life of vow unfolded.

I love the King in this fairytale when he says, “Uh, uh, you made a promise”— you made a vow. When my work felt too much, I would hear “this is the vow” coming from somewhere. This does not mean unhealthy overworking, although many times this was the case due to circumstances, but rather a reminder that I was being turned by the vow. I was all in—all in for whatever the position brought—and surrendered to new territories within myself. So whenever I thought to myself, “This is too difficult,” I would remember that my vow was unfolding me in this way. Whenever I thought, “I don’t know how to do such and such,” I would remember that the answer is in the vow. Right here, now, in the challenging places, the power of vow is calling me forth.

Over the past twenty years, my vows took the form of the Abbot’s Seat.

Although I had no idea what circumstance would manifest, I learned to trust that when a vow is awakened, a momentum is unleashed so that one’s life eventually becomes the vow itself. One’s life is then lived as vow and repentance. I would remember in the midst of challenging times that the vow was unfolding; then the effort became somewhat effortless, no matter how physically tired I was. Then the energy of the vow carried me, and I felt deep peace and gratitude for the work of Dharma.

So, having thrown myself and having been thrown into the role of Abbot for the past twenty years, I would like to comment briefly upon a few main themes that stand out for me from my tenure.

The first theme is purification. When I returned to ZCLA in 1997 at the invitation of Roshi Bernie to “heal the Sangha,” ZCLA was in terrible upheaval due to scandals and the death of its founder, Maezumi Roshi. My first twelve years were spent purifying. The implication of the word “purify” is “to make clean by removing impurities.” However, the work of purification for me meant to reveal the causes of harm and suffering at ZCLA, to sit down in its shadows and hurts, and to attend to them. Then came the work of atonement, of integrating the shadows into ourselves and the Zen Center in a life-affirming way. There have been several significant developments as a result of doing this messy work, the most obvious being the creation of the Sangha Sutra, the weaving of the threads of our history, misconduct, wisdom, and goodness that informs who we are today and how we will move forward.

I learned to trust that when a vow is awakened, a momentum is unleashed so that one’s life eventually becomes the vow itself.

The second theme is protection. Specifically, protecting the purpose and vow of the Zen Center itself. I like to think of the organizational being of the Zen Center as the fourth Treasure, the first three being Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This means clearly articulating the Zen Center’s mission and vision and consciously structuring and operating it in order to create the best possible conditions for us to awaken together and flourish. When I returned in 1997, among the many facets that needed attention was the resident training community, a unique aspect of the Zen Center. At that time, the resident community had lost its focus—people lived here without any sense of responsibility for its purpose. It took a tremendous and fearless effort by a few people to turn this around. Over the years, we have developed skillful means for maintaining a strong and vibrant practice community.

The third theme is the creation of new skillful means. As the Zen Center moved past the heady early days of its founding, we were challenged to create skillful means to wake us up right here, now, within the unique circumstances of our lives. We brought the Precepts front and center into our everyday lives. We began Days of Reflections and adapted the Atonement Ceremony so that we each publicly atone for our behavior. We began in earnest the practice of Council, learning to truly listen and include diverse voices. We developed a Many Hands and Eyes approach when facing complex situations. We developed a Women Ancestors chant. We took up the practice The Three Tenets as a path to social action. We created a Three Tenets Mala practice. Perhaps one of our most significant skillful means is the ongoing development of Shared Stewardship, an exploration of Sangha development as Zen training.

I bow to the Frog Prince for the reminder that when a vow is made, new territory opens up in all directions. So when you feel squeezed tight and hit a wall, remember the vow. Going forward, I recall the words of my root teacher Maezumi Roshi: “In our profession, we don’t retire. We just get better.” May it be so!

 Roshi Egyoku is Abbot Emeritus and Head Teacher. This article is adapted from her Teisho “On Being Abbot,” May 5, 2019.