On Living An Authentic Life

by Sensei Deb Faith-Mind Thoresen

Good morning. Happy Mother’s Day! How many mothers are here today? I hope you have a beautiful afternoon and evening with your families. I want to express my gratitude for your showing up and sharing this event for ZCLA.

It’s a custom for us at ZCLA to preface our talks by appreciating the indigenous people who lived on this land for thousands of years before us. As Roshi Ryodo said the other night – they lived here before the Buddha’s time. Let us pay homage to the Tongva people who occupied these Southern California lands until they were colonized by the Spanish. To their elders and ancestors in the past, present, and future, we bow in respectful acknowledgment and offer deep gratitude.

A lot of what is happening here at ZCLA is gratitude to our founders and our ancestors and especially to Roshi Egyoku. Also a big thank you to Roshi Ryodo who has been a very important teacher for me for 19 years or so.

As you may know, ZCLA is currently involved in Ascending and Descending the Mountain ceremonies when, as Roshi Egyoku has said, we’ve been deconstructing the Abbot’s seat into three seats. One will be the Administrative Abbot – that will be me. Another will be the Head Teacher – that will be Roshi Egyoku. And the Preceptor or Head Priest seat will be determined later. In the interim, Roshi Egyoku and I will serve as Head Priest/Preceptor.

Roshi has carried the three seats for the past 20 years. It’s time for her to have a little respite. But I want to make it very clear that Roshi Egyoku is staying on as head teacher. She will reside here at ZCLA. And I will continue to appreciate and honor her and her guidance and won’t be shy about asking for her help. I think anyone who knows me knows I’m not shy about asking for help.

A lot of what is happening here at ZCLA is gratitude to our founders and our ancestors and especially to Roshi Egyoku.

Today, I’m here to answer your questions about my Ascending the Mountain, Receiving the Temple Seal, and becoming Fourth Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Buddha Essence Temple. I feel very humble in this endeavor and deeply appreciate all the help I’ve been receiving from you. May we continue on this journey together. I will be here to help you with your practice in every possible way that I can and to continue the hard work that Roshi has done for all of us.

Show up! I’ve held this mantra since my beginning days. Wherever you are, take the practice and show up for that. Show up for your children. Show up for your grandchildren, for your parents, your job. And it won’t hurt if you show up here at the Zen Center and in the zendo. For myself, certain questions have developed my practice: What brought me here? What kept me here? What has kept me coming back? And I listen to some of you and know your questions, too. But if you don’t show up, it won’t be answered because it needs to be experienced, it needs to be embodied. And then you can go home and read all about it. Unfortunately, I’m not a reader and studier, and I encourage you to come into this practice experientially. Then it becomes real, it becomes authentic.

When I took the precept class in the beginning, I realized that I wanted to live an authentic life. A life of intention and vow. That was one of the first important breakthroughs I had. I really wanted an authentic life. That’s been my journey. So I continued in this practice. I started showing up. Things unfolded slowly. I had no goals to be anything. In fact, it was a struggle to be anything here. Even jikido. But who knows really what my underlying motivations were. What kept me here? What has kept me coming back? I just allowed things to happen organically.

I think anyone who knows me knows I’m not shy about asking for help.

When Egyoku Roshi offered her Descending the Mountaintop talk, she spoke of four themes. The first was purification, and in her talk, Roshi referred to the three fires that broke out in the Dharma Hall shortly after her return. Then the atonement ceremony was developed along with precept studies. All to purify the space she returned to in 1997.

Roshi’s second theme was to protect the vow. This is where I say I started to open up to appreciating life and wanting to live an authentic life. The third theme was the creation of new upayas and expansiveness. Out of this, Shared Stewardship developed. Soon we shall be hearing more about the Open Palm school. The fourth theme is carrying on the lineage, carrying on ZCLA however that will manifest.We plan, we save, we do the hard work, and we don’t know what might happen. To keep that foundationally is, I think, most important.

One of the key points is trusting vow, the power of vow. To be present for the suffering and to meet it with integrity and openness. Don’t have a fixed idea of what Zen practice is. Everything changes like it or not. Standing on the right side of vow, be one with what you’re doing.

I received the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts and vowed in three different ceremonies – jukai, tokudo, and denkai. Understanding Vow was a very, very important concept for me. It took time for me – ten or 15 years – to really discover and hone my own personal vow: to serve others with an open heart.

Throughout my life, I have served others in many ways. For years, I was an airline flight attendant, so it wasn’t always with an open heart. Sometimes it was begrudging, being annoyed, or whining. I encourage all of you to continue exploring your vow. See what comes up for you. What speaks to you?

One of the key points is trusting vow, the power of vow.

Today, my vow to you as a Sangha is to be fully in. And I will say, it probably won’t be without some complaining. I vow to work on that. So I am fully in. You know the old story about Michaelangelo. When asked about his creativity, he said he didn’t actually create images. He just released them from the stone. He would patiently chip away until the perfect figure that had always been there was revealed. So we have a big shop and lots of hammers and chisels and zafus and sutras and upayas – there’s plenty of opportunity here. For me, it happened just at the right pace. It couldn’t be rushed. Not saying I didn’t get impatient, but it couldn’t be rushed. It wouldn’t have been authentic to me. So what are we doing here? We’re trying to awaken.

After Roshi Egyoku walked into a toxic center in 1997 – as she said in her talk – it took her 12 to 15 years to create and purify and atone and to heal the Center. To integrate all the shadows. Now it’s our turn. We’ve been part of her vision and her creation. And we want to continue to offer Roshi Egyoku space and energy to teach, and that’s what I’m doing here today. To honor her, her work, all of you, and the Zen Center. So we can all awaken together.

And we need to be ever diligent. We need to be the many hands and eyes. We need to not be complacent and think that we’re above and beyond. Forget that. We’re all human. So please, be diligent and listen and come forward if you feel you need to. Talk to someone. Buddha’s awakening was the beginning of his journey. Change takes time and it only occurs, in my experience, to the extent that we actually do the practice. So I promise – it’s the last time I’ll say it – show up. Be fully in. And see what arises. We’ll do this together.

Today, my vow to you as a Sangha is to be fully in.

This mountain being ascended literally means the ceremony of installing a new abbot. Recently, one of my spiritual friends sent me this –
“Climbing up to the unfathomable mountain peak, I feel I also climb into the lap of all the ancestors and teachers that have inhabited this place before me. Supported and helped by them, I’ll leap freely into that emptiness.”

That energy of leaping and being free speaks to me. I was just talking to someone about how important it is to make close spiritual friends, Dharma brothers and sisters. That connection is very important. And to be able to have them to support and help you in a different way than other people in your life. It’s a very important aspect of our growth. I encourage you to nurture those aspects of your growth.

My spiritual friend also shared this with me: “The only limits that exist are the ones we have set for ourselves. Take off the blinders, break the chains, push down the walls of your cage, and take a step forward. When you’ve taken that step, acknowledge it. And take another step. And when you finally arrive at enlightenment as whole body and mind, acknowledge it, let it go, and you guessed it… take another step. This kind of practice always is, always has been, and always will be the ceaseless practice of all the Buddhas and Ancestors.” As we chanted today – I am the Buddhas and they are me! You will be a Buddha.

Recently, I was reading Roshi Chozen Bays’ book The Vow Powered Mind in which she shares that Maezumi Roshi, ZCLA’s founder, was asked by an interviewer: “Christians believe in a soul that continues after this life. Do you Buddhists believe in something permanent that continues after death?” Maezumi Roshi considered for a moment and said, “No, rather we believe in vow.” I find that to be a really appropriate statement today.
The energy of vow does not die with the person but lives through time, changing as it is picked up by new people, always continuing to bear fruit.

Sensei Faith-Mind is the 4th Abbot of ZCLA. This article is adapted from her Dharma talk given on May 12, 2019.