Reflections on Descending the Mountain

by Deb Kyobai Faith-Mind Thoresen

Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi, because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became renowned for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner.

Bird’s Nest Roshi, answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous! Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.”

I stepped down as Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Sunday, May 21, 2023, and passed the Great Dragon Temple Seal to Sensei Dharma-Joy Reichert. I am not retiring from the Dharma or practice – one does not retiref from the Dharma, I am creating space for a leadership transition. I offer deep bows of appreciation to Sensei Dharma-Joy for accepting my invitation to be the fifth Abbot of ZCLA.

In 2018 ̧Roshi Egyoku requested that I consider succeeding her as ZCLA’s fourth Abbot. With much ado (trust me on this), I accepted her request for a four-year term, ascending the mountain, together with you, the Sangha.

Faith-Mind becomes a priest, 2007.

I have seen myself as a bridge, a conduit to the next generation, a protector of the mission of ZCLA, to provide and nurture, in precarious times, a secure and stable pathway for the preservation of the Three Treasures at Great Dragon Mountain. A bridge traverses the water, providing safe passage to the other shore. In a parable, it says the raft provides a way of escaping from the dangerous shore, over the water to the safe shore of liberation. Where is the shore of liberation?

I’ve been deeply drawn into the practice of gratitude, not so much the emotion, but as an understanding of who we really are and what life really is. One July sesshin many years ago, I was Tenzo, the sesshin cook, and Los Angeles was having a heat wave. Oh, did I suffer and create a lot of suffering for others. Some days it was over 110 degrees in the kitchen. It was a fairly large sesshin, so there was a lot of work: planning, shopping, directing, preparing, serving, cleaning up. One day, as we were preparing to eat the ritual-style meal we call oryoki, it was so hot, the heat penetrated through us. As we began to chant the meal gatha, the heat lifted!

Let us reflect on the efforts that brought us this food And consider how it comes to us.

During these lines, I saw in the bottom of my bowl all the people in the fields, experiencing this same heat as they harvested the food that was now prepared before me. I felt their sweat, worn hands, earth-stained clothes, and hats shading them from the relentless sun.

This was a wake-up call, an atonement for my complaining and whining about the kitchen heat. I gave thanks to the people in the fields, to ALL beings, along with Mother Earth, for sustenance, medicine, shelter – for this very life.

Our interdependence has the deepest of roots. It is unimaginable to think of any of us without others. There’s no such thing as a separate person, a detached independent being. We exist through the kindness of each other, Mother Earth and the whole universe. We’re all of that. All of that is us!

An “organization” of integrity practices gratitude and thankfulness. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.

Head Trainee Faith-Mind, 2005-06

That is a powerful passage from the Katannu Sutras on “Gratitude” in the Anguttara Nikaya (I substituted the word “person” with “organization.”) And this passage is from Winnie the Pooh, where Winnie is strolling with Piglet hand-in-hand:

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

My wish is for us all to cultivate spiritual friends and for ZCLA to continue to strive to be an organization of Integrity. We must all dig deeper!

To the residents, the Sangha, our staff, all the awesome folks that keep this Center functioning and mostly to Annette for the past 37 years of support in ways beyond beyond: Gratitude, Gratitude . . . endless gratitude.

Sensei Faith-Mind was the fourth Abbot of ZCLA.