Hondo (Great Hall)  Where Choka is Held

When I became Densu, I learned to lead the chants during the morning ceremonies.  But I did not know that it would teach me how to be with people.  This post is a bit about that process.  I think it will be helpful for young monks and hopefully for people who have no interest in zen.  This is a description of process, but it can translate to other mediums.  I think it is clear that if the student is ready, then anything can be a good teacher.  I could have just as easily studied shamanism or butoh dance, but somehow my karma was to find zen.  And at the right time, being Densu really hit the sweet spot for me.

I struggled for my whole life up until my time at Sogenji with projecting my voice, dealing with stuck ki in my chest and throat.   Being given the chance to learn how to chant for the whole monastery was a great opportunity.  It was a great opportunity to be profoundly uncomfortable!  And an opportunity to learn how to open up and allow my central channel to flow.


Chanting is profoundly inspiring when done well.  If done poorly, it sounds vulgar and aggressive.  Or wimpy and without power.

When, at 4am, one leads the chanting in the monastery, the Densu person (Inosu) announces the sutra to be read, and after the sutra, chants an eko, a short solo dedication, often for people who the sutra is dedicated to.  And there are also lots of specific choreographed bells to hit at the right time during the sutra.  It is a slick well oiled machine.  And if the Inosu is good, it can be very moving.

Also, the Roshi is there chanting along with the Eko the whole time.  And he has a certain pace for chanting which he often changes, depending on his mood or if he decides to wake up the drowsy monks or the lethargic Inosu.  So, like everything else in the monastery, it is a teaching opportunity from the Roshi.

As I got into the job, I found that when I chanted with the Roshi, as I led the sutras, I also had to be following him the whole time.  If I followed his lead, then he would let me lead the Sutras.  If I tried to decide the pace, he would begin to change his cadence so that I would struggle to get back into line with him.  At first, this is completely disorienting!  Extremely frustrating!  But slowly, I learned to get on his wavelength and become him as we chanted.  To become what he was doing.  To become what was in in front of me.  Not in an idea.  But to really become it.

Also, in the midst of finding the line between leading and following the Roshi, I found that I had to do the same with my body.  I had to find the fine line between pushing and pulling, which is the secret to getting the ki flowing in the body.  The fine line between doing and letting go.  If we are trying to force a chant, it will backfire on us, and we will sputter and feel like we are inside out.  But if we can find the right vibration, we can ride the chant out to the end of every breath and at the same time build and gather ki in the tanden.  Choka was a great laboratory for me to explore these things, and I began to energetically open up with this seemingly mechanical job.

I really feel that the jobs in the monastery are great gifts.  They are a canvas to learn a new way of relating to reality.  Often there is a very physical, kinetic aspect to these jobs, which allow the body to energetically be transformed by them.  Life in the monastery is very physical.  Carrying logs down the mountain.  Sweeping the grounds.  Mopping the floor by running behind the rag on the ground.  We get into our bodies more and more, exploring ways to open up our bodies to this great life energy.  Jobs give us a chance to put our sitting into practice.  Zen becomes something real, that gets in our bones, not just an idea that we’ve read about but can’t find a way to bring it into our lives.  With Densu, I saw that in becoming what was happening, there is a subtle dynamic push and pull, and the secret to interacting with others is this same push and pull.

Mopping the floor, c. 2005

When we come into contact with someone, each person brings a certain essence, a certain energetic point to the situation.  Often when those two points meet, there is a conflict.  Often the conflict is somewhat unconscious.  A subtle battle begins from these energies, which we might feel or sense.  Or we might not understand why we feel uncomfortable around certain people.

If we can be aware of these two meeting energies, these nonverbal kiai, then we can learn to adjust our own energies at the right time in order to avoid conflict.  Or to allow ours to extend if it is appropriate.  Or to learn to meld those energies.  Often when we feel very good with someone it is because they are accomplished at this type of melding.  With the Roshi in Choka, it was always an opportunity to feel and adjust these energies, and to get the hell out of the way of his energy, and to follow right along side of him.  This simple refining of my awareness has been a profound lesson for me in life.  To learn the subtle language of these energies and to therefore feel what is actually going on in everyday interactions.  We can begin to sense telepathically what others are thinking, knowing the direction they are heading.  I have written more about this in my earlier post: Everything is Relating.

I don’t think everyone needs to go to Japan and become a Ki fanatic like I did!  But a meditation practice might be a requirement to begin to be able to feel and use these subtle energies.  Zazen meditation is a great laboratory for deeply investigating these mysteries. When we sit, a whole momentum and internal process is going on, and to be able to feel and adjust to each new energetic moment is what zazen is all about.  Like a tuning fork, we learn to become the moment, not from an intellectual place, but in a cellular way we melt into what is happening, over and over, sharpening our awareness.

It is quite fascinating.  It is never ending.  Everyone approaches this differently.  This is not something which will happen overnight.  We are all naturally telepathic, and the language of telepathy is available if we can get out of our own way and experience this unspoken language.  For me, it is all a big morning choka, and we are stumbling to find this beautiful concert of energetic sound.  In Fact, often my experience of big energy is hearing it, maybe not with my ears, but “hearing” the hum of this great life energy.  Please discover your own way of exploring this.

Thanks for reading.  Questions and comments welcome!