Shusho Itto

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything and thought it would be a good idea to begin by re-introducing myself.

Two years ago, transitioning back to the United States from India, the town I grew up in provided gentlest path home I could have dreamed. Nourishing my being and cultivating my voice in a different way, writing took a back seat to developing as a Yoga teacher. Six months ago, transition complete, the doors of the Yoga studio closed and I moved into residency at a Zen monastery further downstate.

For those who know me, this shift in direction poses very little in terms of shock value. However, the decision has brought with it a mixture of sincere curiosity and skeptical speculation, depending on who’s doing the inquiring. On either side the question is the same.

What are you doing?

In order to understand what one would be doing at a Buddhist monastery, first requires an understanding as to why. To better explain, allow me to introduce Japanese Zen Master, Dōgen. Among his many gifts, 13th century Buddhist monk, Master Dōgen left us with the phrase, shūshō ittō (修証一等). It’s an expression that translates as: all that we are to become, we already are.

Far from implying a pre-ordained destiny, this also differs from the mere possession of a seed or trait that we are attempting to cultivate. This idea instead indicates full possession of our pure, natural essence, in all its brilliance. The challenge of the human experience however, is that we often lose sight of this radiance because of all the important stuff that commands our immediate attention. 

This is both the why and what of spiritual practice and is true regardless of what century we live in. It’s at the core of the dissatisfaction the Buddha himself realized and is just as applicable, if not more so, today. Simply moving within the fullness of the present moment with nothing to be added or removed, is the practice. Over twenty-five hundred years, and it hasn’t changed.

As I’ve stated elsewhere in this body of work, the realization of this path is referred to as many things and although the practices vary within each tradition, at its heart, it’s none other than complete awareness. Although my understanding has changed throughout the years, the term that has resonated deepest for me is, enlightenment. The practice is simple and it doesn’t require monasteries, India, a Buddha or yoga mat and is not a lofty objective reserved solely for the pious.

What it does require is a human body, a human mind and a question. It also calls for faith; faith that there is an answer to this question — the question of life and death. Some are born with this faith. For others, myself included, trust must be developed. Like much of this path, this leads to a paradox: at least a little faith is required to begin practicing, but it is the practice itself that is paramount in developing faith. Fortunately, bridging this gap doesn’t require a blind leap. It’s simply good sense; where else would we find the answers to life’s questions, but within?   

This unfolding of wisdom is what arises as we place one foot in front of the other, simultaneously taking a step and arriving, further deepening our faith and understanding. It’s a road with no end and as one may imagine, it often requires a touch of patience and one hell of a sense of humor.

Joining other year-long residents as well as a group of monastics, there are about twenty-five of us living full-time at the monastery. The numbers fluctuate as monthly residents come to immerse themselves in the experience and with weekend and week-long retreatants that are here for support, guidance or a bit of head space. Swelling close to one hundred is where current capacities max out, usually during the six-day meditation, sesshins. This doesn’t include the hundred or so day guests that come for the Sunday morning service and lunch which is open to the public.

And so we practice. Since my arrival, there is no getting away from the fact that this is no longer a game of me; it is indeed a game of we. We work together —  a lot , we eat together, we meditate together and we offer thanks together. As one body we move, with as much awareness as we are individually and collectively able to offer at any given moment. 

Authenticity however, comes at a price and the only way to plumb greater depths of compassion, equanimity, patience and joy is through penetrating the layers covering it up. These layers are possible to observe as they arise when we are practicing awareness. They show up as anger, jealousy and greed. As we practice compassion with ourselves in working with these emotions, we develop compassion. As we practice equanimity when working with others, we develop equanimity. Patience arises from practicing patience. And joy arises when these hindrances begin fading away.

Supported by clear reminders, we are holding this space not only for each other, but for every individual who comes through the door. The lessons run deep and everyone is a teacher. With every breath and in every moment, surrounded by all that which has been placed along our way. It is because of these circumstances, not despite them, that we are moving together on this path of enlightenment.

It doesn’t require chanting, although we do. It doesn’t necessitate the burning of incense, although there is. Getting to the bottom of who we are does however, require awareness – awareness of body, awareness of breath, awareness of being. When the mind wanders, bringing it back to the present moment. When the mind wanders again, bringing it back. This is the practice.

It can be awkward, clumsy and ridiculously frustrating as the obstructions to clarity are intimately personal and involve lifetimes of habit patterns, repeated. Understanding that another person’s suffering is our own suffering, in the most literal sense imaginable, and amidst this cloud, developing the softness to be with all of it. Inviting others to show up exactly as they are.

We are not impure and the path is not leading anywhere. All we need to do is open our eyes and choose to see. And when we forget, making that choice again. And again.

Each time we do this, practicing that which we already are. Shūshō ittō

This is what I am doing here. For the first time in my practice, I’m doing it surrounded by the support of others doing the same thing. And for this, I am grateful beyond words.


~ by Christine Fowle (Mt. Tremper, NY)