“You can do anything you want in your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.” -Mrs. Featherston
The town eccentric, Mrs. Featherston, wore bright, flowing gypsy skirts and Converse high top shoes because of her hammer toes. She lived just on the edge of town before the Lewisburg Bridge crosses over the Susquehanna River. The house where she resided is now referred to as Packard House and it became a museum filled with all the clothes and artifacts she and her husband collected on their world-wide travels. Lewisburg is a small rural town in central Pennsylvania, noted for Bucknell University and the Federal Penitentiary. It is also the hometown of my teacher, Patricia Dai-En Bennage Roshi.
As a little girl, Patricia was taking a walk with her mother, Evelyn, in town one day when they met Mrs. Featherston on the way. Mrs. Featherston bent over and looked deeply and earnestly into Patricia’s eyes saying, “Hello Patty,” patting her on the head with one hand, then straightening back up and walking on.
After this brief encounter she asked her mother, “How is it that Mrs. Featherston can say one thing with her mouth and another thing with her eyes?”
Evelyn responded, “I have no idea what you mean, Honey.”
Dai-En Roshi remembers in retrospect what she thought Mrs. Featherston said with her eyes: “You can do anything you want with your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.”
Zen is simple, Dai-En Roshi would often say. “The way of the world is to, ‘Fly now and pay later.’ But the way of Zen is to ‘Pay now and fly later.’ We need to be willing to pay the price for what we want to do.”
Dai-En Roshi shared this story with me when I first came to Mount Equity Zendo as a 24 year–old young man. This was her way of talking about the need for practitioners to build resolve. We really need to want Enlightenment, to cultivate the mind that seeks after it, knowing that anything less than this mind will hinder us on the path. “Hotsubodaishin,” the heart/mind that seeks The Way, Enlightenment, Truth, is the cornerstone of Zen practice. My teacher planted a seed in my mind, suggesting ordination as a Buddhist monk as a pathway. This seemed like a scary prospect. Could I do it? What would my family think? What would society think? Is this what I really want to do? What would I need to ‘pay’ in order to ‘fly’?
My answer to those questions was found in the process of building resolve, a process that was, for me, six years in the making, and of daily living and practicing at Mount Equity Zendo. What I wanted did not come easily. Though she offered it as a road, Dai-En Roshi felt I was too young at 24 to ordain. She had me wait in order that my resolve be deepened. At the time, I had no idea how long I would need to wait. There was no timeline put on it. When I saw that my fellow Dharma sister was being ordained after one year, I got the gumption to ask my teacher if I could ordain as well. She said, “No, I don’t want you ordaining just because someone else is ordaining. Besides, she is much older than you and has considerable Zen practice and life experience.”
At the time, I didn’t think that I was asking because of my Dharma sister, but her ceremony certainly made me wonder when I could ordain, and initiated the conversation. Her “no” response sent me into a tailspin for the next several weeks which initially deepened my confusion as to whether I was in the right place or not. I decided, however, to stay put, and resolved, more deeply, to simply do the practice for the sake of the practice, without trying to become a monk, priest, or venerable person.
The years that followed allowed me to really consider what practice is and to let go of unhelpful notions about what constitutes a Buddhist priest. Perhaps the most transformative thing I did during this time was zazen, and – at my teacher’s insistence – work as a certified nurse’s aide at the nearby nursing home. I’d return to Mount Equity Zendo after an eight hour shift saying, “NiOsho [‘NiOsho’ means ‘female head of temple’ and is what Dai-En Roshi is referred to by her students], I’m so lucky–I can swallow!; I can dress myself and clean myself!” While most of my work was with elderly residents, there were also three young men I tended to, only in their thirties, all of them paralyzed from accidents. I realized the preciousness of the most simple functions, and how easy it is to overlook them when our mind is preoccupied with unhelpful notions of success.
Between zazen and work as a nurse’s aide I was able to see through the labels that society or I gave to me and to honor “the man of no rank” within myself. Society feeds us with ideas about what it means to be prosperous. Having a certain number of degrees, being a professional – a doctor, lawyer, chaplain, etc – can mask our vulnerability to being born human, and delay us from witnessing the True Self, the one not bound by hierarchical levels, the one that is the All. This is not a condemnation of levels and positions, but merely a recognition of how limiting they can be when we identify with them as our self.
The six years of living in this way at Mount Equity Zendo formed a solid foundation for which I am now grateful. For in that time I was able to let go of the idea of even wanting to be a priest. I was able to end my grasping after something that was not me. I was able to find satisfaction in who I am, without the need for a label or a person to affirm me. Shortly after I came to the conclusion that I am fine just as I am, my teacher asked me if I wanted to ordain. I had recently had my 30th birthday and she felt I had reached a level of maturity to make this decision on my own.
Having let go of my desires for becoming a monk was, paradoxically the doorway into being a Buddhist monk. Let me say, however, that I found the thought of letting go not the same thing as the actual doing of it. Simply knowing I needed to “let go” was not enough. Letting go is not an intellectual process, but a fundamental change that occurs on the deepest level of mind and body. It can be triggered gradually, suddenly, or both gradually and suddenly. The price I paid was six years of daily introspection through zazen, Dharma study, manual labor, serving the infirm, and working hard to understand and communicate with my teacher.
Shortly after Dai-En Roshi’s 15 years of training in Japanese Zen monasteries she returned to the United States in 1990 to teach. A friend from Nagoya, Japan was visiting her at the time, and she decided to take her friend sight–seeing around her home town. Her tour included the Packard House in Lewisburg. While inside the gift shop she inquired about Mrs. Featherston and was told, “Well, you know, in her old age, even though she had those hammer toes and was long widowed, she went in a wheelchair on her long dreamed–of visit to, of all places, Tibet.” Upon hearing this story, Dai-En Roshi reflected upon the message she held in Mrs. Featherston’s eyes as a young girl. “You can do anything you want, but you have to know the price and be willing to pay it.”
The foundation for the work for me to be a Zen priest was the resolve that I built up over six years as a lay student. I want to be a Zen priest! I can, indeed, do anything I want! I honor Old Mrs. Featherston, a lady whose eyes I have met.
Daishin Eric McCabe met his teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, in 1994 at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania while studying Religion and Biology. He began his 15 year residency and mentorship with her at Mount Equity Zendo in 1998 and completed Zuise in 2009. He is a present member of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a member of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists and has recently completed a one year Clinical Pastoral Education training program. In August of 2014 he moved to Ames, Iowa with his wife, Jisho Sara Siebert. This article is an excerpt from a book he is writing. To learn more, visit him on the web at: www.zenfields.org.
(This post was published in “Ancient Way” magazine which can be found at: http://dharmalight.weebly.com/)