When Students Speak…

Michael McAlister Blog 1 Comment

The Infinite Smile Sangha has been known for bucking tradition rather significantly. Nothing against tradition, it’s just the way the organization has evolved. But there are some aspects of tradition that still find their way into our work. The Shuso Ceremony is one such tradition.

Being asked by one’s teacher to be the shuso, or lead monk, is at once an honor and an initiation. This ceremony demands a rather basic responsibility of the shuso, or lead monk: give a Dharma talk; answer Dharma questions afterwards.

It is among the most stressful and, at the same time, liberating experiences for a student to serve as the shuso and give their first Dharma talk to a live audience. Recently, a sangha member named Gina was given this opportunity and offered a great talk that was followed up by a great question and answer session. While she didn’t want her talk recorded she has offered us a fascinating impression of the process leading up to the event.

Enjoy.

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December 2010

When Michael asked me to be shuso, my immediate response was a shaky, “I’m not ready. I don’t want to….okay, I’ll do it.” The initial flood of nervousness uncovered too much curiosity to ignore. How would this unfold? After accepting, I was given seven long months to prepare a talk. The gift was that this invitation fueled the inquirer, the one who asks questions not only for my own edification, but for the sake of every other person, and questions began to burn at a steady rate. I must have emailed Michael questions every day, sometimes several times a day. He was always patient and concise with his answers and never once even hinted at, “Hey, can I have a day off?” Even though my greatest fear, besides an unnatural fear of frogs, has always been speaking in front of groups, the fear was manageable until two weeks before the retreat. What a blessing that I could no longer pretend to control it.

Infinity watched as the small me ran in circles of fear, spinning stories full of failure and embarrassment around what could happen. Because it’s really good at this, the ego looked for ways out. I even considered calling in sick. During one meditation, it came to me that I needed to throw out the talk I had taken months to prepare and welcome the talk that was preparing itself. I decided to talk not about my background, or how I had gotten to this point in my spiritual life, but rather to talk about the intensity surrounding the direct experience and the wisdom that was hopefully riding on its heels. In other words, I would sit in front of the group and simply talk about what was happening.

The night of the retreat before my talk, I did not sleep. I knocked around on turbulent seas, believing every wave, and lay there in hyper-alertness with anxiety as my pillow.  At some point, with absolutely no effort or doing, the “me” still trying so hard to be in control slid into the river and let the experience of fear float away with the natural current. By this, I mean, I died a little more. The thought of a solid me merged with the whole, or the un-thought. There may have been fear, and there may not have been fear, it doesn’t really matter, because the experiencer of it, the identifier of it, was gone. Love is what was left. As the unborn prior to all things that arise, Love needs no experiencer or identifier. And where there is love, there can be no fear, not because love negates fear, but rather it sees fear fully, then embraces and absorbs it as itself.

The teaching from those seven months can be condensed:  let a gentle curiosity entice you in the direction of fear. Fear may be yelling, but don’t be fooled by warnings to retreat. This is ego, saying, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here!” Be still and listen for what is being spoken softly underneath the shouting. It may be Love whispering, “See your Self as I am,” or the Universe whispering, “There is only this.” Even fear is the Infinite, inviting you to intimacy with whatever arises. As I found, intimacy with what is ultimately reveals the space always here. Behind every door is, as Michael says, “the One, masquerading as many.” You are That, dressing up as all of this.

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