OSCI Jukai Reflections

Since 2008, Buddha Eye Temple has helped facilitate Oregon State Correctional Institute's "Deer Park Sangha," a group of inmates engaged in zen practice. On January 28 of 2017, Ejo gave the precepts to Konin Kevin Roper in a jukai ceremony following a morning and afternoon of sitting. Konin is the second OSCI inmate to receive jukai--the first, Bokushin Jake Edmonds, received the precepts in 2013. Both men wrote reflections on their experience, which we share here.

Kōnin Kevin Roper

I stand barefooted looking out the window; it is 4:30 a.m. and the lights are out. An occasional car passes by on the freeway in the distance. I like this time because it is the quietest of day, no clanging of metal or roar as people start their day. I take my eyes off the fence between me and the freeway, wrap a blanket around myself, and sit down for zazen.

It is early even for me but I am up early because I know I am taking Jukai today. My mind and heart have been busy thinking for months. While I imagine that the bubbling up of my fears, insecurities, and obsessions are all a fairly normal process, I cannot help personalizing it as these arise. When I shared with a friend how self-conscious I was about being the center of attention today he laughed and said, “too late for that now.”

I came to zazen to feel better fifteen years ago. It worked and felt like one of the best pieces of my sanity. As time passed, life led me through the rapid-fire terrain of several deaths, betrayals, and an overwhelming admittance that I had no more. In the middle of this storm, I just had no idea how to find the shore; it felt like I only knew how to cling to the life preserver.

Four years ago, I eventually asked to take the precepts during the storm. With time, things did really get easier after the external ask; I just studied, practiced, volunteered, and thought a lot. When I was told that a date was set for Jukai a few months ago, everything became complex and sticky as I started to sew the rakusu. Is it not supposed to get simpler?

This morning I am watching the balance between fear and excitement. I do feel self-conscious but also purposeful. Later Ejo told me my dharma name, Kō Nin, and that it meant “Broad Patience”. My immediate thought was both “what the hell,” and a chuckle. I felt a sense of amusement as I felt into the name.

Sewing a rakusu was an exploration. Getting the cloth and needles into the institution was the easy part thanks to Buddha Eye Temple. Being allowed access to them was another story, along with little things like an iron. Luckily, I am in the hobby shop where I can get 2-6 hours a week to sew. It is a noisy space shared with 50 others who share the communal space and tools. I found you can iron cloth with a steel block heated in boiling water and that the mantra can happen in the presence of power tools. Things did get easier, especially after an iron was donated to the shop and everyone had the chance to ask me three times a piece what I was sewing on.

During the ceremony, it was registering that this was a crossing over for me, a public, not physical boundary I was recognizing. The map was being redrawn, and I was choosing to stay in sight, to be on this side of self-intimacy and tenderness. To be visible when things get tough instead of hiding, to always expose the Self so I can see the same in others. I have no less fear and anxiety but feel more that the precepts are taking me than the other way around.


Bokushin Jake Edmonds

The decision to take the precepts was hard; it was also very easy. The paradox battled in my head for several months before I asked Aido, after a Wednesday night service, to take the precepts.

Part of me knew that I would have to commit to viewing life in a compassionate and patient way. That was what fought the hardest, the part that was comfortable in the old view. The easy part, the lightness I felt from the intention to relinquish that same old self-centered view of the world.

Intellectually the precepts make sense: of course you shouldn’t steal or take what doesn’t belong to you; that person worked hard for that thing, it made sense; of course you shouldn’t gossip, or boast or take a life intentionally. Naturally you should strive to support your community and to revere the teachings of the Buddha. All of that translated to living with integrity. The struggle was the intention to give up ME. What I want, what I need, Me, Me. Me did not want to relinquish control.

As I continued the journey toward the Jukai ceremony, there were bumps that I had along the road. Getting the DOC to let me sew being the biggest hurdle, every setback brought Me back into control for briefer and briefer periods. As I sewed and remembered why I was doing this, a lightness that comes with the relinquishing of a self-centered life sttled in. The Dharma has that effect; once considered it never leaves and the self-centered thoughts become exposed and begin to lose their power over you.

On the practical side, I had never really sewn anything before (so technical!). Each stitch toward the completion of this sacred garment felt like a triumph; my skills sharpened with each panel completed, and at a certain point I was accomplished enough to actually contemplate as I sewed. This transition was subtle, much like the dharma. I contemplated the precepts themselves and how I could live up to the responsibility of them; would I falter? Would I be a terrible Buddhist? This responsibility might be too big; after all the failures in my life, what if I’m wasting everybody’s time? With each visit with Ejo and every rakusu piece successfully completed, the insecurities started to fade away: certainty asserted itself, this journey had nothing to do with Me.

When the day came and I was going through with it, publicly stating my intention and vowing before an audience that I would uphold these precepts, I was overwhelmed with the practical aspects and the ceremony itself and all of the trouble Ejo, Myobun and the chaplain had to go through to make this possible. I was overcome with gratitude for their diligence: this is what selflessness means.

Reflecting on the name Bokushin, “unadorned heart,” I understood it to mean that I liked things to be simple, to cut through all the outside stuff and keep it basic. I don’t know how Ejo saw into the heart of the person but Bokushin at his heart is a simple guy. It’s when I have added all the extra stuff, labels and judgements, to my life that trouble started, when Me took over.

Watching Kōnin take his journey this weekend I wondered if he had all these same thoughts and if his head was swimming with gratitude for the trouble everyone had gone through for this to be possible. I have no way to know his personal journey or that of Ejo or anyone else who had gone before and after me; I was just happy to be available and to help where I could. That is what the precepts asked of me, to be available and to help. I’m happy to live up to them.