The 100th Anniversary of Soto Zen Buddhism in North America

:: Submitted by Sosan Theresa Flynn, Guiding Teacher of Clouds in Water ::

I am seated with six other participants on top of a high altar on the stage at Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission in Los Angeles. There are many parts of this weeklong Jukai-e ceremony that were rehearsed but this part was not. A few minutes before, the priests organizing the ceremony had ushered us up onto the stage and then motioned us to climb up the seven steps to this platform. Now, Gengo Akiba Roshi, bishop for the North American mission of the Japanese Soto-shu, Jan Chozen Bays Roshi, Shoken Winecoff Roshi, and their attendants swoop toward us. Their heads are below the level of our feet.

I am astonished and have no idea what is happening. Then they bow to us, ring bells, and begin circumambulating the platform while chanting, “You have received the precepts and now dwell in the realm of the Buddhas and Ancestors. Truly, you are a child of the Buddha.”

I have heard these words before, at my own jukai ceremony, at my ordination ceremony, and at my dharma transmission ceremony. But now, the message sinks into my bones, into my marrow, it sinks beyond anything I can think about it. I walk down from the platform, walk off the stage, return to my seat, and watch as the very same thing happens to all the rest of the nearly 100 participants. It is an image that will stay with me forever.

This was just one part of the wondrous ceremony called “jukai-e.” Lest you think that this ceremony is limited to dharma-transmitted priests, please know that of these participants, only about a dozen were dharma-transmitted and maybe another couple dozen were ordained priests or lay teachers. The rest were lay practitioners, including some who had never before received the precepts in a jukai ceremony. This is a ceremony that powerfully delivered the message that each and every one of us is Buddha. And by “us” I don’t just mean those in the ceremony, but everyone.

It will take me a long time to truly receive all that has happened. The jukai-e ceremony is like taking the whole year of preparing for jukai and compressing it into five days. It is also like taking the two-hour jukai ceremony and stretching it out over five days. Something very magical has happened with regard to time. We did not have to sew rakusus, but we were fully immersed in “Namu Kie Butsu” – taking refuge in Buddha.

For all of the various ceremonies that make up this jukai-e, I was seated in the number one seat and was first in line for all the processions. I also made a formal request, on behalf of the assembly and in front of the whole assembly, to receive the precepts from Akiba Roshi. I found out later that it was the first time in the history of the world that a woman represented the assembly in a jukai-e ceremony. I am beyond happy that a woman finally was placed in this position of honor and deeply humbled that the woman was me.

I am also profoundly grateful to Akiba Roshi for giving me a new Buddhist name. When registering for the event, we had the choice of using our original dharma name or asking for new names. I wrote that it was not necessary to give me a new name, thinking that I am not likely to use a different name and not wanting to cause more work for Roshi. When I looked at my lineage papers, I was very surprised to see a different name, which apparently Roshi decided he wanted to give me. I didn’t realize how much I needed this new name until I saw it: Renzan Dōjin, 連山 同仁, which means, “Mountain in a Chain [of mountains], Equal Blessings.” 

My original way and dharma names are Sōsan Dōan, 双山 同行, which means, “Twin Mountain, Identity Action.” The characters “Twin Mountain” are from a story about a student and teacher who are on separate mountains and yet meet. Since I am no longer in contact with Dosho Port, the ordination teacher who gave me that name, it’s been a challenging practice for me to continually re-envision its meaning. “Identity Action,” usually pronounced as Dōgyo, is one of the Boddhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance identified by Zen Master Dogen. I associate that name with “being one” with hard work – completely present so that it is effortless. And yet, I have often felt it to have the taint of needing to DO something, rather than just BE. 

I believe that “Mountain in a Chain [of mountains]” really fits with who I am without my needing to re-envision it. I see all of you sangha members are mountains, each with your own wisdom and autonomy. I love to engage with the dharma in this way! And when we engage together in this way, blessings arrive – equally for all – without us having to DO anything. Probably I will still go by Sōsan, but these new names are inscribed upon my heart.

Thank you to everyone who made the jukai-e ceremony possible, including all of you at Clouds in Water, whose donations helped pay some of the registration fees for the Clouds participants. I was thrilled to share this experience with Carol Iwata, Myoshin Benjamin, and Myo On Hagler from Clouds, my teacher Joen Snyder O’Neal who was present as one of the dignitaries, and many other dignitaries and participants in the Katagiri lineage. It is now my dream that we can find a way to offer this jukai-e ceremony in Minnesota before I die. I would love for all of you to have the opportunity to experience it. May it be so.

For more information about Soto Zen, go here.

Sosan Theresa Flynn began practicing Zen in 1992, was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in 1997, and received dharma transmission from Joen Snyder O’Neal in 2012. She enjoys working with lay students, as well as those who wish to pursue priest ordination. For the past 17 years, Sosan has taught beginning and intermediate classes on Zen Buddhist principles, ethical guidelines,  meditation practices and council practice. She has officiated at many ceremonies (daily liturgy, special liturgies, wedding, baby naming, and memorial services), and also offers premarital and couples counseling. Sosan has a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and worked in both community mental health and staff training before coming to work at the Zen center. Since 2015 she has served as the Guiding Teacher for Clouds in Water. Sosan and her husband of 30+ years have raised one son, now an adult who brings them great joy. They live a short distance from Clouds in Water with their three cats.  Sosan’s website

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

To keep updated on events and to receive support for your practice, sign up for our newsletter.

Clouds runs on the generosity of our supporters and sangha. Donations allow us to provide accessible programming and to serve our community in a variety of ways. Your heartfelt contributions are deeply appreciated. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit and all gifts are tax-deductible.

Our blog supports the ongoing practice of the Clouds in Water sangha with nourishment that aligns with our programming and commitment to non-harming and serves as a rich source of Buddhist teaching in the Twin Cities.

Our sincere intention is that each post is a Dharma gate that members and the wider community can pass through on their journey to wholeness and well-being.