Updated 10th March 2015
Buddhism Reverend Angela Daiji Caruso-Yahne USA
Submitted by Reverend Angela Daiji Caruso-Yahne a Buddhist Chaplain in the Zen Peacemakers Order She is an EMS Lieutenant in the Overland Park Fire Department (Kansas, United States) and a flight medic in the US Air Force Reserve.
In Zen Buddhism, there are periods of practice we call “sesshin”, a deep retreat. These retreats are characterized by days of noble silence – no speaking, eye contact, reading or writing. This helps us to get to a level of Buddhist practice that is rare in typical life. Each day of sesshin builds on the day before, allowing us to drop deeper into the stillness of meditation and examine our inner state. As the days of sesshin draw to a close, many things are present for me. Along with the spiritual spaciousness that has been cultivated, there exists a subtle anxiety with the awareness that the impending environmental shift brings.
I often have felt drawn to monastic living. For as long as I can remember I have sensed a calling to a way of life in which spiritual growth, devotion to religious practice, and community are central. It is a calling that I am still discerning, but retreat feels like home to me. It creates a container in which I can sense my own internal state and perceive community at a much deeper level than when I am in the “world” or my “regular life”.
The world, however, is where I operate. While the setting is dramatically different than that of the Zen temple (called a zendo), this is the larger temple of spiritual practice – the venue for the work of bodhisattvas. The bodhisattvas are those who serve to liberate all from suffering. Historically in Buddhist literature, bodhisattvas are exemplars of the Buddhist way: selfless, compassionate, clear and fearless. They delay their own passing to liberation in order to facilitate the end of suffering for many, many more. In modern engaged Buddhism, we use this Bodhisattva way to guide our actions, words and thoughts. We too vow to save all beings. So when the retreat ends I reluctantly bow out of the formal zendo, push up my sleeves and step into a new temple. This new space and set of conditions seems contrary to the state that I have nurtured in the days of silent meditation on retreat. How will it be possible without the unity of purpose and mutual respect of the retreat community? How will I continue to hold space for the immensity of gratitude, compassion, loving-kindness, and openness?
On the other side of this threshold awaits my job back home as a paramedic in the fire service. It is a profession I truly love and view as more than a job. It is a true vocation, my life’s service and ministry, and yet it feels like a paradox. This life seems to have a trajectory in the opposite direction from monastic living in Buddhist community. How can I somehow feel equally at home among the quiet retreatants at Upaya Zen Center and among the boisterous firefighters of suburban Kansas City?
As I begin the first shift after the retreat, I take a deep breath and walk into the station through the back door of the apparatus bay. I am greeted by the bright, industrial feel of the place which is visually juxtaposed to the dimly lit simple artistry of a temple. Further inside the station, there is the smell of coffee and other business as usual. The television is droning the morning news while in-coming and off-going counterparts seek out one another for a quick report on the preceding shift. Then back out in the bay, trucks and gear are checked amid recounting of adventures from the day off, good-natured teasing and collection of cash for the day’s meals.
In this moment, when worlds are colliding, the differences in these settings – fire station and Zen center – become less striking than the similarities. The familiar routine of the firehouse corporate dance is one that only occurs when the individual players invest in a greater whole. The unity of purpose feels analogous to the oneness expressed in retreat. Not unlike heart of the community, or “sangha” of Buddhist practice groups, this is our collective rhythm. It is no wonder that firefighters often call themselves “family”.
During the days and nights of sesshin, we hold silence. It was initially difficult for me to understand how community is formed without speech and conventional bonding practices. But as the retreat progressed, I was able to look at a deeper level for the connection we shared. Beyond the stories of our lives, which too often start with recitations of where we live, the configuration of our families and how we make a living, we have a subtle language of love and compassion which is brought forth in our movement, our steadiness and our gentle support. While the fire station is far from silent or gentle, it also is far from being filled with overt or superficial talk about love and compassion. One has to look closely, but at a far more complicated level, there it is. We ask about one another’s family. We offer help with home improvement projects. We support each other’s personal and professional goals with coaching and encouragement. We know each other’s triggers and we know how to exploit them right up to the edge between humorous banter and truly hurtful argument. This requires true understanding of a colleague’s heart state. It’s the relationship of brother and sister and it is a language of close community.
From this point of view it is easy to see common heart in the rest of our daily living. Just like in the Zen Center, we cook and share meals together in the fire station. Eating together is an essential way of demonstrating community. As we perform our station chores together, I think of the way that supporting each other comes in simple forms like tending to the retreat space by sweeping the temple or gardening on the grounds. Living in close quarters, whether they are in the bunks and locker rooms of a fire station or the monk’s quarters of the retreat, requires respect for one another’s space and state of mind. We study and learn together, fire response procedures or Dharma lessons as the case may be. In Zen and in the fire service, there is a common reverence for the wisdom of those with more experience and deep appreciation for their years devoted to this kind of service. They are our examples in this practice and mentors who are just a little further along the path. It is just the same for monks and teachers in the temple, and senior firefighters and officers in the firehouse.
The heart of our time in retreat is silent meditation. It is a dive into the clearest, most focused state of our minds. In a fire station, all of us sitting together on floor cushions with our spines straight and our eyes cast down would be impractical and counter-culture. But not unlike the meditation bell in the Zen temple, fire station tones and the words of the dispatcher call us to a sharp awareness of the moment. They ignite our senses and we respond sensitive to the fact that there is something beyond ourselves, a connection, that matters a great deal. Mindfulness, opportunity and the profound innate intention to alleviate suffering come together in a way that is held sacred by all. We scramble to fire trucks and ambulances to proceed with intensity and determination, yet without chaos or panic. It may not be silent meditation, but it is a state of focused attention and an intention of serving beyond the self.
My teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, says to us that bodhisattvas do not seek easy situations. She frequently tells the story of Jizo bodhisattva who went into the hell realms – right to the fire – and held open enormous sleeves to allow all those suffering beings there to climb inside and be moved to safety. What a potent example for those in fire and rescue. There are so many professions that benefit those in need and so many people who live out the purpose of ending suffering in this world. None of them seek the easy situation, but there are a few who go right to the fire, figuratively and literally, right to the nearest point of greatest suffering in people’s lives. There are few whose work demands that they put their own lives on the line for that of another. Even when the human self-preservation instinct urges us not to enter a burning structure or a twisted car on a busy highway, fire and rescue personnel overcome that instinct. On the surface it might be for the adrenaline rush, the hero’s glory, or the pride. At the core it is to relieve the pain and suffering of someone whose name we do not know, but whose humanity is deeply connected to our own.
The fire station is not a religious place. The ethical foundations of this service come not from scriptural lessons, but from another unseen place in each firefighter or paramedic. It is far from a retreat. There is no overt intention to nurturing spiritual practices during a shift together. It is, however, a spiritual community whose actions encourage greater capacity for service to benefit others and to relieve their suffering. This is the close group who support one another, through thick and thin, to a more enlightened version of themselves. The fire station is not a zendo, but it is in many senses my temple and the home of my sangha.
Reverend Angela Daiji Caruso-Yahne is a Buddhist Chaplain in the Zen Peacemakers Order. She is an EMS Lieutenant in the Overland Park Fire Department (Kansas, United States) and a flight medic in the US Air Force Reserve. Her current work is to create avenues for authentic, supportive, spiritual dialogue among those of different faith backgrounds and those of no particular religious faith.