Zen priest Norman Fischer, coabbot of San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000, began working with four boys in 1994 for a period of three years. The boys were twelve and thirteen when he started the group. They met once or twice a month for two hours to explore—in the form of discussion, hiking, writing and meditation practices—what it means to become a grown-up. Eventually the group work led to coming-of-age rituals, as described in the following piece from Fischer’s book-in-progress, Taking Our Places: The Inner Work of Mentoring Young People. Fischer now serves as a senior dharma teacher at Zen Center, and is the founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation. His eight volumes of poetry include most recently Success (Singing Horse, 2000).
In the end, it may be that the best part of what the boys—Daniel W., Daniel Z., Shonn and Kieran—and I accomplished were the rituals we did together. Not only because the rituals themselves were powerful (though they were) but more than that, because it was only after we completed them that we recognized the power of what we had been doing all along. It was as if during the months and years of our meeting together we had been wandering around in the dark trying to get somewhere, we didn’t know where. After the rituals, we felt, to our surprise, that we had arrived. The rituals somehow made the journey complete.
The world of ritual, like the world of childhood, is another world, a timeless world in which things happen symbolically and repeatedly, with nuance, suggestibility and reverberation. To enter the world of ritual we step out of the ordinary world into a world in which things that have happened long ago are reenacted here and now, in which absent beings are present, in which ordinary gestures or words take on profound meanings. We encounter this world in dreams, poems or stories, in images, sounds or in the subtle, uncanny experiences that pop into our lives from time to time, sometimes noticed, sometimes not. It is deﬁnitely possible for us to learn how to reenter this world on purpose—as we do in rituals—and be healed by it.
Rite-of-passage rituals are journeys through the passageway that connects the state of childhood to the state of adulthood. When we come to boundary times in our lives, times of birth or death, times of loss and sorrow, times of transition or desperation, we feel a yearning for the deep support and satisfaction that a true path toward the inner and the timeless can bring us. It is at these times especially that we need authentic ritual.
Since the journey to adulthood involves losing something and gaining something, the passage is both sad and joyful. In primal societies such rituals usually involve some form of ordeal, often days, weeks or even months long. The young people are usually separated from their parents and from the rest of the community. Sometimes they perform the ritual in a group, but more often each person does it alone. Often there is fasting or sleep deprivation to intensify the psychic state. Sometimes there is a solo wilderness trip or a quest to ﬁnd something that must be brought back. Rites of passage can involve secrecy, danger and risk. The ordeals in rites of passage ceremonies symbolize the process of being born. The passageway of transformation that one gets through with great diﬃculty is like the birth canal through which one passes painfully into this world.
Rites of passage are also renewal rituals, not only for the direct participants but for the communities to which the individuals belong. When one more person takes his or her place as a full-ﬂedged adult member of a community, the whole community can rejoice because it knows it has a future.
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The boys and I performed two kinds of ritual, one private and the other public. We knew we needed to do something deep and quiet for ourselves, but we also wanted to do something that would give us a chance to share what we had been going through with family and friends. Several likely elements for the public ritual already seemed clear: the ritual would include meditation practice, and each boy would lead the assembled community in the bell and chanting meditations, two practices that the ﬁve of us had been doing together for some time. With these, we had the nucleus of a simple yet eﬀective ritual. The working out of the other ﬁne details of each ritual in meetings with the boys was an important chance for us to get to know one another better—to grow together.
My conversations with Daniel W., the oldest, took a surprising turn one day when he showed up to our meeting with a ﬁrm and inspired decision that had come to him seemingly fully formed: he wanted, as part of his ritual, to formally commit himself to the Bodhisattva Precepts of Zen Buddhism. I found this quite surprising on two counts: ﬁrst, Daniel was a fairly willful young man who took pride in following no one’s lead; he was almost the antithesis of a religious conformist. And second, I had taken great pains in our meetings to avoid anything, implicit or explicit, that smacked of Zen or any traditional religious viewpoint. It is a persistent thought of mine that young people should never automatically take up the religious tradition of their parents. They ought to deﬁnitely choose it, not just slide into it because it is a family tradition.
So I was quite surprised by Daniel’s resolution, and even more by the clarity he had about it. “Now that I am moving toward taking responsibility for myself,” he reasoned, “I ought to have a basis for making decisions, and I ought to make that basis clear and public so that everyone will hold me to it.” I was impressed with his decision. It seemed to make the prospect of the ritual more interesting and consequential.
We decided that for Daniel taking these precepts was a personal decision, not an oﬃcial one. For now he was saying, in taking the precepts, not that he was oﬃcially aﬃliating with the Zen Buddhist religion, but rather that he was vowing to live a righteous life based on these ethical principles understood in their broadest sense. I wondered: Did Daniel actually understand the precepts? Did he really know what he was committing himself to? We held a series of conversations that eventually satisﬁed both of us that he did understand the precepts in his own way and was serious about taking them.
And so, taking precepts, making promises, setting forth carefully worded principles to live by became a key element in our coming-of-age rituals. Once Daniel had made the initial move in this direction, the other boys had to deal with it. They all took it quite seriously, and there was more than one crisis over it. Daniel Z. was very perplexed about the whole notion of vowing. Faced with actually publicly taking vows, he was very disturbed about what this might really mean. How could you say that you would follow this or that or be committed to this or that for a lifetime? he wondered. Things changed so much. Now he was young and felt a particular way, but he knew that last month or two months ago he had felt quite diﬀerently about things. The idea of making such a deﬁnitive statement about himself and his commitment seemed frightening to him in a primal way. He spent a long time thinking it over.
Shonn’s crisis over the idea of taking vows or making promises was even more severe, so much so that he became quite unsure of whether he wanted to have a coming-of-age ritual at all. He fell silent in our dialogues about precepts, did not seem to know how he felt or what he wanted. The strength of Daniel W.’s certainty about taking precepts seemed particularly disturbing to Shonn, who was a very self-conscious and competitive boy. I think that he now felt faced with an impossible prospect: to equal or surpass Daniel in his commitments and seriousness. Since he did not feel able to do that, he was, I think, embarrassed and confused about doing less, and so doubted seriously whether he wanted to do any sort of ritual at all.
Kieran has a very abstract and philosophical mind, and so he went on at great length about the whole idea of vowing—what did it mean and was it possible? He created elaborate trains of thought about it that I frankly couldn’t follow, and he worked out solutions in his own mind. He shared these with me along the course of our discussions, and I tried my best to poke at him in order to discover what he really meant. I did ﬁnally appreciate what he was telling me, though it was quite far from any idea I’d have worked out on my own.
With all this discussion, it was still clear at all points that the ritual was optional. There was no requirement at all to participate, and, if it were to be done, no particular way that it had to be done. From the start we had agreed that anything that took place in our work was by ﬁrm consent, voluntary action. I did often challenge the boys to stretch their ideas of what they could do or wanted to do, making the point that reﬂexively following one’s fears or desires at every turn was a limiting factor for living and growing. But all decisions in the end had to be mutual; coercing a young person to do anything, either by overt or subtle means, never works anyway. I think that, oddly, knowing they had the freedom and responsibility of ﬁnal control made the issue much more diﬃcult for the boys because they had no one on whom to blame their quandary. Dealing with the question of the ritual and of how he would approach it was probably the ﬁrst and most serious adult decision each of the boys had to make.
In the end they all decided to go through with the ritual; each was able ﬁnally to ﬁnd a way to embrace it, to make it his own. Often the boys’ parents were involved in those discussions, and the whole process became a very useful and thorough meditation on the questions of how do you live, how do you hold aspirations without becoming uptight and critical of yourself, what aspirations do you hold, and on what basis do you choose them? In the end we managed to come up with appropriate and individual wording for each of the boys.
Our coming-of-age rituals were held in fairly large public spaces with family and friends in attendance. First there was a formal oﬀering of incense made by each boy, and then a brief explanation by him of the meditation practices, followed by the doing of those practices together, led by him. Next came the chanting or reading of a spiritual text chosen by the boy. I made a brief introduction to our work and to the precepts that would be taken, and each boy repeated after me, committing himself to the promises he had written. After this the boy gave a talk on the promises, as well as on the general proposition of taking his place as a young adult. Following the talk I presented the boy with a new name. This was followed by statements to the boy by his parents, family members, and ultimately by anyone else in attendance who wanted to speak their heart about this young man. There were always many testimonials and expressions of love, with numerous people speaking to the particular qualities of each boy—his honesty or humor, his good-heartedness or persistence—and telling stories of his younger days. All the words and voices together seemed to paint colorful stroke by colorful stroke a portrait of a young person emerging from childhood. They described someone who had touched, probably without really knowing it, many lives in a beautiful way, a unique young person with strong qualities and great promise for the future.
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I based the private ritual on earlier work I had done with the boys. Over the years, at times we suspended our discussions and went on hikes together. These were never ordinary hikes. They always had some particular twist that made them a little mysterious and meditative. The ﬁrst rule was always: no talking. One time we hiked to the top of a mountain. I asked each boy to ﬁnd a special spot to be alone in, and in that spot to look down at the ground to ﬁnd some nearby object that seemed attractive or important—a stone or a pine cone or a blade of grass—and to pick the object up and concentrate on it until something came to mind. What is the stone trying to tell you? What question was within your heart that you wanted to transfer to the stone?
Another time we hiked up the hill to the top, overlooking the ocean. Without explaining anything, I deposited the boys, one by one, each at a special place. I remember Daniel W. was to sit in the tall yellow grass on an east-facing slope above a canyon. I asked him to be with his breathing, to quiet his mind, and to watch the grass tips waving in the wind, to study them carefully. Kieran was some distance away crouched behind a large boulder. His assignment was to be with his breathing and to look very closely at the boulder, at all its detail of ridges, cracks and colors. Shonn was at another high place far from the ﬁrst two boys. He was to be with his breathing and to study the clouds in the sky, how they formed and broke up, re-formed and dissipated. Daniel Z. was standing next to an old weathered slat fence overlooking the sea. I asked him to be with his breathing and to watch for whitecaps on the water far below. He was to catch them as they formed and watch what happened to them, then to refocus his eyes on the large pattern of whitecaps all around, to see how that pattern came to be and constantly changed. After about half an hour or so I came back and collected them without comment, and we hiked silently back down and wrote about our experiences.
For our private ritual we began at midnight on a full-moon night in early January. It was quite clear and also quite cold, so we dressed warmly. I hiked silently with the boys up the hill in the stark moonlight. Everything was painted silver by the moon, and it was startling how well we could see, though it all looked quite diﬀerent from all the other times we had been here; the bushes looked like silver clouds, the grasses like metallic spears. Everything seemed hushed, magical. Finally we reached the spots I had shown them a year before. I put each boy in his spot, and each felt, I think, a shock of recognition to see the place again, the same and yet completely diﬀerent in the moonlight. I asked each boy to do the same meditation I had given him the year before. I left them, but this time for several hours.
I do not know exactly what it was like for them to be up there alone for so long so late at night in the wind and under the moon. I do not think it was frightening, and it was not intended to be. But I know that it was an experience they had never had before, and I know that the lateness of the hour, the silence of the place, and the landscape and sky and moon must have created for them an atmosphere of reﬂection and depth. To be alone, completely alone, outdoors at night with no tasks and no purpose—only to be there with yourself and your thoughts, waiting, alert, intent—is always a profound thing.
I had also asked the boys’ fathers weeks before in a preparatory meeting to think of what it was they wanted to share with their sons at this particular time. What were the lessons they had learned from their own lives, perhaps from their own fathers? What were the stories, the feelings, the failures, the loves or losses that they would want their sons to hear and to know about as they prepared to become adults? The fathers had taken this assignment on with seriousness and gusto.
After the boys had been meditating in their spots for several hours I hiked once again up the hill in silence. This time I brought the fathers and deposited each one with his son. The fathers came with hot chocolate and a blanket and sat down quietly with their sons. I left them all for about an hour or an hour and a half. I have no idea what happened, what they said to each other, or whether they spoke at all.
While all of this was taking place, the mothers were down at the temple. They were talking quietly or meditating, and after a while they began writing. They were working on letters I had asked them to write to their sons, letters expressing their feelings on this occasion, that they would later give to their sons. What was it like to give birth to a child, to care for him and to love him, and then to realize they had to give him up, to let him enter the wide world alone? What sadness, what joy, what confusion, grief or disappointment? What were mothers proud of in their relationships to their sons? What did they regret? What would they have done diﬀerently?
As the dawn began to blush in the eastern sky, I returned to the hillside to gather the fathers and sons. The nine of us hiked silently down the hill in the moonlight and returned to join the mothers. We all had something to eat and felt for the ﬁrst time that evening how tired we all were. It was a good feeling, a relaxed feeling. It was very nice to be indoors, warm and together, to be chatting and laughing after a long night of silence, aloneness and intense intimacy. The room almost glowed with the feeling of it.
You might well ask: were these four boys unusual? How was it they were able to do all of this? Isn’t this extraordinary? Could a more ordinary person or community hope to be able to participate in such rituals?
I do feel that these four boys are extraordinary, but not any more special or wonderful than any randomly selected group of four young people. I think that what happened in these rituals amazed all of us. And it inspired others to be able to see the extraordinary in these boys and to express it eloquently and sincerely. All of us have extraordinary qualities. Every person is miraculous, a never-to-be-repeated wonder of interdependent causes erupting into the world, as magical as a sunset, as digniﬁed as a tree. But ordinary, everyday life has a way of weighing us down. We forget our power and beauty, and we desperately need to remember it. Our coming-of-age project, and especially the rituals that culminated it, were occasions for remembering the miracle that we all are.