The Role of Shuso, or Chief Junior

In Summary

In brief, a shuso is a traditional role in a Zen monastery (and in modern times, in mostly-lay Zen centers). Literally translatable as “chief seat” (in the Zendo, or meditation hall), a long-time student is assigned the role for limited period of time (3 months to a year; in our case it will be a year). The shuso is supposed to model practice for all other students – so if someone is new to the Zendo, for example, they could look to the shuso to know what to do.

The shuso also takes on various practical responsibilities in order to make the Zendo and Zen center a peaceful place of practice for all (arriving early, troubleshooting, regulating zendo temperature, making announcements, etc.). You might say the shuso worries about stuff so others in the zendo don’t have to. Shuso is a position of responsibility but not authority, although the shuso may ask you to do something as some point, as part of her care of the practice environment. In a sense, a shuso is an assistant to his/her teacher.

After “installation” as shuso in a short ceremony, s/he sits in the front of the Zendo near the teacher(s), facing the Sangha (away from the wall) so s/he can see if anything needs attention during zazen. After serving for one year, the shuso undergoes a public question-and-answer ceremony, kind of like a graduation, called shuso hossen. Then s/he returns to the Sangha as normal… and if another lay disciple is ready to take on the mantel, they might be installed as shuso.

 

In Depth

Tradition

Shuso is a formal position in Zen training community that dates back at least as far as 1103 in China, where the role was described in a set of monastic training rules that still exist. Shuso is translated as “head trainee” or “chief seat” (in the zendo, or meditation hall). In the Dharma Cloud lineage, we commonly use the term “chief junior.” S/he sits near the guiding teacher and is held up as the exemplary trainee. The shuso primarily teaches by example. They are the source of encouragement and support to the trainees both directly and indirectly, the latter by handling organization and order in the zendo to create the most peaceful place for zazen.

The role and duties of the shuso varies from temple to temple, lineage to lineage, and over time. As we define the role at Bright Way, it contains some of the duties that may be, in other lineages or centers, filled by the jikido, ino and work leader. One part of the tradition we retain from Dogen’s own description is that it is a temporary position, held both as a kind of initiatory role and as a time for a senior to polish their practice in full view of the community. At Bright Way, a shuso will typically serve for one year, beginning with a brief installation ceremony, and ending with a graduation ceremony of sorts, called “shuso hossen,” which involves a public questioning of the shuso on a teaching verse of his/her choice.

The shuso is in a unique position in the sangha. S/he is primarily a coordinator as well as a role model. The shuso does not have charge of – or even oversight over – any department. S/he must work to respect and support the authority of the temple’s officers and those fulfilling both formal and informal positions. The job is one of support and encouragement most of all. Those holding temple jobs or leading teams and projects have autonomy within their areas and the shuso functions to help coordinate the life and activity of the temple. It is often more useful to the Dharma training and practice of the temple and its members to allow a person to make mistakes while learning a role than to correct him or her. The shuso must protect the delicate heart of practice and the desire to train in the sangha’s members; sometimes the best way to do this is by example – often, by the example of forbearance and stillness.

One of the strongest characteristics of the role is its innate awkwardness. One is always both junior and senior; this is a given on the path. As shuso, this fact is confronted deeply. One is head trainee and chief junior at once. The faces of the junior and senior are constantly being switched, sometimes worn at the same time.

The shuso has responsibility for fulfilling and managing the duties outlined below, but must bear in mind that he or she is also junior to many of those sitting, and may sometimes be the recipient of advice from others in the hall. S/he works to find a balance of courtesy and kindness when receiving or giving directions, as well as when making or receiving corrections – it is best to always speak to other sangha members with a smile, even when speaking aloud in the zendo when no one is looking. Any problematic behavior should be brought to the attention of the guiding teacher, and handled with their help. Bowing is the heart of this role.

Mistakes are inevitable as one learns to do this. How to be in charge of the hall when sitting beside one’s teacher? How to step forward, how to step back? The role is subtle, challenging, and shifts beneath one’s feet. One is confronted with changing expectations and unanticipated duties. The shuso often functions as a kind of lightning rod for the community, absorbing dissatisfaction or confusion from others. Grace, humility and willingness is key to the shuso’s success.

 

Eligibility

The shuso must be a lay or monastic disciple in good standing. S/he is chosen by the guiding teacher several months before entering the office. At this time, s/he is known as the benji, and may spend time with the current shuso learning parts of the job. (At the shuso hossen ceremony, the benji asks the first question – supposedly to show her eagerness to enter the job. After serving as shuso, one is known as a shokki. Shokki comes from the words for ‘write’ and ‘record’ and is used to mean a clerk in normal parlance. It means the person who guides and supports the shuso in a Zen environment.)

 

Duties

Specific duties for each individual will be decided through consultation with the shuso’s guiding teacher. The following is a basic menu but may not be inclusive.

Regular Duties at the Zen Center

  • Attends all Tuesdays and Sundays whenever possible. Arrives 35 minutes before the beginning of the practice session.
  • Works with the Guestmaster to support newcomers as appropriate; finds appropriate seats for honored guests (e.g. visiting teachers and speakers).
  • Notices whether scheduled Openers and Closers are in attendance and fulfilling their roles; steps in as necessary, and communicates with Staffing Coordinator as needed about coverage of these tasks.
  • Finds replacement (from the list of shokkis) to function as the shuso for the day when absent (or lets the guiding teacher know when they need to be absent).
  • In the zendo, sits near the guiding teacher, facing inward (toward the sangha, instead of the nearest wall), as the exemplary trainee in the hall.
  • Pays attention to all the people in the zendo/at the Zen center: Do they have what they need? Do they know what to do? Are there forms (established ways of doing things) they may need/want to know about? Does anyone seem uncomfortable or upset, and may need a friendly word? The shuso responds gently and kindly to these needs, trying to help everyone feel welcome and to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the zendo/at the Zen center.
  • Walks kentan (rounds – up and down the rows in the zendo) at the start of the first AM zazen period of the day when present. (Typically, Sunday mornings, and at the beginning of retreats.)
  • Works under the guiding teacher’s direction to communicate changes or guidance regarding zendo/Zen center forms.
  • Makes announcements at the beginning of class/discussion; keeps track of the upcoming events, etc. that need to be announced.
  • Rings densho bell to call the sangha together when it isn’t the role of the timekeeper.
  • Responsible for leading the meals and meal chant at Zen center when present.
  • Maintains zendo environment – straightening cushions, chant books, etc., regulating temperature and lights, etc.

 

Sesshin & Retreats

  • Helps organize sesshin registration and planning, in collaboration with guiding teacher and others.
  • Assigns practice positions and sleeping arrangements in collaboration with guiding teacher.
  • Creates, maintains, and announces the kitchen clean-up roster.
  • Welcomes and orients sesshin/retreat participants as they arrive, making sure they know what they need to, having them fill out an emergency form, answering questions, etc.
  • Troubleshoots during sesshin, being the “go to” person for participants.
  • Rings the wake-up bell.
  • Walks kentan (rounds – up and down the rows in the zendo) at the start of the first AM zazen period of the day.
  • Maintains zendo environment – straightening cushions, chant books, etc., regulating temperature and lights, etc.
  • Leads the meal chant and forms, following direction of guiding teacher re: timing of certain parts of the meal.
  • Keeps time by bell and han or assigns this job to a participant when necessary (the shuso never rings the bell to call people to the first period of zazen because s/he should be standing in the zendo already, ready to do kentan)
  • Organizes and gives work assignments and leads chant before work.