SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Her father was killed in World War II. Her mother remarried. Young Sherry Chayat began finding solace and salvation from troubled times in quiet introspection.
It wasn't until she was older that she learned there was a name for such a spiritual exercise.
"I began practicing Buddhism without knowing what it was," said Chayat, now an adjunct art instructor at Syracuse University.
"I was suffering through a very difficult time with a lot of confusion about suffering, and pain, and justice," she said. "It made me start just sitting quietly in nature. I didn't know there was an actual practice called Zen until I was in eighth grade and picked up a world civilization culture book."
Today, after more than three decades of practice, Chayat is intimately familiar with her chosen path. She has been accorded the highest honor in Buddhist religious life.
Last Sunday, she became one of the first American women to receive official "transmission" in the Rinzai Zen sect. That makes Chayat her teacher's spiritual heir and links her over the centuries to Buddha Siddhartha Gautama himself, the religion's founder.
In accordance with the Buddhist religious philosophy, Chayat is humble about her achievement, saying it will have little bearing on her everyday life.
"It is an acknowledgment of a meeting of minds between teacher and student," Chayat said. "But the path itself is endless, and understanding is boundless. And I've just begun."
According to the 1998 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, there are about 565,000 Buddhists in the United States. Worldwide, there are more than 325 million Buddhists. Zen is a branch of Buddhism that focuses on enlightenment through self-examination rather than through Pali scripture.
The Buddha taught his followers to shun worldly attachments and desires and to focus on inward enlightenment, self-understanding and being in the present moment.
Over the centuries, Buddhism absorbed elements of the various cultures it permeated as it moved from India to Tibet to China to Japan and throughout Southeast Asia.
Rinzai is a school of Zen that formed in China through a fusion of Buddhism and Taoism and then moved to Japan. It is one of two major branches of Zen practiced in the United States and is more rigorous than the more popular Soto version, said Kido Berhow of the Rinzai Ji Center in Los Angeles. Tibetan Buddhism is the most popular form of Buddhism in the United States, he said.
There are several sects of Rinzai Zen and a multitude of lineages with more than 200 "roshis," or venerable teachers capable of passing on their transmissions.
Chayat's childhood interest in Zen Buddhism grew as she learned more about it. After graduating from Vassar College in 1965, Chayat moved to New York City where she met her teacher, Eido Tai Shimano Roshi. Chayat began practicing formally in 1967.
She came to Syracuse in 1976 after two years at Eido Roshi's monastery in the Catskill Mountains. In Syracuse, Chayat became an affiliate Buddhist chaplain at the university and the abbot at the Syracuse Zen Center, which has about 60 regularly practicing members and another 800 people on its mailing list.
"Zen is growing," Chayat said. "I think the success of materialism has brought us to a recognition of a deep failure. There's a lot of searching going on."
Chayat's students said she deserves the honor she received.
Bonnie Shoultz, a research policy director at Syracuse's Center on Human Policy, started meditating with Chayat during weekly sessions on campus. Shoultz said Chayat's strength is her ability to individualize her approach.
"She can be the perfect teacher for different people," Shoultz said.
Shoultz was among the expected crowd of 150 people who witnessed Chayat's transmission. Also present were Buddhist dignitaries from around the world.
In the first part of the two-hour ceremony, Chayat entered the Zen Center's renovated carriage house dressed as a pilgrim monk. She faced four barriers, represented by four people who posed one unscripted question each. Next, she moved to a fifth barrier, Eido Roshi himself. After she answered a question from him, he declared her to be his heir by handing her his staff. At most, Zen teachers name only a handful of heirs.
In the second part of the ceremony, Chayat, wearing a ceremonial robe given to her by Eido Roshi, recited an original verse and then gave her first talk as a roshi.
Chayat saw the ceremony not as a personal achievement but as "an opening up to the truth in the universe."
She added: "It's true that being a dharma heir is a high rank, but the true achievement is to understand that there is nothing to achieve."
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