Letter from the Chief Disciple

Degna Chikei Levister

Dear Sangha,

As we transition from the warmth of our summer sun into what I hope will be a fluorescent autumn, while still in the midst of a global pandemic, it is time once again to turn our attention toward the intensification of our practice. Shugen Roshi has asked me to serve in the role of Chief Disciple for the Fall 2021 Ango training period. When he first mentioned this, I really had no words; I was simply overcome with feelings–many which I still have no name for. As I write this letter, I find myself feeling most honored, excited and nervous about this opportunity to offer my practice.


As the first black identified woman of color to serve the MRO sangha as shuso, I’m wondering, what will it mean that a biracial woman who grew up in NYC public housing is about to take up this practice in such a public way? My father was, literally, a black man who grew up in the segregated south and that history is part of my embodied, lived experience. When I recognize my fear of this all being seen so publicly, I remember that this is sangha! I know you will continue to hold me and guide me in my practice as you have always done. I know too, because I can feel it, that I can only be my authentic self and that it will be enough. My trust in sangha, my commitment to the co-creation of belonging and my devotion to Dharma penetrates every single aspect of my existence. I will try in every day and in every way to do my best. Seriously, sangha, we got this! 

 The theme for this fall ango is “karma.” During the next three months, whether on Zoom, in person or at home, we are all invited to commit to strengthening our practice and bringing the study of karma into our lives. Another manifestation of dependent arising, karma, the law of cause and effect, tells us that everything that exists arises due to specific causes and conditions. Karma is non-linear and complex. Karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment, can change lives. As such, who we are and what we come from is nowhere near as important as our mind’s motives for what it is doing, right now. 

Cause and effect are one thing. And what is that one thing? You. That’s why what you do and what happens to you are the same thing.” —John Daido Loori, Roshi

My hope for this ango is for us to learn how we might begin to move beyond our superficial ideas of good and bad karma toward our naturally embodied expression of wholesome action, intentional action that springs from selfless compassion, loving-kindness and wisdom, while letting go of our conditioned unwholesome actions, which spring from greed, anger, and ignorance. Together, may we touch on the importance of learning how to work with karma for all our happiness, for all our relationships, in order to fulfill our vow to save all beings. I hope you will be able to join me. 

With gratitude and with love, 

Degna Chikei Levister first visited Zen Mountain Monastery in 1994 and met Daido Roshi at an Introduction to Zen Training weekend. Daido Roshi became her first teacher, giving her the name Chikei (Wisdom Jewel) at her jukai ceremony in 2001. Since his passing, she became a student of Shugen Roshi’s. Chikei works as Associate Dean for Enrollment Management and Access Initiatives and is the Executive Director of the City University of New York School of Law’s Pipeline to Justice program, which provides access to law school to those historically excluded from the legal profession. Since taking on her administrative roles, Chikei has seated the most capable and diverse law school classes in the history of the school. She lives on the lower east side of Manhattan and currently serves as a member of the ZMM Board Of Directors and the MRO Ethics Committee.