Why's Everything That's Supposed To Be Bad Make Me Feel So Good?
Last week I awoke at 2am with an acute sense of panic manifesting as a physical pain in my chest. I was awake for about an hour after that, not being able to sleep, filled with anxiety about this blog. That’s right. I couldn’t sleep because of this very blog. I kept thinking, “Who the hell am I to write about Buddhism?” I really don’t want to misrepresent something as big and old Buddhism, or claim that I know what I’m talking about. As I’ve said before, I’m not a teacher. I don’t have transmission. I’ve been ordained for… uh… not even four years. And I’m a twenty-eight year old person. I’m the same age as Lisa Dunham, who wrote the TV show “Girls,” about four broke friends in Brooklyn. I’m also the same age as the creators of “Broad City,” which is also a show about two female friends getting stoned and being broke in New York. I’m getting the message from my culture that I’m supposed to be writing about being broke, doing drugs, and living in NYC, but only one of those things applies to me.
My last few posts got a lot of hits. Not Harry Potter-sales-a-lot, but for me and my oversensitive physiology, it was a lot, and it got me worked up into a guilty panic. It might be useful to understand that I have spent the last four and a half years practically in silence, just trying to quietly do my work and not make any mistakes and not be noticed. In Japan, it’s considered arrogant to accept a compliment or draw attention to yourself. The most common thing that both my teachers in Japan tell me is “Don’t rush.” Aoyama Roshi often says that even though she is 82 years old, she feels like she is just beginning to understand what Buddhism is about. The Buddha-Way is endless, so instead of trying to understand everything right away, I should be patient, and keep going steadily and slowly. So it actually makes me kind of uncomfortable to write down opinions and ideas about Buddhism, and it makes me even more uncomfortable to have people think they are valid opinions.
Which is why I’m not going to write about Buddhism any more. I quit! Consider this my official resignation. From now on I’m just going to write about my life. I’m not going to expound the dharma; I’m just going to expound the facts of my weird, silly life, and if anyone projects a deeper, profound meaning onto that, well then tough titties.
Here it goes. My life, without Buddhism.
Okay, the problem is that everything in my life is about Buddhism. I spent nearly all of my twenties either on a vague spiritual quest in India, or in a Japanese monastery. You have to rewind wayyyyy back to find a time in my life with no Buddhist influence. I think it must be high school. When I think about it, the only thing that I still have in common with my high school self is my love of coffee and religious buildings. Should I write about that?
I started drinking coffee the summer before high school. My mother took me on a trip to Italy, and we would have cappuccino in the morning and espresso in the afternoon. Instead of staying in hotels, we stayed in convents. Lots of Catholic convents in Italy rent rooms to women for very cheap. I loved those Italian convents; I loved the gardens, and the chapels, and the stone walls. I loved all of it. In Florence, one nun told me to come back when I was eighteen and ordain. I never did, because I don’t believe Jesus is my savior, and that would have been a deal breaker, but I will always remember the garden of that convent, and how I felt there, the sense of hope and quiet.
When I got back to America, I continued drinking coffee. I would get a latte in the morning on the way to school. Pretty soon I was addicted. I’ve been addicted to coffee for more than ten years now. I managed to stay addicted to coffee throughout my years in the monastery, which is a pretty impressive feat. At the first monastery I practiced at, the abbot would do lots of memorial services and he would receive gifts of instant coffee and food, so he would just give that to us. There were only a few monks there at the time so it wasn’t very strict, and I could drink coffee whenever.
Before I went to Nisodo, the women’s monastery, I decided I wanted to quit drinking coffee. I was kind of at rock bottom in my life, and I wanted to make a clean break. I wanted to not rely on anyone or anything. I wanted to become strong enough that I could be okay with any situation. I knew that I was going to a place that was very strict, where no one would hold my hand, and where I wouldn’t have control over what I ate or drank, or even when I slept. So I quit coffee.
When I first got to Nisodo, I shared a room with four other nuns. They were all over the age of forty. Only two spoke English, and the head nun put me at a desk next to hers in the room so she could watch over me. She would give me instructions and criticism constantly throughout the day. I had been in a monastery for a while before this, but I wasn’t used to this level of constant scrutiny, especially during time that I would have considered “free” or “private” time (concepts which I soon learned did not exist). I wasn’t used to having there be a certain way to sit while studying, a certain kind of table cloth to use while sewing, a certain way to change clothes so that none of my skin showed. I wasn’t used to the content of my personal laundry being checked (red underwear is not allowed). I wasn’t used to sitting on the ground so much, or having to follow orders, and I didn’t speak Japanese. It was a rough transition.
With all the rules and formality, then, I was surprised to notice that the other nuns in my room were drinking coffee at their desks during free time. They each had little mugs that they’d fill with hot water from the pots near the kitchen, and if they had ten or fifteen minutes they’d mix up a cup of instant coffee and drink it. The head nun in my room sheepishly explained to me, “Really we are not allowed to drink coffee because of the smell. But the kitchen gave us this coffee.” But soon it became clear to me that people would buy coffee and snacks when they went outside.
We worked all day. Sometimes I think Japanese nuns work harder then any people on the planet. Often times morning zazen would be canceled so we could wake up and immediately go to work. Because we worked so hard, afternoon tea time was a welcome break. We’d all gather as a group at three o’ clock and gorge on Japanese cakes, salty crackers, and tea. I remember one day there was even coffee. Since I was completely exhausted from working, I had a cup. It was the best thing ever. It was delicious, and it made me wake up. So I started drinking coffee again. Eventually, I started buying instant coffee too, and I would make it in my room at my desk, just like the other nuns.
I’ve never looked back. I love coffee, and I’m never quitting again. I think if I could maintain my habit in an environment where red underwear, men, and cell phones are banned, then it’s a habit that’s going to endure. I’m fine with that.
This week, my program went to Koyasan, a mountain which is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and a popular pilgrim site. During some free time, I wandered up through a path lined with trees and ended up in a big temple complex. I went into one of the temples and came face to face with three giant, gold Buddha statues. On all sides of the statues were pillars painted with images of Bodhisattvas. I was really shocked more than anything, by the beauty and scale of it, so I just started to cry. I started crying pretty hard, and I had to walk away so that no one would be weirded out by the bald, foreign lady sobbing in public.
I love religious buildings. I always have. That’s me. Give me a room with candles, incense, and a graven image and I’ll be there. The more graven the better. I like nature too, and I can feel connected with life and mystery or whatever in the mountains, too, but there is something I especially love about temples and churches.
It was about this time that I decided I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep writing because I love it, and because I need it in the same way that I need to be in religious buildings. It may be that there are enduring parts of my personality that are going to stay the same no matter what. I’ve been writing since before I started practicing Buddhism, so I’ll probably be writing at all stages in my life. There’s not many things that I need any more. I’ve eliminated a whole lot. I don’t have sex. I don’t do illegal drugs, or smoke, or wear nice clothes. I don’t even own a cat. Most nuns I know own a cat to compensate for the absence of things like husbands, children, and fun clothes. But I don’t own a cat.
So just give me this blog, okay? I get to have one thing that I really like to do.
And coffee. I’m gonna keep drinking coffee.