Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is Practice?

Yesterday I had a Skype video chat with a friend in which I spent the entire conversation lying on my side, on my futon on the tatami floor, with a blanket wrapped around me and a black beanie pulled over my eyes. It was one of those days. One of those not-enough-energy-to-sit-up-during-skype days. 

After we said goodbye, I walked out and bought toothpaste and a brownie. It’s fall now in Kyoto and the evenings are cold. The leaves are changing colors and it’s only a few days away from that time when all the trees turn bright red. It was nice to be out on the streets in Kyoto, in the fall, but buying things is anxiety inducing. Because I can’t afford both, I have to make decisions like “do I buy toothpaste or milk this week?” and then ruin it by buying a brownie instead. 

Antioch Buddhist Studies program love
Dogen Zenji wrote, “Being poor is being intimate with The Way.” All the religious folks speak so highly about poverty, so I wonder why it doesn’t feel better. I guess that’s the whole point. The difficulty is the point. I didn’t grow up poor, so I guess you could say I have the privilege to be poor. I could be having my parents pay my way through graduate school like most of my friends, but instead I’m living in Japan, across from a construction site, in a seven tatami room that smells like old coffee and banana peels (mine, I admit). I hang out with twenty-year olds for my job and try to get them interested in Japanese Buddhism, although mostly I just end up playing card games with them, and then stressing about how I can’t afford milk. Knowing that I “choose” this kind of life doesn’t make it any easier (for the record, the students on this program are the best part. They’re from different colleges in America and came to Japan to study Buddhism for a semester, and they’re all a wonderful mix of curious, open, sincere, and caring. When I’m getting down on myself for being a bad monk, they tell me encouraging things like, “You’re not a role model, you’re my hero. Heroes don't have to be role models." Thanks Solomon/ Peter!).

Basically, ever since I left the monastery I’ve been trying this weird experiment wherein I take “home leaving” and “poverty” as the foundation of my practice. These are the two things Dogen mentions again and again as essential components of studying The Way. Since I’m not following a monastic schedule anymore, I’m making these the foundation of my practice, along with shaving my head and wearing monastic clothing as much as possible. I sit every morning with the students on my program, and in the evenings we sit again and chant the heart sutra. I dedicate the merit in Japanese. In between those two zazen periods I go to class and study Japanese.

It's hard, because my entire understanding of "Zen practice" is based on a communal model. I've only practiced Zen in a monastery setting, so it’s hard to know what to do on my own. There’s a saying, "Buddha, dharma and sangha are one,” which makes a lot of sense to me now. Without sangha, it’s hard to be supported and stay motivated.

This weekend somebody asked me, “What is shugyo?” Shugyo (修行) is the Japanese word that gets translated as “practice,” and I didn’t know how to answer. In a monastery, understanding what is “practice” is relatively easy. You wake up the same time as everyone else, and sit zazen together. You go to morning service, and then if you have a position like Ino or Doan, you try your best to do a good job and not mess up. Otherwise, you concentrate on just chanting. Throughout the day, various jobs and situations get presented to you, and you just focus on doing those those activities single-mindedly, not putting too much of your own opinions and preferences into it. There’s always a correct way, a form, of how to do things, so you can just concentrate on embodying that form correctly. And then of course there’s the inevitable times when you get sad or mad or bored, and you can notice what’s coming up, and move on. 

There’s a phrase in Japanese, “igi soku buppo nari”(威儀即仏法), which means “dignified behavior is the entirety of the Buddha-dharma.” This phrase gets used a lot to talk about the importance of behaving correctly, and wearing robes. The idea is that being a Buddha, or studying Buddha-dharma is not something you believe or think or identify with, but something you do, and do repeatedly, moment by moment. Buddha-dharma is performed, not just understood intellectually. This is probably why before I ordained, when I asked my teacher what the main difference between a monk and a lay person is, he told me that “A monk is someone who wears monk clothing.” If you dress like a monk, you’ll act like a monk. If you act like a monk, that’s buddha-dharma. I remember having breakfast with my brother in San Francisco, and we were having a debate about whether or not people in Buddhism should “show their attainments.” He was arguing yes. I voted no, and then added, “I think my only attainments are my clothes.”

I still feel that way, sometimes. This is all I have to show for myself, and for my practice. Just these clothes. Six months ago in the monastery, if you’d asked me “What is shugyo?” I probably would have answered something like “igi soku buppo nari.” But now I’m not so sure. I don’t know if clothes are enough. If practice is ritual enactment, what happens when I stop performing? What happens when I take off my clothes (I mean this both metaphorically and literally)? What is practice when I’m just a nobody, walking around Kyoto, looking for the cheapest toothpaste and milk? I also have a hard time believing that practice is everything, and everywhere. People sometimes say that practice is “single-mindedly doing what’s right in front of you” or “just being aware.” This implies that it doesn't really matter what you're doing, but how you do it. But if there’s nothing I should or shouldn’t be doing, then why talk about training at all? Where is the Buddhism? 

The one thing I can say for certain about “shugyo” is that it is never-ending. In Japanese there are two different words that get pronounced “shugyo.” One shugyo, 修業, refers to learning or training in something like a musical instrument. This kind of training is bound by temporality. It has a beginning and end. The other kind of shugyo, 修行, is understood to mean religious or spiritual training. This kind of training has no end. It started before I was born, and will continue after I die. Viewing practice as something never-ending is encouraging to me. It means that there is no real way to fail at practice. I can always renew intention, renew vows, start again. I can learn what kinds of situations make me happy, and what kinds lead to suffering. I can re-learn again and again that precepts are actually there to help me.

Within this view of practice as something never-ending, the most difficult and important part becomes renewing intention. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “Our spiritual way is not so idealistic. In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread.” The practice just keeps going forever. This is why I do like “clothes” as a good definition of practice. Since I have to put clothes on every morning, they are a way to renew intention. I put them on and remember, “This is what I’m doing.” I wear them into the world and then people respond to me in a certain way, and I have to respond back. 

I know this isn’t enough. Clothing isn’t a good enough definition of practice. If monastic clothing is practice, what does that mean for lay people practicing in America? What does that mean when I’m in the shower? I really don’t know. But that’s all I got. Today, my only attainments are my clothes, and if practice and enlightenment are really the same, I guess that means my practice is putting on clothes, too.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Great Doubt

Today my program went to Mt. Hiei, the Tendai headquarters where Dogen trained as a teenager. Tendai Buddhism put forth the doctrine of inherent enlightenment, and it was practicing at Mt. Hiei that Dogen first articulated the question that would eventually drive him to go to China: if all humans posses inherent enlightenment, why is it necessary for Buddhas to practice and make effort? No one could answer his question, so he felt compelled to seek answers in other places. Walking among the same temples where Dogen trained as a young monk, and where he first asked these questions, I felt compelled to honor Dogen with some questions of my own, in the form of an open letter.

Dear Old Time Religion,
First, I want you to know that I think you’re beautiful. I really do. There’s nothing quite so beautiful to me as an old, quiet room, filled with the smell of incense. I think the old wood is beautiful, and the stone pathways are beautiful, and the high mountains where you build your churches and temples are beautiful. The tankas and paintings are beautiful, and the altars— the gold candle holders, the offerings of flowers and fruit, the statues— it’s all beautiful to me. I need quiet, routine, concentration, and a certain level of seriousness in my life that I can’t get anywhere else, so I’m drawn to you. 

But I have to ask, is there anything there? When you descend the steps to the inner sanctum, in the spaces where only certain monks can go, to wash important graves and keep the candles lit, is there anything there at all other than old wood and old stone? In the gold lanterns and candle holders, in the flower arrangements, in the long hallways and shrines— what’s inside of them? Is there anything you can actually give me?

Are you actually interested in my questions? Everyone tells me, “If you have great doubt, you will have great enlightenment,” but do you really mean this? Is it only safe to ask questions if I am also following along with the schedule? If I chose to define and live my life the way I want to, in a way that doesn’t fit the proscribed form, are my questions still valid? If there’s really no answer outside of myself, why do I need you at all? Why shouldn’t I just go out into the desert, into the forest, alone?

Are you really concerned with questions, or are you mostly concerned with preserving yourself? Is your most important priority just transmitting yourself? Is your most important priority actually to stay the same, to not change? Is your most important priority to cultivate and empower people who care primarily about preserving and transmitting your tradition? 

I’ve started reading the literature again that I was reading when I first became interested in Buddhism, at age nineteen. At that time in my life before Buddhism, I was mostly interested in social justice. When I really looked into justice, when I really began examining how transformation of society is made possible, it became clear to me that love had to be a part of that transformation. Reading bell hooks helped. She was the first person I ever read who spoke about ending racial injustice and compassion in the same paragraph. She writes about the need for love to inform political change: “A culture of domination is anti-love. It requires violence to sustain itself. To choose love is to go against the prevailing values of the culture.” 

So I have to ask, without domination, could you survive? Without power? What if I was your equal in this? Could you still exist? 

What happens if I trust myself? What if I chose not to follow? If I trust myself, do you think you can teach me anything? Can you only teach me something if I inherently do not trust myself? Can you only teach me something if I hate myself, if I am afraid of myself and my own intuition? Is the transformation you promise contingent on my own self-effacement? 

Because usually I think I can’t do this alone. Usually I think I need help, I need community, I need guidance, I need a path, I need a curriculum, I need rules, I need shape, I need form. And that’s what you offer me. Handrails. A container. A way to stop listening to myself. A way to forget myself.

You write, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by ten thousand things.”

What does that mean?

I'm still wearing your clothes. I'm still shaving my head. I get up every morning and sit zazen. But I have to ask. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Can Nuns Get Married (academically)?

A lot of people have been asking me these days if nuns can get married. When people ask me this, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the question is academic, and sometimes it’s personal. The academic version wants to know something like, “What are the precepts for monastics in Japan? Are they different for men and women? What is the societal expectation? What is the history?” But then there are other people who are asking if I personally want to get married. I’m going to try my best to answer this question the “objective” or “academic” way, because I don’t really feel comfortable discussing the other one openly on the internet. Another related question I get a lot these days is “Are nuns celibate?” which is… uh… usually NOT an academic question. It’s usually men asking. And so I will tell you that the answer to that question is the same as the koan “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” 

But the marriage question I will try my best to actually answer. Let’s start with terminology. The word “nun” is the translation of the Japanese “nisou” (尼僧), which literally means “female monastic.” It’s an imperfect word because it brings to mind the image of cloistered, Catholic nuns. But it’s the most accurate term, and, importantly, it’s the term Japanese nuns use to describe themselves when speaking in English. A gender-neutral term we also use is “obousan” (お坊さん), which is probably the word that gets translated into English as “priest.” The precepts for male and female obousan in Soto Zen are the same. At the time of ordination, obousan take the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts and shave their heads. There are a lot of translations and interpretations of the precepts, but here is a link to the party line. 

Hardly anyone interprets the precept about sex to mean celibacy these days, especially since most monks marry. For hundreds of years in Japan, though, this wasn’t the case. The precept about sexuality meant celibacy, and this was actually enforced by the government as well as the sangha. If a monk or nun had sex, they were breaking the law. There were so many infractions though that this law was repealed in 1873, along with the prohibition against eating meat. Male monastics responded by getting married in steadily increasing numbers. The same law was lifted for women a few years later, but nuns did not start marrying.

So the easy answer to the question “Can nuns get married” is “yes.” There is no law against nuns marrying, nor is there a precept against having sex. Nuns can do anything. Nuns are women, and human beings, and as adults living in the free world we “can” do anything within the limitations of the laws of physics. We can jay-walk. We can eat chocolate for breakfast. We can wear T-shirts. We can get married.

But most of us don’t.

I don’t know a single nun in Japan who’s gotten married after she’s ordained. I know OF one woman. Only one. She married a monk. I'm sure there are a couple more like her out there. More frequently, married women will ordain after their children are grown, but even this is kind of rare. So it does happen, but very rarely. 

The culture at the women’s monastery emphasized life-long devoted practice. Nuns take pride in being nuns full time— in not getting married, in shaving their heads, and in wearing monastic clothing even after they leave the monastery. Aoyama Roshi speaks pretty openly and explicitly about how “true monks and nuns” shouldn’t get married. She believes that we are descendants from the historical Buddha, and that even though this is Mahayana Buddhism, we have an obligation to uphold the teachings and practices of the original sangha. Celibacy is a big part of this because it's how the Buddha and Dogen believed we should practice. For most nuns, there is no conception of “family time” versus “practice” or “monastery time.” Being a nun is full-time, for life. 

Another reason for not marrying is practicality, personal ambition, and economics. Most of my teachers at Nisodo are nuns over the age of seventy, who would have grown up at a time when women did not have opportunities to have careers or even necessarily pursue higher education. Becoming a nun provided another option. Aoyama Roshi was one of the first women to ever receive the equivalent of a Master’s degree from Komazawa Daigaku, the Soto Zen University. She was of course unmarried at the time- it’s hard for me to imagine what Japanese man, in the 1950’s, would have allowed his wife to get a Master’s degree in Buddhist studies instead of raising his children. Other nuns of that generation established missions and temples internationally- something that would be unthinkable had they had family obligations. By not marrying, nuns had the opportunity to educate themselves, work and travel in the world, and make their own choices. As the scholar Paula Arai wrote in a review of Richard Jaffe’s book on clerical marriage, “Men escape domestic duties by marrying. Women escape domestic duties by taking monastic vows!” 

The issue of marriage and celibacy keep coming up for me because they are the focal point around which most of my questions about Buddhism resolve. Questions like, what are we doing? What is the Buddha-way? Is it something that we make by walking or something that we follow? Dogen wrote that the Buddha-way is right under our feet, so one way of viewing this is that we are discovering for ourselves what leads to liberation. We make the road. But he was also pretty clear about the importance of following the way of the Buddhas and ancestors. For Dogen, and for others like him, the Buddha-way is what the Buddhist ancestors before him did. In Zuimonki he wrote, "Even if it is difficult to do or to endure, you should do it being forced to by the buddha-dharma. Even if you really want to do something, you should give it up if it is not in accordance with the buddha-dharma." So how can we say that this path is something we make by walking? If we're not actually following a predetermined path, can we say that we're practicing the Way? 

It seems pretty clear to me though that within traditional, religious, Japanese culture, there is little to no conception of interpersonal, intimate relationships as a site of personal growth. I’m not sure there’s even a concept of “personal growth”- that idea seems like something that originated in a Northern California meditation center. And I should know- I grew up in San Francisco with hippie, Buddhist parents. My parents have been together for more than thirty years and always used their relationship as a way to improve themselves, to become better communicators, to learn about their own faults and grow spiritually. They quote Rumi and Rilke to each other. A lot. This is the view of intimate relationships that I have inherited. 

But I’m pretty sure that this kind of partnership didn’t exist throughout most of Japanese history (does it exist in Japan now?). The monk who ordained me, for example, grew up in a temple. His father married his mother in an arranged marriage. When his father went to pick up his mother for the first time from the train station, he brought a cow with him for her to ride on. He was too poor to own a horse, so she had to ride a cow from the train station, up the mountain to the temple. She always remembered that she had to ride a cow to the temple, and would tell her kids that story. She was unhappy in the marriage. When her husband wanted something, he would just ring a bell and she would come to him. I think this must have been a pretty standard marriage in Japan at the time, and not so much has changed since then. Actually, the birth rate in Japan is declining because fewer and fewer women are getting married, and they are having children later. Women don't seem to want to get married in Japan.

So I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I do believe that intimate relationships are useful. I watched my parents grow and become better people through their marriage, and I’ve also been in love and been changed by that. And this is not Kamakura-period Japan.

On the other hand, I know that if I really want to learn something, it’s better to just concentrate on that one thing. There is nothing for me quite like just doing Buddhism. Just living in a monastery. Just being a nun. There is no substitute for me emotionally and spiritually than that all-encompassing, all-consuming level of dedication and concentration. If I am thinking and worrying about a partner, I can’t do that. I have to divide my time. And what if I don’t want to divide my time? I’m also beginning to suspect that for me there is no one man, and no possible intimate relationship, that would be more fulfilling in the long run than studying the Buddhadharma. Nothing compares. How could one human be better than the entire dharma?

I don’t want to get married, and I probably won’t, but not because I’m a nun. I don’t want to get married because... well, you can look at this feminist Ryan Gosling picture and get an idea. And I feel really Joni Mitchell about marriage. You know, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true.” I've pretty much always felt this way, even before I started practicing Buddhism. 

But love, on the other hand… love and attachment I have no control over. I can’t chose who I love, or when, or why. Delusions are inexhaustible, and I'm worried that until some chemist invents a drug to suppress the production of oxytocin, I’m totally screwed.

Oops, so much for being academic about this.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wanting Things... (and giving them up)

Today I shaved my head. It’d been over a week since I’d shaved— the longest I’ve let it grow since I ordained. In the monastery we shaved on days that end in 4 or 9 except during sesshin, so it never got as long as this.

I didn’t want to shave today. I’d gotten used to looking like a kind-of-sort-of-normal person. When I left the monastery, I wanted to keep wearing monastic clothing, and I do usually. I wear robes every day to zazen and samue work clothes during the day, but a few weeks ago I bought a pair of black jeans and started wearing them sometimes, usually with a black shirt. So with centimeter-long hair and black jeans I kind of almost look like a normal-weird woman from San Francisco, and I like that. I’m actually not that super confident in myself, and I miss the anonymity of looking like a normal-weird person instead of being the most noticeable person within a mile radius. And… I like looking beautiful. I think it’s hard for anyone who’s not a woman to understand what it feels like to give up looking conventionally pretty. So much of our identity is tied up in being perceived as beautiful in a certain way, especially when you’re in your twenties. 

It was also a relief to shave my head today. Even though part of me didn’t want to do it, another part of me needed it. It felt like I was getting clean, like sloughing off dead skin in the bath. In the past two months, sitting zazen and shaving my head are the only monastery customs that I’ve maintained on my own, and I think that goes to show how important those two things are. Both habits are driven by something in me that is completely separate from wanting or not wanting to do them. 

I’ve only recently become consciously aware of this impulse in myself that lies beneath— or untouched by— like or dislike. I think I’ve always had it, and all people have this, but I don’t know what to call it. In me it’s related somehow to renunciation, or devotion, or surrender, but I don’t know if these are the right words.

I practiced Buddhism for years in the United States but I always wanted more out of it. It was never enough. I didn’t put roots down spiritually until I came to Japan, I think because monastic practice here demands so much of me. My sense is that Japanese monastic training demands sacrifice one a level that can’t really exist in the West because of our values of autonomy and individualism, and I needed the intensity. 

There were so many times in the monastery when I felt too much was being asked of me. Too much work, too many difficult people, not enough freedom, not enough sleep, not enough privacy, not speaking the language, not being able to chose my clothes or food or how I spent my time. And I was asked, or demanded, or expected to, drop my opinions and anger about other people again and again, even when the things they did or said were downright mean. 

But it was actually these sacrifices that kept me. I stayed because I was amazed and encouraged to see how my ideas about myself fell away with only a little— okay, maybe a lot of— pressure. Every time I managed to let go of some idea about myself, it felt like getting clean. Like sloughing off dead skin in the bath. Dogen Zenji’s famous phrase “dropping off body and mind” is sometimes translated as “sloughing off body and mind,” and I’m starting to think this is what he’s talking about. 

This week I had a conversation with someone about devotion and surrender, and it occurred to me that not everyone agrees on what these things are, or even if they are important. To me, devotion necessarily means surrender, and surrendering large parts of myself. It also means giving all of myself. But how big are the parts of myself that I can give up? When is too much? In a religious or spiritual context, can we give up too much? This is a tricky and sensitive area when East meets West. In Western psychology, we have an idea of a true self that needs and deserves certain things, an enduring part of ourself that should be honored and cared for. A few weeks ago I wrote facetiously that I was going to keep drinking coffee and writing forever because they are enduring parts of my personality. But is this true? I’ve gone without coffee, and I’ve gone without writing, and I’m still me. 

Whenever I talk about renunciation with people, a word that inevitably comes up is “human nature” or “natural.” I personally don’t like to use the word “natural,” but for many people the idea of human nature is a compelling one. There’s some assumption that there are tendencies about humans which we simply cannot, or should not, try to change. There’s a limit to how much we should give up, and how far we should push ourselves. In Buddhist practice at least, I think clinging to an idea of “human nature” brings up problems. What’s the point of doing any of this if we’re always and forever going to be bound by human nature? 

In the last two months since I left the monastery, I’ve experienced so many things I did without for years. I ate a hamburger with a fried egg on top of it. I watched an entire half-season of “Orange is the New Black” in two sittings. I went to an incredibly elegant bar in Kyoto owned by a Pure Land priest, with singing bowls on the tables, and I drank a $15 cocktail named “The Endless Ocean of Desires.” It was a good cocktail. Kind of like a Manhattan, I think. So it’s been fun, but I’m seeing now that the price I pay for being able to choose so many pleasurable things is feeling more desire— which is uh, what the Buddha was saying. That’s why the cocktail is named “The Endless Ocean of Desires” and not “Complete Satisfaction Forever.”

It’s funny to me that in discussions about Zen and precepts, people usually point to the fact that Zen is Mahayana, which “doesn’t emphasize precepts,” or something like that. The precepts shouldn’t be clung to. Actually, I don’t really understand the argument. Some people will say that desire isn’t the problem; it’s attachment that’s the problem. Or other people will say that attachment isn’t the problem; it’s obsession is the problem. To me they kind of all feel the same. I don’t know that I can feel desire without attachment. For me they go together. 

Even though Zen is Mahayana Buddhism, the monastic container is set up in such a way that there is no way to fulfill your immediate desires. When you have no choice about what you eat, what you wear, when or how long you sleep, or even what you say, this whittles desire down to a fine point. And though I of course never fully gave up desire in the monastery, which would be impossible, there was no way I could get carried and pulled along by it because I had absolutely no outlet. Because I had to deal every day with not getting what I wanted, I think I stopped wanting things so much. 

The price I pay for experiencing pleasurable things is wanting them more. The Buddha compared attachment to sucking honey off a razor's edge, and I don’t know what to do about this yet. I don’t think you can say “good” or “bad” about these things, and the Buddha didn’t either. He didn’t say hamburgers are bad, or television is bad, or sex is bad. He just said: here is suffering, here is the cause of suffering, here is the way out. You can chose. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Thing Itself

When I was around five or six years old, I started asking my parents if things were "true" or "real." In my five-year-old brain, these were separate categories, and I needed them to make sense of things that effected my emotional reality but which had dubious existence in the physical, material world-- things like fairy tales (true but not real), Santa Clause (true but not real), Western medicine (real but not necessarily true) and giant, winged, metal machines that allow you to fly through the sky (real, but unbelievable).

It's clear to me that I am still asking these same questions. What is the most real? When I first came to Japan I wanted to know about reality, but I was more enthralled with a dream of Zen, a dream of enlightenment. What I saw reaffirmed and encouraged my dream: bamboo trees, bells tolling in the evening, snowy mountains, and monks with shaved heads. I sat for hours and hours unmoving in a cold zendo, trying to understand "What is Buddha?" I begged for food in the snow, and wrote poems about plum blossoms. The other day I found not one but three videos on my old camera of rain falling in the monastery courtyard. I was dreaming a beautiful dream about Zen, but eventually I woke up. Now there's no special "Zen rain" to me. There's just rain.

I remember a turning point I had about Zen and enlightenment. I was in my teacher's room, and he was preparing to go to an important funeral at another temple. He asked me to iron one of his okesas, which was a bright gold color. It must have been early in my stay because I still didn't understand what transmission was or what the different colors of okesas meant. When I picked up his okesa I asked him the meaning of the gold color, and he told me that it meant he'd received transmission from his teacher. I then inquired about the other monks I'd seen who wore gold okesas. He told me that they, too had all received transmission. 

At that time I'd been getting bullied by one of the Japanese monks in the monastery. I didn't understand about Japanese culture or monastery life yet, and so he was always yelling at me. At one point he'd actually picked me up by the collar of my shirt and screamed at me because I hadn't closed a door when someone asked me to. I managed to run away to my room and shut the door, where I sat in a chair kind of hyperventilating. The women lived in a separate building and men weren't allowed to enter, but he actually followed me, opened the door to my room, and continued yelling at me until some other monks came around and restrained him. 

I was still reeling from this event when I had the conversation with my teacher about transmission. The monk who’d picked me up and screamed into my face wore a gold okesa, meaning he also had transmission. When I listened to my teacher’s explanation and everything finally clicked in my head, I started to cry. Yeah. That's right. I shed tears over my teacher's gold okesa because it didn't mean anything anymore. Or, maybe it still meant something, but not what I wanted it to mean. Not what I'd hoped and dreamt about. 

According to a 1987 survey, more than 80% of Buddhist clergy in Japan are married and “80% of clerics inherited their temples from a family member.” This means that the vast majority of Buddhist clergy receive transmission from their fathers. It’s easy to see why people would look at this sort of situation and write off transmission in Japanese Zen as “not real.”. There are definitely Zen teachers who want to “make transmission real again.” Apparently Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was like this. Part of why he wanted to work with Westerners was he felt that Japanese Buddhism was corrupt and he wanted to revitalize it and make transmission “mean something real.” Even Otani Tesuo, the president of the Soto Zen University called Komozawa wrote in an essay,

We in the Soto school need to seriously reflect on the appropriateness of the contemporary state of Dharma transmission in Japan. Reflecting on both Dogen's own understanding of Dharma transmission as well as the Edo-period commentators, we must take a hard look at the reality of the situation today and ask ourselves whether the custom of familial inheritance of temples is really appropriate…it is a perfect opportunity for us to reflect on the real meaning of what it means to transmit the Dharma ("To Transmit Dogen Zenji's Dharma" from Dogen Zen and It's Relevance for Our Time).

But I have to ask the same thing I’ve been asking since I was five: what do you mean when you say “real”? How is getting transmission from your father any less real than receiving it from a non-relative you’ve practiced with for several years and you call your teacher? Where is our idea of “real” coming from? Is it based on some idea about attaining realization? Or understanding? If so, understanding what? If the Buddha-way is unsurpassable, how can we say at any point that we have sufficient “understanding”? How is basing transmission on “understanding” any more real than basing it on family inheritance? 

How is basing transmission on “understanding” any more “real” than basing it on nothing?

It’s interesting to me that people these days are talking about revitalizing Buddhism and returning it to its roots, because it seems people have been wanting to do this for as long as there’s been Buddhism. When Eisai, who is credited with founding Rinzai Zen, went to China, he was looking to rejuvenate Buddhism and bring it back to a pure state. That was in the 12th century. I read a critique of the denigration the Shusso Hossenshiki, or dharma combat, written all the way back in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). The anonymous author lambasts Soto Zen monks for staging dharma combats instead of answering questions spontaneously. This criticism of overemphasis on form is still going on today. “Real” dharma combats are supposed to be spontaneous, but in Japan, everyone memorizes the questions beforehand. 

At the women’s monastery, nuns would sometimes talk about “in theory” versus “in reality.” For example, in theory, the head monk is a senior trainee who is a good example for others. In actuality, there are only about 31 training monasteries in Japan, and thousands and thousands of monks who need to be head monk to qualify to own a temple, so there just isn’t enough space for everyone to fulfill this role in that way. They have to create special opportunities for monks and nuns to be head monk during shorter, special practice periods. In theory, the head monk would be as mature as a teacher and answer spontaneous questions about the dharma, but in reality, the dharma combats are performed by young priests and are rehearsed. 

My own experience of being head monk was that, even though I was not the most senior monk, and even though my dharma combat was mostly scripted (“not real”), it still was very meaningful. It just wasn’t meaningful in the way I wanted or expected it to be. The meaning for me was not about me showing how mature and advanced I am as a practitioner. It was actually the opposite. For me, the meaning was about realizing that I am a very, very small part in a much larger tradition, and that at all times I depend on dozens of other people to help, teach, support, and encourage me.

So which is more real, the theory or the fact? Is a beautiful dream about Dogen’s Zen and authentic dharma practice more real then what is actually happening? Or is the dream more real because it’s Dogen’s dream that he’s inviting us to dream with him?

Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive. Maybe I can be in touch with the dream but still be awake to reality, but I don’t really know how to do that any more. I do think spiritual authority should be based on understanding, but for myself, I don’t feel comfortable encouraging myself to pursue a special kind of understanding. In my experience, seeking special understanding is privileging a dream. So even though I want to practice “real dharma practice,” do a “real” head monk ceremony and receive “real transmission,” I can’t help but think there’s nothing more “real” than what’s really going on. 

Recently, as I walk through temples in Japan, a line from an Adrienne Rich poem keeps floating through my head:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth


Sunday, October 5, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ducks

Every time I pick up a Buddhist magazine or book on Buddhism in the West, there seems to be some discussion about whether or not Buddhism is a religion. These discussions are kind of strange to me, because in Japan, Buddhism is definitely a religion. There is no debate. Buddhism is also definitely a religion for the estimated five hundred million people who practice Buddhism throughout the world. At the monastery where I lived every morning we chanted for at least an hour and a half in front of a big altar. We’d offer tea, cakes, and sweet water to the statues. When the service was done we’d go to another altar and chant there. Then we’d split up and get assigned work we didn’t have a choice about. I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?” Yeah. For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely, 100% a duck. I mean, religion. It’s a religion!

When I arrived at Nisodo I’d already been practicing meditation for about seven years. I’d officially taken precepts and “become a Buddhist” my sophomore year of college. But the monastery was a whole other level up of religiosity that I wasn’t used to or prepared for, especially since my relationship to Buddhism was about “my practice” (cultivating clarity, peace of mind, and compassion), not about offering fruit to a statue. After a few months, I met with the abbess to ask her some questions. For the record, she’s a very, very busy lady, and it was kind of her to take time out of her day to listen to a twenty-four year old American girl whine about atheism. 

“I don’t believe in Buddha as a God,” I told her. “So why are we making offerings to a statue of Buddha?” 

Aoyama Roshi affirmed what I already (didn’t) believe— that Buddha is not a God. So, in Zen Buddhism at least, you can’t say that you have faith in Buddha the way people have faith in Jesus or even faith in kami, the local Japanese deities. But at the same time, living itself is an act of faith, or, a better word might be, an act of trust. When you eat food, you trust that your stomach is going to digest the food. You don’t have to think about or will your stomach into doing this; you just trust that it will happen. Similarly, when you lie down to sleep at night, you trust that nothing bad will happen to you. You trust that you will fall asleep naturally, and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed. This is all faith in life, or faith in the universe. 

In my experience, there is a lot of basic trust involved in Buddhist practice. First of all, I trust in my basic potential to wake up. This is a basic, fundamental trust that I touch in with every time I sit down on a meditation cushion. If I didn’t trust that I have capacity and basic goodness, then I wouldn’t be doing any of this. Even if “zazen is good for nothing,” I still trust that it’s a good thing to do. Figure that one out. I also trust—or suspect, or hope— that my teachers and my tradition know what they’re talking about. This is a big one. The tradition of Buddhism has been around for a few thousand years, and it’s included some of the most brilliant, dedicated religious figures throughout time all getting together to study, meditate, practice, and debate these issues. So… maybe it has something useful to say, you know? Maybe my limited twenty-eight years of existence on this planet can learn something from the Buddhist philosophy and practice which people have been dedicating their entire lives to developing for more than 2,500 years. 

Recently, I’ve been reading some interesting articles about how Buddhism was first introduced to the West. Most historians trace the introduction of Buddhism (at least its introduction to White America) to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. One attendee, Paul Carus, was so impressed with Buddhism that he came to devote his intellectual work and writing to promoting this new, Asian religion. He wrote a book called The Gospel of Buddha which re-articulated Buddhism as a rational, humanistic religion that was compatible with science. When D.T Suzuki first wrote about Zen for an American audience, he rejected that Zen is a religion because it “eschews ritual” and spoke of Zen in terms of “pure experience.” His idea of Zen as “pure experience” resonated with Western audiences. But the idea of a personal, subjective experience is not something that inherently exists in Japanese culture. The word for experience, keiken, is a new word that was only introduced in the Meiji period (1888-1912) by translators who were already in dialogue with Western philosophy. So it’s pretty easy to argue that the Buddhism we’ve inherited in the West is kind of a partial picture, one that was tailor-made and redesigned for us. 

Because of the way Buddhism was first introduced to (white) America, people now seem most comfortable when mediation is introduced as a technique with scientific background. Is there something inherently wrong with this? Not really. I see two small problems, though. One is that appropriating meditation— taking it out of a Buddhist religious context— ignores and overlooks what Buddhism has been for thousands of years… which is a duck. I’m not claiming I know what that duck is exactly, maybe there have been many, different kinds of ducks over the years, and maybe this duck is evolving and becoming “Americanized,” but it’s a duck. And I think it’s a really, really, interesting duck that’s worth studying and not just throwing away. I also personally don't want to paint this duck red, white and blue, call it a bald eagle, and give it free reign to squawk around my subconscious. My subconscious can't take that. It can't tell the difference between myth and reality.

The other problem is that supplanting “religion” with “science” undercuts something basic and important about explicit religious practice, which is the direct engagement with and articulation of trust. Just because science explains how things work doesn’t make our inherent trust in the workings of the universe go away. It doesn’t make doubt and fear go away. Personally, I’m walking around with lots of unacknowledged doubt, fear, hope, faith and trust all the time. Religious practice makes this explicit. When I bow to a statue of a Buddha, I’m expressing my trust in something that is not me. I didn’t design this. I receive life, and I trust that oxygen will be there and work out the way I need it to. So, thank you life, thank you oxygen, thank you body. I don’t know how this is all working, but I’m happy it does. 

Buddhism allows me to get in touch with my fundamental trust in the functioning of the universe, and this makes me feel less alone. If I read a study about how meditation lowers blood pressure, or how Tibetan monks have more grey matter in their brains, and then I decide to meditate because I want these benefits, that’s still coming to meditation (and life) with a large amount of hope. I’m still trusting, or hoping, that meditation will lower blood pressure. The only difference is that I am not aware of this trust. I am not aware of my own hope. If I’m in denial about my own hope, if I’m ignoring that I am trusting the universe at every moment, all the time, then I’ll probably continue to feel very, very alone. If I relate to life as if I am completely in control of it, like a person driving a car, and I don't see that I am in fact supported at all times by a billion causes, conditions, people, gases, and microbes, then I will feel alone. 

And I don’t want to feel alone. So I continue to do practices I don’t fully understand; I continue to seek out and be supported by monastic communities; I continue to (try to) listen to advice from people I respect; I continue to shave my head; I continue to sit down on a zafu every day and embody the posture of Shakyamuni Buddha. Whatever that means. I don’t know what that means, but that’s okay. I like it better that way. 

P.S Thank you to the people who've donated so far on this blog. It gives me... faith! I'm trying to raise money to afford Japanese language school, and it feel really good to be supported in this way. Thank you. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

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. 

How Stella Got Her Bodhicitta Back

This year I had two New Year's resolutions. The first was to rekindle my bodhi mind. After five years practicing Zen in Japan, wearin...