Thursday, November 27, 2014

I Spent Four Years in a Monastery and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

It’s Thanksgiving, and if this were a different blog, and I were a different person, I would write about all the things I’m grateful for, the abundance in my life, or the ways I keep myself from feeling gratitude. But unfortunately, I SPENT FOUR YEARS IN A MONASTERY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT (which I’m not even allowed to wear because I have to wear robes).

I’m not sure what I have to show for this practice, and for my life. That’s how this works, right? That’s why Sawaki Kodo said “Zazen is good for nothing.” There's nothing to be gained. In Japan I learned how to sing goeka, how to sew, how to make tea, and how to cook Japanese food, but I can’t point to any profound realization or accomplishment I’ve had beyond those things.

I’m from Northern California, and expressing gratitude has always been an important part of my Thanksgiving. My parents are both incredible cooks, and they would spend all day basting and cooking this amazing artisan turkey, making mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Before dinner we always go around the table and say something we’re grateful for. Then we hold hands (yes.) and sing a blessing about the beauty of the earth and the glory of the sky and the love which from our birth over and around us lies. I love our Thanksgivings. They are the best.

At the women’s monastery, expressing gratitude was a big part of the practice. There was a special ceremony we performed every month just to honor Ananda, who was responsible for convincing the Buddha to allow women to ordain and join the sangha. Every month we give offerings and chant this melodic verse about how grateful we are to have been given the chance to become nuns. It’s a beautiful ceremony, with lots of bowing.

So I feel like a jerk when I can’t feel gratitude for like… all the abundance the Universe is pouring out or whatever. Gratitude feels nicer than not-gratitude, and I think not feeling gratitude comes from a place of fear and narcissism. But I am not so good at feeling gratitude, even though I have enough to eat I have a roof above my head, and I have friends and family who love me. It’s very easy for me to notice what’s lacking. 

While I’d like to feel more gratitude, part of me is also aware that the practice I have been doing for the last several years is not about trying to manufacture a special kind of feeling. Zen practice in Japan is not really about “abundance.” Expressing gratitude in a scripted, pre-rehearsed ceremony? Yes. But actually trying to feel some special kind of gratitude emotion? Well…

For the last several years, Buddhist practice for me has meant giving up most everything in my life— not only my hair, my clothes, those amazing gold-sequined high heeled pumps that I loved, my friends, my boyfriend, and my country, but also my most cherished ideas and beliefs, like the idea that I’m right, that individuality and autonomy are universal values, and that I’m special. Those are actually the hardest things to give up. Also the idea that I have any clue what the fuck is going on. 

I am looking around at my life right now and noticing all the things that I have lost. Shukke tokudo, the name for ordaining as a Buddhist monastic, literally means “leaving home” in Japanese. The idea is that you leave home completely and enter the sangha. Actually, on December 5th I have no idea where I will be living, so I am quite literally homeless. I have given up comfort and security in a big way. It’s scary! Quite honestly, it’s sometimes hard to feel gratitude from this place of loss and unknown. 

More than abundance or living abundantly, this practice for me has meant giving up everything, again and again. It can feel kind of bleak. 

But the reason for renunciation (I certainly hope) is not just to suffer and feel morally superior. It’s actually about widening my perception of what is possible, and what is okay, and what is reality. The flip side of homelessness is that everywhere I go is my home. The flip side of “leaving family life” is that everyone I encounter is my family. There is my biological family who I still love very much, who I will always feel obligation and gratitude towards, but since they are across the ocean right now I have to make my family be wherever I am, and whoever I’m with.

There is a Zen koan which asks, “How can you drink tea from an empty cup?” Essentially, that is the question that life is demanding I answer. Gratitude in the midst of homelessness is my koan. I know that there is some place of paradox where being homeless becomes everywhere being my home, where leaving family life means everyone is my family, and where having very little money means recognizing all the ways I receive support.

My biological family was not with me this Thanksgiving, and there was no turkey. Japan doesn’t really do poultry. I went to an Indian restaurant with three of my students and my new Japanese friend. For the last three months I’ve been working on a study abroad program which brings college students from America to study and practice Buddhism in Japan, and for this time, most of my contact has been with this group of twenty-year olds. They live down the hall from me. We sit zazen together in the morning, eat noodles together, bathe in freezing rivers together, and sometimes go to karaoke together. 

They’re my family. I feel like when I’m around them I can’t be so grumpy and cynical, even if that’s what I’m really thinking and feeling. I feel like I have to make an effort to at least try and be positive, to take the time and explain things, and not get stuck in one final conclusion. They make me re-think all the quick and easy assumptions I’ve made about Buddhism, and they make me want to actually be the kind of monk who is doing good things and is a good example for others. 

They are literally the reason I get out of bed in the morning because without them I would have no zazen to go to, and nothing to do. Without them there would be no incense to light, no bells to ring. One student once knocked on my door and told me I had to shave my head because my hair was getting too long. In that moment, he was not only my student and my family, but also my teacher.

At dinner we gorged on naan, curry, and rice. We went around the table and shared one thing we’re grateful for, just like we do in the States. I realized the thing I am most grateful for is them. So there's gratitude after all, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it "abundance." Instead of abundance, there's an empty cup that can be filled with anything. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Black Lives Matter

I’ve been pretty out of the loop for the last four years. In the monastery there was no newspaper,  and no access to the internet, so I couldn’t read blogs, facebook, or email. Maybe what I’m about to write has already been said, and if so, I apologize for being redundant.

I was not prepared for the amount of rage and grief that came over me today as I read the reports of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson officer Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. This kind of rage and grief is particularly intense to feel because there is no target or object I can blame; whereas in the 1960’s, we could name a particular racist law, policy, or person, what confronts us today is a widespread, diffuse system of institutionalized racism. Our economic and political system is built upon and maintained by the exploitation of people of color; Jim Crow is officially over but what has taken its place is arguably more powerful because it’s harder to actually see, name, and crucially, to end. As I read the reports of protests in countries around the United States, I wish I could be there.

It’s weird to be reading these news reports across the ocean, in Japan— one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the world, with its own problems of discrimination and attitudes of racial purity. There’s a caste system in Japan which was basically arbitrarily created several centuries ago. The “buraku” people, poor villagers who historically worked as butchers or undertakers, are still subject to discrimination at work or when attempting to wed “outside” their caste. Japan is a psychologically closed country, and nationality is always linked with race here. There’s no notion of “immigrants” or “immigration” like in the United States; there are only tourists and foreigners. A lot of my “practice” in the last fears has been silencing (or “dealing with”) my own feelings of anger when I experience or see xenophobia and discrimination. 

My views on race and racism have changed somewhat because of my experiences in Japan. I’ve seen that racism and discrimination are things all people do to each other. The “buraku” people are Japanese. They’re just as Japanese as non-buraku Japanese, but they are victims of ethnic discrimination and violence. Whereas in college I used to believe that all of the world’s problems would be resolved if we overthrew white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I don’t really think that’s true any more. Last week I watched “V for Vendetta” (okay, not a radical political manifesto, but still) and had to wonder, “What happens after they blow up the Parliament? Is it any better then?” I think no amount of political revolution is going to change things for the better without a radical change in consciousness— without everyone working on their own greed, hatred, and delusion.   

But I also know working with my own emotions is not enough. Last year or even a few months ago, this would have been enough for me, but now it’s not. I don’t think the practice of uprooting greed, hatred, and delusion are in any way at conflict with seeing and naming racist oppression and working to overthrow oppressive systems. 

Lots of white people seem to react negatively to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The fear is that saying “Black Lives Matter” implies that either a) white lives don’t matter or b) black lives matter more than white lives, and since we’re all just one human race, why can’t we all just get along? 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the reality that race exists, racism exists, and that people of color are subjected to racist violence and oppression in a way that white people simply are not. White lives do matter because all lives matter. White people hurt, and suffer. I suppose you can also argue that white people are also hurt by capitalism and racism. But the suffering of white people is not the suffering of being subjected to violent, racist oppression. That’s the crucial difference. The suffering of white people on a day to day level within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is not the same suffering as being shot six times by a cop, or being the mother of a teenage son who has been shot six times by a cop and then has to deal with the reality of her son’s killer not being prosecuted.

While there is no hierarchy of suffering (all people suffer, and all suffering is valid) it’s useful to see and name suffering that is caused specifically by racist exploitation and violence. There is one human race, but there is the socially constructed category of race that effects all of us in different ways. Seeing and naming this difference of experience is crucial. 

At Zen monasteries in Japan, the policy is to give everyone the same food regardless of personal preference. Dogen Zenji talked pretty explicitly about “going along with the community,” and so everyone is treated “the same” and given the same portions. However, all bodies are different. Some people can eat a lot, and some people can’t. Some people have allergies, and it’s not fair to assume everyone can eat the same things. So a proverb developed at Nisodo, “byodo soku sabetsu nari” (I might be butchering that Japanese) which means “equality becomes discrimination.” As tenzo, you have to take into account how everyone is different; it’s not fair to say “we’re all one human race, so everyone has to eat the same food.” I’ve noticed that monastery culture, which places a heavy value on conformity, is gradually starting to allow for individual difference. To do otherwise is inhumane. 

As a white person I have the privilege of not feeling threatened by white cops when I walk down the street. I probably won’t get shot by a white cop any time in my life. In a society where white people chose to believe that race doesn’t exist, just saying the words “white people,” “black people,” “people of color,” and “racism” in public has power. When I say “black lives matter,” this is a very, very, very small step towards redressing this imbalance and acknowledging difference and privilege.

But just saying “black lives matter” isn’t enough. I want to challenge racism not only on an interpersonal level but institutionally as well. I don’t know how to do this, especially when I’m across an ocean, in a society that is incredibly skilled at conformity and racial homogeneity. But I can no longer wage a war within myself between Buddhist practice and a love of justice. The rage and sadness I and many others feel is compelling because it points to how we are fundamentally not different from other human beings. On a deeper level than I can see, I am not different from any other person in the world, and these feelings of rage and sadness exist because there is a wound that needs to be healed. Moving towards liberation has to include seeing clearly and cutting off delusions, and responding to the suffering of others. Not all delusion is racial injustice, but all racial injustice— and complacency with racial injustice— is delusion. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Three Robes and One Bra

This week I went shopping. For clothes. Not robes, but clothes. Normal girl clothes. Recently, my parents got rid of about 90% of the clothes I’d left in my room at their house— my skirts, shorts, blouses and shoes. I guess they were worried I would never come back from Japan, and they were tired of my stuff. When I moved to Kyoto, I only brought samue, kimono, robes, and one bra, because Dogen said Buddhist monks should only own three robes and one bra (I’m pretty sure that’s in Shobogenzo Zuimonki somewhere).

I thought having no normal clothes wouldn’t be so much of a big deal because I live in Japan and I’m a monk. But this week, something snapped. I don't know why, but I got fed up with wearing traditional Japanese clothes, and so I went shopping. I bought a red, knee length skirt, tights, and a blue sweater. 

Shopping in Japan for me is a hilarious nightmare. All of the women here are five feet tall, have no hips or breasts, and weigh fifty pounds less than me. The clothes are all “one size fits all,” which is a cruel, cruel lie. The only way I manage to fit into the skirt I bought is because it has an elastic waist. The popular style that’s being sold in stores right now, at least in the elegant city of Kyoto, can only be described as “Girly-Girl Prep.” All the stores sell the same thing: knee-length skirts, dresses, thin, silky blouses, sweaters, and pearls. It’s like if a yacht club got together with Hello Kitty, had a child, and made it five sizes too small for me. 

But I actually really like my skirt and sweater. The sweater is warm, and soft, and when I wear it, it hugs my arms and makes me happy. Most compellingly, I like wearing it and looking like a normal person. I like being somewhat anonymous. 

I remember the first time the kids on this program saw me wearing normal clothes. I was wearing yoga pants and a black sweater. They were shocked and asked if I was breaking some kind of rule.
“I never made a vow to wear Japanese clothes my whole life” I told them kind of testily. 

But a skirt seems like crossing a line. Pants and skirts are different. Pants are not so far away from samue. They’re functional. People need pants. People work in pants. Men and women both wear pants. But nobody needs a skirt. A skirt has no function. It just exists just to be pretty, and importantly, to look feminine. Wearing a skirt lets me perform being a girl— the kind of girl who wears skirts. The main point of wearing a skirt is so when people look at you they think, “That skirt/girl is pretty. I’d like to talk to that skirt/girl.” Some days that's something I want, and some days it's not.

I don’t know how I feel about this. I don’t know if shopping was a good or bad decision. I’ve written a lot about the importance of wearing monastic clothes; I wrote a blog post just last month called “What is Practice?” in which I claimed that my only practice and spiritual attainments are my monastic clothes. I get entirely different reactions from people when I'm wearing robes. Clothes change how I feel about myself. They effect the kinds of conversations I feel comfortable having, the kind of shops I’ll go into, and the way I move in public. If I’m wearing monastic clothing, I’m not going to go into a Pachinko parlor. It’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to go to a bar. I’m less likely to break precepts. I probably won’t lose my shit and curse someone out for cutting me in line. I’ll probably be a little bit more patient, and considerate. I’ll be enacting a role. 

Whenever I see a monk or nun in robes, I feel encouraged. It reminds me that there’s another way of living. It makes me believe for a brief second that there is a possibility of freedom from my own obsessiveness and clinging. This encouragement comes just by looking at the clothes— it doesn’t have to do with the merit of the person wearing them. The public role of a monk is an important role, and I want to perform that role when I can. But I also think being a twenty-something wearing a skirt is a pretty important role, too. Where would literature and art be without beautiful young women wearing dresses?

Yesterday, I went out to dinner with some friends, and I wore jeans and my new sweater. I’ve got really, really short hair, but I like to think I look sort of normal. The dinner was nice. I speak some Japanese, and I chatted with the waiters, and there was a lot of bowing, and saying the food was good. At one point they asked me to translate for a foreigner who’d wandered in with only American dollars and no yen. There was more apologizing for the food being late, and they gave us free matcha ice cream. My first Japanese language teachers were monks, and they always taught me to speak very politely and respectfully. I think the style of Japanese I use is pretty formal and polite, so it feels nice to have pleasant, polite interactions with people. 

When I was paying, one of the waiters approached me. “Excuse me,” he said. “But are you a Buddhist monk?” He pointed to my head.

“I am!” I exclaimed. “I’m surprised you knew that.”

When I got back to my table I said to my friend, “How did he know I’m a monk?”

“Probably because you’re a monk,” she said.

“But I could be a lesbian,” I protested. “This could just be my cutting-edge style.”

“No, I think it’s pretty obvious you’re a monk.”

I’d like to think there’s something about being a monk that doesn't have to do with clothes, something about me that pervades "home-leaving mendicant in search of the truth" regardless of what I'm wearing. I'd like to think that I can have my cake and eat it too: certainty that I am walking the Buddha Way and practicing the true Buddha-dharma, as well as the freedom to be young and do what I want and wear pretty things. I want freedom, and pleasure, and certainty, and security, all at once. 

I want buying a skirt to not be some irreversible turning point. I want to believe that there is some inner development happening that other people can pick up on--  that what the Buddha taught is making me a good person, and that this helps other people, and they can see the practice working in me, and that even when I’m wearing normal clothes, people will still know I’m a monk, just like that waiter knew. 

Though maybe it was just the bald thing. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014


From the Shobogenzo: "Peaceful Face, Loving Words"
There were some confusing announcements on the internet this week that Thich Nhat Hanh was sick and possibly close to dying. I’m not sure what the situation is, but it reminded me how much I appreciate his books and his message in general. “Being Peace” was the first book on Buddhism that I read. When I was a freshman in college I was pretty unhappy, and I remember having a conversation with one of my housemates about how sad I was. She told me, “Suffering is not enough,” which is the title of the first chapter of that book, and then lent it to me to read. “Suffering is not enough” is a really simple statement which I had never even thought about. At that time, suffering was everything for me. But he’s right, suffering isn’t enough.

A lot of people I encounter in the Zen world don’t like Thich Nhat Hanh. The criticism I generally hear is that he’s light and fluffy, and that smiling and enjoying the world doesn’t have anything to do with real Zen, which is about pain and difficulty and clarifying the great matter of life and death and being so badass that smiling is not necessary.

There’s something that can be said for this, I guess. In my experience, Zen practice is pretty damn hard, and Japanese institutions in particular have a really strict way of organizing things. When I entered the woman’s monastery, I was still recovering from a sprained ankle. I’d injured myself the year before trying to be badass and sitting full lotus even when my body didn’t want to stretch that way. I would sit in full lotus, crying silently, tears streaming down my face from the pain, for practically the entire 40 minutes.

After about two weeks of this, I sprained my ankle walking over some stepping stones. It took me about two years before I could sit cross-legged again— not even half lotus, but just Burmese style. When I came to the woman’s monastery, I had recovered enough to sit seiza on the ground a little bit, but not enough to sit zazen properly. Although I’d kind of recovered, the experience was physically taxing; meals, classes, and morning service all happen in seiza, and there were no chairs. There was no option to sit in a chair, even in my own room. Within a few weeks of practicing there, I re-injured my ankle.

After I re-injured myself I could barely walk. I went to the hospital and it didn’t really help anything. The nun in charge of me wouldn’t let me use a chair, and told me I still had to work. I went to a senior teacher to complain, and it turned out that it was this teacher who’d given the order that I had to work in the first place. I asked her how I was supposed to be able to do cleaning if I couldn’t walk, and she suggested that I crawl.

“I hurt my foot a few years ago, too, and so I cleaned on my hands and knees,” she said.

When I heard that, at first I was incredulous. But I didn’t really have a choice (or I felt like I didn’t), so that’s what I did. It didn’t kill me. Eventually I recovered. After a really, really long time, I’m finally able to sit half lotus again. 

So I get it. Zen is hard, and life is hard. For the record, I don’t recommend that anyone tries to sit full lotus when their body isn’t ready. If I ever have a Zen center, people will be allowed to sit in chairs or rest if they’re injured. But I do think there’s something valuable about seeing what my own limitations are, going through them, and then realizing those limitations were actually in my mind. The only difference between me and the kind of extreme way it can get played out in Japanese monasteries is that I think this limit-pushing has to be a choice that each person makes for themselves. I would never want to impose that kind of endurance on someone else.

In “Being Peace,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough.” It’s pretty easy for me to suffer, to see injustice and cruelty. There’s a lot of fucked up shit. That nun who forced me to work with a sprained ankle was really cruel. There’s no denying it. But there’s beautiful things about the monastery too, about life, and even about that nun. How to be in touch with all of this? I see my practice now as encountering everything that arises, paying attention, and then giving space to that which needs space.

The first summer at the women’s monastery was probably the low point in my life. It was like all of my negative karma ripened at once, and I had no choice but to sit back and watch it explode all over everything. During the summer I worked in the kitchen, which is infamously the most hard work at the temple, because you’re on your feet all day and the kitchen is about 35 degrees. I was sharing a room with five other women who I had to also work with every day in that 35 degree kitchen. Two of the women were abuse survivors— one from childhood, and one from a violent marriage— and neither of them knew how to control their anger. They would yell at me all the time. One other nun had severe mental problems and at one point trashed the desk of another nun, throwing her okesa on the ground and scattering her books around (lest anyone forget; nuns are people too!).

It was a tough month, and I had trouble keeping it together. I was also really tired and over-worked myself. Eventually I went to the abbess in kind of hysterics, crying. Her advice to me was to smile. 

“Smiling is a gift you give to others,” she reminded me. “And if you smile, you’ll feel happier.”

At first I thought this was stupid advice. There’s mentally ill people in my room screaming at each other, and at me, and you want me to smile? How does that help? But smiling, especially in that kind of situation, is a radical act of consciousness and choice. I think her point was that no matter the situation, it’s my responsibility to own myself and my actions, to deal with my emotions and not impose them on others. Ultimately, I’m responsible for creating my own experience and my own life. This is why Thich Nhat Han writes, “A smile makes you master of yourself.”

Dogen Zenji also wrote about smiling. Dogen was a badass stoic and wanted his monks to starve rather than get a job and buy food, but he thought we should be smiling while we starve. He was a fan of “loving speech,” and has a whole section devoted to “loving speech” in the Bodaisatta-Shishobo chapter of the Shobogenzo. In the final sentence of Shishobo, Dogen writes, “We should simply face all beings with a gentle expression.” Another translation I’ve read is, “We should always meet the world with gentle faces.” The Japanese he’s using is “wagan” (和願), which literally means “peaceful face.” At Aoyama Roshi’s home temple in Nagano, she has a calligraphy which reads, 和願愛語, or “Peaceful Face, Loving Words.” This is also what she wrote on my rakusu case. 

What does Dogen mean by “we should always meet the world with gentle faces?” Dogen strikes me as a kind of grumpy guy, and I don’t think he was always smiling. His instruction to smile comes at the end of a section in the Shishobo chapter about identifying your own self with others. He talks about the ocean, how it never rejects water but just absorbs water within itself, and he encourages us to be like that too. So I think for him, smiling is recognition of this identification, an acceptance of all phenomena as extensions of ourselves. Smiling at someone else means recognizing they’re not so different than you. This identification with others seems to be at the heart of what Dogen is urging us to do; “to be realized by the myriad dharmas is to let the body-mind of oneself and others drop away.”

Smiling is still hard for me. My face naturally falls in kind of a scowl. But I want to be responsible for my own bad moods, and not impose them on other people. Even when things are going badly, I have to believe I always have a choice about how I respond to it. So I try to smile and breathe. Suffering is not enough.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tea and Zen Are One


People often ask me if I love Japan, and I usually answer that I love Japan in the way that I might love my arranged husband: it’s a love that has developed over many years, out of respect and necessity and time. But I would not say I “love” Japan or Zen practice in Japan like some people love beautiful women— how could I love something which has nothing to do with my own preference, which demands giving up love and hate itself? That’s how I relate to Zen practice. It’s something I do regardless of how I feel about it. 

Except for tea ceremony. I love tea ceremony foolishly and romantically. I am in love with it. It’s the only aspect of Japanese culture, other than food, that I can honestly say I love. I studied tea ceremony formally for three years, which is nothing, but Japanese culture is infused with tea. There’s tea everywhere. So just by being in Japan, I feel like I am studying tea culture. 

This week my program went to a tea ceremony in Kyoto, and afterwards one of the students asked me why I love tea ceremony. I told her I love it because I love eating and drinking. The focus of tea ceremony is on eating a delicious sweet and then drinking a caffeinated beverage. I love caffeine. Any excuse to drink something caffeinated I will take. I also like eating and drinking with others. Being with others is an important component of tea ceremony. I like being surrounded by beauty. Tea ceremony is always beautiful; there are always flowers, and calligraphy scrolls, and the room is simple and clean, and usually there’s some new and interesting tea bowl or another utensil to look at and talk about. You’re surrounded by beautiful things and the beautiful things are the only socially acceptable thing to talk about. It’s like a religion devoted to beauty, tranquility, and drinking caffeine. 

Tea is something that’s learned through the body. You practice stepping into a room with the correct foot, and wiping the bowls just so, and exactly how far to incline your body when you bow. You practice these things again and again and again, and then it hopefully becomes muscle memory. I have brief moments when I’m serving tea in which I stop thinking and am just concentrating on making tea. There is a profound calm and tranquility which comes when I stop thinking and am only wiping, whisking, placing, bowing.

But tea is fundamentally about connection and relationship, about giving nourishment to others. In my experience, the point of tea ceremony is to make and drink tea. So for me, my feelings about tea cannot be separated from the actual taste of it, and from my memories of the people I’ve shared tea with. 

When I was first at the monastery where I ordained, there were only two or three other monks there. It wasn’t so busy. Sometimes I would clean the abbot’s room and then he would invite me to have tea. He would make loose leaf tea for me in a tiny, grey ceramic pot, brewing it so strong I thought he’d messed up when actually that’s just how good tea is prepared. We would drink tea together, and talk about Japan and Buddhism, in his room which smelled like incense and old wood. Eventually I learned how to serve tea for guests. I learned how to kneel on the ground and open the sliding doors, how to stand up from kneeling while holding a tray of tea, how to place tea on the table without spilling it, how to bow, how to cool the water down before pouring it on the leaves.  

When I went to Nisodo, I wasn’t allowed to make a single cup of tea for a year. Whenever I tried, I’d get yelled at. I waited and studied tea ceremony formally in class for a really long time, and eventually I was deemed worthy of making tea, sometimes, for guests. In my third year, when I was Aoyama Roshi’s personal assistant, I had to make her tea every morning. There was a set pattern to this. After morning service, we’d come back and she would chant the Heart Sutra in a small altar in her room. We’d bow to each other and say good morning, and then I would make her hot water with honey and pickled plum. After breakfast I’d serve a Japanese sweet and a cup of matcha. 

In the three years I was at Nisodo, making tea was the only thing Aoyama Roshi ever said I was good at. That and learning Japanese. She’s a tea teacher herself, and since it’s one of the only compliments she gave me, I took it seriously. Making her tea was the calm oasis in a crazy and hectic day comprised of not understanding and generally being bad at most other things. I loved making her tea. When I would give her tea, sometimes she would stop the work she was doing and teach me something about the tea bowl— the name of the maker, or why the bottom of the bowl was unique. Usually I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, so she’d write it down on a piece of paper for me to look up later. When my period of time as her assistant finished, she gave me a tea bowl, which the abbot of Sojiji had give her. If the building was to ever catch on fire, it’s the one thing I’d want to take with me. That and my okesa. And my passport. Actually, in all honesty I might just grab that tea bowl and my passport and get out of the burning building. I can always make another okesa, but that tea bowl is one of a kind! 

You can study tea your whole life and not scratch the surface of the history, culture, and practice of tea. In this way it’s like studying the Buddha-Way. This is probably why in Japan they say “chazen ichinyo,” or “Tea and Zen are one.” 

I’ve often wondered why “Tea and Zen are one.” I’m not sure they’re the same thing, but then again, I’m not a master of either of them. They’re definitely similar though.

Tea bowl by Raku Kichizaemon
Today, inspired by this week’s tea ceremony, I visited the Urasenke Foundation. After touring the museum and having some tea, I bought a really interesting book of photographs and poems by the ceramics master Raku Kichizaemon. Reading what he wrote, I was really effected by how similar his struggles were to my own. He writes about the anxieties of entering a tradition, his doubts about “self-expression,” the tensions between being an artist, being an apprentice, and merely being a copy-cat, someone going through the motions. I’ve come to see this is a tension running through a lot of Japanese culture, especially in areas like the arts and in Zen, and it’s something I feel poignantly now more than ever, as I am deciding how long I want to stay in Japan, and most crucially, why. Why am I still here? What else is there left for me to absorb here? Is this really going to take ten or twenty years? If that's the case, when do I get to have my own life? If I leave now, who am I disappointing most- my teachers or myself?

It’s fitting that the book is dedicated, “To my two sons and all of youth,” because he portrays learning his craft as something identical to learning how to be an adult, learning how to manifest himself in the world as someone who is inextricably connected to society while being a unique individual within it. He wrote, for the opening of his first solo exhibition in 1983:

Not to narrate, nor express
Neither to be concerned about being traditional or contemporary
Nor again to strive for originality
What matters is to drop a plumb-line into the depths of my being
And grope my way downward
Into the cave of my existence, crammed with the totality of
Past, present and future.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The "Real Monastery" is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery

A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend who was trying to decide whether or not to do a practice period at Tassajara. He asked me, “Do you think you would want to do that?” I didn’t have to pause to think before I said, “No.” Then I added, “Maybe sometime in the future, but not right now. Now I don’t want that at all.” 

I spent about five years in monasteries in Japan, and I wouldn’t take that back or change that experience for anything. I feel like I am an adult now in a way I was not at age 22, when I first arrived in Japan. Part of this is literally growing older (I’m 28 now- ancient!), but I think practicing so intensely made me grow up in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed in America, worked at a job, had a boyfriend, applied to grad school, etc.

But despite this, I don’t want to go back, and I don’t want to do a practice period somewhere else. It kind of feels like that point in a relationship when you know, as clear as you know anything else, that you’re not in love with the other person any more, and you would only be staying with them out of obligation. That doesn’t mean you don’t still respect them and care about them. You’re just done. 

When my nun friends ask me if I’m coming back to the temple, I usually make a joke using a phrase from tea ceremony. In a formal tea ceremony, after you’ve drunk your bowl of tea and returned the bowl to the host, there’s a moment when the host will fill the dirty bowl with hot water and then move to dump it out. This moment is the cue for the guest to say, おいしくちょだいいたしました、どうぞおしまいください, which translates to something like “I humbly received and drank your very delicious tea, please go ahead and close the ceremony,” implying that you do not need a second helping of tea because the first was so delicious and now you’re completely satisfied. So this is what I say to my nun friends when they ask why I want to leave the monastery, and it always gets a laugh. 

Not to say that I’m completely satisfied, of course. There’s a lot more I want to learn, and a lot more work I need to do, and sometimes I think I’m not really ready to stand on my own feet. But at the same time, there are things I feel I need to do for myself that I just can’t do in a monastery: study Japanese and Buddhist history, have meaningful intimate relationships, sit zazen. Maybe these seem like common Japanese monastery activities, but actually, there’s rarely time for any of that. It’s mostly working really really really hard with other nuns. We would cook and clean until 9pm, and then at that point I would be so tired I couldn’t even study if I tried. It’s also very difficult to develop true friendship in a Japanese monastery because it’s so strictly hierarchical; it’s impossible to be really friends with someone “above” or “below” you. So right now in my life, study and deep friendship is what I want and need the most. And zazen. Zazen is nice. 

When I speak about my desire to reconnect with friends and family and develop new intimate relationships, people will sometimes say things like, “Ah yes, because the real monastery is in your family.” I always react kind of negatively to this, because I’m pretty sure the real monastery is just a monastery. Saying “the real monastery is in your family” is like saying, the real kitchen is in the living room. I'm pretty sure a kitchen is a kitchen, and a living room is a living room. That's why they... uh.. are in different places in the house. I mean, maybe you can eat in the living room, but that doesn’t make it a kitchen. And I guess you could bring a lot of pots and pans and a burner into the kitchen, but why would you want to do that? That living room would not be a relaxing place to sit or read a book. 

I think part of the issue for me is semantics. When people say the word "monastery" I think of the Japanese word "sodo" 僧堂. Sodo is comprised of the character for "monk" and "place." So in Japanese, "monastery" literally means a place for monks. This is the word that gets used to describe the places where I trained ("Nisodo" means "place for female monks"), and it's a little different than say, broader words like "temple" (お寺), or even "dojo" (道場), which is used in both martial arts and Zen and means "place of the way." When I hear "the real monastery is in your family," my brain re-translates this to mean, "the real place for monks is a place without monks" and this makes no sense at all. I blame the Japanese language.

For me monastic training is something distinct from family life, or from the realm of intimate relationships. This doesn't mean that Buddhist practice is distinct from family life, or that Buddhist practice cannot happen in a family, because Buddhist practice is not analogous with monastic practice. There can be practice everywhere. But I think it's okay for monastic practice to exist as a unique thing.

When people say things like “The real monastery is in your family,” I’m wondering what assumptions are being made. Is the assumption that “monastery” is analogous with “challenge” or “growth opportunity”?” Does the person really mean, “The most valuable challenge and growth opportunity is in your family?” That might be true, but there are many kinds of challenges, and many kinds of growth. Running a marathon is a challenge. Being in the army is a challenge. Being in a beauty pageant is a challenge. Getting a PhD is a challenge. Visiting your in-laws is a challenge. They’re all different kinds of challenges, and will inspire different kind of growth. Neither one is more or less of an experience. So I don’t think it’s fair to say “the real growth happens outside a monastery,” just as it’s not fair to say “real life is outside of a monastery.” When is it not real life?

Monastic training does not occur without conflict and with no interactions with others. If anything, in a monastery there is more interaction with others than I can usually take without getting batty. I shared a room with five women for three years. The rooms were so small that when we laid our futons on the ground to sleep, the futons would overlap at the edges. Bathing was communal, and the other nuns would always know if I’d lost or gained weight, and they’d comment on that. There were absolutely no secrets. We all knew who was secretly throwing away food, or who was listening to her ipod after lights out. There was no hiding, and all my anger and sadness and arrogance and insecurity was on display, all the time, for everyone to see. So it was an incredibly intimate environment. Sometimes I joke that if I wrote a book, it would be titled, I’ve Been Awake Since 4am, It’s 35 Degrees, No One Speaks the Same Language, and Everyone Is PMSing or in Menopause.

There was a lay woman who kept showing up at Nisodo when I was there, asking to be ordained. She had some mental problems, came from a well-off family which took care of her, and didn't know what she wanted out of life. She’d never had a job and was pretty unhappy so she decided to become a nun. Aoyama Roshi would always turn her down, saying that she had to figure out what her life was first. She would tell this woman, “Go live your life, and then come back.” 

Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed in America and lived my life— stayed with my partner, worked at a job, done the “real” work of living a “normal” life. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t do that, and didn’t. I chose to go to a monastery. I chose to go to a monastery because a monastery is a distinct kind of practice that is different than the kind of practice within a family structure or romantic relationship. Not because it is better or more intense, but because it is just different. I don’t regret one day of the practice I did in the monastery. I’m grateful for it in a way almost beyond words. I think it saved my life. 

And now I need something else. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Being Wrong On The Internet (and loving the mountains)

Writing on the internet is strange. I type things, and hit a button, and then people all over the world can read it. Forever! It's permanent. This is pretty terrifying, especially because sometimes I write things that are kind of stupid. This month, I wrote a post called "The Real Monastery Is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery" which was just me blowing off hot air. The abbot of Antaiji made a comment on it (or at least a guy living at Antaiji, with the same name as the abbot... not entirely sure), and when I read what he wrote I thought, "Huh. I'm totally wrong!" But it was too late. What I wrote was already out there. 

I know there's no such thing as absolute "right" and "wrong," but I do believe there is a spectrum. These days especially I think I've been ending up on whatever end of that spectrum is farther away from "correct." And I know there are people farther in the other direction than me, or at least, in a direction I want to go. In the months since leaving the monastery I've seen most of my confidence and optimism crumble in the face of the reality of living and practicing basically alone in a metropolitan city. I do still value my time in the monastery, but I'm starting to see that my relative, conditioned self hasn't actually changed so much, and I'm still clueless how to deal with how my relative, conditioned self as it manifests in the world. So: endless practice. More work. 

Initially I started this blog for my family. I sent out a mass email to all of my friends, family, high school and college teachers, and dharma siblings asking for money, because I don't have any, and I want to go to school. In the email, I promised I'd start a blog so people could have a way of knowing what I'm up to, and so I did. It feels bizarre to me that people outside my family read this (and 185 hits from the Czech Republic. Who is reading this in the Czech Republic? Are you Zen practitioners? Can you understand my English? I've never been to the Czech Republic. Is it cold there right now? What kind of food do you eat?). So whenever I press the "publish" button on this blog, a voice of alarm sounds inside me: what if I'm totally wrong about this? Why am I writing at all?

This month, the study abroad program I work on visited Dorogawa, a mountainous area in Japan known for the ascetic practices of Shugendo Buddhism. From what I can tell, Shugendo is a mixture of folk religion, esoteric Buddhism, and ascetic practice. Dogen wrote frequently wrote about the benefits of practicing in the mountains, but actually this wasn’t his own unique idea. For hundreds of years before him there was a long history of mountain asceticism, with monks retreating to caves to meditate, fast, and endure the cold. In Japanese culture, mountains have always been seen as sacred, the ultimate place to practice. As I study more about Japanese Buddhism, it’s amazing to realize how much of Dogen’s ideas were reinterpretations of ideas that came before him. 

Some people love reading Dogen, but I have a hard time appreciating or understanding what he's saying. My dharma sister once suggested to me that I treat the Shobogenzo like a poem- to just let the words come in and make their sounds- so this is what I try to do. Sansuigyō, The Sutra of Mountains and Rivers, is one chapter of the Shobogenzo which I keep coming back to, like a poem I love but cannot understand. In this chapter, Dogen claims that the mountains are walking. “The walking of mountains must be like the walking of human beings,” he writes. “Therefore, even though it does not look like human walking, do not doubt the walking of the mountains…If we doubt the walking of the mountains, we also do not yet know our own walking.” 

I remember reading these lines five years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, and having no idea what they meant. I still don’t. Part of me wants to interpret it metaphorically; “walking” means moving; it’s an acknowledgement of existence in the impermanence and flux of things. But Dogen is clearly rejecting our tendency to resort to metaphor. He says we should not doubt the mountains are walking with legs and feet like people. If I doubt the mountains’ walking, I doubt my own walking. 

on our hike
Sansuigyō is also interesting to me because it’s one of the only chapters in the Shobogenzo where Dogen uses the word “love” in a positive way. He writes, “We generally say that mountains belong to a country, but [mountains] belong to people who love mountains. Mountains always love their occupiers, whereupon saints and sages, people of high virtue, enter the mountains.”

What does it mean to love the mountains, and why does Dogen talk about this? It seems strange, coming from a guy who usually urges his students to cut off love and attachment. Why is it okay to love mountains and not people? Is it because mountains are silent? Is it because they don't have bodies that we can hold? For the record, I’ve certainly met monks in Japan who loved mountains more than they loved people. Loving the mountains is a real thing.

Why do the mountains belong to those who love them?

On our trip we hiked ten miles to the top of Kannonmine, part of the Omine Mountain range. I’m pretty out of shape and it took a long time. When we got to the top, we were above the tree line and we could see a 360 degree panorama view of the area. The sky was blue with white clouds, and on one side, the mountain was bright green with trees. It had these deep ridges running down its side, making it look like a giant, green fist.

When I saw it I thought, “The mountains are walking!” I had no doubt. 

And wouldn’t that be wonderful? If it wasn’t a dream, if it wasn’t a poem, if it wasn’t a metaphor or an anthropomorphization, if it wasn’t just some verbal skillful means Dogen is whipping up to bust me out of my dualistic point of view… wouldn’t it be wonderful if the mountains were actually walking? If they belonged to me because I love them?  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Buddha Never Told Me To Be Stupid

The most common compliment I receive is that I’m “smart.” These days, I’m not really sure what “smart” means, because in my mind, giving up all of my possessions to live in a country where I don’t speak the language and have no social mobility was kind of a stupid thing to do. There are different kinds of intelligence, and I would like to be better at the kind that involves logical decision making.

In the Zen tradition especially, there is a lot of emphasis placed on “not thinking.” In Fukanzazengi, Dogen-Zenji wrote, “Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.” Most teachers of Zen, in Japan at least, will tell you that Zen is “not about thinking,” and that practice is something that you do primarily with your body. This is pertinent advice for Westerners especially who seem to come in with lots of intellectual questions they want to answer, and seem less willing to clean the floor and sit silently for ten years. So the advice given is to just practice without trying to understand what’s happening, because the only way to actually learn something is to engage with the thing itself without adding your own idea. If you add your own idea, then you’re just engaging with your idea, and not the thing you’re trying to learn.

I should add that this is all advice I’ve personally received. I’m always trying to add my own idea into this. To this day, sometimes in the monastery when I get presented with work, formal ceremonies, or a list of Buddha names to memorize, I think, “This isn’t right. This isn’t Buddhism.” Thankfully I’ve gotten better and better over the years at letting go of that idea and accepting what is happening, accepting that there is teaching and meaning in all situations, and that I probably won’t know what the meaning is until I do it. And I’ve come to discover that the more I let go of my ideas, the more possibilities there are for learning.

There is so much more to this life than what I can understand now. The buddha-dharma is endless. So if I am in a monastery, I try my best to “just say yes” to the instructions people give me. This is because I know the buddha-dharma is bigger than me, bigger than my life.

Now, what I am about to say is very important: this doesn’t mean I have to be stupid. 

Let me reiterate this: NOBODY IS TELLING YOU TO BE STUPID. I think there is a really important distinction to be made between “non-thinking” or “wholeheartedly engaging the way” and “being stupid.”

Aoyama Roshi uses a useful metaphor to talk about the relationship between practice and study. In Buddhist practice, imagine we are trying to play the piano. The historical Buddha and the various Buddhist masters are like great composers. They created beautiful symphonies and wrote those melodies down as sheet music. The Buddhist teachings— sutras, commentary, history, writings— are like sheet music. The sheet music tells us how and what to play. Without knowing how to read sheet music, it’s nearly impossible to sit down at a piano and play music. So study is important, and thinking is important, and using your brain is important.

It’s the same with driving a car. It’s true that you can only say you are a Driving Master when you can drive without thinking. But to get to the point of “non-thinking” in driving, first you have to go to driver’s ed, and then someone has to teach you how to drive. You have to learn the traffic rules. These traffic rules are not your idea. Someone else wrote these laws, but you’ve studied them, and chosen to follow them. It’s also important to know the kind of car you’re driving, how many miles it has on it, and what kind of fuel it takes. After all this, it’s safe to get in the car and drive without thinking. 

So you need to know what kind of traffic school you’re going to, what the teachers are qualified to teach, and what they’re not. In the Soto School at least, the abbots of official monasteries are experts in monastery life— in rituals, form, and tradition. They’ve studied Dogen’s writings and can give dharma talks about the Shobogenzo and other important texts. They officiate ceremonies, and can ordain people and give jukai. Those are kind of the basic qualifications. In my experience, good teachers are also teachers of how to stand, how to sit, how to bow, and how to speak kindly and respectfully to people. I learn a lot by watching them move, talk, and work.

What no one is qualified to do, either in Japan or in America, is be in charge of my own personal, subjective experience. That is my space and my own territory. My likes, dislikes, fears, desires, and emotions are my own, and it’s actually not the job of anyone else to change that— mostly because my personal, subjective experience is not the point of this practice. Practice is much more than that. In fact, I’m starting to like the word “training” a lot more than “practice” because instead of being a vague, quasi-spiritual term with no clearly agreed upon definition, “training” implies that there is an exterior model I chose to follow.

Recently I was having a conversation with my dharma sister about what we think are reasonable boundaries in spiritual communities. We agreed that within the confines of a monastery or institution, everyone has to follow the rules. If celibacy and head-shaving are the rule, then so be it. If someone tells us to make tea for sixty people, that’s what we’ll do. If chanting is done in monotone, without dropping pitch, that’s what we’ll do. But outside of the monastery, no one is in control of our bodies and our choices. No one has the right to tell me whether or not I can get married, or if I should shave my head, or where I can work or study, or what I should and shouldn’t believe. An institution can and should control schedule and set standards on a daily level within its own walls, but in terms of big life choices and values: those are mine. 

It’s important to establish these boundaries, and I think I caused myself a lot of pain and suffering because I used to think that the solution to my problems was to get out of my intellect and to be in some non-dualistic, embodied state of being all the time. I became interested in Buddhism because meditation offered me peace of mind. I could sit and watch my breathing and not get caught up in an obsessive thought processes. I needed that quiet, that space, that absence of thought. And I needed a practice to show me that I am not The Center of the Universe. I really used to believe that, and I was miserable. Noticing how I am a very small part of everything is a much healthier and honest way to live. So I’m not really sure how to strike a balance between thinking and non-thinking, between skepticism and trust, between independence and humility. It’s clear to me, though, that I should not be trying to dumb myself down. The Buddha said to give up lust, give up hatred, give up delusion, but he never told me to stop reading history books, or to give up being smart. 

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...