Thursday, December 25, 2014

Die Standing

I’m writing this in a Starbucks as I wait to take a train to Narita airport and then fly home to San Francisco for the holidays. I just spent three weeks at Nisodo, figuring out my housing situation, packing my belongings, and then doing the necessary farewell ceremonies that involve bowing to everybody in the Zendo. 

For about a year now I’ve been trying and failing to sufficiently write about the experience of practicing as a Zen nun in Japan. It’s difficult to convey the most unique and important aspects of women’s monastic training to a Western reader in a way that doesn’t make it seem either boring, unfair, or unnecessarily painful (which it can be… but there’s more to it than that! Hence the difficulty in writing about it).

After my most recent stay, though, the piece I feel is most important to share about women’s monastic practice in Japan is that, in my experience at least, there is no such thing as women’s practice or women’s Zen. What I mean is that while the exterior form of practice for women is slightly different from men’s practice (we spend more time making and talking about tea, probably, and we all have an obsessive interest in cats and snacks), it is the same dharma practice. Or, as the second abbot of Eiheji wrote, “Even though there are limitless forms of Buddha Dharma shown by buddhas and ancestors, they all are this one color of Buddha Dharma.”

I spent the first year or two thinking that the practice at Nisodo was women’s practice. There’s a lot of attention paid to flowers, for example, and we’re all required to study sewing and tea ceremony. In contrast to the male monastery where I practiced before, there was a lot less emphasis on perfecting Dogen Zenji’s monastic forms, and more emphasis on making beauty in our immediate surroundings. This led me to believe that there was some special way that women were practicing. 

But I don’t think this any more, and I’m skeptical of any claims to a special, singular women’s spirituality (just as I’m skeptical of a singular “women’s” anything- including bathrooms. Whenever someone says “womanhood” to me I want to ask, “Which women are you talking about?”). If I am arranging flowers with my whole body and mind, without any idea of “woman” or even of “flowers,” can this really be a called a woman’s activity? I have to believe that the mind being developed in this practice is the same mind that has been transmitted from the historical Buddha— that there is real congruency with the past. This is what Dogen Zenji meant when he wrote, “Pay no attention to male or female”— not that men and women don’t exist, or that men and women are the same, but that practice and attainment is the same for everyone. 

There’s a narrative of women’s Buddhism in some books I’ve read that women’s highest spiritual potential is in the realm of relationships with family and children. Our biology is our destiny. While it’s true that most women don’t practice in a cave (though some do), and most women do practice by engaging with the world, it’s also true that the vast majority of Japanese Zen nuns (and for that matter, most Buddhist nuns in Asia) engage with the world by remaining celibate and singularly concentrating on Zen practice in a temple. I don’t think a life devoted to religious practice in community makes someone less of a woman. 

A few people in America I’ve met expressed surprise when I told them that the women’s monastery was a lot harder than the coed monastery where I trained. I guess they assumed that women practicing together would be more light and friendly or something. But for me, practicing with other nuns was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve met the strongest and least emotionally fragile women you can possibly imagine. There’s a level of seriousness and concentration that I’ve yet to witness anywhere else, and most of the nuns have a very Japanese way of relating to emotional issues that makes me rethink all of my assumptions about women naturally being more emotional than men. 

When I got to Nisodo this month, I kept thinking about the maxim “Die standing,” and how it perfectly encapsulates this attitude I’m talking about. This is an excerpt from the book Women Living Zen, by Paula Arai, which was written about the community of nuns I lived with. The story was related to the author: 

Kuriki, who is currently the head nun of Seikan-ji, arrived under Nogami’s tutelage at the age of eight. With a sense of awe, respect, and a hint of trepidation, Kuriki remembers how Nogami raised her on the classical Zen dictum, Zedatsu ryubo (“Die sitting, die standing”). This is the way of a monastic. 
Dogen used this classical Zen dictum in a widely chanted and studied text, Fukan zazengi, to stress that practice means to do all activities with steady attention to reality here and now… in Zen, although no one can verify how many people have actually succeeded in this, sitting and standing death postures are considered absolute proof of enlightenment.
Nogami Senryu repeated this like a mantra as she strove to live each moment with pure and relentless concentration. On a crisp afternoon, the 17th of November, 1980, Nogami’s adamantine voice pierced the silence: “It’s time for zadatsu ryubo!” Not knowing what to expect, Kuriki rushed to the dim hallway where she saw Nogami slowly walking toward the bronze sculpture of Sakyamuni Buddha sitting full-lotus posture on the altar in the Worship Hall. Arriving in time to witness the stout ninety-seven-year-old nun in simple black robes take a final step to perfect her stance, Kuriki pealed, “Congratulations!” as Nogami died standing. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the nuns I’ve met die standing, or in the zazen posture. It’s how they live their life, and it’s how I want to live mine, too— fearlessly, and by fully engaging with each moment, with “steady attention to reality here and now.” Whether or not I marry and have children, live with a family or in spiritual community, I want to do it on my own two feet. This is what “zadatusu ryubo” means to me— not a morbid fixation with death, but full commitment to all circumstances and moments, including death. 


The first month I was at Nisodo a senior nun told me, “People say the abbess is a man because she’s strong, professional and doesn’t show her emotions. But remember that she’s not a man. She’s her own woman.” I think it’s important to share representations of spiritual women who are their “own women.” There are many ways of being a woman, but I want to tell the stories of women who die standing. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Broken Covenant


My friend Rose Schwab is on the path to becoming a Unitarian minister. This is a sermon she gave to her predominantly white congregation in St. Louis, addressing the protests in Ferguson and the history of racism in America. I am constantly awed and inspired by her ability to get to the heart of what is most important and what is most true. 



(When she sent this to me, she recommended that I read "every single sentence, because it builds." I have the same recommendation.)



Broken Covenant, Nov 30th, 2014
Rose Schwab

A covenant is a promise about how we are going to be together.   When we covenant we promise that we are going to be accountable to each other.  

And we Unitarian Universalists undertake the communal process of covenanting each time we meet.  It is through covenants we are spoken into relationship.  It is through covenant that we pledge our love and dedication for one another. And, most importantly, it is through the process of process of covenant that we say to each other, I am accountable to you.  

Covenants are so powerful, that they can change the world.  One such covenant has made a big difference.  In the year 622, when Islam was new, Mohammed was called upon to resolve a conflict in Medina.  There were 12 prominent clans who didn’t like the Jewish population that lived among them.  And this went against Mohammed’s religious beliefs.  I am not talking about the fundamentalist Islam, but the heart of Islam. Because in Islam, it's all about oneness: a perfect and ultimate divine oneness that trickles into every aspect of life.  Even our human interactions could be infused with an accountability to each other as if another person were an extension of one’s self.

So, Mohammed helped these people understand that they were linked.  And, eventually, they made a covenant that everyone could live well under. Mohammed wasn’t Jewish, but he saw that the covenant was broken for the Jewish people.  So, he made the following document, the Constitution of Medina:

The non-Muslims included in the community have the following rights:

1.     The security of God is equal for all groups.
2.     Non-Muslim members will have the same political and cultural rights as Muslims.
3.     They will have autonomy and freedom of religion  (this was nearly 1,000 years before the Unitarians thought of pluralism in Europe).

This Muslim ideal of community spread throughout northern Africa, and whole societies were based in the human expression on oneness.   If you’ve ever seen Islamic art, you know how infused this culture is with a sense of the divine.

I’m telling you this so that you can appreciate how beautiful and sophisticated of a culture this was, and how far this depiction is from our American psyche concerning African American people.  I am telling you this, so that you can understand how awful it was, when centuries later, ships began to land in Africa, from France, Spain, England and Portugal.  And they kidnapped people.  After people were kidnapped from their families, after they were taken from their land and their country, after their social order was destroyed, they were put onto ships to be brought to the Americas. The voyage took 1-6 months, and on these slave ships, human beings were kept for most of the day in boxes- long flat boxes- like coffins that were closed, and only were 18 inches high.  That meant that people on slave ships had 6 inches of space for up to 6 months.  In this passage alone, 2,000,000 people died.

And here we have the breaking of a covenant.  Not the Muslim covenant, not the African
covenant, not the European covenant, but a breaking of the unspoken covenant between all humans.  A breaking of that thing, that connection, the feeling of oneness and family that is real, that we’ve all felt with strangers. Intelligent and dignified people were made out to be inhuman.  People who came from the place that invented mathematics and astronomy, the area that had the most extensive library and educational system in the world were made out to be savages.  

This covenant was broken many years ago, but it’s still broken today.  How could the covenant between this country and African Americans not be broken...if it was broken in its very birth?  How could the voice of the black community not be rising again?  How could they keep from crying out “That another child is dead in the streets with no justice for his killer?”  This is not a new trouble, this is an old trouble.  This is a familiar trouble.  The broken covenant with African American people has never really been dealt with.  This is about the man who was buying a BB gun in a Walmart, and had sat down, on the phone, and was shot to death because it seemed he was threat.  This is about the 12 year old boy who was shot dead in the park, after a woman called and said that there was a child with a fake toy gun.  I am willing to bet, that if your brother were on the phone, and was shot dead, and then a special jury deemed that as “justified,” you too would light fires and break glass.  If your son was in the park with a toy gun, and the cops came and shot him dead, you too, would be crying out, “How can my child be dead?”  This is about the indignities of not being listened to, even though the things you have to say are as true as true gets.  

Now, it might be that the verdict concerning Michael Brown’s death hits home for you, or you might be inundated with feelings and emotions that conflict.  I know that both of these things are true for me.  Writing this sermon was incredibly hard, because of how messy this all is.  

But no matter your feelings about this event, we all know the pain of broken covenant.  This is a human thing.  We all know what it feels like to assume that we are safe and loved, but, instead, be betrayed or forgotten.  This is a human thing.  Perhaps it’s your family, your partner, or it is an institution that broke the covenant with you.  But whatever happened, the most hurtful thing, probably, was that no one cared about you.  Probably what broke you, was that no one cared about what happened to you.  No one was accountable to you, and no one said they were sorry.

When a covenant has been broken for us, we want so badly to be seen that we go back to the table, to try and fix what happened.  But, because covenants are made communally, the only way to mend one is for everyone who was part of the breaking to be at the table.  You can’t just have the people who’ve been wronged there.  In order to mend, the people who are hurt need to tell their story, and the people who hurt them need to hear it, and say they’re sorry.  

Can you imagine if Darren Wilson had run to the body of Michael Brown and reckoned, in public, with his own anguish about killing another human being?  What if he had just been real, rather than polarized?  What if he had had the dignity to say, "I’m sorry."  Don’t you think that this would have changed the conversation?  Even if he just talked about how scared he was without simultaneously justifying a death and mistreatment of a body, that would change the conversation.  Don’t you think any acknowledgement of wrong-doing would change the community’s response?  I do. To in some way express an understanding that he took another’s life.  Because the way it is now, no one has said that they’re sorry to this family.  No one has admitted a wrong.

And that’s because, in part, it’s not easy to know who’s wrong. It’s really not clear who is at fault here.  And I mean, in the deepest theological, economic, political sense of this word “fault”.  This is a big, messy, complicated system that is made up of humans, police, jurors, the policed, the protestors.  And it’s really an incredibly painful experience of trying to figure out how to talk about whose fault it is.  To say it is the fault of police is to take the easy road. 

But what we do know, and what there is no question about, is that there are people in this city who need some accountability. Regardless of how messy the fault element of it is, someone needs to show up at the table to hear the story.  Someone needs to be accountable. So we will be.  Because we are people of faith, and it is the right thing to do.

In place of an unhealthy system, we will be healthy.  In place of police departments that have bad patterns and practices, we will make good patterns.  In place of school systems that abandon, we will show up.  We will be accountable for the people in our lives. Accountability doesn’t mean we go in and “save” anyone, it just means that we show up.  It means that when our institutions do not do so, we will uphold the unspoken covenant between humans.  When the eyes of our nation stare dryly upon dead bodies, we will weep.  

We are a powerful group of people.  You know it, and I know it.  This is a church full of
intelligent, connected, and loving people, so we could actually have a real effect on St. Louis.  If we put our mind to deepening our engagement with people in St. Louis who are struggling, we could do some amazing work.

Being accountable to those who are suffering is not the easy path, to say the least.  But we are called to do it.  In his lifetime Mohammed changed the entire Arab world, but he didn’t do it one fell swoop.  All he did in Medina was see people who were being treated wrongly, and then call upon his religious beliefs to lead him towards a new covenant.  I doubt it was easy.  I don’t think he just said, here’s the new way.  I’m sure he had to have a lot of tense and difficult conversations with people who’ve hurt each other.

And we can’t change the climate of this country in one fell swoop, but we are in St. Louis.  This national, global event is happening here.  It’s news across the country, but for you, this is your town.  These are the people who you live with. So, what we will do is be accountable to those who are suffering, in this neighborhood, in this city. 

Because we are Unitarians, so we have historically preached a divine oneness...a perfect and ultimate Unity between all beings on this earth.  

And we are Universalists, so we believe that everyone deserves decency and dignity.  

And we are called forward by our covenant.  We will call upon our religious beliefs to lead us into a deeper and more beautiful way of co-existing with our brothers and sisters. So we won’t be afraid to make promises, and we won’t shy from accountability, and we won’t avoid doing the hard work of showing up at the table. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Taking Up a Green Vegetable and Turning It Into the Best Party Ever

The study abroad program I work on ends on Friday, and tonight we had a farewell dinner with our “Japanese Buddies,” the Japanese students who had signed up to be our friends and partners in intercultural exchange for the semester. I didn’t want to go to this party because a) I was never assigned a buddy since I am the teaching assistant and b) I am well aware how awkward Japanese parties are, especially the mandatory, organized-by-somebody-whose-job-it-is-to-organize-a-mandatory-party-above-the-cafeteria kind. There is something about the way social interaction in Japan happens that seems simultaneously forced, formal, and too private; it’s usually a huge room with lots of food, an exclusive group of people, organized games/speeches, and a group photo at the end. This is never a good recipe for making connection. But my boss made me go, so I went with the other students. 

When we arrived in the assigned room, we were immediately disheartened to see that the room was indeed made up to look like a middle school dance. There were perhaps fifty chairs arranged in a huge circle for maybe twenty participants, and three tables filled with way more food than anyone could possibly eat. There was a tiny, white stereo in the corner playing Aretha Franklin VERY quietly.

Students looking generally unhappy
After a mandatory, organized group toast (of orange juice), the students and I filled our plates with french fries, fried chicken, and sandwiches. We sat down in a few of the fifty million empty chairs, and started eating. The woman in charge of the event immediately walked over and told us, “Don’t forget to mingle with your Japanese buddies!!!” in a bizarrely aggressive tone. Some of the kids were already complaining about how “awkward” this party was, and how difficult it is to speak Japanese “when you’re really really socially uncomfortable.” 

I couldn’t blame them, since I was thinking the same thing. But then some flip switched in my brain. Without even trying, I tapped into a magical skill I have developed over the years in the monastery to make meaning and enjoyment in even the most dire situations, like the characters in William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! who “had been walking backward slow for a year now so all they had left was not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure.” 

(I like that phrase: "grooved habit to endure.")

What I have discovered through practicing Zen in Japan is that the best way to confront an unavoidable, difficult, and seemingly meaningless task is to get REALLY REALLY REALLY INTO IT. This means, in both monastery and awkward party scenarios, that it works well to TAKE EVERYTHING SERIOUSLY and GET COMPETITIVE ABOUT ALL THE GAMES. This makes everything fun. 

In Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji wrote, “In the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing one practice is practicing completely.” Other translations I’ve read is “to get one dharma is to penetrate one dharma, and to meet one act is to perform one act.” Actually, this is one instance where I really think the literal Japanese is best. 

                                                     遇一行修一行
This literally means “encounter one thing, practice one thing” or “encounter one practice, practice one practice.” This is what's written on my rakusu case.

When you sweep the ground, sweep the ground. When you chop carrots, chop carrots. When you are at a party with unlimited buffet food, EAT TO WIN. When you are required to play “Find somebody who” (that game where you have to walk around and “find somebody who likes economics, or has an iPod 6, etc.), get WAY TOO COMPETITIVE about it even though it’s not a competition and no one but you is actually writing names down. When you have to play two truths and a lie and you are incredibly bad at lying because you are honest to a fault, MAKE THE BEST TRUTH/LIE COMBINATIONS POSSIBLE. Such as:

1) When I was in middle school, I broke my leg on a trampoline
2) I have an older half sister
3) I am a hippopotamus 

I really do think meaning can be found in all situations. This is why when people who have never been to the women’s monastery ask me, “Do you have much time for actual practice or is it mostly just physical work and Japanese cultural stuff?” I look at them like they are speaking Greek.

On Friday, this program ends and I’ll be going back to the monastery for a few weeks. I’m actually not looking forward to it. For starters, my body won’t be used to it. I’ve spent the last three months with the cushiest existence— waking up at a luxurious 7:00am, eating the food I want, and sitting in chairs while I do it. I know when I go back, I’ll be waking up at 4, sitting in traditional seiza during classes, meals, and morning service, and working non-stop. I’ll have no control over my own time. It’s going to be a rough adjustment. 

I’ll also be the only Westerner there. It’s hard being the only one of your ethnicity in any situation, and I think “foreignness” is especially pronounced in traditional settings which revolve around preserving and transmitting Japanese culture. There won’t be any English, and no one is going to translate for me. 

I know the only way I’m going to survive is to get really into it. This is the magic skill I’m starting to develop— to view everything, every “unimportant” task, every moment, as an opportunity for learning. And if not learning, than at least concentration and effort. Or at the very, VERY least, material for a blog post. I’m pretty sure this is what Dogen was talking about in Instructions to the Cook when he wrote, “This is the way to turn things while being turned by things. .. Taking up a green vegetable, turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body; take a sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable leaf. This is a miraculous transformation—a work of Buddha that benefits sentient beings.”

I don't want to sound like I'm selling these teachings short, because it's obviously a lot more profound than this. Did I really just compare Zen monastic training to making an awkward party fun? Well, maybe I did. When I'm in the monastery, sometimes I want to run screaming for the hills. But sometimes it's the best party ever. Either way, it's up to me. 

In the whole world nothing is hidden! 

I’ll see you all in a few weeks. 

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