I was sitting in my Japanese Foreign Policy class yesterday and had an epiphany (for the people reading this who don’t know, I’m enrolled in a university in Nagoya taking intensive Japanese language in the morning and regular academic classes in the afternoon). In the back of my mind were many conversations, essays I’ve read, and thoughts I’ve had about the nature of precepts in Zen Buddhism, and the unique way that Zen Buddhism accounts for, rationalizes, practices with, and does away with the precepts of celibacy, drinking alcohol, and even waging war. Sometimes I have to wonder: what’s wrong with us? As I listened to the professor lecture about the raise of Japanese nationalism in the early 20th century, and thought about Zen monk’s involvement in the war, it occurred to me that there might be a specific quality of Japanese culture that— in combination with universal human frailty— accounts for a lot of this moral ambiguity.
The specific Japanese phrase that came to mind was “shikata ga na.” “Shikata ga nai” means something like “nothing to do about it,” or “it can’t be helped.” This is a ubiquitous Japanese phrase, and not necessarily a Buddhist one. It’s used all the time, in the face of something you don’t want, or something you don’t want to have happen, but which happens anyway. For example: you’re walking to work, it starts raining, and you don’t have an umbrella. Shikata ga nai. You want to get hired at Google, but you don’t. Shikata ga nai.
Shikata ga nai has both positive and negative qualities to it. On the one hand, it can get used to ignore, erase, or move away from unpleasant things that the speaker is too lazy, uninterested, or incapable of dealing with. It’s a kind of complacency, of fatalism. For example: I ran over a dog today in my car. Shikata ga nai. Moral responsibility absolved! It’s in the past. Nothing to do about it. That’s the fatalistic, lazy side to the phrase. But on the other hand: I ran over a dog today in my car. That’s really sad. I feel terrible. But all conditioned things are impermanent, so shikata ga nai. In a certain light, shikata ga nai is just an acknowledgement of the noble truth of suffering. Because there literally is nothing to do about the dog, except say sorry and give it a proper burial.
But it’s a slippery slope. I’ve started to notice that my teachers in the monastery, both men and women, say the phrase shikata ga nai to explain away behavior that is morally ambiguous but unavoidable— and therefore not so morally ambiguous after all (I will not be sharing the story about a young nun, a lost health insurance card, an immigration bureau, and a completely ridiculous bureaucratic loophole which necessitated lying. But you can imagine it). For example, I remember last year when I was at Nisodo, two younger, male Japanese monks from my teacher’s monastery showed up unannounced to say hello to me. An older nun came and told me that there were two young men waiting for me in the parking lot.
I went to the parking lot and, low and behold, two of my young monk friends were in the parking lot, dressed in jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers. My jaw dropped. Before I could even greet them properly I said the Japanese equivalent of “What the hell are you wearing?!?” They laughed and said they were driving back home after helping out at the monastery, and wanted to say hello. You know. Just two guys swinging by the local Zen convent to say hello to a young nun. Nothing to see here.
But what really irritated me was that they were monks and had showed up to a monastery— and not only a monastery, but a strict nun’s monastery— wearing their street clothes and not their robes. It was incredibly disrespectful. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even invite them in for tea, which is an even bigger social taboo, but whatever. I was pissed. Later that week, I called my teacher on the pay phone in the monastery and told him what happened.
“Can you believe they came without wearing kimono and rakusu?” I said.
“Shikata ga nai,” he said. “They ended their practice at the monastery already.” The assumption was— they’re adults, they know the proper and improper way to do things, and there’s nothing we can do to make them act a different way. I was surprised he said this, because in five years I’ve never seen my teacher wear anything other than traditional Japanese monastic clothing. It’s kind of his thing. I don’t think he owns anything with a zipper. Like, not even a windbreaker. Not even a backpack. Still, he’s not about to tell two grown men what to wear when they’re not currently enrolled in his monastery.
He was right, but I hate that. I think Westerners in particular have trouble accepting when “there’s nothing to do.” We want to think that we have agency and free will, that we can control our destiny, that we can become bigger and better human beings all the time, and that what’s more, everyone else should be bigger and better human beings all the time and if they’re not there’s something horribly wrong with them.
I remember after I ordained, I was required to sit tangaryo for week. Tangaryo is the trial period where you have to sit zazen without moving for a week, except for bathroom breaks, meals, and sleeping. I was really worried before hand. Would I be able to sit without moving? I asked a monk in the monastery what to do if I had to move.
“Don’t move,” he said.
“But what if I really have to move?” I asked again.
“But what if I really, really, really, have to move?”
“Well, then move,” he said. He didn’t say “shikata ga nai,” but he could have.
This is the attitude I have carried with me since I ordained: I am going to sit for as long as I can without moving, and then I’m going to move, and not beat myself up about it.
But can we say the same thing for the precepts? Is it enough to say, I am trying my best, but I am a human being, and it’s inevitable that I mess up? Is that just an easy way to get around moral responsibility? I don’t really know. This is the rationality behind drinking and marriage in Japan, as far as I can tell. The reasoning is that we are humans and this kind of stuff is inevitable, so we wake up within delusion. Or something like that.
The more I look into the precept about sexuality in particular, the more I think that “right sexuality” is actually impossible. Show me one sexual relationship in the entire universe without any pain or negative consequences and I will show you a unicorn. With a bachelor's degree. This is why the Buddha recommended celibacy for monks. And yet, here we are. Not celibacy, but “right sexuality,” whatever that means. We’ve reinterpreted this precept and now have to live with the karma. We’re all trying. We try our best to be open and honest, to communicate, to respect ourselves and others, to honor promises that we’ve made. But personally, I know I’m going to mess up. I know because I always mess up, and so does everyone else. The intention is not to harm and I try my best, but I don’t always succeed. I try not to move, but sometimes there really is nothing to do.
Is saying that enough?