This week, a female Zen practitioner in the States emailed me to thank me for my writing and to inquire about Nisodo, specifically if I thought it was a "healthy training environment."
I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. The health benefits of practicing in a women’s monastery are great! We eat brown rice porridge with a vegetables for breakfast, rice, soup and vegetables for lunch, and noodles and vegetables for dinner. There’s very little fat or meat in the diet. I sleep the best sleep of my life when I’m at Nisodo because I wake up at 4am and am constantly working throughout the day.
But this isn’t what she meant. She was asking about psychological health, which is something I am simultaneously unqualified and VERY VERY qualified to talk about. I’m unqualified to talk about this because I’m not a doctor or psychotherapist, but I think I am qualified because I struggled with depression in high school and college, and now I don’t. I know how depression feels when it’s the worst it can be, and I also know how I feel now, which is good. Happy, even.
Lots of women with mental health problems came through the monastery, and if the situation got too intense, the abbess would remind everyone, “This isn’t a hospital.” I saw more than one woman leave to seek psychological help elsewhere. There was a clear understanding that the aim of monastic training was not to cure, treat, or manage mental health issues.
I would imagine that practicing in a Japanese training monastery might exacerbate latent mental health issues in people already struggling with depression. I had to deal with my own demons while I was there. The level of expected conformity was shocking to me— and still is sometimes— and I think for even the average, modern Japanese person, Zen monastic conformity is a step up in severity from the kind of conformity that people have to deal with in “normal” situations like school or work. The strictness and all-pervasiveness of social hierarchy is exquisite. I think the army is a good comparison. There’s very little space to question, doubt, or say “no” without being socially ostracized. All this, combined with being very, very tired and separated from friends and family, has the potential to erode sanity.
So from a Western, psychological perspective, it’s probably easy to say that Nisodo was not a “healthy training environment” for me. Except I’m not going to say that, because I am a fucking champion.
I’m gonna write that out again: I am a fucking champion.
Since the murders at Charlie Hebdo, there’s been all sorts of political and philosophical commentary about what those deaths— and the particularly gruesome way they were carried out— signify about our society. Although everyone can agree the deaths are tragic, the specific significance of the deaths is harder to come to consensus about. Is it simply an issue of free speech being under attack by the forces of hatred and extremism? Is it a symptom of a long and complicated cultural miscommunication? Is it a problem of religion? Of Islam? Or religious fundamentalism?
Many people are taking the stance that the murders signify a problem not just with fundamentalist Islam but with all religion. In an interview this week, Bill Maher said, “First of all, there are no great religions. They’re all stupid and dangerous — and we should insult them and we should be able to insult whatever we want. That is what free speech is like.” This view that religion is always bad and makes people do crazy things is a mentality I see a lot in educated, white people specifically. And I think it’s kind of an easy, lazy view to take. Saying that “religion is bad” or “Japanese monasteries are unhealthy” is a really easy thing to say because it lets individual people off the hook for their own crap (I was going to write “stuff” but that’s more ambiguous).
It’s the same with attributing things to “culture.” After the March 11 tsunami in Japan, politicians and critics alike were quick to say that the lack of organized government response was due to a problem of “Japanese culture.” But as one journalist pointed out, blaming everything on culture is a way to shift responsibility away from individual people and onto an amorphous, intangible concept. I think it’s the same when we blame violence on religion or even fundamentalist religion; it serves the function of making us forget that murder is individual people doing something awful and violent under their own free will.
Because I think we always have a choice. Even when we think we don’t have a choice— to say “no,” or to think critically, or to quit, or whatever it is— we always have a choice.
Which is not to say that I maintained my sanity and boundaries throughout my time in the monastery. I’ve spent much of the five months since I left unlearning lots of things I was indoctrinated with. I don’t use the word “indoctrinated” lightly. When I first got out, I wouldn’t even play bocci ball at Tassajara because I thought it wasn’t appropriate for a monk. It took me months to be able to wear normal clothes in the street and not feel like I was wrong or naked. And there’s some other things I don’t want to share on the internet. I remember the first week of the Buddhist study abroad program I worked on, sitting in class and hearing the professor say “Indoctrination functions best when you’re unaware it’s happening,” and something cracked open in me.
For me, Buddhist practice is clearly a religion. The Encyclopedia Brittanica agrees with me. I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist, so by religion I mean something along the lines of “a bunch of people getting together to do something they all think is true or want to be true together.” For most Buddhist practitioners in the West, this shared truth might be as simple as “meditation is worth doing.” Even if you don’t believe it from the beginning, you want to, which is why you keep coming back to sit with others who believe meditation is worth doing.
This kind of group think can mess with your head. Boundary violation can happen in Buddhist sanghas just as much as in a Christian cult. But personally, I’m not going to give up on religion because a) I’m smart and, as we already established, I am a fucking champion, and b) I don’t want to live without experiencing grace.
“Grace” isn’t a word that shows up much in Buddhism. It’s a Christian concept, although it surfaces in Islam and Hinduism too. Grace is the experience of receiving God’s love. I’m not Christian and don’t have any relationship with God explicitly in my life, so what I mean by grace is a little different. Shortly after leaving Japan, when my mother asked me what I missed most about the monastery, I told her I missed the “feeling of having my life organized by something simultaneously good and not-me.” In communal religious life, it’s very easy to dissolve your ego in something good. And that feels good. For me, "living by vow" is grace: replacing my own personal preference with a vow to save all beings, and organizing my life around that vow.
I think when people say things like all “religion is stupid and dangerous,” this ignores the fact that most people need to feel some kind of grace in their life to feel whole and satisfied. And I think everyone experiences grace in different ways. It can be in really good sex, in work, and in service. It can be in nature. So I’m not going to rat on anyone else’s grace, as long as they’re not breaking any laws, and as long as it’s between consenting adults.
Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I know what’s “good” (and clearly I don’t know what’s “healthy!”) anymore. “Good” is a tricky idea. I want to critically examine what’s “good” about the good of selfless religious practice. I also want grace, and sacrifice, and letting go. So I’m not giving up on religion, even as I am wary of it. Part of me is critically examining, and part of me is blindly following, and part of me is submitting, and part of me is always making choices and setting boundaries, and part of me is consenting to all this, and part of me is not.