What a Horrible Institution!

I'm going to my monastery today for the next week. My head's shaved and I've got on my black samue and I'm looking forward to being back in the monastery (however, I'm also eating caramel popcorn and listening to Pink. My friend made me an empowering dance music play list called "i'm walkin here fuckboy"... so... that's happening, too). 

The first time I ever went to the monastery was with my then-boyfriend, who'd lived there for a year in college. He was my introduction. Over the years, I've introduced several people to the monastery; I brought my mom and dad when I ordained, and they've come back several times since. When I was working on the study abroad program this fall, too, I brought the students there for a week. At this point, the monastery is like my family. This is kind of weird and problematic, especially since I'm supposed to have "left home," but I really feel like the monastery is my family, with all the same weird dynamics and button-pushing that family does. Whenever I introduce someone knew, I feel kind of nervous. What if they don't like each other? 

Because the monastery is like my family, I'm also very protective of it. I feel like I can personally say anything I want about it, but woe on the person who insults my family.

This time around I'm bringing my friend D. He's my new friend from school, and he's twenty-five years old. He's never sat zazen before, but he's very interested in Buddhism. He's also been through basic training in the army, spent a few nights sleeping outside on concrete, and read all the Dogen I gave him, so I feel this is qualification enough.

The other day when we were at the grocery store, I turned to him and said, "You know, I'm not sure you're ready for the serious, monastic me." 

"Will I be able to see you when we're there?"

"Yes, of course."

"Can I still holler at you?" 

"Holler? Not in the morning. It's silent until breakfast." 

"Well then, can I throw paper airplanes at you in zazen?"

"No, because lay people sit outside the Zendo. You won't be allowed in the room where I do zazen."

"Wait, what?" 

"Sorry, yeah. I forgot to tell you that. Lay people have to sit at the bottom of the table, and aren't allowed in the Zendo."

He frowned. "What a horrible institution!"

This is the logical, liberal American reaction to an institution that segregates people by arbitrary social status. And honestly, whenever I bring family or friends, I feel a little embarrassed by the mandatory hierarchy which places my mom and dad (for example) at the bottom of the table, below me. I tried explaining to D. that the word for "monastery" in Japanese is "Sodo" (僧堂 ), which literally means "a place for monks," and so lay people are almost like guests. He wasn't convinced, and the "what a horrible institution" look stayed on his face. 


Americans in particular seem to have a problem with the separation (segregation?) of monks and lay people. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities are "inherently unequal." But in the Japanese mentality, this isn't a problem. Japan isn't so good with social justice, admittedly-- there's never been a feminist or civil rights movement-- but part of the rational, at least in the monastery, is that difference exists and is okay, and it's okay that different people do different things and occupy different social roles. 

In Japan, the precepts for lay people and monks are the same, but the actual ceremony is very, very different. The monk or priest is being trained to become a ritual expert to be able to facilitate funerals and memorial services. Lay people are welcomed to come to the monastery to sit zazen, do work practice, and chant sutras alongside monks, but they don't help run the ceremonies in any way. The understanding is not that monks are better or more serious, just that their role is different within the context of monastic training. (I think it's important to mention that the monastery where I ordained is the only one in Japan which accepts men and women. The implication is that while the role of monks and lay people are different, the role of men and women are NOT).

There’s hierarchy within all-monk spaces, too. Hierarchy is determined by the date you entered the monastery, and this determines things like where you sit at the table and where you put your shoes. In a strict place like Nisodo, were residents do a lot of work in the day within organized work groups, the person in charge is always the most “senior” nun. It’s not an elected position. It doesn’t matter if she’s nice, mean, smart, dumb, old or young. The only thing that matters is that she’s been in the monastery longer than you.

Seniority-based hierarchy can cause problems, obviously. You can get people at the top of the hierarchy who don’t know how to run things smoothly, who aren’t actually qualified, and only have that position because they’ve waited the longest. I remember complaining one time about a particularly bad boss I had (maybe that’s not right speech. Bad boss? But I’m sorry, she was… bad). I was trying to explain to my older nun friend how bad this other nun was at leading our work group and why I felt her ineptitude warranted me not listening to her or obeying her, and my friend looked at me and said, “But you have to respect the merit of her ordination.” 

My friend’s point was that, even if this nun was inept, she had ordained before me, and so respecting this nun really meant respecting the act of shaving the head. Within Japanese culture at least, there’s a belief that ordaining creates merit. This nun had more merit than me because she ordained earlier; her status was in acknowledgement of her ordination, not anything to do with her as an individual person. And the “merit” she received wasn’t her own merit. The merit was the merit of the okesa.

So on my good days, this is where I am with Japanese monastic hierarchy: it’s not about how good or important people are. It’s about treating the okesa as a living symbol that deserves respect.

And on my bad days? I’m not sure that’s good enough. I’m not sure if the okesa is a good enough symbol to warrant splitting everyone up. If we take merit out of the picture, I’m also not sure what exactly the okesa “does” that’s different than not wearing the okesa (can we even talk that way?). It makes me uncomfortable that my friends and family have to sit at the bottom of the table while I’m up at the top. I don’t want to participate or believe in a kind of Buddhism that would make “true practice” available to certain people; that would be a horrible institution, indeed! 

But I also don't know what "equality" means any more. Equal in what way? Does being equal (in terms of where you sit or stand) even matter so much? Does it really matter if I have to put my shoes below someone else's shoes? Does the world end? What is gained or lost when I willingly lower myself? When people lower themselves to me? Because as a woman and a foreigner I've been at both the very, very bottom, and more very recently, kind of up towards the top, and I have to say the practice is in fact, the same. 

Maybe true practice is available to everyone, and the okesa is good, and different, and that's okay. Maybe all of those things can be true. 


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