Saturday, January 31, 2015

Being a Japanese Monk

More than once someone in Japan has asked me if I'm "a Japanese monk." The first time was at Starbucks. I was minding my own business, drinking my latte and studying kanji, and I must have been wearing my Zen uniform because a female (foreign) student came up to me and breathlessly asked, "Are you a Japanese monk??"

The same thing happened again, yesterday, with a guy on my Japanese language program. "Wait. So are you like, a Japanese monk?" he asked.

"Do you mean... am I a Japanese person?" I tried to clarify. "Do you mean am I a Japanese citizen?" I was being difficult, but the question is really bizarre. Finally I relented. "I was ordained in Japan, yes."

"Okay," he said. "So you're a Japanese monk." 

This is a really weird question to me, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that in many ways, yes, I am a Japanese monk! But what I mean by "Japanese monk" is probably different than what the people asking me think (actually I have no idea what people mean when they ask me). I think I'm a Japanese monk because I've picked up on a certain way of relating to religion and religious vocation that is (I hate to say it) Japanese, which has to do with how most people in Japan are conditioned to navigate their public and private selves. 

Most books about Japanese culture will mention something about "honne" (true motivation or true self) and "tatamae" (public self). A man will show his tatemae at work with his boss, and may (or may not) express his honne with his wife or a very close friend. There's an understanding, though, that the public self isn't actually any less true than the private self, even though the private self is technically most "real." The public self is true in the sense that it's enacted in relations to others; it's a social role that's performed in a necessary situation, in conjunction with the larger social fabric, and so in that sense it can't be said to be false. It's a self that's co-created with others, as opposed to existing on its own.

Social identity in Japan is very fluid. This is why you have young women dressing up on the weekends like this:

... only to take off their wigs and outfits on Monday to go to school or the office where they work. 




No big deal.

Religious identity is similar. Most people that I talk to here don't identify as Buddhist, even if they've grown up in a house with a butsudan altar, and go to Buddhist funerals with their family. Religious activity is something you can participate in without even believing in it, without having to change some core part of yourself. Religious activity is in many ways "just" a social role. 

Religion in the West seems different. We "convert" to and "join" religions, and this signifies that an essential, core aspect of our true self has been changed by said religion. We're "born again" through religion, born into the identity of an entirely new person. This is not my relationship to Buddhism at all. The phrase "convert Buddhist" seems oxymoronic to me. It weirds me out when people ask me when I "converted" to Buddhism or how I "joined" my monastery... When did I convert? And better yet, when did I join a monastery? (For the record: I just showed up. And I keep showing up.)

It's well known that most monks in Japan get married, eat meat, and drink alcohol. This has caught on in the West now, too, and from the conversations I've had in the States it seems like there is some kind of confusion or identity crisis-- or deep questioning-- about what it means to be a priest. I think it's natural to ask what it means to be a priest (not to mention a "monk") if one is not celibate, and not living in a monastery. But my sense is that in Japan there is less of an existential crisis about what it means to be a priest. Religious identity is taken with a grain of salt. You can be married and a drunk and maybe even think Buddhism is stupid and still be a priest. This doesn't mean you're a particularly good or useful priest, but you're still a priest. Because being a priest can mean showing up on time in your robes with your shaved head and doing the ceremony or job you're supposed to be doing. And then going home. 

What I've learned about being a monk in Japan is that there are many, many forms it can take. You can be married with children, living in a temple and performing memorial services and funerals to make a living; you can be celibate in a monastery; you can be working in a monastery and commuting to your home temple and family a few days a week; you can be a school teacher; you can teach Buddhism academically in a University; you can work for the government; you can be a daughter of a monk who ordains and then wears a wig to her University classes and is dating a male monk who is training at Sojiji (that's my friend, by the way).

I think the fluidity of this social role can be both useful and harmful. Sometimes the fluidity goes to the extreme and manifests as monks who don't really care about Dharma. This is the big critique of Buddhist monks in Japan right now.  Last year I was hired out to serve tea at a branch of Eihei-ji during a big ceremony, and I remember going into one of the guest rooms with my tray of tea. The room was filled with cigarette smoke and there was money all over the ground because the monks were sitting around smoking cigarettes and counting (I guess) all the money they'd gotten or were going to donate. I had to step over piles of money just to find a place to put down my tea, and then everyone was way more interested in me than the actual tea. 

That's the extreme end of what it means to be a "Japanese monk." It means being a monk as a job, and nothing else. 

To be fair, not everyone is like this. I've been fortunate enough to have many, many teachers who are monks and nuns for life, who are poor, follow precepts and care deeply about Dharma, who wear robes and study deeply and try to treat everyone and everything with respect. But they're very rare, because the way they chose to live is very difficult.

I'm probably never going to become a business monk-- first of all, because I'm a chick, and nuns can't get rich off of Buddhism the way male monks do. More importantly, that's not what I'm after. But while you will you never see me in a cigarette-smoke filled room, counting my piles of money while I flirt with the young foreign nun who's come to serve me tea, I most definitely understand how being a monk (or priest) can be a social role, something that can, in a sense, be taken on and off like a layer of clothing. Being a monk in Japan-- or being a "Japanese monk"-- mostly means acting out a particular kind of service position, with Buddhism as the foundation .

Because at its basic, most fundamental level, a Japanese monk is just someone who has shaved their head and taken precepts from a certified teacher. That's it. The choice of what to do with that ordination, what direction to take it-- whether to be poor or rich, married or unmarried, to sit zazen or not--, is mostly up to you.



This is a poem I like, written by a Japanese monk in 1980, from the book "Japanese Temple Buddhism":

I am a priest.
Wearing my robes, my prayer beads in my left hand, I ride my bicycle.
I go from house to parishioner's house and chant sutra.
I am a priest.
I have a wife, I have a child.
I drink sake, I eat meat.
I eat fish, I lie.
And still, I am a priest.
A dirty, too dirty, priest.
When I call upon parishioners and accept their donations,
is that not theft?
Oh, the five precepts that Shakyamuni kept,
I have broken them all.
But yet, I am a bodhisattva.
I travel the path of the bodhisattva.
I have faith in the Dharma, I sit in the palm of the Law.
I live in the Dharma, I live amongst the people.
Within endless life, I practice the way.
Hand in hand with other practitioners, I proceed down
this peaceful path, this path without equal
the path of Truth, the bodhisattva path.
I am filthy, and I have broken all of the five precepts but,
but, because of the Dharma, all will become Buddhas.
That path, that bodhisattva path.
I am standing on that path.

video


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nothing To Do About It

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.

“Don’t move.”

“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? 


Friday, January 16, 2015

Being Poor On Purpose

I am going to try and write this blog post like I am not a privileged white person from an upper-middle class background (which I am) talking about how renouncing wealth is super noble and great and everyone should do it and be just like me. Because I recognize that some people are just trying to get by, trying to pay the bills, whereas I’ve had the great privilege of being able to choose whether or not I participate in the job market at all. Some people might not wanna hear me talk about this, but since simplicity and renunciation are such huge parts of Buddhist philosophy and practice, I feel the need to try anyway.

When I reflect on the history of Buddhism, it seems to me that the most famous Buddhist masters have been Asian men from wealthy backgrounds who chose to give up their socioeconomic status in order to pursue truth. To my reckoning, the history of Buddhism is primarily a history of formerly wealthy Asian men, and we’ve inherited that legacy, for better or for worse. As more and more women make an effort to exhume women’s stories and include them in the accepted history of Buddhism, the picture is diversifying a bit. Still, it’s hard to ignore that most of the heavy-hitters throughout history were rich, educated Asian men. 

The historical Buddha is the best example. Before he was the Buddha he was Prince Siddhartha, and he was the heir to a kingdom in India. He grew up with all of his needs being met. His father made an effort to give him all of the best and most beautiful women, clothes, and food, and tried to shelter him from the sad and ugly parts of human existence. But since suffering is inevitable, no amount of beautiful, comfortable things could keep Prince Siddhartha from feeling unsatisfied and from reckoning with old age, sickness, and death. After riding through the city and seeing sick, aging people and corpses, he was shocked out of his complacency and realized his wealth was not going to help him avoid death. I suppose you could argue that Siddhartha’s material comfort contributed to him deciding to renounce his wealth and his kingdom to live in poverty and practice meditation. The parable of the Buddha’s life is useful because he’s all of us. We all rely on material comfort to provide a quick fix for our existential problems, and doubt the inevitability of sickness, old age and death until it’s staring us in the face. 

Dogen Zenji’s story is similar. He came from an aristocratic family, and received the best education possible at the time. Dogen’s exact familial lineage is debatable, though most historians agree he was the descendant of Emperor Murakami, and his writing reveals a high level of education and literary skill. Like the historical Buddha, the course of Dogen’s life changed when his mother died at the age of eight and he was forced to confront the reality of old age, sickness and death. It’s said that when he watched the smoke raise from her burning body, he resolved to become a monk in order to try to understand the “great matter of life and death.” At that point, he too gave up his status to live in poverty.

Later in his life, Dogen wrote, “Being poor is being intimate with the way.” I love the parts in Shobogenzo Gyoji where Dogen goes on these long, extended rants/ pep talks about how “if we don’t have enough rice, we’ll make rice gruel, and if we don’t have enough rice for gruel, we’ll make rice water, and if we don’t have rice water we’ll just drink tea. Because we have all this beautiful nature and mountains around us, and like, there are monkeys swinging from the trees, so what more do you guys want?! This is a Zen monastery, not a freakin IHOP!” Well, it’s more poetic when he says it. 

For Dogen, being poor is a necessary component to practicing seriously. He says, “To learn the Way, just be poor.” This isn’t because being poor is more noble, ethical or socially responsible, but because it’s easier to concentrate on meditation if you’re not worrying about how to make and keep your wealth. For this reason, since the Buddha’s time, sanghas have relied on lay supporters— lay people who believed it was worthwhile for monks to spend all of their time practicing and meditating, and who were willing to give money to support that. 

I spent about four years not thinking about money, not making it, just depending on my sangha for support and practicing. Now I’m out, fending for myself, and I have to think about how I’m going to feed myself and pay for school. And I’ve been incredibly lucky. I received a big grant from the Khyentse Foundation, an awesome organization who gives money to Buddhists from all sects, all over the world, and I also receive some donations through this site. It’s both humbling, encouraging, and terrifying to receive money from strangers who think that what I’m doing is worthwhile. 

I made more money this year than I ever have in my life. It’s not much; I’m right below the poverty line, which was $11,720 in 2013 according to the U.S Census Bureau. But even being at the poverty line feels like I have too much money. Going from having literally no money to being at the poverty line is a huge change. “Poverty” by American standard is still pretty damn comfortable. I can do things like choose whether or not I have pancakes, oatmeal or rice for breakfast. I can buy clothes. For me, that’s a whole lot of choice that I didn’t have before. From the time I’ve spent in rural India, it’s clear to me that lots of people in the world would love to be living in “poverty” according to American standards. 

And I don’t know that I trust myself with money. This last week, when I found out I received another scholarship for school, my first reaction was to check the website to see when I could apply for the scholarship again next year. As in: this money is great, but how can I get even more money out of this (for the record, my second reaction was to start crying from happiness and gratitude, so I’m not entirely soulless and greedy)? The truth is, I don’t know what is “enough” money. I’m not sure that any of us in the Western world do. Which is why I tend to want to err on the side of having less. 

I remember having a conversation with my teacher about this once. It went like this:

Me: Do you think I should get a job?

My teacher: Not necessary. Monks don’t need money.

Me: Ugh, yes we do. We have to pay the electricity bill.

My teacher: Well, we need a little money. 

Most of my conversations with Zen teachers fall into this pattern. Sometimes the roles are reversed, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve narrowed down the teacher/student dynamic to an equation that goes like this:

Student/teacher: Absolute!

Teacher/ student: Relative!

Student/ teacher: Okay, middle way… 


So what is “a little” money, and what is enough? I’m not sure. I feel really grateful and happy for the things I have right now. I’m worried I have too much, and I’m also worried I don’t have enough. It’s a weird place to be in. This is all a long, roundabout way of saying that I encourage you to donate to me using the button on the side of this website, but please don’t donate too much, because then I might buy a smart phone. And that would be the end of everything. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Religion, Violence, and Submission

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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

If It's Not Fun I Don't Want To Do It

I'm writing this from the airport, getting ready to get on my flight back to Japan. I just spent two weeks in California visiting my family and friends, and now I'm going back to start Japanese language school and continue with that whole... you know... Zen thing. I hope it will still have me.

America was really fun! There was that coffee shop with animal heads on the wall and not one but two different coffee stations, one for fancy coffee and the other for really really fancy coffee. The British guy pouring hot water over the coffee had a timer in one hand, making sure to pour at correctly timed intervals. There was the deep dish pizza with sausage. There were tacos. There was L.A, and palm trees, and long streets filled with stores selling beautiful, expensive clothes. There was a movie. I was in a movie! I can’t act, but I was in a movie in L.A (it was filming in the living room where I was staying. It was not a porno. Really). 

I love America. I really do. It’s why I keep coming back. I love walking down the street with my friends from college, laughing, and I love the spaghetti sauce my dad cooks, and I love that I can rock a bald head (in San Francisco, at least) and everyone just assumes I’m making some kind of bold fashion statement. I love America's music. That song by Pharell about being happy. That’s really good! Japan doesn’t have anything like that. I love that I can go on the internet and type in a few words and listen to whatever I want. With a video accompanying it.

But something about America- or maybe it’s just lay life? Not sure- makes me really crazy. I think maybe I’m too sensitive for all this. I get really overwhelmed by how many choices and options there are. I’ve never owned a smart phone (a friend pointed out to me that people don’t call them “smart phones” anymore. Now they’re just “phones”). All the new technology makes me batty. I just can’t handle being able to carry around Facebook with me wherever I go and have it "ding" at me whenever someone likes a photo I posted six months ago. I hate being able to text. It makes me more obsessive than I naturally am, which is pretty obsessive.

I learned today that my generation is being dubbed the “face down” generation because we spend all our time looking down at our phones. Apparently, my friends all work in tech now and say things like “My New Year’s resolution is giving up chasing men. I mean, he “likes” my stuff on facebook, but what does that mean in real life?” 

I don’t know. What does that mean? No really. I don’t know what that means. Someone please explain to me what any of this means.

Last post I wrote about (breaking) precepts and fun, and it got re-posted a whole lot. It's bizarre for me to witness this kind of thing, because when I write about sexy things like celibacy, renunciation, and following the rules, no one wants to read that. But when I write posts about how traditional Buddhism is crap and we can make everything up as we go along, people love it. Because... it's America! And we had the fucking tea party! We dumped that tea in the fucking BAY! So take THAT Buddhism and your RULES!! I DUMP YOU IN THE BAY!

I feel conflicted about this. I mean, yes, I want to understand truth for myself and all that good stuff, but I am skeptical of a view of Buddhism that places the individual self at the center and allows the individual self to act as the ruler by which everything else is measured (I mean "ruler" like the measuring tool). The individual self can only understand things based on its own, limited view point, and this isn't about myself. 

Using my own, small self as a ruler isn’t the most accurate way to measure things, because I’ll only ever be able to understand and evaluate things in terms of myself, in the same way that if you were using a standard ruler to measure the Empire State Building, you could only measure a foot at a time. Any measurement would just be in terms of a foot. When I'm using my self as the ruler, if something feels fun to me, I'll judge it as being ultimately good. If it feels bad to me, I'll evaluate it as ultimately bad. I can’t see outside of that, to something larger and more true. This is why I think it's trick to evaluate Buddhist practice (and anything) in terms of personal enjoyment. 

A lot of people I met in America seem turned off by the idea of Buddhist practice that is mostly hard. If it doesn't make me happy, why should I do it? I heard at least two people say, "If it's not fun I don't want to do it." This seems to be the consensus about Buddhism, at least in California where I live. 

"Fun" has never been a part of my Zen practice. I wouldn't even go so far as to say that "enjoyment" figures in at all. That will sound depressing to 98% of people reading this, but I think about 2% will understand what I mean. 

Enjoyment comes and goes. Fun comes and goes. The only thing I know how to do any more is let go. Letting go is the only thing that feels truly and deeply good to me. Letting go is how I enjoy things. 

I love America, and I think modern society is fun. I love my family, and walking through San Francisco, and playing around with clothes, and eating whatever I want, and intimacy and pleasure. And I want more and more of it. I want more connection and love and fun and intellectually stimulating conversation. I want all of it.

I want all of it but I can’t have “all of it,” because I am insatiable. There’s no end. And what is the "it" in "all of it?" There's no way to pin it down, to hold "it." So I’m letting go, again. I’m going to Japan, to a situation where I don’t know anyone (again), and I don’t really know the language (again), all so I can learn to study texts written by a guy who just wanted everyone to leave their families and live in a monastery. I wish I could be one of those people who lives “in the world but not of it,” but I don’t know how. I just know how to renounce things literally. I just know how to leave, to cross continents, to say goodbye, to cut people out, to shave my head, to wear weird clothes I don’t really want to be wearing, to follow a schedule I didn’t make, to study something I am not 100% enthusiastic about, just so that one day maybe somebody will learn something from it. 


I’m letting go again, and it feels really good. 











P.S Part of this whole renunciation thing is that I can't have a normal job. Not because I wouldn't love one (do you have a job for me? In America? That involves writing about Buddhism? Or making green tea?) but because I'm not allowed to work under my visa status in Japan. I'm only allowed to stay in Japan because I am a Buddhist monk, and the immigration office thinks I don't need to work or make money because I should be supported by sangha. So I rely entirely on grants and donations. If you like what you are reading, I encourage you to donate. It would make my day.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

No Precepts Observed, No Broken Precepts

I’m out of the monastery! And I’m in America! The land of vice and fun, apparently, especially if you are in your twenties. America’s a very easy place to have fun. I’m starting to remember why I went to a monastery in the first place. 

In Japanese, the a word for monastery that gets used sometimes is “sourin” (僧林)which combines the character for “monk” with the character for “forest.” The implication is that a monastery is a place where everyone lives closely together and helps each other grow up straight, like trees in a forest. Like trees packed together, there’s nowhere really to go except up (morally and spiritually). My experience in the monastery— and I’m sure I’m not unique— is that it’s very, very easy to observe all the precepts in that kind of environment. If you’re actually following the schedule and doing what you’re told, it’s basically impossible to break precepts, because bad behavior is impossible: there’s no sex (because everyone’s too tired, and/or another nun, and sex just isn’t the point anyway), no alcohol (except for that one time we made pickled plums and then boiled down the excess to make rum… but that was for the sake of not wasting!), no drugs, and it’s pretty hard to do things like lie or steal, because what would you even steal? 

My experience of this, though, was that all of this morally upright behavior was going on subconsciously. I was never aware of it. There was never a point when I thought, “Wow, I feel so calm and peaceful because I’m observing all of the precepts perfectly.” I don’t think it works that way.

There’s a story that Aoyama Roshi would often tell to explain a good relationship to precepts. A monk goes to his master and says something like, “Master, you are so incredibly enlightened. How many precepts do you observe?” The Master says, “I don’t observe any precepts.” The monk is incredulous and says, “How is that possible?” The Master replies, “I don’t break any precepts.”
Within the Zen tradition, “No precept observed, no precepts broken” is supposed to be the best attitude to take towards precepts. It’s also the hardest, because it’s a slippery slope. Personally, it’s easy for me to fall pretty quickly into “no precepts observed.” There has to be a line drawn when I actually am observing precepts. Otherwise I’m just breaking precepts.

But what does “observing precepts” mean, anyway? For me, it inevitably begs the question, “What are the precepts?” Considering how many translations and interpretations there are of the precepts out there, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question. The translation I received of the precepts before I received them was pretty straight-forward, and went something like this: 
  • Do not kill
  • Do not steal
  • Do not misuse sexuality [actually, for the record, I believe in Japanese the precept is to not have sex]
  • Do not lie
  • Do not drink alcohol
  • Do not speak of others’ faults
  • Do not elevate the self and blame others
  • Do not be stingy
  • Do not give rise to anger
  • Do not defile the Three Treasures


Even within this pretty straight-forward, conservative translation of the precepts, there’s a lot of room for questions. Like: what the hell is “not misusing sexuality?” What is “defiling the Three Treasures?” Before I took the precepts for the first time, I remember looking at this list and asking my teacher about the “alcohol” precept. I’d seen him drink alcohol myself after memorial services, and drinking is pretty common for Japanese monks especially after ceremonies. I also knew I probably wouldn’t be able to observe this one.

“I can’t follow this,” I told him. “I don’t think I want to stop drinking alcohol.”

“Okay,” he said. “Just don’t drink too much.”

Precepts in Zen are weird. They’re weird because they exist as rules but they are simultaneously invitations to explore for myself what I believe ethical behavior is on my own terms. But I think I like it that way.

In “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” Stephen Bachelor writes about how the “Four Noble Truths” are actually injunctions to act, not simply dogmas to be followed. He reminds us that the Buddha instructed us to “understand” suffering, “let go” of craving, “experience” the cessation of craving, and “cultivate” the Eightfold Noble path. The emphasis is on action, not belief. He uses an example from Alice in Wonderland: 

There is a passage in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice enters a room to find a bottle marked with the label "Drink Me." The label does not tell Alice what is inside the bottle but tells her what to do with it. When the Buddha presented his four truths, he first described what each referred to, then enjoined his listeners to act upon them. Once we grasp what he refers to by "anguish," we are enjoined to understand it—as though it bore the label "Understand Me." The truth of anguish becomes an injunction to act.

I have to think that the same thing is true with the precepts. For me, the precepts are not only guidelines, but invitations. For a precept to be alive in my life and practice, I have to examine it again and again. I have to look at it constantly, and ask, “What is this?” And maybe this means I will “break” precepts in the process of coming to understand what they are. But then I can see and feel the repercussions and know for myself. Then the precepts become alive, and personal, and particular. 

This is not to say that I think it’s okay to go out on a coke-fueled killing spree just so I can understand what “do not kill” means. And an attitude of moderation (“don’t drink too much”) doesn’t really work for the precepts about anger, or killing, for example. But I do think the precepts are most alive when they are being questioned, when they are in dialogue with lived experience. Making ethical choices based on external systems of value (societal norms, religious doctrine), seems to me like an insufficient way of going about things because it means I would be using someone else’s definition of reality and someone else’s experience instead of understanding for myself what is good and useful. I do think, though, that I can use these external rules or guidelines as something that I am in dialogue with, and which help me strengthen my own internal moral system. Because it’s the internal moral system, the one which operates regardless of external norms, that I want to cultivate and strengthen. 


So right now, the way I think I want to honor the precepts is by having conversations about them. This is how precepts are alive to me— not by observing or breaking them, but by picking each one up and asking, “What is this?” 

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