Friday, February 20, 2015

Intimacy Issues

My mom is sitting a two-month meditation retreat right now at Spirit Rock, the Vipassana Center in Northern California. I got a letter from her asking for the kanji for when Dogen said "To forget the self is to be enlightened by (or intimate with) all beings." She thinks the use of the word intimate is "weird and creepy," and she's asked for the original Japanese several times.

The letter I wrote in response is pasted below.

Dear Mama,
First of all, thank you for the leggings and peanut butter! I’m wearing the leggings right now, and I have eaten most of the peanut butter. I’m printing this out from my blog and sending it to you, because I am too lazy to write it out by hand and then type it up again. I also thought you would get a kick out of receiving a letter from me like this anyway. 

I believe you have asked me for the original Japanese of those lines in Genjo Koan at least 3 or 4 times over the years. Since I’ve been studying Japanese formally for a grand total of a month and a half, I think it’s about time I tried my hand at translating Genjo Koan (hah!). By the way, I don’t understand Japanese grammar all that well yet, and Dogen is using kind of poetic, fancy grammar, so I will just give you the dictionary translations of the kanji like you requested (this is all doable with google and an online dictionary like 

Here it goes:


This is usually translated as, “To study the Buddha-Way is to study the self.” The word for “study” is 習 narau and actually doesn’t mean study. It literally means “learn,” as in “I learn Japanese” or “I learn to cook.” I think people probably translate this as “study” because “to learn the self” sounds awkward in English, or maybe they think “study” is better because it that implies some kind of process. I’m not sure. But anyway, it literally says “learn.” The word for self is 自己, jiko. There are lots of ways to say “self” in Japanese, and lots of ways to say “I,” and this is just one of the many ways to say "self." Aoyama Roshi liked to get really deep about this, and she would say that the “self” you’re studying is the BIG self, whereas the self you’re forgetting is the small self. Got it? No, don’t ask me any more questions about that! I don't understand either!


“Learning the self means forgetting the self.” You asked me before about the word “forget.” The word “forget” in Japanese is 忘 wasureru, and it’s what Dogen uses here. It just means forget. To leave carelessly. To be forgetful of. 


Okay, here’s where we get to your original question about the word “intimacy.” This sentence sometimes gets translated as “To forget the self is to be intimate with ten thousand things.” I think you’re right that “intimacy” is too loaded of a word and not the best one. I remember driving in the car with Roshi once, and asking him a question about “intimacy” in Zen. He had to look up that word on his cell-phone dictionary, and then got bright red in the face and said, “Why are you asking me about this?!” So yeah. Not the best word. 

万 means “one thousand.” You see it all the time in stores, where things are selling for XXthousand yen. It can also mean “myriad,” though. 法 is our good friend “dharma” (!) but in this context it means “thing.” So 万法 means “ten thousand things.” Do they do that in Theravaden Buddhism? Because in Zen, people are always calling things “dharmas.” The sentence Dogen writes is passive. Forgetting the self is to be verified by ten thousand things. The word that gets translated as “intimate with” is 証, and the direct translation is “to verify,” or “to prove.” 

So yeah, it doesn’t really say either “to be enlightened by” or “to be intimate with” ten thousand things. Unfortunately! That sounds fun and sexy though, doesn't it? The literal translation is closer to “be proven by.” The word I learned for "emotional intimacy" or "closeness" in Japanese is actually shitashi 親しい. "親" is the same kanji as "parent." So "intimate" and "parent" are like synonyms (homonyms?) in Japanese. Isn't that sweet? Awww.

But I'm pretty sure when Dogen is writing about our relationship with myriad things, he's not talking about the kind of emotional intimacy you have with your parents. I think he was averse to that kind of intimacy anyway. Just my personal opinion. He's not talking about emotional intimacy.

You’ve gotta sympathize with translators though, you know? Forgetting the self is to be proven by ten thousand things? What does that even mean? Is that any more helpful than “To forget the self means to be intimate with ten thousand things?” I’m not sure. I can imagine that whomever first used the word “intimate” was doing it to imply an interaction between subject and object. One thing is constituting the other; they’re co-creating each other, and so, in that sense, subject and object are very intimate-- like every Rumi poem ever written. 

But now that I write it out, “to be proven by ten thousand things” feels nice, doesn’t it? It feels correct. It implies that we’re not alone, and we need all these other things to establish our existence for us, to prove that we exist. So I think he’s saying something like, “When we see that other people and things are responsible for our existence, and that we are always at every moment constituted by everything else, that is the same thing as forgetting the self.” 

Woops, I just replaced “verified” with “constituted” because I have read too much post-structural feminism! I'm starting to understand now how translators will always add in their own flavor, based on the education and preferences they have. Whoever first used the word "intimate" probably preferred Rumi over Judith Butler. 

Close-readings are fun, but there’s a limit to how useful they can be, I think. I’m your daughter, so I know how your brain works. I do the same thing as you. I think if I can find the exact, perfect translation, then everything will fall into place and make sense. I used to think that Roshi was some treasure chest, and if I cracked him open, if I got him to say the right thing, I would understand and be enlightened. But now I don’t think he is holding back some secret. He’s just going about his life, practicing, trying to do his best and pass on the tradition he inherited. And similarly, with Dogen, I don’t think knowing the exact translation is all too essential, because understanding a vocabulary word won’t change the way I sit and eat and move and talk to people, which is really where Dogen wants my attention to be: on practicing within each moment in daily life. 

Someone at Nisodo told me once about this passage, “It’s not some big, mystical thing. If you see someone in your work group is tired, and you offer to work for her so she can rest, that is forgetting the self.”

But I don't think that natural extension of the self comes from an intellectual understanding of the word "proven" or "constituted." I think it comes from practicing through your body, and following the schedule.

So please follow the schedule. I think there's a way for you to do that and not hurt yourself. The instructions are to be mindful sitting, standing, walking, or lying down, right? And that's what you're doing physically anyway, even when you're not on retreat. Your physical activity on retreat isn't any different from your physical activity in "normal" life. It seems to me that what you're resisting isn't the physical posture of sitting, standing, waking, and lying down, but rather the act of actually following the damn rules. I know this because I'm your daughter and I do the same thing. But I'm pretty sure that the main instruction at Spirit Rock is to be mindful all the time, and so there's no real excuse to not be doing that. There's no excuse for not following the schedule, because you can meditate in any posture. Right? The hard part is not the physicality of the posture, but actually doing something that other people tell you to do, when you would rather be doing something else. Because if you were to let go of the idea, "I'm somebody who can't follow the schedule because I have a bad back," that would mean forgetting yourself, and then all hell would break lose.

Dogen says, "Open your hands. Just let everything go, and see."

I love you,


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Is Zen For Old People?

Buddhist House
Last week the college where I'm taking intensive Japanese had a recess from classes. Most of my friends took the opportunity to travel; some went to Kyoto, or the Sapporo Beer Museum. A few friends of mine visited Okinawa and went to a snake museum and "Okinawa World," which I gather is kind of like Disney Land. I, on the other hand, spent the week freezing in a monastery, staring at the wall. Actually, I went to not one but TWO different monasteries and TWO different Nehan sesshins! Spring break 2015 WOOOOO!

Sometimes I wonder about myself. It's recently dawned on me-- and this might seem obvious already to people reading this-- that people my age don't normally do this. In classical Japanese literature, all of the nuns are old. It's usually the protagonist's mother, or nurse, or aunt, who's retired and became a nun to prepare for death. In one story I read, the "Kagero Diary," a young, wealthy woman wants to ordain to escape from her mean husband, but the shame of becoming a nun at such a young age prevents her from doing so. The message from these stories is that in Japan, being a nun is for older women who are preparing for death.

This is what a lot of people tell me in Japan tell me, too. Both monks and laypeople seem shocked by my young age, and often remark that it's "such a shame" I'm "wasting my youth" doing something as silly as trying to understand the great matter of life and death (total waste of time!). This last week at Nisodo, I looked around the room and counted two nuns in their twenties (and me), two in their thirties, and over ten in their fifties and sixties. The youngest nuns are all daughters of monks who will one day take over the family temple. The older nuns are mostly divorced or single women who decided to become nuns once they reached retirement age.

I think this is basically the demographic of Zen in America, too. Although I don't practice there, I often read things online with people lamenting the lack of youth involvement at Zen Centers, and predicting the inevitable doom and decline of Zen in America. When I was in Tassajara this summer, there seemed to be plenty of young people, but I did get the sense that the people who ordain and/or stay long term are all much older. 

I've been pretty lucky on this end. I started practicing Buddhism seriously when I was in college, when I was living in a special program house on campus called (appropriately) The Buddhist House. It was a fantastic living arrangement for a spiritually-minded twenty-year old, and so I didn't realize Buddhism was for old people until much later, when it was too late to change my mind about it. The people in the house were a mixture of artists, hippies, yoga chicks, stoners, incredibly sincere and serious Buddhist meditators, and people who fell into all of those categories at once. There was a shared kitchen, and a big meditation hall downstairs, which held meditation open to the public twice a week. The meditation was also open to use whenever we wanted. Upstairs we had individual dorm rooms. We had a small budget and on most weekends we would hire Buddhist teachers and authors to come lead retreats or give lectures. We chose which speakers we wanted to come and did all the organizing and planning. In the two years I lived there, I helped Buddhist House host Krishna Das, Noah Levine, Ethan Nichtern, John Tarrant, Joseph Goldstein, and several Tibetan Rinpoches.

And then after the events we would throw keggers. It was the Best Dorm Ever. 

There was never a lack of youth involvement at Buddhist House, because it was only young people, and we ran everything. We voted every week to set community standards, like whether or not we wanted food to be communal (sometimes it was), or whether it was okay or not to throw a rock concert in the meditation room (usually everyone voted "no" on that-- the room was sacred, and we'd do concerts on the stairs or out on the back porch). 

Sometimes I wonder if the reason young people generally don't want to come to Buddhist centers is because they have no control over what happens within the institutions that want them to come. In my experience, dharma practice is definitely NOT just for young people. I've seen a group of twenty-year olds raise money to hire a meditation teacher, plan a retreat schedule, and then show up to lead that retreat on their own Saturday morning. It can happen. 

Although, now that I'm in "normal society" (i.e not an East Coast liberal arts college or a Buddhist monastery), I have to admit that I'm disappointed with how little young people are interested in spirituality and dharma practice- even on an abstract, philosophical level. Japanese youth are especially uninterested in the Buddhism of their families, and most Western kids I meet here in classes and things don't even want to talk about stuff like what happens after you die, and what it means that good things happen to bad people, or whether or not our actions have repercussions in future lifetimes. 

The message I get from my generation is that it's not cool to talk about what it means to live ethically, or to think and talk about kindness, honesty, and the inevitability of death. Sometimes when I go on a tangent about Buddhism or living in a monastery, people will change the subject, saying things like, "Well anyway, life is great!" The implication is that talking about serious things, or thinking about life and death, is sad and indicates that life is not "great." It's just not a fun thing to talk about.
The other day, I was talking to a friend, who is in his twenties, about Dogen. I'd lent him my copy of Shobogenzo Zuimonki, and we were having a nice conversation about it in the common room of my dorm. During a lull in the conversation, a different friend looked at us and said kind of nervously, "Do you guys want to play Mario Kart now?"

So we stopped talking about Dogen and played Mario Kart. 

Don't get me wrong, Mario Kart is not the problem. I like Mario Kart. I also like Jay-Z, Beyonce, South Park and Family Guy, and I like to go downtown on a Saturday with friends, go shopping, and eat chicken wings. But there is an inevitable point in that Saturday shopping outing when I want to take my friends by the shoulders, look them straight in the eye and scream DON'T YOU KNOW YOU'RE DYING?! DON'T YOU KNOW I'M DYING?! DON'T YOU KNOW EVERYONE IS DYING ALL THE TIME?????

But I don't say that.

Maybe I should start though. Because I don't think talking about life and death is boring and sad. Okay, sad maybe, but it's also true, and whatever is true is what's most interesting to me. 

Of course, it's not necessarily young people who want to avoid difficult topics like life, death, and ethics. I think most people in the world, of any age, want to ignore this and focus on stuff like making money. Yet it's unavoidably true that the people I want to talk to most, the people with whom I have the deepest connections, are mostly in their forties, fifties and even sixties. As we get older, as our parents and then spouses and friends die and we face down the inevitability of our own death, I have to imagine that thinking about this stuff starts to seem less uncool.

I wish it didn't take death and tragedy to get people interested in the Dharma, though. I wish my best friends weren't fifty-year olds. I want everyone my age to come over to my dorm, sit zazen with me, read Dogen, and then play Mario Kart. It'll be fun! I would say we can even have a kegger afterwards, but I think at age twenty-eight, I'm getting kind of too old for that. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Being the Only Woman in the Room

My teacher proudly says to anyone who will listen that I don't want to practice at his monastery anymore because I don't like the "smell of men." That's definitely not true, and I definitely never said that! I can prove I never said that, because the phrase he uses in Japanese to say "smells like men" (男臭い otoko kusai) is idiomatic and not something I could have come up with on my own. Besides, I quite like men. Now that I'm out of the woman's monastery, I seem to be seeking out men's company more and more.

I can talk to most men about things that most women are not interested in talking about.

I like that men are usually taller than me.

And I actually do like how men smell, which is often like some kind of men's deodorant, which is probably designed to make women think it smells good.

So while I don't dislike the "stench of men," my teacher does kind of have a point. I really really hate being the only woman in a room full of men, especially when all of those men are Japanese. The monastery where I ordained is mostly men. There are a few women, but it's overwhelmingly a male, Japanese environment.

If you are a Buddhist nun in Japan, this kind of situation is bound to happen, because statistically there a lot fewer nuns than monks. This is why practicing in a woman's monastery was so important to me, and so meaningful. According to the Soto School website, 99% of ordained clergy are "monks," although I've also heard the statistic that 97% are monks and 3% are nuns. It's impossible to know exactly because the school doesn't keep records of sex/gender. But whether Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan is comprised of 99% or 97% men, what that means either way is THERE AREN'T A LOT OF WOMEN HERE, and it's inevitable that I end up in situations where I am the only women.

Being the only woman in the room is not fun. It might sound fun-- because feminism! And men and women are equal! And... yeah!-- but it's not. Just trust me.

Being the only Western woman in a room of Japanese men is not fun because, in my experience, men tend to treat me in one of the following ways. They either a) completely ignore me b) flirt with me or c) put me on a ridiculous pedestal, gawking at my ability to use chopsticks correctly. I don't like any of those interactions. Never once has a Japanese man looked at me and asked me my thoughts about the developments of Buddhism in America, for example, or how I think Japanese culture supports monasticism, or what I think the role of the precepts are, or what I think about the Shobogenzo, or what I think about anything.

This last weekend I went to a temple across Japan to accept a scholarship award I received. The scholarship was for the international study of Buddhism, and the event included a particular kind of ceremony to honor the founders of the temple in addition to me receiving the actual award. I knew that I would be the only woman there, and that the people conducting the ceremony would all be Japanese men.

I whined to my teacher beforehand. "I really don't want to go to this," I said. "I'll be the only woman there. It's just going to be Japanese men."

"Stand up straight," he told me.

That's pretty good advice for being a woman in a room full of men, I guess.

These kinds of ceremonies follow a set pattern that I know all too well by now. You arrive at the front door and take off your shoes. Somebody leads you to the appropriate waiting room, because which room you wait in is determined by your status. There's always one or two private rooms for the important people, and a big common room with bowls of snacks for the less important people. In both rooms, there are women serving tea. You drink your tea and talk to the people around you (or not), and then eventually it's time to change clothes for the ceremony so you have to try not to feel embarrassed about stripping down to your kimono (in a room full of men) and putting on your koromo and okesa. Then you go do the ceremony. When the ceremony is done, you come back to the waiting room and change really REALLY fast into a slightly different outfit. And then everyone eats a bento dinner together. No matter where you go in Japan, it's always the same bento, served with beer and green tea. There's always some beautiful young woman in kimono smiling and serving drinks.

Because I was the one receiving the award, I was in the "important person" room. I noticed the hosts were thoughtful enough to place the recipients of an international scholarship in the room in the temple with chairs. Chairs! Incredible. When I entered the room, I was also overjoyed to discover that the other recipient of the award was a Bhutanese monk. Apparently there has been an influx of Japanese pilgrims to Japan lately, so this monk had been sent to Japan to study Japanese. We hit it off great. I've always been interested in that style of Buddhism, and I traveled to Bhutan four years ago. I also took refuge with a Tibetan Rinpoche in college.

I told him how difficult it is to live in a college dormitory and keep on being a good nun. I sheepishly admitted that I don't always wear the clothes.

He'd been a monk for more than twenty years, since he was sixteen, and was wonderfully laid back and happy. "Our hearts will always change," he said, making the motion of something rising and falling, like a wave, "Sometimes we will have lots of faith and sometimes we won't. So the most important thing in Buddhism is just to continue."

I stood next to the Bhutanese monk during the ceremony, and at the time when everyone had to bow three times before the altar, he prostrated the Bhutanese way, putting his hands to his head, mouth, and heart to symbolize purifying body, speech and mind. I liked bowing next to him-- an American nun and a Bhutanese monk bowing in front of a Japanese altar.

After the ceremony, there was indeed a big bento dinner. I was seated next to my new Bhutanese monk friend, which was great because, as expected, no one else wanted to talk to me except for the one drunk monk my age who came up and tried talking to me about how his teacher had married an American woman. Eventually I figured out that the two old monks across the table were the ones who had made the decision to select me for the scholarship. I'd somehow managed to pass the whole afternoon not talking to them or saying thank you.

It's easy to become cynical in this kind of environment. When most of your interactions with men in a professional setting are them asking you if you're married, or "How do you say 'I love you' in English?"; when the only other women in the room are serving tea and sake, it's easy to become hopeless about the state of gender relations and the possibility of women ever being treated equally. But I knew that they had given me scholarship money, and I was grateful. So I got up my courage, made eye contact with old monk across the table, and bowed.

"Thank you very much for the opportunity," I said in Japanese. "Studying kanji is very difficult, but I'll do my best."

Then the old monk did something I wasn't expecting. He smiled very brightly, and looked me straight in the eye. Then he said to me in perfect English, "I am expecting your translation of the Shobogenzo."

I laughed nervously. On my application for the scholarship I had said I was interested in studying Japanese to do translation work on things like the Shobogenzo, but telling someone you expect their translation of the Shobogenzo is like saying "I expect you to go to the moon." Reading the Shobogenzo is near impossible, even for Japanese people. The Shobogenzo is translated in groups, by bilingual experts who have been studying for decades.

"Please wait a little," I said, trying to shake off his compliment. The monk stopped smiling.

"I'm quite serious," he said. "We are all expecting your translation. We could only chose two people for this scholarship." Then he smiled again. "Do your best! I am waiting for you!"

I was very touched by what this old monk said. Sometimes I don't know why I'm here, or why I'm doing what I'm doing. I have to spend a lot of time with people who don't look like me, who don't understand me, who don't speak my language. Sometimes I have to be in rooms filled with much older men who are confused and slightly pissed off by the presence of a young, foreign (pretty?) nun in their midst. But every so often, one of those men will actually see me for who I am, and will tell me he expects me to go to the moon.

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