Friday, June 26, 2015

What Is This Practice?

A book entitled
The Practice of Becoming an Adult
Recently I started a new Japanese language summer intensive, and since there's no college credit awarded for this shorter program, my Japanese language teacher suggested I just study the things I'm interested in and not worry about grades. Fantastic advice! So of course I dived in and tried to translate some impossible Buddhist text-- an essay written by the abbess of Nisodo-- because I don't know how to take things slow and review basic grammar like a practical person. Later, I showed my translation to my Japanese teacher who frowned, and warned me that the text was "too difficult." He said that even Japanese high schoolers probably can't understand it. But whatever! Here's the first paragraph, and maybe I can translate the rest in two or three years:

The Practice of Becoming an Adult
By Aoyama Shundo Roshi
Leadership practice-- for example, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children, a master who trains disciples, a teacher who cultivates students, a senior who cultivates juniors-- what is this practice? Among all of the challenges with children, disciples, and juniors, and also the most important I think, is the practice of conceding, of losing, of approving of the other person, of seeing our own faults, and being able to respect those who are below us. In other words, this is like training to overcome ourselves. Because even if we overcome someone else, we will lose to ourselves. The first time we overcome ourselves, we can concede to others, we can lose to others. 
The first sentence in Japanese is:


Anyone who has taken a class called "Special Important Key Zen Words" may recognize the characters 修行 shugyo, which is usually translated as "practice," as in Zen or spiritual practice (and anyone who can read Japanese can see that I've added an extra "practice" after "what is this?"). The first character 修 means discipline, and the second character 行 means thing, go, action or behavior, so there is a connotation of asceticism with this kind of practice.

Japanese people are often at a loss for how to translate "shugyo" into English. When I showed this translation and the original to my Japanese language teacher, he looked at me and said, "What is shugyo?" I remember a senior nun at Nisodo struggling with this question too. "How do you say shugyo in English?" She asked me several times. She seemed incredulous when I told her the word meant "practice."

Part of the problem is that the word "practice" in English translates back into Japanese as 練習 renshu, which is the kind of practice one might do with homework, violin, or a speech you need to give the next day. So if I say the word "practice" in English, in Japanese this brings to mind a kind of repetitive, goal-oriented exercise, which is different than spiritual practice. In other words, (Zen) practice and (violin) practice are homonyms in English, but they're not in Japanese.

To make things more complicated, there is a homonym for shugyo in Japanese (by the way,  homonyms are two words that sound the same but mean different things). "Shugyo" in Japanese can either be the shugyo 修行 above, or shugyo spelled this way: 修業. In the second kind of shugyo, the second character is 業 instead of 行, and though it's pronounced the same and also means training, the nuance is very different.

The difference between the two kind of shugyos was explained to me this way: one shugyo (修業) is the kind of training that ends: for example, a course of study at a University. There's a beginning and an end. The second kind of shugyo (修行), which is the subject of the essay above, is endless. There is no mastery because it is a process that continues indefinitely.

So when Aoyama Roshi writes, 子供を育てる親になる修行, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children, she is in a certain way conflating spiritual practice with parenthood. I suppose another way to translate this might be, "training to be a parent," or "the practice of parenthood," or "training to be a parent who raises children." It's an interesting-- and awkward-- way to phrase it, isn't it? Normally we don't think about parenthood or being a school teacher as a "practice." But she is implicitly arguing that because the roles of parent or teacher involve rearranging habits and behaviors inside ourselves, they too can be considered spiritual practice.

So what is this practice? What does she mean? With the example of parenthood, if we are practicing to become a parent who raises children, does this mean actively trying to become a better parent, or just getting our kids shoes on and feeding them in the morning? Or is that necessarily the same thing? If we are raising children, is this automatically selfless in and of itself? If we sit zazen, do we automatically depart from the ego? Is the practice in just putting our body there, or in making some special kind of effort to change how we see and feel?

Regardless of the questions my overactive brain comes up with, its clear that she is describing a process that never ends, in which the most difficult part is losing. There is a Zen maxim, "Winning is losing," which basically sums up this idea. What this means is that the true victory is departing from our ego. She writes, "even if we overcome someone else, we will lose to ourselves." So actually, the emphasis needs to be on losing to others. She is implying that when we extend ourselves to others, this is losing-- which is of course, winning.

So what is this practice? I ask it again, because it's still a question. She writes  子供を育てる親になる修行, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children. なる means "to become." Perhaps the emphasis is not on becoming a parent, after all, but on becoming itself. The practice of becoming. I'm not sure.

Maybe in a few years I can translate the rest of the essay, but I doubt that will lead to any nice conclusions. When I finish, I'll be sure to post it-- if the internet still exists in two years. But in the mean time, what is this practice, and how can we practice losing to win?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Shit's Impossible; Let's Keep Doing It!

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable
I vow to realize it
In my last post I wrote about endurance-- or, more accurately, about when to stop enduring. Interestingly, some people thought I was writing about the merits of endurance, but really I was trying to explore for myself how to know when things are too painful to stay still. When is it okay to move? If it's not already obvious, I'm a recovering endurer. I unfortunately think pain is noble, and it's only now that I'm beginning to see the difference (both in zazen and in life) between injury and discomfort. I'm pretty sure that enduring discomfort is worthwhile, whereas putting up with something that is causing permanent injury is not-- and the difference, but physically and psychologically, is crucial.

Moving is good sometimes. And yet, staying in one place is good too. Continuing is important. Recently, I was asked to give a speech about studying Japanese for the 40th anniversary of my Japanese language program. Since I often feel overwhelmed and discouraged (not only with studying Japanese, but with everything), I spoke about the Four Bodhisattva Vows. For anyone who needs a refresher, the four vows are:
Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma Gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha-Way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it. 
Reading Japanese at a basic level requires knowledge of about 3,000 kanji, but there are more than 5,000 kanji in current usage. I've spent the last five months or so studying Japanese intensively. Classes are every day from 9:20am- 12:35, and there are several hours of homework every day. Studying every day at this rate I have a reading knowledge of about... 400 kanji? Maybe? If I'm being optimistic? And those 400 kanji were hard-won. All this means that I am still pretty useless when it comes to reading Japanese. If I have to fill out forms at the doctor's office, I can only understand the place where I'm supposed to write my name and address. It can be really, really disheartening. Kanji are numberless!

The Westerners I know who are fluent in Japanese always give me the same advice-- and this advice is, strangely, the same advice my Buddhist teachers give me about practice. The advice (or observation) is that mastering something takes literally forever. Kanji are numberless; I vow to memorize them. One bilingual friend of mine told me, "Eventually, you'll know lots of things that Japanese people don't know about their own language. And you'll still not be anywhere near as good at it as they are." Another bilingual friend, when I asked him how he "learned" Japanese said, "I don't see it as a matter of learning Japanese, but of constantly finding ways to improve."

This is a pretty similar sentiment to the Four Bodhisattva Vows. The Buddha-Way is unsurpassable, yet we vow to realize it. In studying Japanese, as in practicing Buddhism, I've personally found it useful to focus just on what's in front of me right now. What is the homework today? Not: holy shit there are 3,000 kanji and I only know 400 and can't even remember how to write 仕事, which is like, the easiest kanji ever! This leads to feeling like everything is impossible and I should quit. It's very helpful when people remind me, "You've only been studying officially for five month, remember?"

I'm very young, and if the Buddha-Way is endless, the most important thing is to just keep going. When I compare myself, at age twenty-eight, to the Buddha-Way, which is infinite, how small am I and how much farther do I have to go? An infinitely long way. So actually, there's no need to feel like a failure if I just keep going.

When I feel the most disheartened and discouraged, when I really want to quit something, it's usually because I have some kind of unrealistic expectation of myself or others. For example, I have an expectation of myself that since I've been studying for five months I should be fluent in Japanese by now (hah!), or that since I'm a monk and spent all that time in a monastery I should never be unhappy, or have any doubts (hah!). Or I have unrealistic expectations of other people. I want them to satisfy or stimulate me in a specific way, and when they don't or can't, I label that relationship a failure. I have an expectation of how I want people to make me feel, and if it doesn't end up looking like that, I want to quit.

But what if there were no expectations? What if we take "mastery" or "success" off the table? What if it was just me and my desk, me and my homework, what if it were just me and my zafu with my best effort? My most single-minded concentration? This and only this breath?

It would be nice to have "no expectations," wouldn't it? To be like those blissfully dying characters in Rent, singing "There is no future, there is no past, thank god this moments not my last! There's only us, there's only this, forget regret, your life is yours to live!" But unfortunately, we're not really like that, are we? As the poet Marie Howe wrote, "We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss-- we want more and more and then more of it." As the title of the poem suggests, it's "what the living do." We want more and more and then more of it.

We want things from practice, from our jobs, our partners, from study and effort. We want results, mastery, success. I'm not sure it's impossible to get rid of expectations. But as long as I know I am doomed to fail in a certain way-- if I can view disappointment as an inevitability-- then it might be possible to continue doing my best in this moment, regardless of the outcome. Continuing is important.

So I'm going to go study some kanji now.

This is a note Aoyama Roshi wrote for me once when I was working as her assistant. It sums up everything I am trying to say in this post:

The Japanese says:

Don't rush.
Don't give up.
Don't let up.

Even Dogen Zenji took 14 years. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Don't Move

A few months ago in the monastery where I ordained I approached my dharma sister, a forty year old Australian nun who, like me, has lived in Japanese monasteries for several years. I forget what exactly we were doing-- I remember we were wearing robes--, and what prompted my question, but in any event I walked up to her and asked, “Would you say that 95 percent of your practice here is endurance?”

She looked at me, expressionless, and said with her stoic, deadpan Australian accent, “99 percent.” 

Endurance-- or patience, if I'm being optimistic-- has always been a big part of my practice in Japan. I think it is for people practicing Zen anywhere. We sit with the instruction not to move, and we do this with varying degrees of success through pain, stiffness, itchiness, boredom, restlessness, heat, cold, nihilism... oh, and the list goes on! We feel bored and keep sitting anyway. Our legs hurt and we keep sitting. Uchiyama Roshi wrote that if we cannot sit zazen, simply waiting is a good enough substitute. Because when you think about it, a lot of zazen is just sitting and waiting for the bell to ring! (God, that sounds horrible. Am I doing this all wrong?)

So I do think that waiting and patience is a big part of Zen practice for anybody. Yet I also know that there’s a particular kind of endurance reserved for foreign women within Japanese monastic institutions; this is because the people we interact with in the monastery on a daily basis will inevitably treat us like servants, at worst, and at best treat us like daughters or hapless yet lovable younger sisters. 

There's no winning this. This isn't San Francisco. There's not going to be a feminist or social justice movement that will penetrate the innermost sanctuaries of Japanese Soto Zen. Ever. I'm not going to change anybody's mind. Ever. I used to think I could change people's minds by being the best, most hardworking, most badass foreigner around, but I don't think this any more. And what's more, "changing people's prejudices" is a pretty terrible motivation to practice.

Sawaki Kodo Roshi wrote, "Religion is not for changing the external world. It is for transforming our eyes and ears, our habitual ways of perceiving and thinking." One of the most fundamentally empowering developments I've had over the last years here is the realization-- not merely intellectually, but actually embodied on a daily basis-- that my own individual effort and work is what is most important. Whether or not anyone else thinks I am lazy or spoiled or incompetent or too American or too emotional or whatever other insult people can think of, what matters most is my own work and my own practice. No one else can practice or live for me, so looking outside and critiquing other people-- from very real social injustices to personality flaws-- doesn't really help me so much.  A better use of my time is to focus on learning, studying, and embodying the things I have capacity to learn, study and embody. It has been wonderful to develop practice that doesn't really depend on what's going around outside. 

And yet of course, it can get exhausting. I do get exhausted.

I get exhausted when there are no avenues to register complaints about real imbalances of power; when I am denied work I am just as qualified or more qualified to do than others; when only the men are allowed to sleep in the Zendo while women sleep in normal rooms; when people tell me Japanese have different internal organs than Americans. The list goes on. For the most part, I take these tiny microagressions and try to let them slide. I try to focus on my own breathing, on my own work, on sweeping and drying dishes and weeding. I try to not look up or around. 

I believe there is liberation in that. Sometimes there's a moment when I have been enraged and exhausted for so long, and then a spaciousness develops and I can let whatever is happening go. I feel light and free. I can go back to weeding. I can just weed or sweep and that's enough. And sometimes I am only exhausted and enraged. Both experiences happen. 

At most Zen monasteries in Japan and in the West now too, before new monks and nuns are allowed to enter a practice period, they are required to sit a trial period known as tangaryo. In tangaryo, you sit zazen all day without moving for a week, breaking only for meals and the bathroom. Since half or full lotus can be uncomfortable enough for a forty-five minute period, doing this for a week straight can be agonizing.

After I ordained, before I was going to start my tangaryo at the monastery, I asked my teacher, "What do I do if I have to move?" A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture. 

"You can't move," he said.

"But what if I really have to move?"

"Don't move," he reiterated. 

"But what if I really, really have to move?"

"Well, then you move." 

It sounds so simply when it's laid out like that, doesn't it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don't move, and don't move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment-- a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can't anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it's the only thing left to do. 

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