Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Throw Up In My Okesa

I'm in the Italian part of Switzerland, in a town called Ascona! Hold on while I go buy some gelato.

Okay, now I'm back and eating chocolate gelato. This is important to my spiritual development because I'm trying this new thing where I just enjoy the simple things around me and don't make everything so difficult and serious for myself. The Italians already have this figured out. When we checked into our hotel today, the guy behind the counter said, "Technically I'm supposed to give you a single room and make you change to a double tomorrow, but I'm just going to give you the double for the whole time and not charge you extra because otherwise I have to change the reservation, and that means work, and work makes me unhappy."

I'm not sure why Buddhism exists in Europe, because there is limitless gelato, pasta, fine art, and rolling, green hills. The men smoke cigarettes casually and endlessly, scowl and have huge muscles. I'm not sure how these things could ever cease to be amazing.

I have had a bizarre week. I came to Switzerland with seven members from my sangha: my teacher, my dharma sister Shugetsu-san, who is an Australian woman in her forties, two young Japanese monks who trained at the monastery, a monk's wife who teaches goeka, and an abbot from the area near our temple who plays the shamisen and is an all-around good sport. We were invited by the monastery Kosetsu-ji to help with the hossenshiki of one of their nuns, Doko-san, who also practiced in Japan. Kosetsu-ji is an incredibly beautiful monastery surrounded by carefully cultivated gardens and a big mountain range. They have a really interesting mix of Western and Japanese elements, and lots of strong women practitioners. It was an honor to be invited.

The hossenshiki was like the United Nations of Zen; everyone was there. The bishop of Europe! My mother! My teacher! Two Japanese Zen nuns! And about eighty other people from throughout Europe and Japan. The day we arrived, we heard that the shusso and a few other nuns at Kosetsu-ji were sick and had slept the entire morning. This was obviously not good, because the shusso is the star. Luckily, she recovered, and business carried on as usual. Shugetsu-san and the monk's wife taught a goeka class. I served some Japanese monks coffee. The Swiss nuns drove and coordinated endlessly. Somewhere, a tireless tenzo cooked up a vegetarian lunch for fifty people. We performed the Ango opening ceremony and ceremonial tea.

The evening before the hossenshiki, we all went out to dinner at the nearby hotel. It was a wonderful vegetarian, Swiss meal of wine, stewed mushrooms and pastry, and lasagna. About an hour into the meal, the older Japanese nun had to be taken back to the monastery to rest. Apparently she wasn't feeling well. A few other people left with her, also claiming to feel unwell. Then, towards the end of dinner, the nun sitting next to me threw up over the whole table. I didn't think too much of this. Reflexively I wiped down her vomit-crushed purse with a napkin and brought it to the bathroom, where another nun was helping her. Then I said goodbye, went to my room, and fell asleep.

The next morning, I woke up nauseous. At first I just thought it was "empathy nausea." You know how when your friend is sick, you kind of feel sick too? But this was no empathy nausea. I could barely move. My mother, who had met up with me in Switerzland the day before, woke up and puked several times. It turns out everyone in the town had been infected with E coli from the water supply, but we didn't know this yet. My mom decided to opt out of the hossenshiki she had traveled all the way around the world to see, but I knew I didn't have this option. I had one purpose alone, and that was to be my teacher's Jisha in this damn thing. So I called him on the phone, searching for a way out.

"Good morning," I said.


"How are you? "

"I'm fine," he said.

"How is Shugetsu-san?" I asked. Shugetsu-san was my out. If she was healthy, I could be sick. But it was not to be. "She is sick and I haven't seen her all day. She is sleeping."

"Oh dear," I said. "I'm sick too. My mother just threw up a bunch of times. I think she can't come to the hossenshiki..." I let that sentence linger, waiting for him to tell me I could stay back, too. He didn't. "How are you feeling?" I asked finally. Turns out he was sick too. I hung up the phone and lay there in bed, trying to garner some strength of will. I remembered a story he told me one of having a 104 degree fever and having to do three funerals in one day. Between the second and third funeral someone called an ambulance to come give him an IV, and then he kept going. I lay there thinking about that ridiculous machismo Zen story and it got me out of bed. I brought a plastic bag with me in the car in case I threw up on the way to the temple.

I got to Kosetsu-ji a half an hour before the hossenshiki started, which is pretty late. I changed into my okesa and koromo, then went to see my teacher. We was lying in bed, sick.

"I want to throw up," I told him.

"Don't throw here," he said solemnly and quietly, using his broken English. "Throw in your own room."

That's pretty Zen.

I brought him some medicine and water, and then he put on his ceremonial robes. Very, very briefly he told me what I was supposed to do during the ceremony, which was open his zagu one time so he could bow, take off his ceremonial hat, and put it back on. Usually my dharma sister does this kind of thing, but she was singing goeka during the ceremony. We weren't sure if she was going to be able to do it, but she also managed to get out of bed.

Eventually we made our way to the hall. I was feeling increasingly nauseous and put a plastic bag inside my robes in case I had to throw up. I really felt like I was going to throw up, and was terrified I would vomit during the ceremony, in the midst of opening my teacher's zagu. Or inside his hat. We took our seats and the ceremony started. I opened his zagu at the right time. I sat in my place, fighting back vomit. Everyone once in a while, my teacher would randomly stand up and sit down again, I guess to avoid vomiting.

The shusso had her dharma combat. Then there were the words of congratulations, thankfully vomit free, and we exited the hall. Next was a group photo and then we were finished. We went back inside and I managed to fold my teacher's okesa and koromo.

"Were should I put your koromo?" I asked.

"In the suitcase, on top of the okesa." I put his koromo inside the suitcase and then had to sit down, my head in my hands. The room was spinning.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I really want to throw up."

"Don't throw up in my okesa."

I left, went to the bathroom, and then found a random bed. I lay down and slept for the next six hours. As I drifted in and out of a fevered sleep I smelled curry from a Sri Lankan lunch, and heard the not so distant the sound of the shamisen.

That is my hossenshiki story. I'm glad we were invited, and managed to stand in our positions and not throw up, and support the temple in some small way. Now I'm in the Italian part of Switzerland with my mother, and the next five blog posts will hopefully be detailed descriptions of gelato flavors and photos of rugged Italian men scowling and smoking cigarettes.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Relationships and Cultural Exchange

Members of my Japanese class at Nanzan University

I've been living in Asia for almost six years now, but I have only recently begun thinking about the idea of "cultural exchange"-- mostly thanks to one of my brilliant student/friends from the study abroad program I worked on this fall who often spoke to me about cultural exchange and its challenges.

"For cultural exchange to work," he said one time to me, "Both sides have to want an actual exchange."

This might seem like an obvious statement, but its implications are important. When my student said this, he was referring to the experience of being a foreigner in Japan studying Japanese culture and religion. Japan was a "closed country" for centuries-- meaning foreigners were not allowed to enter, just as Japanese were not allowed to leave-- and though this changed over a century ago, Japan remains fairly isolated and racially monolithic. Western countries have a fascination with Japan, and there are lots of tourists who come here. But while there are many tourist bureaus and study abroad programs, the relationships that form in these situations between Japanese and non-Japanese are usually of teacher and student, or "gracious host" and "grateful guest." Very, very rarely, does an actually exchange among equals take place. In my opinion, there is a huge difference between a host/guest relationship and actual, mutual friendship. This isn't to say the blame is all on Japan, because when we show up as tourists or even students of a foreign country's culture we are looking to gain a certain kind of thing, to extract a certain special kind of experience for ourselves. And similarly, the host/guest relationship can be a beautiful, unique thing, as it is in the tea ceremony, but it's different than an exchange between equals.

In cultural exchange, both sides have to want to be there. True cultural exchange is rare because, like my student pointed out, both parties have to be willing and self-aware enough from the beginning to actively seek out this exchange. The kind of self-awareness necessary for cultural change is the awareness of oneself as a unique human being conditioned and shaped by karma, culture, language, history, biology, and personal experience. One of the beautiful things about Buddhism is that it recognizes we are united in our universal desire to be happy and avoid suffering. However, our unique karma, culture and history shapes how we view the world, how we react, what we value, and even what we like and dislike. A brief perusal of world news gives clear examples of how incredibly difficult it is for people and cultures to communicate across this divide.

Since humans are nothing without culture-- and by culture I mean not only the art and customs of our unique communities, but also the values and privileges that shape our experience-- acknowledging who we are, our identities, and how we have been shaped by our culture has to be the first step in inter-cultural exchange. For example, in conversations about race in America, usually the first thing that happens is getting white people to acknowledge that they are in fact white, and then from that, coming to an acknowledgement of white privilege. Without an acknowledgement of race, there can't be a conversation about it.

Most expats who live in Japan will tell you that it is very difficult to form meaningful, lasting friendships with Japanese people. It's so infamously difficult, in fact, that we devoted an entire class period to discussing "How to Make Japanese Friends" in my Japanese language class. We brainstormed ideas and came up with a short list including things like "learn Japanese," "acknowledge personal space," "don't say your opinion too strongly," and my personal favorite, "wait a long time."

In my experience, forming good relationships with Japanese people-- or any people from outside my own culture-- does include giving up, at least temporarily, huge parts of myself that I deem essential. For example, to form good relationships in the monastery where I lived, I had to constantly restrain myself from saying my opinion or speaking out against practices I thought were unfair. Expression of personal views and preferences has an entirely different connotation in Japan, and to get along with other people I had to be hyper-aware of my own natural tendency to want to "be honest" and "speak my truth," which is usually viewed as arrogance or lack of tact in Japan.

Still, I can learn Japanese, be polite, and silence my personal opinion till the cows come home, but unless the other side wants cultural exchange, it's not going to happen. Most of the Japanese people here who I have long-lasting relationships with are those who have traveled outside of Japan-- who have lived and studied abroad or who have a deep interest in the English language and Western culture. Not surprisingly, they are often people who have a (negative) reputation for being "interested in foreigners." But there is an interest, commitment, and willingness on their part to show up for Westerners and communicate across the divide, with self-awareness. This is pretty rare.

It's very difficult to have a meaningful, mutual friendship-- i.e a cultural exchange-- with a Japanese person who does understand what it means to be Japanese. I think this is true not just of Japanese people but with all people, myself included. I did not understand what it meant to be an American until I left America, and similarly, I've found that Japanese people who can articulate Japanese culture to Westerners are those who have spent a considerable amount of time away from Japan. They know who they are and so they know who I am.

I'm writing here about culture, but of course when I say "culture," I really mean "people." Human beings are culture. So when I'm writing about "cross-cultural exchange" in a literal sense, as in dialogue between countries, I'm also writing about the relationships we have with people within our own communities. Any meaningful relationship between two people is going to have to entail mutual willingness and commitment, as well as the ability to give up certain long-held ideas about who we are and our own, unique importance.

I fell in love for the first time my sophomore year of college, right when I was beginning to practice Buddhism. Looking back on that time, my heart goes out to all of the nineteen year old girls in love with boys their age, because I'm pretty sure theres no male less equipped at being in love than a teenage boy who has just left his parent's home for the first time. Needless to say, I was madly in love with a boy who had no idea what to do with my love-- how to reciprocate or deal with my emotions in a responsible way. At the apex of my one-sided love affair with this well-meaning but utterly hapless nineteen year old boy, I went to a dharma talk by Ethan Nichtern (who apparently has blown up recently as a famous teacher, but who at the time was I think twenty-five or six and did shots with us in the kitchen while showing off his tattoo. He was pretty cool).

I asked Ethan Nichtern a question about generosity. I can't remember the question exactly, but it was about how to know when you are giving or trying too much. I framed it in the context of Buddhist practice but of course I was also thinking of my romantic relationship. He said, "Sometimes people are not capable of receiving the generosity we give them."

Those words worked magic on me because they framed the problem as a lack of capacity, not a moral failing. Sometimes other people simply do not have the capacity to meet us where we are or see us for who we are (or would like to be seen). Sometimes they simply do not have the interest. Recently, as I reflect on my time in Asia as a Westerner attempting to learn Japanese language, culture, and religion, I've realized that actually I have given up on seeking out friendships with Japanese people in the way I used to. What I mean is that I am tired of trying to force some kind of exchange, assimilation, or understanding where there cannot be any. I am done trying to seek out friendships with people who will only ever see me as their "American friend," rather than as their friend. I have stopped seeking out Japanese friends because deep down I know that a lack of my personal willingness and enthusiasm on my part is usually not the problem. I have willingness; others usually do not.

And yet, even though I have given up, I am also committed 100% to showing up for communication and connection if it's there. I promise myself that I will always show up to do the work, self-reflection, communication, learning and yes, self-sacrifice and renunciation of culturally conditioned values and ideas, to make meaningful cultural exchange happen. I have simultaneously given up and remain eternally optimistic. I will always take that step forward across the divide, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly-- if and when the other side does too.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Politics "As A Buddhist"

My teacher often tells his students, “You can’t hold two things with one hand.” He usually says this kind of thing to rebellious students like me who are trying to divide our time and energy between the monastery and a more worldly, engaged kind of life. This is also his reasoning for why monks shouldn’t get married or have 9-5 jobs.

So I was surprised when I called him this week to bemoan my current state of monastic failure and he was eerily supportive. 

“I’m just a college student now,” I complained.

“Yes, but you’re studying Japanese as a monk.” We were talking in Japanese and he used a grammatical tense I didn’t know, として、which means “to do a role as something.” Ever since then I’ve been wondering what it means to do something as a Buddhist, or as a monk. Maybe it’s better just to be one thing and leave it at that— to not try to be a student as a monk or a politician as a Buddhist, but to just pick one role and do it well. But of course, what if I can’t chose? 

This week I read a fascinating article by Bhikkhu Bodhi called “Facing the Great Divide,” about the differences between so-called “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism.” He describes Classical Buddhism, generally, as the more traditional approach to Buddhism which emphasizes belief in rebirth, kharma, support of the monastic community, generation of merit, and release from the cycle of samsara. Towards the end of the essay, he writes how the strength of “Secular Buddhism” is its social engagement: 

For all its unsavouriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged. Any spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations. Its contemplative practices then turn into the intellectual plaything of an upper-middle-class elite or a cushion to soften the impact of the real world.

This passage gave me pause. I was a social activist before I became a Buddhist, and throughout my adult life I have constantly been looking for justifications as to why Buddhist practice is complimentary to social activism. Almost ten years after encountering Buddhism in the context of social justice work, though, I’m not sure that they are as happy a marriage as I wished they would be. In fact, I do think that at a fundamental level, they are profoundly different. The strength of (“Classical?”) Buddhist practice is, as I see it, the encouragement to turn inwards and to let go. Whether we are taking a Theravaden approach and speaking of relinquishing desire and attachment, or if we are trying to “drop off body and mind” and “forget the self” as it’s articulated in the Zen tradition, there is a common theme of renunciation— letting go of our narrow perspective and self-identification. From the “Classical Buddhism” perspective, letting go is freedom itself. 

Social activism often requires the opposite: it asks that we engage, that we don’t let go, that we find ways to channel our very understandable responses of rage and anger in the face of brutality and unjust systems into meaningful work, that we look outward and around at our world and examine what is not right, what is harmful, and the best ways to redress these inequalities. This often means very tangible, practical things like reading history, writing letters, boycotting, attending workshops, speaking up for others when it is uncomfortable or dangerous to do so, giving up personal privileges, etc. 

Earlier this year after the events in Ferguson, I felt moved to try to articulate why Buddhist practice had to necessarily include political action, but I wonder if my own writing is the result of wishful thinking. Whereas ten years ago I sought to seek a way to rationalize this contradiction or to reinterpret the fundamental bedrock of Buddhist practice to be something other than letting go of craving or a narrow sense of self, these days I don’t think this is so necessary. I’m starting to think that these two things— Buddhism and political action— can exist as dissimilar, contradictory things and still be effective, radical practices. 

What happens when we engage with politics “as a Buddhist?” The extreme would be the current situation in Myanmar, where hard-line Buddhist monks (monk politicians?) just passed a law prohibiting Buddhist women from marrying Muslims. I’m wary of any kind of political action done in the name of religion, whether that religion is my own or someone else’s. A less extreme version might be using Buddhist principles of compassion and empathy to engage in political activism or social justice work— which I have spent many years trying to do, because I longed so deeply for the spiritual practice that nourished me to match the political ideals I held. 

Still, If I am speaking truthfully I have to say that when Buddhism tries to be anything other than Buddhism, it loses its primary strength as a radical, profound, existentially liberating practice. And similarly, if we articulate social justice work in terms of dharma practice, this has the potential to dilute the kind of social engagement required to dismantle fundamentally oppressive systems of power. When anti-oppression work is articulated to white people as a way to help or augment our spiritual practice, this puts the focus back on white peoples' needs. Rather than explaining why social justice work helps everyone feel better, or explaining why Buddhist principles necessitate racial equality, for example, I wonder if it might be more useful to encourage white folk to love justice for its own sake, whether or not this kind of justice conforms with our notions of what we want Buddhist practice to look like. 

I am wary of engaging in political action “as a Buddhist” because I think it is more effective to engage in political action first as an intelligent, independently thinking, ethical and empathetic human being. I’m starting to think that ethics based on external reference points like religion or philosophy will always be inferior to the ethical system I cultivate myself through thinking, reflection, and cultivating empathy. Buddhism offers an incredibly sophisticated and profound ethical system— which is why I was attracted to it in the first place—, but it falls short of addressing contemporary issues like global warming, systematic racism and sexism, the threat of nuclear warfare, etc. While it might be tempting to say that we should adapt Buddhism to address these issues or create a new kind of Buddhism altogether (“Secular Buddhism?”) I think it might be possible simply to strengthen our internal ethical muscles through reading, independent thinking, self-reflection, and empathy, while continuing to practice renunciation and meditation in the spirit of the historical Buddha. I say “it might be possible” because this is a motivation I have only articulated to myself very recently. It sounds nice, but I’m not sure yet what that would look like.

I’ve found it important personally to clarify what Buddhist practice has been historically and then, how this historical precedent can carry into the present moment. This is not loyalty for the sake of loyalty but for the sake of clarity, which is as close as I can come these days to “truth.” Clarifying what Buddhism has been in the past and understanding the profundity of the historical Buddha’s call to renunciation, as well as the traditions that developed from that is important because otherwise I am engaging with a fantasy. Still, honoring the profundity and simplicity (and difficulty!) of the Buddha’s core message in no way diminishes my ability— and obligation— to engage socially as an intelligent adult living in a global society. It’s just that I'm starting to think they are actually entirely different things. Whether this means I am, like my teacher says, trying to juggle two things in one hand, or whether I am strengthening my ability to use both hands— as all humans must do in order to move through life with dexterity and ease— I am not sure.

Saturday, July 4, 2015


When I graduated from college, my one goal was to get out of the United States. September 11th happened when I was a freshman in high school, and soon after that came a series of-- what I viewed as-- unjust wars, orchestrated by a president I despised. Although I was an Obama supporter, I was never swept away by the tide of Hope and "yes we can" spirit that hit around the year 2007. In my mind at that time, the system of the United States itself was too inherently flawed-- racist, patriarchal, predicated on unfair distribution of wealth and the exploitation of oppressed people, not to mention an electoral system that didn't even really seem to work-- to ever get too optimistic about the future of America.

And then, when I was a senior in college, this happened:

That's the stock market crashing in 2008.  It happened in October, and after that, there were no jobs... anywhere. I was supposed to be graduating in a few months and I couldn't get a job working at Starbucks. I couldn't get a job at a gift store. I couldn't get a job at a hot dog stand (I tried, actually). I couldn't get a job at a magazine or newspaper working for free. I couldn't find a company-- literary or otherwise-- willing to let me come into their building and do their own work for them for free. 

So when I graduated in May, I said "screw you" to the United States and went to India to teach English. I'd studied abroad in India, liked it, and wanted to go back. I got placed in a very tiny village in Gujarat, near the Pakistan border, and was put in charge of classes with about 50-60 children. The village was very traditional; we wore saris to work, slept in a room connected to the school grounds which had an eight o' lock curfew, and ate only vegetarian food that was prepared for us by cooks employed by the school. Like most women, we were expected not to drink, smoke, wear pants, show our shoulders, or be loud. Arranged marriages in the village were, and are, the norm. Here are some pictures from me at that time:

I loved the kids I taught in my class, and I became close with several of the other Indian teachers at my school. I did and do still love India, but within a few months of starting my job, I began noticing a reoccurring fantasy I had of being back in San Francisco, walking down the street, wearing whatever clothes I wanted. In the fantasy, I always had dyed hair and lots of piercings. That was the thing I missed and wanted the most-- not particular food or even family, but just the ability to walk down the street expressing whatever idea I had about who I am through my physical appearance. It seems small, but it's something I had always taken for granted.

The more I live abroad-- it's been more than five years now-- the more I realize how very, very American I am. I value honesty and openness more than good manners. I think individual expression and autonomy is important-- that people's individual stories and experiences matter, and possibly matter more than tradition or maintaining the status quo. I think individual stories and experiences matter because if they don't matter, then human rights very quickly go out the window. 

The flip side to all these good things is arrogance. Feeling entitled to express yourself at all times can very easily shift into egotism and disregard for others. In Japan, at least, the main point of Zen practice is to go beyond whatever small self is wanting to express itself with dyed hair and piercings. My teachers tell me over and over again that the main point of Zen practice is to "forget the self." In many ways, I've found this style of Zen practice incompatible with the American value of individuality. 

Many people are surprised to hear that Japan has a caste system, much like the one in India. The caste system in Japan is not based on racial differences and was arbitrarily created, placing poor villagers, butchers, undertakers, etc. at the bottom. This lowest caste group is called, "Burakumin," and for centuries they lived in slums and rural communities. In the last half of the 20th century there was a lot of social progress, but there is still an issue of marriage discrimination. To this day, older parents will sometimes look up the backgrounds of their children's fiance to check that they are not Buraku. For centuries, Buddhist priests played a large role in the codification and maintenance of the caste system. Since Buddhist temples were in charge of keeping birth and death records for the community, they were the authoritative source on who was and was not lower caste. Priests would often change the names of Buraku people on gravestones and in record books so that the names became things like "beast," or "animal." Because Buraku people couldn't read, this was a way for the priests to be able to identify which families were Buraku, without the Buraku people themselves knowing they were being segregated. Since the 1980's, the Soto School in Japan has made a concerted effort to stop what's known as "sabetsu kaimyo" or discrimination mortuary tablets. I've sat through many a mandatory lecture on Buraku discrimination and the history Buddhist priests's maintenance of the caste system. For the most part, though, these lectures only begin to scratch the surface of what I see as a much larger societal problem of disregard for human rights.

The entrance to the Buraku Liberation Research Center, bearing the graphite "Die, eta." Eta is a slur for Buraku people.

America is far from perfect about human rights, but we have made significant progress and at least we have the language and theory to articulate issues of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression. We have language, precedents, and bureaucratic avenues to address injustice, which is saying a lot. Many of the same issues that made me leave America in the first place are still there. There's still a huge wage gap; we still spend more money on weapons than on education, health care, and transportation combined; we have lots of people murdering each other, and of course, a whole lot of white people murdering black people. I could go on, but I don't want to, because I'm trying to write about the good things and why they matter. 

As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in the Guardian about social change, " There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad." There are some really good things about America. Most people can chose, for the most part, what they wear and how they present themselves. We're encouraged from a young age to think independently and critically. We just legalized gay marriage. Women can chose who they marry, and whether or not to have children. I would like to repeat that one for emphasis: woman can choose who they marry, and whether or not to have children. We don't experience war or displacement from our homes in mass numbers. Very few people die from things like malnutrition and dehydration. And at least in metropolitan areas, everyone looks different. Not everyone is the same ethnicity. These are big things. 

I don't think America is the greatest country in the world, and I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm "proud to be an American," but I also know that I am an, undeniably, and American, and I always will be. I have American values, and I can't shake them. I'm okay with that, because there are some beautiful things about America. Even though the bad things are bad, the good things can still be good. 


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