Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Human Fulfillment Checklist

I just got back from a week at Green Gulch Farm, part of a covert mission a friendly experiment to infiltrate and destroy American Zen to see if I would enjoy doing residential practice there at some point.

One afternoon after my work was done, I went to the snack area by the kitchen to spy and started talking to a guy I knew from my time at Tassajara. I mentioned that I'm coming back to the United States soon. We were eating peanut butter on toast, and drinking tea. There were apples and bananas on the snack table as well.

"What do you think about American Buddhism so far?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I said.

"It's pretty fun," he smiled. "There are snacks."


Green Gulch is pretty lovely. There's zazen, and then you work really hard and get really tired, so you can fall asleep early. People are nice, things are relatively well-organized, there's enough food, and there are a couple people I respect and could learn from. That's basically a functional monastery in a nutshell. So part of me wants to go. This last week I've been thinking hard about where to go when I come back to the United States, and I'm being confronted by a variety of options. When I dream about coming back to America, this is where my brain goes to in terms of things I want:

  • Love!
  • Lots of money!
  • Education on things I am passionate about!
  • Fulfilling professional work!
  • To practice true Buddha-dharma sincerely and completely!
  • Nice clothes!
  • Snacks!

All of these things seem like very pressing needs-- essential to my "personal development"--, and of course I want to chose a scenario where I can have as many of them as possible. In our modern society sometimes it seems like a given that we should have all of our dreams fulfilled. Especially for people born into educated and/or upper-middle class backgrounds, there seems to be a kind of Human Fulfillment Checklist, and if we haven't checked off the right number of items on the list, we think we are failing or incomplete. 

But the truth is, I would be very lucky to have just one of these things from the Human Fulfillment Checklist in my life. Some people have none of those things. Okay, snacks isn't such an unrealistic expectation. And while it might be very possible to have a life with both money and love (and snacks), I don't think it's possible to have all of the things on that list at the same time. 

I know one of the promises of this age is that we can have it all; we can have fulfilling relationships, spirituality, good food, work that makes us happy. We can live in spiritual abundance. But the truth is, doing one of the items on the checklist means doing some other things less well. "Work that makes us happy" often means "work that pays less than boring, mindless work." "Work that makes us happy" is often a job that needs a second job to pay the rent. "Love," no matter how joyful and fulfilling, can also be a vacuum of time and energy; spouses need our love, attention, and commitment, and children need diapers, clothes, books, and food (and love and attention!). "Education" means less money and less time for work (and love, and practice).

And then there's good old Buddha-dharma, which seems to be the most time-consuming of all. Practicing the Buddha-dharma-- at least how I'm talking about-- means spending a lot of time in silence, or in isolated conditions. I really believe, because I've verified for myself, that if you truly want to practice Buddhism, if that's the only thing you want to do in your life, then the material side will happen. The money and food will happen. There will always be communities and organizations throughout the world which support people who want to practice full time, but it takes really committing to practicing full time to have people meet your spiritual yearning with material support.

Dogen wrote in the Zuimonki:

I have never read in the collection of all the Buddhist sutras of a single buddha or patriarch who transmitted the dharma in the three countries, dying of starvation or cold. In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it.  

I used to think of this as a terrifyingly large leap of faith, but now I see it in more practical, rational terms. Basically he's saying that people support monks who practice sincerely. And it's true. They do! I've been very lucky to receive a lot of material support by strangers, friends, and teachers, but I'm pretty sure it's because they have an idea I'm some kind of spiritual badass (not really sure why). This is how big dharma centers work as well; there's always space for people who want to practice badly enough. "Wanting it badly enough," though, usually means giving up most, if not all of the items on the Human Fulfillment Checklist, at least for a period of time. Even snacks, depending on the situation.

Basically, I'm starting to view Dogen's view on material support and the dharma like that song in Chicago, when the queen of the cell block sings, "When you're good to mama, mama's good to you... There's a lot of favors I'm prepared to do, you do one for mama, she'll do one for you." If you are good to the dharma, it will be good to you. You won't get rich, but you will get something. Actually, what you will get in return is the opportunity to practice, which sometimes feels like enough and sometimes feels woefully insufficient. Did I just compare the dharma to a cell block queen rationing out cigarettes and magazines? Why yes I did. It's not an entirely unproblematic relationship.

As I work on making a decision about where to live and work in January, part of me is striving to check all of the things off the Human Fulfillment Checklist, but another part of me knows I will make my life a lot easier for myself if I just focus on one, and maybe two of the things on that list. And I suspect that what is a priority now will in all likelihood shift over the years. I have different priorities now than when I was five, fifteen, or twenty five years old. Education, work, practice, and love will be important in different ways at different times for me.

I remember a few years ago having some kind of pressing problem and calling my teacher on the phone. He listened to what I had to say and then said very sincerely and very simply, as if this were an entirely new concept to me, "You know Gesshin, your problem is that you want too many things."

I laughed really, really hard into the phone. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up

Last month I read an essay in Tricycle Magazine by bell hooks called "Waking Up To Racism." This article was difficult and painful for me to read. bell hooks has been a personal hero of mine since I was in college, living in a primarily African-American dorm dedicated to social justice work on campus. At that time, I read her books obsessively and willingly applied her ideas to my mind like someone might use a pair of pliers, screwing and unscrewing certain nuts and bolts inside of me until the machine was drastically different. Franz Kafka wrote, "We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply... a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," and this is exactly what bell hook's writing has always done to me.

This time around though, it felt particularly personal, like an attack directed at me specifically (good ol' ego! I'm sure bell hooks is sitting in her office, envisioning my face and typing a criticism against me as we speak!). In her essay, hooks takes on the problem of the relationship between white colonialism and spiritual seeking; the two aren't so different, she theorizes. As a white spiritual seeker myself, the way she phrases her idea is pretty devastating. She writes about the problem of spiritual seeking:

We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right. Nor does it surprise me that black people, and other people of color who have grown up in the midst of racial apartheid and racist domination, often feel the need to stay home, to stay in our place. Often we feel we have no right to move into a world that belongs to someone else seeking to discover treasures—not even if they are spiritual gems. It is important to recognize and interrogate these two positions without the judgment of good and bad. 

I appreciate bell hook's ability to let complex issues exist side by side. It's not that spiritual seeking or spiritual seekers are bad people, she argues, but that the impulse to seek out "spiritual nourishment" often goes hand in hand with a colonial impulse, or at least, cannot be separated from this colonial history. I read this entire essay and flinched inwardly. It does not feel good to have the thing I care about the most implicated in a destructive, colonial rampage, especially one I didn't even know I was doing. But this is what bell hooks does; she is an axe to that annoying frozen sea within us we don't want to acknowledge. What do I do with the fact that I am who she is writing about? Does being a white seeker diminish the importance of the connection I've made to Japan and Japanese teachers and friends? bell hooks is suggesting that all of these things can exist simultaneously; there can be racism and exoticism alongside genuinely seeking and spiritual yearning. It's a nuanced position.

Two weeks later, cooking lunch in my teacher's tiny mountain temple in Okayama, my friend and former student Solomon got to talking, as we do, about authenticity, dharma, and transmission. He brought up bell hook's article and I immediately started ranting about it. "Dogen was a seeker!" I tried to argue. "He went all the way to China for God's sake! And the Buddha! He left his whole family! You can't get away from renunciation and seeking in Buddhism."

Eventually, Solomon suggested that what bell hooks is criticizing is not spiritual seeking itself (or white people practicing Buddhism, for that matter) but the attitude which privileges and respects certain kinds of methods and practices over other ones. She writes,

Lately, I often playfully want to ask the “real Buddhists to please stand up.” Studying different traditions, I learned early on that “real” Buddhists have teachers they know and name, have studied specific paths, done translations, can speak with authority. Certainly there is always a need for experience and knowledge rooted in traditions, but it is not a spiritual given that these are the places where peace, union, and spiritual awareness are found.

Recently, as I move in and out of American Buddhist communities I see a strong impulse both in myself and others to want to claim authenticity-- to be walking the "true path." I think this is a pretty basic, human impulse, to want to think your own way is the best and most true. It gets trickier, though, within the Zen Buddhist tradition because many of us want to trace our lineage back to the historical Buddha in an "unbroken lineage." We want The Truth. There is a push to want the true practice, to practice "like Dogen" or in "Dogen's spirit." But what is this spirit? How can we know? Historians point out that much of what exists in Soto Zen today (dharma combats, transmission ceremonies, the accessibility of The Shobogenzo) was purposefully invented in the last 150 years by clerics wanting to codify and spread a certain kind of religion.

In Japan, dharma combats during the hossenshiki (head monk) ceremony are scripted. I was shusso quite young, at age twenty-five, and this is pretty standard timing. Other than having a whole lot of work and being exhausted, I did not have special leadership responsibilities. Before my hossenshiki I questioned Aoyama Roshi about this practice-- wasn't the head monk supposed to be a leader? Isn't the dharma combat supposed to be a spontaneous expression of your understanding?

She explained briefly the realities of head monk ceremonies in Japan, how it is a bureaucratic necessity for training monks before they are qualified to own temples. Being a head monk who takes on leadership within the community would need a monastery with a very large number of students. In a monastery of twenty-five, with people leaving every three years, having a head monk take on teaching responsibilities would be unrealistic. "In Zen Buddhism," she said, "There is the ideal and the real. There is 'in theory' and 'in actuality.' Of course we would like to do things the ideal way, but the reality is different, and at the end of the day we have to live in reality."

Well, hell. It's hard for me to argue with reality. And why should I?

I will always strive for the ideal, because I think this yearning for the ideal is really just the yearning for truth. But it so easily becomes a contest about what is most authentic and correct. As bell hooks points out, this very human impulse to seek what is true can get tangled up in the impulse to want to designate who is the "real Buddhist" and who is the hack-- the devotional Buddhist, the material Buddhist, etc.

I'm not ready to give up seeking for truth, but I hope I don't do it in a way that puts myself above others. I think bell hooks agrees, and I'm pretty sure she's seeking truth too, even if she stays home. As she points out in her article, there can be fruitful truth seeking if it is accompanied with humility. She writes, "It is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their 'control' and 'ownership' of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego's need to be recognized."

I don't think this means we should stop seeking. In fact, I think she is urging us to keep seeking, but to do it better. She wants us to seek truth with humility, patience, and self-awareness. She wants us to be boats but also be our own axes and pliers. She wants the truth just as much as I do. This is the epigraph to her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism, the first book of hers I read in college:

i keep the letters i write to you in a folder with a postcard attached. it is a reproduction of the image of a black man and woman in south africa in 1949 walking down a road side by side-- the caption reads "seek what is true"-- it is that seeking that brings us together again and again, that will lead us home. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Life of the Temple

I’m flying to San Francisco tomorrow! I have been in Japan for only five days, and I’m off again. After the Hossenshiki in Switzerland I traveled to France to visit my friend Jokei-san’s temple. Jokei-san is a French nun in her fifties whom I met at Nisodo. She is incredibly energetic and positive, but tough and no-nonsense in the best possible way. At Nisodo when I would be having some personal problem and thought it was the most important thing in the world, she would glare at me and say, in a thick French accent, “We have a lot of work to do and you are still thinking about yourself.” 

Jokei-san lives alone in what looks like a converted farm house, an hour’s drive away from the nearest train station. The center is small and very French, with stone walls, a big vegetable garden, and these amazing red flowers that stand tall on long stalks, like sunflowers, but more bell-shaped. The zendo has wood floors, no tans, and there is bread at every meal. Jokei-san works hard and seems to always be moving. It’s a wonderful place. 

The first morning I arrived for zazen and was given a seat right by the door. After zazen there was a morning service all in French. I wasn’t exactly sure where to stand, so Jokei-san pointed out a spot separated from the lay people, with a bowing mat. I stood there and just followed along, bowing when I heard the bell, or sitting down when Jokei-san did. Every temple has its own unique schedule and rhythm, and the best way to act in a new environment like that is to just follow along with whatever everyone else is doing. After breakfast there was work period, and I was sent to the kitchen. I didn’t know where anything was so I just asked what I could do and chopped the vegetables people gave me.

At tea time, Jokei-san introduced me to the members of the temple. She said, “Gesshin-san and I haven’t seen each other in years, and even this morning we haven’t spoken a lot because we are working, but she understands very well about the life of the temple. We can work silently together because we both understand about temple life, and this is very touching to me, watching her.” 

This was an interesting thing to say. In actuality, Jokei-san and I are friends. We like each other’s personalities, we can chat for a long time, and we support each other, which is why I came to visit her. We have a good interpersonal relationship, but the way we connect ultimately is through a shared, impersonal experience. It’s the impersonal experience of being nuns together which makes our personal relationship thrive— however that’s possible. 

Learning how to act in a temple doesn’t happen through conscious effort. Of course there are actual details to think about, like what time things happen, how to hit certain instruments the right way, or what groceries to buy on a given budget. There are phone calls, bills, scheduling details, and depending on the place, textual studies or language studies. I studied tea ceremony at Nisodo, which required memorizing a lot of details. 

But really how to behave in a temple, the underlying attitude of it all— how to move, how to stand, sit and bow, how to work well with others, how to follow the schedule without complaining, how to keep your head about water in the midst of everything— this can’t be learned consciously. It happens gradually and subconsciously through years of repetition, years of showing up again and again to work and bow and sit, and above all, be quiet. And because it happens subconsciously, because it’s in many ways an impersonal experience, it isn’t something you can be aware of when it’s happening. It takes someone else on the outside pointing out, “Look, you are working well with others,” before you know that’s what’s happening. 

It took me a very long time to adjust to this kind of life. It was like being thrown into a river without knowing how to swim, and then floundering, drowning, until enough people showed me how to relax and float down stream. Harmonizing with temple life is a lot like learning how to float, instead of trying to swim upstream (or drown). It doesn’t happen naturally. Though there will always be rocks to avoid, it’s our job to relax into the river, to allow ourselves to be carried while also making the individual effort to stay afloat and avoid the rocks. 

The life of the temple has nothing to do with being a monk or a lay person, a man or a woman. It has nothing to do with age or intelligence. The life of the temple doesn't care about your personality, or harmful thought patterns. It’s a physical activity that is learned by watching and following. And then, when you find yourself doing it without effort, it’s not really yourself doing it, but something along the lines of… the life of the temple living itself.

So what good exactly is this shared, impersonal experience, this river floating, this life of the temple? What bearing does it have on the rest of the world? How can it help? I’m sure it has not made me a kinder or nicer person. I’m not more gentle. It hasn’t increased my communication skills. It has made me more patient only in the sense that I can endure more pain. It has made me “better” only at those relationships which exist within a clear hierarchy; I am “better” at respect but I’m pretty sure I’m “worse” now at love and intimacy. I’m harder and less affectionate. 

As I look forward to returning to America, I have to think this life of the temple is not enough. But I carry this life of the temple with me always, somewhere underneath everything, and it’s an incredibly subtle, precious thing. Insufficient, definitely, but precious.

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