Friday, June 24, 2016

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Hello everyone and thank you for participating in the great 2016 True Dharma Eye Exam Fundraiser! I believe I have raised enough money for that pesky eye exam, and possibly for new glasses as well! To be honest, I am really enjoying receiving money right now. It so rarely happens. It feels so nice I am inspired to write another blog post.

I have made many wonderful friendships and connections through my blog, and strangers continue to write me with questions. Sometimes men send me poetry or overly detailed descriptions of their heart sutra tattoos, which is lovely and endearing depending on the person. But actually the all-time most popular email I receive is people writing to ask me for recommendations on where to practice Zen in Japan. In the two years or so I have been writing this blog, I have received about ten or fifteen of these emails and responded to exactly zero. One woman asked me about practicing at Nisodo specifically, and I did respond to her because she was a Zen priest and obviously very sincere and experienced, but I do not ever answer requests for general recommendations.

There are a few reasons for this. One is, when someone writes asking for a recommendation on where to practice Zen in Japan, my immediate impulse is to want to ask that person, "Have you read my blog?" People say my blog is pretty good. I'm sure if you are contacting me through my blog, you must know it exists, right? And maybe if you read my blog closely, you would see that mostly what I write about are my struggles with the abuse and sexism and xenophobia and repetitive work that makes up so much of Japanese Zen training. I am honestly not sure I can "recommend" training in Japan. I appreciate and am so grateful for my time in Japan, but a big part of why it worked was a) luck and b) iron-willed stubbornness to never ever ever quit and c) my teachers.

When people write me for recommendations, they are often people who will be on vacation in Japan and want to practice for a very short time, say a week or so, and have some kind of "Zen experience." I understand this impulse. "Zen" is beautiful and weird and Japanese incense smells really nice. But to these people, I would like to say that one week is in no way enough time to begin to scratch the surface of what Japanese training is about. I left Japan after six years and many people consider this to be insufficient training. During the course of one week, you will spend most of your time in confusion, pain, or both. I would respectfully recommend that you could receive a similar, Japanese "Zen experience" by staying in your home country and doing the following things. I am being completely honest and sincere in my belief that-- given a week's time-- the following things will be cheaper, more fun, and just as conducive to a "Zen experience" (by "Zen" I of course mean some undefined, vaguely Japanese, minimalist aesthetic impulse which may or may not correlate with transformative dharma practice).

Staying in your own home country and:

  • Taking a Japanese language class
  • Going out to ramen or sushi
  • Then going home, sitting cross-legged on the ground and not doing anything special with your mind
  • While smelling some Japanese incense 
  • And then maybe walking through nature in silence
By the way, I have just described my dream Saturday night!!! 

The reason I do not leap to recommend practice in Japan is that zazen opportunities for lay people are very limited. Mostly who train at monasteries are monks and nuns, because "monasteries" are really special training facilities for ordained clergy, much like our Western seminaries. Japanese laity's connection with Zen is primarily through funerals, memorials, and visiting temples as tourists. Contemporary Japan is very secular and materialistic-- like contemporary America but without the history of hippie and feminist movements, and with a history of rapid, some could say excessive modernization to avoid being colonized. So as a lay person, you will not be able to find the kind of accessible, drop in meditation retreats that we are used to in the West. 

That said, if you are an ordained priest, or if you are a very, very resolute lay person, I can refer you to this helpful website :

Many of these temples probably accept lay people as well, for a limited time. 

What I will say about practice in Japan is that the monastic model offers a container that is more intensely focused, stricter, and concentrated for a longer period of time than anything I have found in the West. Japanese monastic training doesn't just value celibacy and poverty; it creates those conditions, and these are powerful training tools, as difficult as they are. I have never done a practice period at Tassajara, but I imagine it might approximate something in Japan. Except for the men. Curse those American men!

If you are daunted by the possibility of calling up a temple in Japan and speaking Japanese to a stranger on the other end of the line, I can assure you: your confusion and fear are valid and will only increase. You know how psychologists say that anger is a "signal" that something in your system or the environment is not right? It's the same with the confusion and fear around not speaking Japanese. LISTEN TO YOUR EMOTIONS. They are holy signals. And then study Japanese intensely for several years. If you don't, your practice in Japan will be fraught with constant miscommunication and confusion. 

I didn't study Japanese before coming to Japan because I never planned on staying. I only stayed because I met my teacher and was completely overcome by his kindness, generosity, and dedication to his spiritual practice. He dressed and ate simply. He spoke to everyone he met in a polite and level tone of voice. When I met Aoyama Roshi I was similarly impressed by her strength, intelligence, dedication, and spiritual excellence. My practice came about and was able to grow because of them, not because of Japan. 

Ultimately, the quality of your practice will depend more on you (and maybe your teacher) than your country. This is why they say, "In the Way there are no Northern or Southern ancestors." There is true dharma practice going on all over the place at many centers and monasteries in the West. It is in no way confined to the Zen school. If I could start all over again I would practice with Lama Tsultrum Allione or some other badass female Tibetan teacher in America. At this point, there are several Western priests who trained extensively in Japan and received transmission from real, live Japanese people. Some of the ones I've met (or at least talked to) and liked are Koun Franz (Nova Scotia), Konin Cardenas (New York), Brad Warner (Los Angeles), Ejo McMullen (Eugene, Oregon), and Tenku Ruff, to name a very few. Oh, and I guess me, but in order to deserve a hyperlink I think you have to be older than an age which rhymes with "denty sign." 

If you are unsatisfied with American teachers, or if you have completed my Dream Saturday Night Itinerary and are still hankering for more Japanese Zen, I would like to suggest that what you are really seeking is yourself. You are seeking some intimacy with yourself. I don't really have an answer for you, because my answer is my own, but I suspect that whether you go to Japan or stay in America, your spiritual path will require time, silence, and failure. There will be so much failure that hopefully, you will come to love the failure. You will come to love the failure as much as you come to love yourself. You will make a life out of time and silence and failure and maybe even write about it on the internet, and then strangers will email you asking for recommendations on where to practice in Japan. You will throw your hands up in the air because it seems cruel to wish failure on anyone, even when you know that failure is precious, even when you know that your suffering is your capital. 

I don't want to discourage seeking. Go! Seek! Plumb the depths! Exhaust yourself in wholehearted effort! Click on some of those links above. Or not. But be realistic. Wherever you chose to practice, do it wholeheartedly, with kindness and humility and perseverance. 

There is a poem by Richard Wilbur I love in which he is addressing his daughter, who is writing a story. The last stanza reads:

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life and death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Okesas I Have Sewn (What's Lineage Got To Do With It?)

I’m moving to Los Angeles in August, and this week my friend at Green Gulch asked me if I would like to start a “branching streams” sitting group with her in LA. “Branching streams” is the name of groups and centers affiliated with Shinryu Suzuki Roshi. My friend feels pretty strongly about staying within that lineage. Because I am pretty simple minded, I immediately answered, “Yes!” My brain didn’t do a lot of analysis and just went “Yay zazen! Yay people! Yay zazen together with people!” I don’t really care what lineage I am in or what lineage the people are who are sitting next to me because we are all sitting looking at the same, boring wall, not attaining the same non-thing. This is a pretty Japanese attitude of me. In training monasteries in Japan, people from dozens of lineages come together in one monastery to practice together. There’s no concept of a monastery for only one kind of lineage. 

But what does it mean to be in a certain lineage? In Japan, I was usually left out of discussions about lineage because lineage usually shows up within the context of temple inheritance, which didn’t apply to me. Temple and monastery ownership has to stay within a certain lineage; a senior nun at Nisodo who admired Aoyama Roshi couldn’t receive transmission from her because Aoyama Roshi was not in her family temple’s lineage, for example, and my teacher broke with tradition when he took over Toshoji Monastery, which is outside his lineage. 

I’m sewing a new okesa at the San Francisco Zen Center, where there is a concept of “sewing lineages” as well. This makes even less sense to me. When I try to think of what my lineage is, either my teacher’s lineage or some idea of a “sewing linage,” it feels like drawing a family tree that is a monstrous, twisted mass of vines growing in multiple directions. I think of all the okesas I have sewn, the different teachers and conditions that brought me to where I am now. 


I am twenty-four years old. I’ve spent about a year practicing at Toshoji, in Okayama, and now I am getting ready to ordain. I’ve sewn a rakusu already, and assume an okesa will magically appear before me for my ordination ceremony. A week before I’m scheduled to ordain, my teacher tells me to sew an okesa. He gives me blue fabric, because Dogen said we shouldn’t wear black, and assures me I’ll have help to finish in time. At Zuioji Monastery, where he trained, monks sew blue okesas in week-long “sewing sesshins.” 

“You have to finish in a week,” he says. 

I spend the next week, from dawn till dusk, sewing with a small army of Japanese women who’ve been called in from the village. They measure and cut everything and I dutifully sew in straight lines. Eventually they go home to their families and I keep sewing. A young Australian man arrives who has never sewn before, and he’s assigned to sew my zagu. I teach him how to make basic back-stitches and unleash him on this impossible project. It’s his first week in Japan.

Everyone in the monastery sews a row or two for me. Two days before my ordination I call in Chosenji-san, the seventy-year old abbot of a nearby family temple, to sew a row. He’s never sewn before. He’s almost blind and curses quietly to himself as he sews. He disappears and then reappears with a giant desk lamp. Under the fluorescent glare of this giant bulb, he manages to sew one crooked, ugly, heartfelt line for me. 


I am twenty six years old. I have escaped from Toshoji, from the men who grab me by the collar and scream at me for disobeying them, from the older Japanese monks who tell me I’m beautiful and ask me if I am single. I escape from all of them and flee, like countless women before me in Japan, to a convent full of stern nuns. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I cry myself to sleep every night and wake up before light in a room where I lie on a futon next to four other women. Despite the difficulty I draw out strength from these nuns. Within a month of practicing there, I end things with my boyfriend back in America. It doesn’t seem fair to either of us. I just want to practice. I dive in to practice like I never knew was possible. I don’t write my family. I don’t leave the monastery. 

I learn tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and Buddhist singing. There is a sewing class with a clear curriculum; first we learn to sew a chopsticks case, then a rakusu, then shosan-e (three miniature robes which are about four square inches in size) then a seven row okesa, then a nine row. The curriculum is designed to be completed in three to five years. The shosan-e takes me a year to sew and then I move on to an okesa. They want me to sew a black one, the color of novices, but I refuse out of dumb pride, out of loyalty to my teacher. I spent a year sewing an immaculate, perfect, blue okesa. I sew every stitch.

My sewing teacher’s name is Doko Sensei. She has a fastidious yet no-nonsense approach to sewing. She can measure and cut anything in seconds, her hands a flurry of perfected, controlled movement and strength. She makes fun of us when we make mistakes, has us start over, tells us to take our time, uses polyester thread because it lasts longer than silk. Nuns understand how to get things done; they understand what lasts. I show her a line of sewing that is slightly off the measurements and she shrugs. “Buddha didn’t use rulers.” 

I’m proud of my okesa. Aoyama Roshi signs the case and I promise myself I will never sew an okesa again. 

I’m twenty-nine years old. I’ve left Nisodo and am living in a dorm near Nanzan University, in Nagoya, where I take Japanese classes during the day. I have three twenty-year old flatmates. I go out on the weekends and wear jeans. I start dating. I forget being a monk. 

My teacher tells me to sew a brown okesa. I know I can’t sew an okesa alone, so I spend two days drafting a formal letter to Aoyama Roshi and Doko Sensei, requesting permission to come to sewing classes twice a week, even though I’ve left the monastery. I use the polite Japanese I am learning in class, which I thought I would have no use for. They say yes. 

Before I go to class I shave my head, put on black samue, and take the subway across Nagoya. Going back to Nisodo from my college life is like stepping back in time, like living a secret, double life. I can’t understand how I managed to survive there three years. Doko-Sensei gives me a bolt of brown silk and I start sewing. We kneel on the floor silently, sewing from nine in the morning until five at night.

A few months later I go back to Toshoji for a week and two nuns from the Deshimaru lineage in Europe help me finish the front. They bring chocolate and we laugh and talk about Buddhism. I’m happy to be sewing with them. 

My teacher gives me expensive brown fabric for the lining, which is impossible to use. I try attaching it to the back and it balloons, rebelliously. I cry in frustration, in anger. Of course the fabric he gives me is impractical. Once again, it is nuns who save me, who rescue me with practicality and hard work. Doko Sensei understands fabric. She buys me a simple cotton and enlists the help of a 70-year old nun in Hokkaido. I visit Doko Sensei’s temple for the first time and bring a small gift of pickles. By the time I’ve left she’s rescued my okesa and has sent me away with bread, pastries, apples, jam, cheese, and pudding.

“Why is she helping me?” I ask my teacher.

“Because you’re nice,” he says. “And you worked hard.” 

Somehow a nine-row silk okesa manifests. I promise myself I will never sew another okesa.
For real this time.

I’m twenty nine years old. Back in America, at the San Francisco Zen Center, I start a seven-row brown okesa. In America, it’s the 21st century; measurements are calculated on an excel spread sheet, and the measurements are in English. Sections are labeled with A, B, and C. It’s completely foreign to me. Once again, I dutifully sew in the straight lines that are given to me. 

When I first entered Nisodo, I struggled to adapt to the new, stricter forms, and complained to my teacher. “At Toshoji we do it one way, but you have to do Nisodo style now,” he told me. So I did. And here I am again. Another sewing teacher, another method, another language. 

I remember Aoyama Roshi telling me to be like water, always moving, never hard, filling the shape of whatever container I find myself in. I remember her giving up her seat to men far less qualified than her, not out of humility but consideration and patience and sensitivity. I remember her deferring and I remember her giving commands. I remember my teacher’s kindness, how polite he is to everyone, how he makes friends with farmers, taxi drivers, famous abbots. I remember how much he allowed, how wide of a fence he made for me to run around in. I remember his generosity, his idealism, his love of tradition, of Dogen, of everything old and broken. 

I remember being saved by Japanese women. I remember their petty arguments, their pride, and their relentless hard work. I remember how they took everything upon themselves, how they made their life harder on purpose. I remember how the believed they were responsible for men’s sexual urges, for men’s abuse. I remember how they believed they had to be better, be stronger than men because otherwise they had nothing to depend on. I remember how they created a tradition together. 

In America I wear black, blue and brown okesas. I am grateful, and confused, and sad. I try to be like water— flexible and always moving. I wonder when I can stand on my own two feet. I wonder at what point water gains enough pressure to move mountains. 

I need new contacts, or glasses that don't hurt my eyes, but my health insurance does not cover this kind of eye exam. In Japan I had national health insurance, and eye exams were covered, but not in America! An eye exam costs about $200 without insurance. If you would consider donating I would be very grateful, and so would my eyes! I need to see!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In Defense Of Trying

Today after lunch I grabbed my bag and headed out the door. "I'm going to vote," I said to my roommate. 

"Why?" she asked. 

It's a good question. I almost didn't. I had thought about this "why" question for a long time, and told my roommate that. I don't really like any of the presidential candidates, and I don't feel very informed. I also have pretty negative opinions about American democracy and imperialism that I don't think are adequately addressed through voting. 

"Well," I said. "Because fatalism feels shittier than not-fatalism." 

This is pretty much my reason for continuing to practice Buddhism as well as for continuing to not kill myself.  I was first diagnosed with depression when I was nineteen years old, when I described to my therapist that I felt like my life was a car and I was lying in the dark in the backseat with someone else driving, unable to see or control where I was going, and too tired to care. 

Depression is an ugly and difficult condition that is very hard to understand if you have not experienced it. I've started to think of depression as an excess of self-destructive delusion. The delusions of depression-- the thoughts the depressed brain tells you-- is that everything is hopeless and pointless, that your efforts don't matter, that nothing will ever change for the better. Objectively it's pretty easy to see that these ideas are delusions, but from the inside of delusion, the delusion seems very real. Depressive delusion is self-destructive because it makes you physically exhausted. My body feels heavy when I am depressed. I am tired all the time. I feel like I am walking on the bottom of the ocean. 

One of the reasons I keep coming back to Zen practice is its emphasis on caring for mundane experience. In formal training we learn to care about food scraps, dust particles, which foot to use at which time, folding napkins, which direction to place a spoon on a table. We come to care about these things because these are small and mundane actions, and because we understand that life is made up of the small and mundane. As the abbess of Green Gulch said in a dharma talk recently, "The ultimate reality of ultimate reality is that it is mundane reality." 

In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen wrote:

When ordinarily preparing ingredients, do not regard them with ordinary [deluded] eyes, or think of them with ordinary emotions. "Lifting a single blade of grass builds a shrine; entering a single mote of dust turns the great wheel of the dharma." Even when, for example, one makes a soup of the crudest greens, one should not give rise to a mind that loathes it or takes its lightly; and even when one makes a soup of the finest cream, one should not give rise to a mind that feels glad and rejoices in it. If one is at the outset free from preferences, how could one have any aversions? Even when confronted with poor ingredients, there is no negligence whatsoever; even when faced with scanty ingredients, one exerts oneself. Do not change your mind in accordance with things. 

It is easy to interpret "not having preferences" as "not caring," but personally I think Dogen is invoking us to care very, very much-- to care about crude greens, single blades of grass, and one mote of dust.  Kitchen work exemplifies the most difficult parts of Zen training. I spend all day in the kitchen chopping vegetables and my brain says horrible things to me: why are you spending all this effort making delicious vegetarian food for a bunch of entitled white people who won't appreciate it? Welcome to my brain, folks, it's a jungle in here.

But of course, the problem isn't just a Northern California monastery kitchen; this is life. No matter how delicious the food you make is, someone is going to complain. They will want more gluten-free or vegan or sugar-free or soy-free options. There will not be enough food or there will be too many leftovers. You will work long hard hours and then the meal will be done in a matter of minutes, and no one will say "thank you." This is the reality of both the kitchen and of life. Despite your best efforts: disappointment.

So why try? Given this inevitable disappointment, the choice becomes fatalism or engagement with the present moment for the joy and curiosity of engagement itself: hours of chopping celery, with dishes, with sweeping the floor. What are those hours? What is a body?

Recently I started watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer again. It's a terrific show about a young woman fighting vampires. In one episode, the town is cursed so that everyone starts singing in musical numbers, and then dance themselves to death. Buffy, who was recently brought back from the dead by her friends, is depressed and sings about how life isn't worth living since we all are going to die anyway. Her vampire boyfriend grabs her shoulders and sings: 

Life's not a song. 
Life isn't bliss. 
Life is just this: it's living. 
You'll get along. The pain that you feel, it only can heal by living. 
You have to keep on living, so one of us is living. 

I wrote recently that the hardest thing about practice for me is just continuing, and the same is true for living. The hardest thing about life for me is just living, and practice shows me all the ways I want to check out of life-- to fall asleep in the back seat of my own life and have someone else drive. I am grateful for when there is movement, for the moments when I know I want to drive because it feels better than sleeping. I don't want to be asleep in the backseat of my own life, and that's why I try: that's why I vote and chop endless vegetables and write silly blog posts about Zen and depression and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. They are small things that I can control. I can control myself far more easily than I can bring down the entire system of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal imperialism or end the cycle of birth and death. I can put my small, good intentions into small things and that feels better than checking out. I believe this is what life and practice is inviting us to do at all times. 

In the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism there is a phrase, ichigo wo terasu, "to light a corner of the world," from which came the proverb, "A person who lights up a single corner is truly a national treasure." A corner is a small and narrow place. But it's our small, narrow place, and we can fill it with light and singing vampires. Yes. Singing vampires. 

How Stella Got Her Bodhicitta Back

This year I had two New Year's resolutions. The first was to rekindle my bodhi mind. After five years practicing Zen in Japan, wearin...