Saturday, March 25, 2017

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, wearing the right clothes and getting all the right credentials, I found myself in the odd predicament of having little to no bodhi mind. Bodhi mind (or bodaishin in Japanese) is the mind that seeks awakening. It is the mind that wants to get up early and sit. It's the mind that asks, "What is Buddha?" According to Dogen, it's also (paradoxically?) the mind that vows to postpone our enlightenment for others. I think of it like a small flame. It is the bright part of our practice.

Like a flame, though, bodhi mind needs air to survive. It needs freedom and space. The blessing and curse of Japanese monastic practice is that the form is so strict. You sit zazen whether you want to or not. You chant whether you want to or not. While establishing discipline is useful in many ways, the flip side of severe discipline is that it extinguishes bodhi mind. I remember having this conversation with the father of one of the monks at Toshoji. He was applauding all the foreigners coming to practice in Japan.

"Foreigners understand the true Zen mind," he said, "Because they want to sit zazen. At Eiheiji, everyone is forced to sit zazen every day, and so they grow to hate it. If they don't show up to zazen on time, they get punished. This makes them hate zazen even more. So I don't think people should be forced to sit zazen."

The way to extinguish bodhi mind is too much form and discipline. Some form and discipline is necessary. I think of monastic form like the wood in a fire. You need wood to keep the fire going, to give the flame something to burn, to give the fire a boundary. But too much wood smothers a fire. It needs air.

In this way, I think bodhi mind is a lot like sexual attraction to a romantic relationship. It's the warmth and heat. It's what keeps you going happily and energetically. Of course, it's not the only thing that matters. You need other things. You need kindling, firewood, enough oxygen, no rain. Communication, boundaries, trust, shared values, maturity, therapy (??). And of course, it's possible to have a marriage or a romantic relationship without fire. But then you're just damp firewood.

Bodhi mind is like the thesis in an analytical essay. Without it... okay I'll stop with the analogies. But I could keep going all day!

My second resolution was to stop putting people on pedestals. I actually stole this resolution from a facebook friend. She wrote, "Anyone you put on a pedestal (friend, celebrity, partner, historical figure) will eventually come crashing down. Maybe try no pedestal." So that became a kind of mantra: "Maybe try no pedestal."

I am excellent at putting people on pedestals. This is because I am excellent at falling in love. They are very similar experiences. I can do this not just with people, but with concepts, theories, ideas, isms, communities, cultures, and entire countries. It goes like this: I start to learn about someone/something. Their personality/internal logical/ articulation/ culture/ vibe excites and impresses me. Or I join a new community. I think it will solve all of my problems, or at least, make me less unhappy. I study it/ read it/ hang out with it more and more. I internalize some of its concepts. This makes me feel good, like I belong. I feel seen. I feel like I have an identity. It's basically the mindset of this song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 


Things on pedestals do eventually fall down. 

Putting your community or your teacher or the Buddha's teachings on a pedestal is the shadow side of bodhi mind, because bodhi mind left to run amok is about lack. Seeking awakening implies not having it. Asking a question implies not knowing the answer. Putting someone on a pedestal is similar. It means believing they have something you don't have. And I do this with both people and realization.

The tricky thing is, in Buddhist practice we need other people and we need awakening, or at least, some aroma of it. The Buddha reminded Ananda, "Spiritual friends are the whole of the spiritual life." We need community. Not just to provide discipline and form, but to give us happy hormones like oxytocin. We need the fire. 

We need both the fire and the firewood. And the metal grating that keeps the fire from burning down the house. 

So that is my New Year's wish to myself, and to you, more than three months late. May you find your bodhi mind. May it burn brilliantly in the dark, illuminating your way. May it warm your life, and lead to great awakening, if that is your kind of thing. And samsara and nirvana are one. No pedestals. 

I'm doing Zuise in May. It costs ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. If this post ignited your bodhi mind in any way (or poured water on an out of control fire), please consider donating through paypal, so I can be officially certified by the Soto School and continue to make extended sex/fire/analytic essay analogies about Buddhist concepts. Thank you. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Zazen and Menstrual Blood Hell

In medieval China and later Japan, a Buddhist cult developed around a sutra called the "Blood Bowl Hell." At that time, people believed women were inherently impure due to menstrual blood and pregnancy, and so this sutra described a special hell for women in which, I kid you not, women were trapped in giant pools of menstrual blood, abused by demons, and forced to drink the blood. Women believed that if they carried around copies of this sutra, or were cremated with copies of the sutra on their bodies, they would be able to escape the Blood Bowl Hell. There are some pretty fun illustrations of this hell.

Many religions and cultures have viewed women as inherently impure, and Chinese and Japanese Buddhist culture was no different. Throughout the Buddhist world, it was widely believed that women could not attain enlightenment and needed to be reborn in the body of a man to achieve salvation, and different traditions and institutions have different takes on this. What's interesting to me about this legacy is the apologist take on it-- that women are spiritually limited not because of their uterine lining shedding every month (or whatever), but simply that a woman's life is harder; it's filled with more household responsibilities, children, taking care of your husband, as well as pervasive sexism, danger of rape and abuse, etc.

This rationale is easier for me to get behind, although not entirely. I am a straight-up modernist and I believe Buddhist cosmology is a useful psychological tool, not a literal reality. Like other Buddhist modernists, I think that hell is a metaphor for our mind. And so the Blood Bowl Hell is a metaphor for those FUCKING FIVE DAYS OF A MONTH WHEN EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE.

[Important disclaimer: not all women have vaginas! And not all women have periods. Just think about that for like 5 seconds. Ok. Carrying on]

People with vaginas-- and people with penises who live with people with vaginas-- know that for about five days every month, everything in the universe is terrible. For me there is about three days in which I am irritable and angry at everything, a mood which can only be ameliorated with chocolate or greasy Chinese food. This is followed by 3-4 days of inconsolable weeping over nothing.

Zazen teaches us to see, and to really know, that all emotions and thoughts are impermanent. Uchiyama Roshi brilliantly wrote about this Opening the Hand of Thought,

This is zazen. Yet again thoughts arise by themselves. Again you return to zazen and they disappear. We simply repeat this; this is called kokusoku (awareness of Reality). The most important point is to repeat this kokusoku billions of times. This is how we should practice zazen. If we practice in this way we cannot help but realize that our thoughts are really nothing but secretions of the brain. Just as our salivary glands secrete saliva, or as our stomachs secrete gastric juices, so our thoughts are nothing but secretions of the brain. 
From the mind of zazen, thoughts and emotions are just a secretions of the brain. And indeed, his observations about the mind pretty much echoes scientific understanding of hormones. Take a look at this handy chart of monthly hormones for people with vaginas:

I mean... look at all that estrogen and progesterone spiking! The struggle is real. But the older I get and the more I practice zazen, the more I've come to understand that my consciousness is like a tornado: the outside is moving about erratically, but the inside is calm. My job is to be fully at both the center and the edges of the tornado, to be in touch with all aspects of human existence. On the outer edge of a tornado it is chaos-- the wind is whipping around, uprooting trees and houses--, but inside, in the eye of the storm, it's perfectly still.

This month the brain secretions of the blood bowl hell hit me pretty hard. I spent a day and a half crying over nothing. The tornado was pretty wild and reckless, and yet, a small part of me was able to understand that this state of mind would change, that these feelings were just secretions of the brain. At the center of the tornado there was an understanding of impermanent nature of these emotions. I don't mean to say the tornado wasn't brutal. It was. Houses were destroyed. But the inside was calm.

It's not entirely true to say our emotions are just secretions. They are just secretions, but they are very real secretions. The heart sutra says, "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," but Dogen added, "Form is form and emptiness is emptiness." Here we inhabit the entire tornado.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha said, "When a practitioner walks, he is aware, 'I am walking.' When he is standing, he is aware, 'I am standing.' When he is sitting, he is aware, 'I am sitting.' When he is lying down, he is aware, 'I am lying down.' In whatever position his body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body." We can add to this and say, "When a person with a vagina feels everything in the world is terrible, she is aware, 'I am PMSing.'"

Another famous saying about Zen is, "Before I began practice, mountains were mountains. After practicing deeply several years, I saw that mountains were not mountains. After several more years I understood that mountains were just mountains." We can say, "In the beginning of practice, PMS is PMS. When we practice more, we see that PMS is not PMS. After more realization, we see that PMS is just PMS."

For this reason, I don't believe we are doomed to a hell of drinking our own menstrual blood while being abused by demons. In fact, I think people with vaginas are uniquely suited for this practice. In the eye of the storm, there is room for all of it. And when we are able to inhabit and know both the center and edge of the tornado, we are more human. We are closer to truth.

My class on feminism and Buddhism runs the month of April at Angel City Zen Center. Please consider signing up if you are interested Student discounts are available.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Failure is the Mother of Success: What Editors Have Taught Me About Life

In Japan there is a phrase 失敗を繰り返すことで、成功に至る、which means something like "repeated failure leads to success." In China and Taiwan there is a similar phrase, "Failure is the mother of success." And within Zen communities especially, you often here the phrase "100 misses, one bull's eye." In one of her essays, Aoyama Roshi described how she requested a famous Zen master make a calligraphy for her that just said "100 misses." No bull's eye. Just the misses.

I've been thinking about this recently as I plan and brainstorm my next book. For nonfiction books, the first step towards publication is querying agents or publishers, and then submitting a book proposal. While I am excited to write and put my ideas out there, I know that I will inevitably get rejected many times before I get accepted. This this is how life works, and professional writing, all the more so!

The first article I ever published took over a year to pitch, write, edit, and publish. Over a year! My first pitch was rejected, but I was asked to try again. So I rallied, wrote two or three other drafts, and resubmitted. My editor worked with me through several more drafts before finally giving it the go-ahead. All this for something like a four-page article. Now the process is a lot smoother, since I know what he's looking for, but even my best writing inevitably goes through a round of editing.

My first book is being published next year (I hope), and it has taken me about two years to get to this point. My first proposal was flat-out rejected by multiple publishers. I was hurt, and it took me a whole year to lick my wounds and try again. But I rebranded, tried again, and got a "maybe, if you play your cards right." Eventually my second proposal was accepted, and I wrote a first draft, which my editor wasn't too happy about. I honestly almost quit at this point, but didn't. Harnessing all my endurance and insight into the nature of "failure," I edited my butt off, and I improved. And now, there's a book.

I had a writing teacher in high school who kept all the rejection letters she ever received from literary magazines pasted to the wall. She collected and displayed them like prizes. At the time I thought this was a kind of masochistic, ironic writer thing, but now I understand why she did it. Failure is the mother of success. It really takes failing again and again, and importantly, adapting and continuing, to get to some level of "success." This is why I love working with editors. They acknowledge that good writing is not created in a vacuum-- that actually, nothing is failure but rather, material to work with, and that good writing is about communicating effectively with a specific audience. Because writing is about communicating effectively, you might not naturally be able to do this on your own. It takes other people telling you where the writing is confusing and doesn't make sense, what parts are good, and what parts to develop more. Good communication is an ongoing process.

I'm getting married in August. Part of me is afraid: "What if the marriage fails?" Marriage often fails. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Both of my parents were divorced before meeting each other. Another part of me wants to think that even a failed marriage is worth it because... [insert upbeat proverb about failure or how loving and losing is better than never loving at all?]. But after all the bitter arguments, the mediation and and divorce attorneys, is it really fair to say a "failed" marriage was worth it? That at least it prepared you for the next relationship? Isn't that too little, too late?

In any event, I'm gonna keep writing, and failing. And loving, and failing.

Here's a poem by Jack Gilbert:

Falling and Flying 
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

(Beyond) A Day Without Women

Today is International Woman's Day, and I'm striking for the Day Without Women. I was unsure whether or not I was going to strike (is it a privilege? Don't I owe it to my students? Won't I get penalized?), but was encouraged to by my Feminist Theory professor, an incredible and inspiring woman who literally wrote the book on intersectional feminism. You can listen to her NPR interview here. She cracked everyone up the other day in class when we were talking about "post-feminism." There are some think-pieces out there about moving "beyond' intersectional feminism and "beyond" online activism. She was like, "We've got so much work to do! Can we please figure out intersectionality first before we move beyond it?"

There are so many good essays to be written about the importance of this day and how we can build from it-- how to better fight for trans women, women of color, women in prison-- but fuck, guys (I mean folk? I mean y'all?), my sphere of influence and understanding right now is so, so small, just limited to this tiny apartment and my relationships and my dog. When I think about a Day Without Women and all it brings up-- highlighting all the paid and unpaid labor that women do-- what I think about is actually my partner and how much of the "women's work" he does in our relationship.

Women's work is often emotional labor; in romantic relationships, this would be something like remembering birthdays and anniversaries, being emotionally open and encouraging your partner to do the same, compromising. In a romantic relationship, women's work is often domestic as well: doing the dishes, cooking, taking care of kids.

I have the strange karma of having a partner who does all of those things (minus the kids part, although he is great with our dog). He's the one who remembers our anniversary. He's the one who tells me when he is scared about something, who keeps track of the status of our relationship and initiates conversations about that, who shares his feelings the easiest. And he's the one who does the dishes. He cleans. And damnit, cooking was my thing, but he learned to do that too, just to throw me off my game I'm sure.

All of this doesn't just make him a good man. It makes him a good person. But because of that sneaky overlap between relative and absolute, the way that he is a good person is by being a good man. Neither of us can escape being a man and a woman in relationship. When I say I wish there were more men like him, what I really mean is I wish their were more people like him. And yet it's impossible to separate the two; we only stand up where we fall down. Relative and absolute go together like a box and its lid.

Today, I'm grateful for the dishes he does. For the anniversaries he remembers.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Medicine Buddha

There is something about 2am. I work until 11pm then stumble into bed at midnight, after a day of teaching and studying. I'm asleep immediately but wake up at 2am with my heart pounding, in a panic. There's no story, only sleeplessness and my beating heart. Or I work until 11 and then can't sleep. I'm too wired from a day of looking at screens, a day of thinking thinking thinking, reading, pushing. I lie in bed until 2am, my heart pounding, and then take a melatonin.

When I am at a monastery, insomnia is never a problem. Waking up at 4am and then doing physical labor all day does wonders for your sleep patterns. But for those of us who live in houses, who work 9-5 jobs, the reality is that our existence is a constant barrage of tasks, errands, thoughts, anxieties, screens, meetings, and more screens. It's like driving for hours in a hot car. When you get out, the heat follows you. It takes a long time to cool down.

In Tokugawa era Japan, Soto Zen priests popularized a medicine called Gedokuen. It was herbal medicine that was essentially placebo. According to legend, a dragon girl appeared to Dogen asking for salvation. Feeling compassion, Dogen gave her a lineage chart, and she was saved. Out of gratitude, she gave him the herbal medicine, Gedokuen, instructing him to heal people with it. Zen priests were Japan's first doctors. Before "real" doctors, Zen priests were there, giving herbal medicine, performing funerals, exorcizing ghosts. People would carry copies of sutras with them for protection, ingest magical talismans, or dissolve sutras into water to drink, believing this would heal them. This is the subject of Duncan William's book "The Other Side of Zen," which I've been reading this week. He explains, "The rise of Daiyzan as a prayer temple providing this world benefits was intimately tied to the temple's ability to package... miraculous powers into sacred items that could be taken home."

Zen priests are pharmacists. These days our medicine is meditation, dharma talks, and books, not magical talismans, but the spirit is the same. We give out medicine for people to take home. But what if the pharmacist is also sick? Does that make the medicine any less real?

An interesting thing happens when you get a bunch of women together in a room in the United States. This isn't true cross-culturally-- I lived with Japanese nuns for three years, and we didn't ever talk about our feelings. Japan has a different way of dealing with healing, with emotions, with expression. Zen practice does not deal with feelings. But bring a group of women together in this culture, in the 21st century, have them sit meditation together, and it's telling the things they will want to talk about. We will talk about the man who wanted to kiss us, who became enraged when we said "no." We will ask each other, "Did I do something wrong? Am I a bitch? Was I mean?" We will talk about self-hatred and self-criticism. We will talk about wanting to be skinnier. We will talk about feeling like we are terrible women.

Sometimes women sit in the tiny meditation room in my house. I show up in robes, representing a tradition of non-duality, of koans, of strict form and discipline, of tradition, incense, candles, and ceremony. I sit silently with women and then they want to know what to do about self-hate.

What did Dogen know about self-hatred? Did he even have a word for this? What is the medicine for that?

Aoyama Roshi wrote, "The foundation of nuns' responsibility, conscience, and honor is to have been granted the role to support the spiritual dimension of the efforts of women." The first convents in Japan were the equivalent of modern day domestic violence shelters. For centuries, the only way to legally divorce if your husband refused to was to escape to a convent. One you were inside the convent walls you were free. In Taiwan, the first same-sex marriage was performed by a Buddhist nun. In Vietnam, Buddhist nuns are who run the orphanages. Across the world and throughout history I see Zen monks being pharmacists and doctors; I see nuns taking care of women and children, healing.

I wonder about the medicine for our times. What medicine can I give you? What if I am sick too?

Spring has begun. I walk through the streets of LA and feel the sun on my skin. When I walk I try to breathe deep breaths. Sitting with my dog on the coach, she licks my feet. I seek out women-- to hear their stories and to tell mine. For every illness there is a different medicine, and Kuan Yin has one thousand arms.

I'm teaching a class on women and Buddhism Tuesday nights in April! If you live in LA and would like to continue this conversation, please consider signing up:

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...