Friday, July 22, 2016

Intentions For Dark Times

A few months ago, after the attacks in Paris I wrote a blog post called "How I Cope When The World's Fucked Up." And lo, how little things have changed! In fact, it seems doomsday is even more neigh than ever, what with the RNC circus/ Hell's Mouth yawning open before us, spewing sulfur into the air. Two nights ago I couldn't sleep and was awake talking to my partner in bed. "Which is more horrific and evil," I asked, "Shooting an unarmed black man lying on the ground with his hands in the air who was trying to help his autistic patient, or bombing and killing 32 children in Syria?"

There is no way to answer this question, of course, because horror is not quantifiable. What do we do in this kind of political climate? How do we stay sane in the midst of overwhelming ignorance, bigotry, and rising sea levels? What do we do with the feeling that we can't actually change things? The question I am really asking, of course, is how do we become a light in times of darkness and not let the dark overwhelm us?

I have scoured books and the internet for answers to these questions, but of course they don't exist, because no one knows. If we knew, there would be no problem. So once again I've had to write my own list. This is mostly for myself, to calm myself, but maybe it will be helpful for you, too.

1) Keep doing the thing you love to do that only you love to do

I study Japanese. I have a Japanese tutor come to my house every week, and next year I'm starting a Master's program in East Asian Studies, where I'll study even more Japanese. Why do I do this? Do I think studying Japanese and Buddhist texts will save the world? No. Or, hell if I know. But it's something that's unique to me. It's a skill and interest I have that not a lot of other people have. I also really like tea ceremony, dum sum, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and snuggling.

Dictatorships and massive programs of social control thrive on fear of humanity, on fear of difference, and so it feels important for me to assert my unique humanity and encourage others to do the same. Keep doing your stained glass, or your weird baking projects, or writing that novel. Affirming our individuality connects us to humanity and makes us more fully human.

2) Read

I consume a lot of internet content, but this isn't the same thing as sitting down in a chair and reading one book for several hours or days. I'm going to try to read more-- real books, or at least a full book downloaded to a tablet, and I'm going to try to concentrate on one work at a time instead of bouncing around between windows, clicking on random stories. It's important to read novels. Full-length non-fiction books. Short stories. Poems. Studies have shown that reading novels increases empathy, and empathy is one of the strongest weapons we have against dehumanization.

It's also more important than ever to be able to think critically and independently. My Spanish teacher in college, Joanna, was an old, fiery woman who had been jailed during the Spanish revolution. She told our class that what kept her sane in prison was reciting old poems in her head, and so she made us memorize many poems in Spanish. "They could break my body," she told us, "But they could never break my mind, because my mind was free."

3) Love who you love as much as you can

I'm not going to wax poetic about this one, but you know what I mean. Also, learn how to apologize. That skill will get you far in life.

4) Speak up when people are hurting others

One of the speakers at the Black Lives Matter protest I attended last week said, "You do not have to be a great, revolutionary person to do great, revolutionary action." There are many ways to stand up for what is good and humane. I'm personally very upset by police brutality right now, and so it feels important to actually do things. Whether it's donating money, attending a workshop, writing your senator or your representative, there are plenty of small and simple things to do.

In daily life, at our work and in our families, we can shine the light on delusion and encourage people to show up as there best selves. This is an act of love for others.

5) Meditate and be silent, away from the internet

I read a quote recently that said, "We are drowning in information and starving for wisdom." I've been feeling this very intensely in the last months, that there is too much information and not enough truth. This is why silence is even more important now. Silence is the mother of truth, as they say.


6) Stay sane, but don't check out

One of my favorite quotes by William Faulkner (writing in 1950!!) is this. In fact, I recommend the whole speech, but here is an excerpt:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

None of the death and ignorance going on around us is new. Human beings are messy and we have to be in touch with the pain and mess in order to be in touch with the joy and connectedness that also is our birthright. There is no way to experience only sadness or only joy. It helps me when I remember that it is the nature of the human heart to be in conflict, that both internal and external conflicts are signs of a shared humanity.

6) When all else fails, humor.

I've watched this video about seven times in the last two days ("yaaaaaas queen" is an expression used mostly by young, queer, people of color).




Thanks for reading, I'm going to go read a book outside. What books are you reading?


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 :

http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/temples/foreigner/

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. 




2010

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. 

2012

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. 

2015
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.

2016
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. 




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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. 










Monday, March 7, 2016

American True Training

Well, here I am. In America. I started a three month long work practice apprenticeship at Green Gulch Farm, in Northern California. The first time I came to Green Gulch, about three or so years ago, I said it felt like meeting my birth mother for the first time, after being put up for adoption and raised by a different parent (that would be the Japanese monastic system). In encountering American Zen, especially in Northern California where I was born and raised, there is a feeling of immediate connection, of familiarity, of desperately wanting to be loved and understood, alongside a bittersweet understanding that I am already grown up, and it's too late for my birth mother to be a real mother to me. She was not around in my difficult formative years, and I'm basically grown now. So I do feel very bittersweet about it.

Many people this week have asked me how Japanese Zen training is different than American Zen. It's the most common question people ask me. I'm getting better and better at answering this question, although my experience of "American Zen" at this point is limited to the San Francisco Zen Center empire. My first impulse is always either to say "It's completely different" or "It's exactly the same." Of course, the real answer is it's both the same and completely different. Or something Zen like that. Ugh. I really hate the word "Zen." Why do we say "Zen" when we really mean "true?" From here on out I want to instate a ban on the word Zen, replacing it with the word "True," as in "Japanese True training" versus "American True training." Or, "Have you read that great blog called 'That's so True'?"

From the ultimate perspective, True practice is all the same practice. There's zazen in the morning, work, zazen and then sleep. Throughout zazen and work and sleep there's always your mind, your thoughts and opinions and emotions drifting by like clouds. There's your attitude and attention, which is the only thing you can really control: how you relate to people, how you chop vegetables, the quality of your interaction with the world around you. There are doubts and fears and then letting go of those doubts, and continuing with practice. The water is clear right down to the bottom, and fish swim like fish. That is a constant in both Japan and America, and that is what I always have to come back to.

From another perspective, everything is completely different. Right now I share a room with a lay person, for example. In Japan, True monastic training is mostly for monks and nuns. If lay people come to practice, they have separate rooms. At Toshoji, where I ordained, lay people are not allowed in the Zendo. They sit outside in what's called the Gaitan. This is not because lay people are worse or lesser somehow but that monastic training is understood to be, by definition, for monks, sort of like how a training hospital is by definition for training nurses and doctors. Men and women are also separated in a much more delineated way. Romantic relationships are forbidden while training. The food is completely different. In Japan, you eat rice two to three meals a day. Breakfast is always rice porridge with sesame, pickled plum, and pickles. You can never choose what to eat. There is no gluten free or garlic free or dairy free option. I haven't practiced everywhere in Japan, but none of the places I practiced had a snack area where you could just make toast on your breaks and walk around with your toast. You sit on the floor all the time, even to eat or during lecture, so this puts a particular strain on the body. Things are more hierarchical. Where you sit during meals and tea and where you put your shoes is completely determined by hierarchy, i.e the order in which you entered the monastery. There's less of an idea of "free time" or "private time" or "days off." Conformity is a big deal. Because of Japanese culture, people think it's embarrassing to share personal thoughts or emotions, so no one talks about their emotional growth or challenges with practice.

American True practice seems alive and creative in a way Japanese True practice does not. People bring their love and hopes front and center; you can see the optimism and sincerity in how people move and speak. This has a lot to do with American culture, how Americans are taught to show and express our emotions. It brings a rawness and tenderness to practice. Forms are a little different. Chanting is different. In America, people seem to chant in very high tones, from their nose, whereas in Japan I was trained to chant from my lower abdomen, which naturally lowers the pitch. There is more discussion about the meaning and significance of things. Work and oryoki practice are explained as "mindfulness training opportunities," because "apple" can mean "banana" and "koala bear" means "iphone." In America, there's a strange, mystical beast called "dokusan," which I think is some kind white, hoofed animal which only appears on the full moon. I'm not really sure.

In Japan, there is a lot more emphasis on form. "Emphasis" in the sense that there are more explicit directions and they are enforced more strictly. I practiced in two different monasteries, and in the more strict of the two, there was a precise form for how to put away your futon when you woke up, how to wash your face and brush your teeth, how to stand and sit. Basically all movements throughout the day have a form that should be followed. This is all the more true for ceremonies.

It's a great irony that I've lived this long in the monastic container, because I resent rules and break them constantly. Yet now that I'm in America, in a more loosely structured environment, I appreciate form and rules more. I can see their function, which is to give you something concrete to do. I think if I were a beginner in this situation, I would be completely lost.

I think about the difference between Japanese and American practice as the difference between ballet and modern dance. Ultimately, all dance is dance, yet there are different methods, and ballet came first. Ballet is what all dancers should learn before they can move on to modern dance. I say "ballet" but really I mean all of the basic, fundamental positions you learn at the barre, all the muscle training and repetition that goes into becoming a ballet dancer, a million and a half hours in first, second and third position, standing straight, moving your arm exactly right. Ballet is a lot like Japanese True practice. Personally, I like watching and doing modern dance more. It's fun and creative and sexy. It feels relevant, whereas ballet can be boring, rigid, and obsessed with repetition and form. However, while it's very easy to transition into modern dance with a background in ballet, it's very hard to be a ballet dancer with only training in modern dance. This is because ballet stresses the fundamentals, and fundamentals can be applied anywhere.

So in this bizarre transitional period I find myself in, where everything is new and I feel like I am in constant free fall, I'm grateful for my muscles, for my training in first, second and third position. And I look forward to dancing a new dance.




Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Hardest Thing About Practice

I haven’t posted anything in a while. I was packing up to move out of my apartment, and then I was at Toshoji for about six weeks, deep in the woods of austere, cold winter practice. There was limited internet access, and I never had time to write anything, even though there were a lot of thoughts and ideas swirling around. I’m not sure I really want to keep writing here, because I am shifting my attention to what it would mean for me to live and practice in America, and this blog seems very much like an exploration of Japanese Buddhism. Soon I will be (hopefully) attending grad school and working on other writing projects, so if there are no more posts after this for a while, that’s why. 

During my stay in Okayama, I was invited to give a small talk at an intercultural event, along with the other foreign nuns from the monastery. In the question and answer session, someone asked, “What is the hardest thing about practice for you?” One nun responded that she finds the cold the hardest part. Indeed, an old monastery in February is pretty damn cold. It was minus degrees during morning chanting, my hands sticking to the metal bells. 

But when it came time for me to answer, I found myself saying that the hardest part about practice for me is just showing up for everything. The hardest part about practice for me is just continuing with practice. Whenever I go to a monastery or center, for the first few days or week I am in a kind of dharma-bliss where everything is wonderful. No worries! I don’t have to think about men (or… women?) or money or my future or anything extraneous! I can just sweep the floor silently and let my thoughts roll off my like sloughing off dead skin. It’s great. 

But eventually the glow wears of and I start skipping events. That 3am zazen session? I’m going to be sleeping through it anyway, so why not just sleep in my bed where I can be horizontal and fully utilize that sleeping time? It’s the logical thing to do! Pretty soon I stop going to noon service, because… well, putting on my kimono is a drag, and my work isn’t finished. Etc. etc. I spend an unnecessary amount of time in my room, just avoiding others, avoiding practice. 

Practicing in a monastic or residential environment always shows me how selfish I am. It can be kind of awkward and embarrassing, seeing myself this clearly. But I think this is the point of practice, to show us who we really are, not just how we imagine ourselves to be. When we first start to understand who we are it is unpleasant, like listening to a recording of our own voice. We think, “Is this what I really sound like?” But the recorder isn’t lying; it’s we who are ignorant. The other day I watched a news segment in which I was interviewed about how to do zazen. It was painfully embarrassing to watch myself on television. Why didn’t anyone tell me I slouch when I sit? Practicing with others is exactly like this, like watching an awkward video of ourselves. Practice shows us who we are. It's especially important to practice with others, because alone, we can't see ourselves. So I am very grateful to community for showing me who I am. Maybe the hardest thing about practice is seeing myself, which is the whole of practice. 

I spent my last night in Japan like all great masters before me, like Dogen before he left China, lying in the dark in my room crying, listening to Lauryn Hill and eating peanut M&M’s. Then I went to my teacher’s room and spent an hour crying while he shoved envelopes of money and boxes of incense into my hands. 

That seemed like a good time to bring up Genjo-koan. This autumn, as I was facing down moving back to America I have been thinking a lot about Dogen’s writings on transformation and change. In Genjo-koan he writes, 

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.

I asked my teacher, “You know that part in Genjo-koan about firewood becoming ash? Is that about moving? Does it mean I am not really going to America?” I was thinking about how Uchiyama Roshi wrote, “When you look at things from the perspective of letting go of all your ideas and anxieties, what it comes down to is there is no America to leave or return to." So maybe I am not leaving after all. Maybe America and Japan, going and coming, are just ideas. 

“No,” he said. “You are going to America.” We both laughed. Then he added, “But you are you.”


And here I am. 

Entering Nisodo, 2011




Thursday, December 17, 2015

Love And Falling In Love


I wrote my senior thesis in college about love. Specifically, it was a poetry manuscript about desire, clinging, and romantic love vs. Buddhist notions of compassion. I was wondering how it is possible to "truly" love somebody you desire. After I finished that thesis I thought I would never write about love again, because I had exhausted that subject intellectually. But love is a useful tool, and since the human experience of love is so similar to lots of stuff that comes up in spiritual and religious practice, I'm finding it useful to talk about again.


About a year into my stay at the women's monastery, my mother sent me a book called "Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection," by the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson. He describes how all people have "inner gold," the best parts of ourselves, our wit, intelligence, kindness and talent, but that for most people, carrying this gold ourselves is too hard. It's hard to carry our own gold because the gold is so heavy, and so we find other people to carry it for us for a time. Robert Johnson calls this process of handing over our gold to someone else psychological projection, which has kind of become a buzzword in Buddhist communities, but I think for good reason.

Sharon Salzberg wrote that "bright faith" is like falling in love, and I think many of us can relate to her description of her first encounter with Buddhism. In her book Faith she writes:
I arrived in Bodhgaya in late December 1970 and fell in love. I fell in love with the meditation teachers I found there, and with the community of students who gathered around them. I fell in love with the Buddha's teachings. I fell in love with the place. Even discomfort and uncertainty didn't tarnish the romance... This state of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them is known in Buddhism as bright faith. Bright faith goes beyond merely claiming that possibility for oneself to immersing oneself in it. With bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone.

I know this was true for me. I came to Japan and fell in love-- with an old temple, with the mountains, with my teacher, with the practice, even with the cold and the pain. And like most new students I handed over all my gold. Robert Johnson says when we hero worship, we hand over our gold to someone else until we can get strong enough to carry it ourselves. But eventually we have to take it back. Taking back your own gold can be painful because sometimes the people we've given our gold to (the people we fall in love with) don't want to give the gold back. Sometimes we have to slam the door to announce we are leaving. It's difficult to do in a kind and respectful way.

Dharma transmission means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but I'm starting to think that it is really a symbol of getting your gold back. In the beginning, it's necessary to fall in love with a practice and a teacher but in the end we take back our gold so that we can hold it ourselves, by which I mean, we understand that its our own responsibility to act as our best selves as much as possible, to uphold the teachings the best way we can, to give light rather than take it. It's hard and scary for me to really stand in a position like this, but I'm realizing more and more that holding my own gold is something I want to do.

In this sense, mature Buddhist practice is the opposite of falling in love. When we fall in love we give the best part ourselves to something external, thinking it will change us. When we practice well we know that the burden is really on ourselves, and we act from this place.

So practice is really the opposite of falling in love. But love and falling in love are completely different.

Bell hooks defines love as "the action we take on behalf of our own or another's spiritual growth." Speaking about love as an action or a choice is powerful. Martin Luther King said, "I have decided to love," and in saying this he pointed out that he could have decided something else. He could have chosen not to love.

Practice is like this as well. Practice is an action and a choice. It's a choice, moment by moment, to do things in the best way you know how, to meet everything with the best self that shows up. When I write it like that, it sounds so simple, doesn't it? And maybe it is simple. Let's try.