Sunday, January 15, 2017

Buddhism and Human Dignity

This week, one of my editors wrote to ask if I would like to do a second draft of an article I wrote several months ago about racism in Buddhist circles. I responded that I would like to, but I do not have time.

The truth is, I'm tired of debating with white Buddhists in America about why human dignity matters, about why we have a responsibility to speak and act against oppression. In the past week I have seen furious online debate among white men about... well, I'm not really sure. Whether or not Buddhist communities should ban Trump supporters? Only that's not really what the debate is about, because no one in an administrative branch is making that claim.

I am tired.

I am tired because I stay up late at night thinking about whether or not I need to stockpile Plan B, because even though my partner and I do not want children, I lie there thinking about a time, a nightmarish time in the future in which I have been raped but am not legally allowed to have an abortion. I think about what I will do for healthcare-- what 20 million people, including my friends with HIV and mental health conditions-- will do for healthcare. I think about the flyers in Spanish posted up around my campus educating the undocumented workers about their rights in the coming months. I think about what China's newspapers are saying.

I know I could enter this debate from several angles. I could enter it theologically, with Buddhist terminology. I could argue about what compassion and the Bodhisattva vow mean. I could talk about cutting through delusion. Or I could enter it academically and historically. I could cite all of the historians who have shown that Buddhism is constantly evolving, that it has meant different things to different people in different cultures and times. I could lay out a theoretically framework with the five main purposes of any religion-- something like community, expression of locality, connection to death, moral education, and psychological and physical help, and then I could argue that the Buddhist traditions we have inherited have not always tried to fulfill these, that individual practitioners find alternate routes towards meaning and fulfillment outside of Buddhism, especially when the issue is politics and sexuality.

I am not going to do this because I don't think this is a question of religion or politics. It is not about Christianity or Buddhism; it is not about being a democrat or a republican. It is about how we value human dignity, and how to go about preserving and fighting for the dignity of all people.

Audre Lord wrote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." We could engage this "debate" on theological grounds, but the problem with engaging in that debate is that we all lose from the beginning. We all lose because that debate assumes that the dignity, the right to autonomy and safety of female, black, brown, queer and disabled bodies, must and should be justified by Buddhist terminology; in doing so, it assumes that Buddhist terminology is more important than the inalienable rights of humans. It assumes that Buddhism is more important than bodily integrity.

I will not place Buddhism above people.

So until I see men fighting for my right and the right of others to bodily integrity-- in conversation or on the street, by protesting, by writing, in whatever way they feel most skilled--, until I see that I will not make this a theological argument. Once I see you fighting for the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, queer and disabled people, then I will talk to you about emptiness, about the Bodhisttava vow, about compassion.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Get Unstuck

It's Friday morning; I have 50 midterms to grade, a book to read, two Japanese tests to study for, and a Chinese Buddhist story to translate, so that must mean it's time to write a blog!

My blog has been slowing, slowing down in the last eight months and a large part of that has been adjusting to being in America. What do I have to say about Zen practice in this country-- a country in which we have deemed Japanese monastic forms unnecessary? Then I fell head long into Serious Relationship Land and this has complicated my own understanding of my practice even more. For so long I thought that true practice meant living in a monastery, or at least, living in poverty while dedicating my life to the Way. It meant not having things, it meant being alone.

And what of those ideals now? I'm sitting on a comfy couch as I write this. I'm drinking coffee. The air conditioner is going and an air purifier is going and my partner is on a conference call. I have a refrigerator chocked full of food, not one but two coffee makers, and a big, soft bed. I go to school in the morning, teach and take classes, and earn money. What do I have to say about Zen practice now? What do my monastic training and my fancy robes have to do with any of this?

And then there is my partner. He is such a huge part of my life now. He is beautiful; he paints his nails, cleans, is a feminist, and says adorable things like how his teacher supports him being in "relationship practice." The term "relationship practice" makes me giggle, because I am a cyborg designed and created by the Japanese to destroy American buddhism. I learned about feelings from a programming manual.

Part of me thinks that "relationship practice" is an incredibly stupid concept. Part of my thinks that we Americans have simply rejected a celibate tradition because it's too hard and not fun enough, re-branded it, and made it our own thing without understanding what we've given up. As a priest-- but mostly as a person who has made watching my own mind the focus of my life-- romantic relationships are tricky because they are so clearly a nest of mutual delusion. A romantic relationship is a collaborative delusion with someone else in which you encourage the other person to think that you will, can, or should make them happy, and vice versa. Even if your relationship is more subtle and nuanced than this, the hidden subtext is that you expect the other person to make you happy, or at least less unhappy.

All of the arguments in relationships come down to perceived broken covenant of stimulation and happiness: you have failed to make me happy. You didn't wash the dishes (and made me unhappy); you don't give me the right kind of orgasms (and this didn't make me happy); you don't do your share taking care of the kids (and this didn't make me happy); I don't want to meet your family (because this won't make me happy); you have cheated on me (and this made unhappy).

Instead of acknowledging this delusion, we fool ourselves into thinking that "relationship practice" is some special thing that is different than "monastic practice." It is a special, magical, psychological land where we learn to negotiate boundaries and speak our truths and see and be seen. Or something. I don't know, I am a cyborg invented by the Japanese! I obviously can't agree that a "relationship practice" like this is valid form of practice. The problem with this line of thinking is that soon you have "women's practice" and "men's practice," "American practice" and "Japanese practice," which flies in the face of truth being the same everywhere.

But, since as a cyborg I am still half human, I can't reject relationship outright either. Every now and again something will happen in my home life, and my heart/mind will hurt and stretch in the same way it did back in Japan, when I was in a convent pushed to my limits. In relationship, I am still pushed to my limits and then my heart grows in response. Maybe I am fooling myself but I think or hope that the basics of monastic training are applicable here too-- the basics of monastic training meaning doing work, not fighting with others, watching your mind, letting go of ideas. Being like water.

An example: the other day I was lying in bed after a long day at school, and my partner came in to do his weekly therapy appointment on skype. I was tired and wanted attention, and asked if I could stay in the bed while he had his skype conversation. He said no. Because boundaries. I got grumpy and left in a huff. In that moment, though, I could see my mind having two contradictory reactions. One was simple anger/ disappointment/ sadness at not getting affection and getting displaced. It was a pure, infantile reaction. I don't mean infantile in a bad way. I mean it more like "simple" and "human."

But the other reaction in my brain was, "Claire [I always use my birth name when I talk to myself], it's not so hard to just move to the other room. He has this appointment every week. You know about it. It's totally fair for him to want to talk to his therapist in privacy. Your anger won't help you right now."

I've started to think concepts and emotions are like a sheets of stickers. We think life is one way until we can peel it apart and see that the thought was just a sticker stuck to a sheet. The problem is, I don't think we ever throw away the stickers completely. I've been around enough "enlightened" people to know that stickers are infinite. But, we can peel apart our mind and look at where we are stuck and hopefully it's a funny looking sticker. In that moment, I could see both reactions happening at the same time. And once I'd peeled them off like stickers I chose the sticker I liked the best, which was the sticker where I went to the other room and wasn't angry.

Another example. My partner does a lot for me; he cleans up after me, he shops, he pays more bills. He makes me coffee every morning. When we moved into this apartment I bought a coffee maker with a timer, and every evening he fills it with coffee and presses the right buttons so it will be ready for me in the morning. He doesn't drink coffee. It's for me. On the weekends he programs it an hour later because I sleep in. I never asked him to do this. It is out of the kindness of his heart, because he knows I need coffee and wants to make it for me.

A week or so after moving in together, he asked me if I could please empty the coffee filter every day so that it's easier for him to set up in the evening. I reacted to this badly. WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME TO EMPTY MY OWN COFFEE MAKER WHEN YOU DON'T EVEN DRINK COFFEE was the gist of it. My argument was, why should I clean up the coffee maker on his schedule when I never asked him to make me coffee in the first place? The argument got so heated that I told him to stop making me coffee all together. "Fine!" he snapped. And yet every evening he continued to clean out the coffee maker and set the timer.

I existed in the self-righteousness of this for about two months. But thankfully, in the last week or so I realized that showing him I love him was more important than being "right"-- that emptying the coffee filter was a small, easy thing to do that helped him know I love and am thinking about him. Again, I could see these two contradictory things floating around my brain: the belief that I was "right," and the understanding that showing him that I love him was more important. Perhaps there was a third piece in there as well of noticing that I was stuck and wanting to be un-stuck.

For the last week, I've been trying to remember to empty the coffee filter. These are the small victories of relationship, of practice, and of life: remembering to empty the damn coffee filter because the person you love asked you to. We change but in the smallest, minutest ways, and even those tiny sacrifices feel monumental.

We fear sacrifice so much because even the tiniest one feels like giving up our whole self. It feels impossible until it doesn't, until it's not. Until we can peel apart the layers of thought and see what's there, and then, for a brief, brief moment, get unstuck.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why Sit Zazen?

Hello gentle readers, it's been a long time. I live in Los Angeles now, with my partner, in a beautiful apartment with lots of sunlight, and christmas lights that twinkle at night. We have a small potted palm, a basil plant, and a shelf for my tea bowls. I go to University of Southern California and study Japanese, Chinese, and East Asian history. I am a teaching assistant for about 50 undergrads. Such is life, I guess.

On Thursday nights we host zazen dinner parties for our friends, which is just people I like coming by to sit zazen and eat a meal. It is low-key and warm and non-dogmatic. Next week I will hopefully be starting a zazen group for women at my school (I want to buy zafus for this group, so if you can donate something, I would be most grateful!). Talking to the administration about this group and trying to get it started, I was struck by how many doubts I have (still!) about the importance of zazen. I have to think of a name and focus for the group, and I keep wondering, will my group be general Buddhist, or strictly zazen, or an amorphous self-help and empowerment thing for women, or...? For some reason, I resisted (and still resist) calling it a zazen group.

The problem is, despite having transmission in this tradition, I still often wonder if Zen is the best path for me or any one else. Everyone is different, so Zen will not be for everyone. I can only speak for myself and from my own experiences, but even in the case of my own life I wonder why I continue to sit zazen. Why is this the path I've chosen? And to be honest, sometimes I cheat. I don't always sit zazen. Some days on the cushion my mind naturally slips into a loving-kindness practice, and I let it do its thing.

Like many people in the West, I first started practicing Buddhist meditation because I was stressed and unhappy. I was nineteen years old, living in a program house in college for anti-racist activists. It was my first time away from home, and I was stressed out of my mind from schoolwork. I was doing far too many drugs, drinking too much, hating men, hating America, hating oppression. My 19-year old body/mind couldn't support that lifestyle. So I started taking ten minutes out of my day just to sit, have tea, and read a dharma book. I first read Ethics for the New Millenium, by the Dalai Lama, and it really spoke to the work I was doing around racism and oppression. I started reading more, and sitting more. That ten minutes of sitting and tea became my favorite time of the day, and so I expanded it to 20, then to 30 minutes. I started sitting meditation retreats, mostly Vipassana, and they were my favorite thing. I felt calm and happiness for the first time since childhood.

For many people, and for me, a simple mindfulness practice will be the gateway for longer engagement with Buddhism. Sitting and watching my breath, noticing the sensations in my body, all of this gave rise to a different understanding of how to take care of my body and mind, and created a paradigm shift in how I lived my life. Eventually, I stopped doing drugs and drinking so much-- not because of any moralistic process or even because of the precepts. I just realized that pot and other drugs didn't make me feel good. To this day, when people offer to get me high I just say that I don't like the way it makes my body feel. Except for the occasional glass of wine with dinner, I would rather feel awake and present in my body.

Most people come to Buddhism looking for peace of mind, for ease. So when I think about what I want to offer young women, part of me wants to offer them what got me hooked on Buddhism first, which is a simple mindfulness practice. I want to give them a triage of wellness, the basics of how to be sane as a young women in a sexist, racist, capitalist society. I want to tell them to go running every week, to go to yoga and therapy if they can afford it, to eat vegetables and protein, to find sexual partners who know how to give them orgasms, who respect them and who want to show up for relationship, to choose friends who support and empower them and make them laugh instead of being competitive, gossiping, and complaining. These things have been the foundations of my sanity as a woman living in modern society.

And yet I also know that sanity and wellness were never enough for me. I became my teacher's student because he was the first person I met to take my vocation seriously. When I showed up with my suffering, he didn't just tell me to go running or go to therapy, like so many teachers in America had. When I said I wanted to get enlightened, he gave me black robes and said knock yourself out. Here is a monastery and a cushion. Here is a tradition and a form. Do it. Practice like your head is on fire.

When I was a little girl I would have nightmares about tsunamis. I would be on the beach with my family and giant waves would come, killing us all (coincidentally or not, I was in Japan during the 2011 tsunami, and learned that tsunamis are actually not giant waves, but more like rapid flooding). Eventually, after dozens of these nightmares, I learned that if I ran into the waves, instead of away from them, the waves would crash over me and leave me unharmed.

This is what zazen is like for me. It is more than wellness. It is standing in front of a massive, infinite, expanse of ocean. A terribly vast body of water that can kill me. And then it is facing the ocean instead of running away from it. It is sitting in front of a wall every day and facing, as Wallace Stevens writes, the "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

When I did my head monk ceremony in Japan, the case I chose was Joshu Washes His Bowl. It's a simple koan. A new monk goes to the abbot and says, "I have just arrived here, what can you teach me?" The abbot says, "Have you eaten breakfast?" The monk says yes. The abbot then says, "Wash your bowl."

Aoyama Roshi explained to me that this case is about zazen, about unending practice. Humans naturally know how to feed ourselves when we are hungry, and how to sleep when we are tired. But we don't naturally know how to feed our spiritual hunger. Practice and zazen are ways to nourish our body and mind in this way, and just like eating and sleeping, this is a need that never goes away, that is never fully satisfied. So we practice every day.

This is why I sit zazen. It is not the only way to feed spiritual hunger, but it is the way I have found. I practice to face that giant ocean of the unknown. And other times I just hang out simple ease. Somehow, both things happen.

I will be leading a half-day sit at Angel City Zen Center, Brad Warner's new center in Los Angeles, on October 1st. Information below:

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 :

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.