Showing posts from 2014

Die Standing

I’m writing this in a Starbucks as I wait to take a train to Narita airport and then fly home to San Francisco for the holidays. I just spent three weeks at Nisodo, figuring out my housing situation, packing my belongings, and then doing the necessary farewell ceremonies that involve bowing to everybody in the Zendo. 
For about a year now I’ve been trying and failing to sufficiently write about the experience of practicing as a Zen nun in Japan. It’s difficult to convey the most unique and important aspects of women’s monastic training to a Western reader in a way that doesn’t make it seem either boring, unfair, or unnecessarily painful (which it can be… but there’s more to it than that! Hence the difficulty in writing about it).
After my most recent stay, though, the piece I feel is most important to share about women’s monastic practice in Japan is that, in my experience at least, there is no such thing as women’s practice or women’s Zen. What I mean is that while the exterior form of…

Broken Covenant

My friend Rose Schwab is on the path to becoming a Unitarian minister. This is a sermon she gave to her predominantly white congregation in St. Louis, addressing the protests in Ferguson and the history of racism in America. I am constantly awed and inspired by her ability to get to the heart of what is most important and what is most true. 

(When she sent this to me, she recommended that I read "every single sentence, because it builds." I have the same recommendation.)

Broken Covenant, Nov 30th, 2014 Rose Schwab
A covenant is a promise about how we are going to be together.   When we covenant we promise that we are going to be accountable to each other.  
And we Unitarian Universalists undertake the communal process of covenanting each time we meet.  It is through covenants we are spoken into relationship.  It is through covenant that we pledge our love and dedication for one another. And, most importantly, it is through the process of process of covenant that we say to each ot…

Taking Up a Green Vegetable and Turning It Into the Best Party Ever

The study abroad program I work on ends on Friday, and tonight we had a farewell dinner with our “Japanese Buddies,” the Japanese students who had signed up to be our friends and partners in intercultural exchange for the semester. I didn’t want to go to this party because a) I was never assigned a buddy since I am the teaching assistant and b) I am well aware how awkward Japanese parties are, especially the mandatory, organized-by-somebody-whose-job-it-is-to-organize-a-mandatory-party-above-the-cafeteria kind. There is something about the way social interaction in Japan happens that seems simultaneously forced, formal, and too private; it’s usually a huge room with lots of food, an exclusive group of people, organized games/speeches, and a group photo at the end. This is never a good recipe for making connection. But my boss made me go, so I went with the other students. 
When we arrived in the assigned room, we were immediately disheartened to see that the room was indeed made up to …

I Spent Four Years in a Monastery and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

It’s Thanksgiving, and if this were a different blog, and I were a different person, I would write about all the things I’m grateful for, the abundance in my life, or the ways I keep myself from feeling gratitude. But unfortunately, I SPENT FOUR YEARS IN A MONASTERY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT (which I’m not even allowed to wear because I have to wear robes).
I’m not sure what I have to show for this practice, and for my life. That’s how this works, right? That’s why Sawaki Kodo said “Zazen is good for nothing.” There's nothing to be gained. In Japan I learned how to sing goeka, how to sew, how to make tea, and how to cook Japanese food, but I can’t point to any profound realization or accomplishment I’ve had beyond those things.
I’m from Northern California, and expressing gratitude has always been an important part of my Thanksgiving. My parents are both incredible cooks, and they would spend all day basting and cooking this amazing artisan turkey, making mashed potatoes,…

Black Lives Matter

I’ve been pretty out of the loop for the last four years. In the monastery there was no newspaper,  and no access to the internet, so I couldn’t read blogs, facebook, or email. Maybe what I’m about to write has already been said, and if so, I apologize for being redundant.
I was not prepared for the amount of rage and grief that came over me today as I read the reports of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson officer Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. This kind of rage and grief is particularly intense to feel because there is no target or object I can blame; whereas in the 1960’s, we could name a particular racist law, policy, or person, what confronts us today is a widespread, diffuse system of institutionalized racism. Our economic and political system is built upon and maintained by the exploitation of people of color; Jim Crow is officially over but what has taken its place is arguably more powerful because it’s harder to actually see, name, …

Three Robes and One Bra

This week I went shopping. For clothes. Not robes, but clothes. Normal girl clothes. Recently, my parents got rid of about 90% of the clothes I’d left in my room at their house— my skirts, shorts, blouses and shoes. I guess they were worried I would never come back from Japan, and they were tired of my stuff. When I moved to Kyoto, I only brought samue, kimono, robes, and one bra, because Dogen said Buddhist monks should only own three robes and one bra (I’m pretty sure that’s in Shobogenzo Zuimonki somewhere).
I thought having no normal clothes wouldn’t be so much of a big deal because I live in Japan and I’m a monk. But this week, something snapped. I don't know why, but I got fed up with wearing traditional Japanese clothes, and so I went shopping. I bought a red, knee length skirt, tights, and a blue sweater. 
Shopping in Japan for me is a hilarious nightmare. All of the women here are five feet tall, have no hips or breasts, and weigh fifty pounds less than me. The clothes are …


There were some confusing announcements on the internet this week that Thich Nhat Hanh was sick and possibly close to dying. I’m not sure what the situation is, but it reminded me how much I appreciate his books and his message in general. “Being Peace” was the first book on Buddhism that I read. When I was a freshman in college I was pretty unhappy, and I remember having a conversation with one of my housemates about how sad I was. She told me, “Suffering is not enough,” which is the title of the first chapter of that book, and then lent it to me to read. “Suffering is not enough” is a really simple statement which I had never even thought about. At that time, suffering was everything for me. But he’s right, suffering isn’t enough.
A lot of people I encounter in the Zen world don’t like Thich Nhat Hanh. The criticism I generally hear is that he’s light and fluffy, and that smiling and enjoying the world doesn’t have anything to do with real Zen, which is about pain and difficulty and …

Tea and Zen Are One

People often ask me if I love Japan, and I usually answer that I love Japan in the way that I might love my arranged husband: it’s a love that has developed over many years, out of respect and necessity and time. But I would not say I “love” Japan or Zen practice in Japan like some people love beautiful women— how could I love something which has nothing to do with my own preference, which demands giving up love and hate itself? That’s how I relate to Zen practice. It’s something I do regardless of how I feel about it. 
Except for tea ceremony. I love tea ceremony foolishly and romantically. I am in love with it. It’s the only aspect of Japanese culture, other than food, that I can honestly say I love. I studied tea ceremony formally for three years, which is nothing, but Japanese culture is infused with tea. There’s tea everywhere. So just by being in Japan, I feel like I am studying tea culture. 
This week my program went to a tea ceremony in Kyoto, and afterwards one of the students …

The "Real Monastery" is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery

A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend who was trying to decide whether or not to do a practice period at Tassajara. He asked me, “Do you think you would want to do that?” I didn’t have to pause to think before I said, “No.” Then I added, “Maybe sometime in the future, but not right now. Now I don’t want that at all.” 
I spent about five years in monasteries in Japan, and I wouldn’t take that back or change that experience for anything. I feel like I am an adult now in a way I was not at age 22, when I first arrived in Japan. Part of this is literally growing older (I’m 28 now- ancient!), but I think practicing so intensely made me grow up in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed in America, worked at a job, had a boyfriend, applied to grad school, etc.
But despite this, I don’t want to go back, and I don’t want to do a practice period somewhere else. It kind of feels like that point in a relationship when you know, as clear as you know anything else, that you’re not …

Being Wrong On The Internet (and loving the mountains)

Writing on the internet is strange. I type things, and hit a button, and then people all over the world can read it. Forever! It's permanent. This is pretty terrifying, especially because sometimes I write things that are kind of stupid. This month, I wrote a post called "The Real Monastery Is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery" which was just me blowing off hot air. The abbot of Antaiji made a comment on it (or at least a guy living at Antaiji, with the same name as the abbot... not entirely sure), and when I read what he wrote I thought, "Huh. I'm totally wrong!" But it was too late. What I wrote was already out there. 

I know there's no such thing as absolute "right" and "wrong," but I do believe there is a spectrum. These days especially I think I've been ending up on whatever end of that spectrum is farther away from "correct." And I know there are people farther in the other direction than me, or at least, in a direct…