Showing posts from September, 2014

What's "Authentic" About Japanese Zen?

The most common question I ask myself, almost on a daily basis, is “What am I doing in Japan?” The emphasis of this question shifts around, depending on my mood. Sometimes, the emphasis is on the “what” of “What am I doing?” Other times it’s on the “I” or on the “doing.” But the most common emphasis is on “Japan.” What am I doing in Japan?!
I never had a special interest in Japan. Some Americans grow up loving anime and pokemon, and for them, Japan is a paradise of J-pop and Godzilla. Other people are attracted to the aesthetics of traditional Japanese culture and arts— to haiku, empty spaces, bamboo, paradoxical phrases, tea ceremony, martial arts. And while I do enjoy a clean, empty tatami room or a bamboo forest as much as the next gal, that’s not why I came here. I came because, like most young people, I was in search of answers. I heard there was a good teacher in a monastery here, and so I came. Of course, I didn’t find answers. I just found more and more questions and doubts. Bu…

Interview with a Vampire: Brad Warner

I posted a link to these videos on my facebook but I'm reposting them here for people who don't have access to facebook.

In August I visited America for a month, and my second favorite discovery there was Brad Warner. My favorite discovery in America was this underground salsa club in the Mission with no sign that only opens after 2:00am, which I promised I would never blog about on the internet. Oops.

Brad is a Zen teacher and writer. I'd never heard of him. You can google him and find out how "controversial" he is and whatever. I have a lot of respect for him, for two reasons. One is that he sits zazen every day, religiously, in the morning and evening, without anyone telling him to, and has for more than twenty years. Also, he can sit full lotus, which I can't. At a basic, fundamental level, he is a good person trying to do things in a good way.

The other reason I respect him is that he doesn't act like a teacher. I imagine some people might have a probl…

Zazen: Or, No One's Going to Help You

This morning we had our first zazen of the program. We'll be sitting every morning at 7am, and every evening, with academic classes in the middle. Before we started, I gave very, very basic zazen instructions. I think basic instructions are best. Back straight, full or half lotus if you can, eyes open and looking down, hands in cosmic mudra. Take out any idea of Buddha or Enlightenment and just do the posture. That's basically all the instruction I ever got, so that's all I said. I've tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was really frustrated with this for years. What the hell am I supposed to be "doing with my mind?" Actually, I still think that sometimes. I'm still a baby when it comes to zazen practice.
After zazen, one of the students asked me a question about not being able to concentrate and having lots of thoughts. Is it okay to count breaths? I think this must be the #1 most popular question about…

You Have to Pay

Recently I've been thinking a lot about money because... well, I don't have so much of it. I've been living in a monastery for years, not making money, and now I make a very, very teeny-tiny amount of money. In the monastery I was provided with three meals a day. I never really felt poor, even though the life was incredibly simple. But now that I'm out "in the world," I have to buy food and handle money everyday. I've noticed that just handling money so much makes me feel more poor- even though I'm actually making money now! I'm nervous and fearful about money in a way I never was when I didn't have to deal with it, when I was completely dependent on others.
I grew up in a pretty wealthy family. My dad was a doctor and I went to private schools, so there was never a feeling growing up of not having enough. I was instilled with a belief that I am entitled to material comfort, and I probably still carry that entitlement with me. When I was in col…

Cutting Off Love

I remember one day driving in the car through the Japanese countryside. I was in the backseat, someone else was driving, and the abbot of my monastery was in the front. I think we were probably driving between the main monastery and the abbot's home temple in the mountains. I leaned forward and asked the abbot, who would eventually become my teacher, "What's your favorite part about being a monk?"

That's a stupid question, by the way. I think that's kind of like asking someone, "What's your favorite part about being in the Army?" What are they supposed to say? The smell of napalm in the morning? Actually, that's kind of the answer he ended up giving me. His answer was, "Cutting off love."

"What?!" I asked, surprised.

"Shaving your head means cutting off love. So monk means cutting off love." He was smiling and looked genuinely happy when he said this. For the record, this is the exact moment in time when I shou…

great realization

Dogen wrote in Gakudo Yojinshu [Points to Watch in Practicing the Way], "The Buddha-way is right under your feet." Ikko Narasaki Roshi elaborated on this, writing, "The Buddha-way is not some special kind of way. It is simply the way in which you live completely."

My teacher credits most of his understanding of Buddhism to Ikko Roshi. I never got to meet him before he died, but I feel like he is my spiritual grandfather. And like my biological grandfather, who has also passed away, I often suspect that he is disappointed in me from his place in heaven or wherever.

Ikko Roshi stressed the importance of living in a monastery and following the Eihei Shingi, Dogen's standards for monastics. I'm not living in a monastery any more. It's kind of weird, especially since all of my Zen practice has been in a monastery. I have no experience with Zen as a lay practice or as a daily zazen practice. For me, Zen practice is just being in a monastery. I've started …

On remembering and forgetting

September 11th is a difficult day. In addition to being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001, September 11th is tough for me because it’s also the birthday of my friend David Harris, who died in August of 2008. He would have been twenty-eight years old.
Dave was my friend in college. We bonded over our shared interest in Buddhism and social justice work, which is a tricky and unusual overlap. My junior year of college, we both went to India on the same study abroad program, a Buddhist studies program which brings students to Bodh Gaya for four months. We grew close in India. After he graduated from college, I flew out to visit him in Portland and stayed over at his house.
A few days after I visiting him, Dave quit his job and embarked on a solo hiking trip in the forests near Portland. He had left me a phone message thanking me for coming. I didn’t call him back. While he was hiking, a falling tree branch hit him and broke his neck, killing him instantly. I found out that he…

"Hi, my name is..."

Dear Readers,
This is my first post on this blog, and I spent my entire morning zazen period composing it. I could have attained satori in those forty minutes on my cushion, but instead I thought about what to write on my new blog. So I hope it's good. This is my Bodhisatva vow in the 21st centry: postponing my own enlightenment for the sake of an internet blog.

This last month when I was visiting San Francisco, I met lots of new people, both in monasteries and Zen centers, but also in every day social situations. When you meet new people, the usual questions are "What is your name?" and "Where do you live?" These are tricky questions for me right now. It makes introductions kind of awkward.

I have two names. The name my parents gave me is "Claire." It's the name on my birth certificate, driver's license, credit cards, high school and college diplomas. It's the name my friends and family use, the name my bank teller and doctor use, and if …