"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 I ever meet you at a cocktail party in Manhattan, I will introduce myself to you as "Claire." Claire is a nice name. I like it. I want to keep using it in certain situations.

My other name is "Gesshin." Gesshin is a Japanese name which combines the characters for "moon" and "mind." This is the name my first teacher gave me when he shaved my head and ordained me. I'm tempted to call Gesshin my "Buddhist name" or "ordination name" because I use it whenever I go to a monastery or Zen Center in America, but in a lot of ways it's also just my Japanese name. Remember in Spanish class when everyone got "Spanish names" to help them get in the mood to learn Spanish (or was this just my school)? Gesshin is like that. It's what Japanese people call me. I'm "Gesshin" everywhere I go in Japan, even if I'm meeting people in a "secular" situation, like the grocery store. And since I've lived in Japan for over four and a half years now, I feel like this is my name.

So my names are both equally "Claire" and "Gesshin." I like both of them and don't really care which one you use. Please feel free to think of me and call me by either names, depending on your mood and/or spiritual inclinations, EXCEPT in these non-negotiable situations:

  • Cocktail party in Manhattan when I am wearing some sort of dress/outfit that took energy, time and thought about what looks nice on the female body: my name is Claire.
  • Japanese Monastery: my name is Gesshin.

Great. Moving on.

The next problem is the question, "Where do you live?" I don't really understand what this question means anymore. This is probably because I am a Buddhist monk (or nun, or priest, or obosan) and I have taken up "homelessness" as a kind of spiritual virtue, or at least as a kind of goal. Dogen Zenji, who lived in the 13th century and is credited with founding Soto Zen, the kind of Zen I practice, wrote a chapter in the Shobogenzo called "The Merits of Leaving Family Life." In this chapter he speaks about the importance of leaving home. The word for "home-leaving" in Japanese is "Shukke," which is comprised of the characters  "exit" and 家 "home." Dogen means home-leaving literally and figuratively. The literal part of home-leaving is literally leaving your home and family. I put that in bold because the literal part is important, and usually people ignore it in favor or the fun, sexy, figurative part, which is leaving behind all your old ideas, delusions, bad habits, conditioning, etc. It seems to me that for Dogen, the benefit of leaving family life is practical, not ethical or moral.

He writes, "Both lay people and monastics can reach the Other Shore, but even so, each way has its difficult and its easy aspects. Those in lay life have all manner of duties and occupations. If they should wish to concentrate on pursuing wholeheartedly the Path to full awakening, then their family duties will fall by the wayside, and if they should wholeheartedly fulfill the responsibilities of family life, then matters that pertain to pursuit of the Way will be abandoned... when we leave home we are like, for instance, someone who has departed to reside somewhere where the lands are empty and there is no one else about. In that way, our heart is as one, being beyond intentions and beyond fear."

My interpretation of this is that Dogen is telling us to be honest, serious, and committed about what we are doing, because it's impossible to do two things at the same time. This is what he means when he says "our heart is as one." You can't have your cake and eat it too. And Dogen affirms everyone's cake. For some people, cake is practicing the Way. For others, cake is family, love, and children. Is that kind of a messed up thing to say? Children=cake? But I think you get my point. All cakes are valid. These days, a lot of people try to say that your cake can be both family and practice, some sort of cosmic family/practice cake, but I think for Dogen, family and practicing the Buddha-way were two completely different cakes. He's also implying that if you want to eat both the practice and the family/children cake, they're gonna become smaller cakes, like two cupcakes as opposed to one, big, delicious chocolate cake.

Okay, and to distract from the fact that I may have just pissed of 98% of Zen priests in the world, here is a picture of cake.

This is a long way of saying that I'm choosing not to have a permanent home, at least for now, while I'm young and uncommitted. But this doesn't help the poor people who are just trying to small talk with me about where I live.

An easy answer to the question "Where do you live?" would be: Japan. I have a bank account and health insurance in Japan, most of my friends are in Japan, and I have a fancy, hologramed card issued by the Japanese government with my photo on it that says "Residence card." It means I am a resident of Japan. Not a citizen, mind you, but a resident. I am still a citizen of the U.S.

Things get more complicated when people ask me, "Where in Japan do you live?" I have noticed that when people ask this they are really asking, "Where do you keep your stuff? Where do you store your clothes and shoes and books?" I lived at Aichi Nisodo, the women's monastery in Nagoya, for three years. I had an incredible three years of practice there, and now that I feel strong and confident enough to follow precepts, work, and study outside of a monastery, I've said my goodbyes and thank you's to the nuns there I've started a new chapter in my life. But most of my clothes and books are still at Nisodo, in boxes in the basement. I don't know where else to put them. I don't have a permanent home. I also have some clothes and books at my teacher's monastery in Okayama, where I ordained four years ago. This fall I will be working on a Buddhist studies program for college students in Kyoto, and I hope to bring books and clothes there, too. So I have books and clothes all over the place! Not very monastic of me, is it?

I'm bringing up homelessness in terms of monasticism, but really we are all homeless all the time. None of us have a permanent home, if we are defining home as "where we keep our stuff." Our stuff's gonna break. Our house is gonna break. It's all going to break eventually. Maybe we could say "home is where the heart is," implying that home is where the people we love live, but love isn't constant or permanent. People change and die, or both, and our relationships and loves are always changing. So when I say "I'm homeless" I don't literally mean that I have no house to stay in. I mean that I cannot find a single place in this material universe that will give me permanent, everlasting comfort, and neither can anyone else. And I want the truth of that to be my home.

One word for a training monk in Japanese is "雲水" or unsui, which combines the characters "cloud" and "water." One translator of Dogen, Shohaku Okamura, often uses the phrase "cloud and water monks" instead of unsui, to talk about novice monks. I think unsui is a beautiful word, because it implies constant motion. Clouds and water are always moving, they have no fixed abode. This is the idea, at least ideally, behind being a monk in Japan. In days gone by, unsui would travel from monastery to monastery, seeking out the best teachers and teachings. When they entered a new monastery, they called it "hanging up their hat and staff" (see what I mean about "where we put our stuff?!?).

So on my best days I think to myself, "You are an unsui. You are like clouds and water. You have no fixed abode. Your only permanent home is the truth." On my worst days I think, "You are an irresponsible, unemployed 28-year old leaving a trail of unclaimed books, clothes and shoes in your wake."

I think both can be true. Yesterday I had lunch with my good friend Kate, whom I've known since I was a child and love very much. Over lunch, I made some comment about having two different opposing emotions at the same time, and then I immediately back-pedaled and tried to explain myself. She cut me off.

"You get to be complicated," she said.

As Buddhism grows in America, we're starting to realize that we're facing a whole slew of problems and realities that Dogen and the Buddha never imagined, and it's compelling us to relate to our lives and to Buddhist practice in an (arguably) new way. I'm referring to things like civil rights, the internet, ease of international travel, and the dominance of psychological discourse, just to name a couple.

I don't have an answer about how to practice Buddhism authentically in the face of all these modern realities that the Buddha never imagined. It's complicated. But I think we get to be complicated.


  1. I can totally hear your voice when I read this. So cool to read about your life and spiritual state! Please keep writing! I love you!

  2. Claire, this is Lisa Sussman, from Wesleyan. I loved this post. Even though I don't practice zen, I see quite a few parallels with my own spiritual practice and my material life. I have always hoped/believed that one would enhance the other but that doesn't always seem to be the case. I'm still trying to have my two little cupcakes, nonetheless.

  3. Thank you Gesshin san. It is so wonderful that there are still home leaving monks in the world, this is something that needs to be encouraged... I always both dread and enjoy the question "So, what do you do?" ...when I say "Zen" I habitually point to my shaven head as proof. Thank you, and I hope our paths cross in the future.

  4. Not for the first time, you've given me much to think about, Claire. Thanks.

  5. Hello. My name is Raphael. I'm a (Soto) Zen practitioner in Brazil, with plans of being ordained in the near future and going to a monastery in Japan next year.

    I have found your blog through reddit.com/r/soto. I've read some of your texts, and I liked them very much. I'll see what I can do to follow this page.

    By the way, since you kindly offered it, I'd like one of those pictures of weird japanese things - you can see my e-mail here, right?

    Let's chat sometime.


    Raphael 九拝


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down